Royal roots, a distinct fragrance, and a million memories: Mysore Sandal soap marks a century


"I distinctly remember being entranced by the fragrance the first time we stocked that soap in my husband’s small grocery shop near Dandeli. I have never used any other brand since, and every time I use it, it still feels just as it did all those years ago. Today, my grandchildren also use it, and it feels like nothing’s changed." says 70-year-old Vijaya Shanbhag from Mysore.

Her memory is one that echoes with millions of Indians. In an era of updates and v 2.0s, the heady fragrance that emanates from the ubiquitous green, red, and gold packet has remained unchanged for a 100 years. The good old Mysore Sandal Soap, humbly wrapped in crackling white paper, evokes the one thing that very few other brands, battling one another for market share in this age of consumerism, can – memories and nostalgia! No matter what brand it is compared with, the good old Mysore Sandal will always make you smile at the comfort of the familiar

Today, as the 'The Fragrance Ambassador of India" marks a century, we take you on a trip down memory lane, to find out what makes it the Karnataka government’s only profit-making brand, even after all these years.

A trip down memory lane 

During the days of the Raj, Mysore was ruled by the Wodeyars. The Maharaja of Mysore would export large blocks of sandalwood to Germany and France, where sandalwood oil would be extracted. However, when World War I began, business dealings with these countries stopped and the state was left with large stocks of unused sandalwood. The Maharaja then decided that oil could be extracted locally. In 1916, he summoned the owners of a small facility near Sankey Tank in Bengaluru and commissioned them to extract oil from a small consignment of two tonnes of sandalwood. Much to everyone's delight, the facility successfully started producing sandal oil, or liquid gold as it was called.

Around the same time, two guests from France, who were visiting the Maharaja, had brought two bars of soap made from the sandalwood oil. It then struck the Maharaja, that if they could make the oil, they could also make the soap! He then sent noted industrial chemist Shri S.G Shastry to London to study soap and perfumery technology. After returning to India, he developed the sandalwood perfume that would become the base of The Mysore Sandal Soap.

Related read: The best discoveries are made on foot – story of The Royal Mysore Walks

The Mysore Sandal Soap 

The first bar of Mysore Sandal Soap was produced near Cubbon Park in Bengaluru. In 1980, the Government of Karnataka took over the facility from the Maharaja and converted it into a Limited Company called The Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited (KSDL). The actual production under the KSDL banner began in 1982 after merging other smaller facilities that had also started producing sandalwood oil. The soap was manufactured using pure sandalwood oil, along with the other natural essential oils including vetivert, patchouli, geranium, palm rosa, orange, and petitgrain. In addition to the original Mysore Sandal Soap, the facility also started producing soaps in various other fragrances such as rose, jasmine and herbal. The primary raw materials used in making the soap include palm oil, caustic soda, and salt water. After these raw materials undergo saponification, a knead soap is made, and the moisture taken out; at this stage, the distinctly fragrant sandalwood oil is added.

The finished product is then packed and sent out to depots across the country for distribution. KSDL currently has 22 depots in the country with over 1,350 stockists who place bulk orders in advance. Ever since its inception, the company has been following traditional channels of distribution. Only recently, to keep up with the times, the company is considering launching an e-commerce portal. Although both distribution and marketing strategies have more or less been traditional, KSDL has introduced quite a few schemes to keep all the players in the chain happy. The most popular of them has been the lucky draw scheme, wherein distributors who complete their sales targets can win gold and silver coins.

Over the years, to meet rising demand, a larger facility was started in Shimoga district and the raw materials also came to be procured from the same district along with Chitradurga. Along with procuring sandalwood from districts other than Mysore within the state, the company is also procuring raw materials from neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu to facilitate large-scale production. Another production facility was also set up in Yeshwantpur recently.

The shutdown scare

 The brand has been growing fast and gaining widespread popularity. To keep up with demand, management made some miscalculations and hasty decisions. When the company first started production, it was producing about 4,000 tonnes of soap, per annum. But owing to the popularity, the company's production capacity was expanded sensing more demand, to 26,000 tonnes. This proved to be a huge mistake, and they were only able to sell about 5,000 tonnes. The heavy cost of investment in state-of-the-art machinery, which was imported from Italy for production only added to the misery. There were huge stocks of soap lying in godowns, and a shutdown scare was looming large. But management did not give up, and managed to successfully firefight the situation. 

“We function like any private limited company and adhere strictly to the Companies Act. There is minimal government interference and most decisions are taken by management. It is the freedom given by the government that is our secret to success”

says KSDL Chairman Veronica Cornelio.

Related read: Starting up in uncharted territories

She also faced other challenges on assuming her role.

When I took over as chairperson, it came to my attention that the machines being used in the factory had not changed since its inception and there was a shortage of workers owing to delays in the appointment of new workers. We made sure that the machines were changed and also requested the existing workers to work in three shifts,

she recalls.

In addition to bringing about changes in the existing setup, one of the key challenges for KSDL was to make the less popular products such as detergents, soaps, body washes and beauty products better known to the consumers. It had to be more than just Mysore Sandal, the brand. The company will now release a whole array of new grooming products, which will be ready for launch on July 30, 2016, the day the iconic brand turns a century old.

Not JUST a soap

As a mark of celebration, KSDL has also released the ‘Mysore Sandal Centennial', which is the successor of the hugely successful ‘Mysore Sandal Millennium' and ‘Mysore Sandal Gold’s, all special variations of the original soap with added special components such as moisturisers, almond oil, and skin softeners. These special edition soaps are also priced slightly higher than the original. The Mysore Sandal Gold was introduced in 1988 and was priced at Rs 15 for 125 grams, quite expensive for those times, and yet it proved to be a big hit. The company currently sells 800 tonnes of the gold variant and 25 tonnes of the Millennium variant per annum. 

Years have passed, brands have come and gone, but even a hundred years later, this brand continues to maintain its sheen. What is it about Mysore Sandal that keeps customers coming back? 

“We are the only company in the world to use natural sandalwood oil in our soap. There might be a hundred other brands doing everything possible to attract the consumers, but it is the trust and purity that one associates with our brand which keeps them coming back. It has become an integral part of households and lifestyles.”

says Cornelio. 

The company currently has a production capacity of 16,500 tonnes per annum, adding about 8 percent new customers year on year. The company registered a total production of 12,500 tonnes in the last year with a volume growth of 8 percent and value growth of 11 percent year on year. 

Today, Vijaya's grandson Amrith, a Gen X entrepreneur is quite a fan of the soap too!

“I started using that soap as a kid when I saw it in my grandparent's house and loved the smell of it. It has become a part of me now, and I make it a point to use it wherever I go. I'm very fond of both Mysore and sandalwood and the soap helps me stick to my roots.” 

As the brand turns 100 today, it continues to scale new heights, and is an integral part of people like Vijaya’s and Amrith’s lives. The brand's USP will always be nostalgia, something that lingers as strongly as the soap's fragrance

Infographic by Krishna Peri




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