In 1977, when I was a bank employee working in Bombay (as it was known then), there were only a few bright spots in my life. Taking a break to drink the then newly-launched cola Thums Up — a godsend in the heat and humidity of the city — was one of them.
In the evenings, the soft drink had other uses — it went down smoothly with the Old Monk (it was all that we could afford) and we found it a lot easier to crib about our bosses as more of the amber liquid went down.
While several dominant brands of that period have been ousted from the market or are merely mentioned in nostalgic conversations, Thums Up has remained the number one cola in India for 40 years.
How has the brand maintained this momentum?
Tickling the Indian palate
One of the reasons some brands are more successful than the others is that they stand out from the competition in the eyes of the consumer. Ramesh Chauhan, the man behind Thums Up, knew the Indian consumer’s tastes better than most; certainly better than Coca-Cola, which was floundering in the Indian market! After all, he was the brain behind India’s largest selling biscuit brand Parle-G!
Thums Up was launched when The Coca Cola Company was asked to leave the country, but it continued to rule the roost even after Coca Cola returned in the early 1990s. Rumour has it that the brand’s logo was actually cocking a snook at the all-knowing global brands and their managers! Let’s not forget its distinctive taste and brand image. And this brings us to advertising.
In the early days, Thums Up’s advertising was good but it hardly stood out. If my memory serves me right, the advertisements in the early years were all about food, friends and Thums Up. It featured cricketers such as Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Sandeep Patil. Then, the brand’s custodians and advertising agencies decided it needed a personality that was in sync with the macho image of the brand, and this led to the famous tagline ‘Taste the thunder’.
Over the years, it has used celebrities such as Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Mahesh Babu (an interesting choice, given the brand’s enormous popularity in markets in and around Andhra Pradesh) in its commercials. The ads became more execution-led, like this one featuring Akshay Kumar with the tagline Aaj kuch toofani karte hain . The series of ads produced over the years show how the brand was an integral part of a consumer’s daily routine.
The real thing
The management of global brands that came to India post-liberalisation had a poor view of the country and its managers. They thought they knew everything about the Indian consumer and that India was just another country they could plant their flag in.
The Coca-Cola Company bought Thums Up, thinking it could kill the brand over a period of time — a common strategy adopted by multinationals. To its chagrin, however, it found that the Indian consumer would not let go of the strong-tasting cola! It had no option but to accept its presence as the best-selling brand in the Coca-Cola stable in India. Reports suggest that the brand has attained a size of ₹5,000 crore now in India.
What it teachs us
Brands that are unique will thrive. The strong taste of Thums Up appeals to the Indian palate. Other brands that seek success could learn from this. Too often, brands look to advertising to help them stand out.
Speaking of advertising, a clear, consistent long-term strategy and execution that reinforces the strength of the brand with a careful use of celebrities over the years, has ensured that Thums Up holds its own against international competitors. The distribution clout of Parle-G, a household name, also helped the Indian cola reach the length and breadth of this country.
It is a matter of considerable pride that an Indian brand can compete and win against global majors that rule the roost all over the world. It is not the resources a brand has, but its relationship with its consumers that ensures it tastes success.