…and then Nirma stormed in

The advent of the Nirma washing powder campaign on the small screen marked a turning point in detergent competition and led the way for the company to bring out a number of other household products  

Some of the most heartening success stories start from humble roots, and when you realise that Nirma found its beginning in the backyard of a house in Ahmedabad, manufactured by a chemist who then travelled door to door selling it locally at minimal cost, its story suddenly becomes shinier, whiter, brighter.

It’s been decades since Dr. Karsanbhai Patel’s first batch of homemade phosphate-free washing powder. Having a strong knowledge of chemistry, his confidence in the product was reinforced by a money back guarantee with every pack he sold. He was indulging in a bit of a hobby, also a way to earn some extra money. He was also, though unbeknownst to him then, soon going to be taking on some of the biggest MNCs in the country.

Patel didn’t worry the big players at first though. Back in 1969, the established players in the market were confident of their dominance. It’s the oldest story in the book, really. The unlikely underdog seems almost predestined to win, his opponent’s dismissals almost bolstering him along the way.

While it wouldn’t seem so, our experience with them somewhat limited to actual use, the world of detergents is a highly competitive one. Even back then, with players you could count on the fingers of one hand, Nirma was embarking on a difficult journey. Luckily, it already had a USP. Patel had managed to cut the cost of production drastically, and his product was priced at Rs. 3.50 per kg. Well aware that even the cheapest powder in the market came at a good ten rupees more, he knew that his target group was going to be the middle and lower income bracket — the majority of the country. His Nirma, derived with love from the name of his daughter Nirupama, was going to be “Sabki Pasand Nirma”.

It was a clever strategy too, one that became instantly attractive to the prudent housewife looking for affordability and good value. Nirma, almost as soon as it arrived on the store shelves, carved out a space, creating, all by itself, a new section altogether. Other cheaper products would follow, but for now, its ingenuity had made Nirma the sole player in a game it had started. It was bound to win.

Over 40 years on, Nirma’s prime USP remains the same, with few changes, though not from the lack of trying. Its presence in the premium product market has been somewhat lukewarm, and it remains, as it was right in the beginning, the brand most attractive to the thrifty, careful householder.

That this name and its benefits remain so firmly ensconced in our minds, that even today, just the word Nirma is enough to set off multiple renditions of that almost legendary jingle is a comment on the brand’s strong advertising campaign too. Created by Purnima, the agency that handles Nirma’s creative and media mandate, the series of ads, complete with a varied and colourful montage and the catchy accompanying jingle, held our attention in a very different way than its competitors’ offerings. While the famous Lalitaji made us think and question and critique, Nirma hummed a soothing note. No one spoke in the early Nirma washing powder ads. There were no demos with comparisons of stains and whiteness, no rivalries played out on screen. Nirma sang to us, and showed us the end results— smiling faces clad in bright, clean clothes. And the faces it used mattered. It cut across religion, region, age, incomes and gender. It showed us weather beaten men and beautiful women, happy housewives and confident career girls, families on picnics and Rajasthani folk artists. It was a careful montage, with something for everyone to relate to, or at least everyone within the ambit of the brand’s TG. It was a clever tactic, one that didn’t need the viewers to think, instead making them passive recipients of melodiously sung promises. It’s a bit of a statement on our roles as consumers that it worked so well.

And then there was the image of that twirling, pirouetting little girl, in her bright white frock— one of the most enduring images in the world of Indian advertising. She was, and remains, despite countless alterations, additions and subtractions in the campaign, the brand’s ambassador. She seems to speak of a certain light-hearted youthfulness; an appealing image, but an unlikely one for a washing powder. One would expect something else, something closer to the product perhaps, but the Nirma girl, perhaps representing Nirupama, has worked her way into our subconscious, synonymous with the brand in a way that only the best brand icons can be.

It’s interesting to note that unlike Surf, that needed to spell out the benefits of buying a comparatively expensive powder, Nirma did not stress on its low cost status, suggesting that this was, already, a well known fact. It was only when Nirma’s competition had woken up to the new threat on the block, and Surf’s Lalitaji began to capture the nation’s interest, that Deepikaji appeared on screen, doing her daily shopping, and chatting good naturedly with the shopkeeper about the benefits of buying cheap but quality products. Deepikaji didn’t hector, was firm but not forcefully so, and would perhaps make a better neighbour.

It’s been years since Deepikaji finished her shopping, but Nirma has stayed firmly entrenched on the map. The low cost product segment that it created has expanded to encompass several subdivisions and competitors. Nirma itself has expanded, producing toilet soaps, food products, personal care items and more. The ads, since its image makeover by TapRoot India in 2009, have begun looking more aspirational, sometimes including frankly odd things— underwater Russian ballet dancers for one, but with its initial campaigns, Nirma hit a note high enough to be still echoing pleasantly, asking us to sing along.

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Printable version | Nov 17, 2020 5:17:11 AM |

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