New Delhi: Wherever work took him, Ananth Kumar, the late BJP leader from Karnataka, always had one thing in his bag — the Mysore Sandal Soap.
“Appa, till the very end only used the soap,” recalls his daughter Aishwarya Kumar, adding that even when he travelled abroad for official visits he never forgot to take the bar of sandalwood soap.
But it’s not just Kumar; the Mysore Sandal Soap is a staple in most Kannadiga households. A byproduct of the First World War, the oval-shaped, biscuit-coloured soap, made of ‘pure sandalwood oil’, has a scent that evokes intense nostalgia in many.
In July this year, Twitter user Anubha Upadhya shared a picture of the soap asking people if they can smell it. The tweet soon went viral and people across the world were talking about the soap.
Speaking to ThePrint, Upadhya, who works as a solution advisor at a tax consultancy firm in Bengaluru, says she was “amazed” at the response her tweet got.
“I vividly remember my dad getting a box that would have 3 big round bars of sandal, rose and jasmine-scented soaps. Mysore Sandal always felt more than just a soap,” the 27-year-old tells ThePrint.
If Boroline is a Bengali’s best friend, the Mysore sandal soap is definitely an integral part of a Kannadiga’s identity.
“That smell was very familiar and distinct no matter where you find them. It still reminds me of my childhood,” says 22-year-old Archita Raghu, a journalism student from Bangalore.
Turning a royal soap vision to reality
The origin of the Mysore Sandal Soap can be traced to World War 1. In 1916, the war blocked the export of sandalwood from Mysore to major Western countries. The Maharaja of Mysore, Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, chanced upon unused sandalwood reserves and ordered the extraction of oil from the aromatic wood.
Two years later, after the king received a rare set of sandalwood soap from a foreigner, he asked Dewan Sir M. Visvesvaraya, to map out a plan of action to begin the production of such soaps in Mysore.
They sent Sosale Garalapuri Sastry, now popular as ‘Soap Sastry’, one of India’s first industrial chemists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, to England to master the art of soap making.
Sastry had always been fascinated with the concept of extracting perfumes from plants. But the soaps from England were made from animal fat, and he wanted to make a soap that would suit Indian sensitivities.
“In those days, soap imported from England was made from beef fat or tallow. My grandfather’s wish was to make soap that would suit Indian sensitivities,” Sastry’s grandson Dr Shiv Sastry, a retired surgeon and a military aviation enthusiast in Bengaluru, tells ThePrint.
However, turning the Maharaja’s vision into reality was quite difficult for him.
According to his grandson, the officials in England refused to reveal their soap-making process and Sastry had to travel to the US to understand the manufacturing process.
On his return to Mysore, the government installed the first soap factory at K.R. Circle in the capital city. After a few successful experiments, the soap was introduced in the market for the first time in 1918. After the product became popular, another unit was set up in Shimoga.
Sastry wanted to introduce Mysore Sandal Soap as an accessible luxury to the market.
Given the rich culture behind it, the soap was nothing less than a jewel and to present it as such, he packaged the soap in a rectangular box, just like a jewellery box.
In the 1980s, the two soap units were merged to form the Karnataka Soaps and Detergent Limited (KSDL).
In 1992, the public sector firm was one of the first to have brought consistent profits in the past few years. In fact, in the financial year 2015-16, KSDL registered its highest gross sales turnover of Rs 476 crore.
Today, the state-run firm has manufacturing units in Bengaluru, Mysore and Shimoga and branches in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi.
However, for a company finally taking its expansionist plans seriously and building its consumer base in western India, particularly in Maharashtra and Gujarat, brand strategist Harish Bijoor believes that it is not doing enough, especially in terms of advertising.
“The company is led with a very manufacturer-centric mindset. It has to change and assess its ability and leverage media plans accordingly,” Bijoor tells ThePrint.
Mysore Sandal Soap never advertised in a high-profile manner unlike its counterparts Lux and Santoor. But even with an annual advertising and sales promotion budget of just Rs 5 crore, as opposed to Lux’s Rs 2,700 crore ad budget, Mysore Sandal Soap clocked a sale of Rs 125 crore, which made up 61 per cent of KSDL’s total turnover in 2011.
In 2006, the company forayed into mainstream advertisements with then Indian Cricket Team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni as their first brand ambassador. But that also ended in trouble, with the company taking Dhoni to court for allegedly not giving enough time to promote the brand as promised in the contract.
In its video advertisements, the company also looked to capitalise on its tagline — “The only soap with 100% pure sandalwood oil”.
Mysore Sandal Soap faces tough competition from MNCs
Despite its popularity, Mysore Sandal Soap is not a pan-India product.
About 75 per cent of its consumers are from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and are aged above 40 years. The company is also struggling against the limited availability of sandalwood, which has led to prices rising ten times in ten years to Rs 40-50 lakh a tonne.
In an attempt to rebrand itself, KSDL also launched India’s most expensive soap, the Mysore Sandal Millennium in January 2012. The super-premium luxury soap was priced at Rs 720 for a 150gm soap bar, which has now increased to Rs 810.
Given the firm’s relatively limited revenue generation and ad spending, the 102-year-old company faces stiff competition from multinational companies like the Hindustan Unilever’s Lux and WCCL’s Santoor.
Price challenges have been a major factor in limiting the company’s growth. While KSDL sells its 75 gm and 125 gm bars of Mysore Sandal Soap for Rs 38 and Rs 62 respectively, Unilever’s offers its Lux Sandal & Cream Soap’s 100 gm bar at just Rs 26.
According to Bijoor, “Santoor’s silent journey to becoming India’s second-largest soap brand in 2019 by investing in just four states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat — where Mysore sandal soap has been performing well, underlines how MNCs are confidently gearing up and winning against Mysore Sandal Soap.”