Why ‘natural’ toothpastes are on the wane | Mint

Why ‘natural’ toothpastes are on the wane

The 'natural' toothpaste segment got a boost with the launch of Patanjali but this was short-lived
The 'natural' toothpaste segment got a boost with the launch of Patanjali but this was short-lived

Summary

  • Sales are flat after growing rapidly from 2016 to 2019, signalling the limits of cultural appeal to drive demand for universal necessities

On an analysts’ call, Colgate Palmolive India CEO Prabha Narasimhan said the ‘natural’ segment of the toothpaste market has plateaued and even declined somewhat after growing by nine percentage points over 2016-19. This waxing and waning of a specialised sub-category of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) offers some insight into what shapes consumer demand.

The plain statistic that half of rural Indians do not brush their teeth or that half of urbanites brush their teeth only once a day might lead some to think that Indians have poor dental hygiene and that the country represents a dentist’s paradise. The reality is a little more nuanced. Indian children are trained, as soon as they are old enough to chew food, that they ought to wash their mouth diligently after every meal. It has also been the practice to make use of assorted cleansing powders, which can range from the husk of paddy – crisped and crushed to an abrasive, yet powdery consistency – to specialised dental powders that include herbs and spices. Instead of a toothbrush, rural Indians use the twigs of certain trees that, when chomped on long enough, yield an orderly array of plant fibre, long enough and sturdy enough to serve as a brush.

The multinational giant Colgate, with a decades-long experience of the Indian market, has been unfazed by this local deviation from western dental care practices, and produced and marketed its own dental powder. Reckitt Benckiser sponsored a popular programme of film songs, the Geetmala, first on Radio Ceylon and later on All India Radio, prefixing the programme’s name with its toothpaste brand, Binaca. When Dabur bought the brand, it tried to market a dental powder under the brand name without much success.

As Indians migrate from villages to towns and drop these traditional dental practices for toothbrushes and toothpaste. Yet, the collective memory retains an imprint of the fond tradition.

This vein of vestigial memory can be tapped to market many things, as was demonstrated by Paperboat, a company that figured out that modern Indians can be made to buy traditional drinks and eats when offered in modern, hygienic packaging and wrapped in the gossamer of romance for the countryside and the affection of elderly kin.

Another kind of latent memory is tapped when something is offered up as a revival and mainstreaming of ancient Indian knowledge and expertise. The marketing of all things Ayurveda is an example of this.

The launching of the Patanjali brand by self-styled yoga guru Ramdev asserted India’s proud past and a resurgent nation’s ability to compete with foreign multinationals. Competitive pricing and the swift creation of a wide distribution network (with more than a little help from Ramdev’s yoga following) helped the company grab marketshare from entrenched FMCG players. That is when the natural segment of toothpaste and other goods and packaged foods grew sharply.

Since most Indians have no clue what Ayurveda actually is but are convinced that it stands for the goodness of nature and the recondite potency of leaves, barks and roots, these goods saw brisk sales – for some time. Then, over time, this momentum petered out. Concerns about quality, tales of the promoters’ financial dealings that were at odds with the asceticism, and the sheer incongruity of an ayurvedic brand selling instant noodles and pasta may have all played a role in this.

The plateauing of the ‘natural’ segment in toothpaste reflects the maturing of the FMCG market when it comes to the appeal of tradition and nationalism as drivers of demand. Patanjali carved out new product categories, but incumbents – including foreign multinationals – showed they could move into these segments as well.

If these sub-categories do not show growth faster than the overall demand for the category, it signals the limits of cultural appeal to drive demand for universal necessities. However, the fact that half of rural Indians do not brush their teeth and that half of urban Indians do so only once a day shows there’s significant room for growth in the overall dental care market and its subcategories.

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