Ujala - The Story of an Iconic Ad



There are ads, and then there are iconic ads. This is the story of one such iconic ad.

Aaya naya Ujala, char boondon waala, (loosely translated to ‘Here comes new Ujala, the one with just four drops’) captured the imagination of the Indian public in 1997 and changed the fortunes of the tiny Jyothy Laboratories Limited (JLL). JLL which was a single product company with sales of ~$12 million then, is today, a multi-product behemoth with a market cap of more than $1 billion and sales of more than $250 million.

What is not commonly known is that JLL actually started off as a part time business in 1983 with a capital of less than $100. What is perhaps even less known is that in that one year in 1997, the company spent more than 50% of its sales on the advertisement. The result – within a few years, it dominated its category with a market share of more than 70%, which is sustained even today.

To understand the story of the ad better we need to go back in time to understand the genesis of the business.

It all began because of the personality quirk of Mr. Ramachandran. You see, he is always in all-white attire (including shoes). The only day in his life, he wore coloured clothing was on his wedding day. He ascribes this habit to his father who also used to wear all-white throughout his life. But he faced a problem – he washed his own clothes and he could not find a good fabric whitener (a detergent-complement which make clothes whiter) that could keep his clothes as white as he wanted them to be. One day he chanced upon a chemical industry journal that talked about ‘purple-colored dyes helping textile makers get the most brilliant shades of white.’ That phrase became the trigger. He experimented in his kitchen for a year–boiling, diluting and testing–until he was pleased with the results. He developed a unique liquid fabric whitener as opposed to the powdered version that was popular in the market then. This was the genesis of the product which would eventually become ‘Ujala’.

Mr. Ramachandran moved to Mumbai from Kerala in the early 1970s with the idea of migrating further to another country to earn money. But he found a good job in a bulk drugs chemicals company there in the Accounts department. Fourteen years into working in Mumbai, the company he worked shut down. But because he was in the Accounts department, he had to stay there for couple more years to settle various matters like taxes, payables, etc. He was a workaholic then too and the promoters liked him enough to allow him to start a side business. Thus was born Jyothy laboratories Ltd (named after his daughter Jyothy). His brother took care of the manufacturing in Kerala while he worked part time for a few years.

The initial years were hard and M. Ramachandran had almost decided to close his factory when he received an order for 1000 bottles from a dealer in a nearby town. JLL never looked back after that. Ujala was first launched in Kerala, and steadily grew its market share in the state through targeted communication and aggressive distribution (high dealer margins of ~10%). Rather than try and appeal to a wide lot, the target audience was first narrowed down to just the Malayali community and soon they started getting enquiries from Malayalis staying as far away as Bhilai (West India, about a few hundred kilometres away). Other innovations followed and in 1986 through print ads and radio spots Ramachandran asked for critical feedback on Ujala.

I wanted users to criticise the product so that I could learn from them. And the best feedback was also rewarded.

He transformed the feedback initiative into a complete branding exercise by asking his staff to personally hand over the prize.

Production was gradually increased in Kerala but in 1993, labour unrest in Kerala led him to Pondicherry to take advantage of the tax holiday offered there.

JLL then steadily expanded to Tamil Nadu as well where it garnered a dominant market share in a few years. Till around the early-1990s, the company was only in the Southern part of India and captured a lion’s share of the market there.

Bearding the lion in its den; The fox was running for its meal while the hare was running for its life

The strength of the product in its core markets gave JLL the confidence to go beyond. Instead of moving to the neighbouring states, the management decided to go into West Bengal (Western part of India) – the bastion of Robin Blue, which was the dominant leader in the fabric whitener category. JLL’s logic behind going into West Bengal was interesting – the company dominated its core geographies, and if they could do the same in Bengal, they believed they could go national.

To understand the audacity of this move, it is pertinent to note here that Robin Blue was owned by Reckitt Benckiser (RB), the global FMCG giant. It was the incumbent dominant player in the fabric whitener category, and the product sold in the powdered form. The brand equity was so strong that the colloquial word for fabric whitener – ‘Neel’ (meaning ‘blue’, as most fabric whiteners then were blue in colour) was synonymously used with the brand ‘Robin’. However, given the strength of the product and the fact that it was just one of the smaller brands in its portfolio, RB did not invest much in the brand and so was seen as an old fashioned brand.

Thus while Ujala was nimbly going from strength-to-strength, Robin was a slumbering giant resting on past laurels. It also helped that Ujala’s liquid product dissolved better in water that the powdered product of Robin which tended to form clots leading to wastage.

Another advantage to JLL was that it was a single product company whose life depended on the product. While investment in Robin was an after-thought for RB, Ujala was everything for JLL.

Yet another factor in JLL’s favor was that unlike conventional wisdom, the company grew through its rural penetration, which was the primary market for fabric whiteners. In those days, the Indian rural market was almost entirely ignored with most brands focusing just on the urban consumer. RB used the same formula for Robin as for its other products, and focused on urban markets while neglecting the rural market.

JLL spent four years from 1997 competing against Robin in the West Bengal market. It used a combination of effective advertising and aggressive distribution then. The company was reportedly spending $1 million then on the West Bengal market alone. Till then it had regional advertisements for each of its markets necessitated as it was by the diverse nature of the Indian market.

It was at this time that Mr. Chatterjee of Situations Advertising, a friend of Mr Ramachandran and the ad agency for JLL, suggested that they combine the regional advertising budgets and go for a national ad. Mr. Chatterjee spent considerable time in the core markets of Ujala to understand the core customer and his usage of the product. The resulting ad was heavily used across all media and it effectively delivered the knock-out punch against Robin.

The ad worked on multiple levels. First, the jingle was catchy and Indian consumers across were found humming the song consciously/ unconsciously! Next, it directly addressed the need of the customer. White clothes are regularly used by the men in families while it is the lady who is normally in charge of the laundry. The ad addresses both by showing the pain of the man in the first scene, and then goes on to show how easy it was to use the product and how effective it was in addressing the pain of the family.

Sun Tzu and the Art of War

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu states the following.

Do not engage an enemy more powerful than you. And if it is unavoidable and you do have to engage, then make sure you engage it on your terms, not on your enemy’s terms.

And this is exactly what happened. In order to counter the Ujala threat, RB launched its own liquid version in 1999 – Robin Dazzling. However, it was too late - liquid fabric whitener was now already synonymous with Ujala. So that battle was lost.

RB then launched advertisements stating that the Robin liquid was more effective than Ujala as the former required lesser number of drops to achieve the same result. It tried to combat Ujala using logic. However, as Mr. Ramachandran said,

With the ad, as Mr. Chatterjee said, ‘drops’ already belonged to us. If a competitor comes with ‘drops’ in their campaign, that is only going to help us.

Ujala already had a first mover advantage coupled with a catchy jingle which evoked strong customer attachment and an extremely strong distribution network. So that battle was lost as well.

RB then approached the courts to restrict the airing of certain ads of JLL which used comparative advertising. But then, JLL was fighting for its life – and eventually the courts ruled in its favour against RB. In a few years, Robin’s more than 25% market share was reduced to mid-single digits.

The biggest impact by far of the ad is probably that it instilled a sense of confidence and purpose to propel the company to the next level. They believed that what they could do in Ujala could be done in other segments as well. Today JLL has multiple brands like Exo, Pril, Maxo which all occupy among the top positions in their respective categories.


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Loved it… Especially the Sun Tsu part…


Just amazing. Keep up the great work you guys!