Shreyas Kulkarni
Points of View

By rubbing HUL the wrong way, has Sebamed been smart or stupid?

In just a few days, Sebamed, thanks to its ads, got written about by countless news outlets. That's great PR. But is it worth the legal backlash?

German skincare company Sebamed has seen more press coverage in the last four days than most brands tend to see in a few months, or even a quarter.

All thanks to its campaign, courtesy creative agency The Womb. In the campaign, Sebamed names (targets) leading soap brands, from Hindustan Unilever (Lux, Dove, Pears) to Wipro’s Santoor. Sebamed claims that it has a lower pH level than the mentioned soap brands and, therefore, it is a better choice for those with sensitive skin.

However, the price of a 100 gram Sebamed soap bar is Rs 199, while that of other brands is less than Rs 50.

Sebamed ran its campaign through print and digital ads. Such was the discussion around this campaign that HUL released its own prints ads for Dove and Pears, wherein it reiterated their core messaging of gentleness and purity respectively.

India’s adland witnessed such a comparative advertising campaign over a decade ago; it was between HUL’s Rin and Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Tide.

On January 11, 2021, the Bombay High Court directed USV, the distributor of Sebamed’s products in India, to suspend its advertising after HUL approached it (the court).

A Sebamed India spokesperson said, “A suit was filed at the Bombay High Court by Unilever without any notice to Sebamed-USV, despite the filing of a caveat. The matter was, therefore, reheard by the court (yesterday, January 12) after this was pointed out. The arguments will continue (on January 13) and Sebamed-USV continues to diligently pursue its legal rights."

A comparative campaign, so much press and now a legal backlash, was Sebamed smart or stupid? We posed this question to a few industry experts:

Edited excerpts:

Prakhar Deogirikar, creative director, What's Your Problem

Prakhar Deogirikar
Prakhar Deogirikar

It is an interesting way… because many people haven’t resorted to taking this route and doing a comparison. After all, consumers tend to compare…

When you think about a product, you have to compare an apple with an apple.

Here, as an advertiser and a brand custodian, I can’t sell a Rs 200 soap, and compare it to a Rs 50 soap. The audience is different, the need is different, and the people who pick either of the two are different. Through subtle communication, one can get a person to buy a Rs 200 soap.

It is alright for a brand to create a bit of buzz and do something off the trodden path, but it should be done with some smartness. I don’t think it was smart at all.

To me, it’s more detrimental to the brand than anything. For example, if there’s a new tech product, like those cylindrical CPUs that Apple had launched, and you are interested in it. But when you see its cost, you never go and check that product again because you are put off. There’s a certain amount of disappointment, and you start thinking of the product in a negative way. That is what will happen here.

Advertising and communication can only get you to the product, it can’t make you buy it.

Jasravee Chandra, brand building, research and innovation, Master Sun, the consulting brand of Adiva L (she has earlier worked on Dove)

Jasravee Chandra
Jasravee Chandra

It's a smart strategy for Sebamed. Disrupt through the language of science and health. Claim superiority through pH factor by playing the game through its core strength. It is perfect for these disruptive and heightened health-conscious times.

By making pH an evaluation parameter and confidently challenging Dove, that was considered the best pH soap (‘Litmus Test’ campaign), Sebamed seems to have achieved a lot through just one campaign.

Sebamed shouted from the rooftops that it is the best. It challenged the best, and achieved fame through notoriety. It managed to break the clutter and cast aspersions on all other keys (HUL) brands. It is an interesting and, seemingly, effective start.

But will Sebamed be able to capitalise on this with pragmatism? It will have to be answerable to the shaping brand perceptions soon. And, credibility is a key ask from an expensive, pH 5.5 ‘perfect for the skin’ brand! Only time will tell.

Kartik Smetacek, joint creative director, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi

Kartik Smetacek
Kartik Smetacek

I think it was a smart move. The soap category has such well-entrenched players that any kind of breakthrough is just impossible. So, unless you have some impossible formulations that will reinvent soaps, it’s very difficult to get people to buy them.

This competitive stance, where you have a product advantage and hit your customers on the head saying consider me, is probably the only way for a new player to gain a foothold in the market.

This is something Dove did itself when it launched on the plank of an anti-acidic soap… taking names, pH tests, doing all of those things. Sebamed has just ‘outdoved’ Dove. That’s all it has done.

It’s a good, strong move/strategy. It’s pulling no punches. That’s what marketing is these days, welcome to 2021.

Nisha Sampath, a brand marketing consultant with 20-plus years of experience (she has worked on Lux during her JWT days in 2004-05)

Nisha Sampath
Nisha Sampath

Sebamed has a high price point and I doubt if it is trying to convert the consumers of Lux and Dove. What I feel is that it is trying to appeal to a specific mindset. Those consumers who are discerning about skincare and have the ability to pay that premium for the soap.

What I’ve observed during my research is that the number of discerning consumers, when it comes to skincare, is growing. It’s mostly the younger people – millennials and Gen Z. They’re at the age when the involvement with beauty is at a high level.

For instance, there’s a trend that when the younger generation has a skincare problem, they go and see a dermatologist for cosmetics and skincare products.

Sebamed has been astute in pitching to these discerning customers, who are younger and, therefore, see Lux and Dove as brands for the older generation. And Sebamed is smart because it says, “Filmstars ki nahi, science ki suno.” Knowledge is a powerful currency today, especially with the younger people and those with access. So, knowing something better about skincare could be exciting as a proposition, and draws them.

Also, another cultural trend Sebamed picks up on is authenticity. We’ve all heard from the consumers that they are tired of stars pretending to use something. It’s a very smart understanding of the culture and the consumers. It’s a smart way to position itself by repositioning the leaders.