Soap wars: Securex isn't copying Protex, SA's ad regulator rules, after Lifebuoy and Dettol's fights about 25 grams

Business Insider SA

  • Protex soap just lost a complaint that Securex soap is copying its packaging.
  • That's the latest battle in a nasty soap war playing out before the Advertising Regulatory Board.
  • In a previous fight, Lifebuoy lost a claim that Dettol was misleading consumers about 25 grams – much like Dettol had, successfully – claimed that Lifebuoy was misleading consumers about "25g extra value".
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

Securex soap is not imitating Protex soap, at least not in such a fashion that it concerns the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB), according to the latest ruling from that regulator in a bitter war between soap makers in South Africa.

On Monday the ARB published its finding in a complaint by the maker of Protex that the decade-younger Securex was copying its packaging's look-and-feel.

If it had something to complain about, then Protex should have been complaining earlier, the ARB said.

But that is not the only complaint the ARB has recently faced between soap makers.

Here is how the soap wars have been playing out in recent months.

Protex vs Securex are fighting about packaging.

Protex vs Securex
How Protex and Securex packaging compares, according to Colgate-Palmolive's complaint.

In the latest battle, Colgate-Palmolive complained its competitor, Bliss Brands, was ripping off its Protex brand. 

Protex has been sold in South Africa for nearly two decades, and Colgate-Palmolive says it commands nearly a third of the market.

Thanks to a remarkable similarity between Protex and Bliss' Securex, Colgate-Palmolive told the ARB, "a hurried consumer would no doubt grab the wrong product off the shelf, or at the very least believe the two products to be from the same stable or somehow related", according to a summary of of its complaint.

But the packaging for Securex has simply evolved since its 2011 launch, Bliss shot back – and Colgate-Palmolive was effectively seeking a "monopoly over commonly used and reasonably required packaging elements and the combination thereof".

The advertising regulator agreed with neither. Instead it looked closely at only recent changes to the packaging for Securex rather than how it now compares with Protex on shelves – and sent Colgate-Palmolive packing.

The elements that Colgate-Palmolive wants protected " should have been raised many years ago", the ABR ruled, and it would be against the spirit of its code of conduct "to allow a complaint of this sort after a competitor has participated in the market for 9 years, establishing its own brand goodwill in the process."

The decision is still within the window for appeal.

Meanwhile, Lifebuoy and Dettol battle over an "extra" 25 grams... 

The Dettol "shelf wobblers" Lifebuoy complained about.

The ARB also this month ruled against Unilever South Africa, makers of Lifebuoy soap, in a complaint against its competitor Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Dettol.

Unilever wanted "shelf wobblers" – small moving signs attached to retail shelves – banned for claiming that Dettol soap bars now come with "25g extra".

In reality, the Lifebuoy company said, Dettol had just introduced a bigger, more expensive bar of soap; where previously stores sold 150g Dettol bars for R11.46 each, retailers were now selling 175g bars for R12.99. (On a per-gram basis, that would equate to five free grams, with the other 20g paid for, by Business Insider South Africa's calculations.)

In response, the makers of Dettol said Unilever was acting "out of spite" because it had lost an earlier fight about the "25% extra" that Lifebuoy is advertising. (See below.)

"There is simply nothing misleading about claiming that a 175g bar of soap contains 25g more soap than a 150g bar," the ARB said in summarising Dettol's argument.

The regulator didn't quite agree. Consumers may see the ad that way, the ARB said – or they could believe that "extra" means "extra value", in which case Dettol would be required to make sure they get extra value.

Competition law effectively forbids Dettol from forcing retailers to sell the new, bigger bar for the same price as they sold the old, smaller bars. But while the retail markup is out of their control, the makers of Dettol are going as far as they can by selling the new, bigger bar to wholesalers and retailers for the same price it used to charge for the old, smaller bars, the ARB found.

"It would therefore appear that, in so far as it is legally able, the Advertiser has endeavoured to ensure that consumers not only enjoy “25g extra” soap; but that they also get “25g extra” value by keeping their own pricing the same for both bars. This is as far as they are legally currently able to go to ensure the value is passed on to the consumer," the regulator ruled.

...after Lifebuoy lost a nasty fight about 25 grams of "extra value" to Dettol.

Lifebuoy 25g
The "25g extra value" Lifebuoy claim that Dettol's makers complained about.

Just before Christmas, Lifebuoy maker Unilever lost an appeal against a decision on a slightly different matter – this time that Lifebuoy's new, bigger soaps offer "25g extra value".

Dettol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser had lodged a broader set of complaints about Lifebuoy, including its claim that the "active silver" in the soap kills 10 infection-causing germs.

The ARB was happy it had enough evidence hat Lifebuoy does indeed kill germs – but was not happy about the claim of "extra value", which seemed aimed at Dettol.

Dettol had replaced its 150g soap bars with new 175g bars, which were selling at roughly the same price. Lifebuoy had always been sold in 175g bars. Told they were getting "25g extra value", consumers would now "understand that the price of the Lifebuoy 175g is either the same or lower than a Lifebuoy 150g bar, or the same or lower than its competitors’ 150g bars," the regulator said in its ruling.

But because there had never been a 150g Lifebuoy bar, the "extra value" could only be in relation to competitor soaps, as Lifebuoy claimed in fine print.

Using external data, Lifebuoy proved to be cheaper than one leading competitor – Dettol – but its manufacturer had not show it to be cheaper than its other big competitor, Protex. On that basis the ARB ruled it had to withdraw the "25g extra value" claim.

Unilever appealed, but did not turn up for an appeal hearing that led to a judgment containing a different calculation on just how much Dettol and Lifebuoy actually cost, and an ultimate ruling by the Advertising Appeals Committee that the Lifebuoy claim was "ambiguous, inaccurate and exaggerated".

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