16 April 2016 16:33:55 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

The Dalda story

The cooking medium in the iconic yellow pack has made way for healthier options and innovative advertising

If you were to ask your grandmother about the yellow tin with the green palm tree, she would reply without hesitation, “Dalda!” Such was the hold of this first national and purely Indian brand of vanaspati that it became a household name in kitchens across the country.

Coconut oil and ghee used to be the favourite cooking and frying mediums in households in those days. But they were costly — especially ghee — and the common man couldn’t afford them on a regular basis. Hydrogenated (highly saturated) vegetable fat/oil was first introduced into India by Dutch traders. This cheap, easy-to-use and tasty cooking medium soon became popular.

As interest in the product grew and sales shot up, the Lever brothers bought the rights from the Dutch company. In 1931, they had incorporated a company called Hindustan Vanaspati Manufacturing Company (today’s Hindustan Unilever Ltd.) for producing vanaspati ghee in India. A factory was established at Sewri, in what is today’s Greater Mumbai, and in 1937, the Dalda brand was introduced to sell Vanaspati.

Innovative marketing

The name is an amalgam of Dada & Co — the original Dutch company which introduced the product into India – and the ‘L’ of Hindustan Lever. The product stood for purity and claimed to be a cooking medium that preserved the original, pure taste of food.

Dalda was marketed innovatively. The ad agency entrusted with the job of marketing the product was Lintas. It was credited with creating what is possibly India’s first multi-media advertising campaign — the Dalda campaign. In the city, roadside stalls had men preparing tasty snacks using Dalda and offering them to the passers-by. Short films were screened in theatres.

An intriguing, round-tin-shaped van roamed the streets. Attractive leaflets were handed out and small tins of vanaspati sold. People were encouraged to smell, touch and taste the product. In villages, wandering storytellers were roped in to talk about Dalda. Different customers were targeted using different pack sizes – hotels and restaurants were offered large, square tins and individual consumers small, round tins.

Tasty alternative

The idea was to project Dalda as a less expensive but equally tasty alternative to ghee; one that, moreover, did not produce the ‘heavy’ feeling that ghee did.

The strategy paid off. People who could not afford ghee were convinced that the new product gave them the same taste at much cheaper rates. Soon the name ‘Dalda’ and vanaspati became interchangeable. It was one of the first brand names to become a generic term in India.

The brand held sway till the 1980s. But even during this period, Dalda faced its share of controversies. In the 1950s, there was a call to ban it on the grounds that it was a ‘false’ ghee — actually, an adulteration of desi ghee — which was harmful to health. A nationwide opinion poll (called by no less a person than the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) was conducted but threw up inconclusive results. No solutions were put forward by a committee appointed to suggest ways to prevent adulteration of ghee.

The controversy died down but Dalda again came into the news for the wrong reasons in the 1990’s. It was alleged that it contained ‘animal’ fat.

Healthier options

By this time, however, there was increasing awareness among consumers of the harm caused by the trans-fats in hydrogenated oils: among other things, it increased bad cholesterol and reduced good cholesterol, escalating the risk of heart attacks.

‘Clean’, cheaper and healthier edible oils entered the scene. Vegetable oils like groundnut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, palm oil (Postman, Saffola, Sundrop and Palmolein brands respectively) and mustard oil started eating into Dalda’s market share.

The brand, which changed the way Indians cooked, was bought by Bunge Ltd., a global agribusiness major, in 2003. It retained the Dalda brand – though the vanaspati consumers segment had shrunk - and introduced a range of edible oils as well. The packaging of Dalda, which has been revamped, cites ingredients and the nutritional value of the oil.

New initiatives

Recently, an interesting initiative — ‘Dial D: Unbox the Tiffin’ — encourages people to submit recipes, get them voted on and win prizes. The edible oil range includes refined soya bean oil, pure mustard oil, refined sunflower oil and kachi ghani mustard oil.

In 2015 the brand name ‘Dalda’ made its presence felt during the annual Jagannath Rath Yatra, with a unique ‘Out of Home’ campaign titled Bhajan se bhojan tak . The brand was visible everywhere — from hand-held fans to helium-filled balloons, in Dalda bottles with raw pooja ingredients and even as sand art by the world-famous Sudarshan Patnaik. Talk about aggressive marketing.