When the bully gets bullied! – ET BrandEquity

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When the bully gets bullied!By Sandeep goyal

I’m lovin ‘it! The Sebamed ads triggering a pH war were nothing short of brilliant. And executed with such strategic precision over the weekend, that they were amazing. HUL is so used to being the aggressor, that the sudden-ness of the attack on their brands, and clarity of the pH claims certainly took lever by complete surprise. Normally, a company as well connected as HUL would have been made aware by some leak somewhere – an outdoor vendor, a media partner, just someone. But Sebamed managed to keep it very hush-hush. And for once, the predator became the victim!

“Did you know pH of Pears is the same as Rin?” The visual scale showed both Pears and Rin at 10; and Sebamed at 5.5. The sign-off simply said, “Perfect pH 5.5 for sensitive skin”. And the campaign was everywhere: print, outdoor, digital… Almost the same ad was repeated with Lux at pH of 10. Dove was shown to have a pH of 7. The slug-line across the campaign remained the peg of pH at 5.5 which is ‘perfect’ for skin… and anything not 5.5, implied the ads is just not good for sensitive skin. The comparison with Rin was actually the cleverest stroke: most consumers were quite dumbstruck by that empirical nugget!

What had me rolling on the ground was that for once it was not HUL that was the sharpshooter… it was a much tinier competitor. Sebamed, to be honest, is not even in the active consideration set of most consumers. So a front-on, head-on assault by a hitherto low-profile player was least expected. Traditionally, it has always been HUL that has fired the first shots, hence bullied competition out of the ring. For once, this time, the trigger was first pulled by a rival, who shot point-blank at Lux, Dove and Pears, leaving HUL kind of non-plussed.

Also Read: Sebamed versus HUL: Could comparative advertising land Sebamed on a slippery slope?

Not many may remember the ten-years old Tide Naturals versus Rin story. Let me refresh your memory. P&G launched the Tide Naturals variant in December 2009, priced 30% cheaper than Tide. HUL responded on three fronts. In January, the Indian unit of the Anglo-Dutch company cut prices of Rin and Surf by 10–30%. On 25 February, 2010, it filed a petition in the Madras High Court saying Tide Naturals did not contain natural substances. On 26 February, 2010, it launched advertisement that said Rin washed whiter than Tide, naming the rival brand. Rest of what happened was the usual running to ASCI and court routine. But HUL, very deftly, had P&G on the mat.

HUL has been at war with Colgate too for as long as one can remember. I was servicing the Colgate brand more than 20 years ago when Pepsodent went after Colgate toothpaste with a 101% (or was it 110%?) Cleaner claim. Colgate tried fighting back but then HUL’s profit was perhaps bigger than Colgate’s turnover (I may be exaggerating a bit, but I’m sure you understand the drift!). It was an unequal fight. Over the years, HUL has also been emboldened by Court rulings in its favor. In 2013, for example the Delhi High Court denied granting an interim injunction against Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) in the ‘Pepsodent GermiCheck Superior Power’ versus ‘Colgate Dental Cream Strong Teeth’ matter. Colgate had tried to put up a strong case:

– Colgate contended that the claim made by HUL that Pepsodent GermiCheck had ‘130% attack power’ was blatantly false. This falsehood violated several provisions of the Advertising Standard Council’s Code as well as the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, as it amounted to ‘misbranding’.

– The print and TV commercial portrayed Colgate’s product in bad light and falsely depicted that the use of Colgate could cause cavities. The advertisements were analyzed frame by frame by Colgate in court, and they insisted that HUL’s claims were exaggerated / false. The HUL TV commercial depicted that Triclosan an ingredient in Pepsodent stays in the mouth four hours after brushing and qualifies a ‘preventive cavity test’. But Colgate contended that no such test exists anywhere in the world. Also, while the Pepsodent Boy passed this test, the Colgate Boy was shown to have failed. In another frame, the Colgate Boy was shown brushing his teeth in an improper manner, whose teeth had gaps (indicating cavities) and whose mother seemed very unhappy. All this implied, as per the plaintiff (Colgate), that Colgate’s toothpaste could cause cavities and was therefore disparaging of their product.

– Colgate also said that HUL’s past record showed that it had a history of making false claims in respect of its products. Cases such as: Hindustan Unilever Ltd v Colgate Pamolive Ltd, 1998 SC 526 and Reckitt Benckiser (India) Ltd. v. Hindustan Unilever Ltd. 200 (2013) DLT 563 (Dettol v. Lifebuoy case) were cited.

The Hon’ble Court responded, “For a plaintiff to succeed in an action based on malicious falsehood, the necessary ingredients are that (i) a false statement was made which is calculated to cause financial damage (ii) that it was made maliciously with an intention to cause injury and (iii ) the impugned statement has resulted in a special damage. The law in England was referred to as laying down that: (i) a trader is entitled to say that his goods were the best; in doing so he could compare his goods with another (ii) say that his goods are better than that of the rival trader in this or that respect (iii) whether the statement made was disparaging of his rival’s product depended on whether it would be taken ‘seriously’ by a ‘reasonable man’; an alternative test would be whether the trader had in fact introduced any specific defect in his rival’s goods and (iv) a statement made by a trader puffing his own goods was not actionable“. The court denied going into the questions of truthfulness of the ‘130% germ attack’ capability of Pepsodent GSP and the allegation of HUL being in the habit of making misleading claims.

Also Read: Hindustan Unilever was the biggest advertiser in 2020: BARC India Report

Court rulings such as this have obviously emboldened HUL over the years.

The Sebamed case where the German company was the aggressor kind of caught HUL off-guard. USV (the Indian distributor of Sebamed) calculatedly broke its campaign on a Saturday: when there were no courts open to grant relief to HUL! Over the two days of the weekend, Sebamed judged the internet with social media going crazy, especially Twitter. The large press ads were very noticeable, and select outdoors further acted as force multipliers. Lever did respond. But that was on Sunday morning. Its ad tried highlighting the trust of dermatologists on its soap bar Dove though it did not name Sebamed in its ad. But it was not vintage HUL stuff. Neither aggressive, nor hard-hitting. It was a rebuttal for the sake of a rebuttal.

As expected, when the courts opened on Monday, HUL managed an ex-parte order from the Bombay High Court. HUL submitted that the ad campaign denigrates its brands, and does not take into account the full formulations of the products, besides misleading consumers only on the basis of pH. The ad’s purpose was not to promote a product by Sebamed, but to discourage the consumer from purchasing HUL’s products, which is not permissible, the company argued. The shoe for a change was pinching HUL!

Seeing the bully being bullied is really good fun. HUL has had its famous runs on almost each of its competitors, and always succeeded. This time the Goliath has been humbled by a relatively unknown David… even if it was for a weekend.

-The author is ex-group CEO of Zee Telefilms and former Chairman of Dentsu India. Views expressed are personal.

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