Ananya Pathak
Marketing

When 'antiviral fabric' promised to destroy Corona and drew flak

Desperate marketing and advertising by brands, like Siyaram's, Ruby Mills, Donear, Arvind and Zodiac, have been criticised online.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of industries under tremendous pressure. One such is the textile and fabrics market. Our 'new reality', that mandates social distancing, has put tailoring-led, 'high physical contact' based businesses, like these, in a tough spot.

The sector has been grappling with profitability issues due to a sharp decline in yarn exports, and cheaper imports. Domestic consumption was also impacted due to the lockdowns.

However, the segment seems to have found a bright spot in these trying times. Over the last few weeks, several brands in the fabrics category have announced the launch of - to put it simply - Corona-killing cloth. In a nutshell, the claim is that if Coronavirus particles land on an outfit made using this fabric, then the virus will either bounce off (as some brand films demonstrate with graphics), or will be destroyed within a matter of minutes (as some of the press releases clearly state).

The '99.9 per cent protection' promise, that was previously the preserve of the disinfectant category, is now being used by fabric brands in this context.

When 'antiviral fabric' promised to destroy Corona and drew flak

Examples of brands that claim their material can protect people from the deadly Coronavirus include fabric and garment manufacturer Siyaram Silk Mills (SSM), Donear Industries owned Grado, 1917 established Ruby Mills, and Lalbhai Group’s flagship company Arvind.

Menswear brand Zodiac Clothing Company, that markets ready to wear shirts, has also introduced a range of ‘antiviral shirts’ which, the company claims, kills the virus with 99 per cent reliability.

When 'antiviral fabric' promised to destroy Corona and drew flak

These brands claim they can defend us against the virus with the help of lab tested technology and chemicals like Neo Tech, cosmetic based chemistry technology, HeiQ Viroblock.

When 'antiviral fabric' promised to destroy Corona and drew flak

Many of these brands got trolled on social media for their claims. People said things like “So PPE kits are not required anymore” and Siyaram's was criticised because the suited model in the digital poster is shown without a mask. Interestingly, the brand has launched a range of masks, too.

While the barely visible asterisks and microscopic fine print may protect these brands from legal counterattacks, the marketing and advertising is what we're interested in analysing. We spoke to a few branding professionals about the slippery slope brands in the fabric segment are on.

Edited excerpts:

L Suresh, creative consultant

The pandemic is playing havoc with the minds of clients and agencies. Consequently, we’re seeing two types of advertising – ‘Go woke’ and ‘Go for broke’. The Siyaram's ad seems to belong to the second kind. Once you get past the incredible Bradman-esque numbers (99.94 per cent effective against the Coronavirus) that make you wonder if the entire story is 'fabricated', what remains is a long list of questions:

1. The brand’s short commercials feature Health Shield, branded readymade masks, but its larger claim is Shield, an anti-corona fabric. Why this dissonance in offering?

2. If one is expected to buy the fabric and stitch suits, won't the repeated visits to the tailor for measurements and trial become a health hazard by themselves?

3. We're living in times when boxers and pyjamas have become part of office wear, so who would go through the trouble of buying fabric and getting suits made for the workplace?

4. The first thing that most office-goers do - on getting back home - is dunk everything they've been wearing all day into the washing machine for a separate wash cycle. Isn't that safe enough? (Or is saving on detergents by wearing Siyaram's an added benefit?)

5. Clothes might cover 90 per cent of our body, as the brand’s communication says, but we've been told all along by the World Health Organization that wearing a mask and practising hand hygiene are key to staying safe. So now, a mask, a hand sanitiser and an expensive suit makes us safer, is it?

6. How exactly does a fabric manage to do what a vaccine, or a pill, can't? Even after watching the films, we remain clueless as to how, or why, a cloth (fabric) can kill a virus.

L Suresh
L Suresh

Perhaps, these questions were raised and discussed in the huddle at the agency. I'd be most interested in knowing if there were answers. Because if there were, they should have been part of the communication to ratify the claim and, thereby, offer a reason to believe, rather than simply announce the speedy demise of the virus and expect the target audience to queue up for their suit length.

One would like to think that the days of ZPTO, DHA and HTSE are over. More often than not, people won't buy what they don’t understand.

While Siyaram's has been taking flak for this innovation on social media, this is a category race, with several local and national brands trying to outdo one another, each with their own version of an antivirus fabric.

First it was hand sanitisers and liquid soaps that went on a scare-and-sell overdrive, and soon, vegetable disinfectants, mattresses and paints followed. Fabric seems to be next in line.

I'm sure we aren't finished with the ‘your health is our wealth’ product line - there'll be many more in the coming months.

A gentle reminder to all the brands trying to jump on to the anti-Corona ‘brandwagon’ - 'better to be memed than to be ignored' can't be a sound proposition for communication.

Sharda Agarwal, co-founder, Sepalika

A mask that covers the nose and mouth is a good way to prevent transmitting the infection, if we have it. While an N95 mask does a superior filtration job, a cotton fabric mask will more than adequately protect all of us. The mask needs to be layered for safety. Fabric quality, its breathability and quality of elastic – all add to comfort.

Sitting on top of this pyramid is design – after all, who doesn’t want to look good. Since this category is in its infancy, branded mask manufacturers are trying to play in one or more of these three spaces: safety, comfort and looks.

Sharda Agarwal
Sharda Agarwal

The ads I have seen on digital and print media claim that the companies source fabric technology from an Australian firm claiming 99.4 per cent protection against the Coronavirus. This is a serious claim. I have not seen any such information on the CDC website. Online checks show these do not have an FDA approval yet specific to fighting the Coronavirus. I also do not have access to the original research. In this context, I am unable to corroborate the claims.

Nevertheless, commerce will always seek to create opportunities in crises. So, it’s not surprising to see these launches. But to feel reassured that wearing a suit from this fabric on a business trip will keep me safer from the virus may be stretching beliefs a bit too far at this stage.

Karan Raghav, senior creative director, Famous Innovations

At first sight I thought this is some kind of joke, or meme, but then realised it’s an actual ad by a well-known brand. I find it a bit unusual. The language in the ad is like that of some sanitiser, or surface cleaner brand.

Karan Raghav
Karan Raghav

If a fabric brand really uses anti-Coronavirus technology that somehow protects us from the virus then there’s nothing like it, because it’s the need of the hour. But the question is – is it believable?

Well, we all know that the marketers are planning Corona-centric strategy to attract buyers, but one can’t go beyond a limit and claim anything or throw some numbers like 99.9xxx to justify your claims, at a time when the world is struggling to find a vaccine. This will hurt the brand and its credibility if it misfires and if facts fail to fulfill the claims made.

The bigger challenge is – when a known brand does something like this, a lot of new or lesser known brands will try to take advantage and start claiming similar things to create buzz.

Asif M Khatri, partner, BrandPloy Consultancy LLP

From the look of it, the target audience seems to be high-flying male working executives who wear suits. But the male model in the Siyaram’s ad is not wearing a mask. Does this mean wearing a suit made with this fabric is far superior than wearing a mask?

The technology and everything is fine. But have the brand’s claims been approved and verified by the government and various legal/medical authorities? If so, then it should mention all such approved claims in the ad.

Asif M Khatri
Asif M Khatri

The masks made with this fabric are welcome. I think the brand should have launched a combo pack of mask and gloves. This should have been the focus of the communication. A mask made from this fabric makes more sense than stitching a complete suit.