Emami’s Kesh King gets on Indulekha’s hair

I started losing my hair in my mid-30s, thanks to my genes. But I did not lose my sleep over losing my hair. I did try some oil suggested by my dad shortly after discovering that I was losing hair faster than it was growing, but after a month or so, I stopped. Instead, I just embraced the hairlessness… or the less-hairness 🙂

Since then, I would have saved so much time not walking into the hair care aisle in departmental stores 🙂

But I understand—and appreciate—how important hair is to a lot of people. And products that promise hair growth have been perennially popular for a very long time. This includes the patently rubbish snake oil (the phrase, not literally oil) from ‘Amazon’s forests’ peddled by the teleshopping networks for ages.

In the last 2 weeks, a couple of brands have been active in the hair fall arrest/growth oil segment (which is different from the hair maintenance oil segment).

Patanjali is one such brand.

The other one is the focus of this post – Emami’s Kesh King.

Unlike Patanjali (which usually attacks nameless rivals of non-Indian origin to sell its products, but did not opt for that theme in the ads for Kesh Kanti Herbal Hair Expert Oil), Emami’s Kesh King chose to name a rival brand and make a comparative claim!

And the object of Emami’s attack? Hindustan Unilever’s brand Indulekha!

And these ads were literally carpet-bombed across media, including e-commerce sites and digital ads!

Screenshots courtesy of Sayuj Jaganathan, who heads e-commerce at Emami.

Most e-commerce platforms do not allow ads that name rivals, unlike print or TV media that have no such rule. Reason? Simple – e-commerce platforms are not media platforms; they *also* sell the rival brand. Print and TV media are simply media outlets, not selling platforms. So it’s a surprise that Flipkart allowed Emami to name Indulekha, while Amazon did not. I believe this is a first, in terms of guerilla marketing tactics, from a digital advertising point of view.

For context, HUL acquired Indulekha from the Kerala-based company Mosons Group in December 2015. Mosons had launched Indulekha in 2009, and the brand was valued at around ?300 crores during the acquisition.

Also remember that Emami acquired Kesh King from SBS Biotech for ?1,651 crores in June 2015, just 6 months before HUL’s acquisition of Indulekha.

In August 2019, HUL announced that Indulekha was already a ?2,000 crores brand!!

Plus, Indulekha was the first to launch the patented comb-shaped applicator bottle, in 2014. It was eventually copied by Kesh King and Kesh Kanti.

So it’s understandable why Emami chose the name-and-attack tactic, which, in itself, is not so unique anymore.

The last famous name-and-attack battle was waged by Sebamed in January 2021, against HUL’s Dove, Pears, Lux, Rin, and Wipro’s Santoor. That case got some kind of closure only recently, in June 2022, long after the so-called damage had been adequately inflicted!

HUL is not averse the using the same tactic as we have seen in the past.

HUL’s Rin took a directly-named P&G’s Tide. P&G went to the Court and got Rin to withdraw its ads.

HUL’s Pepsodent named Colgate in a 2013 ad. Colgate went to court and actually lost the case!

The Courts don’t really care that a rival has been named. All it cares about is to see whether a rival has been disparaged.

Let’s apply that basis to Kesh King’s ad claim.

Emami’s Kesh King now says that their product is half the price, but twice as effective as that of HUL’s Indulekha.

There is no word or phrase that disparages Indulekha at all. This is simply the age-old trick we all learnt from Tenalirama/Birbal stories where the emperor asks Tenalirama/Birbal to make a piece of stick small without touching it. All they do is place a longer stick next to it – it then becomes a question of perspective 🙂

Kesh King simply spoke about itself as being cheaper than Indulekha by half (though it’s even cheaper, at ?170 for 100ml, compared to ?432 for 100ml of Indulekha) and double the effect.

The price, we can all see. It’s the MRP!

But ‘double the effect’? That’s hazy territory for all the brands, including Indulekha and Kesh King, because it depends on so many factors if at all it is true.

Clearly, a clever move by Kesh King, though HUL spokesperson has commented to a story in Financial Express yesterday that they have secured an interim injunction from the Kolkata High Court restraining Emami from airing that ad.

But the one chink in Emami’s armor is around price. Usually, anything ‘cheaper’ is associated with relatively poorer quality. That is bound to play in the minds of potential buyers and affect the Kesh King brand in the long run.

Now observe how HUL responded to Emami’s attack.

Usually, when another brand names and attacks, there’s not much that the attacked brand can do. If they name the attacker in turn, they would actually be giving attention to a rival, usually smaller. So a better approach is to not mention the rival (like they did) and instead focus on the product promise itself.

That’s precisely how Dove, Lux, Pears, and Santoor responded when Sebamed named them in its ads.

So, here was Indulekha’s multi-lingual and multi-edition ad response.

But there’s a nuance worth observing here and this is a very, very clever insight by HUL!

If you notice the Kesh King as closely, they are referring only to hair fall.

‘No.1 Hair Fall expert’… which sounds so wrong as a phrase 🙂 They use a Kantar World Panel data to make this claim.

And ‘2 times more effective than Indulekha in reducing hair fall’.

There is no mention of hair growth/regrowth anywhere in Kesh King’s ads!!

And what does Indulekha focus on? ‘It just doesn’t reduce hair fall. It grows new hair’.

And the caption below the logo? ‘Grows new hair’, almost as large as the logo itself 🙂

HUL seems to have consciously focused on establishing Indulekha’s ayurvedic credentials, quality of the product, and completely avoiding the battle turf laid out by Kesh King. Instead, it found a gap—a very valid one, at that!—that it could play on without any specific reference to Kesh King’s primarily price-based claim.

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