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40 Years Ago...and now: Unsmiling Lalita ji to celebrating stains

Masoom Gupte 

It is rare for any brand to stand up and take ownership of a premium price-tag unabashed, much less bandy it as a certificate of superiority. But that is exactly how one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of this country was created.

In the 1970s, when the detergent world stood on the cusp of a change, Indian consumers first learnt the difference between 'Sasti cheez aur acchi cheez' (a cheap product and a good product) from the sparkling white saree-clad, Lalita ji. The commercial created for HUL's flagship detergent brand, Surf, by ad man Alyque Padamsee expounded the virtues of buying 'expensive' Surf. The campaign was a reaction to the launch of 'cheaper' Nirma in 1969 and the increasing popularity of 'Hema, Rekha, Jaya aur Sushma'. Thus was 'Lalita ji, a no-nonsense, smart, independent, prudent homemaker, conscious of her budget and yet, uncompromising with the quality of products that she buys' born.

Practically unchallenged in the Indian market, since its launch in 1959, Surf faced its first competition in the form of Nirma in the 70s, that launched its detergent powder at one-third the price of Surf. Lalita ji's unsmiling logic provided solace briefly, only to be countered by Nirma's Deepika ji soon enough. She exhorted consumers to opt for Nirma Super that offered the same quality and whiteness as offered by the expensive powders. This gave rise to a detergent war, with no clear end in sight and only an increasing number of parties sparring.

Since this heady battle of the 1970s, Surf has become a seasoned player, taking on challenges from home-grown players like Nirma and its global arch nemesis, Procter & Gamble (P&G). The latter entered the space relatively late, in 1991, with its detergent brand, Ariel. And once again, Surf was required to deal with a changing turf. Ariel, when launched, was targeted at the premium segment. Surf had to quickly react to this and with that Surf Excel was born.

The entry of another global player meant that the category itself was undergoing a change, not just with brand multiplicity but also in its products' DNA. The early 90s saw the emergence of concentrates and mid-priced powders in the Indian market. Surf Excel reacted by launching Surf Ultra with enzymes technology.

It yet again came up with a new product and a new campaign, which continues to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia even to this day: 'Daag Dhoondhte Reh Jaaoge' (Even if you search hard, you won't find stains). "The success of a product finally depends on the product being good. But communication can rarely reflect these aspects. Communication needs to be simplistic to be effective. Anyone who recalls this campaign, will also recall the manner in which the line is delivered by the actor, even the little twirl of the finger that goes with it," says Jagdeep Kapoor, CMD, Samsika Marketing Consultants.

Over the years, the brand has launched several extensions to keep up with the market's changing expectations. Forty years after Lalita ji first came to life on our television screens, the brand's range includes soap bars, liquid detergents, top-load and front-load detergent powders. Of course, along the way as competition heated up, especially with the launch of P&G's Tide in early 2000s, the turf war for maximum control got a bit messy. Surf Excel's sister brand Rin engaged with Tide in blatant sparring in the media.

But as pitched as the battle may have gotten between HUL and P&G, the two have not let the images of their key get sullied, maintaining their squeaky clean appearance. Analysts state that the two products have now reached a point where their credibility is sufficiently established. Apart from the routine price wars, the must churn out stunning pieces of communication to maintain their top of mind recall.

Surf Excel has a clear lead in that sense, with its creative partners unspooling iconic campaign after campaign. Perhaps the only detergent brand to actually go ahead and say that 'Daag acche hai' (Stains are good).

According to R. Balakrishnan, chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas & Partners, the genesis of the idea lied in a simple thought that if you are powerful, you would not fear your enemy, rather you will celebrate him.

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First Published: Wed, August 27 2014. 21:40 IST