Marketing lessons from the Indian soap wars


By Amit Bapna, Editor-at-large

January 26, 2021 | 7 min read

The Indian soap market has been witnessing a fierce battle last few weeks with German brand Sebamed calling out the pH levels of leading Indian brands like Dove, Pears, Santoor. The Drum gets marketing experts to hold forth on the ongoing brand combat.

Over the last few weeks, a soap opera played out in the Indian retail market engulfing one of the largest consumers categories in India, the personal care segment. The category keeps witnessing minor skirmishes among the competitor brands, but this brand battle with its unique nuances does not seem to be fading anytime soon.

The German soap brand Sebamed, part of USV Limited in India since over a decade, had been a doctor-prescribed brand for a long time. A few years back it decided to take the OTC route and more recently it decided to go full frontal with its marketing campaign, comparing and calling out the pH levels of leading soap brands like Lux, Dove, Pears, Santoor etc and comparing with its pH level of 5.5.

Expectedly HUL went to the court with its counter-claim. Mumbai High Court passed the legal verdict, in which Sebamed was allowed to continue with its pH-led narrative but was asked to make some specific changes in its brand communication. For example, it was asked to remove the comparison in the ads with the washing soap Rin.

The war is far from over and the players, including Sebamed, are getting ready for their next move. It could become a full-blown battle and one that could change some of the tenets of soap-marketing in India. Marketing and brand specialists share their views and distil learnings from this brewing marketing battlefield.

Ambi Parameswaran, author and founder,

Sebamed has been in the country for long and has been promoted by leading Indian pharma company USV Limited through its pharma field force. Many pharma companies have been toying with taking their brands, that have a large OTC sale, direct to consumers (DTC) with an idea of building the brand through doctor promotion and then add a DTC element to get the brand to the next level. Sebamed has done this with an added twist. It decided to take on the soap majors by mentioning Lux, Dove and Santoor.

Mentioning a competitor in an ad is not new around the world, especially in the US or UK. Dove has advertised in the UK mentioning competitors and their pH levels. In India, not too many brands have dared to name competitors and have often tended to say ‘your favourite brand’ and escape scrutiny. [Some past examples incude: Captain Cook vs Tata Salt, Fair & Handsome and Fair & Lovely].

Will this campaign send Sebamed to the top of the charts? Highly unlikely. The campaign has brought the brand into public scrutiny and this must be helping the brand also gain better distribution and more social media chatter. With this campaign, it is possible that a new segment of ’sensitive skin soap’ may emerge and could grow in the future. Sebamed will then benefit being the first brand to claim the right pH story.

Sebamed can get ready to play the test cricket version of marketing, now that they seem to have played the first few overs in 20-20 style.

Renuka Kamath, professor of marketing, S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai

It is a really smart move by Sebamed. They ignored other differentiators in this category, like fragrance, foaming/ frothing, shape and went for hard facts. pH is a difficult claim and territory to occupy, but if resourced it can be dangerous.

This is a classic case of a 'frontal attack' by a challenger (or an attacker) brand, on a well-established competitor, something we learn in Marketing 101. It is risky and the challenger better have its facts right. Sebamed, a substantially higher-priced brand, is positioned as being both medically recommended (Doctors would prescribe) and gentle on the skin. Dove on the other hand is positioned for the confident woman and with 1/4th moisturizing (the claim of gentle on the skin).

In this backdrop, it is rather interesting to see that Sebamed has taken on 'pH factor', a characteristic that is least known to consumers and one that will require consumer education. Sebamed has done what any challenger would do, attack factually and attack where it hurts - on facts and science. Attacks don't come easy - Sebmed will have to pump in a huge amount of resources to sustain this.

Brands that are market leaders have to be alert and be sure of their claim for the brand. Even a small and weak plank in the foothold can cost a brand its reputation. And this holds true for both Sebamed and Dove.

Anisha Motwani, cofounder, StormTheNorm Ventures

The challenger brand has taken the liberty of challenging the Goliath(s) head-on with a completely fresh look at the category They have demonstrated the courage to challenge the category codes and created a fresh criterion of choice that favours them vs the established leaders. It is a smart way to de-position the incumbent as irrelevant for current times with a new repertoire of choices of today’s times. Bar soaps advertising has gradually evolved from the petals and roses and the afterglow of a long bath to dust and grime and more recently the health and hygiene story of germ protection.

This controversy and recent judgement are going to open a new category of comparative advertising. The biggest lesson for marketers is to know that for any brand that has the ambition to become a game-changer it is not just enough to create advertising proposition but to go further and create authentic, tangible propositions that pass the scrutiny of today’s regulatory, judiciary, competition or consumer activism, whatever the case may be and be able to stand by it and defend it with conviction and confidence.

Swagat Sarangi, cofounder, Smytten

Such direct comparisons in advertising haven't helped anyone ever, neither the consumer, industry or the brand itself.

Scientifically any brand can find one data point and one popular competition against which they can show their product to be superior. But what happens mostly in such cases that the whole truth is not communicated to the consumer. Plus, the product formulations are heavily influenced by the pricing, positioning and target audience the brand wants to go for. Sebamed's bar pricing is almost double of the Dove and it's unfair to go for any comparative advertising without stating that fact loud too. On Smytten, we have many popular organic and completely natural brands that make soaps with absolutely zero chemicals but priced around 3-5X of a Dove or a Sebamed for that matter. Technically all of them would be better than Sebamed when one compares just on the percentage of the chemical/synthetic ingredients in the composition.


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