December 3, 2023

Lakme: Entrepreneur reveals what inspired JRD Tata to name cosmetic brand

Former PM Jawaharlal Nehru persuaded his close friend, JRD Tata, to set up a company to manufacture cosmetics, and in turn, save foreign exchange. File Photo.

Every successful innovation has a story behind it. Talking about that, Arvind Vijaymohan, founder and CEO of art research and advisory firm Artery India, recently revealed in a podcast how Indian cosmetic brand Lakme got its name. In an Instagram post, he also shared the role of legendary industrialist JRD Tata in its making.

The powerful story behind makeup innovation

An Instagram video on Vijaymohan’s handle shows him narrating how 12 years after taking over the Tata empire, JRD Tata received a call from his close friend, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He highlighted the time as a ‘busy day at work’ when this gentleman’s phone rang while referring to Tata. On the other end was a ‘familiar friendly voice’ but not ‘just another regular work call.’ Mohan revealed, “The voice at the other end of that call is Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who called to share a concern.”

The “concern” reiterated by Nehru was about the financial outflow related to the amount spent on imported expensive cosmetics by Indian women. There were no homemade makeup brands at that time that catered to Indian weather and skin tones. Moreover, the availability of quality personal care products of Indian origin was limited in post-Independence India, with only a handful of Indian manufacturers. As a result, Nehru convinced the noted Tata Group chairman, JRD Tata, to establish a cosmetics company to save foreign exchange. Mohan acknowledged that “Mr. Tata gets to work almost right away.”

Check out the video:

Launching Lakme: The make-up brand

To execute the plan, Tata created a subsidiary company linked to one of his group companies (Tata Oil Mills Company aka TOMCO), which produces coconut oil. Raw materials were supplied to this subsidiary company for cosmetic production. When asked how Tata decided on the name ‘Lakme’, the art investor added, “A team representing the Tata Group was sent to Paris to put their heads together with their French counterparts to address this challenge.”

It was then that the team met Leo Delibes, a famous French composer. He said: “An opera he’s composed is playing at a houseful of shows in Paris, and is centered around a female protagonist, an Indian girl, the daughter of a Brahman priest, who falls in love with a British officer.” The lead heroine’s name is the French translation of the Indian goddess of wealth and prosperity who stands for power, fortune, and beauty. When the team heard about this, they knew they had found the brand’s name. “Lakshmi, like its French counterpart Lakmé, will stand for the face of the strong and elegant Indian woman; a prosperous symbol of beauty with divine powers,” said Mohan about how JRD knew he got the name.

From then to now

An extensive range of personal care products for women was launched by Lakme in a small, hired facility at Peddar Road in Mumbai. With time, Lakme has grown into one of India’s leading cosmetics brands. A strategic merger took place between TOMCO and Hindustan Unilever (formerly Hindustan Lever) in 1993, and Lakme divested its 50 percent stake in the joint venture and sold its brands to Hindustan Unilever in 1998. A leading company in the country’s cosmetics market, the cosmetic brand has set new benchmarks and cornered a significant market share.

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