Where have all the camels gone?

Harish Bhat | Updated on March 07, 2021

Beast of branding: Matchboxes with camel labels are collector’s items in Japan

Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian, Tata Sons

Why and how marketers have used camels, and left us thirsting for more

Recently, browsing in my neighbourhood supermarket, I found an interesting product — Amul camel milk. I bought a small bottle, and took a swig. The milk was bland and creamy. I learnt later that camel milk is a source of natural insulin-like protein, and helps manage diabetes. I also found out that fermented camel milk, called chal, is very popular in Central Asia. As I reflected on the merits of this beverage, the camels in my life started marching in.

Camels at school

My earliest tryst with the dromedary was as a schoolboy, when my parents bought me a Camlin geometry box. The orange-and-yellow metal box had a camel right on top of it.

Years later, I read that the founders of Camlin, DP Dandekar and GP Dandekar, had originally used a horse logo for their ink business; but when they later branched out into fountain pens, they found the horse quite uninspiring. They chose the camel instead, because it can store food and water in its hump, and travel for hours across the desert.

A good fountain pen, likewise, can write for miles and miles once you fill ink. From there, it was a short hop to the word Camlin, combining ‘camel’ and ‘ink’. The brand remains a leader in the Indian market, though a controlling stake is now with a Japanese company, Kokuyo.

Camels in Japan

The Japanese have been fascinated by camels. Safety matchboxes in Japan, dating back to the early 1900s, sport camels on their labels. Some show as many as five camels, and are sought after by collectors. Did you know that Japan is home to camels? In the sand dunes of Tottori, on the western coast of Japan, camel rides are popular among the nearly two million visitors to these dunes each year.

No wonder the famous Camel cigarette is now produced and marketed by Japan Tobacco International, for markets outside the US. In the US it is sold by R.J. Reynolds, the company which launched it in 1913.

Old Joe and college

The company’s founder, RJ Reynolds, began by using Turkish tobacco in his cigarettes, and hence the name ‘Camel’, because Americans associated this beast with exotic, West Asian countries such as Turkey. This famous camel was called Old Joe. The story goes that this was the name of a dromedary camel in a visiting Barnum & Bailey circus that became the model for the cigarette brand’s original label, which was created by the Belgian graphic designer Fred Otto Kleesattel.

While I have never smoked a Camel cigarette, I have met many distant cousins of Old Joe during my college days at BITS Pilani. Camel carts were a normal feature in the Rajasthan town. The one lovely camel that was actually present in all our lives in Pilani was the ‘Camel Post’, our extremely popular campus newsletter. Like the camel, the contents of this newsletter were known for their sharp bite, and often got us into trouble with the college authorities.

Thirsty camels

Camels have been used by marketers quite impactfully. One of Australia’s best known liquor stores is aptly branded Thirsty Camel. Another innovative distiller, also from Australia, created fine vodka from camel milk. For readers who prefer sober fare, a recent TV ad by Bisleri bottled water showed these animals refusing to drink anything but Bisleri.

There are, however, a number of categories where camels are absent today and can help marketers establish a unique visual mnemonic that cuts through the clutter. In fact, the entire animal kingdom is a treasure trove of brand names and imagery waiting to be explored. If you are a marketer hunting for a new brand name or theme, you may wish to keep The Jungle Book handy.

The writer is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views

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Published on March 07, 2021
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