Saturday, September 17, 2005
Kal ho na ho - aaj Shahrukh Lux star hai
Lots of bloggers have commented on the Shahrukh Khan Lux ad. I think it's a good PR gimmick (how else will something as taken-for-granted as a soap make headline news, even if it's celebrating its 75th birthday!) Besides, I don't think it's a long term campaign. Lux will go back to actresses in bathtubs soon enough.
Meanwhile, the women of India can stare at a bare-chested man - and no one will be the worse for it.
However, since a friend at the TOI asked me to do a 'slightly wider story on the SRK Lux ad' for their Consumer Edge page, I applied my mind to it and this is what I came up with. It's been published on pg 31 of 'Times International' in the Mumbai edition.
I am a little doubtful how many people pick up that supplement - although it's my favourite bit in the paper. Here goes the article.
Reinventing brand from a commodity pile
Will consumers accept the HLL gamble of presenting a bare-chested SRK in the new Lux ad, asks Rashmi Bansal (Their words, not mine but ok... that's the kind of stuff intro paras are made of. No cribs!)
Bahaaron phool barasao… Shahrukh Khan tub mein naha raha hai. A new Lux ad featuring the Bollywood superstar immersed in a tub strewn with rose petals is raising quite a media lather. The easy-pleasy explanation that comes to mind when you see that image of King Khan - hairless chest, I'm-so-sensitive-smirk et al - is aha! The brand's gone "metrosexual".
Trouble is, this new sub-species of man that thrives in the pages of glossy magazines is - like the legendary Bigfoot - yet to be captured in the wild. A team from National Geographic will perhaps be called in to assist Lever's legendary in-house research division in accomplishing this difficult task. In the meanwhile, the brand team appears to have taken a simple leap of faith.
Following the principles laid down by soap queen Ekta Kapoor, the company has added on a new and intriguing character to its own 75 year old soap opera. Yes, Levers is desperate for increased TRPs - Trials and Repeat Purchase. As former HLL Chairman Vindi Banga candidly declared at the company AGM in June this year, the company has been hit by “the crisis of declining markets.'”
It isn't that Indians “bathed less often or brushed their teeth less often or indeed washed their clothes less often,'' Banga explained, “but they did down-trade to lower-priced substitutes from higher-quality brands…A consumer buying six tablets of Lux in a month went to buying three of Lux and three cheaper brands".
Aisa kyun? Well, the theory goes that Indians are pinching pennies so they can pay up their installments on cars, bikes, homes, computers and what have you. But that's only half the story. The scarier bit is that consumers are slowly losing faith in brands. "A soap is a soap is a soap" is the attitude – give me the best possible deal. Aishwarya makes a pretty picture on the wrapper but there is nothing quite as beautiful as a “buy one, get one free” offer.
The commoditification of FMCG brands is inescapable. The fact is that except for a brand like Pears– which is manufactured in a separate factory and uses actual glycerine – there isn’t much real difference between one soap and the next. Besides the superficial trappings like colour, fragrance and wrappers. The consumer has simply wisened up to that fact and is happy to experiment - given the explosion of choices.
Speaking of choices, there were two possible paths before the Lux brand team: cling to the Old way; or go the radical, different, bold way. The “Big Idea” of 1929 – a beauty soap endorsed by beautiful people – no longer packs that punch. The movie star of the moment is busy appearing in ads for noodles, chocolates, dandruff shampoos and what have you. So signing on a Preity or Rani would scarcely create ripples.
The brand ‘s ‘advertising identity’ crisis has been brewing for a while now. In the mid 90s, Lux received its first major shock when the actress ruling the roost at the time refused to be part of its campaign. The feisty Kajol “did not believe” in advertising (back then – now it’s a different story!). Consequently Lux was stuck with the nice-but-never-number-one Juhi Chawla until the likes of Aishwarya and Kareena became big enough to sign on.
The bigger crisis, however, was that the communication was itself losing relevance - consumers were beginning to question if the film star actually used the brand. So Lux moved out of fantasy and into a ‘reality’ phase: The film star was taken out of the tub and used purely as a communication device to portray star quality in every Lux user. Remember the “We bring out the star in you” series? No? Well, nobody really does.
Seen in that light the SRK-in-a-tub gambit makes perfect sense – after eons the public is sitting up and taking notice. Is the soap now aimed at the man or the woman? Well, as long as that image of Shahrukh surrounded by rose petals isn’t repulsive it really shouldn’t hurt the brand. The women – who are the ghar ka decisionmakers in soap matters – may well warm to the image of a good looking, bare-chested man while soaping themselves. Just like their husbands have been happy enough to use an ‘auraton ka product’ all this while – with a picture of those gorgeous actresses - at some sub conscious level – playing back n their heads.
There’s complex ‘semiotics’ involved, you see. As a researcher on Lever brands conjectures:”They’ve chosen the star very carefully – it’s not macho Sunny Deol. Note how all throughout SRK’s maleness is submerged under water and how in the end, the four Lux heroines – Hema, Sridevi, Juhi and Kareena – gang up and playfully attempt to drown him in the tub.” So it’s the women retaining the upper hand, really!
Net:net will the ad produce mere talkshow chatter, or the sales spike that matters? Well, there’s only that much which advertising can really do in such a mature category. In the last 3 years Lux has gained close to a 4% share -despite insipid communication – chiefly due to the launch of “Mini Lux” – an offering strategically priced at Rs. 5 to bring it within the reach of 300 million rural consumers.
It’s pricing and product innovation, distribution and dedicated dustbowl marketing that is likely to produce the real results. Shampoo penetration and sales jumped manifold through sachets, could a similar revolution be in the offing for soaps? Some time ago Levers test-marketed the idea of ‘Lux flakes’ a powder form of the soap which would retail for under a rupee. That’s a wheel turning full circle – Lux started its life as a soap in ‘flake’ form – although to wash clothes, not skin!
Times change, people change, so must brands. You win some, you lose some – but you never know until you try. And Lever’s deserves full marks for trying!