A lot of water, a court case and a huge amount of earned media have flowed under the bridge in the Unilever-Sebamed fracas already, but I couldn’t resist the headline. I worked on the India launch of Dove while at Ogilvy and these famous lines uttered in a testimonial ad by Gayatri Pandey were winning ones. Consumers replayed them in focus groups years later. The original line, “He said, ‘Is it love?’ I said, ‘No, it’s Dove!’” had a certain sauciness that appealed to the nineties consumer.
The litmus test
There were a series of powerful testimonials that built the Dove brand in India, but preceding these was the famous Dove litmus test campaign which had been developed internationally. We had live demos with dermatologists versus the leading baby soap. We had live stations at city launch conferences to convince the sales teams that we had a winner on our hands. At the time, it was priced higher than other soaps in the market; so, the sales teams had to be convinced. There were print ads and short TV commercials using the litmus test to show how leading soaps were alkaline (bad for skin) while Dove was neutral like distilled water (suggesting purity). Though it was part of the launch strategy, Unilever also trotted out the litmus test whenever the need arose over the years.
So, when German brand Sebamed did a Dove on Dove (and other brands in the Unilever stable) by using the litmus test, it seemed that Unilever was being paid in its own coin. But it also raised a couple of questions. The first question was, why did it take 30 years for someone to challenge the litmus test? Was it because Dove had owned it for too long? The second question was, whether it was the wisest thing to do.
The consumer viewpoint
From a science-based view, we know a pH 5.5 claim (it reflects the pH balance of healthy skin) is a far better claim than a pH-neutral claim when it comes to skin care. But from the consumer’s point of view, distilled water/neutrality is deeply embedded as proof of gentleness and purity. Dove always used the supporting optics of pure white moisturising cream splashing into its bar even in its litmus test commercials to reinforce this notion subliminally. Scientific experiments alone don’t work.
Going by the soaps they chose to challenge, I wondered whom Sebamed was targeting with its advertising? The person who wants to buy highly fragranced Lux soap which brings you within touching distance of Bollywood at a mere Rs 25 is not going to be swayed. For someone who believes she has the benefit of turmeric and sandalwood like the Santoor consumer, it doesn’t matter if the litmus paper turns red or blue. The Dove consumer, who is the most likely target, believes she is getting a universe of gentle care (yes, litmus test and moisturising cream) as well as a whole lot of ‘woke’ signals of self esteem and body esteem at Rs 41.
No comparisons needed
Sebamed’s facial cleansing bar is priced at Rs 199. At this price, it is already in a different league. So why get into comparative advertising at all? In trying to get its name recognized and make an entry into the market, has Sebamed done a disservice to its own brand?
Sebamed is an established international brand with strong dermat credentials. It has a baby care line that puts it in a powerful position vis a vis Unilever, because a baby care line is always a good way to establish care and purity credentials, even for an adult consumer. It also has a sensitive skin line, a growing area of interest with more evolved consumers, besides consumers who have skin concerns. It has a hair care range. It has been in Europe for 50 years. It has so many ways of speaking to the consumer.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see what Sebamed will do to create a loyal consumer base, and whether Dove will see this as a reason to refresh its own advertising while retiring the litmus test for good. In my opinion there will always be room for confident and credible brands to co-exist in the market. No comparisons needed.
(Geeta Rao has been Regional Creative Director, Ogilvy and has devoted many column inches and years to advertising and brands.)