If you were unfamiliar with the phrase ‘never waste a crisis’ before the pandemic, chances are you won’t forget it now. It has come up hundreds of times in webinars, articles and even casual conversations. Some leading FMCG companies have taken the idea to heart. They’ve launched a host of health and hygiene products — from hand sanitisers and disinfectants like food washes to immunity-boosting food products — to help customers during the pandemic. Companies have reacted in different ways to this opportunity. In some cases, the new products are extensions of existing lines, with tweaks. In other cases, the company has pivoted to introduce something entirely new, though within its domain of expertise. Some companies say they were looking to introduce the same products a few months down the line, but brought the launch forward because of the outbreak.
“In the post-Covid-19 world, the importance of preventive healthcare and personal hygiene has been growing in the consumer’s mind,” says Mohit Malhotra, CEO of Dabur India. “Demand patterns have changed, with consumers increasingly seeking ayurveda-based interventions for boosting their immunity, besides products that meet their personal and household hygiene needs.” In the last three months, Dabur has introduced some 15 new products, from tulsi and haldi drops and giloyneem-tulsi juice, to air sprays and multisurface cleaners under the Sanitize brand, and even a vegetable wash. “We have been working on two fronts,” adds Malhotra. “On the one hand, we have enhanced production of our existing immunity-building products like chyawanprash, and are ensuring uninterrupted supply of this to consumers across the country. On the other hand, we have strengthened our health and hygiene portfolio with the introduction of a range of new products to meet growing consumer need for immunity and personal and household hygiene.”
Immunity seems to have become the catchphrase today. “Immunity-building has become more important in these testing times,” says Dr RS Sodhi, managing director of Amul India. “Consumers prefer healthier food products. We expect all companies to add an element of health to their offerings in consideration of consumers, and consumers to continue to demand health-promoting products in the long term.” Amul has introduced ayurveda-based products to milk to come up with turmeric, ginger and tulsi doodh. “There are not Covidspecific products,” adds Dr Sodhi, “but meant for the general health and overall well-being of people. We have also launched ashwagandha milk and Panchamrit [a mix of five ingredients usually offered in temples as ‘prasad’]. Also in the pipeline is honey milk. We are seeing a growing demand from everywhere and are trying to meet that.”
Turmeric, the time-honoured immunity booster, is also making a comeback with competitor Mother Dairy bringing out a haldi milk. “This is the only new product we have launched during this time and it’s specifically for children,” says Sanjay Sharma, business head, dairy products at Mother Dairy. “[But] a lot of Covid-only hospitals in Delhi NCR are asking us to deliver this milk for their patients.” With the sudden onset of Covid, most companies have had to forego the extensive market research that precedes a launch. Consumer insights are hard to get when consumers are stuck indoors and the stores are closed.
In April, when Sameer Satpathy, chief executive, Personal Care Products Business at ITC, asked his teams to get back on new offerings, a five-point list landed on his desk within days. Since April-end, ITC has launched six products based on three of those points — among them the fruits and vegetables cleaner NimWash, and a surface disinfectant spray and germ protection wipes under the Savlon brand — at a blistering pace of an average of one release every 15 days. More products will follow over the next few weeks. “We worked with consumers to understand their pain points. We intuitively felt that there were certain things they wanted during these times, and worked towards building on that quickly,” says Satpathy. “At ITC, we have large R&D and innovation teams and we had the data and knowledge. So we worked on the previous learnings and crafted a portfolio of offerings. These are challenges we are facing as a country. In these circumstances, companies like ITC, with trusted brands, must stand up and say, ‘I can help you out’.”
According to Venkatesh Vijayaraghavan, director and CEO, Personal Care and Alliances at CavinKare. “Typically, new products take 18 to 24 months to launch, and involve getting consumer insights and internal processes. Given the suddenness of the pandemic, we’ve had to accelerate our innovation cycles and launch some products immediately.”
Rushing out a product may be risky for both consumers as well as a wellrespected brand. Aditya V Agarwal, director of the Emami Group, says of their new Smart Balance Immunity Booster Oil that although clinical trials are still on, the FMCG major has received the requisite approvals to market the product. “We don’t mind if we fail, because business is all about taking chances. But the first thing was to take care of the health of consumers,” says Agarwal. The new cooking oil contains Vitamin A, C, D, E and Omega 3. “We already had a cooking oil with vitamins A, D and E, and now we’ve added the other things, which has brought the product close to WHOrecommended standards,” he says. Emami’s other recent releases — soap, sanitiser and hand wash under the BoroPlus hygiene range — were already in the works. But the launch was brought forward by 11 months. “With Covid raging, consumers are really anxious right now,” says Emami Group director Priti Sureka. “We wanted to cater to those issues, so we decided to release the hygiene range now rather than next year. It wasn’t much of a pivot because we have an ‘anti-bacterial heritage’ in BoroPlus.”
Do pandemic products make for good business sense? Most companies hope consumers will continue to use them even when Covid blows over. “We had two perspectives in mind when we launched our products,” says CavinKare’s Vijayaraghavan, referring to the Bacto V gadgets and multi-surface disinfectants and the Safoo fruits, vegetables and meat cleaners. “First, that they must be scalable, which will happen when the categories’ penetration starts picking up post lockdown. Second, they must be habitforming.” The company has launched sachet versions of its food cleaners, so they are affordable to a larger demographic. “Even before Covid, there was a lot of confusion among consumers about how to clean their vegetables and meats,” he adds. “Now they have an option.”
Arvind Singhal, CMD of the management consulting firm Technopak doesn’t see a future for products. “People, who are in panic mode, will try anything,” he says. “It’s only when the panic subsides that we will know if any of these products have created a market. The immunity-building properties of these products has not been scientifically proven, and it takes over 10 years to fortify one’s immunity, not three months.” As for becoming a habit, Singhal is sceptical. “Rice cookers have been around for a long time in India, but very few actually sell. We still prefer to cook rice in the traditional way.”
Singhal feels that with profits down and the markets going slow, the companies are merely trying to find new opportunities. Mother Dairy’s Sharma appears to corroborate that. “Some products, like beverages and ice-cream, are seeing very little demand,” he says. “People usually pick these up at supermarkets, which are shut. Wedding catering for ice-creams is a huge source of business for us, which is not happening now. The exponential growth that we had planned has not happened as certain parts of the business have simply stalled.” It’s critical for companies, he believes, to keep innovating and talking to their consumer base to gauge what they want.
But, as Singhal says, ‘snake oil solutions’ are not what consumers want. “Give them something more tangible, more durable,” he says. “Don’t cash in on their fears during the pandemic.”
We worked with consumers to understand their pain points. We intuitively felt there were things they wanted and worked to build on that
–Sameer Satpathy, chief executive, ITC
Demand patterns have changed, with consumers increasingly seeking ayurveda-based interventions for boosting their immunity
–Mohit Malhotra, CEO, Dabur India
Consumers are really anxious right now. We wanted to cater to those issues, so we decided to release the hygiene range now rather than next year
–Preeti Sureka, director, Emami Group