The usual metrics for judging the success of a brand is market share. To achieve a dominant market share, conventional wisdom has it, companies must spend loads of money to execute shrewd strategies devised by marketing executives. And loyalty in these days of the chronically fickle consumer demands that marketers must offer scads of freebies and price-offs and plan programmes and so on and so forth. Miss Marcel doesn’t fit into any of these paradigms — but still commands a loyal following.
Just in case the name suggests visions of a shapely young thing enslaving the affections of hapless young men, a clarification. Miss Marcel is the name of a Kolkata-based cosmetics company that has been around since 1968. It probably wouldn’t figure in any market-share surveys. Most of its products are manufactured in a tiny unit on Colootola Street, a bylane off the rather better-known Chittaranjan Avenue. The redoubtable Google Maps can pinpoint the street but not the exact location of this establishment.
Miss Marcel is the stylish brand-name owned by Mohamed Aslam but chosen by his father from whom he inherited the business. There are several sub-brands like Elsa (foundations, nail-polish remover, eau de toilette), Estolan, a conditioner, Simpson’s Egg Shampoo and so on. Since the cosmetics business relies on distribution efficiency, it is no surprise that these products enjoy a decent market (if not market share) there.
But it is Miss Marcel’s Ogee Soapless Shampoo that attracts an almost fanatical following among a band of sisters (of a certain age, you understand). Ask any hairdressing salon in the city worth its skilled Chinese hairdresser and Ogee is the preferred shampoo. “It’s soapless, so it makes your hair soft,” older hairdressers insist. Talk of word-of-mouth, no trip to Kolkata can be complete without a visit to the few shops in New Market that stock the product. This is not just true of me in Delhi but friends in London too.
Now here’s the odd thing about Ogee in particular and Miss Marcel in general. In the two decades of the 40-odd years in existence, competition in its industry has exploded. Yet, the company remains stolidly immune to change. The company has never advertised and the packaging has been the same for at least 30 years — a brown cardboard box that encases an uncompromisingly unappealing white plastic container (it does useful duty as a spice jar later). It is wrapped in a red and white candy-striped wrapper that baldly instructs you: “Wet hair, apply a small amount of shampoo and massage into scalp, rinse till bubbles disappear; repeat.”
The pearly white cream inside is the same as is the (very) mild floral scent. Unlike newer brands, Ogee does not seek to expand its market by suggesting you use Miss Marcel’s Estolan after-conditioner for “best results”. There are no enticing photos of models tossing silky nylon wigs on the jar. Not once in all these decades has Miss Marcel offered a free related product or given, say, “25 per cent extra” as a lure. No sachets are available to attract first-time users. No celebrity endorses the product (though many local models use it). Neither I nor any fellow fans has been asked for mobile numbers or addresses to receive marketing mailers. At Rs 125 (up from Rs 80 a decade ago), it’s probably among the cheapest shampoos around.
Despite such sustained inaction on the marketing and advertising fronts Ogee has outlasted such 60s and 70s best-sellers like Halo Shampoo, and has been in business at least as long as Sunsilk, the Lever group’s shampoo that has metamorphosed from a detergent-heavy product encased in a sturdy glass bottle (then available in two varieties: lemon and egg) into a heavily-advertised multi-variety shampoo-conditioner offering endorsed by “foreign experts”.
Ogee’s low-key brand personality is amply reflected by Miss Marcel’s faultlessly polite owner, Mr Aslam. Traced through a website that specialises in listing small businesses, he is bemused by a phone-call from a Delhi journalist demanding to know whether Ogee is available in the capital. Surprisingly, it is! He is unable to name a retail outlet but helpfully supplies the names of three city-based wholesalers who stock his products. The first one immediately offers to send two jars next week.
So why, I ask Mr Aslam sternly, does he not market his products more actively, seeing as they clearly have a market still? The problem, he explained, was that his operations were small. Everything was made in the Colootola Street factory and the company employed just about 10 people (the website estimates his turnover as “upto (sic) $0.25 Million (or upto Rs. 1 Crore Approx)”. Clearly, Miss Marcel’s owners are making enough money to not feel the need to up the ante in India’s fast-growing beauty business. Since they’ve managed to survive by following a contrarian marketing strategy, the issue probably doesn’t bother them in the least.