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.
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