Shreyas Kulkarni and Namah Chawla

The lathery journey of the 2.3k crore-plus Santoor brand

Wipro’s sandalwood and turmeric soap claimed to make your skin lie about your age and is now raking in the moolah while at it.

Everybody craves immortal youth and Santoor, a sandalwood and turmeric soap from Wipro Consumer Care & Lighting (WCCL), promises to satiate this craving.

Its ads over the years, like the Pied Piper, croon, “Haldi aur chandan ke gun samaye Santoor… twacha kuch aur nikhare Santoor Santoor....” And, consumers seem to fall for it every single time.

CEO Vineet Agrawal proved this claim when he recently told PTI that Santoor had become a Rs 2,300 crore-plus brand in FY22. In 2011-12, it had crossed the Rs 1,000 crore revenue mark.

A Financial Express report this month quoted him as saying, “In India, Santoor continues to do well. It was over Rs 2,300 crore last year and we continue to be the number two brand, in terms of soap. Santoor continues to grow well, it should grow at 16% plus in the first quarter.”

Santoor, according to the company, is now the leading brand in five markets: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.

WCCL’s 2020-21 annual report puts Santoor’s growth at 14.8%. Santoor was credited as one of the main players for the 17.3% growth of the company’s India household business.

In the crowded Indian soap market, Santoor’s rivals include HUL brands Dove, Lux, Pears, Liril and Rexona; Reckitt’s Dettol; Godrej’s Cinthol, etc.

Santoor, however, does not present itself as just a sandalwood and turmeric soap. WCCL markets it as a body wash, body lotion, hand wash, deodorant, talcum powder and also a baby care soap.

And yes, its flagship soap offering comes in variants like almond milk; lime and aloe vera; Kashmiri saffron and sakura extracts; rose water and honey; glycerine, honey and almond oil.

Launched in 1985, the early years of the brand focussed on its ingredients as the selling points in its ads. The word Santoor comes from two words: san of sandalwood and tur of turmeric. The response to this strategy was underwhelming. FCB Ulka helmed Santoor’s brand-building responsibility in 1989 and the focus moved to the soap’s soft skin benefit.

Santoor soap ads, for the longest time (nearly two decades), have remained formulaic. A glowing young woman whose skin betrays her age. A male protagonist (Saif Ali Khan in the Hindi language ads) is aghast when a young girl (always a girl) runs towards the woman yelling, “Mummy, Mummy”. Cue in the iconic jingle.

Ambi MG Parameswaran, a brand consultant who worked on Santoor soap from 1994 to 2016 as executive director and CEO of DraftFCB Ulka, feels it may not be right to attribute the success of a brand to just a Mummy ad campaign.

“The brand is successful because it latched on to a consumer insight, i.e., every woman likes to look young and is actually happy when she is mistaken for someone younger.”

Agrees KV Sridhar (Pops), global chief creative officer, Nihilent Limited & Hypercollective. Santoor’s advertising and the discipline with which it has done it over the last 30 years, has made the brand popular. “The insight of wanting to look younger will never go out of fashion.”

For Pops, insight, especially in categories like FMCG, is very important and credits FCB Ulka for consistently doing a great job with Santoor’s ads. “90% of the brand’s success goes to the agency and the brand management for being consistent in showing the core values of the brand.”

Without a sharp insight, consumers won't relate to a brand's communication. So, the brand loses its intent by the time the ad ends.

Parameswaran states that Santoor has managed to use this insight repeatedly and it kept refreshing its stories through the years in its ad campaigns.

“The brand has also been extremely careful in investing its money in the right markets. It has not just blown up money in huge national campaigns, but has invested in campaigns catering to states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala.”

Parameswaran also credits Santoor's value packaging, like the 3+1 pack or the smaller price denomination packs. "Pricing, distribution, media investments, packaging, product improvements, etc., result in this kind of number.”

afaqs!, in 2019, had asked S Prasanna Rai, then vice president, marketing, WCCL, about sticking to this strategy over the years.

He said that for over 30 years, Santoor has delivered on the promise of 'younger looking skin' through its natural ingredients - sandal and turmeric. “The key insight behind Santoor's marketing is that women want to look younger, irrespective of their age. While this positioning has remained consistent, we have regularly modernised our campaign to appeal to our target segment.”

“The creative idea of a mother being mistaken for someone younger, has remained consistent for more than three decades. The creative execution reflects the changing times and the portrayal of the Santoor protagonist is in line with modern times.” (Rai is today chief marketing office and head of e-commerce business, WCCL.)

However, in 2019 itself, this trope changed face. Santoor’s ad focused on how a soap can help protect a woman’s skin against pollution. There was no reference to her status as a mother.

So while change has taken place, one can’t discount the impact the Mummy ad campaign had on Santoor’s fortunes. Santoor’s advertising communication cuts across many generations, says Pops, but feels, "All these years, Santoor has been boringly consistent and still managed to make Rs 2,300 crore. Had the brand been interestingly consistent, imagine how much more it would have made."

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