Imagine dominating the market with a product. And then having to deal with a competitor that claimed to offer something similar at a much, much lower price. Many brands would have been drawn into a price battle. Hindustan Lever actually hit back by making Surf’s higher price seem like a benefit, not a weakness. With some help from perhaps the most iconic fictional characters in the history of Indian advertising: Lalitaji.
When Nirma started Surfing the washing powder market
Right until the seventies, washing powder in India was more or less synonymous with Hindustan Lever’s Surf detergent powder. It was far from affordable, but it had no real competitors. That changed in the mid-seventies with the emergence of Nirma, a washing powder that came with a much lower price tag, and managed to make enough headlines with its catchy jingle to actually catch the public’s attention. On the surface, the two products – Nirma and Surf – seemed to be targeted at totally different audiences (Surf cost about Rs 15 a kilo, Nirma about Rs 4), so Surf’s initial reaction was to largely ignore the newcomer. But as Nirma began to grow by leaps and bounds (its much lower price encouraged even Surf users to experiment with it), Surf started losing market share. By the eighties, the brand had no option but to react. Legend has it that there was even a strategy in Hindustan Lever called STING – Strategy To Inhibit Nirma’s Growth.
Most people advocated coming up with perhaps a more affordable variant of Surf, but the brand instead decided to follow a strategy that was the polar opposite – it decided to go on the offensive and make a virtue of what many considered to be its weakest point: its price. Think of Achilles going to battle, and deciding to fight only with his heel. Leading Surf’s advertising charge was the man that many considered to be one of the legends of Indian advertising, Alyque Padamsee of Lintas. And he came up with the idea of Surf’s quality and price being defended by a new character. A person who the audience might not necessarily like but who would drive home the point that Surf was not only much better than the competition, but worth every penny of its premium pricing.
The result was a character no one would ever forget: Lalitaji. A housewife who would bargain for everything, but not on the price of Surf.
Lalitaji and her samajhdari
Lalitaji was featured in a series of ads. The format was by and large the same, although the situations varied from ad to ad. A classic instance saw Lalitaji haggling with a fruit seller over the price of some fruit she was purchasing. As she negotiates for a lower price, a voice asks her that if she is so careful about her purchases, why does she purchase Surf (a packet of which is in her shopping bag). The implication is that if she is so concerned about a few rupees on the price of fruit, why would she invest much more in something that was as expensive as Surf?
Lalitaji delivers her answer with no hint of defensiveness. If anything, she is almost patronising and hectoring in her tone, telling the voice that “there is a difference between buying what is cheap and what is good.” She then goes on to say that half a kilo of Surf is equivalent to a kilo of cheaper washing powder (a statement that is backed up by images of powder being poured in two jars). And then delivers her punch line – which is used in all ads featuring her – by tapping her forehead with a finger and saying, “Isliye Surf ki khareedari mein hi samajhdari hai” (“That’s why purchasing Surf is a sensible decision”). She goes on to show how clear her clothes and those of her son (who is playing nearby) are, because they were washed in Surf. And says that she has no intention of giving this (wonderful cleaning) up for the sake of saving a few Rupees. The ad ends with her asking the fruit seller to weigh the fruit correctly.
Rather unusually, there is hardly any background score in the ad. The sounds are those of everyday life in a market. And there is no attempt to glamourise or “touch up” anything.
Making a virtue of the price vice
This was an ad in response to Nirma. And one that used a totally different approach. The iconic Nirma ad highlighted the brand in a very filmy way – there was a lot of dancing, a lot of modelling and a lot of music. Surf on the other hand just went in with a basic testimonial ad, with no flourishes whatsoever. The Surf ad was very direct, a Q&A that answered why Surf should be THE brand of detergent for anyone who did not want to compromise on quality. The two approaches were so different from each other yet both somehow managed to get A LOT of attention.
The Surf ad is a great competitive ad. It literally is taking down the competition, although Nirma is not mentioned by name. And it is almost built on arrogance – Lalitaji is not only unapologetic about buying Surf but seems actually annoyed at having to justify her purchase. Although, she seems almost contradictory at times. She is ready to haggle for the price of fruit, but then claims that she will not compromise on washing. That seems ironic, when you consider that washing powder is not as important for households as food is!
But the fact that the ad used the “ideal” Indian housewife in perfectly white and bright saree, Lalitaji, bargaining with the vendor also established that she was not lazy or naive. It put the idea of Lalitaji being an informed and clever buyer who would not pay even a penny extra for a product. And when a buyer as smart as Lalitaji advocates a product’s quality then it becomes even more believable, which is what the ad used as its basic premise.
The ad established that Surf gives more importance to quality over price. Because Surf’s competitors’ (mainly Nirma) biggest USP was price, by saying that Surf might not be cheap but is of much superior quality, the ad addressed the elephant in the room which was the price of the detergent. It even showed how half a kilogram of Surf was equivalent to a kilogram of regular washing powder, again trying to balance out the price-quality equation (although given the math of the pricing, the fact of the matter is that two kilos of Nirma would have cost lesser than a kilo of Surf!) .
The ad was carried forward by Lalitaji’s character who went on to become the face many associated with Surf for a time. At a time when people were extremely price-conscious, Lalitaji tore a page off the super affordable detergent’s marketing books and crushed and rolled it up and dumped it in the bin. It was not just about the price, though. The ad also talked about how well Surf actually washed clothes. It may seem like a slightly secondary issue in this case, but what is a detergent ad if it does not talk about how well it cleans clothes. When Lalitaji is asked about how well Surf works in this department, she shows off her white and bright saree and points at her naughty kid, saying how Surf washes all clothes brilliantly, even his! It is as if she is giving visible proof of the detergent’s performance.
The main purpose of this ad’s existence was to establish that Surf is worth its (higher) price. In just under a minute, the ad made Surf go from a detergent which was priced as much as four times as its main competitor in the market to a detergent that was free of its price shackles and had wings of quality on its back. Seldom has perceived vice been converted into virtue so effectively.
An ad for its time…and its competition
Would Lalitaji have worked the same magic for Surf today? We are not too sure (in fact, there is a line of thought that feels that even Lalitaji did not really change Surf’s fortunes that much in market terms). Not because the ad itself is bad – no, its tone of super confidence in a brand might strike a chord with many even today. The reason why it might not be quite as much a success today would be because its reason for existence is no longer relevant.
Lalitaji was a statement against cheaper washing powders, most notably Nirma. With detergent powders having generally become more affordable (almost every major company has a lower priced washing powder) and a quality-conscious class of consumers having emerged, we are not too sure whether Lalitaji’s endorsement of “more price, more quality” would have been needed. That said, there’s no denying that Lalitaji is perhaps the most famous fictional character associated with a brand in India. Who knows what she could achieve today, perhaps with her own Twitter feed and Instagram account to boot? After all, in times when prices really really mattered, she was able to convince a number of people that there was “samajhdari” in purchasing Surf.
Ad agency: Lintas
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Ad-vantages: Key Takeaways
You do not need a “sweet” central character
Central characters – especially female ones – in Indian ads had tended to be of the sweet, kind and understanding type. Lalitaji, however, was direct and almost rudely sharp. However, the confidence with which she spoke reflected the confidence of the brand in its quality. It worked.
You can make a liability an asset
Surf’s biggest perceived problem – the one that Nirma was able to capitalise on – was its price. However, the brand was able to use the ad to show the price as proof of its quality, changing a liability into an asset.
You do not need a jingle for everything
The Lalitaji ad was released in the age of jingles – catchy tunes and songs that accompanied the images on the screen. However, the Surf ad had none of these. In fact, it hardly had any music of any sort and depended totally on what Lalitaji said.
Repetition of lines and gestures works
Each of Surf’s ads had Lalitaji tapping her forehead and saying the punchline – “Surf ki khareedari mein hi samajhdari hai.” It was not the most powerful punchline, but the way in which it was said and the fact that it was repeated again and again made people remember it. Which was what mattered.
Believe Ad or Not: Some Ad-ditional Facts
The ads were not shown regularly
The ads featuring Lalitaji were not shown all around the year, but for 6-8 weeks. The idea was to maximise the impact of Lalitaji. It certainly made an impact.
Surveys showed that people did not like Lalitaji
If sources are to be believed, initial market research indicated that most people did not like Lalitaji, who was seen as being irritating and loud. However, the Lintas team headed by Alyque Padamsee felt she was just what the brand needed. A classic case of instinct winning over research.
The discovery of Lalitaji
The person who played Lalitaji in the ad, Kavita Chaudhary, was Alyque Padamsee’s choice because he had worked with her in a play called Pagalkhaana. Chaudhury, an NSD graduate, would also act in an acclaimed TV serial called Udaan. But for many people, she will always be Surf’s Lalitaji, a fact which some feel restricted her acting career.
Why was the character in the ad called Lalitaji? Well, evidently it was because Lintas figured it was a name that was not associated with any specific region, allowing most people to identify with it. The ad was shot in 16 languages so having a neutral name made sense.
Next: How a jingle and a comedian helped the country remember to buy an ECE bulb!
(Akriti Rana and Nimish Dubey write on technology and communication, and have worked in both fields. They have been associated with a regular section on advertising at TechPP.com.)