comScore

Quantum Brief

Throwback: When Lalitaji shielded Surf from redundancy

The 1984 commercial of Surf reinstated the brand's position in the detergent market, which was threatened by Nirma. A large part of that credit goes to Lalitaji, an iconic character of Indian advertising, whose clutter cutter persona justified the price point of the brand due to the greater satisfaction derived by its use.

By  Kashmeera SambamurthyDec 24, 2022 12:46 PM
Throwback: When Lalitaji shielded Surf from redundancy
The commercial was meant to be advertised on cinema screens. In the words of veteran ad man K S Chakravarthy, the 1984 Summer Olympics caught the eyes of Lintas’s client. Since airtime was already bought by the client, Surf’s Lalitaji debuted on the television screens in 1984, for Lintas didn’t have a backup commercial in hand. (Stills from the ads)

Kaveta Chaudhry was a lead actor in the play Pagal Khana, which was a play about a play enacted by inmates of an asylum. It was directed by Alyque Padamsee, the late chief executive of Lintas (now MullenLowe Lintas Group).

Soon after, Lintas was in the last leg of their auditions for a campaign and on the lookout for a candidate who could position Surf as the most sought-after detergent powder. Padamsee suddenly remembered Chaudhry and was eager to touch base with her. After a great deal of effort, he managed to contact her and asked her to audition.

The advertising agency then was housed on the 15th floor of the Express Towers in Nariman Point. After the audition, when Chaudhry was standing outside the lift, a client servicing person from Lintas approached her and said to her, “You have been selected.” The rest is history.

Position of Surf in the market

Surf, which was launched in 1959, was a leading detergent powder brand in the eighties in India. The market then was dominated by detergent soaps, led by Sunlight brand, followed by regional brands as detergent powders were costly compared to soaps. In this market, Nirma entered in 1969 with an affordable price point and soon became a strong contender.

Nirma was sold at Rs 7 a kilo, and Surf was priced at Rs 28 a kilo, says Prem Mehta, (then) account director at Lintas.

“The market was growing, moving towards detergent powders, but preferring Nirma. If I recall correctly, around 25,000 tonnes-30,000 tonnes of Surf powder were sold in the market. In no time, Nirma grew to 2,00,000 tonnes and more,” he says.

There were live demonstrations done in villages to highlight the effectiveness of Surf when compared to Nirma. This difference was shown in cinema ads too. The campaign ran for years until Hindustan Lever introduced Wheel detergent powder whose cost factor was at par with Nirma.

The challenge for Hindustan Lever, which owns the Surf brand, was how to sustain and grow the market share of Surf. It was then (late) Shunu Sen, the FMCG company’s former marketing director approached Lintas.

The ad agency decided to focus on the convenience factor of washing powder and hit upon the idea to establish a fundamental difference between Surf and Nirma but without demeaning the latter.

Birth of Surf’s Lalitaji

Pathfinders, an in-house research division of Lintas, found out that Surf users believed there was more value for money in the product. The reasons were: better quality of washing and no harmful side-effects.

Hence, Lintas decided to shift the focus from price to value, and the proposition came down to value for money. The idea was to communicate in a credible, memorable and effective manner that could shield Surf from further losing its market share.

In that era, the role of a mother or a homemaker in advertisements was of a stay-at-home mom or a champion mother. The creative idea of the agency was to highlight what an average middle-class homemaker does, how she decides between one brand and another, and how she justifies the higher price she pays for a product.

Based on this, Lalitaji — a common name which an Indian middle-class homemaker could relate to—began to take shape.

The making of the commercial

Film director cum producer Siraj-Ayesha Sayani, also known as Pooh, who shot the first three commercials, recalls that Lintas had asked at least three production houses to quote a production estimate for ‘Surf Housewife Interview’. Sayani’s estimate turned out to be the lowest.

As she came on board, Padamsee showed her an image of veteran actor Leela Mishra and mentioned to her that this was not the ideal homemaker who could do justice to Lalitaji. At least a hundred candidates were video tested, and it was Chaudhry who was selected.

“The market was growing, moving towards detergent powders, but preferring Nirma. If I recall correctly, around 25,000 tonnes-30,000 tonnes of Surf powder were sold in the market. In no time, Nirma grew to 2,00,000 tonnes and more,” Prem Mehta says.

The audition team included Padamsee, officials from Hindustan Lever and the film production crew. Balwant Tandon, who was the creative director and head of languages at Lintas, had written the script for the commercial. When Chaudhry read the audition script, she noticed it jumped into the outright approval of the brand. She felt there was a need to essay a particular personality who could convey the brand’s message.

Since she was the last to be auditioned, Chaudhry checked with the audition team whether she could enact in a way where her focus is on bargaining with the vegetable vendor than talking straight looking into the camera. The team agreed, and the onscreen Lalitaji brought in some gestures while delivering dialogues.

Ravi Khote worked as a film executive at Lintas. Since he was present with the production team at the shoot, they decided to call Lalitaji’s onscreen son Ravi. Since children grow very fast, three different boys essayed Ravi, where, post the release of the first two films, a different face came on board.

Lalitaji was a clutter cutter — getting rid of what is not necessary to convey a point—and not a cookie cutter, something which lacks distinguishing characteristics.

After the first film was shot, none from Lintas, Hindustan Lever and the production team felt Chaudhry’s voice—which was high pitched and delicate—was not suitable for the character of a housewife. Then began a series of dubbing with different voices, and it was the voice of Sarita Sethi, an actor, voice-over artist, broadcaster and a Doordarshan news reader, that was ultimately chosen.

Lalitaji shines on the screen

The commercial was meant to be advertised on cinema screens. In the words of veteran ad man K S Chakravarthy, the 1984 Summer Olympics caught the eyes of Lintas’s client.

Since airtime was already bought by the client, Surf’s Lalitaji debuted on the television screens in 1984, for Lintas didn’t have a backup commercial in hand. Sayani adds, “The commercial was shot on 35 mm, and was then telecined onto video to broadcast on television screens.” What was meant to be a tactical campaign ran for the next 18 months.

A lady clad in a sparkling white saree, her forehead adorned with a big sized bindi, would tap her head, smile, look into the camera and say, ‘Surf ki kharidari mein samajhdari hai.’”

In that era, the role of a mother or a homemaker in advertisements was of a stay-at-home mom or a champion mother. The creative idea of the agency was to highlight what an average middle-class homemaker does, how she decides between one brand and another, and how she justifies the higher price she pays for a product.

The ad film turned out to be a roaring success and was produced in 16 languages. Chaudhry recalls an incident. There was a punchline used by the accounts team of Hindustan Lever on Surf’s performance where they said, “The increase was phenomenal.” But in between, they stopped and added, “Oops! Lalitaji better not hear it. Otherwise, she will increase her fees.”

Over a period, the number of languages in which the commercials were produced got reduced.

Print was a very important medium then, and Surf was advertised in magazines, newspapers, and any medium that a housewife was exposed to. The commercial was also advertised via radio and was present on billboards. Chaudhry said a firm ‘No’ on appearing on Surf packs as she wanted to restrict herself to just being an actor.

There were live demonstrations done in villages to highlight the effectiveness of Surf when compared to Nirma. This difference was shown in cinema ads too.

The campaign ran for years until Hindustan Lever introduced Wheel detergent powder whose cost factor was at par with Nirma.

How impactful was Surf’s Lalitaji?

Once, the team was busy shooting for Surf’s commercial. During that period, election campaigning was going on, and one of them was appealing to the masses to vote for the concerned party. As he glanced upon them, he began to say, “Lalitaji campaign ki Lalitaji bhi yahi kehti hai, inko vote dene mein hi samajhdari hai.”

The line, 'Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai' became so relatable that even two-wheeler companies approached Chaudhry to endorse their brands in a similar fashion. These offers came at a time when she was still under the contract with Lintas as Lalitaji. In this scenario, as Kaveta Chaudhry, she spoke on how sensible it was to buy their products.

Mehta mentions that there was no resistance from the public against Surf’s Lalitaji for it reflected the reality of housewives. He adds, “What was challenging was the price point. But Surf revived its growth in the market and arrested some of the growth of Nirma.”

Usha Bhandarkar, former group creative director at Lintas who worked closely with Padamsee on this campaign, recalls that in Hindustan Lever, a Day After Recall (DAR) test was conducted. People were asked, “Which is the commercial you remember?” Lalitaji’s DAR surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Lintas decided to shift the focus from price to value, and the proposition came down to value for money. The idea was to communicate in a credible, memorable and effective manner that could shield Surf from further losing its market share.

Television audiences had decided that she was very well-educated, her husband had a good job, and she was reliable and trustworthy. Audiences recalled the tapping of the head, and the brand payoff 'Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hain.' Fan mails poured in asking for her advice. Lalitaji was a clutter cutter—getting rid of what is not necessary to convey a point—and not a cookie cutter, something which lacks distinguishing characteristics.

Though Surf’s commercials continued to run even after Chaudhry turned a writer, director and producer with the Doordarshan series Udaan, she felt the roles she got post the commercial interfered in her exploring other roles. Though many ad films on Surf’s Lalitaji were made, Chaudhry felt that her personality could have been further explored. Since the first commercial was a success and Lalitaji was well-received, no changes were made to how she was originally portrayed.

Mehta fondly remembers how in those days the focus was on building the brand and not just about getting saliency. Today, advertising is dependent on the endorsement of an actor or a cricketer. Had the commercial been released in today’s times, where the majority shop online, Sayani mentions that it might not have worked.

But there are a whole lot of other homemakers who shop at bazaars and watch programs on television. This set would have identified with a strong role model like Lalitaji, who was in control of the situation, both in and outside her home. And Lalitaji, in her typical fashion, would have continued tapping her head and saying, ‘Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai.’

First Published on Dec 24, 2022 12:21 PM