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Thursday, Oct 07, 2004

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Ramesh Narayan

Though the ad copy needs review,the efforts to popularise Indiantea by the Tea Boardare commendable.

TEA has a certain romanticism attached to it. Not just in the amber liquid that has become very much a part of our daily lives, but in the imagery that it manages to conjure up, without half trying.

To me there is an entire kaleidoscope of images. Sleek schooners, heavy with wooden tea chests, their sails pregnant with the westerly wind racing from Bombay harbour to meet the tea auctions in England.

Then again, the miles of tea gardens in Assam and Bengal where tigers stalked pretty young tea pickers till sahibs hunted them (the tigers, I mean) to near extinction. And, of course, the misty blue mountains of Ootacamund where the slopes were filled with rich Nilgiri tea leaves waiting to be plucked and cured at estates that bore exotic names like Nonsuch.

The British decided in their wisdom that large swathes of rich forest land should be cut, the timber from this unplanned felling sent to England, and the little tea shrub be planted over all these pretty slopes to feed the growing demand for the precious liquid all over the UK and the Continent.

In the bargain they set in motion a tea-drinking habit that was to establish the beverage as truly indigenous in our very psyche. Chai is more Indian today that anything else and wakes up millions of Indians daily.

Individual brands have long vied for the affections of the Indian consumer. The most popular and enduring campaign for a branded tea is probably that for Taj Mahal tea with the charismatic tabla maestro Zakir Hussain tossing his curly mop of hair and saying, "Wah Taj!" I guess the advertiser and the agency pushed the campaign a little too far with a promotion that had the maestro promising to give up his tablas, but one can always excuse an aberration. The ubiquitous Brooke Bond Red Label Chai became a common sight on household shelves across the country.

Several innovations such as the one Green Label launched to position a kadak chai, and the efforts of JWT to popularise the Three Roses brand in coffee-drinking South India come to mind immediately.

The point everyone got early in the game was that tea in India could be divided into the very mild Darjeeling tea that is sometimes preferred without milk, the robust Assam tea and "medium" Nilgiri tea. Positioning this was another matter.

There were some regional players too. Runglee Rungliot promised a most exclusive tea-tasting experience and Society in Maharashtra made very hummable tunes to go with their commercials.

Yet, internationally, Indian tea didn't seem to get the importance it deserved. Most of the brands sold in the US and the UK freely used the term Darjeeling but it needed the concerted efforts of the Tea Board to firstly brand Darjeeling tea and then specify that a tea cannot be called "Darjeeling" unless it contained a specific amount of real Darjeeling tea in its blend.

Today all three Indian teas, Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri, are individually branded and one now notices a mother brand for Indian tea. The graphic of a tea picker with a basket slung across her back has a line below that reads "India Tea. World's Gold Standard."

One recalls Ian Batey ranking Tetley (now owned by Tata Tea) as one of the brands that had the potential to make it to the list of global Asian power brands.

Along with the product, I guess `Indian Tea' has similar potential to become a global brand. It comes packaged with the nostalgia, the romance, the historic perspective and the glamour to really make it big worldwide.

Swiss chocolate has built up a tremendous equity and exploited it well. You think of Toblerone or Lindt only after you have spied `Swiss Chocolate.' French perfume had a similar aura. It was Dior or Chanel only secondarily. The French tag had the primary brand pull.

India has several generic products that could be branded with the `India' label. Coir, spices, khadi, and coffee are just a few examples.

One noticed a full-page advertisement released by the Tea Board in India. The visual was a top shot of a cup of black tea looking very inviting in a gold-tipped cup and saucer. (Lalooji would have something to say about the crockery, but one can happily ignore him for the time being.) A slice of lime with a sprig of mint floated lazily on the surface of the tea.

"Pour yourself a cup of good health," read the headline. I was very impressed. I saw a cup of black tea in a country where milk tea is overwhelming the choice. I saw a message of good health. I saw clear branding for India Tea and three clean units branding Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri. Just what the doctor ordered for Indian tea, I thought to myself.

Then came the body copy. Short, clear and to-the-point. It quoted researchers at the American Health Foundation. Strike One. Who in God's name was the American Health Foundation in the first place? Secondly, sundry foundations in America were freely quoted for decades to "prove" that cigarette smoking was not injurious to health.

Anyway, the copy went on to say, "So to stay healthy drink more cups of tea". Strike two, I thought to myself. Why unnecessarily open yourself to comments from naturopaths and ayurveds (today herbal is the flavour of the day) who have always had something negative to say about excessive tea consumption?

One could have easily talked about the vital antioxidants that exist in tea without bringing in some statutory American organisation or pushing you to "drink more cups of tea." If life was so simple, I would rather drink "more glasses of red wine." They contain antioxidants too.

Yet, cheers to the effort to popularise Indian tea! We need more advertising definitely.

(The author heads Canco Advertising.)

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