Nirma, the price warrior trades up

The 2017 ad campaign for Nirma Advance raises the bar, targeting the urban elite in its quest to improve penetration
The clock has turned a full circle for Nirma, the detergent brand from Gujarat that dethroned Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) Surf as the leading washing powder in the 1980s. Led by its charismatic founder Karsanbhai Patel, the Ahmedabad-based major became synonymous for its astute marketing skills predicated on a simple insight. This was that a washing powder had to be effective at a price sensitive to its customers, namely, housewives.

Surf back then and even now remains a premium brand in the HUL stable, luring consumers with the proposition that no stain is bad. It can wash any dirt clean hence Daag Acche Hain (Dirt is Good in English).

In the decades since that legendary battle between Nirma and Surf, which saw HUL hit back with brands such as Rin and Wheel at the lower end of the market, eventually regaining its overall leading position in detergents, there are other price warriors that have emerged. Most notable is Ghari from regional player Rohit Surfactants, based in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

This company is the second-largest detergent player today in the nearly Rs 20,000-crore domestic washing powder market after HUL. Nirma, the original price warrior, has been pushed down the pecking order to fourth place after Procter & Gamble (P&G), which has brands Tide and Ariel in the marketplace.

But as Ghari consolidates its position at number two, widening the gap with rivals P&G and Nirma, the latter is responding to the challenge by trading up. In short, Nirma is doing a Surf, say experts, positioning itself as a premium player in a bid to appeal to the urban elite, an audience it avoided over the decades.

In the last one year, Nirma has pushed its Advance variant aggressively in the marketplace, appointing a brand ambassador in actor Hrithik Roshan and coming out with slick advertising. The move, say experts, comes as Nirma realises that fighting Ghari in urban and semi-urban middle-class homes, a turf once dominated by it, is not going to be easy. That is a space long lost and it is time to move on. 

As N Chandramouli, chief executive officer of brand intelligence and data insights company, TRA, says, “There are two aspects to buying propensity — desire and trust. While trust continues to be there in the Nirma brand, it is now working on improving its desirability quotient."

Roshan was first seen shaking a leg to a catchy tune with a young boy in a 2016 commercial. The two eventually throw their stained shirts into the washing machine, sending the message that males can do the laundry as well. 

While HUL had used actor Salman Khan a few years ago to sell Wheel, its mass-market brand, the actor was seen goading his on-screen wife to use a powder that could not only wash the clothes clean, but also protect her hands.

In other words, Khan was not shown doing the laundry, key if the message of gender equality had to be conveyed. Nirma is treading that ground though.

The brand has also raised the bar this year with its advertising on Advance. The detergent’s superior washing ability has been packaged with a message that speaks of helping others in need. Roshan is seen encouraging a young child in an art gallery, who has accidentally stained his shirt, to use his body as a canvas in the absence of one. The child splashes his clothes with colour. Roshan looks self-assured that he can wash the stains off with his new detergent.

Brand experts say the current campaign aims once again at drawing the attention of the urban elite or upper middle class. This woman is not hung up on price, wanting a quality product instead. While the campaign taps into this need, Nirma has opted to keep the price of Advance competitive in a bid to improve penetration in the marketplace. 

Nirma Advance is priced at around Rs 50 a kg, at par with brands such as Active Wheel and Ghari. The variant is also being pushed heavily at the trade level to entice buyers, industry sources said. While the company was not available to share sales data, market share numbers by Euromonitor show that Nirma has not lost share in recent years thanks in part to brands such as Advance. (See chart) 

This comes as the laundry detergent market in India slows. From 10.3 per cent compounded annual growth rate in the last five years (price inflation taken account), the market, says Euromonitor, is forecast to grow 1.6 per cent only (price inflation not taken into account). 

Also, the domestic laundry detergent or washing powdermarket will get tougher as consumers opt for local brands. This trend will get sharper, say experts, at the lower end of the market, where downtrading happens quickly at the sign of a slowdown. Nirma is ring-fencing itself by trading up.

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