Aishwarya Ramesh

What’s the fate of COVID-era products?

Do people still care enough to sanitise different surfaces, or boost their immunity?

2020 started off on an innocuous note. There were faint whispers of a virus that was spreading rapidly in China, but the rest of the world, especially India, was fairly unbothered. 

Come March that year, COVID had spread to different parts of the world. In a bid to curb its spread, several countries introduced COVID-induced lockdowns, which included working from home, avoiding public gatherings and wearing masks when out in public.

The virus, the pandemic, the resultant lockdown - were all completely alien to most citizens. A sense of panic and paranoia swept the country. People were sanitising every conceivable surface and all of a sudden, there was demand for sanitisers, handwash, soap, cleaning solutions, and immunity boosting products. Many industries that weren’t in the business of making disinfectant products or immunity boosters pivoted to keep up with the demand.

Fast forward to 2022, when the world has unofficially been declared a post-covid world. According to a recent Kantar FMCG Pulse report, products in the health and hygiene category are not as popular as they were two years ago.

Data from Kantar shows that more than 300 new hand sanitiser brands were launched during this time period. It also led to the creation of a host of innovative hygiene categories that ranged from products to help cleaning vegetables to sanitising gadgets. Vegetable cleaners and surface disinfectants were new pandemic categories and had a penetration of just about 1% in Urban India at its peak.

Kantar's data also mentions that in a post-pandemic era, these products are losing relevance. Research shows that for every 1 household that purchased vegetable cleaners during the peak of the pandemic, 0.2 households are buying it now.

Immunity boosting products like Chyawanprash are also suffering. An Economic Times report mentions that Chyawanprash sales fell by 75% and the same of honey was down 56% in August 2022. The report also mentions that companies like ITC, Dabur and Marico have pulled from the shelves, products that it introduced during 2020 - such as sanitisers, and disinfectant sprays.

At the time, it made sense for perfume manufacturers or alcohol companies to produce sanitisers and cleaning products to keep up with demand, but it wasn’t exactly practical for shirt manufacturers to claim that the fabric repelled the virus or for food companies to claim that products like bread and milk boosted immunity. Practicality didn’t prevent companies from manufacturing and selling these products though.

Praful Akali, founder and MD of Medulla Communications says that products that claim to boost immunity or claimed to help you clean fruits and vegetables might still find relevance in a consumer’s basket, but gimmicky products like immunity boosting bread were primarily introduced to ride the wave and may not find takers now.

Praful Akali
Praful Akali

“Deeper and insightful marketing can help revive more worthy products. In our lifetime, we’ve never seen something as drastic as the coronavirus pandemic, which brought about a lot of changes in consumers’ lives. Products like sanitisers and wet wipes continue to remain relevant even now,” says Akali.

Akali says that companies that have catered to consumers needs for cleaning solutions and sanitising will continue to do so. “I have an issue with companies that market and sell products using the fear psychosis - which was prevalent among consumers at that time,” he says.

Different disinfectant products launched in 2020
Different disinfectant products launched in 2020

Akali adds that some consumer behaviour sticks - such as using sanitisers and being careful about handwashing or gargling with mouthwash. “I’ve even seen people who wear masks while going out or going to office because they are unwell. We were a little blaise about our health pre-pandemic, we were overly concerned during the pandemic and now, post-pandemic, consumers are in a more stable space” he says.

K Ramakrishnan, managing director – South Asia, Kantar Worldpanel Division says - "Even most of the pandemic codes, like immunity or health are no longer attractive to the consumer and as such are not helping brands. Most brands too have moved on to address a new problem - inflation, and as such, the pandemic has taken a backseat from all our perspectives."

Kantar data also shows that many consumer behaviours that changed during the pandemic have been partially or wholly reversed. During the pandemic, many people opted to buy larger packs or purchase supplies in bulk, but have now reverted to buying smaller packs.

Nisha Sampath, managing partner at Bright Angles Consulting splits consumers into two broad groups - one who is conscious about health and their hygiene and another group that might not show the same levels of awareness/consciousness.  

What’s the fate of COVID-era products?

“For example, a lot of companies launched fruit and vegetable cleaners and I doubt if any of them took off or saw any actual traction - even during the pandemic. Some companies saw an opportunity and jumped on to the bandwagon, because it was relevant; as opposed to the hard task of actually creating awareness or long-term education about a topic. A fruit and vegetable cleaner might even help remove pesticides from the produce. There are other long term stories that you can tell,” says Sampath.

When brands like McDonald’s introduced an immunity-boosting turmeric latte, Sampath points out that its important that a brand makes a promise that’s closer to its core offering and is credible. “How healthy is McDonald’s food anyway?” she asks.

Some immunity boosting products launched in 2020
Some immunity boosting products launched in 2020

Snacking categories also saw growth during the pandemic as more people worked from home and participated in online classes for school and college. The trend continues, but has shown signs of slowing down. The indulgence category (chocolates, soft drinks) continues to grow fast, according to Kantar's data.

Sampath mentions that during this point, a lot of people reverted to time-tested home remedies to boost their immunity. As a result of this return to roots, Ayurvedic products manufactured by companies like Dabur, Patanjali, and Hamdard became popular again. According to Sampath, ayurvedic and natural beauty products also grew during this period.

When it comes to pandemic behaviours, Sampath says that if there is easy access and if its cost effective - the behaviour will continue. “Handwashing has become a more regular practice, but people have stopped carrying sanitisers with them wherever they go,” she says.

Sampath says the fear of the pandemic - which is a driving factor for these behaviours is no longer existent among people. 

Gauri Chaudhari, co-founder at Brand Innerworld agrees that consumer behaviours changed, but it wouldn’t necessarily stick. “During the pandemic, I remember that the sales of Vitamin C and Zinc increased. There were also tablets like Patanjali’s Coronil being sold. People bought these because they believed that if their immunity was good, they woukdn’t get affected by the coronavirus,” she says.

She adds however, that it was largely reactionary purchases and once the problem went away - the purchases stopped too. “However, the good thing is, now people are overall more concerned about their health. Annual medical checkups have become a part of normal life so that’s good,” notes Chaudhari.

Gauri Chaudhari
Gauri Chaudhari

Chaudhari says that in India, people are accustomed to viewing health from a problem-solution perspective. “The minute the problem is not top of mind, the desire to consume products such as Kadha or chyawanprash - which does not have a tangible physical benefit - tends to drop,” she explains.

Chaudhari says one of her clients - who is into manufacturing vaccines - is concerned about whether they will be any takers for the product, since people have resumed life as normal now.

She adds that fear is a strong driving factor for behaviour change, but now that the fear of the coronavirus is gone - so are the behaviours relating to it; such as sanitising surfaces and packages or using a vegetable cleaner to kill germs.

“In 2020 when we first faced the pandemic, it was new to us, we didn’t know enough about it. Now, people may not be able to adhere to covid appropriate behaviours - such as working from home - because their financial situation may not allow it,” she says.

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