Chintamani Rao
Mar 03, 2011

Chinta's Blog: Marketing shampoos or Nanos, you're changing lives

Stop apologising, take pride in the job, says Chintamani Rao, president, Media Direction

Chinta's Blog: Marketing shampoos or Nanos, you're changing lives

At the recent World Marketing Congress in New Delhi, Nitin Paranjpe, CEO of Hindustan Unilever, spoke eloquently for FMCG marketing professionals and, in the process, revisited what marketing is all about.

He observed that FMCG marketers are often apologetic or defensive about what they do for a living. In 21st-century India, where the challenges lie in technology, telecom, infrastructure and financial services, it seems frivolous, almost embarrassing, for grown-ups to be engaged in peddling toothpaste, shampoo and the like. 

Marketing affects people’s lives, he said. We take toothpaste and toilet soap, shampoo and detergent, for granted; but to many millions it is not just a better way to clean their teeth or hair; it is a move up in life. He spoke of a poor woman who uses a bit of moisturising lotion on dry skin and, with the feel and fragrance of it, feels beautiful for that brief moment. Think, he said feelingly, of the difference to her self-esteem: that is what you are doing for her.

Nitin’s eloquent testimony brought back to mind a long-ago afternoon in a village in Kanyakumari district. I was standing at the back of a small crowd, to observe a rural van operation we were running to promote Pond’s shampoo. (Yes, there was a Pond’s shampoo, before that company was acquired by Unilever and the brand was focused on skincare.)

Our presenter was waxing eloquent and, as was his routine, called a small boy up, washed his hair, and sent him around the crowd so they could touch his hair and smell the fragrance of the shampoo.

A man standing next to me – not so young,  unwashed, a daily wage farm labourer on a work day, by the look of him – went up to the front and bought one sachet of shampoo. As he returned, a man he was with wondered what he’d done that for. “It’s for my wife,” he said.

“You paid one rupee for that?”

“I don't think twice about paying a rupee for toddy. Why not to make her happy?”

A spontaneous gesture of spousal affection in a milieu you would least expect it in; later that afternoon, one happy woman feeling cared for; and, perhaps the following day, indulging in the experience as she bathed and feeling sexy. What magic in a 5 ml sachet of something to which you and I give as much attention as we do to the air we breathe.

Years later, we were working on Jai soap, a brand Hindustan Lever acquired when they bought Tata Oil Mills. The unique attribute of Jai was its jasmine fragrance. 

To gain a close and deep understanding of the brand, the Account Director on the business travelled to Jai’s strong markets and called on a number of its users in their homes.

The key attribute of Jai soap was its jasmine fragrance. To us it was, even if you liked it, excessive. It obviously wasn’t to its users but not, as you might derisively think, because they, in their unsophisticated way, liked that sort of thing. What came through in intimate womanly chats with users over cups of chai in their homes was its significance.

The fragrance of jasmine has both religious and sensuous connotations. In the life of a hard-pressed middle-class wife and mother, there is only one time in the whole day when she can be alone with herself and her dreams – when she bathes. The fragrance of Jai was not just a pleasant smell as she bathed, as lavender or musk may be to you; it fuelled a quiet romantic fantasy as she wallowed in the jasmine lather.

So powerful was the attraction of the fragrance that many a woman even kept the opened soap wrapper in her cupboard or trunk among her clothes. It was just a bar of soap; but it was a bar of soap that helped her feel special.

The same thought – the importance of bath time, or the potential of it – was behind the creation of Liril soap in the mid 70’s.  The girl in the waterfall represented exuberant freshness, but equally she represented exuberant sexuality. In a pre-television era when the monthly visit to the cinema gave the only audio-visual exposure most people had, she burned herself on the prospect’s mental retina; and the unique green marbled soap and its lemon fragrance help trigger the feeling at bath time.

That all of these stories are about toiletries and sensuality is not to say that is the only way marketing affects, or can affect, people’s lives! A prime example of its failure to do so is that of the Tata Nano.

The Nano is, famously, the result of Ratan Tata’s vision for the ubiquitous family on the scooter and his mission of providing them safe, economical all-weather transport. The media celebrated the technological triumph and national pride, and the elite adopted the car as their plaything. No one told that family it was for them, and monthly sales plummeted to the low thousands.

Now there is an ad, but it’s not from Tata Motors, it is from a bank offering auto loans for the Nano. The protagonist is a bus driver: not exactly an aspirational icon for the broad middle class. And as any student of marketing knows, upgrading to a car is aspiration first, functionality only second. I wonder if Tata Motors had anything to do with it. They’ve done the Nano a huge disservice either way.

Until about 15 years ago, marketing in India was mostly about upgrading people from commodities to packaged goods and to newer product forms, and perhaps accompanying that was a sense of nobility of purpose. In the last few years, branded competition has set in, and the volume of advertising has reached cacophonic levels. As we rush around frantically promoting discount offers and doing media deals with one eye on Cannes, Nitin’s was a welcome reminder to all of us in the marketing value chain that there is more purpose to our work than we credit it with.    

Campaign India

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