Journey of a brand through its commercials- Surf Excel


During this Ramadan season, one brand captured positive attention with its commercial (#madadekibadat) in both India and Pakistan together — Surf Excel. It’s always interesting to study how a brand has evolved over time. Not only does it gives insights into how a brand has evolved; but also on strategies, and messages it has developed. In this blog post, let’s make an attempt to see how Surf Excel has evolved over time during its journey of over fifty years. This ranges from She is Happy campaign to Lalitaji to Madad ek ibadat campaign.

Hindustan Unilever Limited introduced Surf in 1959 which was the first detergent powder in India. Surf brand has always maintained its market leader position in this category since inception (with occasional drops, of course). The brand has been kept innovative to compete with other national and local market players. Presently some of its variants include Surf Excel Blue, Surf Excel Quick Wash, Surf Excel Gentle Wash, Surf Excel Matic, Surf Excel Bar and the latest being Surf Excel Matic Liquid.

Launch of Surf, the first ever detergent powder

Surf was the first detergent powder launched in India. Here is the Surf launch commercial that first appeared in Indian television in 1960’s.

Not only is it interesting to watch how television commercials were fifty years ago; but also is a good example of how the feature-based-showcase and call-to-action is used in commercials. The 30 seconds ad showcases the benefits of Surf specifically the whitest wash achieved. English voice-over at that point in time indicates clearly that the target audience is premium segment.

After being a monopolistic player for almost a decade, HUL faced stiff competition from a then unknown low cost player, Nirma in the 70’s. This essentially drove the detergent wars in India. It continues to exists even today; just that the number of players has changed. Though, price is the driving factor in these wars; promotion play an equally important role for each of the players. Since its introduction, Surf brand has utilized the television medium to create awareness and influence purchase decisions of the product. I couldn’t find any historic information on whether there were any commercials in the initial years post Surf’s introduction; but this changed with the entry of Nirma.

Nirma detergent was positioned as the low cost, value for money detergent that can do the exact thing as Surf (Nirma was priced at 1/3rd the Surf). While it was contemplating strategic choices to counter this, HUL launched a rational theme based commercial introducing Lalitaji, a no-nonsense, independent, sensible housewife, who understood value and quality, and made the smart choice. In this ad, the brand focused on rational aspects for purchase like optimal quantity, value for money; though premium, whiteness to the clothes and no harmful effects to them because of the usage of Surf. The ad specifically tackles the high price aspect with Lalitaji mocking the interviewer. It’s also interesting to see how a stereotyped character of ‘middle-class-looking for more value’ in this commercial with the proposition of — Surf wash far more clothes with far less powder than any other detergent.

The brand was forced to take a completely rational theme role played by a confident housewife because of Nirma’s entry as a low cost player; however it’s interesting to see that Nirma’s advertisement didn’t follow this approach. Instead it was a purely a jingle (Doodh si safedi Nirma se aaye, Rangeen kapda bhi khil khil jaye) based execution showcasing the benefits as well as a bandwagon effect of many are using it.

Makeover of Surf to Surf Excel

While HUL was able to keep (and take back) its market share, it was facing more competitions with the entry of more local and national players. The product offering itself has changed many-a-times with introduction of Surf Ultra, Surf Easy Wash and likes. All these in-fact used rational, feature based themes in its commercials. Surf Excel became what it is today with its introduction in 90’s as Surf with Excel Power. Here is the TV commercial showcasing Surf with Excel Power. Once again, the theme utilized is rational with a showcase of its benefits and packaging. Another important aspect in this commercial’s messaging is voice over exerting that this product is made based on the requirements provided by its audience (just ask, we will make it!)

Surf Excel’s power to stains

Perhaps in late nineties, a new campaign was launched changing its messaging and focusing on the power of Surf Excel to remove any kind of stains. This was the first move away from focus on all features; and instead highlight Surf Excel’s power on removing the stains. ‘Surf Excel hai na‘ became the tag line. Along with this there was another campaign focusing on the message that Surf Excel doesn’t affect your clothes’ colors (Daag Hataye Rang Nahin). There were few other campaigns in between like save a bucket of water with Surf Excel

Surf Excel is one brand which has continuously captured the Indian cultural traits (family, emotion, femininity etc.) through out its commercials from Lalitaji to the latest themes. House wife, woman or a mother has mostly been the center-stage characters in all the advertisements.

Association with kids & daag achhe hain campaigns

Slowly, the brand moved away from its rational themes to emotional themes with commercials like Color Your Future and kids became an integral part of Surf Excel ads with its daag achhe hain campaigns. In these ads, emotional aspects are given prominence and highlighting features take a backseat. Let’s take one such example that I am sure we have all seen at least once.

This ad shows a brother who tries to pacify his little sister after she fell down in dirt by scolding the floor/dirt. While scolding and hitting the pit-hole with dirty water, the kid gets completely dirty; however her sister stops crying and is pacified. There is no mention of how Surf Excel is the best, its benefits or anything. Another important learning is emotional themes really tick once the brand is established. Interestingly this continues to be the theme of the brand even now.

A combination of emotion and societal message

One changeover that has taken place is in concepts. These days, the brand has continuously tried to incorporate the emotional (kids + dirt is good) theme along with societal messages. This was our thesis during our Marketing and Communications course as well 🙂 Keeping dirt is good as the inherent message, these campaigns showcases various slice of life sequences with a message. All of these involves kids, their innocence. Here is the playlist of commercials in this campaign. As you can see all of them shows some emotional sequence combined with a societal message (Kids helping a mentally retarded or a boy being bullied gets help and so on…). Surf Excel has taken a step further launching Get Your Kid #ReadyForLife campaigns (clubbing societal message + CSR initiative).

Surf Excel is a great case study to learn how a brand’s communication strategy has evolved, and how it can be linked to the strategies a business take. What do you think…?

About Vijay Sankar 44 Articles
A techie turned business professional; presently living in Cochin, India. For bread and butter, exploring the domain of marketing attribution. I hold an Electrical Engineering degree from College of Engineering, Trivandrum and Executive MBA (PGPEM) from Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

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