Colgate has just announced the launch of one of its most innovative products ever. The new toothpaste, which carries the rather extended name of “Colgate Maximum Cavity Protection Plus Sugar Acid Neutralizer”, promises a solution for the biggest cause of cavities, sugar acids. These acids arise from eating sticky, sugary foods and the new toothpaste gets rid of them, thus keeping your mouth safe from those painful cavities. The brand describes cavities as the number one oral care problem, and hence it is logical to presume that it will soon be a big hit with consumers in India.

Well, that logic may not always hold. My wife and I have been loyal Colgate consumers for a long time. We use this brand most of the time, and tend to trust it completely. Yet when I described this exciting new offering to my wife, she simply said – “These days, I am very confused what kind of toothpaste to choose. There are so many offerings today, in so many complex names and colours, for me this is total brand overload. So I often end up trusting and choosing the base version of Colgate. Because I think, every good toothpaste must be having the basic ingredients to keep my mouth clean of germs and free of cavities. After all, that is the basic function of all toothpaste.”

I empathise with this interesting point of view. At my neighbouring supermarket store, there are more than 50 distinct types of toothpaste, with a confusing array of names, and cumulatively offering a wide variety of benefits (see accompanying box). This is many times the number of toothpaste products available just five years ago. The range has simply exploded in the past few years. If you were to spend 10-15 minutes in front of this huge toothpaste shelf, trying to make up your mind regarding which product to buy, it would certainly not be an easy choice. After all, most people want most benefits listed on these packs — white teeth, no cavities, fresh breath, healthy gums. And most Indian housewives who tend to shop for their families do not have the luxury of 15 minutes to buy their toothpaste, they complete this simple act of purchase within a minute or two, and move on to buying other important stuff on their monthly household list.

Therefore, if a consumer is not firmly “product-decided” on toothpaste before coming into the store, there is a high probability that she would end up choosing the base version of her favourite brand, like my wife does. Because when a consumer is undecided and also confused, particularly in a mature category with a plethora of products, she often seeks the safety of her regular brand, or the most trusted offering.

Tongue-twisters In addition, if the consumer is shopping at a small kirana store (and not at a supermarket with self-service shelves), there is an additional complication. Interesting names such as ‘Colgate Sensitive Original’, or ‘Close Up Fire Freeze Dual Sensation’ or ‘Pepsodent Expert Protection Sensitive’ can prove to be tongue-twisters for many Indian consumers and shopkeepers. These are not simple names to remember or spontaneously ask for. Therefore, in all likelihood, the consumer may just end up asking for Colgate, Close Up or Pepsodent.

This scenario opens up an interesting question for marketers. How can these toothpaste brands provoke consumers to try their innovative new products, which offer very relevant and differentiated benefits? Notwithstanding the reality of very crowded categories, how can brands spark high levels of consumer interest in their new offerings? Here are some simple suggestions, which brands in crowded categories such as toothpaste, soap and tea can bear in mind.

Keep it simple, memorable In a mature category such as toothpaste or soap, differentiated products are greatly helped by simple, memorable names. The name of the sub-brand or variant should capture the key differentiator or benefit very well. It should be short, easy to remember, simple to pronounce and ask for. “Colgate Active Salt” does this well, as does “Pepsodent Germi-check”. While deciding on names for mass market FMCG categories, it would also do well to remember that many consumers and shopkeepers in India are very fluent in their mother tongue, but not necessarily in English. Therefore, a flowery, long English name that has worked well in America or Australia may not necessarily work well in our country.

A new product in a crowded category needs a strong, clever advertising or communication hook that is very easily imprinted on consumers’ minds. Merely describing the differentiator in detail, without such an “easy to recall” hook, is unlikely to be adequate. I still recall the wonderful hook of “cloves” from Promise toothpaste, though this dates back to many years ago. Or the simple promise of the wonder herb miswak (the famous toothpaste tree used for centuries), which Dabur’s “Meswak” toothpaste focuses on consistently.

Shopper, then consumer In many mature and crowded categories, marketers should remember that the proportion of “product-undecided” consumers is very high. Many consumers tend to decide on the specific brand and product only at the point of purchase. This is particularly true for relatively low-priced consumer goods or categories that are purchased on impulse. Therefore, when brands launch new variants or products, they should treat people as shoppers first, and consumers next. The emphasis on strong and unique product visibility at the point of sale, through unique shelf displays or innovative point-of-sale material, has to necessarily be disproportionately high, because these have the highest impact on the shopper.

Nothing like trying it out When a new and differentiated product offering enters a crowded segment, nothing is more important and urgent than generating a significant amount of consumer trial. If the new product is truly superior and delivers the benefits promised in a visible manner, then investing resources in generating trial will perhaps yield far better cost-benefits than advertising or vanilla “price-off” promotions. Many new products which I have bought and eventually used have been prompted by in-store promoters who have urged me to try them. Consumers who try a new super-whitening toothpaste and notice a discernible difference in the colour of their teeth within a couple of weeks will require no further convincing of the need to change permanently to that product. And they will also be the best source of favourable word-of-mouth publicity for the new product.

Packaging does it Attractive packaging which looks and feels different and communicates the benefit of the new offering clearly tends to hold the attention of shoppers in stores.

Unfortunately, this is an area that many Indian marketers do not focus on. They tend to develop a superior product very well, but don’t invest the same amount of effort in developing equally wonderful packaging, with stunning design. The toothpaste shelf I saw at my supermarket presented a sea of packaging sameness, with colour perhaps being the only visible differentiator. Indeed, many brands presented very cluttered and unappealing packaging.

Finally, marketers should realise that in mature categories, launching a “me-too” product with little or no tangible difference from brands that already exist, is mostly doomed to failure. If you must launch a new variant or sub-brand of toothpaste or detergent, do ensure that it offers some real difference and true value to consumers. Judged by this yardstick at least, Colgate’s latest offering, which addresses the largest cause of cavities, does offer a real and significant point of difference. If the product now gets everything else right in its marketing mix, it may well prove my wife wrong, and make a significant dent in the toothpaste market.

(Harish Bhat acknowledges valuable inputs from Anjuli Pandit, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article. Bhat is the author of Tata Log: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution. These are his personal views. > )