Friday, June 17, 2011

Much nostalgia, some regret

It is a little over three decades since I left Madras (as it was called then) and my mind goes back to the great times I had in that wonderful city. Madras was a great place to grow up even if it was 108 degrees in May. Who cared about the heat if one was chasing balls at the Marina cricket ground? A wonderful place to watch a cricket match and hear the Triplicane mamas waxing eloquent on which side of the wicket Derek Underwood should bowl from and the raucous chants of budding club cricketers whose wit far exceeded their cricketing ability. A phenomenal place to absorb culture even if you were only marginally inclined, and an easy city to live in, if only you knew the language.

Today, as I try to earn a livelihood studying brands and look back at the first quarter century of my life one thing strikes me about the city. (Who cares how late the learning happens, as long as it does happen!) The city was dependent on a few brands. Or better still, the lives of the citizens of Madras would have been a lot less interesting without some of these brands that I am going to talk about. I am sure the citizens of that city who spent their lives in the Sixties and the Seventies would have their own list, but I am going to restrict myself to three brands which mattered to Madras and me in that order.

Where is the paper?

Reading the newspaper in Madras was an involved ritual and it probably still is. Receiving the paper was the high point of our life and woe betide the poor newspaper boy who did not deliver the paper at 5.45 a.m. at our house in Mambalam! To me and to several other thousand people at that time, The Hindu was not only our window to the world but the voice of truth. While it is probable that you would not read it “first” in The Hindu, you could be sure, though, that if you read it there, you knew it was absolutely “true”. To me The Hindu was the only means to know the cricket score from anywhere in the world and the surest way of transporting myself into the world of Jack Fingleton. I had got addicted to it and remember a holiday in Bombay (as it was called then) and my frantic efforts to get a copy of the paper on the streets of Matunga. The bemused newspaper vendors must have marvelled at the nine-year-old's religious fervour and his fascination for pronouncing his religious beliefs as I kept repeating “Hindu”, “Hindu” in desperation! Today, I know the value of the brand and how indispensable it was in the lives of its readers, and I am sure it continues to be extremely important to million others even in the face of competition, not all of which is ethical.

Tamil Nadu hits the bottle

Tamil Nadu was one of the few States in the country that enforced Prohibition and even as thirsty denizens undertook thirst trips to neighbouring (then) Pondicherry, salubrious Bangalore and even Tada in Andhra Pradesh, the bootleggers ensured that every brand in the country was safely smuggled into the State. But the bottles consumed on the sly were nothing compared to the bottles of another beverage that was consumed in every dining room and kitchen in the State. Yes, life in Tamil Nadu was one big Horlicks bottle! Could one funny-looking bottle be the addiction of a whole State? You could bet your house on that fact!

Tamil Nadu consumed more Horlicks than the rest of India put together or at least it seemed like that to a young kid. When my grandmother was sick she was given Horlicks. When I went to my friend's house no prizes for guessing what I was offered by the lady of the house. When I woke up in the morning, the drink that I first had was - you guessed it! And housewives cheerfully collected bottle after bottle in which everything was stored from sugar to coffee to salt … I have consumed enough Horlicks to last seven generations as I am sure have most people who grew up in that era. Today the brand has many competitors and maybe it does not enjoy the same phenomenal franchise it once did, but nothing one can take the place it once held in the hearts and stomachs of Tamilians.

The state dreams

Enough has been said and written about the weather of Tamil Nadu and it is not uncommon for people to come out of the shower sweating like pigs. The really affluent ones had fans in their bathrooms! The antidote to the wonderful weather was Pond's dreamflower talc. Rich or poor, young or old, man or woman of that State had one thing in common. It was the brand they used. My mother had great faith in the product and would apply it liberally on my face, in the hope perhaps that it would make me appear a little fairer than I was! Sadly her hopes were belied and I ended up with what is euphemistically referred to as “wheatish complexion” in matrimonial ads! Clearly the State was waiting for Fair & Lovely! Be that as it may, it was the most dominant brand of the Seventies and the Eighties. To describe the brand as anything less than a dominant brand would be an understatement.

Later I went to a management school and understood how even the mighty brand faltered by launching Pond's toothpaste. And as I might have mentioned earlier in one of my columns the Mylapore mami is alleged to have said, “How can I put what I usually apply on my armpits into my mouth!” But let's stay with the talc which was also characterised by wonderful advertising over the years. I also remember the advertising industry in the city going into depression when the account was moved to Mumbai. After all, the city had so few large advertisers and when one of them shifted base it was bound to have implications.

Yesterday's confidence to today's uncertainty

Bill Bernbach used to say that today's advertising style is tomorrow's corn. And I have experienced sniggers and sly smiles when I proudly show yesterday's award-winning ads to today's kids. Similarly while it may mean nothing today, the Pond's dreamflower talc ad (that was how it was referred to) of the Eighties certainly made waves. I remember the commercial even today. Isn't it strange you can remember a commercial you saw 25 years ago but can't remember what your wife told you last night? However, the commercial was about a slightly nervous girl going for an important interview transforming herself into a confident, winning personality thanks to the effect of the talcum powder and what it does to her. Other commercials followed - in an art exhibition and in a school where the heroine gets what she so desperately wants thanks to the talc that is the elixir of the girl's confidence. These commercials were liked by consumers like me and by judges of advertising club awards functions who regularly gave the commercials prizes. In those days, there were no Cannes, so most advertising was entered locally! Let's move to the present …

I still use Pond's dreamflower talc. Habits don't die, do they? And as I watched the current commercial, my mind went back to the past. Let me explain the commercial in case you have not seen it. A boy is waiting outside his house with a bag in his hand. A girl zips in riding a Scooty and asks him if he is ready to leave. It soon becomes apparent that they are going to elope and the girl is the driving force behind the elopement. The boy is reluctant; he probably realises he will miss his mom's cooking and takes one last regretful look at his house. The girl says, don't worry we will have a register marriage and invite them for the reception. As a father of two sons, my heart bled at the thought that this is probably what today's girls are! Then I quickly reassured myself that the problem is not with today's young girls but with the scriptwriter who is saying that what he has created is a trend. To get back to the commercial the girl removes her helmet, the boy gets the fragrance of the talc and all is forgotten as they speed away to a new life and a new world, leaving me slightly uncomfortable about how a brand with a tradition of insightful advertising seems to have slipped somewhere.

I think the learning is fairly simple. Brands ultimately belong to consumers and people like me feel strongly about the brands we have been using for years. If The Hindu takes a wrong step it bothers me and if Pond's does a not-so-great commercial it upsets me. Are there more people like me, I wonder.

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand – comm.
Read my blog @


shrini said...

There surely will be quite a lot many people in your side sir. Well relating with the two advertisements you mentioned, the order of then day then was woman landing themselves with a job and Ponds helped them.. and today, women being far independent and willing to take risk is also depicted by the very same Ponds add... Well i believe elopin is an option only to those who aren courageous enuf to express their views.. maybe the advertisement cud have been made in such a way like PONDS makes girl more courageous to tel her parents of her love rather than elopin.. maybe that wud have satisfied both the generation people :-)

Anonymous said...

As usual an excellent writeup laced with humour. However you should have mentioned - filter kaapi - consumed in the mornings
while reading the hindu. Maybe we need a chennai version of starbucks to brand filter kaapi.
The piece on the horlicks bottle was nice. The horlicks bottle incidentally was also a measure by which various itmes such as oils, pickles etc were sold .

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Interesting comment about "filer kaapi". In fact I was tempted to invie "the surest way of creating chaos in a Tamilian's life was to replace his filter kaapi with tea and the Hindu with some other English paper!"
Thank you for bringing it up.

Shrini said...

There surely will be quite a lot many people in your side sir. Well relating with the two advertisements you mentioned, the order of then day then was woman landing themselves with a job and Ponds helped them.. and today, women being far independent and willing to take risk is also depicted by the very same Ponds add... Well i believe elopin is an option only to those who aren courageous enuf to express their views.. maybe the advertisement cud have been made in such a way like PONDS makes girl more courageous to tel her parents of her love rather than elopin.. maybe that wud have satisfied both the generation people :-)

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Very interesting comment about eloping. I belong to the "other" generation. But mind you, I had a love marriage, a small matter of 28years ago, but with the blessing of our parents. Why should the girl ask the guy to elope was my concern.

ilamparithi said...

Sir, Havells' commercial is marvelous. As you said, it's not the language that dominates here, it's the effectiveness of the communication. I could see people being fascinated by this ad, have started keeping Havells in their consideration set when it comes to purchase decision.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes it meets Bill Bernbach's principle.
Simle. Surprise. Smile.
Great advertising will make a difference to sales.

Gthoughts said...


I think they can trade-off on salary if the cut is 25% of what they usually get now. Which is I believe in between Rs 40000 to Rs 60000 per month. Or do they have to come down more in order to enter advertising?

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

I really cannot generalise. I do a lot of career counselling with students of ISB who with several years of experience in IT want to move to marketing.
I can specifically discuss the case if necessary.

Tina said...

Interesting article. Thank you for sharing. Also looking forward to your new book. I did read Googly. Coincidentally, I have just finished working on an IT major's annual report on a similar theme of the Indian World Cup win and learnings therein.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Cricket unites a diverse country. Most Indians are interested in cricket. If we can make business intereting through cricket, why not?

shrini said...

Sir, On similar lines, Today I read that Hero Honda is going to rebrand itself. Well, what accordin to you can be the best bet for a wise strategy for Hero Honda? Maintain the same trust factor or bring in variety? How do you forsee the new age advertisements of Hero Honda in the near future?

V Kalidas said...

Your thoroughly enjoyable article drove me into a nostalgic trip recalling to memory brands that one grew up with from childhood!

May I add that in Madras (Jack Trout once said that despite all human effort, the brand, Madras and not Chennai will continue to be positioned in the mind), apart from the two consumer brands mentioned by you, Bata and LG Asafoetida ("perungayam" sounds or smells better in the local lingo!) have been household names from time immemorial.

Ever since I morphed into a biped from a quadruped tiny tot, I remember being given the finishing touch to the sartorial ensemble with a Bata footwear. The years rolled by with the use of Bata Chappals, Sandals, Tennis Shoes, Canvas Shoes, Quo Vadis, Ambassador, Moccasino etc - they kept the assembly lines rolling with a slew of new brands all sporting the famous Bata MRP ever decorated with a ".99" suffix ostensibly to impress the cost-conscious customer! Bally and patent leather could make no dent on their clientele.

During my early professional years in Calcutta (sorry, Kolkata) , I was informed by our clients, Bata that their Chairman Mr Bata was planning a trip to India to personally express his appreciation of the steadfast loyalty that this Brand enjoyed in India. Today a crop of modern footwear manufacturers has stolen a march over the stolid Bata footwear and yet it continues to work its old-world magic with North Star and Hush Puppies, desperately clinging to the feet of the old Bata die-hards like yours truly.

And now, from fashion-wear to gastronomy.. Well, if you wanted good Rasam or an orthodox Sambar in Madras, it had to be finally garnished with a modest dollop of a resinous gum better known as asafoetida. The aroma would waft across the kitchen to tickle the nostrils and incite the tastebuds! Pickles need them as do a host of other “hot” items. The brand L.G., made by Laljee Godhoo, has over the years become a generic for asafoetida as Xerox for Photocopy or Fedex for Courier! Over the years, the ubiquitous rectangular yellow box has undergone minor cosmetic changes. LG in powder form is also available in a sleek white tin to mark a so-called change in a product that has obstinately defied the batterings of change and the fickle fortunes of marketing companies trying out alternatives! The Patel Chain of stores in New York display the bright yellow of LG on their shelves as do Kurups in Houston for the NRIs yearning for native flavour amidst instant offerings.

As regards THE HINDU, it is indeed as much wanted first thing in the morning as a cup of coffee in Chennai.. Let me add another dimension to this interesting phenomenon in Kolkata and Mumbai where I had the privilege of being associated with the Regional Offices of THE HINDU for a few decades. In both the cities we had a community of readers that would walk into our offices in the afternoons to catch up on their daily “fix” from THE HINDU. A discreet survey revealed that the basic information that they needed was on good old Chennai, the daily dose of the Spiritual/Religion column. Friday Review of Concerts and articles on Art and Culture and, to top it all, dispatches on Cricket from S.K Gurunathan, P. N Sundaresan, Neville Cardus, Jack Fingleton and others of that ilk in contemporary times. In Mumbai, we created a comfortable reading space for some of the inveterate readers who would travel long distances by local train to gain access to the columns of THE HINDU the same afternoon or evening!

A senior retired Government official, uprooted from a cocooned existence in Chennai, mentioned that he was at pains to explain to his son as to why he did the daily “yatra” (to quote him) from Goregaon to Churchgate to read THE HINDU when there was a clutch of newspapers available in the city. The smile that furrowed his wizened countenance revealed his unfailing loyalty to THE HINDU!

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Kali,

Of course I remember LG and what it meant and continues to mean. I am sure kitchens in Madras (Oh Chennai) continue to waft with the aroma of LG. It is an integral part of Tamil Nadu kitchens.

Very keen to know about the Hindu readers of Bombay (oh Mumbai!)

And keep writing!

Anonymous said...

I had a privilige to live in Madras for 3,5 years and though this comment may be aside to the main idea of the post, I just want to thank you for such vibrant story. I have no idea of how Madras did look like 30 years ago, but even in 2011 it was absolutely the same you have described it: same priorities and routines.


Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes, lots of the city and its people have not changed too much over the years.