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Behind the brand: why Lifebuoy’s the world’s No.1-selling germ-protection soap

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Since 1894, Lifebuoy has reached more than 1 billion people with hand hygiene education, helped redefine how millions of children learn the alphabet, and sold soap all over the world. Find out how this heritage brand continues to grow.

Smiling children wash their hands with Lifebuoy soap. They are wearing red T-shirts printed with a Lifebuoy logo.

How it started

In 1894, Lever Brothers – which later became Unilever – launched Lifebuoy as a cholera pandemic raged across the globe. The soap bar was designed to be an affordable, accessible way for communities to help protect themselves from illness, and Lifebuoy shared the message that washing hands with soap could help to prevent germs from spreading.

In doing so, it became not just one of the world’s first consumer brands, but also an agent of social change.

Lifebuoy soap was delivered to soldiers during World War I, and when World War II broke out in 1939, the brand sent vans equipped with soap and hot showers to some of the worst-hit areas of the UK, so residents who no longer had access to basic amenities could wash.

Over the decades that followed, Lifebuoy expanded to reach markets around the world but its mission remained as relevant as ever: helping to make hand hygiene a simple part of everyday routines.

A pack of Lifebuoy soap dating back to the 19th century.

How it’s going

Lifebuoy is now the world’s fourth most chosen FMCG brand, according to Kantar’s Most Valuable Global Brands 2022 rankings. It’s also the world’s best-selling germ protection soap*. The brand’s hand hygiene mission has grown too, with Lifebuoy reaching 1 billion people across 30 countries with educational campaigns between 2010 and 2019.

In 2020, Lifebuoy re-entered the UK, where it all started, after a 20-year hiatus. That same year saw Lifebuoy experience 50% growth as consumers reached for the trusted brand during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lifebuoy is sold in 100 countries, and is particularly strong in emerging markets, which account for half of its sales. It’s also growing fast among rural consumers in Asia, and tapping into the expansive reach of Unilever International – a division of Unilever dedicated to launching brands into new markets and new channels at speed.

You’ll also find Lifebuoy in Uber taxis, hotel rooms, sports arenas, transport hubs, and supermarket trolleys around the world, helping people maintain hand hygiene wherever they shop, play, work or stay.

There’s no doubt that Lifebuoy’s purpose helped power its growth trajectory. As Global Brand Lead Khim-Yin Poh explains: “Lifebuoy’s handwashing campaigns continue to raise awareness and have contributed to a large increase in brand power – a measure of brand attractiveness. This has certainly helped Lifebuoy achieve its Kantar rankings.”

The purpose that powers it

Smiling children in pink and blue shirts show their clean hands to the camera.

Lifebuoy’s purpose is part of its DNA. The brand has been rooted in protection from germs for more than 125 years and has decades of research, experience, and heritage in supporting personal health and hygiene for consumers around the world.

Lifebuoy aims to drive and change handwashing behaviours in times of need, making handwashing messages engaging and memorable. Inspiring good hand hygiene practices underpins the brand’s strategy and its business model across all markets it operates within.

Lifebuoy has reached more than 60 million through in-school educational campaigns which teach children the importance of handwashing with soap. The brand even redefined the alphabet in 2020, launching its H for Handwashing campaign which teaches kids that H should not only stand for Hippo or Horse but also for Handwashing. Partnerships with governments in South Africa and India saw schools change their curriculums to introduce Lifebuoy’s alphabet books and put handwashing on the agenda in every classroom.

Having delivered on its goal to reach 1 billion people with hand hygiene education by 2020 a year early, Lifebuoy’s current goal is to reach 500 million people every year.

Brand new ideas

  1. Healthcare in the palm of your hand

    Recognising that consumers are increasingly seeking to take preventative steps to protect their health, Lifebuoy is democratising access to healthcare. The brand is partnering with telehealth providers which allow people to seek advice from health professionals via phone, helping millions to take control of their health before it becomes an issue.

    Across India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, Lifebuoy has worked with telehealth service providers to give the opportunity of free digital healthcare to millions – especially in areas where physical healthcare centres are scarce.

    Those in need of attention can call a number or scan a QR code found on Lifebuoy product packaging and commercials. In Vietnam, this has meant around 10 million people being reached by the ‘Doctor Anywhere’ scheme, and in Bangladesh, more than 10,000 people have had full consultations with doctors when they most needed it.

    Read more about the brand’s partnerships here

  2. Concentrates to combat germs

    Lifebuoy’s newest launch combines product efficacy, purpose, affordability and sustainability.

    R&D teams developed a powder version of the brand, which is sold in India for Rs 10 (€0.13). By decanting this into a bottle and adding water, consumers can create liquid hand soap, which lasts longer than a soap bar and delivers on changing consumer preferences.

    “We wanted to bring a product to market that would deliver value to consumers and to Unilever while further developing the liquid handwash market – a market we’ve seen grow exponentially since Covid-19,” says Khim-Yin Poh.

    “This is India’s most affordable liquid handwash, and it fights 99.9% of viruses and bacteria. It comes with sustainability benefits too. It gives consumers the option to reuse their own bottles, and uses less storage energy compared to larger products. We hope it will have a lasting impact.”

  3. From hand care to home care

    In 2021, the brand expanded from personal care to home care with the launch of Lifebuoy BotaniTech, a new range of multi-surface disinfectants, which contain naturally derived cleaning agents.

    The pH-neutral products include a spray and eco-refill, a general cleaner, antibacterial wipes and an aerosol – all capable of delivering 24-hour anti-bacterial protection.

    Find out more about Lifebuoy BotaniTech here

It might surprise you to learn…

To celebrate this year’s Global Handwashing Day on 15 October, Lifebuoy is announcing plans to recruit a group of Chief Education Officers (CEOs).

The new H for Handwashing CEOs will be children aged between six and 12 with a passion for making a positive impact in their local community – and they’ll be spreading the hand hygiene message to other kids and advocating at the highest levels to help include hygiene into school curriculums.

Since its launch two years ago, H for Handwashing has reached 12 million schoolchildren across 35 countries.

Download Lifebuoy's fun educational activities here and appoint an H for Handwashing CEO to help spread the word in your community.

Three children post with an easel. Copy reads 'Meet the H for Handwashing Chief Education Officers'

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Based on NielsenIQ unit sales for the Skin Cleansing category (latest 12 months available) © 2022, NielsenIQ. Details available on https://www.lifebuoy.com/No1.html


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