Soap vs handwash: In time of crisis, firms set aside age-old differences

Topics Coronavirus | Dettol | Lockdown

Stepping away from their traditional turf battles both HUL (left) and RB (right) say hand washing is a must, with any soap
Given the magnitude and scale of the current Covid-19 crisis and the need to reinforce simple hygiene habits among people, soap brands Dettol and Lifebuoy are finding common ground. Using different tools to put forth the point of cleanliness above all and the need to wash one’s hands well, the two are setting aside their age-old differences. 

The two brands have been fighting a bitter battle over their ads in court for years, while one emphasises the efficacy of soap, the other pitches the potency of its handwash. In fact as recently as a month ago Hindustan Unilever (HUL) hauled RB Health (formerly Reckitt Benckiser) to the Bombay High Court over an ad spot. 

The ad for Dettol Handwash, made an oblique reference to Lifebuoy soap from HUL by showing a bar similar to the latter in terms of colour and proportion. 

HUL’s contention in court was that not only had RB Health disparaged its brand, but was also sending a “wrong” message that suggested soap and water for hand hygiene was not as effective as handwash. RB clarified that it was emphasising on personal hygiene and restating the proven fact that liquid handwash should be preferred over bar soaps. 

“Unilever has filed an ill-advised suit claiming that Lifebuoy and red colour soaps are disparaged. Reckitt unilaterally decided to hold back the advertisement till April 21, 2020 and the Bombay High Court was informed about the same,” the company stated. While fighting over a bar of soap may have seemed ill-timed, experts at the time had seen nothing unusual as both Lifebuoy and Dettol are known to be combative. 

However all that is now history. RB has released a new ad for Dettol soap that speaks of the importance of hand hygiene (using soap) to protect from germs. In a crisis, the brand seems to be saying that substance matters more than form.

The shift in stance, said experts, should be viewed from the prism of availability and affordability. “The fact remains that soaps is a highly penetrated category in India versus handwash, which is urban-centric,” said N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA, a brand advisory and insights firm based in Mumbai.

“Soaps are also affordable. And one soap is shared by many members within a family on an average. If there are ads that question the efficacy of soap versus handwash, it obviously raises doubts in the minds of people. The emphasis should not be on sowing doubts in a pandemic. Brands have to work together to drive home a common message on hygiene and cleanliness,” he says. 

Experts say that the conventional fight between Dettol and Lifebuoy now appears insignificant. In a pandemic, it is immaterial what is used to clean one’s hands they say and the brands too understand that this is no time to cross swords. 

Nothing prevents brands from engaging in friendly fire, though. Shweta Purandare, secretary general, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), said that comparative advertising was permitted, provided claims were backed by evidence. “Having said that, it is important to be socially responsible and allay fears of consumers during a pandemic,” she said. 

Although permitted, it would be churlish to advertise in this manner and could do long term damage to the image of the brands. “Soap or handwash is not the point right now. Marketers have to be extremely sensitive to this given the crisis that is unfolding before us,” said KS Chakravarthy, co-founder and chief creative officer, Tidal7 Brand and Digital. 

In the new Dettol commercial, this is the message being reiterated and a bar of Dettol soap is visible in the commercial. Pankaj Duhan, chief marketing officer, RB South Asia, RB Health said, “In a difficult environment, Dettol has a duty to shape the right personal hygiene habits. Handwashing with any soap is accessible and highly effective.”

Lifebuoy, on the other hand, has used brand ambassador Kajol to communicate the need for hand washing as a good hygiene habit. On Wednesday, HUL also announced that it was partnering with UNICEF to launch a nationwide campaign against Covid-19. “The need of the hour is simple and effective communication across both urban and rural India and our partnership with UNICEF aims to do just that,” Sanjiv Mehta, chairman and managing director, HUL, said. 

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