Published in May-Jun 2019
The personal care category is unique because it is so intimate, so personal. All of us have our own personal care regimes, which are heavily influenced by the marketing we are exposed to. Personal care brands affect our senses and our inner-most motivators in a profound manner.
Background and inside scoop
Although personal care products have been in existence for a long time, personal care brands are relative newcomers. Personal care has historically been driven by society’s expectations of women (more than men). To achieve beauty, the Egyptians used essential oils as moisturisers (very organic). The Chinese used a combination of nutrition and circulation (internal) and face powders and skin lighteners (external). The Greeks used a mixture of fresh berries and milk for skin treatments and white lead or chalk to achieve a lighter appearance. The Romans stressed on bathing for a youthful skin and used olive oil as soap. The Elizabethans painted their faces with lead, carbonate and hydroxide.
Grooming and hygiene drive the modern concept of personal care. ‘Toiletries’ are intrinsically linked to bathrooms and the latter only became commonplace in the 19th century. Things were quite different before the bathroom. The Venetian aristocracy were happy to relieve themselves using the chamber pots stowed under their beds and when they were full, the contents were dumped outside the window – so that passersby were always prone to a dose of aristocratic excrement. Toothbrushes did not become a thing until the late 18th century. Deodorants were invented in the 19th century; in medieval times, people would (hopefully) bathe once a week and most probably smelled bad. Men used to wear powdered wigs as a symbol of status.
The personal care brands we know of today, made their appearance in the 20th century. Max Factor entered the US in 1904. A French chemist named Eugene Schueller invented the modern hair dye in 1909, forming the company that would later become known as L’Oréal. In 1913, chemist T.L. Williams created Maybelline mascara for his sister, Mabel. The flapper look was invented in the 1920s by Coco Chanel who made the ‘Hollywood tan’ famous in the 1930s. Charles and Joseph Revson established Revlon in the midst of the Great Depression. Companies such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) established the modern concept of how to advertise personal care products in the 1950s. P&G introduced Crest, the first toothpaste with fluoride and clinically-proven to fight against cavities. Aerosol deodorant was introduced in 1965. The modern age of branded personal care arrived. Men were not left behind. Powerful brands such as Gillette and Old Spice have shaped social expectations among men about how they should look, smell and project themselves. Brands such as Fair and Handsome remind us how men too have the right to be beautiful.
In Pakistan, consumption of personal care products has replaced traditional personal care regimes based on natural ingredients. This consumerism has been driven forward by global marketing powerhouses following their global strategies. Several local brands have climbed onto the personal care bandwagon, adopting many of the stereotyped formulas of the leading global brands.
The ethics of some of the marketing techniques have been questioned internationally. For example, women with darker skin made to feel inadequate compared to their fairer-skinned peers. The notion of teenage girls compelled to look as flawless as picture perfect models (usually far too thin). I know this has been the norm for decades, but the approach begs to be questioned.
In today’s world, personal care is defined by the media, the leading personal care brands and the regulatory authorities. It is interesting to note that two of these are motivated by commercial profits. Personal care marketing works to drive societal norms, motivated by the dual forces of sex appeal and fear. Fear of dandruff causing a rishta to be turned down, resulting in social embarrassment. Fear of being turned down for a job for being too dark. Fear of social rejection for not having silky smooth skin when playing a sport. Let’s not forget the classic fear of body odour as a result of not wearing the right deodorant. Personal care brands can save you from social embarrassment. As for sex appeal, we must remember that personal care brands are a rush for the senses. Smell is one of the key senses to engage a range of emotions, thereby making women appear more desirable (if we believe the advertising). Leading brands work with fragrance makers such as Givaudan and Firmenich – companies that have created scents for Bijan, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford. Sex appeal is also driven by the image of becoming more desirable to the opposite sex by using a prescribed brand of deodorant or a particular brand of depilatory cream. By combining fear, sex appeal and societal norms, we end up with a powerful potion that drives some of today’s most well-known personal care brands. Personal care is a category which appeals more to the heart than to the mind.
Questioning the approach
As a disruptor, I would ask two simple questions to the personal care marketing community. The first are the ethics of using powerful motivators to achieve commercial ends. The second is whether it is time to break away from these stereotypes and move towards something that is more relevant to the consumer of today. These questions are directed at both Pakistani and global brands.
The ethics of some of the marketing techniques have been questioned internationally. For example, women with darker skin made to feel inadequate compared to their fairer-skinned peers. The notion of teenage girls compelled to look as flawless as picture perfect models (usually far too thin). I know this has been the norm for decades, but the approach begs to be questioned. On consumer relevance, it amazes me how leading brands keep using the same stereotyped approaches. It amazes me even more when I see local brands copying the same approach. I can see how this safe approach drives brand awareness and sales, which is why it is used. My view of why it works is because of societal norms, rather than the result of brilliant marketing. In other words, consumers are compelled because they believe that is what society expects of them (use a particular brand of soap, shampoo, deodorant and toothpastes to avoid being left out).
The reason I challenge the relevance of personal care stereotyping is because Millennials and younger users are highly exposed to social media and the internet and consequently, have more individualistic, better informed opinions. Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work on a personal care brand in Egypt where we broke away from the stereotyping prescribed by the leading global brands. As a result, the brand’s position went from number three to number one in just a few months. I was disappointed the team for the same brand in Pakistan adopted the stereotyped approach in the shadow of the market leader. The result in Pakistan was not nearly as impressive as it was in Egypt. Something to think about.
Afzal Hussain is GM, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan.