Science Is Not a Wet Blanket: A Marketing Plan for Antibacterial Soap

The relationship between science and marketing usually has great chemistry: effective marketing evokes an emotional response that compels people to buy something, which enables companies to research and develop new products. Let’s call this the honeymoon phase: things seem pretty great on the surface, yet they really need to sort out some uncomfortable truths. For example, don’t these two advertisements make you feel shocked that you aren’t sanitizing your hands before you eat? While cleverly executed, they are a little misleading because they paint a very stark picture of hygiene.

Ad text: “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Protex worked with the agency Y&R in Brazil to create this ad in 2012.
Lifebuoy worked with the agency Lowe in Indonesia to create this ad in 2009.
Ad text: “You eat what you touch.” Lifebuoy worked with the agency Lowe in Indonesia to create this ad in 2009.

These ads were created before scientific consensus was reached on the safety of 19 antibacterials. An earlier review of 27 relevant studies found that antibacterial soap was no more effective than regular soap and increases the risk of antibacterial resistance. Has science effectively put an end to antibacterial soap? What should a company that makes both regular and antibiotic soap do to comply with the new FDA ruling without losing revenue?

Identifying Marketing Opportunities

Adhering to good science doesn’t mean stomping out the creativity of your marketing team. Instead, marketers can gain inspiration from the diverse impact bacteria have on human health and present their products in the right context.

Beneficial relationships

  • Bacteria aid in digestion
  • Bacteria serve as a barrier against infections
  • Bacteria produce or cure many foods we eat: yogurt, cheese, sausage, pickles, sauerkraut
  • Bacteria are major recyclers and decompose dead organisms and waste
  • Bacteria can help clean up oil spills
  • Bacteria are crucial for nutrient cycling—crops rely on the nitrogen and phosphorus released (and fixated) by bacteria into useable forms
  • Bacteria have countless medical applications including antibiotics, vaccines, insulin, Taq polymerase, and can be engineered to produce enzymes and drugs
  • Bacteria made the Earth oxygen-rich 2.45 billion years ago. Phytoplankton (cyanobacteria, algae, etc.) produce 5080% of the oxygen on Earth
  • Eukaryotic life (humans) evolved from prokaryotes (bacteria)
  • Our mitochondria—the site of energy production in our cells—are derived from bacteria

Harmful relationships

  • Bacteria cause many diseases
  • Bacteria cause food to spoil
  • Cyanobacteria blooms can release toxins into the water and disrupt ecosystems

Selecting the Best Story

Clearly the benefits of bacteria far outweigh their harmful effects. The best path forward for our fictional company would be to promote good hygiene and healthy living, recognizing the selective need for antibacterial soap in hospital settings. The FDA has not banned antibacterial agents like benzethonium chloride, but the conscious capitalism approach would not pursue any consumer-grade antibacterial soaps that could lead to antibacterial resistance.

You may be asking yourself, wouldn’t this hurt the bottom line given that U.S. consumers are still spending $450 million on these soaps every year? Maybe initially, but consider the long-term impact of more and more news showing the ineffectiveness of antibacterial soap for consumers. Do you want your brand to be ahead of the curve and earn the trust of consumers through educational content and outreach, or do you want to risk public backfire by continuing to sell products with questionable health consequences?

Brand loyalty and a positive brand image can pay off. A 2014 survey by Nielsen of 30,000 people found that increasingly, consumers care about and will pay extra from sustainable companies. Product sales for companies actively promoting sustainability grew 5% from 2013 to 2014, compared to 1% for non-sustainable companies. Shareholders and upper management may still be weary, so product diversification efforts could include alcohol-based hand sanitizers and antibiotic ointments to increase overall sales. Now it’s time to put this all together into a cohesive plan to win them over.

Content Development

You want your marketing efforts to have an impact on your customers and drive sales. Most hygiene products exist in a sea of sameness, touting their ability to leave you fresh and sanitary. To break through the noise we need to invoke the same emotional reaction as the Lifebuoy and Protex ads while delivering our core message of promoting healthy living in all aspects, including our beneficial relationships with bacteria. There are a lot of stories to select from the opportunities section above and all of them are pretty fascinating, although some don’t relate to washing our hands. This is a decision for your team to make. Two brief possibilities are listed below.

  1. The #BacteriaAreGood campaign might promote surprising and uplifting stories about the ways bacteria help us every day. This could encompass infographics that show the massive amount of oxygen production cyanobacteria perform, or what the world would look like if bacterial and fungal decomposers ceased to exist. A larger budget could involve video production partnering with thought leaders in the field or with industrial clients highlighting the roles bacteria play in their businesses. Skipping ahead in the marketing funnel, you could roll out a new line of scents based on unique microbial ecosystems, like Eco Series: Hydrothermal Vent or Prismatic Spring, to connect the educational content to your products.
  2. The #SmartAntibiotics campaign might have a more refined focus on the company’s efforts to slow the rise of antibiotic resistance and to educate parents on how they can allow their children’s immune systems to develop without becoming sick all the time. A recent, viral video created a very compelling demonstration of bacteria’s ability to acquire antibiotic resistance and serves as a prime example of how to capture not just major news coverage, but also valuable backlinks that boost organic search rankings. Unfortunately, CleanerScience already envisioned creating soap replicas of petri dishes and test tubes, but maybe a corporate partnership is all they need to get back from their leave of absence?

Which campaign seems better to you? Can you think of even more compelling ways to showcase this new direction for our fictional company? How would you apply a similar thought process elsewhere in the business world of science?

Further Reading

And finally, what kind of blog post about antibacterial advertisements would be complete without pirates, fighter jets, superheroes, giant germs and as much kung fu as at least five episodes of Dragon Ball Z?

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Greg Emmerich

Science Writer at Promega
I am a science writer at Promega striving to combine creativity with science. I live off adrenaline rushes from skiing and discovering new music. I received my B.S. Microbiology and M.S. Biotechnology degrees from UW Madison.

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