Have you ever bought a washing machine because you needed to make hundreds of litres of lassi in one go? Obviously not; a washing machine washes clothes.
But hundreds of owners of dhabas in north India bought top-loading washing machines because they figured out (Indian jugaad at its best) that using a washing machine to make lassi was faster and cheaper.
The washing machines were always called washing machines; no one redubbed them ‘lassi makers’.
When I first heard this story in the mid 1990s from an executive in BPL Ltd, I was stunned at the ingenuity of the ‘application’.
I was equally stunned when, on a trip to Mahabalipuram at about the same time, I saw multiple packets of HUL’s Fair & Lovely in every single shop in an around Mahabalipuram.
Most of the tourists to Mahabalipuram were Caucasians.
So who was buying the Fair & Lovely packs?
Caucasian tourists. Who were, to put it mildly, fair. More than fair.
So why were obviously fair Caucasians buying it by the cartons?
Because the local traders discovered that the ‘fairness’ cream served another purpose, much like the dhaba owners discovered the second purpose of the washing machine.
Fair & Lovely was the most effective and affordable sun-block.
So HUL representatives, not caring about the application of the fairness cream, ensured that the shops in and around Mahabalipuram always had adequate stocks of Fair & Lovely.
And you can rename the brand to whatever you want, and it will remain an effective sun-block, and traders in Mahabalipuram will continue to stock and sell it and profit from it.
But the ‘sun-block’ segment is a minuscule part of the over Rs 2,000 crore brand’s sales. The bulk of the sales come from consumers who buy the brand for the promise of becoming fair. And becoming lovely.
Under the onslaught of the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction in the western world, HUL, itself an arm of the multinational Unilever, has been forced to be sensitive to the criticism of ‘selling’ fairness products, leading to the announcement that the company would change the name of the brand.
The most significant part of the name change would be the dropping of ‘Fair’ – and not the dropping of ‘Lovely’. So what happens now? Will the sales of the cream come crashing down? Not really.
To understand the genesis of the product, let’s visit another category – toothpaste.
The need to have something to clean teeth was not ‘created ‘ by the first toothpaste manufacturers. The need was felt by human beings, who used what was available to them and was practical.
So before the toothpaste brands came calling – and made fortunes – the need was addressed by the humble neem stick.
The toothpaste (with the toothbrush) did the same job as the neem stick – except that, in the opinion and experience of most consumers, it was easier to use and, of course, better in flavour.
Fair & Lovely, similarly, did not come to the Indian market and announce that one needed to be fair. Indians already wanted to be fair; which is why there are any number of home-grown solutions to address the same need, from a haldi paste that is common in the southern states to a whole lot of ayurvedic ‘haldi-chandan’ combinations, in use, literally, for hundreds of years.
The need to be ‘fairer’ is not only about ‘colour’. Users (both men and women; Emami has a ‘male’ fairness cream called Fair & Handsome) buy it because it makes them ‘feel’ better and more confident.
It is our society that has placed a premium on fairness of skin – especially fairness of face. And this premium is not a 20, 30 or 40-year phenomenon – it’s a premium that has survived hundreds of years. It’s a misplaced and short-sighted view that calls for the banning of fairness products.
Unlike many products that do damage to the body, notably cigarettes and alcohol, fairness solutions, whether provided by the most reputed centres of Ayurveda in the country or by HUL or by Emami, address a need that consumers have identified.
Till that need disappears, Fair & Lovely, by whatever name it is marketed in the future, will continue to sell.
Not just as a sun-block, but as a product that makes the consumer feel good about herself and helps her step out confidently.
First Published: IST