Those catchy one-liners and the girl with the polka dot dress have successfully navigated changing times and moods for 50 years.

It’s a truism that applies to people, enterprises, actors or brands: a great strength can sometimes become a weakness too. And it’s one of the reasons we tend to take the Amul ad for granted, says Rahul da Cunha, one of the gang of three that creates the ads. “It’s like the Gateway of India; it’s just there,” he remarks.

However, a couple of recent events have thrust Amul squarely back into the limelight. The recent publication of Amul’s India, a book to celebrate 50 years of the brand, has “brought it back into people’s consciousness,” he says. “Suddenly nostalgia has become very contemporary.”

Soon after, Amul featured (once again) in the top 10 Indian brands in the Asia’s Top 1000 Brands Report, published annually by Hong Kong-based Campaign magazine. The report, co-produced with Nielsen, places Amul in the fifth spot, after Sony, Samsung, Nestle, and LG, with Apple, Big Bazaar, Maggi, Apollo and Cadbury behind it. The study targeted over 4,800 consumers in 12 regional markets in the Asia-Pacific area, covering 14 major products and services categories and 73 subcategories.

That Amul is up there, alongside international brands with mega-spends, plays true to type: this campaign has always worked on smarts rather than spends. “India is a country of very emotional, very nostalgic people. That’s why brands like Tata, Bajaj and Amul have this enormous brand value and trust,” says da Cunha. “But to be honest,” he adds, “I’m not sure how successful we’d have been had we launched the campaign today.”

Distinctive voice

That’s a thought: would this cherubic child, frozen in time, fashion and rather outdated cartoon style, have cut through the clutter today? There can be no definitive answer to that one of course, but perhaps she would have. Because the Amul girl has been the brand’s ambassador, a symbol and a mnemonic for it, but what has kept this campaign relevant across all age groups for 50 years has been its one-liners. The lines have spoken in a distinctive voice and evolved in a manner that has in some ways, reflected India’s own social evolution.

Manish Jhaveri, who, along with da Cunha, thinks up the lines, recalls, “When I started off, most of the headlines were in English. Then, in 1996, when there was a tussle for power between Narasimha Rao, Sonia Gandhi and Arjun Singh, we had a cartoon saying, ‘Party, Patni or Woh’ (a take-off on pati, patni aur woh, a Hindi phrase that sums up the eternal triangle: husband, wife and the other woman/man). It worked so well that we started using more Hindi words after that.” That was an early reflection of the growing sense of nationalism and mainstream acceptance of Hinglish.

The technique, says Jhaveri, is to take a well-known Hindi word or phrase and tweak a key word or two. Sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in English (“Though the languages are very different, they lend themselves phonetically to puns.”) ‘Samajworthy party?’ they asked when Mulayam Singh won the UP elections, with the baseline saying, ‘Amul/Butter Pradesh’. (The headline relates to the event; the baseline connects the event to Amul.) Or ‘He came. He sau. He conquered,’ with ‘Amul/Tons of butter’ for Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th century (sau is Hindi for 100).

Naturally, Hindi headlines may not be appreciated or understood all over India. (The ad is also released in 30 publications across India.) So you now have Amul ads aimed at specific regions. During the IPL, for instance, the ad in Kolkata read ‘Korbo. Lorbo, Eatbo’, a take off on the Kolkata Knight Riders chant of Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo’.

When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa fell out with her aide Sasikala recently, Jhaveri, who is married to a Tamilian, reveals, “I called up my mother-in-law and, after a lot of discussion, got a Tamil phrase from her that I could play with. The result: ‘No bun for nanban’ with ‘Amul/For friends only.’

Politicians are, of course, the campaign’s mainstay. “Our greatest characters are our politicians. It’s like a Borat movie; it’s not a spoof, this is our country! In fact, my benchmark for the bizarre is: Would Borat spoof this?” says da Cunha.

However, the celebrities who have featured most often are, he tells us, Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar: “Basically, Bollywood and cricket, the two things that tie this country together.” The growing anger against corruption could well be a third uniting factor and, not surprisingly, many of the recent ads have been linked to scams.

Keep it short

The ads have also learnt to keep it short to cope with easily distracted consumers. Says Jhaveri: “The key is to not complicate things. My thumb rule is that the headline should not exceed five words, preferably three. Earlier, if we had three characters we were talking about, we’d try to include them all in the line. Not any more.”

But no hoarding can rest solely on its one-liners, warns da Cunha. “However clever your line, it will not be a success if your subject is not hot. For instance, we had a hoarding on Dara Singh’s death going out along with one on Time magazine’s cover calling Manmohan Singh an underachiever. While both were equally topical, the Manmohan Singh one got more feedback because it’s based on foreigners making fun of our Prime Minister and our own conflicting feelings about him.

The only aspect that has not changed is, of course, the Amul girl. Her cartoonist Jayant Rane recalls that he once tried to make her a tad slicker and older but Sylvester da Cunha, the man who created the campaign along with late cartoonist Eustace Fernandes, rejected the very idea (he clearly knew what he was doing). But, says Rane, the girl has much more detail to her now thanks to newer technology: digital printing and vinyl hoardings. Because Rahul da Cunha is a theatre director, he says, “He is very particular about her expression; it has to be just right. He also visualises every detail of the cartoon, including the camera angle, so to speak.”

So the Amul girl has successfully navigated changing times and moods to cross over to the 21st century. And she’s busier than ever; where one hoarding went out every week, the average is inching towards one every day now. She’s on Facebook and twitter and the social media have given her a new relevance and popularity.

But success has spawned an unanticipated problem. “Our biggest challenge today,” says Jhaveri, is that the press has started using ‘Amul lines’. For instance, we coined the phrase ‘one-day mataram’ for limited over cricket and one newspaper has now made it the tag line or slug for their coverage.” With the Olympics round the corner, guess the Amul girl will just have to try to be faster, brighter and stronger.