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With aggressive advertising and the marketing might of HUL, Fair & Lovely cut across social classes in urban and rural India over the years to become the largest selling face care brand (Photo: Alamy)
With aggressive advertising and the marketing might of HUL, Fair & Lovely cut across social classes in urban and rural India over the years to become the largest selling face care brand (Photo: Alamy)

The big disruption for the cream of creams

  • HUL has shifted away from promising fairness in its flagship face cream. Will the category change forever?
  • There have been many attempts to reposition the fundamental premise: a longing for fair skin. While experts feel its sales might be hit, that doesn’t mean the category has slowed down

NEW DELHI : Thirty-six-year-old Shaily Sehgal finds it difficult to remember the year she bought her first tube of Fair & Lovely face cream—but it was somewhere in the 1990s. Private satellite television channels such as Zee and Star had opened the world of small-screen entertainment to Indian households and commercials of brands promising fair skin beamed incessantly between shows.

Sehgal was probably in school when one such commercial of Fair & Lovely had her hooked. For the next few years, the young girl obsessively used tubes of the popular cream, wearing it to school daily, hoping it would somehow fulfil its promise of a fairer skin. “I was the darkest girl among my friends. And I just really wanted to look fair," she said. As a teenager, she thought fair meant beautiful.

And that really was the big brand promise that Hindustan Unilever (Hindustan Lever Ltd at that time) made to millions of Indian women when it first launched Fair & Lovely in March 1975.

The division that launched the brand which was test marketed in Tamil Nadu, was called Toilet Preparations. “It was the smallest division with boring brands like an Erasmic shaving cup and a talcum powder. As the story goes, one day the controller of the division (that’s what they were designated then) Rajesh Bahadur came up with two ideas for the company’s R&D department—a fairness product and a product for hair growth," remembers Ravi Dhariwal, former brand manager of Fair & Lovely who joined HLL in 1977.

The genesis of the fairness product lay in the matrimonial ads asking for fair brides, said Dhariwal, former CEO of Times Group and currently an adviser/board member of a clutch of companies.

“However, there was huge scepticism in the company regarding the product. Both before and after Fair & Lovely was launched, top management continuously debated whether Unilever should get into a fairness product," he said. But consumer research highlighted the need-gap.

Eventually, the face cream was launched with the promise of making one fairer in six weeks. “The product was developed scientifically and the results were brilliant. For a national roll-out, massive door-to-door selling was mounted for which promotion agencies were hired in many cities," recalls Dhariwal who looked after the brand in 1982.

The rest, as they say, is history. The brand moved from strength to strength under legendary marketer Shunu Sen who was put in charge of the renamed Toilet Preparations division (called Personal Products unit). While the hair regrowth formula never hit the market, Fair & Lovely captured the imagination of a nation obsessed with light skin.

The big disruption

On 2 July, HUL rechristened Fair & Lovely to “Glow & Lovely" by dropping the word “fair" from its iconic brand, in a move, which its chairman and managing director Sanjiv Mehta said was in line with what the consumers want.

“The reason why we dropped fair is because consumer research very clearly indicates that women are now looking at a much more holistic definition of beauty. There is a word in Hindi called nikhaar. There is no precise definition for it in English except glow, radiance, even tone and clarity. All put together come under the definition of nikhaar. And that is the direction in which we are taking this," he told Mint. Its skin cream for men will now be called Glow & Handsome.

Critics argue that rechristening Fair & Lovely stems from the global movement against racism and discrimination based on skin colour after protests erupted following the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of the US police. As #BlackLivesMatter trended, Johnson & Johnson announced it was withdrawing its fairness products from the market under Neutrogena and Clean & Clear brands.

“The recent changes are largely due to pressures emanating out of the West and cannot be interpreted as packaged companies’ attempts at voluntarily changing the narrative around fairness," said Sunil Duggal, former CEO, Dabur India Ltd, who led the company as its CEO between 2002-2019. Dabur also sells bleach cream Fem.

For years, marketers have built businesses on Indian consumer’s longing for light skin. And while Mehta speaks of a more inclusive vision of beauty today, that’s not how brand experts and marketers remember Fair & Lovely. “The initial ads of Fair & Lovely had a direct negative connotation on dark skin which brought down one’s chances of a good marriage prospect," said Santosh Desai, MD and CEO of Future Brands Ltd, a brand consulting and management firm.

An advertising professional who worked on the brand in the late 1980s as an employee at the agency Lintas in Mumbai admitted that the TV commercials did depict darker-skinned girls and women as being discriminated against, whether it was in the context of getting married or getting a job.

“But I guess we justified the communication as being an accurate reflection of prevailing social mores, which, perhaps, unfortunately, remain as true today as they were back then. This is not to suggest that this should be condoned and nor am I trying to absolve either the brand or its advertising from social responsibility," said Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.

With models like Juhi Chawla, Genelia D’Souza, Aishwarya Rai and Mahima Chaudhry in varied television commercials, the focus was sharply on skin colour or gorapan (fairness).

Even though filmmaker R. Balakrishnan (Balki) who steered Lowe Lintas—agency for the brand—for many years thinks of Genelia D’Souza’s ad as a “seminal" work that showed her becoming a professional cricket commentator in a male-dominated field, the underlying theme remained fairness that helped the protagonist achieve her goals.

The market

To be sure, Fair & Lovely entered the Indian market when the country’s beauty care segment was sparse with few other brands like Vicco Turmeric, Charmis and Ponds (that subsequently became a part of Unilever through an international acquisition of Chesebrough Pond’s USA in 1986).

With aggressive advertising and the marketing might of Lever, it cut across social classes in urban and rural India to become the largest selling face care brand —a title that it still holds. As per market researcher Nielsen, the brand is over 2,200 crore in size, with a market share of 42%. According to the company, seven out 10 women use Fair & Lovely every year. The brand is present in 200 million households annually.

According to Nielsen Retail Measurement Services, the fairness market in India is nearly 5,800 crore, growing at a rate of 4.4% as on MAT (moving annual total) March 2020 versus a year ago. This includes face moisturizers, hand and body lotions, face cleansers and bleaches. Research firm Euromonitor International estimates that in 2019, of all the basic moisturizers sold in India, 78% were sold under the “whitening or fairness “ category. This is down from 80% in 2017.

“This does not indicate any reform in attitude. It’s possible that lots of brands are making a back-door entry into the segment with anti-tanning, anti-pollution propositions. It’s not such a linear story," said consumer behaviour expert Sraboni Bhaduri.

Over 15 years ago, the Fair & Lovely brand underwent a significant shift in advertising to focus on women empowerment. Around the same time, the brand also launched Fair & Lovely Foundation with the aim to empower women through skill-enhancement courses. In Desai’s view, this didn’t mitigate the criticism against the company for promoting a product which fuelled a regressive idea of beauty. “But, yes, the communication shifted from anxiety, shame, disappointment at oneself to what fairness can do for you," he said.

HUL was also under pressure to keep refreshing the brand, prompted by competition from both local and international firms such as Emami Ltd and the L’Oréal group which launched several whitening products.

Over the years, there was an emergence of consumer preference towards other “functional" benefits of beauty brands. That, plus increased competition, impelled HUL to promote aspects over and above fairness such as blemish removal, sun protection and anti-marks.

In 2001, for instance, Fair & Lovely was extended to a beauty soap, a dark circle under-eye cream, and a sachet with a reusable cap. All the products were not sustained.

In 2002-03, the brand entered the herbals and naturals category with the launch of Fair & Lovely Ayurvedic Cream followed by an “Anti-Marks" variant. A year later, the company tried to appeal to a more aspirational consumer by pushing a top-end range of skincare products under the umbrella of Fair & Lovely Perfect Radiance.

But competition stepped up. In Kolkata, Emami, known for Boroplus and Zandu Balm brands, launched Fair and Handsome for men in 2005, trumping HUL and covertly leading the entry into the men’s fairness creams market. HUL was clearly outsmarted. A year later, it played catch-up with a new variant Menz. (It’s payback time now with HUL having quietly registered similar sounding Glow & Handsome). Even L’Oréal, though a late entrant into India, cornered a share with its mass market Garnier skincare brand.

The many relaunches

In 2012, Fair & Lovely was re-launched and strengthened its market leadership in a slowing mass skin lightening segment, the company said in its annual report for the year. It was subsequently relaunched with a “Best Ever" formula in 2013, leveraging its advanced multivitamin technology. It also launched a SPF 15 vanishing cream variant.

“Fair & Lovely went through multiple relaunches in a matter of a few years. The brand was aware that it needed to evolve but it just wasn’t getting the right formula, At one end, the company had to sustain the gold standard of fairness and on the other hand, it had to cater to several emerging need states," said a person who worked on the brand, declining to be named.

To be fair, in 2019, the brand took a big turn to alter its proposition. And that’s what HUL’s CMD painstakingly explained late last month when he announced that the brand was dropping “fair" from its name. “In 2019 we had a very big and significant relaunch when we moved away from fairness, whitening and skin lightening towards glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance, which we believe are the holistic measure of healthy skin," he said. And the new proposition was HD glow.

With that, the company did away with the two-face cameo depicting the shade change from its packaging.

The company applied for a trademark for Glow & Lovely with the Controller General of Patents Design and Trade Marks in 2018. The request was declined. Perhaps, with conversations around racism intensifying, it speeded up the process and reapplied for Glow & Lovely (stylized) valid for a range of categories such as soap, medicated soap, cleaning preparations and essential oils, among others.

Brand experts and analysts feel that change in name is likely to affect Fair & Lovely’s market. In a note, Jefferies said “we believe the company will need to make a serious effort to create consumer awareness on the brand migration. We do believe it is the right step but purely from a business perspective, there will be uncertainty as consumer acceptance will hold the key." It added that around 2012, HUL changed the Fair & Lovely cream colour from white to pink along with a packaging change which met with a push back from the consumer.

Dhariwal, too, feels the move may hurt sales of the brand in the long run.

“The bigger problem really is if the ‘fairness’ category itself declines minus the promise of fair. If the customer was looking for fair skin and you no longer provide that, the category itself may get decimated," said Sandeep Goyal, chairman, Mogae Media, a Mumbai-based marketing and communication agency.

Meanwhile, for Sehgal, the lure of light skin wore off. She ended up working for an airline abroad. “Fair & Lovely was the first and last skin whitening product I ever used," she said, adding that words such as fairness are nothing more than what companies use to sell their products. “I started to accept my skin tone."

Saumya Tewari and Lata Jha contributed to this report.

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