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Product Category Creation – a case study of how Levers carved itself a niche in the deodorant market.

October 19, 2006

An impossible task
No one could have imagined that deodorants would become a 1000 tonne market in India by the millennium. Not because the need was not strong, but because it has always been a monumental marketing task, converting people from an old to a new way to meet a primary human need.
In this case the need was to smell good. India being a high-perspiration market and one where body odour (BO) sensibilities have always been sharp. Camouflage products have always done well and for several decades a ritualised Indian existence included the usage of a perfumed soap and talcum powder combination. So when Hindustan UniLever (HUL, previously Hindustan Lever) decided to create a market for specialised deodorants with the launch of Rexona in the mid 90’s, there was much scepticism.
However, the marketing pundits were proved wrong when the market itself grew from nearly nothing in 1995 to 308 tonnes in 1997 and was 616 tonnes in 1998. Other brands joined in, but the market creator’s share stood at 57% in the initial years.

What did Lever’s do right?
HLL understood the Indian market. It had a gut-level understanding of the precise coordinates of the target consumer on a two variable map (conservative-liberal scale on one axis, monetary tightfistedness on the other). They also had a feel of how quickly this was changing, how the transformation could be hastened and what could play the catalyst. That they had the marketing acumen, no one doubted, because back in the mid 90’s Rexona was not the first deo to be launched. Baccorose was selling it’s Copper for men, with sensual ads that went ‘Before you get close, get Copper.’ This was an aerosol spray deo, priced at Rs 200 for a 150 ml can. Fa, aimed at women, was the other brand in the fray. Neither of these had made a splash.
HLL realised that Copper and Fa were aiming for those who understood the deodorant as being distinct from a perfume, and also the product’s advantage over the old soap-talc combination. Those who already knew the function of a deo. They aimed the product at a market which already knew that that a deo delivers lasting BO freedom (all through the day) because it doesn’t merely mask BO, but it actually prevents it.
But the majority of Indian consumers couldn’t guess it at the time, and that was why the two pioneers remained insignificant, even as the Indian talcum powder market stood firm at a huge 24,764 tonnes.

Market creation
HUL understood that selling a deo would require market creation and it was important to disseminate information. So HUL’s market approach was different. Research had shown that only 10 per cent of the target population had any awareness of deodorants, and a few felt that BO was their own private business!
HLL understood that pitching a deo on a high-sensuality platform at this stage could botch up it’s chances for a wide consumption base. And that was what the company wanted: to enter the bathroom cabinet of the relatively conservative Indian household.
So that was why the advertising had a good, clean, family setting – to sell the primary benefit. They knew that the time to do a ‘close-up’ of the product benefits would come only later, once it had achieved a multi-generation approval.

Developing a mass market
HUL was keen on ‘step-up ladder pricing’. It wanted to attract people beyond the Indian elite. The latter in any case were already tuned in to using products like Old Spice, Denim, and other foreign brands. Thus it was the uninitiated Indian consumer that HLL wanted to target, a consumer who was contentedly using the soap/talc combination, a consumer who used perfume only occasionally. Fragrance sensitivity was an important factor as this was often a matter of consensus between the husband and wife. That was why it chose the brand: Rexona. Rexona was known in India as a soap although globally it was an anti-per spirant brand.
Actually that was what HUL wanted to launch first…the Rexona anti-perspirant. But they realised that an anti-perspirant would baffle people even more than a deo. Besides, an anti-perspirant doesn’t really stop all perspiration, and in a hot sweaty environment that India had, there was a risk that it would be labeled as a non-performer.

Test Launch and National Launch
The first task was to ensure that Rexona deo was not mistaken for a light fragrance. Secondly the company had to break the price barrier and ensure widespread trials. Thus Rexona deo was test-launched in April 1995, in Tamil Nadu, a state reckoned to have a large number of early-adapters. It was launched as a push-up stick and a pump spray. An aerosol, being an alcohol-based can, was thought to prove expensive.
Post-launch research showed that while the concept had sunk in, the benefit-delivery package needed –re-tuning. The pump spray, which was priced at Rs 85 for a 50 ml container was not seen as value-for-money. HLL decided to phase it out and replace it with an aerosol can, which was convenient and only slightly more expensive.
For the national launch, HLL also came up with some packaging innovations that brought the prices down. The push-up stick was able to attain the magic price of Rs 1/- per gm and the 20 gm pack was priced at an affordable Rs 20. This was as open-armed that a deo could get!

Advertising problems
The television commercials, which went on air in 1996, centered around the acceptance-rejection (of a person) theme, in an attempt to sell the need to fight BO through means more effective than the regular soap/talc combination. Reminiscent of what Colgate had initiated in the Indian market for toothpaste (wife turns face away from husband because of his bad breath), the commercials had someone turning away from a someone with BO. However while bad breath was acknowledged to be a problem, BO was not considered such a bugaboo. Market Research showed that the consumer found it impolite to turn away in the manner depicted. So while awareness of BO was growing, Rexona’s sales were not!

Rexona’s communication approach needed fixing. As market research had indicated that most people were reluctant to acknowledge that they had a BO problem, and HUL decided to tackle this head on. The new ads showed that it was nothing to be ashamed of, that even the most charming, well-dressed an sophisticated people could have BO, without realising it! This was because the nose picks up only new, unfamiliar smells. However the BO could lead to considerable sniggering behind the person’s back.

The first TV spot showed someone sneaking up behind a small boy and clasping her hands over his eyes. He guesses her to ‘Shilpa Aunty,’ only because of the small from her armpits. In the second commercial, a boss overhears his junior wanting to buy a deo for him as a gift. In the third, a young girl is horrified on overhearing colleagues talk about BO. Result: awareness of BO started spreading amongst the youth like wildfire and there were collegians who even became anxious about how they smelt. It was interesting the way the commercials drew attention to BO without having to show the boy-girl situation.

The Applicator strategy was revamped too.
HUL wanted to deliver Rexona’s benefit as affordably and conveniently as possible. As mentioned earlier in April 1997 when Rexona was launched the roll-on was at Rs 35 for 40ml, and the original 20gm stick was just Rs 21. The roll- on and the stick, while cheaper, did fine with young males but these products were not fully able to overcome the female consumers innate aversion to a product that touched the body. What HLL did was launch in aerosol cans, priced at Rs 65 for 75ml and Rs 95 for 150ml (less than half of Copper). This price was a coup as sorts for the company, since rivals were not able to match it. HUL attributes the price mainly to economies of scale, HLL being a big buyer of aerosol applicators. The big trial-getting move however was a simultaneous launch of a 5gm stick for just Rs 5. This was designed to get all and sundry into giving the deo a shot. It was test-marketed in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. And it worked.

And once it was launched nationally the deodorant category started growing feverishly. Within the year the stick form accounted for as much as 40% of Rexona deo’s volumes!

Some more hiccups
By the end of 1997, the HUL deo team was sure that the market was well on it’s way. However the team rapidly realised that while it was working hard to spread the BO message, other products were hitching along for the ride. While the market volumes grew as the advertisement campaign converted deo non-users to users, Rexona’s market share stagnated. Light perfumes started flooding the market under the garb was ‘body sprays’, hoping to cash in on the growing demand for BO –fighters.
HLL wasn’t terribly worried since the market was still miniscule (308 tons in 1997) by global standards. The real fight was against age-old talcs and that was the market HUL was eyeing. They knew that a sharper strategy was needed.

Re- launch
The market for talcs operated on fairly sophisticated segmentation principles. Some brands sold a set of general fragrance values ( Ponds Dreamflower, Old Spice) and others operated on a partnership with bathing soaps such as Liril and Cinthol. These products had gone far beyond the reason-why stage and were selling on the basis of higher order intangible benefits as well. The volume base was large enough for such refined consumer-targeting.
Thus, in May 1998 HLL re-launched Rexona deo, splitting the range into two variants – Fresh Green and Cool Blue. This time the communication took a step ahead. It played down the social cost of BO and spoke specifically of the Deo’s advantage over talc: durability. Rexona was effective throughout the day, while talc was not. The net benefit : body appeal confidence.
A series of 6 second commercials showed a boy and a girl sitting in the pavilion watching a cricket match. As the day progresses, Rexona is shown to be ‘still working’. The voiceover : ‘talcum ka asar char ghanto mein gayab. Rexona, ghanto tak suraksha de’. The new advertising also brought out the value-for-money equation. The pitch: a deo that lasts long is worth more per application than a talc.

Re-crafting strategy
The brand also re-crafted it’s strategy to focus more sharply on a young target – the 16-20-year old. This ‘magic age’ (since everyone wants to be here) is also considered the one that’s most conscious of the benefits of smelling good. Best of all, the post-adolescent, pre-marriage gender interaction in this age group is quite cool, unlike a generation or two earlier. This holds out immense potential for deos.
The secondary target audience ofcourse goes all the way upto 35, since people stay vanity-conscious well into their 30’s. People older than that, went the reasoning, wouldn’t be adopters of a new concept. They wouldn’t suddenly grow conscious of BO and seek any better remedy than what they’ve been using all these years.
HUL re-designed the pack to look suitably vibrant as this audience gets put off by fuddy-duddy products rather too soon.
HUL realises that talcs would not easy to edge out. In fact that may never happen in India – the land of a million co-existences! In fact, it is believed that talc is likely to survive even with the ‘happening’ crowd.

Targeting the youth
An increasing number of products are being aimed at the youth these days and that’s natural as a quarter of India is currently in the 16-24 age group, and this fraction is projected to rise rapidly.

(Article written by me and published in the Advertising and Marketing Magazine (A&M)

Read about the story of the brand-Taj , why good brands fail , sub-branding , poor after sales service , and about why consumers need to be careful before they buy .

Related advertising articles: The Kargil campaign and the Raymond campaign . You can also read about famous advertising personalities , the level of advertising standards in india and about ad film-making .

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2009 6:36 pm

    Amazing knowledge! Well done!

    Now UniLever is wanting to focus hard on the 3 billion people in Asia and get them to start using deodorant.

    In Australia, we are now getting international students from small towns/villages in India who smell…

  2. June 7, 2009 10:38 pm

    The information was gr8 it helped me a lot

    • Vivek Khadpekar permalink
      June 8, 2009 8:38 am

      Thanks to Arpita, for drawing my attention to this post, which I had not seen before. Maneesh’s link to the timesonline article led to a couple of interesting readers’ coments, which deserve to be quoted in full:

      I suppose the author is kidding.

      It has been a common sense why east Asian don’t use deodorant; Why with 5 thousands of years of elegant civilization, people there don’t have perfume industry? The answer is so simple — east Asian (Japanese, Chinese and Koreans) don’t smell!

      –Stephanie, Montreal, CA

      I am well into my first year in Tokyo, travel daily on crowded metros, and the only people who smell bad are the Westerners. It’s just “creating a market” where none existed or is necessary, by cosmetic companies

      –Don Wilson, Tokyo, Japan

      Every civilisation has it unwashed classes, but they form only a part of their respective societies. I find it incredible that in a country where bathing at least once daily, and wearing a freshly washed (if not ironed) set of clothes every day, are considered normative, people fall for what is clearly a marketing and advertising racket.

      First we let them seduce us into wearing synthetics and semisynthetics, which cause increased sweat and reduced opportunities for it to dry. Then we fall for smartass ads for products promoted by the glamour boys and girls (read film stars, models and cricketers) who are paid crores to con us into thinking that we need such nonsense.

      May HUL and kindred corporates perish in the present global economic crisis!

  3. Ramitha permalink
    July 7, 2009 1:27 pm

    This article is great! it has fresh insights and really helped me out 🙂
    Thank you!

  4. disha shroff permalink
    August 5, 2011 11:50 pm

    hey…great information…it was a great insight in the deodarant market…can u please help me with my project of campaign planing for a male deo…it is a very important project..i have some doubts…can u reply me back on my id…thanks..

  5. April 11, 2012 4:07 pm

    This is a great article. Would love to hear your reason why the brand eventually evaporated.

  6. S.KANDEEPAN permalink
    August 25, 2012 2:15 pm

    It was qiute intresting and one will shocked on going through this report taht the scope of this category nmarket is widened.
    It will also bring the new entrants into the industry with price point, since the nation is going to having a huge of almost 40% of productive population.


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