Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Can Dettol and Lifebuoy protect their turf in the exploding hand sanitiser market?

While the market leaders like Lifebuoy, Dettol and PureHands in the hand sanitiser space have rapidly lost share this year, will they be able to regain lost ground? Here’s what experts have to say.

Hand sanitiser, as a consumer product, dates back to 1997, when a brand named Purell was unveiled to the public in the US. Reportedly, back then, adoption among consumers was low. The demand for a hand sanitiser, as a personal care item, saw a huge spike around the 2002-03 global SARS outbreak.

Over the years, the category has seen occasional boosts with the outbreak and spread of diseases, like the Ebola fever and Swine Flu. The latest COVID-19 pandemic has probably resulted in the biggest jump the segment has seen in terms of adoption.

According to Statista, the value of the global hand sanitiser market was $2.4 billion in 2017. In 2018, the research website projected the category to be worth $5.5 billion by 2024. Statista’s numbers today suggest that the $5 billion-plus forecast has already been achieved in 2020, with the value of the segment currently being $5.3 billion. The largest contributor is China, with a share of $1.3 billion.

In India, the category has been growing gradually, with healthcare giants like Hindustan Unilever (Lifebuoy) and Reckitt Benckiser (Dettol) launching their products and investing in their marketing. A BloombergQuint report, citing Nielsen data, suggests that the value of the category has grown four folds over a period of a year (from Rs 10 crore in March 2019 to Rs 43 crore in March 2020). What’s even more interesting is, with the growth, the share of the market leaders, like Dettol, Lifebuoy and PureHands (Himalaya), dipped to 39 per cent in March, from 85 per cent in January-February. Since March, it is certain that the category has swollen further to a several hundred crore rupees per month and the leaders' share has fallen further.

The reason for this is rapid expansion, with companies from various categories jumping into the fray. While we saw quick launches by personal care brands, like Emami, Nivea, Cipla Health, Zydus, Dabur and CavinKare, we also saw entries from unusual quarters, like Asian Paints, Bollywood actor Salman Khan’s Frsh, and even alcobev companies like Bacardi.

The display racks at our neighbourhood stores are more likely to be occupied by unknown, locally manufactured variants at the moment. In the face of the overflowing demand, the competition today boils down to the very basics, like availability and supply. However, pricing at the moment is a level playing field. In March, the government had capped the maximum retail price of hand sanitisers at Rs 100 per 200 ml bottle. The limit has been imposed till June 30.

While the market leaders have rapidly lost share, will they be able to regain lost ground? Here’s what five experts have to say.

Rohit Ohri, group chairman and chief executive officer, FCB India

Brands like Dettol and Lifebuoy will benefit enormously from the situation. These brands stand for the category they are in. Dettol has been about ‘killing germs’ for decades. These brands have a heritage, and their sanitisers are logical and natural brand extensions. It’s, however, not the case when it comes to alcohol brands and others.

Rohit Ohri
Rohit Ohri

Consumers want to revert to their tried and tested brands. The white cloud of Dettol mixing in water, its smell, etc., gives the sense of safety. It is a memory structure that no other brand can quickly replicate. There is also a sense of trust. Consumers know that the unknown manufacturers are taking advantage of the situation. They also know that their trusted brands won’t do that.

Any dip in share, I would assume, is because of the break in the supply chain. There is so much of information around that consumers would get confused. In a situation like this, they would retract to the brands they trust as they provide a sense of comfort.

Vidya Venkateswaran, VP-strategy, DDB Mudra South

In these unprecedented times, the influx of new players into the market can be seen as a humanitarian response, as well as a business one. The call for sanitisers is the need of the hour, and yes, smart businesses are certainly leveraging the hidden opportunity in an otherwise bleak business environment.

Vidya Venkateswaran
Vidya Venkateswaran

It’s important to remember that physical availability (shelf space) is only one factor in creating mental availability. Brands, like Dettol and Lifebuoy, have created potent emotional associations in consumer minds over decades. ‘Dettol ka dhula’ and ‘Lifebuoy hai jahan’ are not just advertising taglines. They are potent memory structures built in association with the category need. These are unlikely to be replaced easily by new brands that are occupying a functional need of the hour, but have a long way to go before they can compete for space in consumer minds.

Does that mean that the category contours will remain largely the same? I don’t believe so. Sanitisers/hand soaps and disinfectants are no longer low involvement categories, and brands (whether it be legacy or new entrants) must recognise this key consumer shift. In a world where the very pivots of consumerism, capitalism and category definitions are seeing seismic shifts – this is a time for legacy brands to double down, fortify and expand their sphere of influence and emotional resonance to usher in growth for the category.

Ambi Parameswaran, brand strategist, and founder, Brand-Building.com

Lifebuoy and Dettol have an early lead in the market for hand sanitisers. They also have a strong ‘health’ position. I think the explosion in the hand sanitiser market will help them tremendously. Due to shortages, it is possible that consumers are picking up relatively unknown brands. But if Dettol and Lifebuoy can provide enough stock, then they will continue to rule the roost.


Smaller players, like Savlon, or even Santoor, have an opportunity to build their presence in the sanitiser market. But the local players may not be able to stand up to the might of Lifebuoy and Dettol. The only way the smaller players can survive is to become more hyperlocal and create a loyal base of dealers. Or they could create local innovations that will resonate with the local tastes. For example, a Neem-based hand sanitiser may find favour in some markets.

Mythili Chandrasekar, consumer behaviour and brand strategy enthusiast

Dettol and Lifebuoy are best placed to make sanitising a permanent habit. They can build differentiation from local brands with their legacy, and also invest in building a plethora of consumption occasions. A package of hand sanitiser, liquid sanitising soap for hand wash, bath soaps, clothes wash rinse, even vessels rinse.

Mythili Chandrasekar
Mythili Chandrasekar

Additionally, they can figure out a variant for fresh vegetables and fruits wash, and be part of the large scale building sanitisation. Maybe new formats, too. Sprays for home furniture, door handles, packed items, and even masks.

Vidur Vyas, founder, NorthSide, a strategic business and brand marketing consultancy

Vidur Vyas
Vidur Vyas

After the initial spike in the hand sanitiser category, the consumption growth is likely to stabilise. At that point, it will be difficult for the smaller players to sustain distribution and brand building efforts. And, it is for this reason that brands with strong equity, like Lifebuoy and Dettol, will ride through and come out stronger with higher penetration and frequency of consumption.

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