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Hindustan Unilever Limited
Hindustan Unilever Limited

HUL get ad-interim injunction against Sebamed ads

  • Bombay HC recorded the submissions of HUL that the ad campaign denigrates its brands and products, does not take into account the full formulations of the products in question
  • Sebamed claimed that HUL beauty soap brands do not maintain the optimal 5.5 pH level meant for sensitive skin

In what comes as a big relief to fast moving consumer goods major Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), the Bombay High Court on Monday granted an ad-interim ex-parte injunction to the company against the advertisements released by personal care brand Sebamed which compared beauty soaps Lux and Dove to detergent brand Rin claiming that HUL beauty soap brands do not maintain the optimal 5.5 pH level meant for sensitive skin. The Sebamed ads had claimed that its cleansing bar had the perfect PH for sensitive skin. The court order restrained USV Private Limited (that retails Sebamed) and its affiliates, and their advertising agencies by an injunction from, in any manner, using, telecasting or broadcasting or communicating to the public the TVC, newspaper advertisements, hoardings and such other material in any language or any other content of similar nature. The matter will now come up on 14 January.

Sebamed’s comparative advertising both in mainstream and social media over the weekend raised a Twitter storm and upset HUL which had promised suitable action. It also retaliated with a campaign on 10 January highlighting the trust of dermatologist on its soap bar Dove though it did not name Sebamed in its ad. pH is a measure of how acidic a product is which simply means the lower the pH value, the better it is for the skin.

The Court recorded the submissions of HUL that the advertisement campaign denigrates its brands and products, does not take into account the full formulations of the products in question, and misleads consumers only on the basis of pH. The advertisement’s purpose was not to promote a product by Sebamed but to discourage the consumer from purchasing HUL’s products – which is not permissible. Dev Bajpai, executive director, legal & corporate affairs at HUL said, “HUL’s brands are time-tested and have always delivered on the promise they have made to their consumers. However, Sebamed’s advertisement in question is misleading consumers on soap efficacy during these difficult times, and further denigrating and disparaging well-known brands like Lux, Dove, Pears and Rin."

Shashi Ranjan, India country head of Sebamed, however, said that the company, which has a product range with pH 5.5 benefit, stands by its claims. He said that the ad was not targeted at any particular brand or company. “Having said that, our claims are based on solid science and we have robust information and data points to back it up. When we make a claim, we stand by it as the organisation is known for its scientific data," he added.

“We have not been served any court order as yet. We are a responsible organisation and we abide by the law of land," he added.

The intention behind highlighting the pH value in its campaign is to educate consumers as they have the right to have improved skincare, he said. “Sebamed with a pH of 5.5 really conforms to that promise because it is not a gimmicky brand. It talks about maintaining skin moisturisation levels and protecting against any skin damage. Therefore, Sebamed conforms to what it says in its advertising unlike traditional Indian beauty industry which relies on emotional and make belief claims which cannot be verified," he added.

Sebamed is looking to expand reach by launching smaller SKUs and improving its distribution network in India. Currently, it has a presence across 40,000 outlets across pharmacies, general and modern trade outlets as well as e-commerce selling skin, hair and baby care products.

Marketing experts and analysts in the sector said it is tough for new players to make much headway in FMCG in general and soaps category in particular given the strong loyalty in personal care, high entry barriers of distribution and ad budgets.

Sebamed’s ad will make a difference as it has a relatively smaller base in India and any increase in sales will be significant, said marketing expert and MD, CEO of Futurebrands Ltd Santosh Desai.

“HUL, on the other hand, is unlikely to get impacted significantly in terms of pure sales at least in the short term. However, in terms of reputation and brand image these things can have a cascading effect over time," he added.

Abneesh Roy, executive vice-president, research, Edelweiss Securities said, “…pricing of Dove soaps is at one fifth of Sebamed. In India, value proposition is paramount even in the premium end and most Indians will find Sebamed extremely expensive. This issue may lead to better awareness of Sebamed among a section of consumers and retailers. But I don’t think a large consumer base shift will happen based on few ads and pH proposition."

Advertising industry regulator Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) said that it has not received any complaint on the Sebamed advertisement yet and it allows comparative advertisements, including those where the product is named. “However, comparative ads must ensure the comparisons are factual and capable of objective substantiation. Advertisements must refrain from denigrating, attacking or discrediting other brands or advertisers even as they attempt to dominate consumer minds and wallets," said Manisha Kapoor, secretary general, ASCI.

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