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Thums Up — Legendary Indian cola that beverage giant Coca-Cola tried to ‘kill’

Thums Up was bought by The Coca-Cola Company from Parle in 1993. It was widely believed that this acquisition was a way to diminish any competition Coke faced.

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New Delhi: Sometime in the summer of 1994, lovers of Thums Up, the popular cola brand in India, were in for a rude surprise. Their favourite drink had inconspicuously disappeared from the stores near them.

Sunita Tulsiani, 65, told ThePrint, “We had to switch to Pepsi in the absence of Thums Up. I remember how my then 14-year-old son used to crave Thums Up. But we didn’t know where to get it from.”

There were rumours that Tulsiani’s favourite drink was being edged out of the market by the very company that owned it. “Everyone said the firm was going to eliminate the very-loved beverage,” she added.

Thums Up was launched in the Indian market in 1977 under Ramesh Chauhan’s Parle group. In 1993, the brand was acquired by The Coca-Cola Company.

For a long time, it was believed that this was just a way for The Coca-Cola Company to ‘kill’ Thums Up and diminish any competition that Coke faced.

While Coca-Cola has repeatedly denied this allegation, marketing gurus of the time believed that the company was indeed up to something suspicious. The successful removal of other carbonated drinks such as Goldspot and Citra (both initially owned by the Parle group) from the market had not helped the company’s case.

Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and former executive vice president at PepsiCo India, gave an explanation for this. “The feeling among people was that being an international company, Coca-Cola’s focus would be more on its global brands like Fanta, Sprite and of course Coke, and other drinks in the Indian market will phase out gradually,” he told ThePrint.

But Indians didn’t let go of their favourite Thums Up, which continues to be the leader in the country even today, with 42% market share. Such has been the romance with Thums Up that a hill in Maharashtra has been named after the drink.

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‘Attempted murder’ of Thums Up

The Coca-Cola Company had left India in 1977 when the then Indian government asked it to not just transfer 60 per cent of the shares of its Indian firm — according to what was then the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act — but also reveal the formula for its secret recipe to Indian shareholders. The company only returned to India post liberalisation, in 1993.

At this point in time, Thums Up was the leading product in Indian markets. Chauhan, of Parle group, was the mastermind behind Thums Up’s formulation, and he had very strategically placed the drink in markets to fill the void left by Coke and other colas exiting India.

One of the strongest points of this homegrown drink was also its tagline, ‘Taste the Thunder’, and its appeal of being an Indian cola brand.

“Taste the Thunder is India’s longest running national campaign even today,” said Ashok Kurien, whose agency Ambience Advertising had come up with the text.

When Coca-Cola re-entered the Indian market, one of the ways in which it tried to displace Thums Up with Coke was by ‘poaching the franchise bottlers’ of Parle that owned Thums Up. Parle had been working on an agreement basis with bottle manufacturers across the country.

When Coca-Cola went around buying those units, Parle did not have bottles to actually pack its drink in and sell. Chauhan finally sold off the beverage arm of Parle to Coca-Cola for $40 million.

After Coca-Cola acquired Thums Up, the drink nearly stopped being available in the market. It was also not being advertised or marketed anywhere. But Coca-Cola’s strategy backfired, since people started buying Pepsi instead of Coke. The company realised that by ‘killing’ Thums Up, it had served the market share to Pepsi.

“Let rumour be rumour. No truth that we tried to kill Thums Up or any other drink,” Deepak Jolly, a Coca-Cola communication executive, told ThePrint.

Coca-Cola had about 60.5 per cent share of the Indian soft-drink market in the 1990s but soon understood that if it removed Thums Up, it would be left with merely 28.7 per cent of the market share. Hence Thums Up was re-launched in 1997.

“Initially Coca-Cola’s focus was on their mainstream brands, but soon after a few years, they realised that there was a lot of equity with Thums Up, Limca, and other Indian brands. And they decided to stabilise the production of these, to go after their major competition Pepsi,” Matthias added.

The other Indian beverages acquired by Coca-Cola, however, did not survive the onslaught. Citra and Goldspot were relinquished from the market by the 2000s as they were competing with the likes of Fanta and Sprite, the global brands owned and prioritised by Coca-Cola. However, Limca was retained after Coca-Cola realised that the demand for it was high in the early 2000s. In 2012, Coca-Cola had also brought back Citra for rural areas.

Appeal of Thums Up

One of the reasons why Thums Up was an instant hit is because it gave more quantity for less price.

Vijay Sharma, director at Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, recalled, “Thums Up was the first drink to launch large-size bottles (300 ml as against 250 ml prevalent at that time) called ‘maha cola’ which added to its appeal as a thirst quenching summer beverage. I also remember cricketers Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan advertising together for Thums Up in sports magazines, two sportsmen of different nations promoting the same product, a rare scene in today’s time.”

Drinking Thums Up was also seen as an assertion of masculinity, strength and the fact that anyone drinking it was a grown-up and to be taken seriously. Advertisements for Thums Up featured actors like Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan and Mahesh Babu as its brand ambassadors. They were shown to prefer the beverage over any other for its “new code of masculinity”.

One of other reasons why Thums Up sustained in the Indian market was also the rise in demand for homegrown products post-liberalisation.

Anupam Roongta, a Jaipur-based investor and trainer, said, “I believe lots of factors were at play together in making Thums Up what it is — ambassadors, easy availability, and most importantly taste. Once people get used to a certain taste, it’s not easy to overpower that with any other product. Maggi is another such example. No matter how many other products came, be it healthy or of any other taste, since the customers are used to the taste of Maggi, it is just unstoppable.”

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