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Thursday, May 15, 2003

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A lifeline for Lifebuoy?

Purvita Chatterjee

Extending Lifebuoy to talcum powder and a herbal variant is expected to give the brand a new lease of life, but it's a move that meets with scepticism. Catalyst examines the issue.

AFTER the high-decibel repositioning of its largest-selling brand, Lifebuoy, last year, Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL) is attempting to give a new lease of life to its 107-year-old heritage brand by extending it to talcum powder and also testing a herbal variant of this power brand.

Most industry observers feel that HLL is confusing its consumers with these extensions and stretching the brand beyond its limits, and that Lifebuoy could eat into its deodorant brands with its latest talc offering. Besides, one more herbal variant to build up its `naturals' franchise is not in tune with Lifebuoy's `health' equity, either.

Having failed in the past with its Pears Naturals range and still struggling with its ayurvedic brand, Ayush, stretching Lifebuoy into a herbal variant is possibly the last ditch effort to gather volumes for its declining franchise of herbal offerings.

Announcing yet another variant for Lifebuoy in Bangalore recently, Sanjay Dube, Category Head, Mass Market, HLL's Detergent Profit Centre, said, "With Lifebuoy Active Green, the brand enters the natural ingredients soap segment. The key ingredients are tulsi and neem." The company is anxious to increase its presence in the herbal segment, where it now has Hamam.

Observes Nirav Sheth, Vice-President, Research, SSKI Securities Ltd, "Apart from minimising its media outlay, there seems to be no reason to have a new product since Lifebuoy has no herbal associations."

Tapping into yet another declining category such as talcum powder also goes to show that HLL is keen on building volumes in spite of reigning in the segment with its Ponds Dreamflower talc. By exploiting the `health' equity of Lifebuoy a step further, into removing odour-causing bacteria, HLL is eating into its existing deo brands with its latest talc.

Predicts an analyst tracking the company: "The launch of this powder will only slow down the consumer base for Rexona deodorant, which is already dwindling. How could a talc possibly replace body odour for as long as a deo, as technically it is not possible? Talc can never take care of a long-lasting odour problem."

Introducing the new Lifebuoy talc, Dube says, "For over 100 years, Lifebuoy has been synonymous with health and value. We are now further strengthening this brand with the launch of talc that inhibits the growth of germs causing body odour. This well-researched and proven formulation provides tangible benefits of health for the user and his family."

Pegged as a `complete family health' product, Lifebuoy Family talc is expected to provide `all day protection' and is meant to fight body odour-causing germs all day long, according to the communication on its pack. Besides, it has also released a commercial devised by its agency, Lowe, to bring out the odour-causing problems associated with youth. Its commercial focuses on the embarrassment faced by teenagers and is almost similar to what the Rexona brand was expected to do when it was trying to establish the category.

Trying to defend the proposition of Lifebuoy talc's odour-fighting properties, an account executive at Lowe claims: "More than cracking the talcum powder category, HLL is looking at as many deliverables as possible to cater to the standard needs of households. The company believes that rural health is a concern it can address through the equity of the mother brand of Lifebuoy."

While its urban consumers may get confused between its deo and talc offerings, converting non-users to users at the rural level might work for its talc. Addressing rural health could be a way to gather more volumes considering HLL already has a running rural marketing programme for the brand (Lifebuoy Swasthya Chetna by Ogilvy Outreach) apart from the fact that Lifebuoy's present volumes come from rural India.

States an industry observer: "The basic idea behind its carbolic red soap was to covert non-users to users. In the case of Lifebuoy talc, the same concept might work for its rural consumers who already identify with the brand's equity."

Agrees Sheth, "While the upper-end consumers would use deodorants, a Lifebuoy powder could work for consumers in the lower strata who are already familiar with the soap."

While going down the consumer income group might work for the brand, upgrading to a more premium offering is again harming its equity. Launching yet another premium variant of Lifebuoy Active Gold recently, protection from pimples is being touted as its next offering. On the health benefits for its new Lifebuoy Active Gold, Dube says: "Lifebuoy Active Gold is a new milk cream-based soap. It will extend the Lifebuoy tradition and provide protection against germs that cause pimples keeping the skin healthy."

Unveiling a new Lifebuoy mix last year to make the brand more relevant, HLL actually wanted to shed the associations with carbolic soap and have it perceived as a mild toilet soap with a new healthy fragrance for the entire family. Apart from the mother brand of Lifebuoy, the range was extended to a Lifebuoy Active Red and Lifebuoy Active Orange apart from the existing Lifebuoy International (Plus and Gold) which continued to offer special `health' benefits such as taking care of body odour and pimples.

"The brand has grown since the re-launch but I will not be able to say by how much," states Dube. Industry buzz has it that the Lifebuoy brand was in a spot as its rural consumers had evolved from using the red brick bar.

Changes in packaging and the product saw the mother brand being relaunched on the family platform since the `harshness' of the brand limited it to males with its carbolic ingredient.

Besides, even at the upper end of the soap market, Lifebuoy International (Plus and Gold) had failed to make an impact. While HLL is chary about disclosing shares and growth rates for its Lifebuoy franchise, the degree of success of its new extensions will continue to depend on the growth of the brand post relaunch. Extending its franchise must have helped gather volumes but topline growth is unlikely to reap bottomline profits, say analysts.

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