04 May 2018 13:35:29 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

The red drink for your soul

Century-old Rooh Afza’s USP remains the absence of artificial flavours, cholesterol and fat

For the uninitiated, Rooh Afza is a scarlet-hued, non-alcoholic, concentrated ‘medicinal syrup’/ squash / punch that is meant to be consumed with cold milk or water. It is also used to add flavour to sherbets and as a topping on desserts such as faloodas and sundaes. It is said to be a cooling drink that also offers nutrition, curbs diarrhoea, prevents dehydration and sunstrokes and promotes nitrogen stability in the body.

The formula for this extremely popular drink — which includes more than 20 cooling agents such as herbs, fruits, flowers, vegetables and roots — was created by a Unani practitioner, Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed. To this day, there is no variation in the original formula. He ran the Hamdard Dawakhana (clinic or pharmacy), established in 1906, from the by-lanes of old Delhi. The name ‘Hamdard’ meant and symbolised all that he believed in: ‘sympathy for all and sharing pain’.

How it began

‘Rooh Afza’ was conceived in 1907. The name is said to be Persian for ‘refresher or nourisher of the soul’. The product, whose USP remains the absence of artificial flavours, cholesterol and fat, took off immediately and soon became a favourite.

The founder had the lofty principle that society should benefit from all profitable ventures. He also believed that for medicines to reach the poorest of the poor, formulas should not remain secrets, nor be patented. And to this day, Rooh Afza’s recipe remains unpatented, with countless others reproducing the product with varying degrees of success.

Though he passed away very early, the founder’s ideals were carried forward and enshrined in Hamdard by his wife and son Hakeem Abdul Hameed. The latter educated his younger brother Hakim Mohammad Said and the siblings jointly took the company forward, transforming it in 1948 from a pharmaceutical company to Hamdard Laboratories India, a ‘waqf’ or ‘trust’ dedicated to the country’s welfare.

Across the continent

The younger brother moved to Pakistan after partition, setting up a Hamdard unit from scratch there. Pakistan and Bangladesh both have independent units of the company, but the formulation for the red drink remains the same.

Rooh Afza is said to be the first brand that standardised its packaging and labelling. The product was sold in distinctive white bottles of a regular 750 ml size and shape, with its own butter paper wrapper and a label. It set the brand apart, making it instantly recognisable; the quality of the product completed the experience.

Initially, the bottles were manually filled and the labels were pasted on by hand. But as demand grew and the number of bottling plants increased, rotary machines took over the job of filling and labelling. Not many changes have been made in the bottling and labelling of Rooh Afza, except for the introduction of PET bottles in 2012.

Dealing with competition

The syrup soon became popular in the northern states where the dry weather made it a natural thirst quencher. But as carbonated drinks took over the market in the 1990s, there was a dip in sales. Hamdard had to work hard to get back its share of the market.

It brought in chef Nita Mehta to devise a Rooh Afza recipe booklet; it organised a Rooh Afza summer festival, and signed on actress Juhi Chawla as the brand ambassador. The rising consumer awareness of natural products and fear of artificial preservatives in food swung the market its way again.

Hamdard is today recognised not just as the company that manufactures Rooh Afza but also as a research-driven organisation that is one of India’s top health and wellness companies. It offers more than 500 natural products used to treat various conditions. It is reportedly the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of Unani medicines that covers skin care, hair care, men’s health, women’s health and lifestyle diseases. Some of its other popular products include Safi (natural blood purifier), Roghan Badam Shirin (Almond Oil) and Pachnol (chewable digestive tablets).

To keep the quality of Rooh Afza and other Hamdard products consistent, the raw materials are procured only from the best sources. They undergo various tests in the company’s R&D lab to ensure that the properties for which they were chosen — efficacy and safety — remain intact. After this, they are stored in such a manner that they retain these properties.

Growth and numbers

Hamdard has two central warehouses, 15 CFAs pan India, a 300-persons strong sales team and about five lakh outlets offering its products. It has three manufacturing facilities at Manesar (Haryana), Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Okhla (Delhi), and is looking to build a fourth near Aurangabad. All units are GMP, ISO 9001:2008 and HACCP certified. The Manesar unit, which produces Rooh Afza, is USFDA compliant (2014). The company itself is a member of the Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy).

Hamdard Laboratories is at present a ₹700 crore company and aims to touch ₹1,000 crore by 2019-20. Its flagship product Rooh Afza is said to control almost 50 per cent of the concentrated syrup market in India. A lion’s share of the revenues comes from the northern States.

Products from Hamdard are available across the globe in more than 25 countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan. The red drink recently made a foray into the UAE.

Diversifying products

The first add-on product to Rooh Afza was test-marketed in Delhi and UP in 2016: the new, ready-to-drink Rooh Afza Fusion. This product, blended with fruit juices, is being made available in five variants. The company hopes the brand will soon be able to stand on its own, without piggybacking on the ‘Rooh Afza’ name.

In a surprise move, Hamdard joined hands with Barista Coffee Company to introduce Rooh Afza-infused hot and cold beverages, and bakery products. Its Rooh Afza Shakerato, Masala, Badam milk and Mocha are now available across Barista outlets located in regions where the syrup is popular. Cakes, muffins and croissants steeped in Rooh Afza are set to follow.

Changing times, changing measures

How does one sell a century-old product to the latest generation? Earlier, advertising for Rooh Afza focussed more on brand recall than on enticing new consumers, with print ads emphasising its longevity and loyal customer base. This changed in 2009-10, when the parent company felt the need to take on the competition put up by easier-to-use and perceived ‘hip’ brands.

Ad spend increased over the years, with Hamdard organising a Holi contest, a ‘Meri Rooh Afza story’ campaign, the ‘Go Greedy’ campaign with the quirky ‘ Lalach ek kala hai (greed is an art)’ tagline and the latest ‘Ghulke jio’ campaign, that seamlessly blends India’s diversified culture with Rooh Afza’s multi-ingredient appeal.

With its latest print and TV ads, Rooh Afza is looking to capture the young-and-trendy school and college goers as well as the youthful workforce. Its strong presence in social media too is helping its case to a large extent.

Hamdard is trying to shed the ‘summer drink’ image surrounding Rooh Afza and is looking to reposition it — especially its easy-to-drink offshoot Rooh Afza Fusion — as a year-round refresher. Experts, however, point out that this change of positioning may result in the loss of its loyal and ‘old’ customer base.

Giving back to society

The company set up the Hamdard National Foundation (HNF) in 1962 to organise its CSR activities. The founder’s principles are fully upheld, with about 85 per cent of the profits from Hamdard Laboratories reaching HNF for disbursement across various charities and trusts involved in education (through scholarships), health (free medical relief) and empowerment (financial assistance) of marginalised and poor sections of society.

Hakeem Abdul Hameed established about 25 different institutions in the fields of healthcare, medicine, education and culture, most of which became a part of the Jamia Hamdard Deemed University in 1989. The Hamdard Education Society runs several schools, all of which are funded by HNF, which also provides financial assistance to NGO-run hospitals and institutions across the country.

Apart from these, Hamdard organises scholarships for deserving students, distribution of clothing and blankets for the poor in winter. It also contributes to the Prime Minister’s Relief fund.

Hakeem Abdul Hameed was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1992.