A glimpse into Lakmé’s growth into one of the best Indian cosmetics companies.

A display of the wide range of cosmetic products
that Lakmé manufactured at the UNCTAD
exhibition held in Delhi in 1968.

Lakmé was Tata group’s first foray into the cosmetics industry. Set up during J.R.D. Tata’s chairmanship of the group, it is also the first cosmetic company set up in independent India. Not many people know that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was the catalyst behind the launch of India’s premium make-up brand. In the early days, when the fledgling economy of Independent India was still finding its feet, the Prime Minister was concerned about the amount of money flowing out of the country when Indian women splurged on imported cosmetics. Quality personal care products of Indian origin were in short supply in post-Independence India and there were very few Indian manufacturers. Pandit Nehru persuaded J.R.D. Tata, a close friend, to set up a company to manufacture cosmetics, and in turn save precious foreign exchange. Thus, was born Lakmé — a company that manufactured fine cosmetics tailored for the Indian skin and Indian climate, in India.

Lakmé was set up as a subsidiary company of Tata Oil Mills Company (TOMCO). TOMCO was established in Cochin or present-day Kochi in 1920 to crush copra and produce coconut oil for export. The company gradually grew and diversified into a manufacturer of soaps, cooking oils, detergents, shampoos, perfumed oils, eau de cologne, etc. In 1953, TOMCO capitalised on the opportunity present in the lack of indigenous cosmetics in the Indian market and launched Lakmé in collaboration with two reputed French firms — Robert Piguet and Renoir. The initial collaboration and others that followed, such as with American cosmetics manufacturer Kolmar, had no equity participation by foreign collaborators. They only contributed knowhow about their closely guarded perfume bases for a fee. It was a ‘Make in India’ mission from the word go.

Col. L. Sawhny, Director-in-Charge, Tata Oil Mills Company,
launching Magic, a synthetic detergent marketed
by the company, at a dealer cum press conference at
the Taj on July 19, 1966.

Lakmé is French for Lakshmi. The circumstances under which the name came about is quite interesting. When the company was set up, the French collaborators were asked to suggest a name — a name that carried connotations of both countries and combined Indian flavour with a French touch. The collaborators settled on Lakmé, inspired by an opera that was quite the rage at the time in Paris. The name of the opera — with oriental settings, forests and temples — was Lakmé, for Goddess Lakmé or Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and an epitome of beauty.

Lakmé started operations in a small, hired premises at Peddar Road and entered the market with an extensive range of personal care products for women. Operations and product range grew rapidly and by 1960, the company was on the lookout for larger premises. It soon moved into TOMCO’s Sewri factory, taking over an area three times that of the Peddar Road premises. Soon, that too proved too small, and additional space was acquired to cater to expanding manufacturing operations, which had workers employed in two shifts.

The packing section at the Sewri factory, where
products that underwent stringent quality checks
were meticulously packed.

The expansion and success was aided in no small measure by Simone Tata, Naval H.Tata’s wife, taking over as the managing director in 1961. Simone Tata’s aesthetic sense and business acumen soon spearheaded Lakmé to new heights and into an iconic brand. She led the company for many more years, becoming its chairperson in 1982.

A robust and substantial network of sales offices, salespersons, dealers, and agents ensured that Lakmé did exceedingly well in urban markets across India. Periodic market surveys, well-thought-out marketing strategies and extensive publicity campaigns provided the additional backbone. Distribution covered every Indian town that had a population of 20,000 or more, with a product range that spanned make-up, skincare, and toiletries for women. The company also tasted significant success after it branched out into a range of products for men.

An up-to-date research and development laboratory enabled Lakmé to innovate to constantly add to its portfolio and create products that were contemporary, met changing consumer preferences and were targeted at a wider reach. Stringent quality control systems certified that each product was of a high grade and met international standards, securing Lakmé’ position in the top league in the years that followed.

Cosmetic products at the UNCTAD exhibition,

Lakmé soon set up a network of branded beauty salons, with the first one opening in 1980. The salons offered women a complete range of beauty treatments administered by qualified beauticians. A beauty school was also launched, which offered a 6-month intensive course comprising theory and practice. Students were conferred a diploma on successful completion of the course. Lakmé also had trained beauticians travel around the country giving lectures, make-up demonstrations and expert advice on beauty problems.

Over the years, Lakmé grew from strength to strength to become a name to be reckoned with among the top players in the Indian cosmetics market. However, in 1993, TOMCO merged with Hindustan Unilever (erstwhile Hindustan Lever) in a strategic deal. Subsequently, in 1996, Lakmé formed a 50:50 joint venture with Hindustan Unilever, and in 1998, Lakmé divested its 50 percent stake in the joint venture and sold its brands to Hindustan Unilever. Lakmé continues to lead the cosmetics market in India, setting new benchmarks and cornering a major market share.