In 1952, a newly independent India was holding her first general elections. As the fervour of nationalism ran high across the country, a man in the bylanes of Parel, Mumbai, played his own role in it by launching a homegrown brand of toothpowder. Made from 18 ayurvedic ingredients, the powder came in a small box inside a cotton bag, making the brand Swadeshi in every way. The man behind this powder won the hearts and trust of consumers across the country, and the brand even birthed an unforgettable jingle.
This man was Keshav Pendharkar, and the brand was none other than VICCO.
Regardless of whether you used a VICCO product, you’d remember the classic ‘VICCO Vajradanti’ and ‘VICCO Turmeric Ayurvedic Cream’ ads, which have been a favourite across generations, by heart.
So what inspired Keshav to start VICCO Laboratories and create a historic ad that the brand still relies on to sell the products?
A complete Swadeshi brand
Keshav Pendharkar ran a grocery store in his hometown – Nagpur, Maharashtra. However, he soon decided to shut the business and shift base to Mumbai. Here, he managed a variety of small businesses in Bandra and suburbs. During this stint, he acquired marketing skills, and later moved to Parel and tried his luck with handmade goods.
During those times, he witnessed the penetration of allopathic medicines and cosmetic products such as Ponds, Nivea and Afghan Snow in the market. Considering the commercial dynamics, he decided to launch a natural ayurvedic product with a brand named after his father. VICCO, an abbreviation of Vishnu Industrial Chemicals Company, was formed in 1952, offering chemical-free, medicinal tooth powder.
Sanjeev, a third generation entrepreneur and currently at the helm of the company, tells The Better India, “In the 1950s, toothpastes with fluoride content were triggering health issues such as dental fluorosis. It became a worrying trend among children, as they consumed it unintentionally or otherwise for its sweet taste. Moreover, allopathy began to be perceived as a superior medical science.”
Sanjeev says that to challenge the notion, his grandfather studied ayurvedic scriptures and took help from his brother-in-law, who knew ayurvedic medicines.
“The family had a three-room house. The kitchen became the manufacturing unit, and the other rooms turned into the godown and office. The VICCO Vajradanti tooth powder was our first product and made exclusively from herbs that did the job of cleaning the teeth and strengthening the gums,” he explains.
He adds that VICCO was the first and only Swadeshi product in the toothpaste and vanishing cream category in the Indian market that was competing with cosmetic products.
Sanjeev says that his grandfather mastered the art of marketing by knocking doors to meet potential buyers. He addressed people with polite and convincing words. “‘I am not selling you what you like, but what you need,’ my grandfather used to say to the customers,” he says, adding that later, Keshav’s teenage sons joined the business. The trio would often have to bear the brunt of the harsh heat and unending rains, accompanied by the insults and humiliation from the people they approached.
Sanjeev says that eventually, the product managed to root itself deeply in the market, and the business prospered. Within four years of the company’s establishment, Keshav purchased an industrial shed to manufacture the product in large quantities and reach broader geographic markets in the country.
However, by the late 1950s, rich and upper-middle-class families started accepting toothpaste and toothbrushes. Keshav decided to convert the toothpowder into toothpaste that would continue to serve the benefits of healthy teeth rather than just the claims of making them clean and shiny, as projected by his competitors.
“By then, Gajanan, his son, had graduated in pharmacy, and the task to achieve the feat was entrusted to him. After seven years of R&D and facing issues with tube containers as well as heavy rejections from the market, the product came in place. Keshav maintained patience and never gave up despite failures. The effort paid off, enabling VICCO Vajradanti to keep its foot in the market,” Sanjeev says.
Keshav believed in diversification and expansion of the products. He soon decided to rope the medicinal properties of turmeric for skincare.
“The VICCO Turmeric Ayurvedic cream flaunted the medicinal properties of turmeric. But the product was yellow, as against the conventional bright white creams in the market. As customers were sceptical of buying it, Keshav changed the marketing strategy through advertisements portraying it as a product that promised healthy and glowing skin,” Sanjeev says.
In 1971, Keshav passed away, leaving Gajanan to lead the company. His four younger brothers assisted in the operations. The company rolled out other products such as VICCO sugar-free paste for diabetic patients, VICCO Turmeric Foam Base Multipurpose Cream, VICCO Turmeric Oil Base All Purpose Cream and VICCO Turmeric WSO Cream.
In the years to come, the company also managed to penetrate foreign markets by offering the products to 35 countries, including the USA.
‘Way ahead of its time’
Beyond creating a stronghold in the market against competitors through creative advertising, the company also fought a hard battle to maintain its strict ‘non-cosmetic’ identity. So much so that it put out a loud and clear message to government agencies through its marketing campaigns with the advertisement of the VICCO Turmeric Ayurvedic Cream.
In 1978, the Central Excise Department insisted that the VICCO’s products were not ayurvedic medicines and ordered taxes under the cosmetic category to be levied on the company. The taxes for cosmetic products were higher than the ayurvedic medicines. However, VICCO asserted that their products were strictly ayurvedic and fought decades worth of battles in civil courts, the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court. The lower courts ruled in the company’s favour, while the Supreme Court dismissed the case in 2003.
However, the issue cropped up again with the implementation of the new Central Excise Tariff Act 1985, which stated that the company’s products came under the ambit of the cosmetics category. However, VICCO stood the test of time and emerged victorious after the debate came to a conclusion and was settled by the Supreme Court in 2007 favouring the company.
During these turbulent years, the VICCO group announced through its jingle, “Vicco Turmeric, nahi cosmetic, Vicco Turmeric Ayurvedic cream” (VICCO is a turmeric ayurvedic cream, and not cosmetic).
“The influence of VICCO’s ads on the minds of its viewers is undeniable. The commercials ruled the sentiments of the people with their catchy jingles. The VICCO Vajradanti Paste and VICCO Turmeric Cream ads also became legendary,” he says.
Keeping up with the times, the company also signed Alia Bhatt in 2019 for its advertisement with a modern twist to the classic jingle to target millennials.
Reminiscing about the times she used VICCO Vajradanti, Shrinika Gadkari, a resident of Mumbai, recalls, “Back then, the customers did not have many alternatives for dental care and visiting a dentist for ailments was uncommon. Almost every household of the generation relied on VICCO Vajradanti for healthy teeth and gums. The same people switched to using the company’s toothpaste.”
The 55-year-old says that other toothpaste brands only became popular about 20 years ago as the “doctors” in the commercials promoted other non-Indian brands. “We can say that the company was way ahead of its time as leading brands today promote ayurvedic elements like salt, meswak, clove, turmeric, charcoal in their products, which VICCO Vajradanti always had. Hence, the product continues to be relevant across generations,” she says.
Moreover, the company also contributed significantly to the entertainment industry by sponsoring comedy serials like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984), which was telecast on the National Network.
Sanjeev says, “The serial featured the sweet bride Banno in the advertisement of the VICCO Turmeric Cream that accompanied the serial. The company produced and sponsored multiple serials, movies and DD programmes telecast in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati, showcasing social evils, social disparity, unjust treatment of women, and negligence of the elderly. Thus, it participated in influencing the cultural and social dynamics of society.”
He adds that at the time very few brands had dared to venture into the entertainment industry. “But my father, Gajanan took the bold step in the 1980s and turned the company’s fortune,” he says.
Seven decades on, the Rs 700 million company remains a family-run business with five brothers playing a decisive role in the company’s policy, sales, the launch of new products, export, expansion plans and taking other vital decisions.
With years of experience under the belt, Sanjeev has some tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. “I believe that anyone can pursue business by focussing on the goal. One has to be a lifelong learner and absorb the failures and challenges and overcome them,” he says.
He adds, “A business is like a child and needs accountability, care and love. There are no shortcuts, and one has to put skin in the game and push limits. Staggering and stumbling is a part of the game, but surrendering is not an option in the journey.”
Edited by Divya Sethu