‘Patriotic’ Indian brand Campa Cola to relaunch in challenge to Coke and Pepsi

<span>Photograph: Gurinder Osan/AP</span>
Photograph: Gurinder Osan/AP

More than half a century after it was launched, a brand of cola that Indians drank copiously in the 1970s and 1980s in the absence of Coca-Cola and Pepsi is poised for a comeback.

Campa Cola is returning to supermarket shelves, relaunched by its current owner, India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.

The drink became a household name in the second half of the 20th century, appealing to Indian patriotism as a homegrown soft drink made by an Indian company rather than an import from western multinationals. Its advertising tagline was “the great Indian taste”.

One reason for its flourishing sales was the lack of competition. India had a Soviet-style planned economy, and authorities railed against all things western. Coca-Cola was forced to leave India in 1977 after it rejected a government order to share its famous secret formula with its Indian entities. Pepsi had not yet arrived.

In a hot country with a long summer, Coca-Cola’s exit created a massive vacuum that was filled by Campa Cola. Indians knew it wasn’t the “real thing”, but it remained a treat at birthday parties and get-togethers.

Crates of Campo Cola.
The drink became a household name in the second half of the 20th century by appealing to Indian patriotism. Photograph: Gurinder Osan/AP

When India liberalised the economy in 1991, Pepsi entered the market and Coca-Cola returned. Suddenly Campa Cola was deeply unfashionable. Killed by the competition from the two giants of the soft drinks industry, Campa Cola largely disappeared from grocery store shelves in the early 1990s.

Brand experts say dead brands that arouse nostalgia can make a comeback. It is understood that Reliance Industries, which bought the drink last year, will be repackaging the earlier patriotism as nostalgia.

“I plan to buy it and give it to my grandchildren to show them the taste of my childhood – the taste of sweet innocence,” said Arushi Patel, a 60-year-old investment consultant from Delhi.

Reliance might struggle to engage younger Indians in the brand, however.

“Cola used to define consumerism in India 20 years ago,” said the advertising professional and social commentator Santosh Desai. “You had the cola wars. Cola doesn’t seem the same thing to young Indians. It’s vaguely dated. It’s the mobile phone that defines consumerism now.”

Moreover, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are ubiquitous throughout India, right down to the smallest village. Even in the remotest desert or forest their logos are painted on to shop facades and walls. They distribute their drinks through 4-5m retail outlets, with whom they have a long relationship and the best shelf space.

“The launch of this brand is in line with the company’s strategy to promote homegrown Indian brands that not only have a rich heritage but also boast a deep-rooted connect with Indian consumers due to their unique tastes and flavours,” said Reliance in a statement.

Brand experts pointed out that Campa Cola was not really part of Indian heritage in the sense of being something rooted in old traditions or social habits.

“Reliance will create a narrative about how it’s made in India as against the multinational in what will be, oddly, a sort of replay of the same patriotism of the earlier battles,” said Desai. “And this time round, the social ethos is very conducive to a patriotic message.”