Sebamed vs. Dove, Pears, Lux, Santoor, Rin, and all other soaps

UPDATE – January 19, 2021: The Court has ruled that Sebamed can continue to name Lux, Dove, Pears and Santoor, and just remove the comparison with Rin! That means the other 4 bathing soap brands cannot indirectly react and pussyfoot on this pH angle!

There are several updates in this developing story – see those updates at the end of this post.

Back in 2015, Dove started targeting assorted rivals in the soap category using the litmus test. The first target was Vivel, through offline kiosks where people could walk in test ‘other’ soaps and Dove.

In 2016, Dove India sent a ‘test’ kit to a few influencers, to test their soap against Dove. The kit included a ‘litmus paper’ (containing bromothymol blue). The basic idea communicated was that if the litmus paper turns blue, then the soap is harsh. If it doesn’t change color (which apparently happens on Dove), then it is not a harsh soap.

It was in 2016 that Dove went all out comparing itself with every other soap, but without naming any of them directly. But they did call them ‘sandal soap’, ‘natural soap’ and so on, indicating, obviously, brands like Mysore Sandal soap, Santoor, Medimix/Chandrika and the likes. Alluding to the kinds of soaps, and also in some shape (literally), Dove made users/viewers think of the other brands and consider Dove in a positive light, in comparison.

(Note: Dove India has deleted these 3 videos after HUL took Sebamed to Court, possibly because these videos showcase that what Sebamed is doing now, Dove had already done earlier! Here’s one of the 3 videos from another source.)

But this 2015/2016 campaign is simply a rehash of Dove’s pathbreaking 1991 Canadian campaign (that eventually went global) by Ogilvy. In that campaign, Dove compared itself using the litmus test, with other (named) soaps.

So, Dove is not new to this comparative advertising strategy.

Sebamed, the German brand of medicinal skincare products, has created quite a splash recently with their own take on Dove’s 1991, and 2015/16 campaigns.

The playbook is exactly the same – litmus test and pH factor. In fact, the fact that Sebamed uses ‘Rin’, a washing soap, is straight out of Dove’s 1991 playbook that also used ‘household cleaner’ for pH comparison.

Like Dove back in the 1990s, but unlike the 2015/16 campaign, Sebamed names a range of soaps directly – Lux, Santoor, Dove, Pears, Rin and so on.

Here are a couple of the most pertinent questions and points:

1. Can they name rivals directly like this?

This seems to be the first, instinctive question from many people. They simply need to look at the history of comparative advertising – it is peppered with tons of brands using this strategy to seed the, “Is my product really bad?” thought in people’s minds.

Obviously, this could work in another way too – a very popular brand naming a much smaller rival could work in the latter’s favor: “Oh, the No.1 brand is afraid of the newbie? Perhaps the newbie must be really good that even the market leader is calling it out!”.

So, Dove using ITC’s Vivel in 2015 (in the kiosks) in a mildly-obvious way is more of a hat-doff to Vivel’s rising importance in Dove’s view.

In 2010, Rin took a direct swipe at P&G’s Tide. P&G went to the Court and got Rin to withdraw its ads.

Also in 2010, Horlicks named Complan in its ad and showcased itself as a better option in comparison. This was actually Horlicks returning Complan’s favor from 2008 in which Horlicks was named and shown.



Both Horlicks and Complan sued each other and in 2010, the judgment was delivered. The Court ruled that the 2008 campaign was found to be disparaging the rival (words like ‘poor quality’, ‘cheap ingredient’ etc.), but the 2010 ad was cleared since it did not disparage the rival.

Here’s a clear explanation of the judgment and how it was considered.

In 2013, Pepsodent named Colgate in its ads to show that the former was more effective in fighting germs. Colgate went to court and actually lost!!

2. On the so-called pH test

The pH test is a device to create a dissonance in the audience’s mind. Sebamed could simply say, ‘Based on X, Y and Z ingredients, our soap is better than Dove’, but that would remain an ‘untested’ claim in the audiences’ minds. So, they go on to ‘demonstrate’ the so-called ‘better’, without simply framing it as a claim. When there’s some change in the litmus paper (any change – that doesn’t matter at a basic level, as long as something visible happens), the audience would feel like proof of the claim – the same playbook used by Dove in 1991.

Before the pH test, some soap brands used TFM (total fatty matter) that is mentioned in BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) as a yardstick to present their own soaps as a better option. Though there is some confusion and lack of clarity in BIS categorizing bathing soaps and toilet soaps differently, the general feeling/understanding is that the higher the TFM, the better the soap. So, for example, Mysore Sandal soap has 80% TFM, and Cinthol has 79% TFM. And there are 3 grades too, to viewing TFM content.

Both pH and TFM are devices to get people thinking on easy-to-comprehend scales using numeric values and reduce the level of complexity in making their decision.

3. On Sebamed’s strategy

Sebamed is generally considered a niche brand. The 100gms bar’s MRP in India is Rs.199!!

In comparison, the rivals they name are less than 1/4th its price!

The brand itself has ‘med’ in its name, unlike other soaps that sell on their non-medical credentials to make themselves desirable, and not as something a doctor may prescribe.

Sebamed is also often prescribed by dermatologists for specific skin conditions.

Considering the price range, Sebamed’s main intention would be to get people to register its brand name when people think of a/any soap. That works perfectly in this campaign because they (as an upstart that has no chance of being considered during a normal soap buying session) name multiple soaps directly to create that dissonance.

The brand to lose the most is Dove, which started this litmus test communication in the first place, firmly planting the score of 7 as best, because that is the ‘neutral’ on a scale of 14. Sebamed now wants to create a question in people’s minds that may or may not have known about Dove’s ‘7’ score, or that something called pH scale exists. In a way, Sebamed is moving the pH target for those who are aware of Dove’s earlier campaign, and imprinting a new number in the minds of those who had no clue about pH balance.

Dove has taken note and retaliated yesterday. But, this was on the same day when Sebamed upped their ante, by naming Dove (after naming Lux and Santoor on Saturday) on the day when Dove responded! So you have Dove reiterating that dermatologists trust their soap on Page 1, while Sebamed claims that Dove’s pH is poorer than its soap, on Page 21.

The next time someone considered Dove, they may think of Sebamed because that’s precisely what Sebamed wants. Whether they convert to buying (or testing/trying) the considerably more expensive soap depends on how satisfied they are with Dove (or their current soap) or how keen they are to try another brand. Considering the prices involved (Rs.25 to 200), these are relatively low-value purchases and testing may happen more easily.

What goes against Sebamed is that it is not packaged as an ‘interesting’ or ‘fun’ product – it looks clinical. So, it’s more plausible that people may try it out because of the campaign, but sticking to it may be a question. Or, they could use it for select purposes (for example, only for the face), while using other soaps, as usual, for the body.

Just imagine: how else could Sebamed have communicated that their soap has a pH 5.5 score?

1. “Our soap has a pH level of 5.5 that is considered best for your skin. Buy our soap” —sounds plain scienc’y – not captivating or disruptive enough for most normal soap buyers. For those keen on knowing more (a very tiny section), this could lead to wanting to know more.

2. “Our soap has a pH level of 5.5 that is considered best for your skin. All other soaps have pH levels higher than this. Buy our soap” —still not compelling enough. It sounds like they are jealous of all other soaps and are crying their heart out.

3. “Your ordinary bathing soap has a higher pH level than what you should ideally be using. Our soap has a pH level of 5.5 that is considered best for your skin. Buy our soap” —Now, we’re getting somewhere, but still, not disruptive enough to seed dissonance on a large level because the awareness of pH is so very low already.

4. “Dove’s (Lux’s, Santoor’s, Pears’…) pH level is X, which is not ideal for skin. Our soap has a pH level of 5.5 that is considered best for your skin. Buy our soap” —There you are. Gets your attention, seeds a new doubt in your head, makes you want to know more, and perhaps check your doctor or try the product (provided you cross the Rs.199 barrier). Amazon may helpfully list the product at a massive discount, at Rs.84!

But even that is a significant win for Sebamed. Even if a fraction of users of all other soaps consider and try Sebamed, that’s a big improvement in sales because previously, these people didn’t even know about Sebamed, leave alone trying it without a dermatologist’s recommendation!

There are 2 ways to get to the 2-5% (given the premium pricing) of all soap users in India – one, find them directly (how?) and talk to them, hoping to convert. A fraction may convert and try your product. Two, talk to all the soap users in India and seed doubt in their minds. A much bigger percentage of users may convert as trial users.

The latter demands a disruptive communication strategy in order to first grab the viewer’s attention and then to seed a new thought/doubt.

I don’t think we have seen the end of this soap war. Dove’s reaction could only be the beginning. As a result of COVID-19, there is an increased interest in science-based decision-making for product considerations. And Sebamed is riding on that sentiment.

But you cannot discount good old shoosha when it comes to FMCG products – product packaging, the perceived joy of using a product, the perceived pride in buying a product that is popular and many other factors play into the people’s minds. Sebamed looks dull as a soap bar and the packaging too is plain, compared to the soaps it is targetting. Those non-quality based factors do matter too in purchase consideration.

Also, what Sebamed seems to be doing with its soaps targeted at ‘sensitive skin’ is akin to what a Sensodyne does with sensitive teeth. But Sensodyne does not go after users of all toothpastes – they pre-qualify their user base by asking about jhanjhanahat and then offer their product as the solution. Of course, even Sensodyne has moved past that pre-qualification and gone into a broader pitch. I had a say about that for Afaqs when that campaign launched.

I’m reasonably sure multiple other soap brands may retaliate, either via advertising or legally. Though, the legal route may not yield any positive results because Sebamed is not disparaging any other soap – they are merely saying that 5.5 pH is ideal for skin (a scientific fact) and that other soaps don’t offer that. Unless the other soaps prove scientifically in the court that they do not fall in the pH claimed by Sebamed, they may not have a case.

But here is HUL, showcasing its intent to pursue this legally!

UPDATE – January 19, 2021: Today’s Lux ad! So, all the 4 bathing soaps that Sebamed had named have reacted.

UPDATE – January 15, 2021: Checkmate! Well played, Sebamed – after naming Dove, Pears, Lux, Santoor (and Rin), they have now dropped the names AFTER they have been spoken about extensively everywhere 🙂 No need to take names any more! Price mentioned in the ad for the 1st time (way pricier!) too.

UPDATE – January 14, 2021: The 3rd brand to indirectly react to Sebamed’s salvo is Santoor! Observe the last line: “Why think of any other soap at all?”.

UPDATE – January 13, 2021: The Court has heard both HUL’s and Sebamed’s arguments. To pronounce a final order on 19th January.

UPDATE – January 12, 2021: Pears reacts!

UPDATE – 2100 Hours, January 11, 2021: Sebamed restrained from publicly communicating its ad campaign in all formats/platforms till January 14th, when the Court will hear the case again. (The Times of India)



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