The year was 1988. Yes, exactly 30 years ago. I was then an account executive at HTA Delhi, just assigned to the Horlicks account. Being put on to the Horlicks business was actually very prestigious: It was HTA’s single largest brand by billings and only the very best of the agency’s executives were privileged to work on it.
Horlicks was, and always has been, a Bengal and Tamil Nadu brand, with infinite reservoirs of consumer goodwill built over more than 100 years: the “great nourisher" to many generations of die-hards.
My first learning on Horlicks was how it is a brand with good “karma". A brand that prospered, and topped consumer preferences through thick and thin. If the monsoon was good (since monsoon determined the state of the economy), families would buy Horlicks for health and happiness. If it was a drought year, families would have little money, but they would save and scrounge to buy Horlicks so that at least the man of the house would be healthy and be able to look after the welfare of the family. Horlicks was part of everyday life. An intrinsic part of the family. Loved. Trusted.
The relationship that mothers have with Horlicks can be best understood through a never-to-forget episode that I was part of. In a TV commercial that we made, the young son plonked a half-finished glass of Horlicks and ran out to catch his school bus. The brand team was inundated by furious complaints from mothers all over the country. How could we dare to show a glass of Horlicks unfinished? Half consumed? This would send out the wrong signal to kids. Their nutrition would suffer. Mothers were angry—very, very angry. We had to re-shoot and re-edit the film. The son was called back by the mom to finish his Horlicks and then ran to the school bus. The housewife, the “every mom", had her say in what the brand would communicate.
The purchase of Horlicks by Unilever signals the end of an era. Horlicks has lived the daily life of millions of Indian families as a trusted friend. The keeper of the well-being of the entire family.
From Moonmoon Sen who played a cameo role in the brand’s commercial in the ’70s and ’80s, to the endearing chubby schoolboy who made a virtue out of the sogginess of Horlicks settled at the bottom of the glass with his famous line: “Mummy to pilati hai, main to aise hi khata hoon," spooning the sedimented Horlicks into his mouth.
Some of India’s most famous advertising of the ’60s to the ’80s came from Horlicks. What would the Horlicks mom wear? How old should she be? What kind of a house is a Horlicks house? Horlicks in a glass or mug? Show the entire family or just the growing kids? Horlicks was the first brand in India to use quantitative and qualitative research. New diversifications and variants have not really taken off for Horlicks. A product for Juniors. A chocolate Horlicks. A Horlicks for moms. Horlicks biscuits. Nothing ever came close to the original.
As a Lever brand, Horlicks can look forward to some interesting times. Maybe the new owners will try to contemporise the brand. Make it more national, too. But Horlicks is an old brand. As I said, loved and trusted. Sometimes that can become a roadblock to change. Consumers like it just as it is. They don’t want it to change, because the brand is part of their childhood and growing up years. And they want that preserved. So the brand owners may be new. The brand story need not be.
An adman, Sandeep Goyal is promoter of mobile marketing firm Mogae Media, and former chairman and joint venture partner of Dentsu in India.