For many young Indians, the Tata brand is associated with steel, trucks, hospitality and even salt but rarely with soaps. But it was the Tata group – Tata Oil Mills Company in particular – that began making India’s first indigenously produced branded soap even before Independence.
The brand’s advertising launch hit the market at a time when Lifebuoy, from then Lever Brothers already dominated not just the market, but also the ordinary Indian’s daily habits.
Brand historians said that Indians who were introduced to bathing soaps only around 1935-40s took “quite some time” to get into the habit of using it on a mass scale.
“People preferred using homegrown products and besan to bathe… soap was considered a wasteful product for a long time,” said a senior brand consultant.
Lifebuoy was already positioned as an affordable brand. So, it was a curious marketing strategy for OK soap to take on Lifebuoy with the affordable common-person tag.
However, advertising expert Santosh Sood said that Tata’s OK soap ended up giving a boost to its rival brand.
First, the name itself was very counter-intuitive. It wasn’t peddling the superlative experience at all.
“The soap with a brand name – OK – somewhere always reminded the consumers about their ‘aukat’… It was positioned as a common man’s soap, which only appealed to the affordability part. While the advertisement did work in creating awareness, it somewhere drew the line that this was a soap for those who could not really afford fancier brands. And this message was a huge deterrent for the brand,” Sood explained.
The soap managed to dent Lifebuoy’s market share initially, said a marketing professional, but could not sustain as the latter was quick to change its positioning. Lifebuoy, originally, was available in a pale red colour with an unappealing fragrance.
Lifebuoy quickly altered its strategy and shifted its focus from affordability to hygiene and launched variants.
The ad for the soap was hugely popular. The jingle said one will bloom like the lotus if one showered with OK soap. It also emphasised on its size. “Ok nahane ka bada sabun,” it said, and the man in the ad looked at the camera and said, “sachmuch kaafi bada hai.” It was a basic, no-frills ad, which emphasised value-for-money.
The late advertising guru Alyque Padamsee, in an interview to ThePrint in September last year, had underlined the need for successful brands and their marketers to appropriately address aspirations of discerning Indian consumers.
“Do not underestimate the Indian consumer. When brands pass on the message to their consumers that they are not allowed to aspire or dream, they are dead,” Padamsee said. “Whether or not she has the money, she wants her aspirations to be addressed.”
And OK soap wasn’t about aspirations at all. It was about status quo.
Sood pointed out it wasn’t the first time the Tata group made the mistake of telling the Indian consumers that they are not capable of bigger things. “Take the example of Nano…it was iconic and created market flutter, but failed miserably because it was constantly underlining how it was a vehicle for the poor Indian, who had little money…it is like again saying tumhara aukat yehi hai,” Sood said. “I am sure it was done with great patriotic fervor, but it lost the plot, the story was the same with OK soap,” he said.
Eventually the Tatas sold off the Tata Oil Mills Company to Hindustan Lever Ltd, now Hindustan Unilever.
Although the brand and the soap may have disappeared into oblivion, some suggest it inspired the common “Horn OK please” phrase found behind most Indian trucks and was probably an advertising tactic. Its logo, the lotus, also often features with the phrase.
However, the brand recollection value clearly faded with time. #KhabarLive