New Delhi: “Aaj meh aap ko bathane wali hoon, meri khubsurti ka raaz,” says a half-naked Shah Rukh Khan promising to reveal the secret of his good looks as he lounges in a bathtub filled with rose petals. Surrounding him are four of Bollywood’s beauties — Hema Malini, Juhi Chawla, Kareena Kapoor and Sri Devi.
This was how King Khan began his journey as a ‘Lux girl’ in 2005, the first time a male star endorsed a women’s beauty product in India.
“I wanted to get into the tub and not just stand outside watching a lady get into it or something … I guess that would’ve been a more predictable male perception of how the ad should’ve been done. I wanted to do it the proper way,” Khan later told The Times of India.
That year, the LUX brand, owned by Unilever, was launching a new soap collection on the occasion of the company’s 75th anniversary. Called ‘Har Star Lucky Star’, the campaign promised gifts in every soap wrapper. And SRK was chosen as the campaign’s face.
The ad, however, courted much controversy.
Many found SRK’s endorsement irrational while some had issues with the fact that the brand was angling for a metrosexual appeal in its attempt to reintroduce the soap to a wider audience. Some experts thought it was a “radical decision” and a “desperate strategy” to boost a declining market share at the time.
Others thought it was a bold move for the company.
“The catchy ad showing SRK in a bathtub was a departure from all of LUX’s earlier advertisement campaigns, centred around female celebrities, and was clearly aimed at catching eyeballs,” said Satish Pai, a research fellow at IIM Kozhikode.
“There really is no one else I can think of who could have pulled something like this off like SRK did. He was everyone’s favourite in the ad industry.”
Khan went on to feature in several other LUX commercials.
One of them showed Khan becoming ‘bekaboo‘ (enamoured) over Katrina Kaif, who also starred in the ad, owing to the ‘magical’ fragrance of the Lux soap. That fragrance was developed by world-renowned perfumer Dider Gaffet, the Frenchman who created popular women’s fragrances such as Avon, Amor Total and Le Secret Du Luxe Brocard.
Khan also starred in a commercial for the Lux Golden Rose Awards, where he was seen alongside Sri Devi, Deepika Padukone, Madhuri Dixit and Sharmila Tagore.
Four years after SRK’s 2005 LUX debut, Abhishek Bachchan joined the club, appearing alongside his wife Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a LUX ad. He became the third male star to feature in a LUX ad after American actor Paul Newman in 1995 and SRK.
An object of desire
Launched in India by the Lever Brothers in 1929, the LUX brand has been endorsed by nearly all the A-list Bollywood actresses since then. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, the UK-based company is now Unilever, which owns the Indian subsidiary Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL).
In LUX’s first print ad in 1942, Leela Chitnis was the star attraction. Later, Madhubala, Parveen Babi became the brand’s faces, continuing its trend of featuring Bollywood’s top actresses. In contemporary times, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Alia Bhatt have been added to this list of beauty icons.
Explaining the association, brand-strategy expert Harish Bijoor said the product is meant to be seen as the “filmi sitaron ka saabun (the beauty soap of film stars)”.
“A lot of men used Lux even in those days. However, the appeal that drove it was the appeal of the feminine star. Lux tried to change it and learned a lesson in the bargain,” Bijoor, who founded Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, told ThePrint.
While, according to LUX, the brand hopes to inspire women to choose the soap as a way of embracing their femininity and feeling beautiful, Shweta Kaul, a brand strategist based out of Gurgaon, said the 2005 ad helped refocus the audience’s gaze on a confident man.
“I would say LUX flipped the script on the heavy sexualisation of a femme brand ambassador, much like any other beauty and hygiene brand in the segment, and instead focused that gaze onto a confident man,” she said, adding, “Had this ad been released today, it would’ve been relatively well-received. The 20s decade of the 21st century has become more open to different expressions.”
However, Ashok Venkatramani, the man who got Shah Rukh Khan into the bathtub, said the ad strategy was not a shift in consumer focus.
Venkatramani, who was the vice-president and business head for HUL, was quoted as saying in 2019: “Getting SRK to endorse LUX doesn’t mean we are shifting our focus, we even now continue to focus on the female segment. Khan will help us to reach and appeal to our core target audience even more now.”
The ‘Lux’ way
From being a toilet soap to the ‘soap of the most glamorous stars’, the Lux soap’s marketing strategy has changed to match the evolving market dynamics, including stiff competition from rivals such as Dove, Pears, Santoor, and Dettol among others.
Lux, which was derived from the word luxury, has even expanded its offerings to include more than just soap bars. It now offers body washes, hand washes, perfumes and liquid gels.
The idea is to bring a luxury product of the influential class to the middle-class Indian at an affordable price. With its clutch of celebrity endorsements over the years — almost 50 Bollywood stars till date — it’s a message Lux wants to keep reiterating.
In February last year, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL)’s Lux soaps were the most advertised brand and saw a 14.7 per cent rise in ad insertions in a week.
“Advertising idea is that if one uses Lux, one will look like a film star,” Sudhir Sitapati, category head, personal wash, HUL, told The Economic Times.
However, the 2005 ad, for all the noise it created, didn’t particularly help change the profit margin. The company’s soaps & detergents segment grew by 11 per cent, recording Rs 4,961.71 crore in sales (plus income from services) in 2005 as against Rs 4,470.74 crore in 2004. The segment profit declined by 11.8 per cent over 2004, according to the HUL Directors report for FY 2005.
What remains though, is the impact of the ad.
“It was a fantastic piece of work to celebrate Lux’s glorious 75 years of history. It was truly ahead of its times — because, for the first time, a man was being shown as the object of desire,” Shilpa Madan, marketing professor and former global brand manager for LUX, told ThePrint.
“SRK, known for doing unconventional roles and never saying no to a challenge, was a fantastic choice and was an absolute sport to work with on this campaign,” she added.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)
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