In fiction, it was the risibly named Asterix and Obelix that
thwarted Roman plans for world domination. But truth, as we know, can be
far, far stranger. Coca-Cola is a company with arguably no less
ambitious expansion plans, but has also met a pocket of resistance that
is continuing to defy seemingly overwhelming odds. It’s not Pepsi - that
it can just about cope with - nor is it Schweppes or any one of numerous
wannabes that in reality barely register on the scale. No, the problem
is much more serious.
It is Thums Up.
Coke’s problem with India’s best-selling cola is made worse by the fact
that the US giant actually owns it. And despite Coke’s massive
sponsorship of the Cricket World Cup, Thums Up remains the
sub-continent’s fastest-growing cola drink. Coke sponsors anything and
everything in India from cricket teams to the speaking clock.
But Coca-Cola’s vast marketing muscle is so far making little impression
on its in-house rival. Sales of Coke increased by a modest 5 per cent
It wasn’t meant to be that way. Once upon a time, Coca-Cola was India’s
best-selling soft drink. But that was in the 70s before a new government
demanded to know what was then the corporation’s most closely guarded
secret, the recipe formula. Rather than subject itself to a virtual
nationalisation, Coke left the country. The resultant gaping hole in the
market was filled by the invention of Thums Up by an Indian company that
had itself worked as a bottler for Coke.
By 1993, when a new liberal regime encouraged Coke to return, it came
and bought up what was then the market leader.
And that, Coke imagined, was pretty much that. Coke management took to
describing Thums Up as a ’pepperlike drink’ and actually classified it
not as a cola but as a ’spicy beverage’. Unfortunately, it still hasn’t
worked and there are now signs that the soft-drinks giant is preparing
to give Thums Up its throne. Coke’s India boss now has the title ’CEO of
the Thums Up Co’ printed on his business cards. Strange as it may seem,
Indians are turning to Thums Up just for the taste of it.