The year was 1971, and Pakistan had just finished its liberation struggle, resulting in the establishment of a new country, Bangladesh. Meeta Shah, a 19-year-old from Bhavnagar, Gujarat, persuaded her father to let her buy a native make-up item for herself by asking for ₹5 (a large sum at the time). After a brief moment of thought, her father consented to her request.
Out of the ₹97,000 crore beauty business in India, Lakmé cosmetics surpassed the ₹1,000 crore mark in sales in 2017-18.
How did this desi brand, which has an international feel to it, break into the Indian market and make cosmetics accessible to middle-income families?
The Indian cosmetics market relied significantly on multinational brands after independence. Imported cosmetics were in high demand among the growing middle and upper classes. Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s then-Prime Minister, was alarmed by this and asked businessman Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata to launch an indigenous cosmetics company. The company began as a subsidiary of Tata Oil Mills, and after considerable thought, it was given the name ‘Lakmé,’ which is an English derivative of Laxmi, the goddess of riches and beauty.
According to legend, the goal of adopting an exotic name was to avoid being associated with the concept of beauty, which is predominantly a western phenomenon. This was at a period when ‘dadi ke nuskhe,’ or simply talcum powder, was the epitome of beauty in desi households.
The developing firm needed a plan that would help the products to make inroads across all types of families during a period when make-up was deemed taboo in India, as only ladies with a ‘tainted character’ had kohl-rimmed eyes and ruby red lips.
Simone Naval Tata stepped in at this point. In the 1960s, Naval H. Tata’s Swiss-born wife took on the Herculean task of redefining beauty.
The road was not simple, even with the knowledge and dedicated employees. In the 1980s, things got complicated when the government imposed a 100% excise levy on cosmetics, even those made in the United States, causing margins to plummet. Simone met with Dr Manmohan Singh, the then-finance minister, to discuss the problem.
Lakmé’s Acceptance Factor
Supermodel Shyamoli Verma, a blend of modernity and Indianness, was Lakmé’s first face. Most of Lakmé products, such as mascara, face powder, lipstick, foundation creams, compacts, nail enamel, toners, and more, were introduced by Simone. The brand sought a well-known face to appear in their educational campaign, which aimed to dispel social stigmas around cosmetics.
She wore Lakmé make-up and performed Indian instruments like the sitar and flute, with the tagline, ‘If colour is to beauty what music is to mood, play on.’
After that, they took advantage of India’s love for Bollywood stars and enlisted the help of actresses like Rekha and, later, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the 1994 Miss World, as brand ambassadors.
In the current scenario
Lakmé is one of those brands that has influenced society in a variety of ways. In 1996, the Tatas sold Lakmé to Hindustan Unilever, a rapidly expanding FMCG company. Today, the company sells over 300 different goods in over 70 countries around the world. Their diverse product range, which starts at ₹100 and goes up to ₹1,000, caters to a wide variety of customers.