Selling a habit, not a bar of soap

What is a sustainable business? How do you build a business that lasts through fashions, economic cycles, changing demographics and competitive pressures? On UN-recognised Global Handwashing Day on 15 Oct, Lifebuoy looks at how it has built a business by focusing on a life-saving habit – not just a product.

Linking social and business results openly is what makes Lifebuoy a sustainable business, its global brand vice president says. Image: Lifebuoy

Every year, 6.6 million children die before they reach their fifth birthday. Of these, 1.7 million die from diarrhoea and pneumonia, infections that can be prevented simply through the habit of handwashing with soap.

If we can persuade more people to wash their hands with soap at the right moments, then we can prevent the infections that cost so many lives, and we can build our business through selling more soap. That’s my definition of a sustainable business.

But changing habits is difficult, as any of us who have tried to start exercising or a new diet would know. That’s where a brand like Lifebuoy – the world’s biggest health soap, and part of Unilever, whose brands are used by two billion people around the world on any given day – can really help.

Every day, marketers persuade consumers to choose and change brands. Marketers are experts in human insights and behaviour change, translating statistics and science into compelling messages. At Lifebuoy, we turn this expertise into teaching children to wash their hands with soap and create lifelong, life-saving habits.

As a father, I know that if I want my daughters to adopt a habit, I need to make it fun and rewarding, and that’s how we approach our global handwashing programmes. For example, we use handwashing diaries, comic books, stories and games. Comics are uniquely suited to spreading hygiene messages in an engaging and sustainable way; they’re fun for children, inexpensive and portable, which also make them ideal for rural communities.

By the end of 2014, we had printed 20 million copies of our School of 5 comics, which have now been translated into 19 languages.

Focusing our energies on this social and societal benefit – helping more children reach their fifth birthday – is good for business, and it’s important for us that we don’t shy away from saying that. Linking our social and business results openly is what makes us a sustainable business.

Our results have been consistently showing strong profitable double-digit growth for the past five years. Social impact and profits can go hand in hand. It’s uncomfortable for some to hear business growth and lives saved in the same sentence, but it’s the business growth that allows us to do more.

Every time one of the 257 million people we have reached through our programmes washes his or her hands with soap is a new opportunity for Lifebuoy.

The commercial incentive to sell more soap is transforming health outcomes – and it’s been happening for centuries. Lifebuoy was created by William Lever in 1894 during the Industrial Revolution, to combat the rampant disease and infections that ran rife in UK factory towns during a period of rapid urbanisation.

It was Lever’s horror at the high infant mortality rates and the experience of being surrounded by the squalid, unsanitary conditions of 19th-century Britain that made him determined to find the perfect germ-fighting formula and maintain a low price so that his soap was available to everyone.

What he did in the process was not only create one of the world’s first consumer brands but also an agent of social change.

In just four years (as at the end of 2014), our programmes have reached 257 million people in 24 countries; in 2015 alone, we expect to reach more than 100 million people.

But that’s not enough. We aim to reach one billion people by 2020. We’re undeterred by these ambitious targets. Only by putting our social purpose at the heart of what we do will we ensure we’re a truly sustainable business and attract world-class partners.  

Partners are key to our work and our ambitions, and working with partners is central to a sustainable business model.  We work with organisations who share a commitment to our cause including;

  • RSPH (Royal Society of Public Health, the world’s oldest public health body), which has been a close partner, reviewing and endorsing our work
  • Global health experts like the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Indian Public Health Association (IPHA) and British Skin Foundation (BSF) to ensure the highest levels of scientific rigour goes into making our products and programmes
  • Public Private Partnerships including DFID, USAID, WASH and the Millennium Village Project

Behaviour change requires sustained funding and refinement. And that sustainability comes from these partnerships – their health outcome objectives and academic rigour, combined with the profit motives of the private sector. 

It’s this motive that ensures we spend our days finding the optimum way to highlight the importance of handwashing and change behaviours.

And knowing that it makes a big impact in reducing 1.7 million child deaths a year makes this not just worthwhile business, but a business it is a privilege to be a part of and an honour to serve.

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