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Why success could be a problem for Indian cola

Opinion, 14 July 2017
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Anvar Alikhan takes a look at the brand that’s something of an embarrassment to Coca-Cola in India - even though the global giant owns it.

It's a brand that's so successful that it's said to be a bit of an embarrassment for the company that makes it. The company is Coca-Cola India, and the brand is its locally formulated Thums Up, which is India's number one cola – while the company's global brand, Coke, is number three in the market, trailing behind Pepsi which is at number two. And, no matter what the Coca-Cola Company has tried to do over the past quarter of a century, it hasn't been able to alter those market positions.

Thums Up is a unique case. The brand goes back to the 1970s, when a new socialist government expelled Coca-Cola from the Indian market, and a local company, Parle Agro, stepped into the gap with Thums Up, a cola specially formulated for the Indian palate, with a peppery taste, and an extra charge of fizz. The product, which they'd been tinkering with for years, became a market leader.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s. With a change in government policy, Pepsi was poised to enter the Indian market, to be followed by Coke and, given this onslaught, pundits predicted the demise of Thums Up. But Thums Up's management were a lot smarter than the competition thought. They waged a clever guerrilla marketing war against Pepsi by carefully studying its global playbook, and pre-empting its moves. As a result, by the time the bubbles settled, Pepsi emerged as number two in the market, but Thums Up was number one, having positioned itself as 'the stronger cola, with a more adult taste', expressed by the slogan 'Taste the thunder'.

Then in 1993, Coca-Cola entered the Indian market. And, in what appeared to be a strategic masterstroke, it soon bought out Parle, with its range of soft drink brands, to go up against Pepsi – the market conjecture being that, once it established itself, it would shed the Parle brands. But Pepsi, with its first-mover advantage, and the strong brand it had created, was a formidable competitor. The Coke brand couldn't make much headway against it, despite all the resources that were thrown behind it. Thums Up, on the other hand, with the minimal backing it got, was far more successful. This must have been a sobering lesson for Coca-Cola's management. In fact, there's a theory that the Coca-Cola company has been trying to sacrifice Thums Up to build up the Coke brand – an allegation that Coca-Cola, of course, denies.

Today, India is a unique three-player cola market: Thums Up, with a 16.6% share; Pepsi with 13%; and Coke with perhaps less than 10%. So how has Thums Up managed to buck the global trend so significantly?

First, it's a home-grown flavour that resonates with the Indian palate (and tastes good even when the drink isn't chilled – an obvious advantage). Moreover, the Thums Up brand has done a great job of leveraging its 'stronger, more powerful' taste story into the emotional dimension of a stronger, more driven personality – presented by a series of Bollywood action heroes, who are shown going the extra mile for their drink's unique taste. And, while the campaign has been freshened over the years, it has remained rooted in its 'Toofani' ('Stormy') positioning. Thus, the original product-centric message of 'Toofani thanda' ('A storm of refreshment') has been externalised through expressions that range from 'Chalo kuchh toofani karte hain' ('Come on, let's do something really stormy') through to its current slogan 'Main hoon toofani' ('I am the storm'). It's a classic case study in brand management.

But the other, rather uncomfortable, lesson we learn from the Thums Up case is how multinational corporations sometimes get it wrong. Pepsi did things according to its global playbook, which enabled Thums Up to anticipate its moves and attack them accordingly. Coke, meanwhile, misread the Indian market, committed the sin of hubris, and has been too weighed down by its global baggage, and has had to pay a heavy price.

While the Thums Up brand has done extraordinarily well over the years, its dream run could now be coming to an end, because the carbonated soft drinks category is falling out of favour with the Indian consumer, who is becoming increasingly health conscious. Thums Up may continue to be India's number one cola, but it's likely to be number one in an ever-smaller market. Given its powerful brand equity, it might be interesting to now look at what other categories the brand could be extended to.

About the author

Anvar Alikhan is Senior VP & strategy consultant at JWT, India. He is also a columnist and guest faculty at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.

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