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Product penetration vs regular usage: the mirage and the lake

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-08-2017 Ambi M.G. Parameswaran

Marketing literature has a few studies that speak about the challenge of selling what are termed ‘unmentionable products’. Often sanitary pads, tampons and condoms are included in this category. No wonder that in the 1980s and 1990s, Doordarshan, the government-owned television monopoly, did not allow sanitary pad advertising till kids were asleep, i.e. after 10pm. Curiously, government-sponsored ads for family planning and condoms used to be aired during prime time. Young girls who should have learnt about sanitary pads never got to see the ads till they were much older.

Sanitary pad companies had to train chemists on the fine art of selling a sanitary pad. It was never handed over to the customer across the counter. It was always discreetly packed in an old newspaper or a brown paper bag, and then slid across the counter. While marketers and retailers were worried about the product, I know of brand managers who had undertaken observation studies in deep Tamil Nadu who found that a conservative Tamil lady was willing to put the ‘delicately wrapped’ sanitary pad in her handbag and head into a temple.

The combination of advertising ban, prohibitive costs and duties made the sanitary pad a luxury in the eyes of the Indian consumer. Most were ready to settle for a rag cloth. In rural India, it was cloth or even more unmentionable products.

Suhani Mohan, an Indian Institute of Technology Bombay alumna and the founder of Saral Designs, a company that I mentor, speaks of horrible practices that still exist in rural and semi-urban India.

The penetration of sanitary pads was reported to be in the region of 15-16%, but its usage was dramatically growing, at a compound annual growth rate of 25% over the last few years. The market is dominated by two multinationals (Procter & Gamble Co. with 60% market share and Johnson & Johnson with 30% market share). The unorganized and local players account for the balance of the Rs2,900 crore market.

It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise for some of us to read the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS 2015-16, which recorded a total penetration of 60% for sanitary pads; with urban penetration at 77.5% and rural penetration at 48.5%). If one were to do a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation of the market size, even assuming that the average price of a pad is just Rs4, we end up with a size of the market at two or even three times the reported number. This leads us to the big question, what happened during the NFHS? Did the consumers say that they used sanitary pads right through each of their menstrual cycle, or was it that they sometimes used sanitary pads and not always, but were counted as users of sanitary pads. Did the NFHS distinguish between regular users of sanitary pads versus people who use it occasionally?

Some experts have pointed out that the earlier penetration numbers of 12 or 15% were based on smaller surveys done by AC Nielsen/Plan India, while NFHS was a much larger scale study, and hence more accurate. Can the number really be 60%? And how does this compare with other countries? China, Indonesia and Thailand have a penetration of around 60%, while Kenya has a penetration of only 30%.

Coming to the size of market issue, sanitary pads are not a cottage industry and the bigger brands have a strong market presence. Unlike, say, the cooking oil market, where you have dominant regional and local brands, sanitary pad brands are pan-national. So, my submission is that the NFHS numbers need to be rechecked for the exact instrument used, to elicit the answer, and the extrapolation used. It is not possible that 60% of all women across India are using sanitary pads through their menstrual cycle.Finally what is driving the growth of the use of sanitary pads. One simple answer—girl education. As more and more girls attend school during their ‘periods’, they will develop the habit of using sanitary pads and staying active during the menstrual cycle.

The government’s drive to ensure all schools have a proper girls’ lavatory is a step in the right direction. If the girl child continues to attend school right through the month, she will get into the habit of using sanitary pads. More importantly, her mother and father will see the benefits of not keeping her home-bound during those five days. This behaviour change will lead to many new things—higher education, job, career, and progress.

How to drive consumption? How to improve penetration?

There was a signature campaign recently to request the government to consider putting sanitary pads in the zero goods and services tax (GST) category.

Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore pioneered the concept of a low-cost sanitary pad to tackle the price aspect; his pad-making machine costs a fraction of the cost of a machine that makes the conventional sanitary pad; his absorbent material is indigenous and cheaper. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the government and R. Balki is making a film starring Akshay Kumar called ‘Pad Man’ based on his life mission.

We need many more Murugananthams and Suhani Mohans to fill the huge void of affordable sanitary pads in the country, and take penetration to a real 60% rather than a reported number.

Ambi M G Parameswaran is a brand strategist, author and founder of, an independent brand advisory. He can be reached on

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