Ananya Pathak
Points of View

Will specialised 'pandemic products' continue to sell in a normalising market?

HUL is set to market a new hygiene range under its Nature Protect brand. What kind of market is it entering, though?

Last week, leading fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company Hindustan Unilever (HUL) launched a range of hygiene products infused with neem extract and naturally derived active ingredients under its new brand Nature Protect. Formulated keeping in mind the (current) needs of the consumers in the ‘new normal’, the range aims to address their hygiene requirements, the brand claims.

While this comes after over eight months into the COVID pandemic, this year has seen quite some launches of such ‘pandemic products’. There are hand washes, sanitisers, surface disinfectants, face masks, gadget disinfectants and other hygiene products with a promise of protection against the virus.

While many old brands repurposed their offerings, newer ones were born to serve to the anxieties of consumers, thus reshaping the health, hygiene and personal care space.

The fear of the pandemic, however, seems to be dwindling away now. Markets are opening up, businesses are slowly getting back on track and consumers seem to be gradually moving towards the ‘old normal’. In times like these, what happens to the sale of such ‘pandemic specialised products’? Will they sustain in a market that, perhaps, is paving its way to normalcy, even as no cure to the virus has so far been officially found.

Here’s what four industry experts think:

Dheeraj Sinha, managing director, India, and chief strategy officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett

There two kinds of changes that COVID has led to. One set of change in behaviour is to directly combat COVID, like washing hands many times a day, wearing a mask when you are out, sanitising as many surfaces as you can and so on. Most of these changes will have a direct linear relationship with the pandemic. They will go up with severity of threat and go down with better times.

Dheeraj Sinha
Dheeraj Sinha

The second set of behaviour change is, perhaps, a little deeper. This has to do with some larger realisations that people have had. Realisation that your own health and body is your only advantage, realisation that your home needs to be more equipped in various ways, realisation that you need at least one mode of personal transport and so on. Some of these deeper realisations, which are more to do with recalibrating your life compass, will be far more lasting than the ones which are about combating the pandemic itself.

Products and services aimed at this set of rediscovered needs will definitely have demand as we go along.

Vani Gupta Dandia (ex PepsiCo), growth expert and partner, CherryPeachPlum Growth Partners

It's something everyone's asking. Here's how we went :

Vani Gupta Dandia
Vani Gupta Dandia

1) COVID panic struck: We all feared the worst. Waited with bated breath for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's next '9 baje, lit diyas, banged thaalis', stared at the rotating COVID cuboid with ever increasing numbers.

2) Usually slow FMCG reacted with unusual speed: Every FMCG worth its alcohol(!) launched a spate of antiviral and antibacterial range. Soaps that sold on 'beauty' (proposition) for decades earlier, released new media copies claiming virus protection overnight. There were memes going around saying that except for a vaccine, one can find everything, from paints, toilet cleaners, air sprays and laminates, that kills the Coronavirus. There is an overwhelming deluge of new products.

3) How much longer: It's been more than seven months now. Despite the statistics, people are craving to go back to old (normal). Man is a social animal. People want to meet friends, sit across the table in gangs, have a drink and do everything they otherwise did.

I have just returned from a holiday to Jim Corbett National Park. As I drove up and down, I didn't see any scare, or masks, or any social distancing consciousness. I'm convinced outside of the metros, India has moved on psychologically. Sanitisers are available at large resorts, but people seem jaded with the constant sanitising and washing hands ritual. And, I am sure, this will start to show in the sales numbers too.

In the health foods and beverages category, India will see some additions... I don't foresee any fundamental shifts in our taste-led consumption. Street hawkers are already back, everything else will follow too... In my view, the 'new normal' will for sure be equal to the 'old normal'.

Manish Bhatt, founder director, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi

While the insight for the launch of many such products birthed from the outbreak of the pandemic, a lot of them can sustain in the market in the long run.

Manish Bhatt
Manish Bhatt

Hygiene, immunity, social distancing and sanitisation are some things that are here to stay. Whenever an event, which is larger than life, like this pandemic or a tsunami, occurs, it does impacts the behavioural pattern of the consumers.

In such times, if the R&D (research and development) and product management teams of the brands put together products that address these changes in consumer behaviour, not just in the short-term, they will sustain the market.

For example, today, consumers are concerned about immunity. Products that improve immunity, help in keeping and maintaining hygiene, and can better human health, will go a long way.

Lubna Khan, brand strategist

Health and hygiene categories have certainly got an enormous boost this year, and businesses are rushing in to get a share of the expanding pie. But to be able to predict the success of these brands and products, we must really define how success is viewed.

Lubna Khan
Lubna Khan

Some brands are here to make hay while the sun shines – get a short-term revenue boost by getting even a small share of a large and expanding category. In these days of agile manufacturing and direct marketing, creating and launching new products is not the mammoth investment it used to be. These are brands and products that are directly COVID-related – sanitisers, cleaners of all types, immunity boosters and the like.

Certainly, customer uptake for these products will go down once COVID is contained to a degree, but that will itself take some time. It will also take time for people to attain psychological equilibrium (once more), and break free from the fears and anxieties around health and illness.

The smart brands will take the long-term view. Even before COVID (struck), health, wellness and hygiene were expanding categories, driven by a bigger shift towards natural ingredients, reimagined health practices, ‘clean’ lifestyles and sustainable choices. Brands, which can establish their credentials within these larger cultural shifts, will survive beyond the COVID era and succeed in the long-term.