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Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Campa Cola and the power of nostalgia

An old dying brand is coming back to take on the rivals that had forced it into a slow death. Reliance Industries has bought Campa Cola, and it seems it will be a major piece of its unfolding FMCG strategy. It's not for nothing that Reliance has chosen an old brand to take on the biggies, Coca Cola and Pepsi. Campa Cola is not just a soft drink. It is a piece of India's political and cultural history. Will Reliance be able to beat Coca Cola and Pepsi with the power of nostalgia?

The political-economy of Campa Cola

Pure Drinks Group, the owner of Campa Cola, was in fact the company that manufactured and distributed Coca Cola right from 1949. Campa Cola was born as a replacement of Coca Cola when the American company was ousted from India by George Fernandes, the maverick industries minister of the Janata Party government that came to power in 1977 right after the Emergency.

Though Campa Cola was an imitation of a foreign brand, it was seen, along with other soft drinks such as Thums Up that flourished after Coca Cola's exit, as a native product. The punchline "The taste of India" in the Campa Cola ad left little to doubt. Campa Cola's decline started in the early nineties when Coca Cola and Pepsi were back in an India smitten with liberalisation and all that came with it, especially foreign brands and investment. Now when India rides a wave of native triumphalism and the government is zealously promoting policies such as Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat, Campa Cola might prove to be an eloquent brand.

Why is Reliance betting on a dying brand?

In a market crowded with brands, it's easier to start with a brand with recall than creating a new one from scratch. Though Campa Cola lacks the personality of Thums Up which has a unique spicy taste, it does enjoy a strong recall.

Another reason is the power of nostalgia. You can never underestimate the emotional pull of the good old days, especially in times when complexities and uncertainties abound.

When you can often be unsure if a new product really does exactly what it says on the tin, old things look simple, reliable and fun—like elder siblings and parents when you are in the rough. That's why nostalgia has become a quite effective marketing strategy in recent times. The world is warming; there's pesticide in food; you don't know how much the vaccine really works; and there are hidden costs and fine prints everywhere. In such times, the old world looks assuring to many—especially when recreated in ad campaigns where it loses all its sharp edges.

Nostalgia marketing

Reliance is not the first company to hope to bank on nostalgia in recent times. Founders of ethnic drinks brand Paper Boat, who had worked in Coca Cola, did not find the magic formula for their entrepreneurial success in the brutal cut and thrust of cola wars between Coke and Pepsi but in desi nostalgia. Aam panna and jal jeera, the two of Paper Boat's key products, ride on the longing for good times going back to one's childhood as well as the trust home-made ethnic drinks evoke.

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One of the Paper Boat founders had told Mint that brands like Paper Boat did well because they tapped into something deep in the consumer’s psyche—while materially Indians were improving a lot, somewhere there was a longing for simpler times.

Many brands have tried nostalgia, and found it works. Parle-G, the 80-year-old biscuit brand featuring the iconic Parle girl, tweaked its advertising strategy a few years ago to talk to millennials and highlight the immense nostalgia associated with it.

Nearly two years ago, to leverage the ’90s nostalgia, Pepsico recuperated Fido Dido, the tall, slim and curly haired cartoon man, the face of PepsiCo-owned lemon drink 7UP when it debuted in India. Fido Dido made a comeback through a summer ad campaign “Back to Cool".

Last year, Burger King got itself a new logo. Well, a new old logo. It replaced the logo it designed in 1999 with the one it originally had, without the artificial-looking blue swish and with the original, more rounded typeface that mimics its products evocatively.

The brand that came back from the dead

Nothing illustrates the selling power of nostalgia as well as the story of the comeback of Converse. Founded in 1908, Converse had created its iconic All Stars basketball sneakers in 1918. This product had exclusive partnership with the National Basketball Association, remained the official shoe of the Olympic Games for decades, and was the favourite of Kurt Cobain.

A little less than a century later, after the company had gone through many ups and downs and finally a bankruptcy, Nike bought it and revived the brand back to a cult item. In an age when shoe brands compete in designing high-tech springs and cushions and creating smarter ergonomics, Converse, still a basic basketball shoe, sells pure nostalgia. Even though it too has started using the new technology now, that's not why it appeals to so many people.

Does nostalgia work always?

For a brand to ride on nostalgia, it needs to have a unique personality—think of Paper Boat with its aam panna and jal-jeera and Thums Up with its spicey taste, or even Gold Spot that acquired a glamourous aura due to its stylish ad campaigns.

Campa Cola can be described as primarily a quick and convenient replacement of Coca Cola when the American company was made to leave India. And when Coca Cola came back, Campa Cola lost its fizz in the face of competition.

Yet, in Campa Cola, Reliance has found an important cultural artifact of the '80s India—and a swadeshi icon, if you will. How much of that helps Reliance in its challenge to multinational cola giants remains to be seen.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Amit Kapoor & Bibek Debroy write on how to make India better at competitiveness. Was Gorbachev a traitor, misfit or Soviet visionary? Sreeram Chaulia answers. Anurag Beher argues the state can run schools well. Long Story tells how the frustrating IBC process is driving away investors and funds.

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