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Tales Of An Old Monk

If only the company were to use its old world charm for new age marketing to re-invent the brand, Old Monk would be young again

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Such is the charm of Old Monk that ballads and tributes have been written on social media by both young and old in celebration of the “buddha baba” who has been a faithful companion through the ebbs and lows of life.

A certain Ketan Sonalkar turns poet on Facebook and writes:
The charm never fades,
The essence never evades,
Old Monk it is for all seasons,
Irrespective of the reasons!!!

In July of last year, the hearts of Old Monk lovers all but stopped with the news that Ghaziabad-based Mohan Meakin was discontinuing the production of the much-loved dark rum. The company however clarified later that it had no such intention and that the death of Old Monk was greatly exaggerated.

The Rebellion Drink

“The 60s were the days when rum ruled. Hercules and Sea Parade were common then but when Old Monk was introduced it was smoother and tastier,” says a colonel in the Indian army. “Plus, it doesn’t give a hangover. It became a rage and soon had a special relevance in our lives, getting mentions in social journals and engagement activities.”

The good colonel reminisces about Old Monk rituals in the army. When a jawan joined a unit, the first thing was to take him to the officers’ mess and get him drunk on Old Monk. And if a squad met the banjaras for an information exchange, the first step was for the leader of each side to do a bottoms-up of Old Monk and water from the brass lassi glass. “This was their acceptance of each other and an affirmation to work together,” he says. Due to its popularity with the armed forces, Old Monk came to be associated with the army and the navy. The rum acquired a certain exclusivity. “It became a hit among young people in the 60s because of its association with the army,” says the chief creative officer of SapientNitro India, K.V. Sridhar, who is a widely respected name in the Indian advertising world. He was an Old Monk loyalist until he gave up drinking 13 years ago.

Those were the days of ‘angry young men’ where Naxalism, social justice, and communism were the buzz words. “Rebellion was what attracted young students. Social acceptance wasn’t the norm. There was no student who didn’t attend dharnas or boycotted classes. Those were the tough days. Even the educated professionals couldn’t get a job. People were either very rich or quite poor. Against that backdrop, rum was the rebellion drink,” says Sridhar. “It was cheap so it didn’t have any social status unlike the more civilised whisky. Also, its high alcohol content of almost 50 per cent made it a drink that only strong men could handle,” he adds.

Another practical reason for its popularity was its dark colour. “Alcohol consumption wasn’t a socially acceptable activity. People couldn’t drink openly at home nor were there many clubs or parties. On-road consumption of alcohol was high where it was easy to mix it slyly with coke in plastic glasses. It was a rite of passage during our growing up years,” says Ajay Gahlaut, executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather.

Sridhar echoes the nostalgia. “There was no greater fascination for a boy than stealing his father’s alcohol and cigarettes. Whisky was expensive and usually heavily guarded whereas rum was loosely kept. It was easy to slip a few capfulls from dad’s bottle and then dilute it with water before putting the bottle back. There wasn’t any home where you wouldn’t find an Old Monk bottle with a money plant in it since its squarish bottle wouldn’t fit in the fridge compartment for water,” he says.

A Dark Cult
“There are certain brands that are iconic and where the brand name becomes synonymous with the product, such as Coke. And then, there are cult brands, loved by some and hated by others,” says Sridhar. He adds, “It has a very clear distinction. Rum for men, brandy for old men, whisky for celebration and gin for women.”

As one Twitter user @The_Rogue tweets, “Scotch whisky is for upstarts, Indian whisky for the dumb, gin and lime for the sweethearts. For me it’s Old Monk rum...”

For Sridhar Karnik, former captain with the merchant navy, it is Old Monk or nothing. “I have been drinking it for 40 years. All other drinks seem to have a synthetic taste, this one doesn’t.” He confesses to not organising his sister-in-law’s birthday party at the Mediterranean restaurant Amadeus because they didn’t serve Old Monk.

For Saugata Bagchi, business head of creative agency Quasar Media, “Only the Monk has that slightly metallic, bittersweet taste. Others are either too sweet like McDowells or too bitter like Khodays.” Coming from a defence services family, Bagchi grew up with “men in uniform who swore by Old Monk’s magical abilities,” and a sip now and then from an over indulgent uncle completed the initiation process into the alcohol world.

Tapering off
But then came a time when Old Monk saw its sales waning. According to data from International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR), Old Monk rum was the largest selling spirit brand in India between 2001 and 2003, peaking at 8.4 million cases in 2003. However, it was overtaken by Bagpiper in 2004 by a narrow margin. Since then, its rank has slipped and in 2014 it was down to the 16th position, selling 4 million cases.

Old Monk is no longer the favourite rum of India, giving way to McDowell’s No.1.

Alastair Smith, director of IWSR, says: “Old Monk has a very good reputation, but it has lost out because of the attraction towards whisky and the rise of alternative rums, even though their import remains small in scale and sales. And probably most importantly due to under-investment by the owners.”

The company, however, denied the claim. “It is a wrong notion that Old Monk sales have become stagnant. On the contrary, our sales are growing all over India. In markets such as West Bengal and Maharashtra our sales increased at 30 per cent in this current financial year,” claims Vinay Mohan, director, Mohan Meakin. He adds, “We are the only company in the world that has different variants of dark rum, regular, 12 years, 18 years and 20-year-old gold rum.”

“Its sales volume may be high, as the company claims, but I don’t think they are what they could have been if the brand value was leveraged and marketed properly,” says Rajeev Sharma, director, National Brand Planning at advertising company Leo Burnett. He was an Old Monk fan until he switched to wine.

An Old World
Rajesh Namby, general manager at the Leela Palace Udaipur, who is a proud Old Monk drinker says, “Most of the hoteliers love Old Monk because that was the base for us to turn into alcoholics during our teenage years. But now they avoid drinking it in public. I have been criticised too for ordering Old Monk instead of single malt whiskey.”

This shows a fundamental problem in product positioning where lack of marketing has led to brand erosion for the company.

Namby got a group of people who own the US’s top travel agencies to try Old Monk. They declared it as comparable to the best spirits of the world. “Local liquor shops are plush with branding of McDowell’s and Blenders Pride. Brands come up with intelligent ideas to promote their products whether it’s brand ambassadors, music festivals or fashion shows. Old Monk needs to reach out too. It only has the legacy of an old monk drawn on paper but that poor man can’t talk for himself.”

Ajay Gahlaut of Ogilvy echoes similar sentiment, “A brand lives in a consumer’s mind. Old Monk is now a classic case of out of sight, out of mind. The company should re-invent itself to stay relevant. Royal Enfield faced a similar predicament two decades ago with the plethora of Bullets entering the market. So, they innovated their product range by introducing affordable bikes and now they are at the top of their game again.”

“Now, Bacardi is equivalent to Old Monk across the world. Bacardi is consumed in different variants and all are successful. Old Monk has white rum too but it is not famous,” says Sridhar. Vinay Mohan says, “We don’t want to be involved in any activity that the government prohibits.” Liquor advertising is banned in the country. But of course, companies come up with workarounds.

Visiting the Mohan Meakin industrial estate in Mohan Nagar, Ghaziabad, one feels like being in a time warp. The high ceilings, busts with marigold garlands, and stuffed peacock and emus in the boardroom all seem to be from another era. If only the company were to use its old world charm for new age marketing to re-invent the brand, Old Monk would be young again.

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