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40 years ago...And now: Not just germs, Dettol fights rivals unabated

If earlier the germicide had to battle home remedies, now it is other brands

Viveat Susan Pinto  |  Mumbai 

How does washing your wound with sound? It is worth wondering how much the stern name would have taken away from the appeal of the brand in question.

The then-(now RB, and earlier known as Reckitt Benckiser) had almost decided to call the best-known The English parent of had decided to market it in the 1930s with the forbidding name because it was short for parachlorometaxylenol, the aromatic compound that gives its germ-fighting ability.

The wanted the product's name to reflect its medical history and rigour. RB had been testing for years, in hospitals and maternity homes, and zeroed in on the term due to the uniqueness of the compound.

It constituted just 4.8 per cent of Dettol's total admixture, but was powerful enough to lend its germicide properties to the solution, without irritating human skin as much as the antiseptic liquids back then.

History, perhaps, would not have remembered PCMX as well as it did Dettol. Even though Dettol gave no indication of the formulation, it had an unmistakable medical association. The packaging was a clean, no-nonsense, slim bottle with round edges with a large cap that could be opened easily.

The bottle resembled medicine bottles of the thirties and the use of white on green (Dettol was embossed in those colours) was reminiscent of hospitals and nursing homes. Dettol's white sword further referenced the doctor's cross).

Later, RB cleverly used this as the "sword of trust", along with the clouding action, characteristic of Dettol when dissolved in water, in advertising across the world. Dettol came to India the very year it rolled out of RB's factory in England, in 1932; multi-country launches were unheard of then.

RB wanted to reach as many markets as it could and India being a British colony was convenient.

Dettol found acceptance in local hospitals for first-aid, cleaning of wards, washing of linen etc. But it remained out of homes because Indians believed in using home remedies such as haldi (turmeric) as a germicide. The brand had miles to cover before becoming the household name it is today.

RB, say brand historians, was amongst the earliest users of doctor referrals. This was a medium trusted by consumers. Allopathic doctors would keep an for cleaning wounds or for usage after minor procedures.

RB had to ensure that they reached out for Dettol on such occasions. Patients got to see how Dettol was used, followed the doctor recommending Dettol for home usage.

Kiran Khalap, founder, Chlorophyll communication consultancy, says, "Dettol represented the new thinking about germs, which was what allopathy propagated - that disease was caused by germs, while traditional thinking said disease was caused by an imbalance of the body. It helped that the social milieu was accepting modern science then. It was not uncommon to be told that if you stepped out in the heat and dust then you should bathe in Dettol water or that you should clean your toilets with Dettol, besides using it to heal wounds. Dettol was positioned as an invisible protection against "

RB backed its ground-level effort with cinema ads in the 1960s using the mother-child relationship as the fulcrum to drive home the message of germ-protection. This continued over the decades. By 1981, Dettol had expanded into soaps, taking its germ-protection property into the competitive personal care space.

By the 1990s, it added plasters, liquid soap and shaving cream to its portfolio, and followed up by adding bodywash, kitchen gel, hygiene liquids and wet wipes in the 21st century. Nitish Kapoor, MD, RB India, says, "Dettol is considered a gold standard in germ protection. Over the years, it has evolved, but has remained consistent to its core in every way it engages with users."


Dettol's broad health care and personal hygiene canvas has meant that it has increasingly found itself fighting Hindustan Unilever's Lifebuoy, also positioned on the same plank.

At times, it has waged acrimonious ad and legal battles with the latter. But it refuses to cower, taking the battle for share right to the doorstep of rivals.

In antiseptic liquids, Dettol enjoys over 85 per cent share of the market. In soaps, it oscillates between the number three and four, after HUL's Lifebuoy and Lux, and at times, Wipro's Santoor. In liquid soaps, it claims an over 50 per cent share, ahead of rivals. Dettol is clearly not done protecting its turf while continuing with its germ-protection plank.

First Published: Thu, March 12 2015. 21:40 IST
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