How a British chocolate brand became a substitute for Indian mithai

Now a traditional Indian dessert.
Now a traditional Indian dessert.
Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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In 1992, India made a shift from its socialist past and embraced a market economy. The liberalisation of the economy had a transformational effect on the larger consumer culture. Until then, advertising in India suffered from an English hangover and, not surprisingly, lacked mass appeal.

Cadbury recognised this and gave its creative agency Ogilvy a clear mandate to appeal to the masses by going beyond the English advertising prototype.

The result was some game-changing advertising that connected with the mass Indian sensibility. Known as “The real taste of life” (Asli swad zindagi ka), the campaign captured moments when people shook off convention and broke free, revealing their real selves, and demonstrating that Cadbury Dairy Milk was not only for kids but for the kid in all of us. The brand soon became associated with spontaneity and happiness for people.

The most memorable in the series was a cricket advertisement where a girl jumps onto a cricket pitch, and dances when her boyfriend scores a six. It was awarded India’s advertising campaign of the century by Ad Club of India.

Further, aided by initiatives such as a cheaper Rs5 pack, which made the brand more accessible to the masses, the launch of variants (ensuring consumer choice was ‘which Cadbury’ rather than ‘Cadbury or something else’) and an expanded sales coverage—over a million stores—the Cadbury India business trebled again between 1994 and 1999.

Trouble in paradise

While the 1990s were kind to Cadbury, by the early 2000s, growth began to dry up. The brand’s growth rate dropped by 78% over the four-year period from 1996 to 2000 and sales flattened between 2000 and 2004.

Clearly, the brand was running out of fuel. New triggers to fuel growth had to be found…

Consumption among teens and adults was still very low when compared to global benchmarks. Understanding why was the key to growth.

As the world is now discovering, India is not one country but two countries in one.

Modernists, who are Indian in appearance but western in thought and lifestyle, dominated affluent India. Greater exposure to western (English) media and rising disposable income had meant that they were more open to experimentation and indulgence. Most of Cadbury’s growth had come from this market.

However, it was in the other India that untapped potential resided.

Traditionalists, conservative in mindset and in lifestyle, constituted this other India—the largest chunk of the population. In comparison with the modernists, they were tradition-bound and resistant to change. Their incomes too rose at a slow pace. Money was not exactly plentiful, so indulgence was limited. Though most of them were familiar with chocolate and had eaten it at least once, it had little relevance in their lives and was seen at best as an occasional indulgence for kids. While they had made tea, potato and, of course, cricket their own, chocolate had got a cold shoulder from them.

But it was not as though they lacked a sweet tooth. In 2004, the size of the traditional meetha (sweets) market was more than 19 times that of chocolate, valued at approximately $4.2 billion. Chocolate was a merely $215 million market.

The brand’s growth strategy became to grow chocolate consumption by making it part of the Indian meetha consumption behaviour…

The transition from “chocolate” to “meetha”

The answer lay in the significant difference in the cultural perspective on happiness between East and West. It was this difference that shaped the respective sweet consumption behaviours of these societies. And in this lay the strategic insight that shaped the brand’s journey here on…

Chocolate was mostly a private craving in the West, a means to individual gratification. A lot of chocolate advertising reflected this individualistic cultural perspective on happiness. Sharply in contrast, happiness in India is “collective.” In East Asian cultures, the self-in-relationship-with-others (collectivism) is the locus of thought, action and motivation. Consequently, happiness tends to be defined in terms of interpersonal connectedness and realisation of social harmony.

This connects strongly to sweet consumption behaviour and occasions in India. Most happy occasions tend to be collective and are ritually accompanied by meetha consumption. Festivals, celebrations, and traditions or cultural markers of anticipated happiness (childbirth, success in exams, starting a new business, etc.) are never in short supply.

One could argue that it is not as if people in the West do not celebrate such happy occasions together, but the answer to that is that in the West there is no ritual mandating sweet consumption. Only in India does sweet consumption perform the role of a happiness ritual.

In hindsight, the brand team realised that as a consequence of its western heritage, much of Cadbury Dairy Milk’s communication in India before 2004 reflected these western, individualistic happiness codes and was, hence, not considered on meetha-consumption occasions. This understanding of how “meetha” was different from “chocolate” was at the heart of its new strategy…

Traditionally, people sweeten other people’s mouths when something good happens to them or when they want to wish others happiness. This practice is popularly captured by the Hindi phrase “muh meetha karna.” The team made this more actionable by reinventing it. Cadbury Dairy Milk advertising signed off with “Kuch meetha ho jaaye!“—a call to have something sweet.

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Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications India from the book Storm the Norm by Anisha Motwani. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.