While it has become Indian advertising folklore, this thought had met a disappointing response when it debuted in India.
500 million homes globally use it to clean their clothes. It has many names, depending on where you live - OMO, Persil, Rinso, Breeze and Surf Excel. This Unilever laundry brand surpassed the $4.2 billion sales mark in 2022.
In India, Surf Excel crossed a billion dollars in sales last year. It took home, as per The Economic Times, Rs 8,200 crore and became the first HUL brand to reach this milestone.
Launched first in neighbouring Pakistan in 1948, and then in India in 1959, Surf Excel (then Surf) has become a leading player in India's laundry care segment.
Today, it battles rivals like P&G’s Ariel, Ghadi detergent, Nirma, among others. HUL’s portfolio also includes other detergent brands such as Wheel, Rin and Sunlight.
A four kilo Surf Excel Easy Wash detergent powder retails for Rs 1,199 while Ariel's complete detergent powder of the same size is sold for Rs 1,320 on Amazon.
Deepak Subramanian, executive director, home care, HUL, told The Economic Times that the company’s efforts towards premiumisation of the segment through liquid detergents and fabric conditioners yielded strong results as consumers increasingly shifted to higher-priced products and innovative formats.
Surf Excel today sells a number of liquids, a bar, drum descaler tablets, pods, and detergent powder in the country.
He also said a host of reasons, including marketing and innovation in the market with Surf bars and liquids, helped the company reach the milestone.
Surf Excel’s marketing is one of the most memorable journeys in Indian advertising. In the 1960s and 70s, the white sari-clad ‘Lalita ji’ became the trusted voice, when it came to buying detergents, a là Surf. She was also the company’s face and answer to the main rival Nirma and its ‘Hema, Rekha, Jaya aur Sushma’ campaign.
In the 90s, the HUL brand doled out the ‘Daag Dhoondte Reh Jaoge’ and then ‘Surf Excel Hai Na’, as it battled then main rival Ariel.
Post-2003, the brand gained leverage in the market by selling itself as the main weapon against stains, the enemy, with the ‘Daag Achhe Hai’ philosophy.
This philosophy came from Unilever’s global platform ‘Dirt is Good’, which aimed to bring kids, particularly in the west, to come out and engage with nature, instead of staying indoors.
The ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign was already running in Brazil, made by BBH, before it came to India. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to expectations because “we are a country where dirt is not necessarily a good thing, because it is associated with disease, infections...,” states Arun Iyer, founding partner, Spring Marketing Capital.
He was chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas and worked on the Surf Excel account for over 11 years.
Iyer reveals that it was Gopal Vittal, then head of the home and personal care (HPC) businesses, HUL, who decided to use the hidden stories a stain reveals to shine a light on the values Indian families consider a must-learn for their kids. Vittal is currently CEO, Airtel.
By just looking at the stains, mothers can tell if their kid(s) were playing a sport or were involved in a tussle or if they enjoyed a cold drink.
“Gopal briefed us… Balki was my boss then, and Priti Nair was also there… We thought what if we told the stories that played out behind the stains, and showed kids acting intuitively and expressing good values,” shares Iyer, talking about the origins of ‘Daag Achhe Hai’, and the series of ads starring kids.
Another person who worked on the Surf Excel account during this time as a senior brand manager was Sudhir Sitapati. He went on to become HUL's executive director and vice president, foods and refreshment. Today, he is the MD and CEO of Godrej Consumer Products Limited.
The first ad under this thought, shot in Ooty in April 2003, is the now iconic brother-sister one where to pacify her, he gets into a fight with a puddle. Turns out there was another ad where a boy fixes a pipe, but it lost out at the end.
Iyer wrote another famous Surf Excel ad, where two school friends are fighting over a scholarship slip one could find in a pack of Surf Excel. The duo end up giving it to a third boy who is unable to attend school.
Selflessness, a good value, is expressed in the ad, and, of course, the fighting stained the boys’ uniforms, and Surf Excel was there to save the day.
The brand’s advertising journey also include the Holi and Ramazan ads, which have now become an annual ritual. Iyer states these ads and even the ones under the HaarKoHarao line of thinking by no means, overshadow the ‘Daag Achhe Hai’ thought. "One should consider them and other ads as children of the parent Daag Acche Hain," he says.
He credits Carlos Pereira, a regional creative director, for spearheading the Holi and Ramazan ads. Iyer also reveals that he worked on the launch of ‘Dirt is Good’ in the Philippines.
afaqs! reached out to two experts to know their thoughts about Surf Excel and its advertising journey, as it crossed the $1 billion sales mark.
Priti Nair, director, Curry Nation (former ECD at Lowe Lintas)
The brand has put in a lot of effort and investment in innovations. It has, over the years, come up with new formats in the category - liquid formats, fabric conditioners and stain removing machine solutions. The brand stands tall in its category.
I don’t know the numbers on the specific formats, but even those, I suspect, would have fed positively into the mother brand and its bottom line.
From an advertising point of view, a healthy amount has also been spent on marketing these formats. Last, but not least, this also seems like a sign of consumers steering towards newer product innovations. They don’t mind paying a little more for products.
KV ‘Pops’ Sridhar, global chief creative officer, Nihilent & Hypercollective
The brand’s standing point came in when it adopted the ‘Dirt is Good’ global campaign. The Indian translation of the tagline, ‘Daag Achhe Hai’, did well for Unilever, as it added a certain degree of emotion to the campaign.
The visuals of little kids stumbling into puddles of dirt, carry a feeling of innocence that caught the attention of the consumers.
This philosophy brought a lot of success to the campaign. Although the brand’s ads now aren’t exactly how they used to be, the core insight is still relevant. This is what has made the brand click with the consumers.
Brand that have racked up billions in sales such as Maaza or Coca-Cola, have only managed to succeed due to similar timeless advertising insights.
These philosophies aren’t restricted to an era or a time. It is what keeps the brands relevant. Surf Excel’s milestone is only a reminder for other brands in the market that they can’t take their consumers for granted.
There isn’t a lot of loyalty among consumers towards uninvolved brands. Their communication, emphasising on ingredients of the products, isn’t very effective. They can always be challenged by competitors with similar or more attractive offerings.
There are two things that are decisive in a brand’s success: how it connects with the consumers emotionally, and how it changes their lives.