Surf Excel rides the premium wave

The all-knowing Lalitaji, the iconic character of Surf Excel ads in the 1980s, would have approved of this had she been around today. Surf Excel (then called Surf), whose superior detergent-washing abilities she extolled (actor Kavita Chaudhary), has now crossed sales of Rs 3,000 crore. In the process, it has managed to cement its position as the largest brand in Hindustan Unilever's portfolio.

This milestone though has not come without its fair share of ups and downs. The 57-year-old brand, positioned as a premium product all along, has seen the evolution of the domestic detergent market and taken a few hits in its battle with price warriors such as Nirma earlier and Ghari now. It has also had to contend with competition from rival Procter & Gamble's Ariel, also a premium product, launched in the 1990s. But the brand has held its ground and is now 'firing on all cylinders' as premium laundry bucks the slowdown in fast moving consumer goods.

For the three months ended June 2016, Surf Excel led growth in detergents for HUL, note analysts Amnish Aggarwal and Saurabh Jogani of Prabhudas Lilladher in their report. Along with Comfort fabric conditioners and Vim surface cleaners, Surf Excel, they said, was responsible for driving sales growth in overall home care to 6.8 per cent for HUL in the June quarter, the highest for the period.

No wonder that Sanjiv Mehta, MD and CEO, HUL, said, during the company's first-quarter results that premiumisation as a strategy has worked. That modern trade as a channel has also registered 'good growth' in the June quarter (Neither the company nor analysts agreed to put a number on this), augurs well for HUL's premium brands, experts tracking the market said. Surf Excel, in particular, they say, is riding the premium detergent wave.

Innovation is key

While whiteness is a key attribute of all detergents, how this proposition is rendered and what innovation can be brought to the table is what counts in an otherwise commodity-led market. It is here that Surf has actually excelled.

Mehta points out, for instance, how the company recently launched liquid detergents for washing machines under the brand. Liquid detergents are a step-up for the consumer as compared to powders. In India, this is the first time a detergent maker is attempting to climb this rung in the category and the move is expected to bring about a swift response from rivals, experts tracking the market said.

Mehta says that new and emerging categories are high on HUL's radar. Surf Excel Matic Liquid, he points out, is an example of this. The switch was expected say experts, as middle-class households move from hand to machine washing their clothes. HUL was bound to react to the overwhelming need for a quick and effective washing solution in machines.

With this brand extension, the company also eliminates the need for multiple detergents in a household - one to remove stains and another to machine-wash the clothes, as is the general practice today. The three-step action recommended by the company is 'Pour Rub Pour' whereby the liquid is poured on the stain, then rubbed to clean and the excess liquid goes back into the machine. The message being conveyed is that one detergent can perform all the functions.

Staying ahead of the pack

HUL has been innovative with its products in the past too. For instance, when hand washing was still the norm, HUL introduced Surf Excel Quick Wash and Surf Excel Easy Wash detergent powders. The product campaigns then spoke about the convenience factor and the extensive laboratory work that rendered their detergents far more effective. The brand is expected to continue tapping into trends to be ahead of the curve in a saturated market such as detergents, which has products operating at multiple levels, national, regional and local.

Surf Excel has been quick to catch on to the pulse when it comes to its brand communication too. An example of this being the Daag Achche Hain (stains are good) campaign it launched a decade ago. At that time most detergents makers were harping on spotlessly clean clothing, but HUL gambled with a counter-intuitive proposition. Its campaign exhorted mothers to allow their kids to have some fun (and hence aid in their overall development). The campaign soon spawned me-toos across the industry; other industries soon picked up the positioning that Surf Excel had sought for itself - a brand that believes in letting children enjoy their childhood.

Experts also mark this ad as the beginning of companies tagging their laundry brands with a social message. Rival Procter & Gamble's recent campaign 'Share the Load' for Ariel is an example. As is HUL's own campaign that takes its advertising theme to the next level. The 'Ready for Life' campaign shows a kid who fools his mother into believing that he is on the school football team, asking her for a pair of shoes, which he shares with his poor and deserving friend. When confronted he said he was moved by the boy's plight and hence would go for football practice every morning only to give his shoes to the boy, then smear his clothes with dirt and return home after a while.

For Surf Excel, the campaign strengthens its positioning as a brand that cares about children while for HUL, getting the stigma out of stains seems to be turning into a winning proposition that goes the distance.

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