Ananya Pathak
Points of View

Sebamed, Neobar, Tetmosol… are medicated soaps sexier than beauty soaps?

Science seems to be the most attractive marketing tool today. Why else would so many ‘prescription soaps’ go mainstream lately?

What is a medicinal soap? In a layman’s language, it is a clinically tested soft soap usually recommended by dermatologists to treat certain chronic skin diseases like acne, eczema and others. Sebamed, Dermadew, Acnil Pimple Care, Neobar and Tetmosol are some well-known medicated soap brands in India. Many of them were unheard of, until recently.

Sebamed made headlines after its latest ad campaign took a dig at its beauty soap competitors. Released in the first week of January, the German personal care brand’s ads said that Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) soap brands Lux, Dove and Pears, and Wipro’s Santoor have the same pH levels as the dishwashing soap bar Rin. Sebamed’s campaign ‘Filmstars ki nahi, science ki suno’ made a clear reference to Lux, which has always been known as the 'filmstars soap'.

While HUL may have now decided to launch a campaign to ‘explain’ the pH facts, the Sebamed ads caught the desired attention over the weekend following their release.

Building on this controversy, Pune-based Brinton Pharmaceuticals’ Neobar released a film last week stating that soaps are so much more than their pH levels. Neobar soap bars come with ingredients such as shea butter, olive oil, almond oil... along with its 5.5 pH value.

With the launch of this campaign, Neobar became the second brand to have gone from prescription (Rx) to over-the-counter (OTC) space in recent times, à la Sebamed.

And then, earlier this week, a press release that landed in our inbox mentioned that Piramal Pharma’s medicated skincare soap Tetmosol has on-boarded actor Manoj Bajpayee to promote it.

This got us thinking if it is the beginning of a new trend in the category – the Rx to OTC shift.

While it may be true to say that the Rx soap category is now making a move, similar attempts have been made in the past by other medicated products, including toothpaste (Sensodyne), shampoo (Mediker), hair oil (Dr. Batra's Hair Fall Control Oil), energy vitamins (Revital) and others.

The attempt by Rx soap brands may also be justified considering the heightened interest in science-based products. The COVID scare has led consumers to rely on ‘lab tested’ and ‘approved by doctors’ science and technology-backed innovations.

Does that mean medicated soaps are now in competition with beauty soaps?

Here’s what industry experts have to say:

Edited excerpts:

Mou Roy, lead - brand strategy and knowledge management, DDB Mudra Group

In 2020, a global health crisis (COVID) made its way into our homes. It united everyone across the world against a common invisible enemy and brought multidimensional conversations around health – from personal hygiene to community health, into our living rooms. It changed everything, including what we chose to consume and how we do it.

While the shift from Rx to OTC may not be a new trend, it is one that will be accelerated by the pandemic. One reason for this is the fact that it makes sense to increase accessibility for products at a time when in-person doctor visits are reduced.

Mou Roy
Mou Roy

But there are larger behavioural shifts at play here. People are more invested in their health. The stakes are higher so they are more informed and personal hygiene awareness is at its highest.

The language of science is not as foreign to us now as it was a year ago. And, as the doctors and scientists continue to remain at the forefront of this fight, we take comfort in science. With the highest order of government asking us to heed medical advice, the credibility that RX products offer has far greater value now than in the past.

Ambi Parameswaran, brand consultant
Many Rx brands have a strong OTC demand. From Digene to Becosules, there are hundreds of Rx brands that are repeatedly bought by the consumers. But pharma companies do not go through the whole hog of advertising in mass media since they fear that the doctors will stop prescribing a brand once they see its ads on TV.

Moreover, there is a big mental barrier that a pharma company has when it comes to spending big amounts of money on mass media. Crocin went OTC a couple of decades ago, but it still gets Rx support. Seeing Crocin, many others like Revital have followed.

Ambi Parameswaran
Ambi Parameswaran

Now many more are going to jump in. But if they don’t look at this as a strategic move with a very long way to go, they may lose Rx support before consumer demand picks up.

Mythili Chandrasekar, brand communication enthusiast

Obviously, prescription to OTC is a way to increase consumption for a brand, to expand its market. How much it actually takes from the "grocery brand" will depend on many other factors, i.e.,

How mass the issue it is trying to solve is (like, say, sensitive teeth, in the case of toothpastes);

How much of the skincare/beauty brand's promise/benefits it is able to embrace beyond being a pure problem solver (to become the regular use brand);

How fast grocery brands expand their portfolios to include variants that deliver the Rx/OTC benefit;

How it navigates and balances the dermatologist - beautician spectrum;

And, of course, the pricing and distribution.

Hair oils have created a lot of value in the intersection of do good and look good, as have toothpastes.

Mythili Chandrasekar
Mythili Chandrasekar

Palak Malik, senior manager - creative services, Magnon Eg+

Audience awareness is at an all-time high. We are literally living in the information age and are consuming enormous amounts of content. We Google everything and access information via multiple social media platforms. We are influenced by influencers and self-diagnose common ailments.

Palak Malik
Palak Malik

With the lockdown restrictions that came in with the ongoing pandemic, there was probably lesser footfall in terms of medical appointments for non-emergency purposes. This made it more difficult for potential customers to get a prescription.

It is no wonder that some Rx products have jumped the queue to OTC. For the pharma industry, it means removing the barriers to purchase. It means one step less in the purchase cycle and two steps closer to sale.

It is a win-win situation for all as the doctors can concentrate on medical issues that really matter during the pandemic. The self-aware audiences can buy products that are dermatologically/medically tested, and the pharma industry can cash in on the trend.

Think of it like this, movies that are A-certified cut down explicit scenes for a UG rating, thereby increasing the size of the audience. Probably, even the pharma industry is doing the same. Increasing accessibility for general use products that are dermatologically/medically tested.