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Is the fairness industry ready for a revamp?

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fair&handsomeThe market for fairness or whitening products, currently pegged at Rs 3000 crore, is huge in India, offering great scope both in the urban and rural markets. The industry consists of a surfeit of products that promise a fair and glowing skin in limited time. Tall claims by marketers and advertisers have won over unsuspecting customers, luring them with the depiction of fair-skinned models in glamorous advertisements. So what are the factors really responsible for the demand of these products? It’s a need created by marketers who operate in a highly competitive world and seek a winning edge.

This fascination for fair skin is not limited to women but is equally popular among men, thereby creating a whole new segment of men’s fairness products.
Fair & Lovely, a 1000 crore brand from the house of Unilever launched in 1978 in India, claims to be the world’s first fairness cream and holds a lion’s share of around 50 per cent of the total market of fairness products. With the launch of Fair & Handsome in 2005, Emami created a whole new market for men’s fairness products and presently holds a market share of around 57 per cent.

With a view to distinguish itself in the cluttered market of fairness products, Nivea, a premium segment brand positions itself as a whitening products company for whitening of dark patches, dark spots, and sun burns, instead of a fairness products company.

“Nivea has products that help ‘Repair’ patchy skin. We are present with ‘Repair’ propositions in ‘Whitening’ body lotions’ for women. Brand Nivea has a clear brand imagery and products are positioned by leveraging the values of the mother brand” said Sunil Gadgil, Marketing Head Nivea.

Cosmetic giants have been promoting the thought that fair is superior by associating it with beauty and success. The colonial hangover has left us in awe of fair skin, something marketers have used to their own advantage, evident in the campaigns and TVCs of leading fairness brands. Fair & Handsome, a pioneer and market leader in the fairness products for men, roped in Bollywood Actor Shah Rukh Khan. Shah Rukh claims in the ad that fairness is the secret to success in life. The commercial didn’t receive a positive response and was overshadowed by a public interest litigation filed by popular actress Nandita Das asking Emami to withdraw this commercial on the grounds of being discriminatory.

Following the footsteps of Emami, Fair & Lovely roped in a popular cricketer, Virat Kohli as its brand ambassador and launched a TVC with a similar appeal. The TVC depicts how Virat owes his success story to his fair skin (a kind blessing by Fair & Lovely) and how it helped him woo his fans, bowlers, media and the scorching heat of sun. Fair skin again became the determinant of success instead of grit and hard work.

Harish Bijoor, Brand domain specialist of Harish Bijoor Consults

Harish Bijoor, Brand domain specialist of Harish Bijoor Consults

Harish Bijoor, a brand-strategy specialist and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults explains how it is the combination of need and smart marketing that is responsible for the huge size of the fairness products market. “Indians have a craving to look fair and marketers have leveraged this to sell their products. Men are also getting oriented towards fair skin.”
Commenting on the Fair & Lovely TVC featuring Virat, Harish noted “The brand is clearly riding on the popularity of Kohli. Cricketers endorse every product and there is no control over endorsements.”

Smart consumers need smart marketers and promoting fair skin tone as the hallmark of beauty can raise eyebrows considering how the consumer has evolved and become more aware.
Apart from the ethics involved, health risk has also emerged as a key challenge before the fairness industry. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released a few months back, at least 44 per cent of the fairness creams marketed in the country contain high levels of mercury — a toxic heavy metal which may lead to medical complications. Under the Drugs and Cosmetics Acts and Rules, the use of mercury is banned in cosmetic products in India.

Blaming the present strategies of leading fairness brands as banal and discriminatory, Bijoor said “Associating fair skin with beauty and success is a clichéd approach. Color is racial, and such marketing strategies should not be encouraged.”

Brand Consultant Vijaybahu Joshi who specializes in brand identity development, believes the market for fairness products did not exist in India before the advent of advertising, “Indians were comfortable being dark until advertising hit the Indian market. In India, if you travel from south to north you see the complexion getting fairer. Fairness is a canvas which advertisers have used” he said. “Considered from the perspective of aspirations, this strategy is fair as long as it is working. Aspirations can be related to marriage, better career or just being accepted in society. But from an ethical perspective it is unfair since it promotes feudalism, racism, prejudice and an authoritarian system.” Vijaybahu added.

Smitha Sarma Ranganathan, Strategic Branding &  Marketing Management

Smitha Sarma Ranganathan, Strategic Branding &
Marketing Management

Smitha Sarma Ranganathan, Professor of Marketing , IBS Bangalore threws light on how this fixation is an opportunity for marketers, “The aspiration to look fair continues to exist in the Indian psyche be it among women or men! This aspiration has often taken epic proportions so much so that looking fair has ended up seeming like an obsession among Indians. In this context, the fairness market is an ever vibrant opportunity for marketers of related products”.

“Fairness as an aspirational concept has been highly debated lately, particularly since it did imply dark being inferior and undesirable. However the global impetus on racial inclusions has triggered a movement in India where dusky has begun to be considered beautiful. While at the bottom and middle of the pyramid the continued obsession with fairness is bound to continue owing to acceptability in the context of marriage, brands should not overtly take ‘the fair is beautiful’ stand point. They should, instead, pitch these products as beauty enhancers that inspire confidence and improve grooming!” she added.

Perhaps, the fairness industry needs to revisit its marketing strategies and leverage other more desirable aspects of the product than the mere promise of fair skin. Smarter and slicker marketing can be used for desired effects. The marketing of fairness products has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The challenge is about how marketers can reposition the products , if they wish to do it at all.

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