How Dalda built, and lost, its monopoly..

BS keeps pouring with super short histories of iconic brands. The recent one is on Dalda  which shaped Indian cooking medium business in really difficult times.

Dalda was earlier Dada and Lever Brothers just inserted an L in the middle to leave its mark:

Had England’s not insisted on inserting the letter ‘L’ in the name, then perhaps, India’s most lovedwould have been called Dada.
was actually the name of the Dutch company that imported vanaspati ghee into India in the 1930s as a cheap substitute for desi ghee or clarified butter, prepared from cow’s milk. Ghee was an expensive product and something that was used sparingly in Indian households – over weekends or when preparing a delicacy or a dessert. Vanaspati ghee, on the other hand, was a type of vegetable shortening made up of hydrogenated or highly saturated vegetable oil and made to mimic desi ghee.

There was a huge demand for ghee but  people could not afford it. There was a need for a substitute to fill the gap:

Lever Brothers, now (Hindustan Unilever in India), knew there was a market for a substitute for desi ghee, since many Indians could barely afford ghee. The maker of home and personal care products had already entered food production by the early 20th century in Europe and was looking to produce vanaspati ghee in India. It had also incorporated a company called Hindustan Vanaspati Manufacturing Company in 1931 for the purpose.

Sensing an opportunity to make inroads into the domestic vanaspati ghee market, Lever bought the rights to make Dada in India. There was one pre-condition to the sale: The name Dada had to be retained. Of course, Lever thought otherwise. Its stamp of ownership had to be there somewhere on the product. So the astute consumer goods marketer came up with a solution: The letter L standing for Lever was put right in the middle. Thus, was born Dalda, which was introduced in 1937.

But, Lever’s work was far from over. The Indian public was far from convinced there could be any substitute for ghee. Ghee typically lends its taste and aroma when used as a cooking medium or even when sprinkled over food.

As Sagar Boke, marketing head at Bunge India, the current owner of Dalda, explains, “The challenge for in the initial years was to drive home the point that it tasted just like desi ghee, had deep-frying properties like it, but unlike ghee, it wouldn’t feel heavy either on the pocket or the palate.”

That is where Lever’s ad agency, Lintas, came into the picture. Harvey Duncan, who handled the Dalda account at Lintas, created what was India’s first multi-media campaign in 1939. There was a short film to screen in theatres, a round tin-shaped van to roam the streets, print ads for the literate, stalls to spur sampling and detailed leaflets for distribution as part of the ad blitzkrieg.

It faced all kinds of competition and controversy as not being the original thing. But still it continued. ANd then eventually bowed out to competition as other cooking oils started coming to Indian markets. It was eventually taken over by American food major- Bunge – which is trying to revamp the brand:

Ad historians say that for the first 25-30 years of its existence, Dalda had no competition from local and international edible oil makers. Dalda quite literally had a monopoly over the market till the 1980s. Dalda rode over the initial controversies, such as the one in the 1950s, which called for a ban on Dalda, because it was a “falsehood” – a product that imitated desi ghee, but was not the real deal. In other words, critics argued that Dalda was an adulterated form of desi ghee, harmful for health. The Prime Minister then, Jawaharlal Nehru, called for a nationwide opinion poll, which proved inconclusive. A committee was set up by the government to suggest ways to prevent adulteration of ghee. But nothing came of it.

Of course, years later Dalda had to contend with another controversy that said it contained animal fat – this was in the 1990s. By then, Dalda had competition from “clear oils” or refined vegetable oils such as groundnut (Postman), mustard, safflower (Saffola), sunflower (Sundrop) and palm oil (Palmolein), among others.

These were considered a healthier option to vanaspati ghee. Dalda was losing its hold over Indian kitchens, and by 2003 had been offloaded by HUL to American agri and food major Bunge for reportedly under Rs 100 crore.


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