Lifebuoy: The Best Social Program Ever?

Few brands stories have the resonance and impact of Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5.”

My current nominee for the best social program ever is “Help a Child Reach 5”— a hand-washing program sponsored by a brand that virtually disappeared from the U.S. a half-century ago, Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap.

However, Lifebuoy is far from dead internationally. The brand is dominating the market in India and other emerging countries, with a fourth-place ranking in Kantor World Panel’s 2015 valuation of users and their buying frequency of 11,000 global brands in 35 countries—only falling behind Coca-Cola, Colgate, and Maggi.

With “Help a Child Reach 5,” Lifebuoy’s mission is to save lives by spreading the importance of good handwashing habits around the world. This campaign is driven by two facts:

  1. Every year, 2 million children fail to reach their fifth birthday because of diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia.
  2. Handwashing with soap at key occasions can reduce diarrhea by 45% and pneumonia by 23% worldwide, thus reducing infant deaths substantially.

A pivotal event in Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5” effort was the implementation of a showcase program in Thesgora, a 1,500-home Indian village. The program, which showed a reduction in diarrhea from 36% to 6%, became the subject of a three-minute video featuring a grandpa walking on his hands through town to celebrate one of his grandchildren finally reaching 5 years old.

The video has now been seen over 19 million times and the resulting case study helped Unilever accelerate the program throughout India and in 24 other countries. Lifebuoy executes the “Help Children Reach 5” program with creativity and flare.

In India, 1,500 Unilever employees have volunteered to help teach school children the importance of handwashing through child-friendly materials, including comics, songs, games, and rewards. The importance of washing for 20 seconds on five key occasions throughout the day is driven home through a device that illuminates germs that are still around after one hand wash.

But it doesn’t stop there. Mothers are educated because over 40% of infant deaths in India occur during the first 28 days of life. Unilever retrofitted water pumps so that children can embrace the habit more easily. Unilever even put the phrase “Did you wash your hands with Lifebuoy today?” on over 2.5 million pieces of flatbread called “rotis” during a Hindu holiday.

“Leon Kay of, posited that this was the most impactful program ever in terms of the number of people reached.”

Plus, the company has created dozens of videos expressing the impact of this initiative on children, parents, and communities as a whole. Lifebuoy is also leveraging Global Handwashing Day, October 15th, which was established in 2008. In fact, on October 15, 2012, Lifebuoy’s office in Dubai set a Guinness World Record when they got people from 72 countries to simultaneously wash their hands.

“Help a Child Reach 5” is a winning social responsibility program. It has already reached more than 250 million people and is on target to reach a billion people by 2020. One observer, Leon Kay of, posited that this was the most impactful program ever in terms of the number of people reached. It certainly adds energy and a higher purpose to the brand and generates social and emotional benefits too.


In my view, there are three reasons why this program stands out. First, it attacks a visible, meaningful, and emotional problem that is relevant to Unilever’s core international markets—the life expectancy of infants. And it does so with a concept (handwashing) that has demonstrative value. Second, the design and execution of the program is creative and effective. Kids and moms are taught and motivated to wash “the right way,” using a wide variety of tools and methods. Third, the program is intricately tied to Lifebuoy as hand washing suggests the use of Lifebuoy soap. Further, the linkage draws on Lifebuoy’s heritage as a disease-fighting soap product.

Although other organizations are also active in the handwashing movement, Lifebuoy, for many, has become the exemplar.