Soap war: pH becomes a better-known term, thanks to Sebamed's ad campaign

After three years of pushing Sebamed baby products, the company has now decided to take the Sebamed personal care range for adults mainstream
Till a month ago, the concept of “pH” was relatively unknown to lay consumers. Any reference to the term would be made largely by dermatologists to address the issue of suitability of a soap to skin. pH indicates how acidic a soap is. The more its pH value, the more it is considered unsuitable for sensitive skin.

Cut to the present and the scenario is different.

pH today has become a better-known term, thanks to a high-profile advertising campaign unleashed by a German company called Sebamed. Its commercials, visible across media, have been bold enough to take on brands of the leading consumer goods company in the country — Hindustan Unilever (HUL) — on the issue of pH.

These ads claim that popular labels such as Lux, Dove, Pears and Rin, built over years, are high on pH value. The Bombay High Court in a recent order allowed Sebamed to continue with the campaign with minor modifications, providing relief to the firm after it was dragged to court by HUL. So the campaign continues to roll despite HUL claiming that pH alone is not the factor that determines how good or bad a soap is. It is the overall composition of the soap that counts.

Yet, the question is, who is Sebamed and how has it managed to pull off this campaign for so long? Shashi Ranjan, country head, Sebamed India and USV FMCG business, says the company has been around for over 50 years and has made pH 5.5 its unique selling proposition.

"Sebamed was launched after a German dermatologist, Heinz Maurer, came out with a cleansing bar that has a pH value of 5.5. This was in 1967. Over the years, Sebamed has launched a range of products, all with a pH value of 5.5, which supports the skin's natural protective layer. These products are clinically tested on sensitive skin to ascertain their efficacy. We do not test our products on animals," Ranjan says.

In India, pharma company USV has the licence to market and sell Sebamed products in the country. The company first launched the Sebamed range, including baby and adult skincare products in India, in 2007, pushing it largely through doctors rather than over the counter (OTC) within stores as other fast-moving consumer goods typically did.

This strategy was refreshed in 2018 when the company decided to push its baby-care range of products via the OTC channel. Competitors in this space include Johnson & Johnson and Himalaya. Sebamed, Ranjan claims, is now among the top three baby-care brands in the country, led by its strategy to position it as a product safe for baby skin.

“The fact that pH 5.5 extends to our entire portfolio including baby products, it is safe for baby skin. Mothers have picked up this cue, which explains why it is doing well in terms of sales, especially online. We have used platforms including digital to educate mothers about the quality and efficacy of our products as well as emphasise the importance of pH,” says Ranjan.

After three years of pushing Sebamed baby products, the company has now decided to take the Sebamed personal care range for adults mainstream, prompting it to launch the pH campaign.

“The three-year journey of taking baby-care products mainstream has given us the confidence to look at the adult personal care market closely. In terms of turnover, our current portfolio run-rate is Rs 400 crore, based on maximum retail price. We want to grow this number 10 times in five years. In the last three years since our refresh, we have grown close to five times in terms of turnover. So we believe our future targets are achievable,” Ranjan says.

How is the market viewing the emergence of a new player?

Experts say the personal care market in India, estimated at nearly Rs 2 trillion in size, is large enough to accommodate new entrants. “The emergence of digital has disrupted the market in many ways. So, if Sebamed has a new proposition, I am not surprised that they are advertising it aggressively,” says K V Sridhar, global chief creative officer, Nihilent Hypercollective.

Trade sources say Sebamed's cleansing bar is priced four times that of HUL soaps such as Lux, Pears and cleansing bar Dove. While Sebamed's pH campaign has seen it drop the price of its 100-gm bar to Rs 99 from Rs 199, making inroads in a competitive market such as personal care will not be easy.

Market leader HUL has already rebutted Sebamed, saying that the pH campaign is misleading. “Here is an unhealthy precedent that is being set where companies are ignoring the benefits of the ingredients that are good for skin. They are ignoring the fact that products they are comparing conform to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS)," Vibhav Sanzgiri, global vice-president, research & development (R&D), skin cleansing for Unilever, site leader, R&D India and executive director, HUL, said in a recent interview with Business Standard.

Soap, for the uninitiated, is made up of salts of fatty acids, oil, glycerine and other skin-beneficial ingredients. A well-defined formulation takes into account how these ingredients act in combination and not the pH, say experts.

Soap guidelines by the BIS, incidentally, excludes pH, focusing instead on the composition (of soaps) as being relevant to safety and mildness.  

In response, Ranjan says that consumers have the right to know the pH value of products.

“While pH is not the only criterion, it is an important indicator of how safe it is for the skin. In other words, it helps set the standard for skin types, much like you have a standard for body temperature or blood pressure. This is a new vocabulary in personal care advertising and will take time for people to understand,” he explains.

Clearly, Sebamed hopes to make a strategic shift in the soap wars of the kind that Procter & Gamble attempted with its high-end sanitary products challenging J&J’s long-term hegemony in the nineties.
 But given the huge changes in the consumer landscape between that battle and this one, this is a soap opera worth watching.

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