Soaps vs Shower Gels in India

At one point in the 80s/90s in India, there was perhaps only one liquid soap and handwash liquid brand – Fem! Now, there are several brands to choose from!

When FMCG brands started selling liquid hand wash in India, many used the initial days of advertising in user education (because of the increase in price compared to soap, that was used for hand wash till then). Much of the education was around hygiene. This went to such heights that Dettol even launched a no-touch hand wash liquid!

Take a look at Dettol’s most recent ad, from March 2019. They are still comparing how liquid handwash is as cheaper (in the long run) and better than soaps (even if people buy an extra bar of Dettol soap for that purpose!).

I wonder why there has not been any user education to create a market for liquid body wash/shower gel in India! Shower gels are still seen as a premium category product. Take a look at any normal departmental store – soaps outnumber shower gels easily.

Consider the kind of user education that can be seeded (much of it is from the handwash category):

  1. Whole family can use one large bottle (with a pump) – space saving in smaller bathrooms, no need of multiple soap boxes
  2. Can sell hygiene story since we don’t touch the soap
  3. Can be used for both the body and the head (as shampoo), so significant cost saving
  4. Can sell extra foam story since Indians like/connect more foam as helping them clean better (already been drilled into our minds by washing powder and washing soap makers)
  5. Monthly purchase of body wash can be sold in refill packs, so that the first pump/bottle bought can be reused (much like handwash story) – this helps offer variety in terms of fragrance, purpose etc.
  6. Can add sales of loofah/scrubber, eventually, as additional cross-selling possibilities – its story can be sold separately as being better for the body to exfoliate the skin (ideal for tropical regions like India where we sweat a lot). Loofah/scrubber can be given free (pack of 4, with a 750ml body wash bottle) to inculcate the use (this is something Fiama already does).

I’ve seen brands like Pears, Fiama, Liril, Nivea, Lux sell shower gels in India. But I haven’t seen consumer education being done around mass-market possibilities of body wash yet. Surprising, no?

Is it because shower gel sales have already overtaken soaps? I couldn’t find specific data around this, and the very fact that soaps continue to outnumber shower gels in a standard departmental store (like Foodworld, More etc.) perhaps says that this is not the case yet.

Considering FMCG makers can charge a good enough premium over soaps when they sell shower gels, I wonder why they assume Indians will naturally start using shower gels with no push. If so much effort was taken to create the liquid hand wash category with extensive consumer education and nudges, why not the same to create the shower gel category from the ground-up?

You could argue against shower gels on one front – that they need a lot more water to wash off, unlike soaps. This is indeed a practical problem in a country where water is scarce. And one reason why handwash makers have launched waterless hand sanitizers to their mix.

But consider the innovation here, from a brand like Fiama!

As a long-time shower gel fan/user (occasional soap usage), I have noticed that almost all shower gels produced in India are extra, extra soapy – no matter how hard or soft your water is, shower gels from India tend to stay on soapy for quite some time, till you use a LOT of water to fully get them off. Most of the shower gels I have bought that are manufactured outside India tend to wash off much faster. Soaps, in comparison, at least ones with less than 75% TFM wash off faster too.

I was surprised to see Fiama Di wills adding a sticker that went, ‘Quick Wash Shower Gel’ in one of their variants. That intrigued me. Very pleasant fragrance too, btw.

It does wash off faster than any other Indian-made shower gel, as they note. I’m just glad ITC is making the effort to think and produce something different from others and specifically addressing the water-related issues!