Are You Camp(a) Cola? You'll Like This Desi Soda Deep-Dive
Image Credit: Campa Cola was born in the gap left after Coca-Cola exited India circa 1977.

RELIANCE's FMCG arm has relaunched Campa Cola, a brand they bought from the original proprietors, Pure Drinks Group, in 2022. The once ubiquitous beverage — which saw its star wane after Coca-Cola re-entered the Indian market post-liberalisation in the '90s, alongside [Lehar] Pepsi making deep inroads — will be made widely available in orange and lemon flavours apart from the original cola. All three sodas have been priced competitively — a 500 ml bottle of Campa Cola will retail at Rs 20, whereas a 250 ml bottle of Coke currently costs the same. Whether this will signal a new chapter in the Cola Wars and shake up a seemingly well-entrenched status quo remains to be seen. 

The Taste Of India

Campa Cola was born in the gap left after Coca-Cola exited India circa 1977. The Foreign Exchange Regulation Act introduced by Indira Gandhi's government in 1974 eventually triggered an exodus of over 50 multinational corporations from India (including Kodak and Mobil), that did not wish to abide by the new rule requiring 60 percent of their equity for local subsidiaries be handed over to domestic partners. Under the Act, Coca-Cola would have also had to share their highly guarded secret formula with an Indian partner, which the brand was not willing to do. By then, the Janata Party had come to power after the Emergency, and industries minister George Fernandes' face-off with Coca-Cola was reported in publications like the New York Times. "India Stands Firm Against Coca-Cola" reads the headline of a news item carried on page 22 of the NYT's edition dated September 5, 1977.

Pure Drinks Group (founded by Sardar Mohan Singh) had been bottling Coca-Cola since 1950, up until the brand's departure in 1977. The company now had 12 bottling plants and over 10,000 employees on its hands. S Daljit Singh, then head of Pure Drinks, decided an opportunity existed to use the company's infrastructure, resources and expertise to launch a homegrown cola. Thus, Campa was born, with the tagline: "The Great Indian Taste". 

Other Desi Drinks

Campa Cola may have been among the market leaders in the Indian soft/carbonated drinks category, but there were other popular local alternatives as well. Parle's Limca and Thums Up had a devoted fan base. On a more limited scale, the sodas bottled by Duke & Sons — lemonade, raspberry etc — had found success in western India, especially Maharashtra. Meanwhile, the Janata government sponsored a short-lived cola called "Double Seven" (named for '77, the year when Emergency ended).

Campa Cola and Thums Up were perceived differently. The latter's sharp and strong flavour profile was seen as more "adult" or "masculine". Campa, on the other hand, was mellower, less fizzy, sweeter, and considered apt for a younger set. This reflected in its advertising as well.

Around 1986, Campa Cola came out with an ad that has become memorable for more reasons than one. Made by Kailash Surendranath, it featured a group of fresh-faced models, having a good time on a sailboat, swimming in the ocean, and then relaxing by the beach — all while sipping on Campa Cola. The location is picturesque (the Andaman Islands), the models are photogenic and cool, and the music is even cooler (composed by Ronnie Desai; with Shiv Mathur and Gary Lawyer. Ranjit Barot was among the musicians who recorded the jingle). The vibe of the ad is aspirational and alluring; it represents a carefree, glamorous lifestyle that may not have been within all Campa Cola consumers' grasps, but — the ad whispered — could very well be. 

It has also stayed in public consciousness because among its models — Arti Surendranath (then Gupta), Ayesha Shroff (then Dutt), Vanessa Vaz, Shiraz Merchant, Sunil Nischol — was a teen who'd impressed everyone during the casting with his looks and swimming prowess: Salman Khan.

Decline And Fall

The glory days of Campa Cola didn't extend very long into the '90s. The landscape was shifting once again: Lehar Pepsi's colas had begun rolling out in 1990; Coca-Cola returned in 1993. To regain lost ground, Coke bought Parle's carbonated beverages, dropping all but two of its iconic drinks (Thums Up and Limca stayed; Gold Spot and Citra were among those that faced the axe). Duke's, which had introduced Mangola to combat Coca-Cola, was taken over by Pepsi. Pure Drinks Group was beset by infighting over the company's assets at the time. Campa Cola found its presence shrinking, until a few franchises in smaller towns were the only ones still retailing it. 

A New Innings

Reliance bought Campa Cola from Pure Drinks for Rs 22 crore last year, reviving interest in the brand, especially among consumers for whom the nostalgia factor is a strong draw. As it relaunches, with a roll-out in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, there has been tremendous interest in seeing whether or not (and how) Campa's playbook will deliver. Reports say the Indian Premier League will be an advertising springboard for Campa, bringing to mind the Pepsi vs Coke cricket-centric campaigns of the past, with the brilliant recall value of the former's "Nothing Official About It" punchline. So will Campa Cola reclaim its status as the "great Indian taste" while catering to a new palate? We'll have to wait and watch.

Around The World

Like Campa Cola (and Thums Up) in India, other countries too have developed their own alternatives to Coca-Cola when the occasion demanded it: 

— East Germany introduced Vita-Cola in the late '50s, as a match for the popularity of Coca-Cola in West Germany. A second drink, Club Cola, was also launched a decade later. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Reunification of Germany, Vita-Cola saw its popularity plummet.

— As US imports to the Soviet bloc slowed down in the '70s, Poland decided it needed its own alternative to Coke. Thus was born Polo-Cockta. 

— Kofola was introduced in 1960 in communist Czechoslovakia. Even once Coke and Pepsi were made available post-1968, Kofola was still seen as the affordable, accessible alternative.

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