Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Surf Excel - the 'other' CSR

Alok Mehta left the following comment on my 'youth brand universe' post

HLL is all over the town and its FM channels with its "Mumbai dhoyega, Mumbai jeetega" campaign, where users have to sms the no. of stains / spots they could remove using HLL's detregent and the "score" is added to a fund that can go upto Rs. 5 lacs to be used to help Mumbai's needy children.

No doubt HLL will be more than compensated for its 5 lacs - from the paybacks received from mobile service provider, leave alone the actual product sales. The cost of promotion on FM itself wil be more than 5 lacs. I'm sure a corporate the size of HLL can afford to give away 5 lacs to needy [ corporate social responsibility - thats another discussion topic altogether] without a sms campaign etc.

Prashant Jain, who works at Unilever replied:

As a person who has been closely associated with the campaign and as a fellow blogger, I would like to clarify some misconceptions that you seem to carry about the Surf Excel 10/10 donation drive. .. Firstly, HLL is not receiving any paybacks from mobile service providers. The SMSs sent by the consumers are charged at the circle rate and at no special rate. As far as revenues from product sales are concerned, this campaign is a very small part of a very large promotion exercise (the Surf Excel 10/10 campaign). HLL could have chosen to spend the money on this campaign instead of going out of its way to invest resources in this campaign.

This campaign is being run in 5 metros in partnership with some very well known NGOs who are doing exemplary work in the field of child education (Udayan in Kolkata, Pratham in Mumbai, Parikrma in Bangalore, Prayas in Delhi and Udavum Karangal in Chennai). This takes the donation amount to 25 laks (not a small amount by any standard)

You are right in saying that the cost of running the campaign is much more than 5 lakhs, but you seem to have construed wrongly the spirit of the campaign. It is not about the donation of the said amount. In its own small way, the campaign aims to sensitize these urban conglomerates towards the plight of the millions of underserved children. Radio and SMS were used as means to achieve the said end.

For your kind information, HLL does undertake huge CSR initiatives. Please visit to know more about the same. Do write to me at for any other queries regarding the campaign.

I feel compelled to comment on the subject. Not because I am an HLL shareholder, or the fact that the company has been and continues to be one of my clients. This post is trigerred by my own 'Surf Excel' experience which went something like this:

A couple of weeks ago my daughter and I were headed towards the local mall to pick up some groceries. At the signal, a child of about the same age as her pressed her nose against the window of our car.

"Mummy, give me 5 rupees.. to give her," said Nivedita.
"No..." I replied. "You can buy her some biscuits and give them on the way back."

Half an hour later, she actually remembered to buy those biscuits. What's more, when we passed the detergent counter she asked to buy Surf Excel . Why? Because we can send an sms and help some poor children. "I have see the ad..."

It struck me then that the Surf Excel campaign was indeed similar to say, the NDTV campaign to get a retrial for Jessica Lal. A chance for us, as individuals to feel we have made a difference to a problem that is so much larger than ourselves, it leaves us helpless.

This act of buying Surf Excel perhaps made Nivedita feel like she had done something for that little girl she saw on the road. I, older and cynical, did not really share that sentiment. But I bought Surf anyways. We're Tide loyalists, actually. No particular reason - just.

Will we buy Surf again? I cannot say. Did we send the sms? No - the pack is still lying unopened. Did we give the girl at the signal the biscuits? Sadly - she had disappeared.

Whatever folks like Alok and I may feel, efforts like this one will be increasingly adopted by companies. After all, those of us who have are gnawed by guilt about the have-nots from time to time. So in addition to Corporate Social Responsibility, which companies like HLL in any case undertake (less visibly) there will be a case for 'Consumer Social Responsibility'.Where you and me can can earn some pain-free 'I have done my tiny little bit for society' points.

In different ways, and with varying degrees of success, HLL has been trying to take a more 'social' stance through its advertising. The Lifebuoy ad, for example, depicts young boys and girls taking on the responsibility of cleaning up their neighbourhood. Again, it starts with the idea that "Kabhi kabhi sirf ek insaan,..." a single individual can make a difference.

Given that these brands are embedded in the Indian psyche, drumming in functional benefits is of hardly any use now. One has to fight it out on pricing, distribution and yes, retaining positive emotional appeal. HLL has thus taken the slightly bold route of retiring the footballer covered in mud and the tandurusti ki raksha karta hai jingle.

At my home, however, we now use Dettol.

What research says
A Stanford study recently found that despite surveys showing an eager customer base, people aren't putting their money where their mouths are and actually buying ethically produced goods.

One surprising discovery they made was that information on ethical issues and the availability of socially responsible products did not make a difference in consumer choice. Consumers made explicitly aware of a product's benefits to society or the environment were just as likely to choose the cheaper, more harmful brand as a control group given no information about the products...

The Stanford team found that people willing to pay more in the name of ethics do exist, but they're not who you think they might be. There is no group designated by nationality, age, gender, income, or education level that consistently buys ethical products more than any other. The authors write, "[c]ontrary to what some might believe, CnSR [consumer social responsibility] is not just the purview of wealthy, highly educated females in liberal Western democracies. Rather, it is something embedded in the psyche of individuals."

So I guess campaigns like Surf will satisfy some individuals urge to be ethical even as they leave others cold and unmoved. Which is the case with just about any kind of campaign, isn't it?


  1. Anonymous6:22 AM

    i read a post the other day titled "don't blame walmart" - the author makes a point against the tirade directed towards walmart (for driving out mom-and-pop stores and reducing town main streets to dead streets).

    the point eventually that emerges is, the same person who wants the best of benefits as an employee, as a customer tries to squeeze out the maximum discount out of his purchase - and doesn't directly correlate that his deal-proneness is effecting an employee some place else..quite evidently, outsourcing (of manufacturing and services) figured prominently in the article.

    and now coming to my point, i think folks -even the most do-good fellows - won't really go for "social awareness" loaded promotions, unless they see a good deal for themselves...And it shows in the cyncism towards such promotions.

    Otherwise, why don't we see follow-ups to such promotions telling us of their success?

  2. very insightful... never saw this angle of the promotions ... though i think i can relate similar experience myself to many of similar ads...

  3. Remember the "Do bucket paani rozana hai bachana" Surf campaign. as if their product only would help you conserve water, I hated it so much that I never bought it even if it was the only detergent available at a shop. Did they really wanted us to save water? and yes I didnt even wash the spotted cloth piece which came along with a print ad in newspaper..its just a way to make u guilt ridden or guilt free ...obverse side of thuggery.

  4. Just a word in response to Cumulus' view on the "do bucket" campaign: it was indeed a unique product benefit that saved two buckets of water. In detergents, greater the lather, more the water required. Surf cracked a formulation that produced less lather, without compromising on cleaning efficacy. Whether or not you liked the campaign is a different issue altogether ... the product benefit has been accurately claimed.

  5. Anonymous1:44 PM


    I like ur blog

  6. madhav :) i did not for once debate the efficiacy of the product. If they just highlighted that and left it there it wud have been great...why rope in an activist (shabana azmi) and make the whole thing sound like a campaign in environmental connservation... a pseudo exercise in "the other csr"

  7. Interesting post... but

    Some of this CSR act looks more of a brand and image building exercise (PG did the same with - buy one pack of our product and we will contribute a Re to so and so) - its not real CSR. Maybe I am still going by the typical Indian psyche that if u want to do some charity - it ought not be publicized... but done secretly.

    Incidentally, I posted a blog just a few days ago on the "SMS Now" mania riding high across media...

  8. Anonymous11:20 PM

    U have touched upon a hot topic of CSR whose meaning and relevance is still being debated in academic circles.The surf excel campaign should be viewed as a part of the exercise to make the brand more humane to the customers. The brand has been trying to ladder up and connect to customers to higher level. I have reservations about the CSR concept. The business of business is business and not charity. The business creates wealth and it is transferred back to the economy in some way or the other. The firms should conduct the business ethically and make profits. That is their prime responsibility. Imagine the plight of a company where the managers think about fund raising and charity and not thinking about business? A business making a loss is the greatest enemy of society because it wastes the money of its stakeholders. we know that many PSU's are known for its CSR while making loses, Are they building wealth or destroying it?


  9. Anonymous12:15 AM

    hello rashmi,
    your blog is simpy awesome. It does provides an insight on indian youth. Now that i have discoverd your blog m reading a lot of your previous posts too.

    I agree that ads such as those of surf excel influence neither the buying trends of people nor their psyche . These are just a part of brand building.

  10. Anonymous1:24 PM

    I like ur blog

  11. I think CSR is required in this age, because the large size of the country becoming unwieldy govt. can no longer handle the task of sustainable growth alone. Public private partnership is the only way ahead.

  12. Anonymous10:08 PM

    I think entire "CSR" campaign is full of crap...Instead of havin a multimillion rupees campaign , da folks at HLL could hav jus supported organisations like CRY.

    Kids dont require Ads to make them Compassionate to poor people...Parents and School can do dat job.

    Da same socalled CSR ads can also be replicated by MNC sports marketin firms ...then r we to forget their 'sweatshops'.

  13. As some learned marketer said A company may sell many things but buyers are buying only 2 things, Trust and satisfaction.

    Trust that the product is good enough to use (Which is a non issue when comes to big brands like Surf, Tide etc)
    Satisfaction is the key here. Since most of the detergents pretty much cleans to same degree, The company asks themselves which Need of the consumer they can satisfy for them to buy a packet of detergent worth 6 bucks for 60 Rs ?

    When you are presented the MERE opportunity to APPEAR to do good to someone else at NO ADDITIONAL expense of yours, You take it not because you are nice person BUT the inherent guilt that today’s life has become, environmental guilt of wasting resources, or the social guilt of Have vs Have not, or the guilt of NOT being socially responsible.

    And, this very NEED to temporarily avoid confrontation with ones conscience for is what people are buying when they choose Surf because a child may benifit or sending an SMS for Jessca Lal!

  14. Anonymous7:45 PM

    It is unfortunate that every effort for the betterment of society by any individual/corporate is suspected to have a hidden motive. The commentators here have not made any effort to verify the authencity of the campaign (which could have been done easily by writing to any of the NGOs Surf Excel has tied up with or even visiting their premises).

    I guess the topic of the blog should rather have been "the plight of the underserved". I would stringly urge every blogger to go and visit at least one NGO in her city which is running a residential education programme for underprivileged kids. You would be surprised at the kind of talent these kids have (no way inferior than any of those who get to participate in reality shows thanks to their celebrity lineage)

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  16. Anonymous9:00 AM

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  17. Anonymous7:47 AM

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