• Kanhaiya Maheshwary

Moti Sandal Soap & Diwali - The brand that resurrects every Diwali!

I find it extremely fascinating to unearth anecdotes around festivals and the sub-cultures that have formed around them. Just a couple of hours back, one of my very good friends from MBA texted me that I should write about Moti Sandal Soaps and its connection to Diwali; and in a jiffy a lot of memories made its way back to my mind. Every festival is known for certain traditions, and while a lot of them are overt and famous (Modaks & Ganesh Chaturthi / Biryani & Eid / Plum Cakes & Christmas), there are some 'undercover' ones that a lot of times people accept as a norm without really knowing much. The association of Moti Sandal Soaps & Diwali is one such covert bond.


An image that someone shared last year on Twitter during Diwali with the caption "Perfect for Diwali"


To help you understand that such a connection does exist, let me show you the Google Trend line for the past 5 years for the search term "Moti Soap":

Do you see the spikes? Those are the months of October and November - the Diwali season, typically.



So, what exactly is Moti Sandal Soap and what is this strange connection to Diwali? Let's take a look:


Moti Sandal Soap's History


As the name and the packaging suggests, Moti is a sandalwood fragranced soap which was originated by Tata Oil Mills Company sometime around the 1970s. All the branding, communications, and product design was deliberately done with an intention to create a luxury, differentiated brand. At that time when most of the soaps were rectangular, Moti was round. In an era that was defined by English named bath soaps like Pears, Rexona, and LifeBuoy, Moti differentiated by having a Hindi name which means 'Pearl', and gave itself a royal connotation. One of their earliest ads was very tastefully done too, with the soap being placed inside a seashell on the beach. So much class!


A small hiccup came in the early 90s, when Tata Oil Mills company merged with Hindustan Unilever (HUL) in 1993 (back then, it was still called Hindustan Lever Ltd., or HLL). Everyone thought that given HUL's portfolio of soaps, Moti would have to take a backseat. And it did happen, until HUL realized this brand's strong connection to Diwali and revived it. But more on that later - let's first understand Diwali a little better.


Diwali - The Festival of Lights



Like a lot of other festivals in the Indian sub-continent, Diwali is celebrated for several days. Officially, there are 4 major days, and unofficially, about 7 -

  1. Day 1 - Vasu Baras: A day when Hindus feed their sacred animals like cows

  2. Day 2 - Dhanteras: Celebrating the birth of King Dhanvantri, also known as the God of Ayurveda (ancient form of medicine, which doctors still defer to often). This day is auspicious for traders and businessmen.

  3. Day 3 - Kali Chaudas / Chaturdashi / Chhoti Diwali: It's said that on this day Lord Krishna ended demon Narakasura's life. And this day will be the focus of our association between Moti Sandal Soap and Diwali.

  4. Day 4: Diwali / Lakshmi Pooja: The most important day of the festival when people have a feast, light diyas (earthen lamps), and exchange gifts with friends and family. Prayers are offered to Lord Ram who returned to Ayodhya this day after freeing Sita Mata from the clutches of demon King Raavana. Prayers are also offered to Lord Ganesha, the Goddess of wealth Lakshmi, and Goddess of arts & education Saraswati.

  5. Day 5 - Govardhan Pooja

  6. Day 6 - Bhai Dooj

  7. Day 7 - Chhath Pooja


Chaturdashi / Chhoti Diwali & Abhyanga Snan

This day holds a special significance among certain belts of India like Maharashtra, parts of Goa and South West India, and parts of Gujarat. It is the day when Lord Krishna defeated Narakasura (Narak = Hell, Asura = evil demigods), and people from the above mentioned regions start their day by taking an early bath in order to purify themselves. It is symbolic of shedding the dirt (evil) away from your body as an equation to Lord Krishna removing the evil asura from the body of this planet.


A stack of Moti soaps being pompously displayed on Diwali at a retail store


Typically, people in these parts of India wake up early, apply scented oils to their body, and then wash it off with a soap. This bath is known as Abhyanga Snan, and no points for guessing, the soap of choice is Moti Sandal Luxury Soap.



How Moti became associated Abhyanga Snan?


Watch this Moti commercial from the 80s:

It shows a woman lighting her home with diyas (lamps) and then preparing for the Abhyanga Snan. This ad alone was hugely responsible for creating that mental association between the bath and Moti soap. However, what helped was the fact that Moti's fragrance was reminiscent of 'utna', which is a synonym for the fragrance oils that are applied before the bath. These oil are usually expensive, and after application one doesn't feel like cleaning it off so soon. But people are compelled to, given the fact that the entire point of abhyanga snan is an early morning bath and therefore don't have much time to keep the oils on. Bathing with Moti Sandal would keep that 'utna' fragrance alive and kicking on the body.


Post this advertisement (which was created by none other than Ogilvy), whenever people thought of abhyanga snan, they thought of Moti sandal luxury soap.


Madhukar Sabnavis, now the director of client relations at Ogilvy recalls that he worked on this campaign and at that time it was packaged in different fragranced variants like even rose and khus, and because of the campaign it became a huge success in several belts of western and central India. Later in 2013, HUL realized that this brand has a cultural association with Diwali and therefore they pushed out a communication reviving that memory. Sales did pick up.



Moti Soap - a success story?



It is extremely difficult for a brand to sustain for any length of time in India's competitive FMCG market, yet Moti has managed to do so since almost 5 decades now. Sure, it has a niche and loyal customer base and has never been a huge commercial blockbuster; but this brand's success lies in having transcended the boundaries of being viewed just as a product to becoming an essential ingredient of a sub-culture and a festival. It still evokes nostalgia for some from generations going back to the 80s and 90s, and has become more like a Diwali folklore that is being passed one from generation to generation among Indian middle class families.


#100DaysOfBlogging #Day53

(I wrote the last 2 blogs on my personal blog - theindianpostman.wordpress.com and kanhaiyamaheshwary.medium.com)

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