Amul’s ads have become the stuff of legend. But behind every great ad, there’s a great client, and Verghese Kurien was one of the best.

Reams have been written on the achievements of Verghese Kurien as an innovator and creator of the milk revolution in India. However, there has been little said on another facet of his: as an advertising man and the role he played in building a cult brand such as Amul; and how the Amul brand grew to be worth $2.5 billion with its variants and extensions.

If one were to dissect the advertising journey, the differences between him and the other stalwarts in the advertising business today become distinct.

Hire the best talent, not the best address

Kurien never believed in flashing the advertising agency as a trophy; yet he believed in the most capable talent. He wanted the best brains who believed in the same principles and causes as he did. So the big advertising agencies with the most respected and feared names never stood a chance as they never believed that much could be achieved from bringing farmers together across villages in India to build a business. Low-profile names such as those of K. Kurrian of Radeus Advertising and Eustace Fernandes come to mind for their rapport with V. Kurien.

Delegate to the more capable

He was the first one to realise that consumer understanding and the hot buttons that click human emotions are no child’s play and are a specialist’s domain. Hence delegation of authority was necessary and this came naturally to him as he believed in the integrity of professionals who worked with him. So when Eustace Ferandes created the Amul moppet and K. Kurrian suggested outdoor as the main medium, Kurien was not convinced but he approved. Later he seldom insisted on seeing the final creations and the executions before they were released. This is a rare quality that differentiates him from the leaders of today who hold on to authority and delegate responsibility.

Innovating with a feature film

This chemistry with the team saw stalwarts such as Shyam Benegal making Manthan which was like a 150-minute commercial outlining the real purpose and commitment of Anand and Amul. Never has this kind of merchandising of an idea been attempted or done successfully. The actors in the film rave, even today, about this social role they performed apart from winning fame and respect. The title song sung by Preeti Sagar is still belted out regularly by Doordarshan and its 23 channels in a commercial avatar, even after three decades of its creation.

Part of the brand curriculum

The ‘Amul Story’ over the years is part of the syllabus and has been analysed and dissected by the best brains at business schools. It has set benchmarks of defining impossibility and the scope within it. It has defined what true grit, commitment and integrity can achieve. Experts refer to it as the “Sholay of brand-building in India”. Its brilliance lies in the fact that it can be adapted to any situation, and any genre. Its nuances are part of branding folklore and hence it is imperative we acknowledge the architect.

The brand voice is the fearless consumer voice

Another impossible trait that no brand in India has possessed or ever will do. The style, topicality and blatant honesty of the Amul campaign has not changed in the last five decades. It is India’s longest running creative format. The only other one I can think of is the Marlboro communication, which too relied on the outdoor medium as it was a handicapped category in the mainline media. In Amul’s case it was purely by choice. Few would have the guts to take on the establishment in a tongue-and-cheek style as the legendary Amul advertisements. Even during extremely tense times such as the Emergency in the mid-Seventies the brand continued its endeavour in the same unabashed, classy way without flinching.

Over the years this style, format and placement became the common man’s way to express their frustrations. Till today few have challenged the content or the veracity of the issue. This created the buzz around the brand and the obvious favourability when one is fighting multinational giants with deep pockets. This medium with the message amalgam also resulted in the best return on investments vis-a-vis the competing brands.

Proud to be Indian

This was a hallmark quality that differentiated Kurien from the very best in the business. He fiercely believed in creating something in India that would be in the world’s showcase. It is this wild desire that led to collecting millions of litres of milk from three million farmers everyday; creation of an umbrella brand called Amul which extended to various other products such as milk powder, ghee, butter, chocolates, health beverages and buttermilk. But the important fact is that it made millions happy everyday and hence evolved ‘The Taste Of India’. This created the much-needed halo Indian brands lacked. Today the Amul story is revered worldwide.

Never ask for a pitch

Another notable trait of Kurien was that he never tested anyone’s ability before awarding the business to an agency. One never heard of him asking for a pitch. This is such a differentiator from today’s norm where business is moving every year and every professional’s ability is constantly under scrutiny which results in the joy disappearing from the place of work

I had the rare opportunity of spending a couple of minutes with the great man at a TV news channel’s function which was to confer a lifetime achievement award. I congratulated him and asked him that as everything seems so right in his life, is there anything in the past that he would like to change or would do differently? He sized me up and said, “Maybe some more butter on my breakfast toast.”

Gopinath Menon is CEO, Melon Media, Crayons Communications Group.

(This article was published on September 13, 2012)
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