Illustration: Yash Negi | ThePrint
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If you’re a ’90s kid, chances are the tagline “Bade kaam ki cheez” (which roughly translates to “pretty damn useful”) rings a bell. If you need another clue, a turtle is able to fly after blowing a bubble of chewing gum. That’s right, it’s Big Babol.

At one point, the fruity gum had Indian kids everywhere trying to blow a bigger bubble than their friend. Couple this with the tagline and you have a cheeky advertising campaign that showed kids how a bubble could save them from trouble or be used to their advantage. The point wasn’t to just show how blowing bubbles was fun — kids already knew that. It was to make it look cool and useful, even among the older adolescents. And that message carried on even into the new millennium.

Take the famous animated commercial from the early 2000s that starred a turtle who, after being adopted by a bird, blows out a big pink bubble in order to fly like its winged siblings. With lyrics and narration by marketing pro Prasoon Joshi, the ad was weird and wacky and successfully glorified the bubble.

The next year saw a commercial in which a little boy takes revenge on a crow. The crow, perched on a tree, targets its droppings on the boy, after which the boy blows a bubble that allows him to rise mid-air and squirt toothpaste on the crow. It was again a wacky way to make something as mundane as bubblegum akin to a superpower. And what kid doesn’t want superpowers?

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The struggle to stay relevant

Big Babol, an obvious play on the words “big bubble”, was the brainchild of Italian company, Perfetti Van Melle, which also owned popular candies like Alpenliebe, Centre Fresh, Centre Shock, Fruittella, Happydent and more. The soft gum rose to regional prominence not only in Italy, but India, Turkey, Russia, China, Indonesia and Vietnam too.

Its story in India starts in 1997. According to Rohit Kapoor, the marketing director at Perfetti Van Melle India (PVMI), the product started making in-roads in India with a simple packaging idea — plastic jars. Kapoor tells ThePrint, “It allowed the shopkeepers and even the smallest of kirana stores to display the product at the front of the counter. Though it sounds simple, you have to remember that the confectionery wholesale trade was really disorganised at the time and this move was key to make Big Babol accessible,” Before this, the company was selling and distributing the bubblegum in cardboard boxes.

It was clear that for a target audience of pre-teens and teenagers, the brand would have to continue rebranding to stay relevant. First, with the turn of the century, PVMI came out with a special edition called Big Babol 2000, which was a coated, liquid-filled gum. In 2003, it had a big relaunch and made the product longer in size and more conducive to blowing big bubbles.

Around the mid-2000s, the company started to include gifts in its packaging, such as  temporary tattoos and buildable WWE tazo cards. “These made the product even more interactive and a very critical brand in PVMI’s portfolio. Kids couldn’t get enough of it,” recalls Kapoor. It is a common strategy used by brands to incentivise younger audiences. Think of why a McDonald’s Happy Meal is so popular — it’s the toy.

In 2012, the brand decided to experiment with the product’s texture. It came out with an edition called Filly Folly, a fluffy cotton candy that, when eaten, turns to gum. “We had to keep coming up with ways to keep the product interesting,” adds Kapoor.

Internal and external competition

In the early 2000s, PVMI had introduced Centre Fruit, a liquid-filled chewing gum. It was a time when the confectionery market slowly started to shift towards these kinds of value-add candies as they were perceived to be more flavoursome. Soon, Centre Fruit and Centre Fresh, which later made a comeback, raced ahead, leaving Big Babol behind. “We tried to introduce a liquid-filled edition called Big Babol Sploosh, but it was still no match,” tells Kapoor.

Slowly, the beloved bubblegum’s national presence started to shrink to a few strongholds in the East of India, primarily in West Bengal, Odisha and the northeastern states. Its South India competitor, Boomer, also faced the same fate and now relies on a diminishing base of loyal customers, largely in Tamil Nadu.

When asked why Big Babol didn’t opt for a character logo like Boomer’s Boomer Man, Kapoor said the brand had consciously tried not to copy its competitor. “We also didn’t want the bubblegum to seem too ‘kiddie’ for the older kids. Going caricature-less was safer and didn’t limit our target group,” he explains.

It was a good idea in theory, but in the last six to seven years, Big Babol has had its bubble burst, with liquid-filled competitors racing ahead. However, the brand’s iconic ads with smart alec protagonists and quirky messages are hard to forget.

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