Former bank employee Shashikala Aravind, 61, has had one constant in her life for the past 40 years: Mysore Sandal Soap. A native of Mysuru, a contributing factor to her “addiction” to the soap, Shashikala could not help but try out other products, such as talcum powder and agarbatti, from the government-owned Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Ltd. (KSDL). On a recent visit to the supermarket, she came across more products from KSDL — handwash in scents one does not associate with the brand: pineapple, mango and strawberry, among others.
After completing its centenary in 2016, the makers of the iconic brand decided to reinvent itself without tinkering with the staples. A few months ago, they introduced new flavours and varieties in the market, hoping to catch the fancy of new customers while also encouraging the old, loyal ones to try something new. The gamble appears to have paid off.
Over generations, KSDL has amassed a loyal following, but mainly senior citizens. Now, however, it is ready to target younger consumers, and plans to increase its revenue by 7.5% in the current financial year to ₹560 crore through the new products. A KSDL official said its range of handwashes was raking in revenue of about ₹40 lakh a month, with the rose scent doing particularly well. Revenue is forecast at ₹560 crore, up from ₹521 crore last year. The year 2016-17 had also seen ₹50 crore profit over the previous financial year ended March 2016.
“Any product has a saturation point, especially if it is a hundred years old,” said a KSDL official who didn’t want to be named. “The year-on-year growth in quantity gets limited to 4% to 8%. By introducing new products, this growth can be pushed to 15% to 25%.”
With this in mind, the 101-year-old company also introduced other products such as body wash, face pack and camphor. Not all of them boast of having sandal, the mainstay ingredient that makes KSDL products a class apart. However, KSDL officials admit that the pressure to maintain quality was tremendous.
“We are procuring natural oils for the new products from across the country and a few from abroad. Orange oil, for example, is not available in India. We came out with these products after a lot of research,” said another official.
Their market research shows that, many experiment with brands when they are young. When they are 25 to 30 years old, they will want to settle with a brand. More often than not, those who have seen their parents or grandparents use Mysore Sandal Soap will stick to it, the official said.
Take the case of G.P. Lakshmidevi, 80, who started using Mysore Sandal Soap when she was 14. Her husband too used the same. Now, their family continues the tradition. Rama, 50, saw her mother Padma use the soap all her life. “She used to cut it into half and use it over six months because she used to say it’s too big. She refused to shift to any other choice,” Ms. Rama said.
Unfazed by competition
Shops and supermarkets are filled with products that market themselves as ‘sandal soaps’. But, KSDL is unperturbed. “Ours is the only soap with 80% total fatty matter, which determines the purity of the soap and makes it long-lasting. We are also the only ones that natural sandalwood oil, as there is only one sandalwood oil extraction unit – the one in Mysuru, which is a heritage unit,” said an official.
The man behind the brand
The Maharaja of Mysore Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar wished to propel Mysore State on the global map by introducing ‘the world’s best natural sandalwood oil’ and making it the ‘fragrance ambassador of India’. This desire led him to establish the Government Sandalwood Oil Factory in Mysuru in 1916 with Sir M. Visvesvaraya. According to KSDL, the first experiment to extract sandalwood oil was successfully conducted at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
In 1918, a foreign guest presented a pack of soaps made using sandalwood oil to the Maharaja, sparking off the idea of utilising available sandalwood oil to make soaps in Mysuru. S.G. Shastry, a qualified industrial chemist, was sent to London for advanced training in soap and perfumery technology, and his return marked the beginning of the Mysore Sandal Soap.
The first indigenous sandal soap with sandal note as its base fragrance, along with other natural essential oils such as vetiver, patchouli, geranium, palmarosa, orange, and petitgrain was produced and introduced in the market under the brand name Mysore Sandal Soap in 1918.