Beyond washing powder Nirma

Nirma’s celebrity advertising strategy may lift its perception for now, but can the brand truly transition to the next level?

Hrithik Roshan casually walks into a party and exchanges glances with a girl. Just at that moment, someone spills a drink onto the star’s white T-shirt. An upset Roshan rushes to the washroom only to find a young boy with a stained top. At that point, Nirma Advance sprints onto the screen and the actor gets into a jig with the youngster. The washing powder, of course, cleans away the stains.

The one minute commercial is a clear departure for Nirma. It is the first time in its 40-year history that it has used a celebrity. All these years, the girls next door — Jaya and Sushma  — were the endorsers. The gutsy girls, with a catchy jingle and a low-priced product produced a lot of lather catapulting Nirma to a market share of over 50% in the 1980s. Competition, particularly Hindustan Unilever (HUL), saw its big brand Surf being taken to the cleaners.

Much has changed since then and Nirma’s market share is at barely 10% today with Wheel, that HUL later launched, and Ghari, a low-priced offering from the north, making serious inroads in the ₹14,000-crore detergent market.

Now, will Nirma’s strategy to premiumise its brand help it regain lost ground? The dynamics of the detergent market has changed over the years. Growth has tapered off substantially to 2% as penetration levels have already peaked. Which means, brands can grow faster only by enticing customers to pay more by offering a better proposition.

For Nirma, there are two key challenges: while the upwardly mobile consumers are being taken away by more expensive brands, the younger consumers, who might not mind paying a tad more, do not have a brand-connect with Nirma. “People may remember the Nirma ad but the brand is definitely not on top of their mind,” says Prateek Srivastava, co-founder, Chapter Five Brand Solutions, a brand consultancy.

The effort, therefore, is to give Nirma a premium image and connect with youngsters. “The objective is to enhance the perception of the Nirma brand and get a chunk of the modern consumers to use it. We want to shed the image that the brand is normally associated with,” says Anand Karir, creative mentor at Boing, the agency behind the new commercial.

But Srivastava does not quite agree. “Detergent is very much a functional category. It is not like personal products where a premium image is important. It is necessary for Nirma to appeal rationally with a clear product benefit,” he says. That’s what Nirma did well during its heydays and probably that message has died down over the years. Unless the functional benefits are communicated clearly, it is unlikely that the new ad strategy will work.  

The need to connect with younger consumers can’t be emphasised enough though, says Srivastava. That’s perhaps the reason why the Nirma commercial was screened on television and social media simultaneously. “Even tier 2 and 3 towns, which is Nirma’s big market, are today big on YouTube and Facebook. That explains why 10% of the total media spend is on digital, a medium that the brand has never used before,” points out Manan Soni, director of Purnima Advertising, Nirma’s media buying agency.

While Nirma is trying to create a premium perception, it is priced in the affordable category. At ₹50 a kilo, Nirma Advance is directly up against Active Wheel and Ghari. Soni makes it clear that Nirma washing powder, the mother brand will remain and so will Nirma Super, the most expensive at ₹80. In a market that is already facing growth pangs, it makes no sense to vacate any segment. By any yardstick, this is going to be a long haul for Nirma, a brand that is now up against very nimble-footed local players and the rich multinationals as well.

That said, the larger challenge for Nirma is to transition itself into a reliable personal care brand. How successfully it can achieve this in today’s hyper competitive market with nimble-footed local players and deep-pocketed multinationals is anyone’s guess. So far, attempts to enter new markets like toothpaste and shampoo came a cropper, with the mass brand image playing the spoilsport. Nirma experienced some success in toilet soaps with that being attributed to launching it under the Nima brand.

Getting Roshan now in a slick commercial has helped in arousing curiosity, but can the brand sustain the appeal in the absence of any tangible benefit to customers? Nirma might just be better off taking a leaf from its roots and focusing on functionality, rather than just perception value, and choosing categories where the former trumps the latter.