Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

How "99.9% germ kill" became a unique selling point for marketers...

Sanitisers, disinfectant sprays, veggie washes, and even bathing soaps are now claiming to be 99.9 per cent effective in battling coronavirus. Is the claim becoming a blind spot for consumers now?

The newest weapon in a marketer’s arsenal is the claim that a product kills germs. It doesn’t matter whether the product is a mattress, or laundry detergent. Killing germs is the need of the hour, and marketers across categories are claiming that their brands’ products can assist households in keeping the virus at bay.

The problem is, the claim isn’t entirely plausible when it comes to different categories. Take the case of Indian suitings and shirtings brand Siyaram, which recently introduced ‘anti-corona fabric’ which the company claimed was 99.94 per cent effective in protecting someone from the virus.

This is a time when brands are choosing to diversify (sometimes, outside their core brand offerings) in a bid to join the hygiene/protection/immunity game. It’s not particularly dangerous for a clothing and fabric brand to make these claims, but there are other products in the personal care category, (such as sanitisers, and veggie wash fluids) which should tread carefully before claiming that it can kill 99.9 per cent bacteria.

Since consumers rely on these products to protect themselves from the virus, its efficacy becomes paramount while using the 99.9 per cent claim in advertising messages. What are the perils of using a '99.9 per cent germ killing' promise in a product's copywriting and as a marketing technique?

Experts speak...

Suman Varma, chief marketing officer, Hamdard Laboratories (medicine division)

The most obvious consequence of using this claim is that you can end up misleading a consumer, unless you’re able to prove the product’s efficacy and that it really works. If a brand like Sensodyne claims that its toothpaste helps reduce tooth sensitivity, it can make that claim because it actually delivers with its end product. There’s a lot of science that has gone into making that story of product efficacy come alive.

In these times, anything driven by health works for an advertiser. Personally, I feel that these days, it should be a given that a product should be a germ killer. If you ask me whether it’s a blind spot for the consumers, it’s not. Given the times we live in, the consumers expect that the products should tackle/kill germs.

Suman Varma
Suman Varma

You have to understand that the ‘new normal’ has changed people, and how they think. People are taking immunity boosters, washing their hands, etc. Habit formation, which normally takes 30-45 days, is what we’ve been seeing in the personal hygiene category.

Toru Jhaveri, VP and head of strategy - West, DDB Mudra

The 99.9 per cent germ kill claim is not a throwaway statement at the moment. It is something people are taking very seriously. The downside of not being able to deliver on this promise is significant. It would lead to a corrosion of trust. People are understandably anxious at this time, and they will not be forgiving of brands that visibly and noticeably take advantage of their anxiety.

99.9 per cent germ kill is a bit like a large ‘for sale’ sticker on any product – suddenly, everything else is besides the point. It’s crucial messaging in the right categories – cleaning agents and personal care.

Toru Jhaveri
Toru Jhaveri

But in some other categories, it runs the risk of robbing the communication of category codes and a certain ‘specialness’. It suddenly becomes the denominator by which you evaluate everything, which is never fun, creatively speaking.

It could become a blind spot for the consumers, unless the marketers can credibly deliver on this claim, and it is a benefit that is genuinely sought from your product/service. Else it is a very obvious means by which to play off people’s anxieties.

Expectations of performance and superiority in other categories have been enhanced – immunity boosters, water filters, surface cleaning agents are being held to higher standards. Products consumers hadn’t thought about before, have become more salient – vegetable washes, anti-bacterial laptop wipes, for example.

Used incorrectly, and in the long haul, this promise can strip away a brand’s equity. Do you really want fabrics to offer the same benefit as a wipe, or premium skincare to offer the same benefit as a sanitiser?

Lopamudra Roy, founder-CEO at Road Not Taken (a consumer research consultancy)

Innovative best practices from the past have repeatedly shown that quantitative claims (such as 2x faster and 99 per cent germ kill) lend significantly higher credibility. That’s the power of numbers. Which is why there are stringent norms for proving these claims, should there arise any legal accusation against them.

That said, before we launch another campaign around boosting immunity and killing germs, let us ask a simple question. What is the consumer insight being addressed for making such a claim.

Some consumers are scared and want to seem responsible and, therefore, ‘appear’ to be overly obsessed with sanitisation, a phenomenon more prevalent in the upper socio-economic class.

Our latest research, however, post the COVID outbreak, indicates that people are tired of being scared. A seemingly exaggerated promise of 99.9 per cent germ kill is constructed on addressing this hyper-fear. The obvious solution is to speak around the crisis. Which is why every other day, we’re seeing one brand, or the other, launching such claims. It is the innovative ones that are diverting this fear.

Lopamudra Roy
Lopamudra Roy

If brands want to address the fact that people are tired of being scared, there is a need to appear more responsible. The audience belonging to this SEC is relatively more discerning. And, the very fact that everyone is claiming the same, dilutes exclusivity. Mainstream, for this audience, is passé.

Copywriters would do well to address the consumer’s growing need for positive reassurance and innovatively divert this fear into a more affirmative space, while leveraging and restricting numeric claims to only support the key promise.

‘Kills germs’ will not become a blind spot because it will stick as a given, a hygiene factor. Even after the pandemic, it will hold, not as a USP, but as a mandatory requirement. Better not to kill the brand in the obsession to appear to kill the germs, is what I’d say.

Now, more than ever, copywriting will need sanitisation. A tonne of bricks is hiding for the first casualty over flawed claims. The consumer is scared, helpless and frustrated, full of vigilantism, and ready to hang the brands.

Abhik Santara, ^Atom network’s CEO (former president, Ogilvy Mumbai and Kolkata)

'99.9 per cent germ-killing' promise is a classic case of topical marketing. Everyone is trying to ride on a popular wave. The only difference this time is that the brands are overtly behaving in an opportunistic way.

This is a critical time for the society and human race. And unless there is a substantiation to the claims (which, in many cases, will be difficult, or even absurd), brands should behave responsibly and think twice before claiming such things.

After all, consumers are not morons and they can easily spot those unrelated claims. And as advertisers we have to respect that. The other day, there was a clothing brand which came up with one such promise. It got bashed on social media. I think it would do more harm than good to those brands, in the short-medium term.

Abhik Santara
Abhik Santara

This claim will not be a blind spot if it is a relevant category - where the expectation of hygiene and safety is paramount. In fact, a related category brand can use this as a communication for differentiation, for a very long time. For others, it's a far-fetched desperate attempt - which is very short-lived, and in most cases, not serving any purpose.

Businesses are going through a tough time right now. Managers are trying to capitalise on every opportunity to generate revenue, which is understandable. The brands that will endure in the long run, will be the ones that are making a real difference, and not just lip service.

The fear of Corona is not going to go for a very long time. People might get used to it, but they won’t become reckless. So, the proposition of germ kill may stay relevant for some time. Gradually, consumer expectation of hygiene may even become the norm across categories.