TO ENTER THE overcrowded market of fizzy drinks, dominated by the behemoths Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, might appear at first a reckless exercise. But with its acquisition of the Campa brand from the Pure Drinks group, Reliance Industries’ foray into the cola business will have something unique mixed into its fizzy drink—nostalgia.
The soft drink, Campa Cola, will be a familiar taste to many who came of age in a simpler, less affluent India. Born during India’s protectionist era, Campa Cola emerged along with a number of soft drinks to fill the void left behind by Coca-Cola once it was evicted from India in 1977 for refusing to divulge the secret formula behind Coke.
But unlike others such as Double Seven, the sarkari cola which was produced by the government-owned Modern Food Industries and which wasn’t really very good, with some smart marketing campaigns and a better tasting product, Campa Cola and Thums Up came to dominate the market through the late ’70s and ’80s.
If Thums Up had a unique taste, which has been described as a fizzy drink with a masala taste, holding a Campa Cola felt like holding a Coke. Its taste, logo and bottle were near identical. In fact, Coca-Cola would sue Pure Drinks upon its return in the 1990s, with the latter agreeing to redesign its bottle in an out-of-court settlement. Despite its likeness to Coca-Cola, it was probably its attempt to stress upon its desi roots when it came up with the marketing slogan: ‘The Great Indian Taste’. Soon, orange and lemon variants of Campa Cola followed. Sipping a Campa Cola through a colourful straw was of course not just about quenching your thirst. In a less affluent period, with its middle class yet to come of age, it was equally an aspiration.
Pure Drinks started by being Coca-Cola’s local bottling partner in 1949. Its founder, Charanjit Singh, who was a prominent supporter of Congress and who also built the Le Meridien hotel in Delhi, was one of the most vociferous critics when Janata Party, once it came to power at the Centre, evicted Coca-Cola from India. About a decade-and-a-half later, Singh would join other Indian beverage companies to try to keep PepsiCo at bay.
But once PepsiCo and Coca-Cola entered the market, where Thums Up held up more than its own against the two, with it eventually being purchased by Coca-Cola and continuing to remain India’s most popular cola drink so many decades later, Campa Cola’s decline was swift. Pure Drinks tried to revive the brand several times, even as recently as 2019, but did not have the financial might to take on PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.
So, will Campa Cola be able to take on the two now, or at least find its own niche? The drink will no doubt benefit from Reliance’s deep pockets. But it will also benefit from the company’s rapidly growing retail network. Reliance Retail, now headed by Isha Ambani, is trying to revitalise its FMCG business. It is rapidly adding to its already vast chain of grocery stores (according to reports, it has launched over 2,500 stores this year already, and its total store count now stands at over 15,000), apart from selling through the grocery platform JioMart. According to reports, Reliance plans to launch three versions of Campa Cola, its iconic cola, along with lemon and orange flavours, through its stores, JioMart and also over 15 lakh kiranas who buy products from its business-to-business network around this Diwali.
Much has of course changed in the cola business. From the sizes of its bottles, the marketing strategies and campaigns, to the larger conversations about the dangers of consuming sugary drinks.
But the company will be banking on Campa Cola’s brand recall. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion in branding. Every few years, an old film is remade; an iconic ad is reworked; old photographs are shared on Facebook; or even old shows, like the Mahabharat and Ramayan during the lockdown, return on TV. Just the simple act of sipping a drink from a colourful straw out of a familiar bottle can transport its consumer into a distant, simpler era. It does not always work. But nostalgia remains a powerful emotion.