Vintage brands leave bit stories in their trail, over the years. The wise pick up and learn from what the trail teaches them. Important stories of nationalism, pride and struggles in all that is Indian should not be forgotten! Brands are so much more than just a name or a logo or a sound and Branded in History: Fresh Marketing Lessons from Vintage Brands, brings that to the fore.
Ramya Ramamurthy’s writing gives a feeling that she began the hunt for legacies on brands in India, but found a treasure trove of historic stories beyond branding. These stories of brands in her book, both unknown and known, are mainly from the pre-Independence era of Indian history. They will make readers sit up and feel something stir. Aptly named, the book dives into amazing stories of origin of brands and how they panned out over the years.
I must admit, at the risk of giving out my vintage, that I have seen and experienced many of these brands and the book kept me completely engrossed from the very beginning, partially with nostalgia. Ramamurthy has effectively divided the book into 11 broad industries that serve as chapters, each gently meandering into narratives that are engaging and intriguing. The book describes marketing activities and unique initiatives that companies and brands undertook. Personally, I found the chapters on ‘Tonics and Pharmaceuticals’, ‘Tobacco and Matchboxes’ and ‘Textiles’ most fascinating. But I guess what got me really hooked was the nationalism that was at the crux of many a brand of pre-Independence India – the pride, zealousness, history and politics of it is something all Indians should acquaint themselves with.
The book is full of phenomenal stories. In the author’s words, in those days entrepreneurs were fiercely encouraged to set up manufacturing companies in India. This was to encourage Indians to consume indigenous goods and move away from foreign-made ones. Brands were launched by freedom fighters and politicians, who made special efforts to promote them by visits and newspaper coverage. Let’s be clear, those were times when Swadeshi was slowly gaining momentum, while all things foreign were considered ‘better’. So, one can only ponder at the dilemma that companies faced – whether to position a brand with a ‘desi’ feel but connotation of ‘foreign’ quality or make it totally ‘made in India, for India’ and prepare for the long haul of consumer acceptance. Should they use Indian models, religious figures, Indian artists’ work or foreign models and depiction through language? These decisions were not easy ones for sure at the time.
It was very intriguing to learn how labels on products and their packaging played such an important role. The involvement of Indian artists in the design of labels and logos for communicating differentiation, in addition to imitating European advertising art, was fascinating to read. The range of examples, from depicting the Bharat Mata image and Mother India on textile labels for projecting the Swadeshi movement, to other brands using Victorian images to show quality, was captivating. Labels on large bales of fabric, had artwork based on the paintings of Ravi Varma, or traditional motifs from the Mughal, Pahari, Tanjore, Kalighat or Rajasthani paintings, clearly to be visible only to the middlemen (and not to the end consumers) for the primary sales that the businessman made.
Some even had signs of religion with pictures of God, likely to ensure the labourers handled the bales carefully without damaging them. So, evidently, these beautiful labels served multiple purposes. Similarly, match boxes apparently carried the unfolding of our Independence movement: from images of the flag, the Ashoka Chakra, the lion, freedom fighters, maharajas on horseback to courtesans. They marketed matchboxes jointly with cigarette manufacturers as bundled offers. Hotels and airlines got custom-made matchboxes made for their guests. This gave rise to Phillumeny, which thankfully served as a journal for records of companies of that era.
Entrepreneurship as well as advertising played an important part in India’s history, and this was particularly so, for the pharmaceutical industry, where trust wasn’t easy to earn. I am guessing that is when the seeds of India’s strong pharma background were sown and today we are a force to reckon with in the world. Ramamurthy has beautifully laid this out for the reader and it is amply evident in practically all sectors during our fight for freedom. Her research on the history of how they were set up and the stories thereafter are very well put together, across product categories and brands.
At the end of each chapter, readers may find the short points in the form of a summary very useful to cogitate. Each chapter is full of so much information, that at times can be overwhelming. Her bringing in differing points of views from other authors, experts and artists’ works well in her writing. However, at times one does feel she has meandered a bit too far from the central point, keeping some part of the narrative hanging. While useful, one just wishes it was less frequent in the book.
If there is one final wish I had for this book, it would be to actually see the real copies of all advertisements as described in the book. A picture is much more impactful and many a times the description can go only that far. While the book does have a few copies of the advertisements, I wish it came with an appendix or a supplement with the copies of the advertisements referred to in the book.
It has been delightful reviewing the book and living through the immensely dichotomous times of complexity and simplicity of marketing and branding.
(Renuka Kamath is Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing, SPJIMR, Mumbai)