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Top 5 branding lessons from how Santoor took on HUL brands and beat them

Start ups and small companies often have very less resources to work with. Unlike E-commerce start ups where cash burn is a norm, many regular firms find it hard to gather money for advertising and promotions.

How would you cope with it? How do you grow a brand into a major player with less budget?

Although there would be many instances, and in my own work experience, I have seen examples of brands, but for the scope of this post, lets look the at case of Santoor soap.

Santoor is one of the leading brands of soaps in India today. It is the number 2 player in terms of market share. It rakes in close to 300 million USD in revenues as of last year’s figures. Today it seems to be a big success story, but looking back at the past, Santoor had its fair share of failures and lessons learned that could serve as guidelines for many emerging fledgling brands.

The Santoor history

Over 3 decades ago Santoor was a small unknown brand, raking in a total revenue of just over Rs 60-65 cr in over a decade. The market was young and growing and Wipro had its eye on a bigger share of the pie. So, Wipro tried multiple times to relaunch the brand and break into the national scene, taking on Goliath Hindustan Unilever (HUL) which had its brand trio of – Rexona, Lux and Hamam, covering the country. Each time Wipro relaunched, it failed. Lux was too strong in the north, while in the south, Hamam and Rexona ruled together.

So, Santoor went back to the drawing board and decided to narrow down its focus to regions that they stand a chance in. It began focusing on the weak link, Rexona and in regions where it was relatively stronger. Reportedly, 90% of its sales back then was coming from 4 states in southern and western India: Andhra, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Santoor decided to put its force behind these states.

With that limited budget, Santoor devised a 360 degree plan on how to grow the brand in these focused regions and fast forward to 2019, today, it has become a major player in the country with just regional focus.

For people like us, these examples from the past serve as guiding beacons and teach us how to deal with strategic problems as we work towards growing new brands early in the business. I took this particular example because I found a lot of resonance in the Santoor story with whatever I have learned so far in my work experience. Now, let me lay down my takeaways in a structured manner below for you.

Focus is the key

After all my years of experience, I have learned that there is one secret ingredient to success that is so simple and yet ignored most of the time: focus. Focus is the key to solving the toughest problems.

Always identify the bull’s eye and aim for it.

In Santoor’s case early on, they lacked focus. It wasn’t until they realized the need for this approach did they finally achieve success. Focus is about identifying the critical success factors and putting all your energy behind it.

The following steps are quite handy in covering the areas of focus necessary for brand success:

Brand Vani
The Step by Step focused process to build brand from less resources

1. Concentrate with a razor sharp approach

Brand Vani
Image by Werner B. from Pixabay

Be the piercing razor and not the haughty hammer

– Brand Vani

Learn to identify areas of growth very effectively. Narrow down your targets, narrow down the geographies and drive your efforts with razor sharp precision.

If Santoor hadn’t identified the 4 states it needs to focus on, it would not have been able to devise a clear strategic approach. It needed to know exactly where it would attack, the demographics of the place, and the tools to use, instead of spreading its resources across India.

If you spread yourself too thin, you end up having little or no impact. Imagine yourself and your brand to be like the razor instead of the hammer. A hammer needs a lot of brute force to break through, while the razor is sharp and needs little effort to pierce through and make an impact.

2. Attack the flanks

Brand Vani
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Find that soft spot to drive the razor in more easily

– Brand Vani

Flanking is a tactic used by the military to fight strong enemies at the flanks to achieve an advantageous position, despite strong cores.

Likewise, for brands, learn to identify the weak links and use flanking maneuvers to penetrate the market. Do not go head on against powerful brands. Instead, look for gaps and weaker opponents like Santoor did with Rexona.

Both Rexona and Santoor promised features targeting the skin. But Rexona’s value proposition was weak and also, it had a weaker position in the market overall compared to the other HUL brands. So, Santoor took them on beat them to the top spot.

3. Conquer availability

Go deeper within the same region, instead of going wider across multiple regions

– Brand Vani

Sales and distribution is a major cost for any FMCG company. Extensive distribution means covering long distances and geographies. Covering long distances means more vehicles, more fuel costs, and more personnel.

Instead of spreading yourself thin in distribution, it makes sense to go deeper instead of going wider. Cover more shops per mile, so, the more shops you cover, the better your ROI against the miles covered. Besides, visibility is king. When the same set of consumers see it in every shop, there is more likelihood of sales conversions.

4. Blitzkrieg attacks work superbly

Image by birgl from Pixabay

Hit them hard, hit them fast!

– Brand vani

Blitzkrieg branding is very effective. What do I mean by blitzkrieg branding?

Blitzkrieg was a form of attack used by Nazis in Germany in World War 2. In plain English it means lightning attack. Apply the same principle to branding, and you get blitzkrieg branding.

This is something that I have learned to apply in all my marketing stints. Hit them so fast and hit them so hard that they wouldn’t know what hit them. Choose where to focus, and paint it all with your brand colors.

You can see instances of it in the Santoor story, where they report times when they painted the towns orange. This could be anything right from wall branding to billboards, to TV commercials. Santoor took over the share of voice entirely in major channels and outshouted all competition. As they said, they ensured consumers saw more ads of Santoor in every TV channel in that geography than any other brand of soap.

In my experience, we have done this often with all of our brands. The need to break the clutter in marketing makes you do crazy interesting things. There was a time when we were swamped by competition activities and every Tom, Dick and Harry upstart brand was trying to bother us by copying everything we did. We were getting annoyed although they say imitation is the best form of flattery.

I remember getting the team together and planning to teach the competitors a lesson. We planned a massive activity thoroughly. We put together teams, trained every one properly and took to the markets by 6 in the morning one day. And before any shop could open, by 8 O’ clock, we branded the entire markets in the town with our brand colors. We didn’t leave a single inch uncovered. We said, let any pretender try and copy that!

You should have seen the look in the faces of the people who entered the market that day, especially competition sales persons. Our brand was the talk of the town for quite a while and everyone was impressed by our show of strength and ingenuity. That was over 8 years ago for me, but still makes me smile when I think about what we accomplished back then.

That’s blitzkrieg branding for you. Maybe I will regale you with these tales someday in some post.

5. Consistency in communication

Speak the same message throughout. Repetition builds strength.

– Brand Vani

Santoor has maintained its communication throughout since its inception. Santoor appeals to women with its promise of making the skin look younger. Since the 1980s they have always addressed young women. Across the decades they have made the Santoor woman evolve from the traditional home-maker to the confident, talented achiever. But the offering and the target segment have been the same.

Such consistency in communication hammers in your value proposition and creates strong brand equity. It is like working out in the gym: if you do the exercises regularly, your muscles will show inevitably. So, be consistent and communicate clearly and continuously.

In conclusion, this case study emphasizes that focusing on being number 1 in a small region might actually be better than being a struggling at the bottom of the rankings in a larger area. This is an invaluable lesson for those who are just starting something new.

Become strong in a small area and gain a foothold so that you can’t be dislodged easily. Be like a mountain climber, sure footed and progressing step by step. Focus your energy reserves to secure the next position and with time, you will reach the mountain top.

PS: I have taken excerpts and data from Forbes India. If you want to read more in detail about the Santoor Story, here’s a link to it: Forbes.

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