The year was 1971 and Pakistan had just surrendered the liberation war, giving birth to a new country — Bangladesh. Banking on the patriotic fervour that was all around her, a 19-year-old Meeta Shah from Bhavnagar, Gujarat, made a case to purchase a homegrown make-up item for her own by asking her father to give her Rs 5 (a big amount back in the day).
“Papa, I want to purchase a compact made by a swadeshi brand called Lakmé….. Did you know the inspiration behind the brand was Chacha Nehru?” she asked.
After about a minute of contemplation, her father willingly agreed to her request.
She added it to her piggy bank, the total amount of which had reached Rs 30, just enough to get Meeta the compact. It took her several months, numerous oil messages to her granny (one massage was equal to 25 paise) and an unimaginable dedication just for a cosmetic product.
How do I know the story you ask?
Well, she happens to be my maternal aunt who is now in her 70s. Reminiscing about her first step to buying a make-up item of her own, she tells me that she was one of the few girls in her colony who took a bold step to invest money in make-up — something that was frowned upon in the past.
But little did Meeta know she was contributing to a fully made-in-India brand — Lakmé, which found its genesis in the aftermath of India’s Independence from the British Raj to improve our unstable economy.
In 2017-2018, Lakmé, which is now owned by the Hindustan Unilever (HUL), crossed the Rs 1,000-crore mark in sales in India’s Rs 97,000 crore beauty market.
So, how did this desi brand, that has an international air about it, capture the Indian market and make cosmetics affordable for middle-income households?
It’s quite a fascinating tale.
The ‘Atmanirbhar’ India
After India attained independence, its economy was fragile. And like other industries, the Indian cosmetics market also relied heavily on international brands. The burgeoning middle and elite class was splurging on imported cosmetics and this had a direct effect on our foreign exchange reserves.
Alarmed by this, the then Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, approached industrialist Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata in 1950 to start an indigenous cosmetic brand.
The company was started as a subsidiary of Tata Oil Mills and after much deliberation, it was named ‘Lakmé’, an English derivative of the goddess of wealth and beauty — Laxmi.
Legends say that the aim behind having an exotic name was that Laxmi would not resonate with the idea of beauty, which is largely a western phenomenon.
This was at a time when notions of beauty in desi households revolved around ‘dadi ke nuskhe’ or simply just talcum powder. So, Laxmi would have been reduced to yet another local product. Interestingly, Lakmé also happens to be a French opera.
Being the purveyors of beauty and skin products, Lakmé rolled out a team of experts and researchers who gauged the requirements for an Indian skin tone. The packaging had to be elegant to be at par with the international counterparts.
Growth Of Lakmé
At a time when make-up was considered taboo in India, as only women with a ‘tainted character’ had kohl-rimmed eyes and ruby red lips, the burgeoning brand needed a strategy that would help the products make inroads across all types of households.
This is when Simone Naval Tata stepped in. The Swiss-born wife of Naval H. Tata took on the Herculean task of redefining beauty in the 1960s. Her inherent passion for elegant attires and exotic make-up brands did help in scaling the process.
“In my visits abroad I used to collect samples and give them to a chemist to benchmark. I had a very fashionable cousin in Paris…When I went to Paris and my father gave me money for dresses I did not buy them. Instead, I went to beauty parlours with my cousin to learn to do professional make-up: how to take care of skins, textures, etc. In other words, I studied cosmetics. One thing led to another. It was all an evolution,” Simone told Rediff in a 2007 interview.
Despite having the expertise and dedicated staff, the journey was not easy. Things got tricky in the ’80s when the government levied a 100 per cent excise duty on cosmetic products, including the domestically manufactured ones. This led to a drop in margins.
According to a Vogue article, Simone met the then finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to solve the issue. So, he told her to bring signatures of people who felt such a high excise duty was unfair. And she did. In the succeeding Union Budget meet, the excise duty was reduced.
What Made Lakmé Acceptable
Simone was instrumental in introducing most of the Lakmé products, like mascara, face powder, lipstick, foundation creams, compacts, nail enamel, toners, and more.
Besides being affordable, the company also focussed on creating a brand image via its aggressive marketing strategies.
In fact, their very first advertisement was an amalgamation of modernity and Indianness. The brand’s first face was supermodel Shyamoli Verma, a heartthrob in the ’80s. The company wanted a familiar face in their educational campaign, which aimed at breaking the social taboo around cosmetics.
Adorned with Lakmé make-up, she played Indian musical instruments like the sitar and flute, and a tagline read — ‘If colour be to beauty what music is to mood, play on’.
After this, they leveraged India’s fandom for Bollywood beauties and roped in actresses like the ever graceful Rekha, and later, the 1994 Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, to be brand ambassadors.
Lakmé At Present
The Tatas sold Lakmé to Hindustan Unilever, the rapidly growing company in the FMCG sector in 1996. Today, the company has over 300 diverse products that are sold in more than 70 countries worldwide.
Their wide price range, starting from Rs 100 to the most expensive ones at Rs 1,000, caters to every kind of audience.
Despite the cut-throat competitions from homegrown as well as international cosmetic brands, Lakmé has managed to thrive in the industry over the years. It is probably one of those brands that have transformed society in more ways than one.
As for my aunt, Meeta, Lakmé is her go-to brand even today. Over the years she has seen it grown and accepted in society. And while many mistakenly associated the 70-year-old homegrown brand as ‘foreign’, for her, it will always be a patriotic gift.
Featured image source: Viral Brand Ads/Facebook
Edited by Yoshita Rao