One of the biggest fears of brand managers handling CPG brands is the threat of commoditization. Once a category becomes commoditized, the brands in it quickly start a price spiral to the bottom, and soon nobody makes any real money.
This threat almost became a reality for Surf, a detergent powder brand sold by Hindustan Unilever. Since its launch Surf had been enjoying a peaceful monopoly in the detergent market in India. But in 1969, a quiet price revolution started in the state of Gujarat, with a small brand that was manufactured from a 10 x 10 ft room in the house of a government employee named Dr. Karsanbhai Patel.¹
That brand was Nirma. Its launch and exponential rise prompted a major rethink for Surf. Surf’s response to this first real challenge to its market position laid the foundation for a new marketing strategy that allowed it to avoid getting into a price war, and to become the first billion $ brand in India’s home and personal care category in 2023.²
Origins – Building Trust and Credibility
Originally launched in Pakistan in 1948, Surf was introduced in the bigger Indian market in 1959. A non-soapy detergent made from petrochemicals, it was targeted towards middle-income households and was meant to replace the habit of washing clothes with bar soap.
This also meant introducing the habit of soaking clothes in a bucket of water with the detergent powder lather before washing – a relatively new behaviour. Surf engaged in door-to-door demo activations to get consumers to adopt this new habit, letting them see for themselves how the detergent powder could simplify washing, especially using hard water- which required considerable scrubbing with soapy detergents. Category building with habit change requires a brand to go out to the consumers and use face-to-face demos to build trust and credibility, and this is exactly what Surf did.
Long Road To Success – Building A Winning Strategy
Like all great and long-lasting brands, Surf did not formulate its winning strategy overnight. It took decades of response to changing market conditions and competitor activity- including a rebranding exercise- to reach the coveted status of a Billion Dollar Brand.
In hindsight though, the path is clear. Surf relied on premiumization led by Positioning and Product Innovation.
Positioning – Superiority via Value Perception and Emotional Engagement
Nirma was a price-led threat to Surf, priced as it was at a significant discount to Surf.³
Surf countered by positioning itself as a product that offered a better overall ‘value’- taking the challenge of a lower-priced competitor, without getting into a self-obliterating price war. The result was the iconic campaign of ‘Lalita ji’- the quintessential value-conscious but smart, savvy homemaker- who has the knack of identifying and picking up products that offer her the best value, not necessarily the lowest cost.
The positioning and the concept of value were well summarized by Lalita ji as she patiently explained to her audience: “Sasti cheez khareedne mein aur acchi cheez khareedne main fark hota hai.”
This helped Surf to cleverly segregate the market, with Nirma now playing in the lower-priced but higher volume mass market and Surf dominating the premium segment. Meanwhile, HUL introduced the mass-market detergent brand Wheel to take on Nirma head-to-head.
This continued until the early 90s when P&G launched its premium detergent brand, Ariel. Targeted at the same target group as Surf, Ariel posed an immediate threat. In addition to product play Surf tweaked its positioning as well. Surf now turned to talk about product superiority via ingredient story- Surf Ultra with Stain Digestor enzymes.
The “Dhoondte Reh Jaoge” series was a classic case of communicating functional benefits through slice-of-life ads, showcasing an upper middle-income household, the core TG of the brand.
In fact, in 2004, Surf even underwent a rebranding exercise, phasing away the name ‘Surf’ and rebranding itself as ‘Surf Excel’. The rationale as explained by an HUL spokesperson was: “while Surf over the last few years has continued to retain its loyal customer base, many competitors it has spawned in the detergents industry has made it somewhat generic, not sufficiently differentiated against its competitors and therefore, not attracting new customers.” ⁴
‘Daag Acche Hain’- the orbital shift to a purposeful brand
In 2003, well aware of the similar challenges being faced by its laundry brands globally, Unilever launched a global campaign to present a consistent image of its different laundry brands across the world. The strategic intent behind the campaign was to elevate the brand proposition to an emotional level and gradually move away from product-based communication that was increasingly getting dry, monotonous and undifferentiated.
Created by Lowe & Partners Worldwide, the campaign used the tagline ‘Dirt is good’, highlighting children’s enjoyment of activities that get their clothes dirty. Budgeted at $88 million, the campaign first kicked off in Europe and arrived in India in 2005.⁵
However, the Indian market had its own nuances.
First off, the category communication here played on the deep-rooted cultural abhorrence against “Daag” showcasing it as a villain- as depicted in the oft-repeated phrase in popular communication of the times- “Ziddi Daag” (‘the stubborn stain’). Second, the ‘comparative whiteness’ was a big pull- with all products competing with one another to deliver ‘white, whiter and whitest’. In addition, as in global markets, the solution was offered through technical features like ‘active ingredients’ and ‘stain magnets’ that was new to the Indian audience.
Hence, while the intent behind ‘Dirt is good’ was clutter-breaking, it would find it tough to occupy the mind-space of Indian consumers where dirt is traditionally associated with poverty, lack of care and bad hygiene. Clearly, the global communication needed an Indian twist.
That’s when Lowe Lintas India came up with an idea that would change the brand’s fortunes as well as the category communication landscape.
The brand tapped into an inherent parenting truth. A key part of a good upbringing was to allow the kid to have experiences that would build his or her values and character. And herein lay an inherent tension in the 21st-century moms’ quest for ‘whiteness’- while mothers wanted their kids’ clothes to be stain-free, they also felt that in the process, their kids might miss out on beautiful experiences that would potentially mould their character.
Thus, was borne the quintessential Indian version of ‘Dirt is Good’ called ‘Daag Acche Hain’- over the years, the brand released a series of ads, all reflecting instances of children choosing to do the right thing at the expense of getting their clothes dirty. The emotional payoff was succinctly summarized in a line that appealed to both heart and mind: “Daag lagne se agar kucch accha hota hai, toh Daag acche hain na?” ⁶
The campaign “Daag Acche hain” was a tremendous success.
“We noticed that two weeks after we aired the ad, our proven ad recall had shot up and six weeks later our sales shot up” – HUL Executive Director Sudhir Sitapati remarked at the e4m Conclave in 2019.
Over time, this Purpose evolved and guided the brand into a higher level vision, encouraging positive socio-political changes – like encouraging kids to try harder until they succeed (#haarkoharao campaign)
It’s interesting to see how Surf evolved its positioning over the years to respond to market realities. While the functional brand benefit of stain removal did not change, the way the brand chose to occupy consumer mind space showed a close understanding of the evolving needs of the consumer, and that’s how Surf managed to keep its communication fresh and relevant over the years.
Product – Continuous and On-Trend Innovation That Delivers
Surf has also taken care to support its positioning with constant product innovation over the years.
“Surf excel has not just addressed societal and parenting tensions through its communication, but also led the innovation agenda in the category by being obsessed with emerging trends and consumer pain points. Surf excel has played a pioneering role by being the first to launch and scale up superior bars through proprietary technology, washing machine specialist products, detergent liquids, liquid capsules and stain-removing sprays, thereby reshaping the market through premiumisation,” – Deepak Subramanian, Executive Director, Home Care, Hindustan Unilever Limited.
Surf’s first major innovation to its base product was the launch of Surf Ultra in 1990. It followed it up with the base formulation upgrade to Surf Excel in 1996. In a nod to the rising use of washing machines amongst its TG, Surf launched its line-up of washing machine-specific detergents. It even launched a detergent bar soap post-2005, which was admittedly an odd man out amongst its portfolio. In 2013, they launched India’s first liquid laundry detergent.⁷
Surf’s innovations have always aimed at being on top of trends, responding to consumer needs, and helping it maintain its premium pricing status in the market. Instead of cutting prices, Surf focused on adding more value to its consumers, thereby holding on to its mind-share among its target segment.
Surf’s premiumization strategy has stood it in good stead over decades of ups and downs in the market. However, its positioning manifestation has led to the occasional controversy due to possible overreach, as shown by the backlash to its 2019 Holi ad. This even had the rather unfortunate yet hilarious effect of a section of people mistakenly calling for boycotting Microsoft Excel instead of Surf Excel.
At the end of the day though, Surf Excel’s marketing strategy of deliberate premiumization through positioning and product innovation has paid rich dividends, as evidenced by its billion $ status and undisputed market leadership in its segment.
Surf Excel’s growth is also a testament to the power of patient brand-building that focuses on getting the fundamentals right through constant innovation and evolution.
A lot of startup brands can learn from Surf Excel’s playbook on how to grow brands cleanly!