Whipping Up A Swadeshi Lather

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It was exciting to be an entrepreneur a hundred years ago. A new, urban middle class was rising, it was aspirational and there was money to spend. Suddenly, household and personal budgets made room for brands that were pitching modern products to satisfy the wants, needs and even the whims of this new class of consumers.

While many of the products sold in India were imported to cater to the colonial British and upper-crust educated, Westernised Indians, there was a pivotal development that influenced an emerging brand philosophy of the time. The Swadeshi wave was sweeping across the country and its anti-colonial thrust shaped the kind of products that Indians made as well as their marketing pitch.

So, from biscuits, to soaps, personal care products, medicines, fans and light bulbs and packaged foods, and from cement, to steel, banking, automobiles and pharmaceuticals, the subcontinent was making great strides in manufacturing while laying the foundation of a self-sustaining, modern India. Some of the companies and entrepreneurs who emerged during this period would go on to become huge business corporations and captains of industry.

But it wasn’t all that simple. Marketing was in its infancy and all that these early brands had to hook the consumer were tools such as pamphlets, billboards, newspaper advertisements and word-of-mouth.

In Branded In History: Fresh Marketing Lessons From Vintage Brands (2021), Ramya Ramamurthy has chosen the colonial period from 1857 to 1947 as a backdrop to examine these brands and how they managed to shake off the shackles of colonialism and find their own identity, often aligning with the identity of a newly emerging India.

In her book, Ramamurthy also demonstrates how the economic climate of the time, taxation laws and the policies of the British determined what was produced.

When you add it all up, the fundamental questions she examines are: why did some brands succeed while others stumbled? How are the stories of these brands relevant today? And what lessons can these vintage brands teach corporate houses and entrepreneurs today?

In this excerpt on the pioneers of the soap industry in India, we get a glimpse into how a product can change people’s habits, and at some canny and creative early marketing strategies they used.

Godrej was not the only one with skin in this game. Other soaps like Mysore Sandal and Hamam as well as 501 and Moti were already in the market. Lever Brothers and Tata were already advertising their vegetable oil soaps by now. This was a clear reflection of how soap was gradually being accepted by the middle class.

TOMCO's Hamam Soap Advertisement

In the context of the setting up of TOMCO, R.M. Lala writes, when the Tatas came to Cochin, they were one of the first to start an industry in Kerala. He quotes Xavier Arakal, who was the Member of Parliament (MP) from Kochi (1980-84) as saying, ‘They brought a two-fold benefit to the people. They gave the coconut owning families a ready market for their products and they gave employment to the local people. Those with a steady job were able to get a steady income and educate their children and with education came social change and even a political change.’

The Tata group describes this factory being set up in one of their ads for TOMCO in 1946 in a series called ‘Oils’. This was the fifth in a series of ads they wanted readers to cut out and put together in a scrapbook. The ad copy reads: ‘In 1917, in a small town of Ernakulum, the capital of Cochin State, elephants cleared a dense grove of 26 acres of cocoanut [sic] trees, and two years later a modern factory equipped with the latest machinery was humming on the peaceful and pleasant backwaters without impairing the scenic beauty. That was 27 years ago. 20 years later there was similar activity on the barren lands of Sewri at Bombay but instead of elephants there were modern machines for setting up the factory. Today they manufacture so much “510” and Hamam soaps that they equal 20% of the soaps consumed in India.’

The Tatas had a bouquet of toiletries and other products including soaps like Hamam, 501 washing soap and Moti, hair oil, shampoo and eau de cologne, including an eau de cologne soap, Nirvan perfume, Cocogem cooking fat and Pakav vegetable fat, to name a few.

Another ad campaign they ran during this period compares the daily household activities from churning fresh butter, winnowing grain and feeding the furnace to the daily ritual of bathing with soap. The copy says: ‘Just like these daily rituals a daily bath is also a necessity. It is essential for health and cleanliness but the refreshing fragrance of Hamam makes the daily ritual a pleasure.’

While TOMCO was working on building a daily bathing habit like all early entrants in this space, Godrej’s efforts focused more on the consumer experience and the scientific formulation of their product.

Vrunda Pathare [Editor’s Note: Chief Archivist at Godrej Archives] says, ‘Marketing became interesting because the Godrej safe advertisements used customer testimonials and the endorsements from important consumers provided credibility. Soaps were advertised widely in newspapers, the advertisements featuring German scientists talking about how they were good for your skin. The packaging was attractive and colourful with three soaps in one soap case.’

In fact, Nadir Shah, one of Ardeshir’s [Editor’s Note: Founder of the Godrej Group] friends who owned a printing company, created all the advertising copy and artwork for the packaging as well. The soap covers mentioned that Godrej made safes and locks as well – introducing cross-promotion as a concept way ahead of its time.

Buoyed by a distribution network already in place for their safes and locks, Godrej leveraged their nearly nationwide presence to stock soaps in every presidency. They had offices, godowns and warehouses in Bombay but their first branch was set up in Calcutta in 1926, followed by Madras and Delhi in the 1930s, Hyderabad in 1939 and Trichy in 1943. These branches were like sales offices for all their products in that region.

Each branch had a team of dealers and sub-dealers. Their deep penetration stemmed from the knowledge that they had to cater to every bank or government office for their safe and locks business, but the unintended or simultaneous pay-off for their soaps was that nearly every kirana store in the country could stock them.

Unilever's Lux with actor, Leela Chitnis

Their brands were endorsed by celebrities of that era. Unilever’s Lux used film stars, making it the ‘Beauty Soap of Film Stars’. It appears that when Lux signed on actress Leela Chitnis in 1941 as its first Indian endorser, it was not a pioneer: Palmolive had already signed on and released ads with Indian actresses like Sulochana and Devika Rani. However, mysteriously, they dropped this campaign just before the Leela Chitnis ads were released.

In sharp contrast, the Godrej campaigns saw support from political leaders. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi’s son Harilal ended up volunteering to sell the soaps around the 1920s and 30s. Vrunda Pathare points out that this is illustrated in the film Gandhi My Father, which has a scene showing Harilal selling soaps. The prodigal son thus had an obscure yet interesting connection to Godrej.

When Harilal offered his services to market the products in India, Burma and Celyon, the Godrej management readily agreed and gave him the freedom to make his decisions. Harilal, instead of directing operations from Bombay, personally visited places like Pune, Mysore, Bangalore, Lucknow and Amritsar to promote their soaps.

Godrej's soaps being endorsed by Tagore

That’s not all. Where Lux had Leela Chitnis advertising the soap in 1936, Godrej had luminaries like the British socialist, activist and theosophist Annie Besant and Bengali polymath and poet Rabindranath Tagore featured in newspaper ads saying they had used the soaps themselves, assuring people of their quality and asking them to buy Godrej soaps.

It is worth noting that Annie Besant was not seen merely as an Irish theosophist telling the locals to buy a Swadeshi product but also as a Swadeshi campaigner and vegetarian, while someone of Tagore’s stature was seen as lending his support to this brand not for endorsement money but because it was a step in nation-building leading to economic freedom from the British.

Excerpted with permission from Branded In History: Fresh Marketing Lessons From Vintage Brands (2021) written by Ramya Ramamurthy and published by Hachette India. You can buy your copy here.