The recent revocation of a patent granted to Hindustan Unilever’s Pureit water filters will have a minimal impact on the brand, according to company executives. A key reason for this is that Pureit has to its credit some 30 worldwide patents, which it says would sufficiently protect it in the marketplace. The current patent revocation was triggered after the Tatas launched Swach in 2009. HUL said this amounted to patent infringement, a claim that Tatas challenged.
Though Tata Chemicals, the maker of Swach, has won the first round in this battle, HUL is contemplating further legal action by appealing against the verdict of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) in the Bombay High Court.
IPAB had, in its order dated June 12, said the technology used by Pureit was not new. HUL uses a chlorine-and-carbon-based technology to purify water in four stages. Chlorine, according to experts, is one of the most commonly used chemicals to purify water.
Besides HUL, Tata’s Swach as well as Eureka Forbes’s AquaSure operate in the chemical sub-segment of the Rs 1,600-crore overall water purifier market. Eureka Forbes, however, uses a bromine-based technology to purify water, which is far more expensive than chlorine-based technologies.
The use of chlorine also makes HUL as well as Tata’s Swach affordable. HUL’s range starts from Rs 900 going right upto Rs 13,500. Swach, on the other hand, is priced at Rs 899 and 1,199, respectively. Eureka Forbes, thanks to its bromine-based technology, an entry price of Rs 2,000.
As things stand now, HUL is the leader in the chemical sub-segment with a market share in excess of 60 per cent, according to industry experts. Eureka Forbes has a 15-20 per cent share, while Swach is not considered to be big at the moment. There is a non-chemical sub-segment, too, within water purifiers, which Eureka Forbes created two years ago. Together chemical and non-chemical constitute the non-electrical water purifier market, which is roughly around Rs 400 crore in size. The other portion is the electrical water purifier market, which is Rs 1,200 crore in size.
Here, there are two broad segments called ultraviolet (UV) and reverse osmosis (RO). HUL last year stepped into the RO space, marking its entry into the electrical water purifier market, which has players such as Eureka Forbes, Kent and Whirlpool, among others. UV, on the other hand, is completely dominated by Eureka Forbes, whose total revenue from its water operations as a whole is roughly Rs 750 crore.
Given that both Tata Chemicals and HUL use similar technologies to purify water, the face-off between them is not new. Last year, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) had asked HUL to withdraw leaflets that blatantly compared Swach and Pureit.
To drive home its point, HUL had put huge tick marks against the Pureit brandname, while Swach had huge cross marks.
This had raised the hackles of Tata Chemicals, which had complained to ASCI about the issue. The leaflets were subsequently withdrawn, though stickers at retail outlets continued to be there.
According to analysts, HUL’s aggressive strategy in water is partly linked to the prospects it sees in the category. Its latest Annual Report for the fiscal ended March 2012 identifies water as a key category for the future besides beauty and foods.
In four years since its launch, Pureit’s sales are in excess of 5 million units clocking revenues of Rs 250 crore.
Pureit is also exported to seven different markets across the world, with plans in place to expand its footprint further.