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A whiff of cricket

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Heritage soap brand Mysore Sandal takes on hot cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni to work his charms on its fortunes.

MYSORE SANDAL soap is on a new wicket with M. S. Dhoni endorsing it.
MYSORE SANDAL soap is on a new wicket with M. S. Dhoni endorsing it.

Madhumathi D. S.

"Dhoni has what we need, he even has the right initials, the same as our brand."

A young (bats) man and a soap: so what's the big deal in one more endorsement, you may ask. The brand has been around for nearly 90 years but it took a dashing new cricketing icon to bowl the staid old Mysore Sandal over.

As presumably laidback and market-unsavvy as public sector companies come, soap maker Karnataka Soaps & Detergents Ltd is nowhere near the league of Bharat Petroleum or Exide. Yet it figures surprisingly among these early birds who spotted the rising Dhoni wave and chose to ride on it.

I. R. Perumal, Managing Director, says he avidly watched four Dhoni-starrer matches since November last year before signing up Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the company's first ever brand ambassador on January 3 this year. The long-haired 24-year-old wicket-keeper/batsman will be working up fresh lather for the vintage brand over the next two years.

The sandal soap maker's yearly advertising outlay of Rs 6 crore is nothing compared to the Rs 400 crore - Rs 500 crore high-pitch ad spends of soap giants like Hindustan Lever. Yet, the two M.S.s Dhoni and the soap have already hit print and television campaigns in English and Indian languages - these again managed by State-owned sibling MCA (Marketing Consultants & Agencies).

A new 30-second film for cinema theatres is due to be shot in April-May. Hoardings and balloons resembling the sandal soap flying outside retail outlets are part of the gameplan.

For the first time in its history, the soap's stockists and retailers will be in lucky draws for silver and gold coins against target sales. Small gifts in the form of the celebrity's picture cards; bats, balls and wickets as prizes are also in the circuit to egg cricket-crazy youngsters on to go for the heady sandalwood fragrance.

In addition to the 150-odd field force on its rolls, Karnataka Soaps is pressing 400 more sales personnel on the job using an incentive-based contract scheme.

Is the Dhoni effect already enveloping a struggling State PSE? Perumal adds that average monthly sales of Rs 7 crore-8 crore come from the four sandal brands alone, while sales for March 2006 are set to leap to Rs 18 crore-20 crore, and a 15 per cent jump in quarterly numbers. KS&DL looks set to touch Rs 130 crore for the year 2005-06, over Rs 115 crore last year.

In the entire 4.5-lakh-tonne toilet soaps market worth Rs 4,900 crore, Mysore Sandal holds a small, 6500-tonne share. "With the right supply of sandalwood to our sandal oil factory, we can distil more oil and do much better than this," is his position.

Dhoni is endorsing all the `MS' or sandal-related soaps of KS&DL - which include the super-premium Gold (Rs 50 for 75g); Baby; normal sandal soap and the seasonal glycerine-based wintercare version Classic.

Why did it pick the Jharkhand boy? Why couldn't it have sported local lads Rahul Dravid or Anil Kumble? M. S. Dhoni, with his fresh appeal, "has what we need, he even has the right initials, the same as our brand," exults Perumal. "At his cricket matches, even as I saw and heard the adulation of young girls - and boys - for him at the stadium, I knew we had to get Dhoni to `bat' for us."

Imagine, circa 1994, Mangalore lass Aishwarya Rai, then newly crowned Miss World, had agreed to be the sandal queen for - hold your breath - Rs 3 lakh! The gambit never cleared the boardroom.

Mysore Sandal, Perumal insists, is a premium product with a patented formulation; it is the only soap in the world that uses "real" sandalwood oil. At Rs 100 per gram, a heady ingredient that, if at all used by other `sandal-soap' claimants, would cost them the earth.

The brand could easily be worth Rs 300 crore-400 crore, and Perumal says that all these years, it plodded on without any kind of publicity. Dhoni has happened to KS&DL at a time when it is trying to retain its small niche market, catch the eye of the youth and make a northern push.

A majority of KS&DL's loyal customers are above 40 years of age and 85 per cent of the sales are from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Sentimental old-timers from far and wide may occasionally write in about quality or for supplies, but that is not enough. In the welter of over 500 well-promoted soaps and their versions that are in circulation, there is little awareness about Mysore Sandal among the youth, is his lament.

"Even after so many years, our brand has a predominantly southern recall and image. Now we want to take it to the North, East and the West and tell the younger generation, too, about it." What better than a combination of cricket and a new star to win it visibility and acceptance among the now generation, Perumal argues.

As for roping in Dhoni, had KS&DL delayed the move, it "would surely have not afforded him

now

, because especially after the Pakistan trip, Dhoni's price has gone up many times more, to several crores of rupees," observes an ad industry watcher.

The KS&DL portfolio also has low-end Rose and Jasmine brands and recently added a herbal soap, though these are outside Dhoni's sweep. The Mysore Sandal baby soap introduced three years ago is a growing, 10 tonnes a month product (but no patch on J&J's 250 tonnes; or Wipro's baby soap.)

It has just got a Rs 10-crore chunky order and is being promoted through the State health department and defence canteens. To push exports beyond Rs 4 crore, mainly to expatriates in the Gulf and South-East Asia, a new international package has been introduced.

For now, there is a new vigour about Mysore Sandal. It has become a GI (geographical indication), which means Mysore Sandal is its proprietary right.

"Others cannot just claim to use it," according to Perumal. "GI is the jewel in our crown." The next few months should tell how well `Mysore Sandal' Dhoni's endoresement washes with his fans.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 30, 2006)
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