At 40, brand Thums Up feisty as ever, despite its roller-coaster journey

It’s been a roller coaster ride for the past 40 years and, despite the onslaught of international cola brands like Coke and Pepsi, this local power house created by Ramesh Chauhan still reigns supreme as the largest cola brand in the country -- behind only Sprite as the largest carbonated beverage brand in the country.

Welcome to the world of Thums Up, an over Rs 45 billion brand, whose story in many ways resembles a Bollywood blockbuster replete with all the melodramatic twists and turns. The brand in the 90s was bang in the middle of an all-out bidding war between the two global giants Coke and Pepsi. Coca Cola won but its future was under serious threat when its new owners reduced support (the rumour that has refused to die is that the multinational owners wanted to kill it) in order to nurture their own brand. But it all came to nought because the customer kept coming back for more.

And now a fresh attempt is being made by Coke to reposition the brand through its first ever variant Thums Up Charged, which is powered by more caffeine, equivalent to that of the sports beverages available in the market. It is, as Coke says, meant to bring in “extra Thunder “and more choice. Ramesh Chauhan of course thinks it’s a big mistake to dilute the taste of a brand that has withstood the test of time.

But it all began in 1977 when Chauhan who used to bottle and sell Limca and Gold Spot grabbed an opportunity left behind by Coke’s decision to move out of India. Chauhan’s brands were not small, with Limca’s volumes pretty close to that of Coke. With the Morarji Desai government in power, Coke was asked to divest its stake to Indian partners, but fearful of losing its secret formula to make colas, it preferred to close shop. Thums Up filled the gap in the cola market making Parle group the largest company in the business. The Desai government through state-owned Modern Food Industries made a weak attempt to get into the market with Double Seven but that petered out. And despite PepsiCo coming to India in 1988-89, Chauhan was able to retain the numero uno slot with over 60 per cent of the cola market.  

Ranveer Singh in Thums Up advertisement
So what has made Thums Up tick? In the initial stages the position of the brand was all about happiness through the first campaign ‘Happy Days are here again’. It was primarily meant to connect with consumers looking for an alternative to Coke.

But after a few years Chauhan decided to reposition the brand because of its stronger spicy taste amongst colas.  He says it was clearly differentiated from other colas in the market.  “It was meant to be macho, basically for men, with a strong taste and we were amongst the first who used cricket stars to endorse the product. At that time, we did not see any movie star who had the macho image.”

The endorsement list was full of cricketing greats including Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri. Chauhan says, they spent over 20 per cent of their revenues on advertising. Even the name Thums Up was carefully picked from the many alternatives by none other than Ravi Gupta who used to run Trikaya Grey.

In many ways Thums Up was ahead of its times. A former Coca Cola executive says that in the 80s it was one of the rare brands to depict women in swim suits riding on water scooters to exemplify fun and happiness.  It ran a campaign with bungee jumping as the core theme when this adventure sport was not popular.  

But the brand was to face its biggest challenge in 1993 when Coke decided to re-enter India. Chauhan realized that it was time to cash out rather than take on two global giants. Though he was reluctant to let go, he did what he could do best: get both Coke and Pepsi on the negotiating table. Edward Neville Isdell, former chairman of Coke in an interview to Business Standard earlier said that they won because they paid more. Ramesh Chauhan who had a larger than life image of course had a problem with the whole deal because he knew that he wouldn’t be in the spotlight anymore and he and his wife sobbed at the contract signing in Atlanta.

The sale gave Coke over a 50 per cent market share at one go, yet there was a dispute within the US company on the future course of action. Jaydev Raja, the first CEO of Coke believed that it should be nurtured as much as Coke though the Indian media attacked him for killing the desi brand. And Raja’s boss Douglas Daft, who was then in charge of Asia accused him of being soft on Coke and believed that Thums Up did not have a future.

He was not the only one thinking this way; Sergio Zyman, the father of the new Coke, who retired in 1993 as chief marketing officer was also lukewarm about Thums Up, said Isdell in his book, Inside Coca-Cola. Raja resigned, yet it was soon very clear that it would be suicidal to kill a brand that had such a strong hold over the cola market. Coke had no choice but to change tack.  

The advertising strategy went through some subtle shifts from being a “macho drink for men” to focus on “masculinity” as an attribute without the gender bias. That is because as much as 40 per cent of the consumers who drink Thums Up are women, though the campaigns were always male centric. But says a former Coke executive: “The attempt was always not to alienate women so for instance, while Salman Khan was the key in a series of ads, there were also actresses Sushmita Sen and Bipasha Basu in others.”

Also one reason why film stars with a masculine image like Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar were brought in to endorse the product was their large female fan following. In its new variant Thums Up Charged, Coke is again making an attempt to expand its market by offering consumers more choices. The jury is out of course on whether this will keep the thunder going for the brand loyalists. 


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