Friday, August 12, 2016

On the Centenary Year of Mysore Sandal Soap: In BLink

I have been a journalist for a long time now. Too long, I think sometimes. I have dealt with my share of difficult people and seen the lengths to which bureaucracy can go to - paid my dues to the devil, you could say. But nothing and no one has been as strange as this story. While I understand why they might want to be so cagey, given some previous bad experience they had, it was such a pain in the backside getting them to give me perfectly safe, positive information, which was all that this feature was about. Anyway, I did not enjoy writing this story, but well, it is done now.

Read it here or see below for a slightly unedited version. Published July 23, 2016.

GOING STRONG AT 100

For some silly reason I hope the heady smell of sandalwood will waft in, like a theatrical breeze, when I walk through the gates of Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited (KS&DL), the erstwhile Government Soap Factory in Bengaluru. It obviously doesn’t, though there are a few precious sandalwood trees, enmeshed to protect them, growing within the compound. The manufacturing unit is in another building and the administrative block I find myself in has standard government office d├ęcor. The dull whirr of a fan on the ceiling and samples of sandal products on shelves in the offices of senior staff, that’s all.

It is the centennial year of the state owned company, started by the then Maharaja of Mysore, Nalwadi Krishna Raja Wodeyar and his Diwan, Sir M Visvesvaraya in Mysore in 1916. World War I had halted the export of sandalwood from the state and something needed to be done about the excessive reserves of this fragrant wood. Thus, the Government Sandalwood Oil Factory was started to extract oil. Two years later came the iconic Mysore Sandal Soap, the flagship product that has a nearly monopolistic presence in the sandalwood bathing soap market.

It is the only soap in the world that uses pure sandalwood oil, claims the company. This has helped the brand get the much coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag, protecting it from imitations. There is no lack of people wanting to cash in on the Mysore Sandal brand though, A Ravi Shankar, assistant general manager, Export, Marketing, MID told me; the company ends up having to file law suits now and then.

The story of this soap starts with the WWI, via a set of sandalwood infused soaps that the Maharaja got from abroad as a present, inspiring him to send a scientist called S G Sastry to London to learn the ropes of the perfume and soap trade, and arrives a hundred years later to occupy about 20 per cent of the South Indian market. Nationwide, the market share stands at 7-8 per cent, Ravi Shankar told me, quoting these numbers from 2013, the latest that they have. Increasing this market share, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the country and exports is what they are working towards, Dr Shamla Iqbal, Managing Director, KS&DL told me.

Being a government owned company, a budget for advertising and marketing is limited, she admits. Ten years ago, cricketer M S Dhoni was appointed as a brand ambassador, but it ended the company suing Dhoni for alleged breach of contract. After a long legal battle, Dhoni won the case against the company. There are only models employed to pose for the ads now, pretty women seeming to writhe around, all eyes on the golden coloured soap, in standard soap advertisement style. The GI status has helped, said Dr Iqbal, but said it was hard to quantify the premium value this status accords to a product.

Outside of Karnataka and some parts of south India, Mysore Sandal soap gets mostly treated as a gift item, a luxury, an occasional indulgence, despite its market standard price. Within the state, it is perceived as a product favoured by the 40+ year olds. Dependable, nostalgic, loyal, traditional are the terms that come to mind. It is an image that has endured, and is one that the company hopes to change. “We want to popularize Mysore Sandal soap among the youth, and in the northern and eastern states of India. We are trying to figure out a social media plan as well,” Dr Iqbal said. Though the product line includes liquid hand washes, incense sticks, different kinds of soaps, etc. it is the sandal soap, in its classic packaging that remains the signature product of the company. A new centennial soap was introduced earlier this year, but without much advertising, remains not so visible on supermarket shelves.

Interestingly, the production figures show an increase in numbers, even as the amount of sandalwood that’s available in the state is on the decline. The fragrant ambassador of the country, as sandalwood is called, is grown in the border regions between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Ravi Shankar told me that the odour from the trees grown here is very different. “Though the trees are grown in Australia, Kenya and elsewhere, the quality of sandalwood from them is different. We buy sandalwood in open auction, just like the other licensed buyers,” he added. KS&DL remains the largest buyer of sandalwood, and the only government company. What intrigues me is that the second largest buyer is supposedly a gutka maker in northern India. That sandalwood is added to gutka is news to me. But that’s another story for another day.

The availability of sandalwood has been reducing every year. To counter the decline in supply KS&DL has initiated a ‘Grow more sandal’ programme for farmers, with rather inexpensive saplings and a buy back policy. Despite these hiccups in raw material figures, Ravi Shankar said that production figures increased 13 per cent and 15 per cent in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively. During the same period, the sales value increased 15 per cent and 17 percent respectively, as per retail audit.

Large numbers of export go to the Middle East, some small quantities to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Australia and the rest of the Western world. “Buyers are mostly Indians settled abroad,” Ravi Shankar says. Foreign markets are attractive as well, but the company, in its 100th year, is more interested in increasing its overall market share within the country. What it has going for it is the purity of sandalwood it uses, most others use synthetic versions, I am told. “Sandal (soap) is my monopoly, and it is the reason we still exist after 100 years,” was how Shankar summed it up for me.

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