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Home > 2021 > When Nationalists Backed ‘Made in India’ | M R Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LX No 1, New Delhi, December 18/December 25, 2021 (double issue)

When Nationalists Backed ‘Made in India’ | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 17 December 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

Branded in History:
Fresh Marketing Lessons from Vintage Brands

by Ramya Ramamurthy

Hachette India

Pages: 309; Price: Rs 499

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9388322681
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9388322683

Did you know that Sunlight soap is as old as the Indian National Congress? The Lever Brothers in the UK made the first ‘vegetarian soap’ by combining vegetable or palm oil with glycerine to create Sunlight in 1885. After all, Indians were averse to imported soaps with animal fat or tallow. Soon, from 1892, Indian companies began producing soaps within, paving the way for soap to become a mainstream household toiletry item.
Making soaps indigenously was one thing; selling them was another. The nascent soap industry, battling imported brands like Sunlight, Lux, Vim and Pears, got unexpected help from leaders of the freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s son Hiralal volunteered and sold soaps around the 1920s and 30s for Godrej. Annie Besant and Rabindranath Tagore featured in newspapers ads saying they used soaps and asking Indians to buy Godrej soaps! And as Godrej-made safes replaced British ones, Mahatma Gandhi declared that Godrej’s safe business was in national interest. (Godrej later made ballot boxes for the first general election in 1952.) Other companies too stepped in, bringing out products some of which are still in demand: 501, Moti, Hamam and Mysore Sandal Soap.

In this information-packed, eminently readable account of how vintage brands got sold, author Ramya Ramamurthy transports us to a pre-independence era when branding and marketing had not taken decisive control. Companies used pamphlets, billboards, word-of-mouth and ads in local newspaper or radio to net customers. With stiff competition from British brands, ‘Made in India’ became a symbol of nationalist pride. Some brands have survived to this day; many have unfortunately disappeared.

Ads in those times were no easy affair. Most middle class Indians – this group itself emerged only after World War I – did not have much money to spare. So, some companies had in their mind largely the British community in India; once the Indians acquired purchasing power, they could not be ignored.

In beauty products, the Jabakusum Taila perfumed hair oil, invented by C.K. Sen and Co in 1913, is still around, its basic formula unchanged. It was the first hair oil to advertise in the first English language newspaper in India – the Bengal Gazette. Perfumer Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala launched face cream Afghan Snow in 1919. It became India’s foremost cream after getting the Afghan king’s endorsement! When some Swadeshi leaders called it an imported product, Gandhiji came to its rescue, writing in Young India that it was wholly Indian.

While the Rs 25,000-crore biscuit market (by value) is dominated by Britannia Industries, the 80-year-old brand Parle-G has 20 percent of the market share. India is the world’s third largest biscuit manufacturer after the US and China. Britannia, the first Indian firm to make biscuits, was set up in 1892 in Calcutta with Rs 295 investment (Rs 3 lakhs today). Mohanlal Dayal founded the House of Parle in 1928 at Vile Parle in Mumbai – hence the name. Parle-G began to be made in 1939, calling itself a viable alternative to British brands.

LG & Co, which sells the pungent spice hing, was formed in 1894 in a spare room at Masjid Bunder in Bombay. Vadilal ice cream came into business in 1907 when Vadilal Gandhi set up a soda fountain and imported ice cream machines to Gujarat. Today, Vadilal is India’s second largest ice cream brand by sales.

Bengal Chemical Works was the first pharma company set up in India by an Indian, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. From 1893, a year after its birth, it began making herbal products. Alembic Chemicals Works came up in Baroda in 1907 to produce tincture and alcohol. Zandu Pharmacuetical Works Ltd was started in 1910 by Prabhashankar Pattani, the Prime Minister of the former state of Bhavnagar, along with a Vaidya, Zandu. One of its most prominent products was Zandu Balm.

Hamdard Dawakhana opened in Delhi 1906; many still swear by some of its products including Safi, Rooh Hafza, Roghan Badam Shirin, Joshina and Cinkara. Dabur was launched in 1884 by Dr S.K. Burman in Calcutta although its bestseller Chyawanprash came out only in 1949. Like with soaps, the nationalist agenda closely mirrored the pharmaceutical enterprise. On July 4, 1939, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel visited the Cipla office in Bombay. When independence came, nearly 38 percent of the business was with MNCs. Today, it boasts of Rs 48,000 crores of business with around 12 percent of volume in the world pharma market.

Matchboxes began to be made in India in 1894 when Amrit Match Factory started in Bilaspur in present day Chhattisgarh. Islam Match Factory was born the next year in Ahmedabad. Bande March Factory and Oriental Match Factory came up in 1906 in Calcutta. These companies used Kali and the avatars of Vishnu on matchboxes. As the freedom movement galloped, the Indian flag, Ashok Chakra and political leaders began to adorn them. Most factories have shut down; a large portion of the industry is now confined to Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu.

Bank of Allahabad, founded in 1865, is the oldest public sector bank in India. Indian Bank and Bank of India were formed in 1907; Punjab and Sind Bank as well as Bank of Baroda in 1908; Central Bank of India in 1911. Lala Lajpat Rai played a key role in setting up the Punjab National Bank, the first to start solely with Indian capital. It once held the accounts of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi besides the Jallianwala Bagh Committee. As Ramamurthy says, it was perhaps the unique blend of Indian faith and modern banking that spawned so many banks that lasted for a century.

The author takes us into the equally fascinating history of Indian textiles, shipping, automobiles, cycles as well as steel and other heavy industries, exposing us to the many challenges their founders faced as they did business in times when money was scarce but nationalist pride as well as enterprise were aplenty. This book is a great account of 100 years of building brands in India.

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