Did you hear the jingle in your brain as soon as you read the title above? You’re not alone: the ‘washing powder Nirma’ jingle has been an earworm for millions of Indians who grew up with access to a television or radio, regardless of their mother tongue, for almost four decades.
The jingle’s simplicity is what made it memorable – the phrase ‘washing powder Nirma,’ repeated twice in many incarnations of the campaign, has given it a high recall value.
Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) controlled the Indian washing powder industry in the 1970s, and their Surf was pretty much THE detergent powder to use. While surf was seen to be on the pricey side, consumers were ready to pay a small premium for the ease and constancy it offered. And, in terms of quality and performance, the alternatives were either just as pricey or not quite as good. That changed in the early 1970s, when Nirma, a new washing power, emerged.
Nirma began as a homemade product that Karsanbhai Patel handed out to people on his way to work (Patel had worked as a lab technician and was conversant with chemicals). It cleaned clothing well, was gentle on the hands, and was much less expensive than Surf, because to its simple packaging. Patel decided to manufacture on a greater scale as people began to like it.
Nirma began to acquire popularity as a result of its extraordinarily low price tag – it cost under Rs 3.50 per kilogramme compared to Rs 13 for Surf. In comparison to Surf, which came in a tall blue cardboard box with elaborate graphics and text, it did not appear to be a sophisticated product and came in a very basic transparent plastic packet with just its name and girl mascot on the top (and sometimes appeared to have been just rolled and stapled).
The contrast between a well-known multinational corporation and a family-owned business could hardly be more striking. However, the price gap between the two goods was enormous – so enormous that customers were willing to try out the newcomer. However, in an era when advertising was confined to radio, newspapers and magazines, and a few hours of television, the problem was to convince people that the brand existed.