Was Sebamed’s competitive strategy strong enough to leave a long-lasting mark on the consumer’s mind?
Sebamed Vs HUL: A smart gambit or PR spectacle?
How can HUL undo the damage caused by Sebamed’s advertising campaign?

Was Sebamed’s competitive strategy strong enough to leave a long-lasting mark on the consumer’s mind?

How can HUL undo the damage caused by Sebamed’s advertising campaign?
  • Competitive advertising makes for a good public spectacle. If executed well, it helps generate engagement on social media platforms and create organic PR.
  • Was Sebamed’s recent advertising campaign targeted at FMCG giant HUL a smart move or just a PR spectacle, we speak to experts to find out.
Rival brands have time and again engaged in ad wars by calling each other out on social media or pulling each other down publicly to achieve one-upmanship. We have all grown up watching ad wars between Burger King and McDonald’s, Tide and Rin, Mercedes and BMW, Coca-Cola and Pepsi and still look forward to watching their campaigns or tweets openly taking digs at each other. And in the age of social media, anything that is a little different from regular communications generates a lot of chatter.

These wars have helped break monotony, given people laughs in dismal times and made sure they don't skip ads while watching TV. As the country continues to fight the pandemic together, these ad wars have also helped consumers stay distracted from the reality for a while. However, the advertising campaigns made to antagonise your rival brand can go either way -- it is like a double-edged sword, which can be sometimes confused with witless sloganeering.

The recent raging ad war between FMCG giants Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and German personal care brand Sebamed caught everyone’s attention in the media industry. The battle finally settled on January 19 as the Bombay High Court allowed Sebamed to continue its advertising campaign with minor tweaks sans comparison with Rin. It made HUL’s Dove taste its own medicine, which is known for using its pH testing with a litmus paper to prove the mildness of its soap than other competitors.

In the campaign, Sebamed took a dig at HUL’s Dove, Pears and Lux claiming that it has a lower pH level than the mentioned soap brands and therefore, implying that it is better than soaps that HUL sells. The battle spiraled as HUL retaliated with a print ad and took the matter to court without giving a prior notice to Sebamed.

While through an aggressive approach, Sebamed generated engagement on social media platforms and created organic PR.

However, there is a thin line to tread between looking down on your competitor versus acknowledging how they let your creative juices flow by simply existing in the market. Was Sebamed’s strategy a great PR spectacle? Will it leave a long-lasting mark on the consumer's mind? How can HUL repair the dent the campaign made on its image in the market and win back its consumers? We reached out to a few experts to ask these questions. Here is what they said:

Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and former APAC Marketing head of HP Inc:

I think Sebamed played a smart gambit by precipitating a competitive war with market leader HUL, and by making consumers aware of acidity in soaps. As a new entrant and marginal player, they propelled themselves into a serious challenger by taking on bigger established brands, forcing them to respond. This helped them build huge awareness overnight that would have taken years to achieve had they not resorted to this competitive strategy.

Given that Sebamed’s products are priced at a much higher level than their competitors products, for many consumers it will still be an issue of affordability. Every consumer purchase eventually is about a price-value proposition. So in that sense, Sebamed has just established its value proposition of being low on the acidity scale - and not proved that HUL’s products are inferior. I think HUL can continue to build on its huge legacy of consumer trust and its portfolio of value-for-money products, while continuing to establish the value proposition of its various brands in the personal hygiene segment. HUL’s significant distribution advantage - and products across price segments - is also a big factor that will help overcome any short term image loss.

And while engaging in competitive advertising, brands should always stay focused on their core value proposition. Also, very important for them to be 100% factual and not mislead consumers. Being competitive is good but being truthful and anchored in your value proposition is paramount.

Ronita Mitra, Founder and Chief Strategist, Brand Eagle Consulting:

For Sebamed, a new entrant in a highly saturated market with large established brands, it would have been extremely difficult to make a dent in the market unless backed by massive spends. In such a scenario, leveraging and claiming genuine product superiority backed by scientifically proven data seemed to be an audacious and a smart move, possibly the only way that they could have attracted attention and generated trials. Sebamed will need to move fast in establishing awareness of and credibility for its claims of product compatibility with skin and garner a base of trialists. Once they have got the initial base of trialists based on performance, they should evolve the communication to the next level by focusing on image and identity and building an emotional affinity with the brand, beyond performance and beyond referencing of competitive brands. It should evolve towards creating a strong independent brand story.

Large, established brands across industries need to come to terms with a new reality wherein large advertising spends and large market shares are no longer a cover for sub-optimal quality of products and services. Today’s young consumer, especially, does not necessarily equate big with quality. They are open to, in fact sympathetic towards new and fresh stories, especially when backed by honest, proven data. With so much focus on brand purpose, brand purpose cannot be treated as an academic exercise, rather needs to sit as a layer on top of authenticity and transparency. In the not so distant future, HUL might be forced to improve its products and come back with re-formulated soaps that have ph-compatibility with skin to create a level playing field and strengthen its market share further with its advertising spends. Sebamed should be prepared for such a response from its largest competitor.

The Sebamed case may just unleash a new wave of boldness among new brands that can genuinely deliver quality product performance regardless of the competitive environment.

Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru & Founder, HarishBijoor Consults Inc.

I do not think HUL is a bully or ever has been one. HUL brands are owned by consumers, and their success is testimony to the fact that consumers are with them and their products. A marketing company cannot ever be a bully. A marketing company needs to stand with its consumers, with a firm finger on the pulse of these very consumers. I do believe HUL does that well.

Sebamed's campaign on the other hand, was a smart one. They were careful in their tone, tenor and decibel of language. They appeared to be making a mere comparison on the levels of PH across soap brands. The straight line comparison was between Sebamed and Lux. The anughty and nifty equation they established subliminally in the minds of consumers is the one between Lux and Rin, with both their pH levels at 10. That was naughty. That was nifty. And that did it.

Sebamed knew for sure that their ads would be pulled down. And it was, for a while. The damage had however been done. The high decibel front-ended spends by the brand ensured that communication on the story of pH was complete. The battle is still open as of now. I think Sebamed has won the image war, not the volume or market share skirmish yet.

Brands must make sure that what they are saying is the truth. And that nothing is denigrative of the brand attacked.

Karthik Srinivasan, Social Media Expert and Independent Brand Consultant:

I always thought Sebamed's campaign idea was both disruptive and clever. Sebamed used an attacking tactic aptly, using science to back them. That they are repeating Dove's own tactic is a good irony to observe, even though the Court has clearly mentioned that 'two wrongs do not make a right' (that is, just because Dove used pH to attack other brands earlier, it doesn't mean Sebamed has the right to use the same tactic now).

Also, considering Sebamed retails in a very different, higher price range, any and every deflection from the market shares of Dove, Pears, Lux and Santoor and other soaps would be welcome and add to Sebamed's numbers significantly. Sebamed could have targeted soaps in their price range - that would be conventional marketing wisdom, to go after Kama Ayurvedic, Forest Essentials, Roots Botanica, Good Earth etc. But that would be like aiming for the room's ceiling in terms of market share - what they have done is to aim for the sky, and won, in the process, at least in terms of significant awareness!

The soap brand to lose the most, in terms of perception, is Dove, since it used the same pH factor to convince people earlier that they are better. Dove would need to think through their predicament really sharply. Given the heightened trust and interest in all-things science and doctors as a result of the pandemic and the vaccines, I'd think they may use the doctor/dermatologists route to win back trust. But that's also a staple of Sebamed, so it'd be an interesting battle ahead.

As for the other soaps (Lux, Santoor, Pears etc.), they have an uphill battle ahead in terms of perception building since they have been showcased as less-than-ideal. It is a great challenge for their brand teams and agencies, to deal with and come out with perception-changing communication.

Competitive advertising would obviously bring both disruptive attention and unwanted animosity too - it's a double-edged sword and comes with its own risks. So, while comparing, dissect your logic and points thoroughly. Cross-question your strategy, words and communication yourself, as if you are the rival, dispassionately. Anticipate that the rival would drag you to the court - what would be their arguments? If brands diligently follow these steps, they could anticipate and identify their own weaknesses and plan for it proactively.

Also, more importantly, when your brand talks down rivals, from an end-user point of view, that signals another intent - "if they can talk down rivals, then they should be ok when we (users) talk down them too", particularly for larger brands. In this case, Sebamed could be seen as an underdog, so they may have escaped this factor to some extent, even though many users may not appreciate the negativity layered in their communication.