A simple sound, almost like an extended “boing”, but the most unforgettable start to any ad jingle. A jingle that remained largely unchanged for decades and indeed laid the foundation of one of the biggest brands of its time. We are talking of the Nirma washing powder advertisement, which played a key role in one of the biggest underdog stories in Indian corporate history.
Surf’s up…or maybe not!
In the 1970s, the Indian washing powder market was dominated by Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) and its Surf was pretty much THE detergent powder to use. While Surf was seen to be a little on the expensive side, people were willing to pay a slight premium for the convenience and consistency it provided. And well, the alternatives were either just as expensive or not really quite as good in terms of quality and performance. That changed with the emergence of a washing power called Nirma in the early seventies.
The brainchild of Karsanbhai Patel, Nirma started off as a homemade product (Patel had been a lab technician and was familiar with chemicals) which he handed out to people on his way to work. It cleaned clothes well, was not very harsh on the hands, and cost way lesser than Surf did, thanks also to its very basic packaging. As people started liking it, Patel decided to manufacture on a larger scale.
Thanks to its incredibly lower price tag — it was priced at about Rs 3.50 per kg as compared to Rs 13 of Surf — Nirma started gaining popularity. It did not look like a sophisticated product and came in a very basic transparent plastic packet with just its name and girl mascot on the top, (and sometimes appeared to have been just rolled and stapled), as compared to Surf which came in a tall blue cardboard box complete with elaborate graphics and text. The difference between a high-profile MNC and a home grown enterprise could not have been more stark. But the price difference between the products was massive – so massive that people did not mind experimenting with the newcomer. The challenge, however, was to make people realise that the brand existed in an era where advertising was limited to the radio, newspapers and magazines and a few hours of television.
Patel decided to go for a television ad. And the rest, as they love to say, is history.
White, bright clothes, courtesy Nirma
The ad started out as a relatively short one, but as the years passed, it became slightly longer, going up to a minute. And it almost always followed the same template – it featured a number of people singing, dancing and otherwise being very active at a variety of locations, ranging from a stage to locations like India Gate. These shots are interspersed with clothes being washed (of course, always by women). And then towards the end, the ad focuses on four ladies carrying packets of Nirma powder with them. It begins and closes out with the “Nirma girl,” the brand’s mascot who is seen twirling on the packets of washing powder.
And as all this happens, a jingle plays in the background:
“Washing powder Nirma, Washing powder Nirma
Doodh si safedi Nirma se aaye
Rangeen kapda bhi khil khil jaaye
Sabki Pasand Nirma
Kam keemat ki adhik safedi laaya Nirma
Isi liye to ghar ghar mein aaya Nirma,
Seema, Rekha, Jaya aur Sushma
Sabki pasand Nirma…”
(Washing powder Nirma
Brings milk-like whiteness to your clothes
Even coloured clothes glow after being washed in Nirma
Nirma is everyone’s choice.
Nirma has brought greater whiteness at lower costs
Which is why it has come to every house
Seema, Rekha, Jaya and Sushma,
Nirma is the choice of each one of them!”)
Jingle all the way
Let’s make one thing clear – the jingle carries the ad. Without it, the visuals of the ad would have been totally meaningless. It was the perfect jingle for a washing powder. There was nothing nuanced about it. It was just a jingle with words that rhymed that sold the powder – it is a totally hard-selling jingle. The music is simple, as are the lyrics. And while most of the early versions of the ad featured relatively normal-looking people (as opposed to models), later versions saw some celebrities (including eighties film heroine Sangeeta Bijlani). However, by and large, the ad was appealing to the mainstream consumer. There were no “lifestyle” connotations like expensive cars or fancy locations. It was an ad that simply showed people being very active in either very brightly coloured clothes or totally white ones. Interestingly, the washing of clothes itself is shown as a pleasant process with the women (always women), being shown smiling while washing clothes – one even playfully dabs foam at her child’s face! Interestingly, the ad was made mainly in Hindi and did not have an English avatar at all.
Interestingly, the ad did not play the price card at all. In a day and age when price did matter, and when the price was actually the product’s biggest selling point. There was a reference to “kam keeemat” (low price) but it never got into the zone of comparing itself with much higher-priced products. If anything, the ad highlighted how good Nirma was by showing people happily washing clothes with it and the amount of foam it generated – foam was considered by many to be an indicator of just how good a washing powder was. The more the foam, the cleaner your clothes were likely to be, especially in those days when water tended to be hard rather than soft. Ironically, Nirma was not actually supposed to be very foam-y, but the ads projected it as being exactly that. And as it was released in an era when there were more black and white televisions than colour ones, it focused more on bright white clothes, as they would be more easily visible on black and white televisions.
Would be “sabki pasand” even today
It might not be as nuanced as what other washing powder brands are these days, but the Nirma ad has something that no other detergent ad has – that jingle. It is one of the rare cases when a jingle actually overshadows the visuals that accompany it. Yes, the visuals might now appear a little dated, especially in this era of washing machines, but update them, and add that jingle and we think that Washing Powder Nirma might still grab your attention. And that is because it focused on something that was very basic – white and and bright clothes are still what one expects from washing powder. The fact that it did not play heavily on its price (it could have) makes the ad – or rather the jingle – still very relevant today. Small wonder that apart from minor tweaks and additions, Nirma retained that jingle for more than a dozen years in its ad campaign.
Play it to someone who has never ever seen it before, and he or she will still understand that this ad is basically about how clean your clothes will be after a wash with Nirma. And it is a fair chance that the jingle will stick in their heads as well. That is actually what a good ad is supposed to do – tell you about the product and make you remember it. You can have all the nuance and sophistication and story telling in the world, but if you cannot tick those two boxes, the ad will simply not work. Nirma not only ticked those boxes, it packaged them and couriered them to the minds of the consumer!
The world may have moved on to more fancy detergents and ads, and washing machines (even though it is going to be 2020 and women are STILL seem to be washing clothes), but the simple magic of the Nirma jingle persists to this day. If you do not believe us, just play the opening few seconds of the ad – with that “boing” sound to anyone and ask them to identify it.
Chances are, they will.
Agency: Poornima Advertising
Indian Ad-Age | How Cherry Charlie made Cherry Blossom Shine | How ‘Mummy, I am Hungry’ made Maggi a household name in India | How Hamara Bajaj felt the heartbeat of a nation | How Cadbury ‘adulted’ chocolate | How Aamir Khan went through hell to get a Pepsi | Indian Ad-Age: How Lijjat Ad-ed value to the perfect Indian snack
Ad-vantages: Key Takeaways
Have a great jingle
The Washing Powder Nirma jingle might sound incredibly simple and on first hearing might not even seem special. But it was perhaps this very simplicity that made people remember it. We cannot remember too many other ads that mentioned the product so many times – and interestingly, it was often mentioned in entirety: not just “Nirma” but “Washing Powder Nirma”. Many people even remembered the very distinct sound with which the jingle began. And of course, like the very best jingles, it could be used even without the visuals.
Keep things simple
The sheer simplicity of the ad is its greatest strength. It did not have any subtle messaging at all but simply kept reiterating that Washing Powder Nirma was very good for your clothes, did not cost much, and could be used by anybody. Like the Lijjat Papad ad which we covered earlier, this one also was direct and simple. There was nothing hidden or subtly aspirational.
Show your target audience
Unlike many advertisements that featured people (or celebrities) from a slightly “aspirational” class in them, the early Nirma ads largely featured the very kind of people that the product was targeting. There were no swank houses, swish cars or fancy clothes. Just a lot of “normal, middle class” people dancing and going about life actively, in spotless and bright clothes, thanks to Washing Powder Nirma. Even the jingle used everyday language.
Do not overplay the price card
What was Nirma’s biggest strength? Well, its price. It cost a fraction of what the likes of HLL’s Surf did. And yet it chose not to highlight this in the ad. At all. That was because this massive price difference could have made people suspicious about the quality of the product. Which is perhaps why Nirma did not go overboard talking of its price edge. There was a slight reference to “more whiteness at a low price” but that was it. There was not the slightest hint at any stage that quality had been compromised.
Believe Ad or Not: Some Ad-ditional Facts
The Nirma Girl…
The girl on the Nirma packaging was actually the daughter of the founder of the company, Karsanbhai Patel. Even the name “Nirma” was derived from her – she was called Nirmala, and had passed away in an accident.
…might not have been the Nirma Girl
It is not confirmed but many in the industry say that Karsanbhai Patel’s daughter was not the first choice for being the mascot of the brand. As per some, the image for Nirma washing powder was initially that of a woman (projected as a housewife) washing clothes and was even used for a very short time. However, it was later rejected and the Nirma Girl came into the picture. Literally.
HLL’s STING operation
So popular was Nirma that it is believed that HLL actually came up with a strategy that was focused solely on combating it. The strategy was called STING – Strategy To Inhibit Nirma’s Growth. Just how much it actually stung Nirma is not really know, but HLL’s lower priced detergent, Wheel, is supposed to have been a result of this STING operation.
A jingle that is still sung and played
The Washing Powder Nirma jingle is still widely played by people who just like to listen to it. People even sing the song on Smule, a social networking platform. Now, how’s that for being a chartbuster.
Next: How Lalita ji Got Surf Riding the Washing Powder Waves!
(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.)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines