India at 75: Chelpark and 14 other brands that will take you back in time
1. Chelpark ink: Write of passage
In the days when good cursive handwriting also stood for good character (even if the ink left a blot), Chelpark ink and its brand of fountain pens left a mark on our collective conscience — and in our four-lined notebooks. Those were the heady days of nibs, inkpots, and stained fingertips. A time when fluid and frictionless glide of the nib across the pages imparted fluency to our thoughts.
From sapphire blue and crimson violet to even emerald green, students waited to be promoted to a higher grade in school to be allowed to use Chelpark inks. This was every student’s ‘write of passage’ — and the very ink of Indianness.
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In the ’50s, Parker Pen Company found an Indian partner in Chellaram. Thus was born Chelpark. With the emergence of ballpoint and gel pens, Chelpark is now hardly seen on a student’s desk.
2. Cherry Blossom: Adding shine to the step
Shoe-shining was a profession, but wasn’t seen as an honourable one. It’s this insight that led adman Alyque Padamsee to use Charlie Chaplin as the brand’s mascot to associate fun with shoe polishing. Toothbrush moustache, bowler hat, twirling cane, ‘Cherry Chaplin’ brought entertainment to a product as boring as shoe polish. It has since been an integral part of the Indian household culture for dressing smartly.
Cherry Blossom did not try to make itself a premium or aspirational brand through the ads, but it made a very strong identity for itself. The brand, launched in the UK in 1906, reaffirmed what this everyday act conveyed about the wearer of polished shoes.
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It celebrated its centennial year in 2006 with a new campaign showcasing its “100 shining years”. It attempted to revive the habit of polishing one’s own shoes with its overarching message — “Polish to Shine” — targeting school students and young office-goers by portraying that polishing shoes is an act of character-building and a matter of discipline.
3. Colgate: Oral history
Of the many products that have become synonymous with the category, Colgate remains an enduring example when it comes to toothpaste in India. Incorporated in 1937, Colgate-Palmolive (India) Ltd dominates the toothpaste category in the country with more than 50 per cent market share.
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Besides brand recall and distribution, an ability to produce innovative new variants has helped it stay the course as well as anticipate and stave off competition. This is despite market disruptions by a homegrown company like Patanjali at a time natural or herbal category is gaining more traction among increasingly health-conscious consumers. Think no further than the missionary zeal (“Kya aapke toothpaste me namak hai?”) with which it promoted a toothpaste with natural salt!
4. Covishield and Covaxin: Layer of protection
To think that barely two-and-a-half years ago these two words didn’t even exist. And then think what a boon it is that they now do. Covishield and Covaxin, the two vaccines India can claim as its own, have come as a strong layer of protection against the Covid-19 pandemic that has thrown the world in a tizzy. The two vaccines are household names now, familiar to every Indian, even in remote corners of the country.
Through Covishield and the homegrown Covaxin, India has conducted the world’s largest vaccination drive. The first Covid vaccine was introduced in the US on December 10, 2020, and barely a month later, on January 16, Covishield was launched in India. Weeks later, India launched Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, along with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology. Covishield, developed by
British major AstraZeneca, has been manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India. Last month, India hit a global milestone with 2 billion cumulative Covid-19 vaccinations.
5. Dabur: Back to the roots
From humble beginnings as an Ayurvedic medicine company operating from the bylanes of Kolkata, Dabur has grown into one of India’s largest FMCG firms. The brand is said to have got its name from its founder — Daaktar SK Burman, who would formulate Ayurvedic medicines for diseases like cholera and malaria for which standardised drugs were not easily available.
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The brand’s success lay in seamlessly adapting to evolving market situations, including handing over the management to professionals outside the Burman family.
With a vast array of products — from Chyawanprash, which is sold and consumed as an immunity-boosting dietary supplement, to Hajmola, a digestive pill — Dabur has come to be recognised as a household name. Sore throats on winter nights, for instance, would be treated with a spoonful of Dabur honey with a pinch of pepper. Today, the company has some 250 herbal and Ayurvedic products under its name: skincare, haircare, oral care, home care, foods, and more.
6. Dalda: Oily days
The distinctive green and yellow tin boxes with their palm tree logo were once a standard presence in Indian kitchens. At a time when ghee and coconut oil were too costly for the average Indian family, a man named Hussein Dada would import vanaspati ghee from a Dutch company. He sold it as Dada Vanaspati. When the Lever brothers took over the rights from him, they also convinced him to let them add an ‘L’ in the middle. And so Dada became Dalda — a cheaper alternative to the expensive ghee, but which retained its touch, feel, and taste.
After a monopoly of nearly 20-30 years in the Indian market, the brand started getting caught in controversies — from being called a falsehood to being accused of having animal fat. However, it was the awareness that highly saturated vegetable oil was very unhealthy that finally led to the downfall of Dalda and its disappearance from Indian kitchens.
7. Dettol: Germs? Where?
There’d hardly be any household, particularly in urban India, where you wouldn’t find a bottle of Dettol. Almost 90 years after its launch, Dettol continues to dominate the hygiene category. A simple green-and-white bottle, reminiscent of hospitals and nursing homes, and a logo with a white sabre cutting through the middle (a reference to the doctor’s cross), it resembles the neat, functional medicine bottles from the 1930s.
Dettol equals disinfectant and antiseptic. And to think Reckitt & Sons (now RB), the English parent of Dettol, was once toying with a whole different name for it: PCMX (from parachlorometaxylenol), the compound that gives Dettol its germ-fighting ability.
The brand’s advertisements — aimed at mothers who could keep a clean environment for their kids by simply using its products — have helped etch a special place for it in homes. It has remained relevant with a vast variety of products in the market, available at convenient price points and its evergreen claim of killing 99.9 per cent germs.
8. Fevicol: The game’s bond
Few firms owe their popularity to just one product. Case in point, Pidilite’s Fevicol. Six decades after it was introduced, Fevicol holds over 70 per cent of the market share and even made its way into a Salman Khan song. Launched in 1959 by Balvant Parekh, it has managed to reach every strata of society in a number of ways. The brand used advertisements to a magical effect.
Making a TV debut in 1997, the look and style of these ads — rustic, catering to rural and low-income households, and packed with humour — has remained intact. They allowed the company to sell directly to carpenters instead of hardware stores, and establish a stronger feedback loop. Over time, Fevicol even started making its way into stationery kits of students. Newer products, Fevicol Marine, Fevicol HeatX and Fevicol SpeedX, together account for over half the revenue of Fevicol.
9. Fiat: More than a car
A sleek alternative to the bulky, living room-sized Ambassador, the Fiat 1100 Delight came to India as Premier Padmini, a four-seat saloon manufactured by Premier Automobiles from 1964 to 2001.And soon, people no longer owned just a car: they owned a Fiat. Such was the brand’s presence in India.
The Padmini remained the queen of hearts and even ruled the taxi ecosystem in Mumbai, then Bombay, as the famous kali-peeli. Look hard enough and some are still roaring the roads of Mumbai.
Successive launches like the Fiat 124 came to India as Premier 118NE and also came the classic hatchback Fiat Uno, a front-engine, front-drive, four-passenger supermini. But worker troubles delayed deliveries, despite a large number of bookings, and the Fiat Uno couldn’t really take off in India the way it did in other markets. And in 2019, the brand reached the road’s end in India, with Fiat shutting operations in the country and refocusing resources on the Jeep.
10. 5 Star: Gooey, chewy delight
The sticky chocolate bar was launched in India some five decades ago and quickly became one of the company’s top-selling products. With its signature shiny golden packaging and friendly price points, 5 Star was an instant favourite.
Its distinct flavour inspired this tagline in the 1970s: “Deliciously rich, you’d hate to share.” The more recent campaigns featured the misadventures of twins, Ramesh and Suresh, lost in a bite of the chewy 5 Star. The campaign was such a hit that the “twins” remained the 5 Star pair for over 11 years. But the Mondelez-owned brand’s 2020 ad — “Do Nothing” — invited criticism for what was seen as an insensitive portrayal of the youth.
Over the years, 5 Star has battled competition from other brands and was even abandoned by consumers when they felt the bar had shrunk too much for the price it was being sold at. But 5 Star bounced back every time, returning with new flavours. 5 Star is now also sold in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines and Egypt.
11. Glycodin: Smooth talk
“Uhu uhu.” That familiar cough, followed by a spoonful of Glycodin and khaansi ki chhutti. This award-winning commercial captured what Glycodin was all about: a trusted medicine for treating cough and cold; a bottle as ubiquitous in an Indian household as salt and pepper.
Of the many legends Glycodin roped in to feature in its ads, the rarest of all was Lata Mangeshkar — the melody queen who could ill afford a sore throat. And so Glycodin was the only ad she ever did. It was shot by Govind Nihalani, and the other legends it featured included Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi.
Glycodin was launched in 1932 by Alembic Pharmaceuticals (1907) and became an over-the-counter product 13 years later. It was aggressively marketed during the 1980s, but when concerns were raised about cough syrups having codeine (which belongs to a class of medications called opiate), Alembic removed codeine from Glycodin. Alembic’s cough syrups, especially Glyodin, have lately seen a downturn in market share — slipping from nearly 80 per cent in 2010 to 30-35 per cent in 2019.
12. Godrej: And, it’s secure
Who waits for two to three months to buy an almirah? Well, you would, in the 1980s, if you were eyeing a Godrej. The “only safe place to keep a ring”: Feluda knew what he was talking about when he said this for a Godrej almirah in Adventures of Feluda. Godrej almirahs (launched in 1923 with the Godrej Storewel cupboard), and before that its locks, were synonymous with security. The main door of the house had to have a Godrej lock and all the valuables had to be locked away in a Godrej almirah. The first model — the ‘safe cabinet’ — had five adjustable shelves.
The company used advertising to great effect, first by branding the almirah as a wedding gift and then as a private space for the newly-married couple. Changing times meant that the big steel cupboard had to make way for the built-in wardrobe, with the 60-80 kg Storewel becoming a part of Godrej Interio, formed in 2006.
13. Good Knight: Mosquito net
A blog post by Bill Gates in 2014 declared mosquitoes the deadliest animal in the world, accounting for around 725,000 deaths annually. The numbers were worse in the 1980s when R Mohan launched Goodknight. The idea was so unique that he was dubbed “Good Knight Mohan”. Mohan made sure that the mosquito repellent catered to tier-II and rural areas as well by introducing Goodknight mats that weren’t dependent on electricity.
In 1994, Mohan began researching for the AI, or active ingredients, used in these repellents. Fast cards, roll-ons and patches were introduced in the next few years and Mohan became a pioneer in bringing them to the Indian market.
The trusted brand has consistently led the market through a number of innovations — from the 45-night refill launched in 1995 that would last the entire mosquito-breeding season to the Rs 1 fast card in 2013 to make it affordable for the poorest consumer in a country that is among the worst hit by vector-borne diseases.
14. Haldiram: Sweet & salty story of success
With minimal advertising and promotion, Haldiram’s is a household name today. The nearly century-old brand has a story fit enough for a biopic: starting modestly as a tiny shop in Bikaner, Rajasthan, travelling across the country to Kolkata and Delhi, taking a hit during the anti-Sikh riots and a family split before becoming a resounding success.
Haldiram is also one of the first homegrown eateries to adapt the idea of branding the founder’s name. Haldiram (Ganga Bishen Agarwal) initially marketed the bhujia as Dungar Sev, named after the then ruler of Bikaner, Dungar Singh.
The firm introduced sweets and south Indian food in Nagpur in the ’60s. In the ’80s, when nobody took the idea of packaging seriously, it was among the pioneers. Its products are now available in over 100 countries, with the latest generation of the Agarwal family using modern tools to serve age-old recipes.
15. HMT watches: Timekeeper to the nation
This desh ki dhadkan that started ticking in 1961, HMT was a state-owned manufacturer that collaborated with Japan’s Citizen to produce watches that Indians were proud to sport — and gift. It started out with a Nehruvian swadeshi agenda — an indigenous mechanical watch that would help citizens run the country on time.
To own an HMT watch was akin to owning an Ambassador car — a matter of immense pride, but also the only option available. Before HMT opened its own showrooms, post offices would have a counter selling HMT timepieces!
The Janata model was Nehru’s personal favourite and on Indira Gandhi’s wrist. The Jawan became the trademark of those in the Army. The Kanchan model earned the moniker ‘the dowry watch’, because weddings were often delayed to accommodate its delivery. You’d have to get a recommendation letter from a senior Cabinet minister to jump the queue.
It may have run out of time, given cell phones are now alter-watches, but it’s kept the clock ticking with its time-travelling museum and a website for collectors who wish to rewind.
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