In the summer of 1888, visitors to the Kolkata harbour noticed crates full of Sunlight soap bars, embossed with the words "Made in England by Lever Brothers". With it, began an era of marketing branded Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG).
Soon after followed Lifebuoy in 1895 and other famous brands like Pears, Lux and Vim. Vanaspati was launched in 1918 and the famous Dalda brand came to the market in 1937.
In 1931, Unilever set up its first Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Vanaspati Manufacturing Company, followed by Lever Brothers India Limited (1933) and United Traders Limited (1935). These three companies merged to form HUL in November 1956; HUL offered 10% of its equity to the Indian public, being the first among the foreign subsidiaries to do so. Unilever now holds 67.25% equity in the company. The rest of the shareholding is distributed among about three lakh individual shareholders and financial institutions.
The erstwhile Brooke Bond's presence in India dates back to 1900. By 1903, the company had launched Red Label tea in the country. In 1912, Brooke Bond & Co. India Limited was formed. Brooke Bond joined the Unilever fold in 1984 through an international acquisition. The erstwhile Lipton's links with India were forged in 1898. Unilever acquired Lipton in 1972, and in 1977 Lipton Tea (India) Limited was incorporated.
Pond's (India) Limited had been present in India since 1947. It joined the Unilever fold through an international acquisition of Chesebrough Pond's USA in 1986.
Since the very early years, HUL has vigorously responded to the stimulus of economic growth. The growth process has been accompanied by judicious diversification, always in line with Indian opinions and aspirations.
The liberalisation of the Indian economy, started in 1991, clearly marked an inflexion in HUL's and the Group's growth curve. Removal of the regulatory framework allowed the company to explore every single product and opportunity segment, without any constraints on production capacity.
Simultaneously, deregulation permitted alliances, acquisitions and mergers. In one of the most visible and talked about events of India's corporate history, the erstwhile Tata Oil Mills Company (TOMCO) merged with HUL, effective from April 1, 1993. In 1996, HUL and yet another Tata company, Lakme Limited, formed a 50:50 joint venture, Lakme Unilever Limited, to market Lakme's market-leading cosmetics and other appropriate products of both the companies. Subsequently in 1998, Lakme Limited sold its brands to HUL and divested its 50% stake in the joint venture to the company.
HUL formed a 50:50 joint venture with the US-based Kimberly Clark Corporation in 1994, Kimberly-Clark Lever Ltd, which markets Huggies Diapers and Kotex Sanitary Pads. HUL has also set up a subsidiary in Nepal, Unilever Nepal Limited (UNL), and its factory represents the largest manufacturing investment in the Himalayan kingdom. The UNL factory manufactures HUL's products like Soaps, Detergents and Personal Products both for the domestic market and exports to India.
The 1990s also witnessed a string of crucial mergers, acquisitions and alliances on the Foods and Beverages front. In 1992, the erstwhile Brooke Bond acquired Kothari General Foods, with significant interests in Instant Coffee. In 1993, it acquired the Kissan business from the UB Group and the Dollops Icecream business from Cadbury India.
As a measure of backward integration, Tea Estates and Doom Dooma, two plantation companies of Unilever, were merged with Brooke Bond. Then in 1994, Brooke Bond India and Lipton India merged to form Brooke Bond Lipton India Limited (BBLIL), enabling greater focus and ensuring synergy in the traditional Beverages business. 1994 witnessed BBLIL launching the Wall's range of Frozen Desserts. By the end of the year, the company entered into a strategic alliance with the Kwality Icecream Group families and in 1995 the Milkfood 100% Icecream marketing and distribution rights too were acquired.
Finally, BBLIL merged with HUL, with effect from January 1, 1996. The internal restructuring culminated in the merger of Pond's (India) Limited (PIL) with HUL in 1998. The two companies had significant overlaps in Personal Products, Speciality Chemicals and Exports businesses, besides a common distribution system since 1993 for Personal Products. The two also had a common management pool and a technology base. The amalgamation was done to ensure for the Group, benefits from scale economies both in domestic and export markets and enable it to fund investments required for aggressively building new categories.
In January 2000, in a historic step, the government decided to award 74 per cent equity in Modern Foods to HUL, thereby beginning the divestment of government equity in public sector undertakings (PSU) to private sector partners. HUL's entry into Bread is a strategic extension of the company's wheat business. In 2002, HUL acquired the government's remaining stake in Modern Foods.
In 2003, HUL acquired the Cooked Shrimp and Pasteurised Crabmeat business of the Amalgam Group of Companies, a leader in value added Marine Products exports.
HUL launched a slew of new business initiatives in the early part of 2000’s. Project Shakti was started in 2001. It is a rural initiative that targets small villages populated by less than 5000 individuals. It is a unique win-win initiative that catalyses rural affluence even as it benefits business. Currently, there are over 45,000 Shakti entrepreneurs covering over 100,000 villages across 15 states and reaching to over 3 million homes.
In 2002, HUL made its foray into Ayurvedic health & beauty centre category with the Ayush product range and Ayush Therapy Centres. Hindustan Unilever Network, Direct to home business was launched in 2003 and this was followed by the launch of ‘Pureit’ water purifier in 2004.
In 2007, the Company name was formally changed to Hindustan Unilever Limited after receiving the approval of share holders during the 74th AGM on 18 May 2007. Brooke Bond and Surf Excel breached the the Rs 1,000 crore sales mark the same year followed by Wheel which crossed the Rs.2,000 crore sales milestone in 2008.
On 17th October 2008 , HUL completed 75 years of corporate existence in India. In January 2010, the HUL head office shifted from the landmark Lever House, at Backbay Reclamation, Mumbai to the new campus in Andheri (E), Mumbai.
On 15th November, 2010, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan was officially launched in India at New Delhi.
In March, 2012 HUL’s state of the art Learning Centre was inaugurated at the Hindustan Unilever campus at Andheri, Mumbai.
In April, 2012, the Customer Insight & Innovation Centre (CiiC) was inaugurated at the Hindustan Unilever campus at Andheri, Mumbai
HUL completed 80 years of corporate existence in India on October 17th, 2013.
In 2013, HUL launched ‘Prabhat’ (Dawn) - a Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) linked program to engage with and contribute to the development of local communities around its manufacturing sites. Also, Unilever’s first aerosol plant in Asia was inaugurated in Khamgaon, Maharashtra in 2013.
In 2014, The ‘Winning in Many Indias’ operating framework, piloted in 2013, launched nationally. Sales offices expanded from four to seven with the launch of offices in Lucknow, Indore and Bangalore in addition to the existing sales offices in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai.
In 2015, HUL acquired Indulekha, a premium hair oil brand with strong credentials around Ayurveda.
In 2016, HUL unveiled ‘Suvidha’ a first-of-its-kind urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre in Azad Nagar, Ghatkopar, one of the largest slums in Mumbai.
A new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility was commissioned in Doom Dooma Industrial Estate, Assam on 11th March 2017.
In 2018, HUL signed an agreement with Vijaykant Dairy and Food Products Limited (VDFPL) and its group company to acquire its ice cream and frozen desserts business consisting of its flagship brand ‘Adityaa Milk’ and front end distribution network across geographies.
In 2020, HUL announced acquisition of VWash, the market leader in female intimate hygiene category to enter into the currently underpenetrated and rapidly growing market segment.
In 2020, with the Merger of GSK Consumer Healthcare with Hindustan Unilever Limited, Iconic health food drink brands – Horlicks and Boost enter the foods & refreshment portfolio of HUL, making it the largest F&R business in India.