Mindshare Vietnam’s Amit Thakur and Lifebuoy’s Ngọc Nhân Mai reveal that the soap brand flourished in Vietnam due to the pandemic and share how it leveraged technology with an infection alert system that supports its brand mission.

When the coronavirus hit in 2020 and hand washing became paramount, Lifebuoy found itself in an enviable position in Vietnam as demand for soap spiked. Ngọc Nhân Mai, senior brand manager at Lifebuoy, Unilever Vietnam, told WARC that by end-2020, the brand enjoyed 35% penetration in urban areas, up from 20% in late 2019. 

The brand took the opportunity to step back from its lead role in trying to promote the message of regular hand washing, as the Vietnamese government ramped up communications initiatives in its pandemic containment efforts. 

“That is where the shift happened. Back in 2019, we were driving it ourselves but in 2020 when COVID happened, it moved beyond just being a digital place to a much bigger thing. Our Ministry of Health deployed a system for messaging 97 million citizens every morning with updates,” said Mai-Ngọc.

Prior to the pandemic, the brand had seen success with its real-time infection alert system, originally designed to address the challenge of getting Vietnamese consumers to use soap as part of their handwashing routine. 

What triggered the idea, said Amit Thakur, managing partner of Mindshare Vietnam, was the team connecting with Google in 2019 and discovering its Ruled by Weather dashboard, which offered a real-time forecast of upcoming disease outbreaks in Vietnam based on historical weather data, disease search trends and real disease outbreak patterns.

“There is always technology available but the key is in using that technology for the benefit or purpose you want to drive as a brand,” said Thakur. “In Lifebuoy’s case, it was about how we could contribute more to consumers’ lives and not just stay a brand that tells them to wash their hands.”

The system targeted mums with updates whenever seasonal diseases – like flu; hand, foot and mouth; dengue; and diarrhoea – spiked in their region and provided them with helpful tips on sickness prevention, health and hygiene.

Since its launch in 2019, the infection alert system has alerted 3.5 million mums every month, helping Lifebuoy grow by more than 20% in Vietnam. Penetration increased by 100 basis points in urban areas and 500 basis points in rural areas.

The executional layer of the alert system hinged heavily on data that covered every aspect from type of creative to time of delivery. The Mindshare team had their hands full ensuring campaign assets and delivery were optimised in real time and in sync with on-ground developments across Vietnam’s 63 provinces.

With Vietnamese mothers as the main target audience, the Mindshare team leveraged the country’s nightly national news broadcast as the ideal window to send alerts via mobile. The 6pm–8pm time slot was identified as the ideal context for high acceptance for news and information, and it proved most effective with a recorded increase in CTRs (click-through rates), product consideration and purchase intent.

Thakur said that from being a mass informer for consumers, Lifebuoy stepped into a “very specific role” of reminding people that this was what the government and scientists were saying, and showing how the easiest way to prevent infection was by washing your hands.

“One of the things we’ve learnt through the years is when you [want to raise] awareness, it’s always best to do it with relevance. To give consumers more to consider about why they need to buy the product and not just be aware of it.”

Accelerated plans and precision

In 2020, the infection alert system was split into two distinct components, with the original alert system continuing to provide updates about seasonal diseases while a COVID-19-focused stream was launched with a heavy precision-targeting aspect. 

The team tracked which provinces had the greatest number of cases and targeted those areas with messages of support and special discounts, creating a new conversion channel. The brand also worked with ecosystem partners such as Grab to offer free products to people travelling to high alert areas or hospitals, and 50% discounts on GrabMart. 

“The infections alert system is no longer a platform owned by Lifebuoy in the digital space, it’s now imparted into everything we do,” said Mai-Ngọc. “We make it work as a cohesive system around the Lifebuoy brand with multiple touchpoints. It’s been amazing to watch as we’ve become a live ecosystem where everything is intertwined and supporting the brand’s mission.” 

Thakur added that COVID-19 demonstrated how a brand lives in a consumer’s home.

“It was about making sure that existing channels of trade, from e-commerce to channels that matter in the lives of consumers, are combined so that the brand is seen, experienced and bought.” 

Mai-Ngọc said the pandemic sped up initial plans the team had for the alert system. It also boosted the level of maturity in how precision marketing is tackled. One such example is the inclusion of population density in audience targeting, which in a pre-pandemic year would have been a significant innovation for the team but is now just one of many small things that has been incorporated.

“That was one of the privileges, we had this big boost internally and were focused on ‘getting it out there’ but it was also an exciting challenge in terms of streamlining our channels because if you have too many, optimisation doesn't work anymore,” he said.

There were many discussions about cutting down and focusing on the channels that create the biggest impact.

“For every wonderful creative idea out there, there's always a very hardworking, media optimisation process behind it, the silent partner.”

Mai-Ngọc added that the “living ecosystem” goal was initially supposed to be a three-year project, but the team has accomplished this in just one year.

“We’re also starting to see a lot of potential with this. We’re seeing the opportunities around different ways for us to approach consumers without us thinking of it in the first place.”

In addition, Vietnam fared better than many countries with just under two months of strict lockdown but the brand still had to find new ways to engage consumers during the transition.

“After lockdown, we had to get out there and target consumers where they were going. Restaurants were a number-one destination for many, then cinemas,” said Mai-Ngọc. 

Thakur said the good news was that Vietnam’s lockdown was shorter than in other markets; but no one had any experience of what to expect after lockdown.

“This was where we saw the brand playing an important role in ensuring people stayed safe as a priority and making sure people had the opportunity to use the products in public places like restaurants once they started venturing out again.” 

What’s next?

A key focus for the year ahead will be on which behaviours linger post-pandemic as markets lift restrictions and consumers reorientate themselves. Even Vietnam, with its handle on the virus, is impacted.

“Some of these changes and behaviours continue to be with us,” said Thakur. “One drastic change in particular is online e-commerce behaviour.”

In Vietnam, technology products used to the most popular category of goods but like many markets after the second quarter of 2020, groceries topped the list – a seismic shift for an FMCG giant like Unilever and its partners. Thakur said this sparked a strong focus and investment in shoring up e-commerce capabilities to further enable growth.

Thakur said one important aspect to note is that while many people have purchased online, they will continue to go back to retail outlets.

“But that behaviour of convenience and choice that e-commerce gives will stay with the consumer and we will be closely monitoring and learning our way up.”

For Mai-Ngọc, there are two things on his radar this year:

  1. The challenge of maintaining the momentum enjoyed by the brand, thanks to the pandemic; and
  2. Ensuring that the original mission of making washing hands with soap into a daily habit continues, even post-pandemic.

He said, “We think the infection alert system is going to help and there’s always new players coming in, so it’s important that we maintain the leadership position that we’ve established over the years because we believe that our product is the best one out there.”

However, there’s more to do in terms of the product, marketing and media mix in order to continue grabbing market share.

“That’s still a big job in 2021.”