India at 75: Parle-G and 14 other brands inseparable from the India story
1. Parle-G: Dip it, nip it, sip it
What’s tea wIthout Parle-G? In one word: incomplete. The perfect accompaniment to chai in the middle of a busy work day, Parle-G was founded on swadeshi ideals in 1929 by Mohanlal Chauhan. It was an answer to expensive British biscuits — perhaps with a touch of French (“parle” in French means “to talk”).
As the ’80s approached, competitors started to launch their own glucose biscuits. Parle-Gluco could see its market share thinning as people started getting confused by similar brand names. Many also just wanted glucose biscuits — brand no bar. So, in 1982 the brand reinvented itself as Parle-G.
A powerhouse of energy, a huge section of society started depending on Parle-G, not just for fulfilling nutritional needs but also for its budget friendly prices — the prices remain so. Along with milk, Parle-G came to be considered staple baby food.
The signature white-and-yellow striped biscuit packet, with the chubby Parle baby girl, is probably the most recognisable brand in the country, and according to Nielsen, continues to be the world’s bestselling biscuit.
2. Rasna: Quick-fix quencher
The little girl in a Doordarshan ad saying, “I love you Rasna”, after prodding her mother to make a refreshing drink for her father who’s just returned from work, is a memorable image from the 1980s and ’90s. Soon, Rasna, the instant drink concentrate, was in every home. It was a perfect quick-fix solution for those unexpected visitors. Or for when kids came back home, all sweaty after running around with friends on summer evenings (kids don’t do that much now).
Rasna, which also came in small sachets and packs, had by the late 1980s cornered over 50 per cent value share (and 75 per cent volume share) in non-aerated drinks. Later, Tang came in as a competitor but it wasn’t, well, Rasna, whose brand ambassadors have included Karisma Kapoor, Kapil Dev and Akshay Kumar.
3. Raymond: Suit yourself
If there’s one Indian textile brand that sold the idea that men should always be dressed to the nines, it is Raymond. The brand also told us that “the complete man” was one who had both presence and substance.
With humble beginnings as Thane’s Wadia Woollen Mills in 1925, it was renamed Raymond group when it was taken over by ED Sassoon and Co. The name remained even when the brand came to be acquired by the JK Group in 1944. With dedicated R&D units, the brand stood for experimentation — and its wool-blended yarn, Terool, launched in 1958, was proof of this.
While so many others perished, Raymond has stood the test of time. The brand came with a promise of fine luxury that was well within the reach of a significant section of society, a promise of durability, and of being a cut above the rest.
4. Roohafza: Rose-tinted glasses
In 2019, just as summer hit a peak, the unthinkable happened. Rooh Afza vanished from the markets. Its maker, Hamdard Laboratories, said the crisis — it was no less — was because of a temporary shortage of certain herbal ingredients. Summer without Rooh Afza is like summer without mangoes. Thankfully, the shortage was short-lived and the rosy fruit-filled concentrate was soon back on shop shelves. But that brief period reestablished — as if we had ever forgotten — what the brand is to many: the taste of summer.
The 116-year-old brand has survived it all, and has since journeyed even into books and cocktails. The story of Rooh Afza runs parallel to India’s as a sherbet that has “survived Partition, licence raj, economic reforms, carbonated drinks, and tetra-pack juices,” as blogger Mayank Austen Soofi wrote. In the mid-2010s, for the health-conscious, Hamdard also introduced a sugar-free version of Rooh Afza, which is otherwise 88 per cent sugar.
5. Royal Enfield: Bullet in the heart
It is easy to identify a Royal Enfield from a pack. Its signature thump (“Dhug. Dhug”) announces its arrival even if the bike is not in sight. The envy of many, scores of riders swear by this standout feature, making the Bullet 350 an exclusive possession. Bike enthusiasts still debate over the sound of the new engine; old-timers still swear by the thump of the old cast-iron engines.
The first Royal Enfield bike was built in 1901 in England. And in the 1950s, it was chosen as the most suitable bike for the Indian Army. With the Bullet’s popularity, it was decided that assembling the bikes in India made economic sense, and so in 1955, Royal Enfield and Madras Motors formed Enfield India — now Royal Enfield, a subsidiary of Eicher Motors. The bike continues to have a cult following. For those who own it, a Bullet is more than a bike; it’s a way of life.
6. SBI: A bank for all
“It would be game over for the State Bank of India in the digital wave. “It just can’t compete with private banks.” These would be just a minuscule number of concerns that customers and detractors of the bank would have had over its over 200-year existence. And, its services haven’t always been smooth. But, what is it that keeps the bank growing and thriving? It’s the trust. SBI has been synonymous with banking in India.
At the time of Independence, then called the Imperial Bank, SBI had a capital base of Rs 11.85 crore and 172 branches. Today, the bank has over 24,000 branches in India and over 190 offices in 35 other countries across the world. What has set it apart is that it thrives on the idea of being the “banker to every Indian”. If there was a village in that remote area of Ladakh, or the North-east or a hutment in Tamil Nadu, there would be a network of SBI business representatives who would visit those areas to educate people about banking, its methods and get them entrenched into the financial system.
7. Surf: Clean sweep
Soap opera took on a whole new meaning as Surf got into a lather with Nirma. This was at a time when washing powders were far from affordable and had no real competition. As an answer to Nirma’s cheap pricing, Surf’s Lalitaji and her home-spun samajhdari in the ’80s struck a chord with the value-conscious Indian homemaker. Firm, no-nonsense, in her bright white sari, she cultivated the definition of sasti aur achhi cheez for consumers.
Surf not only made history in India as the first detergent powder, but it was also the first detergent brand to appear on a television screen. Since 2004, the detergent brand’s focus has changed tack, with a series of commercials, beginning with Daag achhe hain, as opposed to other brands positioning their products by talking about removing Ziddi daag.
8. Taj hotel: Crowning glory
From hosting royalty and the who’s who of the world to surviving one of India’s most audacious terrorist attacks, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai has seen quite a lot. The story began in the last decade of the 19th century when Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, decided to build the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on a 10,000-square-yard land he had taken on a 99-year lease from the Bombay Port Trust in 1893. The hotel opened in 1903 even though the central dome was incomplete. The reason: astrologer’s advice.
Over the next century, there were multiple occasions when the founder and later JRD Tata mulled selling off the property over mounting losses. That never happened. Business took off. And today, Taj Hotels is a chain of 100-plus luxury hotels and resorts across various locations in India and abroad: UK, UAE, Bhutan, Malaysia, the Maldives, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka…
9. Thums Up: Thunder in a bottle
The first Indian cola drink to enjoy unparalleled success, the story of Thums Up is that of a phoenix rising from ashes. Created by the Parle group to fill the void left by Coca-Cola’s exit from the Indian market, Thums Up quickly rose to become the favourite cola drink, and enjoyed 80 per cent market share.
After Coca-Cola’s acquisition of the brand in 1993, Thums Up started disappearing from Indian shelves. It was a battle between two large corporations before Coca-Cola realised the blunder — it had literally served the majority market share to rival Pespi. Thums Up was relaunched with a brand-new thunder spin —a masculine “chaati pe baal, haath mein bandook” brand as ad guru Prahlad Kakkar likes to put it.
10. ToI Group: ‘Old Lady’ comes of age
The Times group (Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd) dates back to 1838, when it first published a biweekly catering to (then) Bombay’s business community. After a merger with a rival and a name change, the newspaper was renamed again in 1861 as The Times of India (ToI). Nicknamed “The Old Lady of Bori Bunder” after its Mumbai address, ToI’s ownership changed hands multiple times. The Sahu Jain family took over in 1948. A nationalistic stance then reflected the mood of a young India, followed by a lull before a coming storm in the media industry.
Since the late 1980s, the Times group has repackaged journalism with marketing smarts that have earned imitation and brickbats, entered TV, and is now among the largest conglomerates in the country’s $28-billion media and entertainment industry.
11. T-Series: Music to the ears
With more than 220 million subscribers on YouTube, music label T-Series enjoys a monopoly in the Indian music production market. The label had started in Delhi in 1983 with Super Cassettes industries.
Loopholes in the Indian copyright laws allowed founder Gulshan Kumar to record and market covers of hit Hindi songs. With new artistes and beats, the already popular songs became widely accepted, as did the brand. The music company further cemented its foothold by selling devotional content — music and hymns. Its first big break, though, had come with the soundtrack of a film that also marked the turning of Bollywood from action-packed angry-young-man movies to innocent romance: the 1988 Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak starring Juhi Chawla and Aamir Khan.
T-Series, which has given the country some of its most loved singers, now enjoys nearly 35 per cent share of the Indian music market.
12. Vicks: One for the throat
The story of Vicks, ahem, goes back over 125 years. Originally named “Vicks Family Remedies”, it was invented out of the necessity to find a cure for a child. Its founder Lunsford Richardson’s son had a severe case of croup. So, as the company history reads, “Lunsford combined unique ingredients into a salve that when heated by the body would release soothing vapours”.
In 1912, its name was changed to Vicks VapoRub and it came to be sold in the now all-too-familiar blue jar. The name-change was the idea of Smith Richardson, Lunsford’s oldest son for whom the rub had originally been created.
VapoRub sales bumped up during the flu epidemic of 1918 — just over a century ago. More products like cough drops followed in 1931 and cough syrup in 1952. In India, the most popular item from the Vicks stable is the cough drops — immortalised by ads that simply declared “Vicks ki goli lo, khich khich dur karo”.
It remains a leading over-the-counter cough and cold brand with products for cold, flu and congestion with a separate segment for infants. With cold and flu cases on the rise post-Covid, the growth opportunities for Vicks in the decongestant segment are big.
13. Vijai Super: For the winner
Scooters, first imported to India in 1948, became a craze and steadily a convenient choice for the average commuter. Those who grew up in the early decades after Independence will swear by the Vijai Super, which, along with the Lambretta, was manufactured by Scooters India Ltd.
The Lucknow-based company, which bought over the plant, machinery, design and copyright from Italian automobile firm Innocenti, was incorporated in 1972. And in 1975, it began rolling out the Vijai Super and Lambretta for its domestic and overseas markets. Its popularity can be gauged from the fact that the government gifted each member of India’s 1983 cricket World Cup winning squad a Vijai Super. And why not? ‘Vijai’ translates into ‘victory’, after all. The name, Vijai, was said to have been inspired by another victory: India’s over Pakistan in 1971, a war which led to the creation of Bangladesh.
With competition from Bajaj Chetak and Priya Scooters, SIL, however, discontinued scooter production in 1997 to focus on three-wheelers, but the nostalgia around its iconic Vijai Super lives on.
14. Weston: TV or almirah?
It was a television that came with shutters that you could draw on the screen like curtains. Perched atop four wooden legs, the Weston could easily pass off as a small almirah and blended well with the furniture. Launched in 1972, it was a black-and-white cathode ray tube TV, and was India’s most selling TV brands between 1980 and 2000.
Though it didn’t cost a bomb, owning a Weston was a luxury barely one or two homes in the neighbourhood enjoyed in the early years. The rest of the families simply trooped into those homes to watch the shows. Weston held people’s attention, in black and white, for a good 10 years. And then in 1982, the Indian government allowed the import of 50,000 colour TV sets for the Asian games.
Suddenly, colour TV was the rage. Weston upped its game and launched the country’s first colour TV in 1990. Today, the company remains one of India’s oldest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). It has since ventured into big-screen LED TVs, and even washing machines, but for old-timers it is still reminiscent of an endearing time when TV— watching was a community activity — and no one seemed to mind.
15. Zomato: Fast food
If there is one Indian company that sums up the idea of “bringing the world to your table”, it is Zomato. Before it came into existence in 2008, how many of us had imagined that cuisines from all over the world would be available to us as and when we craved them?
The restaurant aggregator and food delivery firm, which saw an incredible share sale last year, also tapped into and brought to the forefront a number of ideas that were unheard of before (cloud kitchen etc). The food aggregator didn’t limit this service to major cities.
The company has faced its share of backlash as well, especially with its 10-minute delivery model. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Zomato (post Blinkit’s acquisition in June), and how the firm will continue to expand and change the culinary experience.