Thums Up - A Thundering Success

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 4810 , Published on 28 January 2013

To understand the mystique of Thums Up, one needs to go back to the 70s. Up to the mid 70s Coca-Cola was dominant, and for all practical purposes, the only Cola brand in India. The bottled drink consumption in itself was not very high and the leading carbonated drink in the market had been Limca. This was not much of a surprise, since India is a country where Nimbu Pani is the refreshing cool drink of choice for many.

Following the lifting of the Emergency in 1977 and the change of Government at the centre, multinational companies like Coca-Cola had to make their exit from India. It is also rumoured that George Fernandes, the then Indian minister for Industries, had insisted that Coca-cola divulge its secret recipe, and this also formed one reason why the brand made its exit.

The exit created a vacuum in the Indian bottled drinks market, which now became bereft of cola. Thus, it can be said that ti was a curious political development, rather than a marketing initiative, that created the much needed window of opportunity for Thums Up.

One important thing that is never obvious to a consumer enjoying his favourite bottled drink is that quite apart from the imagery associated with the brand, a very real and critical strength of a soft drink is the network of bottlers and distribution that is available to a brand, so that it is available to the customers within ‘an arm’s reach of desire’, to use the phrase coined by Coca-cola itself.

At that time, the biggest bottlers of Coke in India were the Chauhan brothers of Parle in Western India, Sardar Charanjit Singh and his company Pure Drinks in the North. When Coca-Cola made its exit, both these companies saw it as an opportunity to launch their own bottled drinks.

Parle then launched Thums Up as their lead cola brand alongside their other brands – Limca and Goldspot. Pure Drinks then launched Campa-cola. Both the launches occurred in 1977. While Pure Drinks created Campa-cola as an obvious substitute for Coca-cola, including the name which was phonetically similar, Parle came up with a product and brand that was quite different. Though this is not the single factor that can be attributed for the success of the latter, but it is a reminder that creating a substitute is not always a good strategy,

Thums up had been launched with a logo showing a red thumbs up hand gesture with a slanted white typeface, and what was one of India’s first truly lifestyle oriented campaigns with the line, :Happy days are here again!”, a clear promise to consumers that the refreshing taste of cola was back in their life! The campaign celebrated the ‘Thums Up lifestyle’ with a multi-star cast of the top models of the day, exotic locations and a catchy jingle. There was also another subliminal interpretation to the punch line that can be best appreciated if one knows what it was for a young Indian, when the Emergency ended in 1977. For most, it was a sense of second independence. People say it was equivalent to the coming down of the Berlin Wall! It was the return of the civic liberties and the sense of a student revolution that had been successful.

For several years after 1977, Thumbs Up and Campa-cola had a free reign free from any major competition from international brands. However, their markets remained limited to their own regions of origin and neither attempted to become a national leader.

It was during these years, that Thums Up used every possible trick a cola brand could use to market itself – sponsoring cricket matches, building associations with music, etc and did everything possible to reinforce the aspirational, young, lifestyle image and tried making cola a normal part of eating out. One of the campaigns of those times, used the tagline – “Food, friends and Thums Up” and showed Thums Up being enjoyed with typical Indian snacks like samosas and dosas.

However, Thums Up enjoyed a much higher market share as compared to Campa-cola, or even other cola brands of the time like Double seven, McDowell’s thrill and Double cola. The domination of Thums up remained untouched and unmoved till Pepsi entered the Indian market in 1989. Pepsi had entered the Indian market in a JV with government owned Punjab Agro Industrial Corporation and Voltas India Ltd and was branded as Lehar Pepsi, though the word ‘Lehar’ was highly underplayed. Pepsi was launched with a high profile campaign starring Juhi Chawla and Remo Fernandes. This was in keeping with the idea of Pepsi as the ‘new generation platform’ and association with music and entertainment icons. Its punchline captured a lot fo mind and hearts, saying “Ye hi hai right choice, Baby, Aha!” In response, Thums Up fought back on all fronts possible, advertising spends, sponsorships and even an interesting change in the bottle size! At the same price, the bottle size was increased to 250 ml and Thums Up launched a new bottle Maha Cola. This new king-size bottle helped immensely in the fight against Pepsi, it also won over the switchers in the Delhi market, who had long remained loyal to Campa-cola, a drink available only in 200 ml bottles.

But the battle was not only about advertising spends and bottle sizes. What changed things and built the long term foundation for Thums Up was the courage to stake out a clear turf for the brand that went beyond just better and more glamorous lifestyle advertising. The platform was built on the basic product characteristic of Thumks Up, the fact, that it had greater fizziness and was less sweet than Pepsi. To put in another way, it was a more ‘manly’ taste experience.

In a breakthrough series of TV commercials, Thums Up featured and celebrated action-driven men who would not settle for anything less than the fiery taste of Thums Up. These men of action would be shown as loyal fans of the brand who would go to any lengths to ‘Taste the Thunder’ of Thums Up. It is indeed the stroke of genius that has been the foundation of the brand’s success to this day.

In 1993, Coca-cola re-entered India after a gap of 16 years and the two cola market in India became a three cola market. Coca-cola made the mistake of assuming that the Indians were just waiting for it to be back! This was a complete misreading of the Indian market and of the strength of the Coke brand. Coke began indianizing its internationally successful commercials and introducing them in India, but it hardly connected with the Indian audiences. What they failed to realize was that the commercials, like the one which celebrated the unique shape fo the Coke bottle or the other where a young Afro-American enjoyed the Coke jingle tune and so on, were simply incomprehensible to the youth in India who had no recollection of the Coke brand. Worst of all, the line that Coca-cola was using – “Always Coca-cola” was particularly inappropriate for India, which was ‘never Coca-cola’ since 1977. Moreover, the prime targets of the Coke brand, the population in their sweet 16s was not even born when the brand was last available in India!

Coke continued to try different approaches, but it did not really manage to ‘own’ any properties. It used a host of celebrities – Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan and a number of punch lines ‘Jo chaho ho jaye’ and ‘Life ho to aisi’. But none fo these actually took root.

On the other side, Pepsi began adding cricketers. They used the idea that in India, it is basically the film starts and the cricketers who make up the iconic universe.

In the meanwhile, the Thums Up story continued, without the army of celebrities that Coke and Pepsi had, but with a bungee jump! A young man, who is part of a group, can’t get his Thums Up at the soft drink stall at the hill top which they all are visiting. But he will not settle for anything else, and so he throws himself off the edge of the cliff. He is a bungee-jumper and has merely done the jump to pick up the bottle from the truck passing below! Unfortunately for Coke and Pepsi, neither of them thought Thums Up could survive, while the two giants were fighting it out, this time on Indian soil. Pepsi and Coke kept ambushing each other’s campaigns and attacking each other. Finally, Coke ended up buying Thums Up. It is believed then that Coca-cola desperately tried to kill the brand Thums Up, but realized that Pepsi would benefit more from this move than Coke ever would. Coke officials strongly believed that the Thums Up brand had too much of traction, with the strong punch line of ‘taste the thunder’ and the fact that the Thums Up drinkers won’t change for anything at all.

Eventually rather than deny its evident traction, Coke decided to use Thums Up to attack Pepsi head on. This took the form of the next step in the legend of Thums Up. Thums Up used a reversal of the taste test that Pepsi had used in the US market in the 1980s to challenge Coke. In that Pepsi Challenge test, TV commercials showed people picked at random at public venues, who were given Coke and Pepsi in unmarked cups and then showed that more people preferred Pepsi over Coke. It had been a major initiative that had allowed Pepsi to close over the gap between Coke and itself in the US market.

In India in 2001, Thums Up challenged Pepsi. The beauty of the whole idea was that it didn’t just make the case that people preferred Thums Up over Pepsi, but it also tied this preference to a known characteristic of Thums Up, which was seen as fizzier and stronger in taste, Thums Up challenged the participants in the taste test to ‘Grow Up to Thums Up’ in effect repositioning Pepsi as the ‘sweet choice of kids’.

In many ways, this was the first step in staking out a unique owned turf for the brand, becoming the ‘man’ in a product category where other brands were trying to be teeny boppers. This attribute made Thums Up to be an extremely strong psychological motivator since it was highly desirable and aspirational. The communication strategy here was built on the sole premises and a common perception that strong tasting foods like strong tea or coffee, spicy foods, alcohol, etc are considered as a sign fo growing up. The strong taste of Thums Up made Pepsi sweeter in comparison. And since sweet things are meant for kids, a consumer was considered to be a kid if he preferred Pepsi. It exploited the fact that the youth hate being considered as ‘not grown up’! The brand also used Salman Khan and Sushmita Sen who were known for not being the sweet-pie cuties.

In one of the TVCs, a young boy comes to Sushmita Sen asking for her autograph, and he is stopped by her bodyguard, saying he drinks Pepsi. She smiles, gives the autograph and says, “Grow Up!”.

It was noted that this strategy paid rich dividends. The contribution to Thums Up from the 12-29 age group went up from 53.9% to 61% post the campaign. The preference for Thums Up went up by several percentage points, while the preference for Pepsi dropped, while Pepsi scores on parameters like ‘only for kids’ saw a shoot up.

Pepsi attempted to counter this with a spoof of th eThums Up commercial. They came up with a commercial with a lady (played by Cyrus Broacha) asking her overgrown son (also played by Cyrus Broacha) to have his ‘grown-up’ tonic (in a way suggesting that Thums Up is as bad as a medicine!). She wants him to act grown-up, but he sips on Pepsi, turns into a hip youngster and drives off with a bunch of young girls, as they all shout, “Yeh dil maange more!”. In the last frame of the TVC, even Amrish Puri refuses to ‘grow up!’, wearing a T-shirt with the message, “18 till I die!” . It was meant to suggest that Thums Up is meant for oldies, while Pepsi was for youngsters of all ages.

However, as there can be no smoke without fire, the denial of the accusation is taken to mean that there must have been some truth in the allegation! So Pepsi couldn’t strike much of a chord with these spoofs.

The second phase of this evolution of the brand Thums Up came in the form of extending the ‘grown up’ Thums Up to a higher level, which challenged the fans to show their manliness and macho, to show the stuff you were really made of. It was to establish that the Thums Up fan was not only grown up but was also unwilling to settle for any substitutes regardless of what popularity said. And Akshay Kumar, the Khiladi, became the perfect brand ambassador for this iconoclastic brand persona. Manly, fit, a man known to have courage to do his own stunts in films and a man that the public could actually believe insisted on the taste of thunder. Even in this next phase, Pepsi continued using cricketers and film stars, while Thums Up moved beyond the competitive stance to marking out a unique space for itself.

In 2006, Thums Up took the devotion of the brand to another level, with Akshay Kumar taking on even the natural elements to get his Thums Up. It has been several years now since Akshay has been associated with Thums Up and represents clearly the ‘will do anything for my taste of thunder’ brand loyalty.

Thus, the Thums Up magic has three aspects to it – the higher carbonation, the manliness of the brand’s personality and the loyalty and willingness of the Thums Up drinker to go to any lengths for his Thums Up.

With all its achievements behind it, Thums Up has shown that an agile contender can adapt, prosper and evolve even in an environment where the 800 pound gorillas play.

This article has been authored by Bhavi Patel from IRMA.


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