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Brandstand: Why the Monk never grew Old

Nostalgia brands must take a clear call between standing absolutely still or moving relentlessly forward, any middling trajectory doomed for failure. It will result in either a Coca-Cola, permanently contemporary, or an Old Monk, forever unchanged

In recent days, the tributes to Old Monk Rum have been flowing lavishly, timed with the demise of the remarkable family patriarch. Quite apart from causing delightful conversations and being the adhesive for lifelong relationships, this bottled legend is also a fabulous ambassador for ‘Standstill Branding’. When valuable experiences remain totally unchanged, by design or inertia, customer loyalties tend to remain unchanged as well.

Classic candidates for comparison are the heritage eateries, be it Tunday Kabab, Karim’s, Royal Indian Hotel or the many sweetmeat stores in every Indian city. Even the very fussy will queue up happily in dingy settings for an experience of real-ness as they perceive it, forsaking the more premium pretenders with more commendable amenities. The same is true of the classic shopping experiences, be it Crawford Market or New Market, whose patronage has not diminished in spite of the air-conditioned luxury newbies. In such cases, including Old Monk Rum, some fundamental rules of affiliation apply, which convert happy nostalgia to current consumption. The quality must be memorable and consistent, the emotions must extend to friends and family, the imagery must be timeless, making us feel forever young, be it for a few fleeting moments. Most importantly, they must have made no attempt to change, especially token cosmetic attempts, for that is where the disenchantment begins.

To test this thinking, look no farther than the typical reaction to the upgraded version of any such ‘authentic’ establishment, be it the air-conditioned Karim’s or the snazzy Haldiram’s, the latter a progression from the category context. For starters, we consider the food to be inferior to that of the original, its sanitised surroundings diminishing the accuracy of the recipes. A common sentiment each time I dine at the new Royal Indian Hotel at Park Circus, the plush Tunday at MGF Mall or shop at the new-fangled Nalli’s offering the taste of contemporary tradition. More dangerously, we then start comparing them to new-age establishments on new-age parameters, like service, ambience, child-friendliness and so much more, thus deflecting from the core of unchanging nostalgia. On such criteria of process, they cannot compete and soon become commoditised clones, like the many versions of Moti Mahal or even the refurbished Flury’s of Calcutta, caught between the stools of ownable genuineness and unachievable aspiration.

If a brand of heritage standing wishes to change with the times then it must be a continuous commitment to progress, no better examples than Coca-Cola, Levi’s or even Johnnie Walker, in terms of packaging, variants and of course communication. Then the strategy is clearly continuous youth connect, each generation replacing the other, unlike trying to be relevant to the same customer over his entire life cycle. Which also means that when a loyalist reaches a certain psycho-demographic stature, he is coaxed to move away from the brand, as his continuous patronage may actually be damaging to the future prospects of the trademark. This is also why many multi-brand organisations plan portfolio strategies with such rigour, planning transitions for customers as they move to the next stage of life. Like the burger major investing with much anticipation in the Mcdonald’s Café, top-end sensibilities in health and repertoire, amongst a host of other common examples.

The secret of Old Monk’s longevity was its unwavering demonstration of ‘Standstill Branding’, nothing ever changing including the formula, the bottle and the graphic elements. In its chequered history, no attempt to make it modern and youthful, with the infusion of trendy variants or young brand ambassadors, nostalgia credentials remaining intact. What also helped was the static stature of the dark rum, replaced rapidly by whisky and white spirits, especially the equally potent but seemingly innocuous vodka. Similar old-timer brands in the latter categories like Peter Scot, Bagpiper, Romanov either becoming obsolete or transient, as the categories evolved rapidly in tune with socio-economic growth. Old Monk retaining its custom for historical loyalty and desirable comfort, a part of us under no pressure to change as the product never changed.

Nostalgia brands must take a clear call between standing absolutely still or moving relentlessly forward, any middling trajectory doomed for failure. It will result in either a Coca-Cola, permanently contemporary, or an Old Monk, forever unchanged. While the second may be attractive romantically the first most certainly is smarter business strategy.

(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at:

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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