Super Seven

Thums up, forever

Ramesh Chauhan’s thirst for creating iconic brands is unquenchable

You know all those experts who insist that naming a brand is a task fraught with danger and high drama, requiring the delicacy of a miniature painter, the skill and precision of a brain surgeon and the combined artistic flair of Michelangelo, Beethoven and Shakespeare? They really need to meet the Chauhan family. Consider some of the brands the family owns, across separate businesses. The umbrella brand, Parle, is named for the village Parla, now a thriving Mumbai suburb, where the group started its operations in 1929 in a cowshed owned by the family (which then was in the garments and textile business). The flagship biscuit Gluco’s name was inspired by an imported brand available at the time, called Glaxo — and also because it contained glucose. The first soft drink introduced by the Chauhans, in 1949, was simply called Gluco Cola. When Coca-Cola, which began bottling in India only the following year but had already registered its brand name here, took Parle to court (the company makes it a point to sue anybody who uses the word cola in a beverage brand name), the Chauhans renamed their drink a singularly uninspiring Parle Cola. It didn’t exactly make the market fizz and was soon discontinued. Then, in 1952, came Gold Spot, the orange-flavoured soda that owed its name to a Parle peppermint variety called Gold Star. 

Not exactly rocket science, is it? We’re not done yet. Take a look at the drinks launched by Ramesh Chauhan, the man who has given India some of its most successful brands ever. Bisleri — the bottled water and soda brand that’s become generic for the category — is named after Fellici Bisleri, the Italian who introduced the brand in India in 1965 and sold out to Chauhan two years later. Chauhan retained the name because “it sounded good”. Limca, the cloudy lemon soda, is simply a contraction of “limbu cha” (Marathi for “of lemon”) while Thums Up — still India’s most popular soft drink (we’ll explain the “still” in a bit) — is the creation of an ad agency and, according to marketing folklore, a brandname Chauhan wasn’t really convinced about, not sure the general populace would get that it stood for optimism and encouragement, not about showing a thenga to the world at large.

The lesson, then, is easily understood. In India, at least, it is not the name that decides if a brand will succeed or how big a successful brand will become. But what made Chauhan so good at creating brands that became icons in their own right (there’s even a Thums Up pahaad in the Manmad Hills near Pune) and have stayed strong 20 years after he sold them — and despite efforts to beat them down? 

Fizzing up

Unlike many businessmen’s children who slip into the family business slowly over a couple of years, Chauhan was tossed into the deep end as soon as he returned in 1962 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was promptly set to task, asked to build a soft drink plant at Andheri, in suburban Mumbai. “I was all at sea, wondering where to begin,” he recalls. He decided to head back to where it all began: Chauhan spent several days at the original factory in Vile Parle, understanding work and material flow, manpower requirements etc., and came back to set up the plant. Once it was all ready, the 22-year-old Chauhan took the first revolutionary decision in a career that was to be studded with unconventional ideas. He hired the same labourers who had built the factory as shopfloor workers. “A contractor would have supplied similarly inexperienced people. I thought, why not give these poor chaps who have toiled for over eight months a chance to be part of their own creation? They’ll probably do a better job.”

The soft drinks portfolio at Parle wasn’t very big at the time — there was Gold Spot, of course, as well as a masala soda and Kismat, a pineapple-flavoured drink. But before too long, Chauhan’s father and his brothers differed over expanding outside Bombay — Jayantilal Chauhan wanted to bring on board franchisees, while the others were more conservative in their approach. The brothers decided to separate and Jayantilal and his sons, Ramesh and Prakash, took control of the soft drinks business. 

The first couple of years after going solo were spent on building the franchise network, taking the drinks pan-India and later, after deciding the franchise business wasn’t working, setting up company-owned plants in Pune, Surat, Bangalore, Madras and other places. Then, in 1967, the Chauhans bought Bisleri, solely for the purpose of adding a soda to their portfolio — there was demand for the product mainly from five-star hotels and clubs. “But we didn’t really know what to do with Bisleri,” says Chauhan and so the brand just lingered for the next three decades, offering bubbly and still water (initially in glass bottles) in a lacklustre market. 

Instead, Parle Bisleri (as the Jayantilal Chauhan faction renamed itself in 1967) decided to make use of the Bisleri capacity to produce another drink — a lemon-flavoured one, this time. “Lemonade had been around for decades — Duke’s, Rogers, Pallonji… We had to create a space of our own,” recalls Chauhan. It wasn’t easy, though. The first idea was to use green bottles to stand out in the crowd, but they weren’t easily available at the time. So, the company used a process called microencapsulation to give the drink a cloudy look — and the general feedback was that it looked like soap water. If that wasn’t bad enough, Chauhan wanted to call the drink Limca but the first agency it approached didn’t like the idea. “They wanted to call it Parle Lime ’n’ Lemon. They even made a nice campaign showing pairs such as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar — or was it Antony? Anyway, they were insistent and said, take it or leave it. We left it,” grins Chauhan. 

While Limca was busy carving out a niche for itself in the lemonade market, Chauhan was also keen on rejuvenating Gold Spot, especially now that it was available nationwide. Advertising industry’s maverick genius Kersey Katrak of now-defunct agency MCM suggested a controversial step — turn the positioning on its head. “Gold Spot was a fissadi children’s drink, but popular. So it was a very high risk proposition, but Chauhan said to go ahead,” recalls advertising veteran Prahlad Kakkar, who assisted Shyam Benegal in filming the campaign. And that’s the secret to Chauhan’s success, according to Kakkar. “He is aggressive, has perfect timing and he is able to work with his advertising agencies to fire the public’s imagination.”

The Gold Spot campaign certainly did that. It ran with a new tagline — ‘Livva little hot… Sippa Gold Spot’ — and featured an unknown South Indian model — superstar Rekha, before her Bollywood debut. “The film showed Rekha drinking straight from the bottle — in those days, women used to sip delicately from straws. It was sexy — she was so hot,” Kakkar fans himself, “and it worked like a bomb.” Now, in the pre-television advertising days, ad films were shown only in movie theatres. “The agency in charge of distributing ads in theatres was Blaze and company salesmen would be given tickets to see the movie and check that the ad actually appeared,” recalls Jagdeep Kapoor, CMD, Samsika Marketing, and a former director of Parle Agro. In the following decade, much changed — television advertising started, Coca-Cola left India and Chauhan launched Thums Up.  

A cola is a cola? Not quite

1977 was a very eventful year in Indian history. The Emergency was lifted, there was a non-Congress government at the Centre for the first time and George Fernandes became minister of industry. One of his first tasks was to dust off a provision of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act that stipulated foreign companies should dilute their stake in their Indian operations to 40%. Over 35 companies chose to abandon the market rather than give in to this demand. Among them was Coca-Cola, the top-selling fizzy drink in India by a large margin. 

Suddenly, there was a yawning gap in the soft drink market and everyone rushed to fill it. Nova’s Crown Cola, Duke’s King Cola, Modern Bakery’s Double Seven, Coke’s former bottler Pure Drinks’ Campa Cola… and then there was Thums Up. It took over a year for Chauhan to come up with a cola beverage — and the soul-searching over the brandname was the least of his problems. Getting the taste right was the biggest hurdle. “Tasting sessions would always throw up conflicting and confusing replies,” recalls Chauhan. “So we selected people from our own staff and trained them to verbalise flavours and tastes. We didn’t want just ‘achcha hai’; we wanted to get the nuances right.”

The cola flavour Chauhan developed included ingredients such as cinnamon, cardamom, lemon oil, nutmeg, vanilla and orange oil. “There would be something vichitra [unusual] in every sample we gave the tasters — and mind you, the drink would be cool, not cold, so that individual flavours stood out. The tasters were asked to relate tongue and taste to words and, based on the feedback, we reduced the formula to fewer ingredients,” says Chauhan. The result was a drink that was uniquely Indian, fizzier than Coca-Cola and not overpoweringly sweet.

Convinced he had a great product in hand, Chauhan pushed the boat out when it came to marketing and advertising. Ad industry veterans estimate that he must have spent at least ₹20 lakh on advertising during the launch — a fortune in those days. A catchy jingle — “Happy days are here again”, referring subtly both to the end of Emergency and the return of a cola to the market — reached out to a young audience. The macho positioning now synonymous with the drink came later — the initial ads had as many young women drinking the cola as young men. Energetic people windsurfing, playing rugby, lounging around in bikinis — the drink may have tasted Indian, but the imagery and positioning was all unabashedly Western. Kakkar, who made the 20-second short edits for the launch ad, recalls the huge scepticism around Thums Up. “But Chauhan is a little man with the biggest balls in the business. He just said, ‘let’s see’. And look how he proved everyone wrong,” he chortles.

It was close to a decade later when Ashok Kurien at Ambience Advertising coined the “Taste the thunder” tagline. Now, Thums Up was a man’s drink — strong, less sweet and endorsed by cricketers. Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar were already appearing together in print ads, the India-Pakistan cricket hostilities forgotten as they chugged “the refreshing cola”. “While Thums Up launched in a Coke- and Pepsi-less world and, like everyone else, aspired to become the mainstream cola, it would not have been sustainable,” says Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands, a former adman himself. “The change in positioning was the luckiest break, but it was not entirely fortuitous. The product attributes, of being harder and more masculine, worked towards this as well.”

Chauhan drove home the action angle in other, more subtle ways. “He was very big on product placement in films,” says Samsika’s Kapoor. “Remember fight scenes from Hindi movies of the 1980s? In almost every one, you will see crates of Thums Up and Limca in the background. Chauhan’s team was very quick to send over crates and bottles for any film shooting, ensuring their product was on screen.”

Outdoor and below-the-line promotions were also great ways of reaching out to customers  in an era when TV was just picking up. And it wasn’t only for Thums Up, which, among other things, sponsored motorsports teams and events during the 1980s. “Parle would invariably sponsor the drinks at ad awards and other functions,” Kapoor recalls. “Taste, visibility, availability… Chauhan had it all covered.”

Sometime in the early 1980s, Gold Spot launched a campaign focused on children (briefly abandoning its young adult positioning before returning with “The Zing Thing” a couple of years later). In 1983, Chauhan’s Parle extended the “Fun means Goldspotting” campaign with a promotion with Walt Disney around its animated film, The Jungle Book. It was a simple enough deal — some bottles of the orange drink would have special seals under the bottle cap, with images of Mowgli, Kaa, Baloo and Bagheera, among others. Collect enough crowns and paste them in a special scrap book and you would win a special Jungle Book comic. Simple, but oh-so effective — even now, 30 years later, blogs are being written about how youngsters would drink only Gold Spot, persuade shopkeepers to hand over discarded bottle crowns and trade crowns to finish their scrap books.  

An orange drink that kids clamoured for, a cloudy lemon endorsed as the ideal refreshment after any outdoor activity, and a cola that industry people say accounted for 60% of the entire soft drink market in less than 15 years of launch. Chauhan’s reputation as brand builder was established and he was being hailed as the soft drink king of India when he took everyone by surprise by selling out to Coca-Cola.

Soft drinks, hard decisions

In 1990, ahead of liberalisation, Pepsi entered India through a joint venture with two Indian companies, Punjab Agro Industries and Voltas. Coca-Cola’s re-entry, then, was clearly only a matter of time. It was a tough time for the soda king — earlier that year, the government had banned brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a common additive in beverages, which meant Parle would have to not only tweak its formulae for Gold Spot and Limca, but also reach out to customers who would have heard of BVO’s carcinogenic properties. “The taste had changed and they needed to educate customers that this was new Gold Spot, not a bad version of the old Gold Spot,” says Kakkar, whose production house Genesis made the ads. He doesn’t think too highly of the initial ads -— “it was a series of admittedly poor jokes” — but sees genius in the finale. “A group of youngsters in a college canteen are excitedly singing/shouting about the ‘new’ Gold Spot and the ad is about to end when a dopey-looking boy crawls out from under a table and asks, ‘Can I have a Limca?’” The “underlings” at Parle were horrified at the idea, Kakkar recalls. “They said they were uncomfortable with the concept while we were persuading them that this was free mileage for Limca. Chauhan saw our point of view and allowed the ad.”

If that was easily sorted out, competition from Pepsi was much tougher to handle. Four of Parle’s bottlers switched loyalties to Pepsi very quickly and the impending entry of Coke made the others antsy. The trouble was, only four of the total 62 bottling plants were company-owned; the rest were franchises who were not only awestruck at the idea of working for either of the cola giants, they were also worried about Parle’s ability to withstand the combined onslaught of Pepsi and Coke. By the time Coca-Cola’s plans for India were finalised, almost all the bottlers wanted to join the American company.

Meanwhile, both Pepsi and Coke had been making noises about wanting to buy out Chauhan. “Say all the bottlers in Punjab or Calcutta want to go, then what do you do with your brand? Getting a new guy would mean three to four times additional cost. It didn’t make sense. So we said, let it go, lock, stock and barrel.” In 1993, Chauhan sold five brands to Coca-Cola India: Thums Up, Gold Spot, Limca, Maaza (a non-aerated mango drink) and Citra (a clear lemon soda in the green bottles he had originally sought for Limca). It was an emotionally draining time — Chauhan wept openly when signing the deal at Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta — and says he is still “very attached” to those brands. 

Which must have made it harder to see them being neglected under Coke’s stewardship (a charge consistently denied by Coke, incidentally). Thums Up, in particular, saw minimal advertising and reduced production. “They were hoping people would switch to Coke. Instead, they switched to Pepsi,” says Chauhan. “I told the Pepsi guys, ‘Don’t feel proud; it’s not your achievement. Coke is helping you grow.’” But starving it out didn’t work. In 1998, when Donald Short took over as the new CEO of Coca-Cola India, he admitted to a business newspaper, “Thums Up and Limca are the two most popular soft drink brands in India… We have firmed up an aggressive marketing strategy to push these two brands in the domestic market.” The numbers quoted in the media said it all: 40% of Coca-Cola India’s turnover at the time came from Thums Up and 17% from Limca. Coke’s share: 23%.

For the past decade or so, Thums Up is back on Coke India’s radar as are the other brands Chauhan created. Limca and Maaza are still around and Citra has recently been relaunched; only Gold Spot remains in cold storage. Gold Spot’s exclusion is understandable, says Desai. “The orange category is struggling to find a voice. Coca-Cola can’t figure out what to do with its own brand, Fanta; why would it want to add another orange drink?”

Quiz Chauhan on the brands’ progress and he says dismissively, “You don’t need to do anything to grow a brand. The difficult part is getting the foundation right. How they grow the brands is their business.” Then, as if in spite of himself, he adds, “‘I want my thunder’ — what does it even mean? Food brands should always have allusions to taste in the tagline.” Nor is he happy with how Coke has tweaked the Thums Up logo and added blue. “They say it is to confuse the Pepsi drinker. I say, you are confused yourself. When you’re already No.1, why look at No.3?” Besides, adding a third colour in the logo shrinks the size of the brandname, a complete no-no, according to Chauhan. 

Selling off the brands didn’t mean Chauhan lost touch with them completely — for a few years after the deal, he continued as a bottler for Coke in Delhi (brother Prakash meanwhile, managed the plants in Bombay). But it wasn’t nearly enough and so, in 1995, Chauhan set off again doing what he does best — building brands. Only this time, the brand already existed: Bisleri.

The brand that SKUs built

Chauhan says he was “bloody lucky” Bisleri was left out of the deal with Coca-Cola — not through any foresight on his part, he admits, but more because Coke was focused on carbonated beverages at the time. Even Maaza was really an add-on for it, acquired only because it was produced in the same plant as Thums Up, Limca and Gold Spot. “But since Bisleri was an independent business with an insignificant presence, it didn’t catch Coke’s attention.”

When Chauhan decided that his new business would be bottled water, the market didn’t exist. He dug deeper. Why was Bisleri selling so much soda at railway stations? “It made sense for long-distance travellers who could have their whisky and soda over a day-long journey. But at local stations, for local travellers, it hardly made sense. Why would they need a soda for a half-hour journey?” The answer, as he found out: lack of clean, potable water. Tap water was suspect and pots of water at railway stalls were of equally dubious quality. As an alternative to safe water, people were drinking soda.

Chauhan’s approach to brand building in the water business has been very different from how he tackled soft drinks. There, it was all about brand recall, positioning and advertising. Here, he focused on product management and distribution. The glass bottles in which the brand was launched had all but vanished with the introduction of plastics and later PET bottles in the mid-1980s. Now, different-sized bottles aimed at different target groups ensured that Bisleri reached out to the widest possible customer base.

While 1 litre bottles have been the historical standard in bottled water, in 1995, Chauhan introduced a 500-ml variant priced at ₹5. It was the right-sized product at the right price and the market exploded. A few years later, he went the other direction and launched the 1.2 litre bottle, aimed at those who share water. The corporate and household sectors were tapped with 20-litre jars, and 12-litre and 5-litre containers. The fastest growing segment right now, though, is the 200-ml bottle. The category was popularised by airlines but Bisleri has instead targeted the retail segment and introduced it at marriages, birthday parties and other functions, thus opening new avenues. 

Burnt by the Coke experience, Chauhan started off with a conscious decision to avoid franchisees. But contract packers were not cost-effective, especially given that the majority of players in the water market were manufacturing and selling for themselves. Now,Bisleri operates through a combination of owned plants, franchisees and co-packers. 

There was also trouble with transporters, who didn’t see much value in carting water. Chauhan understands — “The bhangarwala [scrap dealer] will give you ₹10 a kg for your junk and we sell water at ₹4 a litre”. But rather than be hostage to the demands of truckers, he cut the Gordian knot by setting up his own fleet of branded trucks. That has the added advantage of acting as a moving advertisement for Bisleri.     

Advertising for the brand has been mostly around the safety plank either through abstract ads with the tagline “Play safe” or those emphasising safety features such as tamper-proof caps and tear-away seals. “After all, why do you buy bottled water? Only for safety,” points out Chauhan.  In 2006, though, he made a branding move that took the market by surprise, changing Bisleri’s colours to green from blue — which it had adopted and promoted for over 15 years. “While we knew all local players would copy us, Aquafina [Pepsi] and Kinley [Coca-Cola] would not — these were multinational brands and would follow whatever headquarters dictated,” says Chauhan. And he’s quick to give credit where it is due — “It wasn’t my idea. The advertising agency suggested it.”

The switch made all the difference. “Today, we are the leader in bottled water and Bisleri has become synonymous with bottled water. But the irony is that when you ask for Bisleri, you may end up buying some other brand. That’s also the problem: when you create a new category, the brand tends to become generic for the category,” says Chauhan.

The solution lies in making sure the brand is available at every conceivable location and occasion — when the customer asks for “Bisleri”, he should get only the distinctly green bottle, not Aquafina, Kinley or any other branded bottled water in the market. Which is why the company is reaching out to unconventional outlets such as stationery stores to stock its brand. “Bisleri is even more a business success case study than it is a brand success case study,” says Future Brands’ Desai. 

But what next for Chauhan? Does the success of Bisleri tempt him to venture into newer areas? Perhaps create new brands? He laughs and shakes his head. “This is a huge market with a capital H. Why would I want to dilute my energies by focusing elsewhere?”