View: What sorcery is this? Old Monk with a new label!

Just as Akbar had his Navratnas, India has its select band of iconic products. These are brands that have not only grown along with our independent republic but also which have helped the country grow from its inception and brought it through to the awkward but functional behemoth we are today.

Now, imagine that you manage one such product that is the equivalent of Parle Glucose, Lifebuoy, or Bata. Imagine you are responsible for the IMFL counterpart of the Hindustan Ambassador: Old Monk. The ubiquitous bottle and the rum inside have had currency and agency from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, bringing succour and joy to tipplers from Kutch to Kohima.

Yes, we know that just as some of the other Navratna brands started as British products, first making their mark in the subcontinent during the last decades of the British Raj before finding their commercial wings in a newly independent India, so did Old Monk – selling a version of rum in a copycat version of a British bottle design.

Just as the Morris Oxford flopped in Britain before becoming the legendary workhorse of Apna Desh in the shape of the Ambassador, so also did the unpretentious, hangover-free quality of your harsh but friendly pirate-potion win over lakhs of grateful customers.

Its almost monopolistic market share decreased as pretenders joined the battle. But over the decades, it retained a loyal core of customers. It didn’t matter if we could now afford much more expensive imported stuff. It didn’t matter that we had ourselves visited the Caribbean and tasted ojjinal rum. It didn’t matter that one of the biggest American brands selling variations of that liquor descended on India with a tsunami of ad campaigns.

For those of us who love our brand of firewater, nothing else would quite do. Eventually, after far too long, the iconic Old Monk bottle began to rub glass shoulders with other famous brands in trendy, knowledgeably stocked bars abroad. In the meantime, supplies of Old Monk would mysteriously dry up in the local liquor shops, while other much inferior wannabes tried to take its place. And then, your ‘distribution people’ would fight back and the precious supply would break through the competition blockade. All this is well-known about the legendary Old Monk brand. But I repeat all this in case you’re new to the team – or if you’ve forgotten. I’m repeating this before asking you what I must. What possessed you? Was it, as ever, the fault of marketing? If not, then whose bright idea was it to change the label on the Old Monk bottle?! Which genius thought this up, and which other geniuses bought it?

Did some bright spark, newly joined from What-on Earth Bizness Skool suggest it?

First was the problem, the ‘asmanjass’, the dilemma. Let’s call it the Ancient Ascetic’s Bind: ‘Our brand is getting old and yet the damn bottle has such great recognition we can’t afford to tamper with it.’ After much wrangling and brain-typhooning came the solution: ‘Listen, let’s stick to the same old bottle, ok? Also, let’s not mess with the product inside the bottle.’ We get you, continue. ‘But… let’s change the label to a brighter colour and claim it’s an improved, smoother version of the old Old Monk!’

And thus, some of us had to experience the nasty double jolt – triple, actually. First, the familiar black label on the bottle was gone, replaced by something that looked like a famous German football team had bought the brand, Second, there was the threat, the sinking of heart, because they claimed to have fixed that something which wasn’t broken. Third, you paid a higher price than you’ve ever paid.

Oh, there’s a fourth, however not a jolt, but relief: you’re thankfully drinking old ‘wine’ from an old bottle with a new label. Duh.


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