MUMBAI: When Hindustan Unilever (HUL) launched Axe male deodorants in India in 1999, the brand created ripples with its bold communication.Advertising that essentially appealed to the ultimate - and perhaps unattainable - male fantasy spurred a flurry of me-too products with me-too campaigns replete with the promise of transforming immaculate Janes into lustful strumpets.
Now, the home & personal care giant is giving Indian men yet another avenue to turn into ambrosial Romeos by extending Axe into shower gel early this year and, more recently, into shower soap. So after covering cologne talc, shaving gel and after-shaves, Axe has now entered the personal wash category and joins Godrej's Cinthol and ITC's Fiama Di Wills men in the men's soap space.
The Indian soap market is worth some 6,500 crore and two brands from the HUL stable - Lux and Lifebuoy - occupy the top slots. While Lux was always been positioned as a brand for the fairer sex, the over 100-year-old Lifebuoy at one time had very male-led imagery. For instance, in the 80s, commercials for Lifebuoy showed footballers using the soap bar after a match with the punch line in the jingle being 'lifebuoy hai jahan thandurusti hai vahan' .
Since the early 2000s, Lifebuoy has made the shift into a family soap with the value proposition of protection and care. The men's soap slot was waiting to be filled up, and Axe appears to be a good fit.
Says Abneesh Roy, associate director, research, Edelweiss Capital: "The male grooming space has a lot of potential in India and HUL is definitely a company that can target it aggressively. It makes sense to launch soap for men because there are not many products in the space." However, Roy reckons it takes two to three years for a brand in this space to make a mark and it calls for high levels of investment and focus.
The male grooming space in India is pegged to be worth 1,500 crore which includes deodorants, creams and gels among others.
The soaps market itself is showing rapid growth. Godrej Consumer, which has the Cinthol soap brand, saw a 24% spurt in soap volumes in the April-June quarter; and Wipro Consumer Care & Lighting, which has the Santoor brand amongst others, had a 15% jump in volume growth in soaps in the same period.
But how successful will HUL be in extending a brand from a relatively florid category into a more staid segment like soaps? Anand Halve, co-founder of Chlorophyll, a brand and communications consultancy, thinks HUL can pull it off because of its competence in FMCG. "In the history of FMCG, it is difficult to launch a new brand in a new category from scratch. But brand extensions from a company like HUL are well expected," says Halve.
Also, although soaps is a virtually saturated market, it is beginning to get segmentised. Among Indian households, there is no clear brand preference and it is not unusual for men to use a beauty bar. The Axe effect may have made a timely debut in this arena.
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