By TT Jagannathan and Sandhya Mendonca
India had never heard of condoms until T.T. Narasimhan thought of importing them in the mid-1940s. He began by importing Durex condoms from London Rubber Company and, in 1963, set up a joint venture, the London Rubber Company (India) Ltd, to begin manufacturing condoms in Pallavaram in Madras. This was much before the era of family planning, as my father believed India needed condoms.
Shankaran explains how the company came to lose its prized condom brands. ‘Our biggest blow was in the condom business when we lost our crown jewel, Kohinoor condoms. The TTK Group introduced condoms in India, way back in 1948. This was a bold move by T.T. Narasimhan.
‘The very first condom that we brought here was Durapac (later known as Durex), under a distribution arrangement with London Rubber Company (LRC). The Group had started LRC India, a joint venture between TTK and LRC, UK. The JV was renamed TTK LIG when LRC changed its name to London International Group. TTK LIG was the first of the Group companies to be publicly listed in 1974. (It was delisted later.)
‘We created a new condom brand, Kohinoor, in India in 1979. It became a top seller. The premium global brand, Durex, was rolled out in India in 1997, and we manufactured Durex for the local and export markets. TTK Healthcare marketed Kohinoor and Durex in India, while LIG handled exports and marketing for Durex worldwide. We supplied 40 per cent of Durex’s worldwide demand.
‘The JV continued without a hiccup even after LIG was acquired by SSL International Plc in 1999. In 2010, when Reckitt Benckiser acquired SSL International, Reckitt became TTK’s joint venture partner here by virtue of that purchase.
‘After Reckitt entered the picture, we felt that it was seeking to unilaterally change the agreement with us to its benefit, at the cost of the joint venture. The matter also went to court. In the end, we bought out Reckitt’s 49.8 per cent stake and the entire manufacturing unit. As we had contributed technology to the company, we also retained the technology. But Reckitt took away our prized Kohinoor brand from us. The bitter loss seemed like a sad repeat of the British taking the Kohinoor diamond from India.
‘The Kohinoor episode reinforced our decision to focus on our core businesses. We decided to promote only our own products, and even as we decided to stop distributing products of other brands, we realized that we needed to fill the gap with our own consumer products.’
After the split, Reckitt Benckiser took both Kohinoor and Durex brands, and we bought the factories that belonged to the TTK LIG JV. We set up TTK Protective Devices Ltd with the factories, which had the capacity to produce 2.1 billion condoms. We had the technology, we had state-of-the art machinery, and we had the resources. We had everything but a product and a brand. Almost overnight, we had nothing to manufacture.
We were not going give up, though. As pioneers of condom manufacturing in India, and having been in the business for over fifty years, we knew the channels and had a great understanding of distribution. All the key people in our condom business, including the CEO and the marketing manager, had quit, except a young brand manager, Vishal Vyas. I built a new brand with just Vyas to help me. He is now the marketing manager, and I would attribute a big part of our success to him.
It was important to getting the brand name right, and we went through a lot of iterations. Our advertising agency, McCann, worked very hard, and we came up with ‘Skore’. The brand imagery we created around it was very different from what we had had for Kohinoor, which was advertised as a married couple’s family planning aid.
We positioned Skore as a pre-marital pleasure enhancer, and it clicked. It went on to be named among the ten most successful launches in Nielsen’s 2016 evaluation of 16,000 brand launches in India.
Vishal Vyas, general manager, marketing, recalls the campaign: ‘Even while the protracted negotiations were going on, we were prepared for the worst and determined to face the challenge.
On 8 November 2012, the same day the split was formally announced, we launched the Skore brand. It was a glitzy launch with the theme “Don’t just play the game of love. Skore.” The same morning we had a front-page ad in the leading newspapers. We were very aggressive, not just for commercial reasons, but for emotional reasons too.
‘We didn’t compromise on quality. We had a good product as we had the production capacity, and our sales experience in retail helped us a lot. We knew who sold condoms and how they sold condoms. These two factors helped us achieve a 10 per cent market share in just three years of our launch. (Manforce, Mankind Pharma—30 per cent, Moods, HLL Lifecare—12 per cent, Skore, TTK—10 per cent.) We overtook older brands like Kohinoor and Kamasutra, and that was a victory we relished.’
‘While our rapport with retailers could help us in the beginning, as they can place our product, that would not guarantee continued business unless we attracted customers,’ Vyas explains. ‘We decided to make ours a youth brand as that was where we found a gap. We wanted to do things that were different from what the existing players were doing and establish Skore as a fun and friendly product for the youth.
‘In our bid to be different, we held India’s first condom fashion show, where all the clothes were made of condoms. We held ‘Skore Fashionista’ in January 2014, and it was quite an eye-opener, emphasizing that condoms were fashionable.
‘We approached fashion design institutes in Mumbai to participate in the contest and the show. Initially, there was reluctance from the professors, who were not sure if their students, most of whom were female, would be comfortable taking it up. They were also anxious about how the students’ families would respond. But the young students came out with good ideas and made very interesting clothes out of condoms.’
Emphasis on quality
I am particular that quality is not about making 100 condoms, applying quality standards and throwing out thirty condoms. It is about making the perfect condom to start with. This is implicit in our operations. R. Sharanyan, executive director, operations, proudly says: ‘Any condom factory in the world is led by a person who has trained at TTK’s condom factory. Condom factories are located primarily in south-east Asia, with Thailand, Malaysia being the major producers. India is also a major producer. And TTK is a pioneer in this business.’
Even after our split with Reckitt Benckiser, we continue to make Durex condoms for them. They know that we have the highest quality standards and asked us to take it up as contract manufacturer. We agreed to do so, as, if we didn’t make them, someone else would.
‘The first condom factory in India was the one our Group set up in 1963, in Pallavaram, Chennai, as LRC India. Selling condoms was slow going initially, as the government’s position was that India’s large population was an asset and that we didn’t need population control. In 1968, my uncle, T.T. Vasu, got a grant from Sweden to make condoms, and presented 80 million condoms free to the government to start its family-planning programme. We went on to supply the Nirodh brand of condoms at a subsidized price to the government for some years.
Since then, our Group had consistently invested in factories, and from making 30 million pieces per annum in 1963, we had moved up to 2.1 billion pieces a year. We had three factories. We closed down the oldest of them in Chennai in 2015, and we now have one in Virudhunagar in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry, with a combined capacity of 900 million pieces a year.
(Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House from the book ‘Disrupt and Conquer: How TTK Prestige Became a Billion-Dollar Company’ by TT Jagannathan and Sandhya Mendonca)
You can buy the book here