Throwback: When Captain Cook challenged the undisputed leadership of Tata Salt

Tata Salt commanded 80 percent market share till Captain Cook entered the scene in 1992 and began to threaten its dominance. Lintas was roped in by DCW Homes Products, the brand’s parent company, to come up with a commercial that would make the brand memorable and improve awareness in the market. Storyboard18 got in touch with the creative folks who played a key role in making the advertisement iconic.

By  Kashmeera SambamurthyAug 12, 2023 6:34 AM
Throwback: When Captain Cook challenged the undisputed leadership of Tata Salt
Towards the end of the film, the shot of the brand’s pack appears, and the voice of dubbing and voiceover artist Brij Bhushan is heard where he says, ‘Extra free flow Captain Cook namak’. “Since we had already said everything, I was of the opinion that we do the voiceover and packshot of the ordinary salt. That is when Nitish interjected, ‘That would be taking too much of a risk. We are already making a commercial that does not have a precedent. So, don’t go that far,’” filmmaker Prasoon Pandey says.

If you watch the Captain Cook salt commercial on YouTube, you’ll see veteran actor and author Sushmita Mukherjee disparaging ‘Extra free flow iodised Captain Cook namak’ while trying hard to make the poor-quality ‘Manpasand namak’ stand out through her mannerisms and facial expressions, which complement Hindi entertainer Jaaved Jaaferi’s distinctive voiceover. The ‘negative’ advertisement first aired on Doordarshan in 1993 or 1994. Four years later, Captain Cook went on to touch the Rs 100 crore mark, challenging the dominance of Tata Salt, the market leader. Today, the ad is considered iconic. Prasoon Pandey, who was the creative director of Lintas then, told Storyboard18 that the concept of self-deprecating humour was considered new, and weaving such a storyline turned out to be “clutter busting”.

Going back in time

In 1983, Tata Chemicals launched Tata Salt. As time went by, the brand cemented its position in the market with a share of 80 percent, while the unorganised sector held 20 percent.

In 1992, DCW Homes Products, a chemical firm, introduced the audience to its first consumer brand, Captain Cook, named after the 18th century British explorer, navigator and cartographer James Cook. As Hemant Mishrra, who was vice president – marketing of the company back then puts it, “If one paid attention to the package, it gave an impression of adventure and cooking, which was rolled into one.”

To understand consumer preferences for the quality and texture of salt, the company conducted a survey in Hyderabad and Mumbai by reaching out to housewives. Hyderabad was chosen due to the strong network system the company had there, while Mumbai was where the company was based.

It emerged from the research that the texture of normal salt was lumpy. Mishrra, who is the founder of Neeti Brand Accelerator, a brand consultancy firm, said that the unique selling proposition (USP) of Captain Cook was its ‘free flowing texture’.

He explains, “Tata holds a strong emotion for people in India. We had a salt brand that was better in terms of quality, and we wanted to highlight this to the people. Hence, Captain Cook had to build that connection with housewives, and with sellers at the retail joints.”

Nitish Jain, who was the company’s managing director, approached Lintas with this brief.

Pandey, who remembers Jain as a smart marketing professional, said that the need to educate the audience in order to sell the brand became crucial. “People understand the meaning of iodised, but what exactly does ‘free flowing’ mean? When people sit to watch advertisements, they don’t want to get educated, but expect to get entertained. Hence, there was the need to convert the process of explanation into an enjoyable watch,” he recalls.

That is when Pandey hit upon the idea of a demo film that would show Captain Cook being run down. “The name of the salt was ‘Extra free flow refined iodised Captain Cook namak’. I felt it would be great fun to add, ‘Extra free flow iodised Captain Cook salt, Yeh naam hai ki address?’ because the name is so long,” he says, laughing.

When Pandey narrated the script to the agency’s folks, all of them expressed their excitement. But, they also highlighted their worry: Would the client buy the idea? Jain dispelled their fears by not just understanding the latent humour in the script, but by appreciating what Pandey came up with.

Now came the task of finding a suitable cast for the commercial. That is when ad filmmaker Ram Madhvani was roped in to direct the advertisement. Madhvani told Storyboard18 that they were on the lookout for a female actor who could stand out with her comic timing.

In 1985, a detective show called Karamchand, which was aired on Doordarshan, shot Mukherjee to fame for her portrayal as Kitty, an assistant to veteran actor Pankaj Kapur, who played the titular role. Mukherjee caught their eyes and she was chosen.

But, adding life to the demo film became a question mark. That is when Jaaferi was roped in. The advertisement, which was filmed at Famous Studios in Mahalakshmi, was a one-shot film. Madhvani explains, “Jaaved would be behind the camera delivering his lines and Sushmita would react to them on the spot. In comedy, a lot has to do with timing. If I had roped in someone else to do the voiceover and had gotten it dubbed, I would never have received the live kind of interaction.”

Jaaferi agrees with Madhvani. Having previously acted with Mukherjee in a theatre play named ‘The Trojan Women’, Jaaferi says that it was the combination of his voice and her expressions, which complemented each other very well, that aided the commercial’s popularity.

Post its release, Mukherjee mentions receiving a lot of work, and winning an advertising award whose name she fails to recollect. “Since I immediately got pregnant with my second child, I could not attend the ceremony to receive the award,” she says.

Advertising and marketing approach

The ad film was aired on Doordarshan. The media went on to describe Captain Cook as one of the ‘best launches of the decade’. The commercial was well received as the audience had not seen an ad running down its own product.

Mukherjee credits the concept of negative advertising for its success. “In the ad, her expressions say, ‘Yeh bekaar hai. Yeh acha nahi hai.’ But, the product she actually vouches for is not up to the mark. It is the inverse way of looking at a product that added popularity to the commercial as well as the product.”

Pandey seconds her point. He adds that the success of the brand can be attributed not just to the commercial, but to the brand's pricing, its distribution, and its efficient product delivery.

It had been one year since Zee TV had been launched (in 1992) and they were running a programme named ‘Founders’. According to Mishrra, the channel approached the company, offered them good discounted deals to run the commercial. Zee TV aired the commercial, which added to the channel’s popularity.

Towards the end of the film, the shot of the brand’s pack appears, and the voice of dubbing and voiceover artist Brij Bhushan is heard where he says, ‘Extra free flow Captain Cook namak’. Pandey was reluctant to do the packshot. “Since we had already said everything, I was of the opinion that we do the voiceover and packshot of the ordinary salt. That is when Nitish interjected, ‘That would be taking too much of a risk. We are already making a commercial that does not have a precedent. So, don’t go that far,’” Pandey says.

He also clarifies that ‘Aapka Manpasand namak’ or the ordinary salt was not meant to name any specific brand, and the concept of comparative advertising was not touched upon.

DCW began to market Captain Cook in both rural and urban areas, and conducted eating contests at restaurants. One of the contests was on who could consume burgers in large amounts. Apart from advertising in print, demos were held to show people the free flowing texture of the salt. “Plus, our salesmen would also directly deliver the products at retail shops,” recalls Mishrra.

Within a short time, Captain Cook acquired a market share of 30 percent. Post the ad film's release, sales of the brand shot up.

Changing hands

Tata Salt was priced at Rs 2 per kg and Captain Cook was priced at Rs 3 per kg. In a country like India, which is price conscious, the pricing strategy, however, acted in the favour of the brand’s survival. People believed that the higher the price, the better the quality.

But then things took a negative turn. Mishrra reveals how a marketing strategy worked against Captain Cook. During the launch of the brand, the chemical firm found out that Tata Salt was being packed in godowns, where women from villages would pack a kg of salt in a bag and seal it with candles.

The company sent some photographers to capture this and they shot the Tata salt being packed in allegedly unclean conditions. The photos were clicked and shown to retailers. But, the latter refused to believe the Tatas could do something so wrong, and the strategy backfired.

In 1996, says Mishrra, the company sold the brand to International Best Foods (IBF). Hindustan Unilever had come up with Annapurna salt that same year in order to challenge the position of Captain Cook. “They had invested a huge amount of money behind the product and were coming up with a lot of schemes etc. Hence, we thought that it would be a good idea to sell it.” Eventually, Captain Cook, too, ended up in the HUL fold.

If Captain Cook is launched again…

Recently, HUL sold Captain Cook and Annapurna, its salt and atta business, to Uma Global Foods and Uma Consumer Products, subsidiaries of Singapore-based Reactivate Brands International.

So, can we see a relaunch just like Campa Cola and Sosyo by Reliance Retail very soon?

Mishrra states that it would take a lot of money and effort to dislodge Tata Salt, which is firmly entrenched in the market. “One of the ways to position the product would be by providing incentives to retailers and salesmen. Today, in the age of digital media, with the help of a strong storyline, a rapport and a connection can be built with the consumers.”

First Published on Mar 3, 2023 8:32 AM

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