Topical for 25 years. Meet the Amul boys
Rahul da Cunha, Manish Jhaveri and Jayant Rane have been buttering up India with their iconic ads for a quarter of a century. How do they keep on top of an ever-changing nation?
Last month, a Facebook notification reminded Rahul da Cunha he, copywriter Manish Jhaveri and artist Jayant Rane had been working on the Amul girl topical ads for 25 years. They didn’t exchange hugs. They haven’t even met in several months. And yet, the fruits of their collective labour have been on outdoor, print and online ads as often as five times a week.
You can’t have missed the ads. Amul’s mascot, a little girl in a polka-dot dress, long lashes, blue hair and ribbon, has been part of the butter brand’s campaign since 1966. Over the decades, in short, witty taglines, she’s commented on India’s major milestones and preoccupations. She’s cracked in-jokes in public. She’s made the news cool. And the ads have stacked up to narrate India’s journey from inward-looking country to a nation confident about her place in the world.
Da Cunha, Jhaveri and Rane say they’ve been collaborating for so long, they don’t even need to be in the same room to get work done. The magic now happens, often overnight, on WhatsApp, email and quick phone calls.
The ads’ template is simple: The headline comments on the news, the tagline connects the subject to butter, the illustration brings it all together. “The genius is the concept,” says Kunal Vijayakar, food writer and former adman, who worked with Da Cunha’s father Sylvester as a visualiser and copywriter in 1988. He remembers hiring Jhaveri, then a “floppy-haired” graduate. “I remember how all of us would have suggestions for the ads, and what an honour it was to be a part of it,” Vijayakar says.
There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. When Amul tweeted birthday wishes to the Prime Minister last year, Narendra Modi replied thanking the brand for its humour. And even as brands increasingly respond to current events to ‘newsjack’ their campaigns, the little Amul girl stands taller than the rest. Here’s how they do it.
The creative head
Rahul da Cunha took over the creation of the Amul topical advertisements from his father Sylvester, in 1994.
“The Amul topicals are part of my bloodstream; I think about them day and night,” he says. “When my dad was working on them, he’d do one billboard a month. Now we do as many as five a week, across platforms.”
But 25 years with the same team means they’ve smoothed the process down to a point where it’s all done virtually. “I can text an idea to Manish and I know exactly what he’ll be thinking,” says da Cunha.
They aim to convey the general national sentiment in each ad, so timing is key. “On Monday, we look at the topics India is thinking about and decide what’s hot, what can hold and what is likely to change over the coming days. Our news comes from the papers; the reactions and trends come from social media.”
So much has changed in 25 years. In the mid-1990s, no one was obsessing over pop culture or football. “Now religion and politics have mixed, politicians are public figures, we have Facebook. Even brand communication has changed. Consumers are more vocal. You’re nothing if you don’t engage in a conversation with them.”
The Amul girl has lasted because she’s adapted to what is relevant, and is never malicious. But she’s in trouble less often now than she used to be. “I’m getting old. I don’t want to sully the brand. And India is now so polarised, it’s actually easier to know what to avoid,” da Cunha says. “Politics has become divisive, and brands have become the unifier.”
As a team, the challenges now are to keep the ads relevant in the southern states, where Hindi and Bollywood don’t work. And to stay relevant to those born after the 1990s. “I don’t want Amul to be a nostalgia brand. I don’t want people to tell me, “Oh, the Amul girl! My dad loves those ads.”
Jayant Rane, 59, is the artist who has been hand-painting the topicals for more than 30 years. “I can’t tell you how the years have passed. I can tell you that I love my job,” he says. “The news changes, but Amul ad format is always the same. And I keep drawing the Amul baby.”
He’s essentially a freelancer, but has no other clients. “This job is a waiting game – an idea can come at any time and must be sketched quickly,” he says.
He doesn’t need to commute to the office any more. “Rahul sir sends an idea over WhatsApp, with the treatment it needs, and references. I pencil-sketch three or four options – different angles, looks, expressions and reactions. This doesn’t take more than 30 minutes.”
The tough part comes next. Every single ad is painted by hand. “It’s just faster. I can’t be bothered with firing up Photoshop and selecting brush tools. Plus, Rahul sir is always in a rush: ‘Chalo na yaar!’”
Ads don’t come with artist signatures. So until recently, no one beyond Rane’s immediate friends and family knew he was the man behind the ads. “Someone once saw me sketch and said, ‘You know the Amul ads? You should follow that style.’ At that point I’d been drawing them for 20 years!”
It’s a good team, Rane adds. “They’ve not been angry with me in 25 years. I’ll be 60 next year but freelancers don’t retire and artists never do. In any case, I don’t think Rahul sir will let me,” he says.
Manish Jhaveri, an architecture graduate, loved Amul ads growing up, and convinced the agency to hire him as a copywriter. “In 1990, I walked into the agency office, not knowing a damn thing about how agencies work. They were nice enough to let me in,” he says. New Zealand was playing India at the time and he told the creative guys he didn’t care for their tagline and suggested another one. They saw me out.” Jhaveri did apply five years later and got hired, again. “I found my voice in the third month or so,” he says.
Working on an Amul topical calls for slightly unusual copywriting skills. “A lot of copywriters aren’t funny; they’re pompous. They can’t take a joke as well as they can make it. They’re married to their words, which makes it hard to move forward. With Amul, you can’t obsess over a tagline for long, the turnaround is so quick.”
Jhaveri also works from home and says, thankfully, he’s surrounded by funny people. “My wife offers suggestions; my daughter, now in class 10, did her first open-mic comedy act recently. She’s the one who keeps asking about stories behind the older ads.”
Jhaveri calls the Amul ads ‘Twitter before Twitter’. “They were quick takes about current affairs. In1995, when there was a tussle in leadership between PV Narasimha Rao, Sonia Gandhi and VP Singh, my tagline was Party, Patni, Ya Woh. It was our first Hindi, colloquial one, shaping the flavour of the ads to come. We do ads that respond to tragedy, the Sri Lanka attack this year. The brand is a spokesperson for not just the happy moments. The sad ones are the hardest to do.”
Pun maska: How Amul’s topical ads came to be
The Amul cooperative, founded in 1946, registered the brand name Amul in 1957. But it was only in 1966 that founder Dr Verghese Kurien decided that the products needed advertising. They signed up the Bombay agency Advertising and Sales Promotion (ASP).
At ASP, creative head Sylvester Da Cunha and art director Eustace Fernandes were tasked with creating a mascot and slogan for the butter. Given that the competitor, Polson, featured a blonde child, they sought to create a more familiar one. Fernandes came up with a cute kid with no nose, a grin, naughty eyes and hair tired up in a ribbon. Da Cunha’s wife, Nisha, thought up Utterly Butterly Delicious. There were some reservations – Butterly wasn’t even a word! Still, it was catchier than Amul’s old tagline: Processed from the purest milk under the most hygienic conditions by a dairy co-operative in Gujarat.
The campaign was predominantly for billboards – there was no TV at the time and print ads were too expensive. It forced the team to think creatively, using minimal text and simple visuals. The first one, displayed along Marine Drive, featured the girl in prayer, one eye open and trained on a packet of butter. The tagline: Give us this day our daily bread and butter. She was a hit.
It didn’t take long for Da Cunha to realise he’d soon run out of butter wordplay. They shifted focus to commenting on current affairs, keeping Amul as relevant as the news. It helped that Kurien, a firebrand himself, trusted the agency enough to allow them the creative freedom to do this, choosing not to oversee each ad and so speed up its release.
They released their first topical ad during the horse races. The Amul girl, astride a horse, featured with the tag Thoroughbread, with Utterly Butterly Delicious at the bottom. The ads went on to comment on Calcutta’s labour strikes: Bread without Amul—cholbe na, cholbe na.
By the ’80s, news and Amul butter were inextricably linked. The ads incorporated politicians, actors and cricketers as talking points. They got edgier, poking fun at the news, and became a gauge of public sentiment.
Rahul daCunha took over the campaign from his father in 1994, widening the scope of subjects. With Manish Jhaveri as copywriter and Jayant Rane painting the illustrations, they branched out with Hindi puns, pop culture riffs and topics trending internationally.
Output increased too. In the early decades, Amul ads were released once or twice a month. At its peak in 2015, the team was putting out almost five ads a week in print, on outdoor platforms like banners and billboards, and on social media.