For marketers pondering content options, India can be a vexing place. There are 700 million people sprawled across 600,000 rural villages, only 46 percent of whom have access to TV—and that’s on a good day. Regular power outages can last three or four days at a stretch.
And even when the grid is humming, other forms of disconnect can kick in. For example: It’s not uncommon to see a shampoo ad showing someone lathering up in a luxurious bathtub. That imagery might appeal to a typical low-income family watching TV in their house in the slums of Mumbai—but many people in smaller Indian villages don’t even have a bathroom. In other words, villagers’ needs and aspirations might not differ dramatically from their urban counterparts, but their points of reference do. Reach is not equal to connection—and there’s no point in bombarding them with communication that means nothing to them.
That means that reaching this critical market—which accounts for 40 percent of India’s total consumption—requires thinking creatively about content. That was Hindustan Unilever’s approach with its soap, Lifebuoy.
A bit of background: An estimated 2 million children in developing countries die every year of diseases related to poor hygiene. Since it’s founding, Unilever has had a strong commitment to hygiene and public health. Hindustan Unilever believes the simple act of hand-washing with soap could cut down on that tragic rate of infant mortality, and that gets reflected in all of the brand’s communications. But changing old-age habits, and moving millions of people towards action, is a different story. Progress can be frustratingly slow.
Then, in February, the people at Unilever spotted a unique opportunity.
Every 12 years the city of Allahabad witnesses the largest congregation of religious pilgrims on the planet: the Maha Kumbh Mela. One hundred million Hindus descend on the city to take a holy dip at the Ganges River, and for over a month they pray together, live together, and eat together. Many marketers look at them as one enormous captive audience—but their messages often don’t resonate. (Remember: Reach does not equal connection.) Lifebuoy, however, saw a massive opportunity to provoke a behavior change in a meaningful and memorable way.
Allahabad is a dusty, dirty place during the festival, and maintaining hygiene is not necessarily at the top of the attendees’ minds. The people at Hindustan Unilever had an idea: What better way of reminding people to wash their hands than just as they are about to eat? The company’s marketers sent 100 promoters to set up shop at 100 kitchens and use heat-stamp devices to print a message on 2.5 million fresh pieces of roti, or Indian bread. The message said, simply, "Have you washed your hands with Lifebuoy?"
Roti is a staple served with almost every Indian meal, and the only way to eat it is with your hands, says Vipul Salvi, national creative director for OgilvyAction. The words were impossible to miss or ignore—or, hopefully, forget. It’s reasonable to expect that many pilgrims will keep talking about it even after returning home, and that some will remember the message every time they sit down to eat.
There’s no standardized way of measuring the effectiveness this type of content. But on a total investment of $36,000, Unilever reached more than 5 million people directly. That’s a cost of less than 1 cent per contact. And there’s a sense it made a difference.
"The Lifebuoy Roti Kumbh activation has electrified the brand in India to unprecedented levels," says Sudhir Sitapati, general manager in the head, skin, and cleansing category at Hindustan Unilever. "But beyond all the benefits for the brand, what’s most gratifying was the impact we had in Allahabad itself. In its own small way, I think the Roti activation made the Kumbh a safer place this year."
Lifebuoy didn’t just set out to communicate, it tried to engage and influence behavior through a different kind of storytelling—one that is deeply rooted in culture and personal behavior. The lesson is clear: The best content moves beyond just reaching out to audiences, and instead finds a way to connect with them.
Samir Gupte is President of OgilvyAction India.
Daniel Comar is Regional Executive Creative Director of OgilvyAction Asia Pacific