Sur na saje kya gaaun main,” sang the maestro and gentleman, the legendary Manna Dey, when he once handed me his visiting card. It read: “Manna Dey, HMV Artist”. Such was the power of the brand HMV in India.
The Gramophone Co. of India set up operations in Calcutta in 1901 as the first overseas branch of EMI (Electrical & Musical Industries Ltd), London. Nipper the dog, a fox terrier listening to a gramophone, inspired Francis Barraud to do a painting for the Gramophone Co., which was later integrated with His Master’s Voice to create one of the world’s favourite trademarks.
Its landmark studio is in Dum Dum, in what was once a Royal Air Force infirmary. The earliest recording, dated 2 November 1902, is of Gauhar Jaan, an Armenian, singing in raga Jogiya. Since there was no way to identify the singer, Jan mentions her name at the end of the recording, an early manner of establishing copyright. From Rabindranath Tagore to Noor Jehan, Kundan Lal Saigal and Raichand Boral, every great musician and singer graced HMV’s studios and voice boxes all over the country.
The studio created an environment to attract talent that made HMV a destination music brand. It has over 12,000 hours of music content.
Interestingly, Jawaharlal Nehru’s August 1947 Tryst with Destiny speech was recorded by HMV. If you listen carefully to the recording, you can hear the gentle swish of a fan placed above Panditji.
Kate Wilson, a patent lawyer from New Zealand, says, “Patents expire, copyrights run their course, but brands endure the passage of time.” Often, we consider consumer goods to have the pole position when it comes to brands, but there are great examples of brands in other categories that predate 1947. The story of Indian brands since independence is one of radically changing times and quiet endurance.
With the birth of a new country came many brands designed to cater to the indigenous needs of an emerging nation. Indian film was one such new space. Many brands were born in 1947, but Rajshri Productions, in particular, was born on 15 August 1947. From Tarachand Barjatya to Sooraj Barjatya, Rajshri scripted a journey from distribution to the production of some of our greatest hits, like Dosti and Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! Prabhat Film Co. in Pune and Kolhapur and B.N. Sircar’s New Theatres in Calcutta go back to 1929 and 1931, respectively. Dalsukh Pancholi’s Pancholi Studios of Lahore, AVM Productions and the Gemini Studios set up by S.S. Vasan in 1940 in Madras (now Chennai), all added up to quite a vibrant cast, alongside scriptwriters, lyricists, composers, cinematographers, technicians, singers, stars and directors.
Though understated in their presence, Warner Bros have been in India since the 1920s, and Blaise Fernandes, country manager and managing director, Warner Bros, continues to bring the best of their movies out of his office in Eros building in Mumbai.
I believe these were formidable brands in formidable times, simply because as they catered to new demands they began to be run like corporate firms.
AIR (All India Radio) too is a kilo-class brand. In 1947 it had six stations, now it has 277. It adopted its name Akashvani from a local private radio station in Mysore started by M.V. Gopalaswamy. Its first broadcast was in Pashto.
In 1946, Tata Airlines went public and became Air-India. In a galaxy of boutique brands, Air-India delivered an outstanding and unique consumer experience. In 1947, it was one of India’s first global brands and a superb one at that. The Maharajah, the Centaur logo, the ticket offices, the destinations, the brochures, ticket jackets, the billboards, the in-flight magazine, the people, their commitment, the food, the service and the joy of flying on the magic carpet where the cockpit and in-flight crew treated guests like royalty... They just got it right over and over again. The wonderful advertising by Thompson under the hawk eye of the legendary Bobby Kooka of Air-India just reinforced it (I refer to 1947, not 2012!).
Jaiwant Paul read economics at St Stephen’s College, played cricket for the University of Delhi and was the first Indian management trainee recruited by Hindustan Lever in 1949. His notes, neatly handwritten during his factory training stint in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, and Shamnagar in West Bengal, where Levers manufactured its main product Dalda, a Dutch brand reliveried for India, describe how the product was manufactured. It was then mandatory for a marketing trainee to know the ingredients and production process before he learnt how to market and sell it. When hydrogenated vegetable oil was to replace milk-based desi ghee, the move was from fats based on lactose to lipids. Levers was introducing a cooking medium that could be mass-produced in factories, and it had a significant margarine business in Europe. At the time it was an important addition to the marketplace since India was milk-deficient and edible oils were essential.
Cyclostyled copies of the sales and promotion manuals of the time can be found in neat files in the Jorhat, Assam, distributor’s shop. They detail how demonstration carts would be set up outside the halwai (sweet) shops, with stove, kadai (wok) and ingredients to make puris and samosas, all to be cooked in Dalda in the presence of a crowd and then fed to them hot off the fire. The manual came with recipe books by master chefs of the time like Thangam Philip. In Raj and Co., there are old black and white pictures of Amar Chand Dhir, the Levers and ITC distributor in Jorhat, wearing ghungroos and dancing around the cart to get people to try freshly fried samosa s cooked in Dalda.
It wasn’t only nifty advertising and smart media buying that created brands like these, there was a detailed, integrated programme which included a robust go-to market and a strong trial-inducing activity. It was also all personal, and uniquely Indian.
There was variety and the supply chain was long but smooth. Children were given Waterbury’s Compound (made by Lambert Pharmacal Co. Ltd in New Zealand) and Farex, which came from Glaxo New Zealand. Lifebuoy, Pears, Lux and Rexona sold alongside Sunlight Soap laundry wash.
Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the maharaja of Mysore, established the Government Soap Factory in Bangalore in 1916. It started manufacturing soaps under the brand name Mysore Sandal Soap, using sandalwood oil as the main ingredient. A factory to distil sandalwood oil from the wood was set up in Mysore in the same year. The brand continues to have a strong franchise.
Kolynos toothpaste gave Colgate a reasonable fight and the latter sold tooth powder in tins to introduce contemporary oral care to new consumers. Women used Vaseline, Hazeline Snow, Afghan Snow and Charmis cream in winter with Cuticura or Himalaya Bouquet talcum powder. Max Factor and Old Spice were available, and for men who sported the Clark Gable look, there was Brylcreem.
And around the country, stores carried Simco wax for the local Sikh gentry, and for those who shaved themselves instead of going to the nai (barber), there were Erasmic blades.
Lipton Green Label was a much cherished premium tea brand and then there was Brooke Bond Red Label, with a wonderful line: “All good mornings start with Red Label.” Marketers were consummate artistes who knew how to infuse romance into tea. They tapped into the speciality of the tea gardens, the weather, and the care they took to fill your teacup with joy as they built brands.
There were, of course, Duckback raincoats and Bengal Potteries for your china. India was a market open to global products; cars like Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Sunbeam Talbots and Studebakers were on the roads.
Then there were regionally strong brands. Madras hosted some great brands. The tradition of reading the The Hindu (first published in 1878); drinking Narasu’s filter coffee (Sri Narasu Coffee Co. was established in 1926 in Johnsonpet Salem), and serving Horlicks in steel tumblers. Chennai continues to be one of the largest Horlicks markets in the world. Add to this brands like Parrys and Binnys from the Buckingham Carnatic Mills, Chennai’s special bookshop that continues—Higginbotham’s—and the Spencer’s International Hotels, in Connemara, West End and Savoy.
Bombay boasted of The Taj Mahal Hotel (now The Taj Mahal Palace hotel) and Duke and Sons, which had bottled great fruit juices and soft drinks since 1899—their lemonade, Mangola and ginger ale are to die for even today.
Calcutta had its movie halls Metro Cinema and New Empire, restaurants like Firpos, canned sweets from KC Das, and Delhi its marquee brand Rooh Afza.
Finally, in these painful times, there is a brand which has been with us since the republic was formed: Iodex. The tag line continues to be relevant and an inspirational rallying cry every morning, “Iodex maliye, kaam pe chaliye (Apply Iodex, get to work)”. It would be useful to stock up for the next 65 years, we might need it.
Subroto Chattopadhyay is chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, where he incubates start-ups. He has worked with Brooke Bond, ITC and Pepsico South Asia, where he was an executive director. He is the former chairman of the Audit Bureau of Circulation and the Indian Music Industry.
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