Published in Sep-Oct 2018
Like any self-respecting ad man, I take more vacations than I can afford to, often on the pretext of “finding clarity and inspiration.” Not surprisingly, for every subsequent trip, my wife and I have to book cheaper hotels in order to fit our leaky faucet of a travel budget. This is how we ended up at a budget Ibis hotel in Istanbul, from whence I write about the heretic topic of marketing manjhan, especially in the context of the personal care and beauty category.
In the budget bathroom of my budget hotel was something I had previously never experienced before in the hospitality industry; the unsettling absence of those tiny shampoo, shower gel and conditioner bottles. Instead, there was a Dove dispenser that dispensed just one liquid. Just one. It was supposed to be my shampoo, conditioner and body wash, all in one. How barbaric!
Fast forward to a few days later, and we have used up the Dettol hand sanitiser we religiously use when we are out and about. I pop into the closest store and ask for one. The attendant gestures they don’t have it. No problem, I think to myself, and make a mental note of buying it from the hypermart when we pass by it later. They didn’t have it either. Neither did the pharmacy. I could no longer chalk up the absence of this fine product so common in Pakistan to stock shortages and language barrier miscommunication. So I muster up the courage to ask for an English-speaking member of the pharmacy staff and ask them why they don’t carry the product. His response: “Why would you need it?”
Then it hit me. Why would we need it? We didn’t have it when we were growing up and we got by just fine. A quick Google search pulled up studies showing that hand sanitisers did not significantly affect frequency of illnesses like the flu.
This reminded me about a marketing symposium I attended a long time ago, where one of the keynote speakers was the head honcho at P&G around the time they were introducing Head & Shoulders in Pakistan. He went into a tangent about how his team had to create awareness about dandruff in a naïve Pakistan that didn’t even know they had dandruff problems. I remember wondering if this really was the best course of action, given that dandruff is fairly harmless and is mostly an aesthetic issue rather than a medical one.
The entire marketing industry is built on a slippery slope and I am cognisant of the fact that I am one of them. It takes a special kind of moral ambiguity to market a bar of soap (red carbolic, for example) on the basis that it dissolves more slowly than regular soap and therefore lasts longer and then later, market a new liquid wash on the basis that it is superior because it dissolves faster than the one they were marketing earlier.
Waltz into any decent supermarket and you will be greeted by shelves upon shelves of beauty and personal care products that leave you mesmerised as to the level of differentiation they offer, each one claiming to be made from some hitherto unknown miracle ingredient that will ‘rejuvenate’ or ‘revitalise’ some part of your body.
For the purpose of this topic, I will skip the ethical part of marketing fairness creams; although, if you are so inclined, you can get Fair & Lovely in a men’s variant as well. And although a case could be made that men’s skin is slightly thicker and therefore requires a stronger dose of certain ingredients to attain the same effect, for many such products, the secret sauce lies in the fundamentals of gender marketing rather than any significant dermatological differentiations. Men tend to gravitate towards darker colour packaging with bold typefaces and rugged or slicker imagery. The aisles play up to this advantage.
Without naming names, I have been close to a local brand that leans towards using made up pseudo-scientific differentiations to bring an edge to their products. The formula, in crude terms, seems to be to find a vacant ingredient niche, add it to the product, find scant ‘clinical’ evidence (never mind that it is about the ingredient and not actual research on how it performs in a personal care product) and dress it up with enough asterisks to make sure legal never comes after you. Next, you package it in gimmicky bite-sized proprietary terms and pepper it up with some paid celebrity testimonials and raving reviews and voila! Checking my ethics at the door once again, I am amazed at how well it seems to be working for them.
Another personal care brand from our portfolio attempts it in a completely opposite way. Their entire marketing collateral is updated every year with genuine, unprompted testimonials they receive via email from their customers. Every TVC, print or media execution of their brand is based entirely on these and as an agency, we are not allowed to twist words or make bold claims.
The entire marketing industry is built on a slippery slope and I am cognisant of the fact that I am one of them. It takes a special kind of moral ambiguity to market a bar of soap (red carbolic, for example) on the basis that it dissolves more slowly than regular soap and therefore lasts longer and then later, market a new liquid wash on the basis that it is superior because it dissolves faster than the one they were marketing earlier. While we are at it, anybody wonder if there is any significant difference between body wash and hand wash? Never mind that the hand is a part of my body; there is little substance and more marketing gimmickry there too.
The latest trend, which is yet to hit mainstream Pakistan, are snail creams. Yes, you read that right... they actually contain snail slime, although I lack the imagination to understand how that might be done on an industrial scale, since snails only secrete the stuff when they are stressed. Apparently it is supposed to be good for your face because it contains hyaluronic acid and collagen, although the scientific evidence for its efficacy is dodgy at best.
Contrived differentiation in the world of personal care marketing seems to be the oldest trick in the book. This is not to say that it’s an absolute scam but rather, a baseline of tiny fragments of truth here and there that are propped up by genius advertising and communication.
During my last grocery store run, I earmarked a new body wash from L’Oreal that contained 100 mg of taurine. It looked super tempting and I am going to get it when my boring non-taurine body wash finishes. Previously, I had only seen taurine marketed by energy drinks and sometimes labelled on cat food cans. A little background reading reveals that this amino acid can theoretically be absorbed topically as well and will yield some results on your skin. Do I really need it outside of a clinical problem? Probably not. Do I want it? Hell yes!
Contrived differentiation in the world of personal care marketing seems to be the oldest trick in the book. This is not to say that it’s an absolute scam but rather, a baseline of tiny fragments of truth here and there that are propped up by genius advertising and communication. Reputable brands legitimately have these huge R&D facilities and budgets to arrive at the next big thing.
At the end of the day, what is picked to be produced, marketed and sold on the shelves seems to be based not just on what works best, but rather on what sells best. This is fine, because that is pretty much the case for any product line. It is up to us, as consumers, to be a little more informed and take brand claims with a pinch of salt. Or snail slime, whatever you prefer.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari. firstname.lastname@example.org