New Delhi: “I used to joke with my friends that Boroline can cure anything, even a broken heart,” says Urbi Chatterjee, an associate of Katha books in New Delhi, who feels merely saying she “uses” the product is a massive understatement. She practically grew up with it.
The thin, unassuming bottle-green tube of antiseptic cream that is made of boric powder, zinc oxide, essential oils and paraffin, is somewhat of a miracle product. Dry skin, cracked lips, sunburnt cheeks or cut shins, whatever the skin ailment, this thick cream with its signature sweet smell has your back. Boroline’s uses are so versatile that if it had to be given another name today it could be called “panacea”, says brand strategist Harish Bijoor.
The brand, which is now in its 90th year, has the ability to conjure strong waves of nostalgia across many generations, deep envy among competitors — considering the multiple attempts at knockoffs — and a swelling pride among all Bengalis who identify with the product nearly as they do with Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, and now Abhijit Banerjee.
A heritage brand
Boroline was the flagship product of G.D. Pharma, a small company started in 1929 by a Bengali businessman named Gour Mohan Dutta. He was initially an importer of foreign goods but eventually joined the Swadeshi movement. In an effort to compete with foreign goods, Dutt began manufacturing products in his own home, which gave rise to Boroline.
“Boroline is a great example of Make in India. It is also a great example of India’s economic self-sufficiency at a time when India was ruled by the British,” Kolkata-based digital marketing expert Siddhartha Sahni tells ThePrint.
“To many who didn’t pick up sticks and slogans against the British, economic independence was the other option, and none did it better than Boroline — at a time when having a pan-Indian brand was inconceivable.”
Hence, the company came to symbolise a certain patriotic entrepreneurship, so much so that on 15 August 1947, Dutt put out advertisements in the newspapers announcing free distribution of Boroline tubes in celebration of India’s independence.
Often labeled a “heritage brand”, Sahni feels the brand exemplifies not just nostalgia, but also longevity and consistency. Some might feel the 90-year-old brand is stuck in the past, with its age-old packaging and visual design language, but Bijoor believes that this preservation of brand integrity is exactly what makes Boroline successful.
“The product is hardworking, and the packaging looks hardworking. There are some products or brands that have been preserved till an MNC picks them up and changes the packaging, or the visuals — that is the complete destruction of a brand. Boroline’s packaging is heritage. Rustic, with fonts on a packaging material and no visual of a person on it, it is as basic as it was 60 years ago.”
The brand might have a fascinating and historically relevant origin story, but, says Bijoor, at the end of the day, its biggest driving force is not marketing or ads but the simplicity and usability of the product that caters to the largest organ of the body — the skin. “For decades, Boroline has been telling the whole world of branding and marketing a simple fact: ‘It’s the product, silly!’”
A Bengali’s best friend
A staple in most homes in West Bengal, Boroline is so omnipresent in the everyday lives of Bengalis that most cannot even remember the moment when they started using product — because it was always just there. “My earliest memory of Boroline, or rather the memory that I’ve been told about, is that my grandmother used to put me in her lap and massage me with it when I was just a year old. It was apparently meant to make my bones stronger,” says Chatterjee. “Growing up, I remember using it at least once a week for different wounds I acquired for while climbing trees and monkeying about.”
Bengalis are often made fun of for not going anywhere without Boroline, jokes Kolkata-based teacher Sreepurna Sukarchakia, for whom the product brings back vivid memories of her boarding school days in the city’s La Martiniere school. “That slim tube fit everywhere, in whatever sized bag or pocket. I can’t remember when I was ever without it. It was just a given that it would be packed in my kit whenever I was off to boarding school, apart from the fact that it was always in our family’s first aid box.”
The product’s special resonance with Bengalis is something the company seems to have been aware of from the start. Its more recent print ads show how the product caters to men, women, children, for a host of different uses, but before it became a pan-Indian company that targeted all ages, genders and income groups, it marketed itself a quintessentially Bengali brand.
A look at Boroline’s archives reveals black and white print ads featuring typically Bengali families dressed in traditional attire, seasonal specials focusing on Durga Puja festivities and endorsements of various local- and state-level tournaments of West Bengal’s favourite sport, football.
From jingles created during the time of transistor radios to background scores of TV adverts, Boroline has had a knack of creating tunes that continue to ring in your ears for years after you first hear them. ত্বক যদি কেটে যায়, ফেটে যায়, সারা অঙ্গে মেখে নিন, শুরভিত antiseptic cream Boroline! (If your skin gets a cut or gets too dry, put it all over yourself. Fragrant, antiseptic cream, Boroline!) is a particular favourite, reminisces Chatterjee.
Bijoor, who points out that the product might have started out as a local offering but is now a global brand, feels the Bengali connect is more of a geographic accident that a concerted marketing effort. But he maintains that regional pride is understandable as it’s only natural to take ownership of brands associated with our place of belonging.
“Even I, for instance, tend to own MTR, from Bengaluru. It’s like a sort of micro-jingoism, within our country’s larger jingoism. People may have pride over the Indian cricket team, but then those from Chennai will be ardent supporters and lovers of Chennai Super Kings. In the end, this kind of mico-jingoism is good for brands.”
Boroline for the millennial generation
Despite being as old as the boomer generation’s parents, Boroline is as culturally relevant as ever, evident in the slew of creative projects centred around the trusted product. Think Assamese cult classic Boroline Aspoline Erili sung by Zubeen as part of the state’s Bihu musical tradition, and Sawan Dutta’s now-viral Ode to Boroline. The cream has also become a favourite among Indian beauty vloggers, who share skincare hacks freely with their followers.
But with the cosmetics industry rapidly evolving and the influx of hyper-specialised products flooding the Indian market, can Boroline still enjoy the same relevance in the post-millennial generation?
Ragini Bose, 24, is highly doubtful, pointing out that the multipurpose nature of Boroline is lost on a generation that has gotten used to buying a different product for each and every issue. “Even though Boroline is amazing because it can be literally found in all kinds of households, irrespective of income, I feel like it’s going to soon become very obscure. It’s almost like Pond’s cold cream. I feel we’re the last generation that are going to use these products.”
“Now, in a sense, it’s like a poor man’s moisturiser. When I’m feeling fancy, I’ll go indulge in some Body Shop,” says Chatterjee. “But when I’m flat-out broke, I know Boroline is always there to rescue me.”
Bijoor, though, is optimistic and thinks that the brand will survive far beyond this generation because of how prescriptive it. “I heard about it from my mom when I needed a fix for something, and now my son has heard about it from me and thinks it’s a great product. It enjoys a word-of-mouth and word-of-use kind of branding,” he says.
“In the end, it’s an experiential brand, and that’s phenomenally deep.”