Sunday NY Times – Cleaning Up: A brand shows its social responsibility to the poor – by selling to them.

Lifebuoy soap India campaign It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about Corporate Social Responsibility but there was an interesting article entitled Cleaning Up in yesterday’s Sunday NY Times magazine by Rob Walker for the Consumed section.

As this article demonstrates, CSR is not just about companies doing good works. At it most effective and sustainable level, its more about designing and executing corporate strategies that address some of society’s more adaptive challenges.

Hindustan Lever’s Lifebuoy campaign, however, is not philanthropy; it’s business. Throughout its long life, the antibacterial soap has been positioned as a health-and-wellness product: a 1902 ad in Harper’s promised “this wonderful cleanser and purifier” was “the enemy of dirt and disease.” That “core proposition” remains, says Punit Misra, the marketing manager who oversees Lifebuoy and other skin-cleansing brands for Hindustan Lever. Perhaps the most significant change to the product itself in recent years has been the introduction of smaller, and thus cheaper, bars: a half-size, 50-gram bar, for five rupees (about two ounces, for roughly 12 cents), was introduced in the early 1990s. (The small-package approach is now used by many companies in developing markets.) More recently, the packaging was made “more contemporary” by replacing the “strapping young man” on the package with an image of a couple and their children, Misra says.

And five years ago, the company introduced a campaign called Swasthya Chetna or “Glowing Health,” which, boiled down, argues that even clean-looking hands may carry dangerous germs, so use more soap. It began a concentrated effort to take this message into the tens of thousands of villages where the rural poor reside, often with little access to media. “Lifebuoy teams visit each village several times,” Manwani said in his speech, using “a glo-germ kit to show schoolchildren” that soap-washed hands are cleaner. Manwani says this program has reached “around 80 million rural folk” and added that “sales of Lifebuoy have risen sharply.” The small bar has become the brand’s top seller.

There can often be a fine line between effective CSR and exploitative marketing; however, Hindustan Lever hits the mark with Life buoy and its Swasthya Chetna (“Glowing Health”) campaign. The article sites University of Michigan professor and author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. Prahalad:

“The question that comes up all the time is: These companies are pushing consumption, but what we need is livelihood improvement,” he told me in an interview. But preventing illness also means a family might avoid a potentially devastating loss of several days’ work. And ultimately, he says, campaigns like Lifebuoy’s Swasthya Chetna should be evaluated not ideologically but by their impact on the global poor. “The alternative,” he said, “is needless death.”

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Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

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