Forgotten Brands – Tata’s 501 Soap

501 bar

Tata Oil Mills’ 501 washing soap gave tough competition to Levers Sunlight. However its prominence reduced after the brand was sold to Levers

The Tata Group has ventured into a wide variety of industries, ranging from steel, information technology, and cars to India’s first airline. However, very few people are aware of Tata’s 501 and how they competed against Unilever (which was once known as Lever Brothers).

The year 1879 marked the beginning of bathing soap production in India, however, the industry failed to gain much momentum at the time. The situation was the same with several types of washing soap. Sunlight soap was the first batch of washing soap brought to Calcutta in 1895. it was manufactured in the United Kingdom by Lever Brothers.

The 501 Soap

Tata Oil Mills (TOMCO) was created in Kerala in 1917 by the Tatas when they saw that India produced vast numbers of coconuts but still imported the oil. This prompted the Tatas to take action.

Mr Jamshedji Tata bought the OK Coconut Oil Mills in Kerala in 1917. OK Mills produced and distributed simple cold process laundry soaps and coconut oil for cooking. In the early 1930s, the company rebranded itself as The Tata Oil Mills Company.

The following product that Tatas wanted was to have a good bath soap. In those days, the usage of soap wasn’t nearly as widespread as it is now. Instead, many homes washed their bodies or clothes with a mixture of different natural materials, including the husk of a dried coconut, which served as a brush.

Therefore, the Tatas encountered intense rivalry when they attempted to get into the soap industry in India and sell their products there. The Tatas introduced their first bar of soap, which they branded 501 and sold for Rs 10 for 100 individual bars.

There is a little backstory behind the reason why Tatas chose to call their soap 501. Levers was based in both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Because the Tatas were a local business, they did not want a name that would make people think of them as British.


Around the same time that the Tatas introduced their bar of soap, a soap brand from France called 500 emerged as a formidable competitor to Levers. As a result, Jal Naoroji, the chief executive of Tata and the grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji, decided to give their product the name 501 so that they could stay one step ahead of their competitors.

When confronted with competition from Tata, Levers responded by using a time-honoured strategy to eliminate rival businesses: they lowered their prices. They reduced the price of their soap to Rs 6 for every 100 bars of soap purchased. On the other hand, it didn’t last very long, and after three months, they were obliged to go back to their former pricing.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Tata wanted to withdraw from companies that did not align with their long-term plan. As a result, TOMCO was sold to a one-time rival, Hindustan Unilever Limited. After some time, 501 was included in the Rin sub-brand of Unilever.


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