First there was Axe. And then came everyone else.
Almost like the Pied Piper television advertisement that men's deodorant brand Axe ran in the past where the miffed protagonist — who doesn't get paid for his rat ridding service — walks away with all the women in the town after spraying himself with Axe, most deodorant brands in India, that launched after Axe, seem to be mesmerised by the Axe effect themselves, much like the women in the ad.
These brands have replicated the ad creative property Axe created: a guy next door opens a can and instantly becomes a babe magnet. Spurred by the 'sex sells' theory, most of them, picked up Axe's creative strategy.
Tropical climates can do with deodorants. The credit for this basic body odour-manager getting glamourised to become a babe-puller goes wholly to Unilever's global best-selling men's deo, Axe, which Hindustan Unilever (HUL) brought to India in 1999 after taking note of the large volumes of it being sold in the grey market. The initial advertising was imported from other markets and worked with youth instantly.
According to Nielsen, HUL is the market leader in deodorants in India in value terms, with a market share of over 25 per cent, and Axe is the market leader. Store sales indicate the Axe brand sells far more units than the any of the other heavily advertised brands.
So while Axe has by now moved on to consumer engagements across communication platforms, other men's deo brands have stayed with mainstream advertising.
"The Axe brand philosophy is to combine push and pull marketing. The push is through traditional, one-way messaging to consumers through TV and other traditional ad media. The pull is through inviting consumers to engage with the brand and experience the Axe effect. Digital is the new focus as it offers brilliant scope of engaging with the consumers and having great conversations. We need to be wherever our consumers — the younger target group — are," said Srinandan Sundaram, GM oral care and deodorants, HUL.
Axe has run 'Call Me', a phone campaign, launched Axe Inxtinct and Twist games online, and has its own dedicated Facebook fan club called Axe Angels which, HUL claims, has attracted more than a million fans.
Considering the lack of variation in the advertising and sharp lack of product distinction by the other men's deo brands, the category has nonetheless grown exponentially. This summer saw the launch of at least 30 new deodorant brands or variants, adding to the already existing 350 or so in the organised and unorganised markets.
"The idea for these me-too brands is not to be number one, but number two or three," said Prathap Suthan, national creative director, Cheil India. "The strategy has worked earlier for Axe, and is bound to work again, is the thinking. They might not be offering anything new, but then it will help grow the market. The next brand that takes a completely different view will break the clutter and emerge as a big brand."
The organised deodorant category has grown at 41 per cent annually, according to Nielsen, and is worth Rs 619 crore. Brands including Zatak, Wild Stone, Denver, Fuel, Reebok, L'Oreal, Playboy, KamaSutra and companies such as Wipro Consumer, Spencer's, Zodhitha Health Solutions, Future Group have forayed into the space.
HUL recently launched its anti-perspirant Sure (it already has Axe and Rexona). In February, Raymond's J.K. Helene Curtis expanded its Park Avenue deo range. "We re-staged Park Avenue and launched seven new variants," said Anil Kulkarni, business director, JK Helene Curtis.
L'Oreal launched its Garnier Men's deodorants range in India first and is now taking it to other markets. "The advertising is based on the product offering measurable benefits," said Richa Singh, brand manager, Garnier India.
"The men's deo category is growing quickly. The imagery created in most of the me-too ads is not aspirational but intended to make noise, which is growing the market" said Anand Ramanathan, analyst – consumer markets, KPMG Advisory.
Most players are staying with popular pricing. Park Avenue is premium at Rs 200. Future Group's John Miller is priced at Rs 99. HUL too dropped the prices for Axe. "The property of attraction is being used by far too many brands and the market leader is reaping the benefits of this," said Devendra Chawla, head – private brands, Future Group.
The next stage, agree experts, will see the emergence of new advertising strategies.
"Deo brands are having a field day touching upon everything from flirtatious glances, to pure sensuality, to rampant sexuality, including cheating relationships. But most lose out on sharp differentiation. This is the perfect time and opportunity for a brand to go against the grain," said Josy Paul, chairman & chief creative officer, BBDO India.