It is not often that a company's management comes calling on its mascot-creator, to explain why it dropped the character? But exceptions are made when the mascot has a legendary maker and created a special place in people's hearts.
Legend has it that the Asian Paints' top brass personally conveyed to the late cartoonist, R K Laxman, creator of the impish Gattu, the mascot's withdrawal. Gattu, like the Amul moppet, became a part of advertising folklore.
In the 1950s-70s, the mischievous Gattu was a part of Asian Paints' advertising, mostly in print, accompanied by the line 'Any surface that needs painting needs Asian Paints', to justify his antics. But by the eighties and nineties, Gattu and his paint brush adorned only the paint cans, appeared at the end of TV ads or at the bottom of print ads. Yet, he remained a fixture in Asian Paints' identity till 2002.
KV Sridhar, chief creative officer, SapientNitro, says that Gattu took a drab, commodity-led business, limited to its core users - painters - and made it relevant to the larger audience of home-owners. This was Asian Paints' first big attempt at getting the end consumer interested in the low-involvement category of paints.
Gattu aided in brand recall among home-owners, who were the ones to pay the influencers such as painters. Getting them interested in the brand meant that they could take a call on which paint to buy, experts say. After the introduction of Gattu in 1954, sales zoomed ten-fold at Asian Paints, recall brand historians.
The Gattu experiment was vastly different from what rivals at that time were doing. Jenson & Nicholson, for example, attempted to speak to an upwardly-mobile, urban audience in the seventies, with the 'When you think of colour, think of us' campaign. Gattu appealed to the masses and helped Asian Paints become the leader.
Of course, the Mumbai-based company, which began in a small garage in 1942, pushed the envelope in product development, marketing and distribution. Today, it has over 50 per cent share of decorative paints, the largest segment in paints.
Since then, AP, according to analysts tracking the company, rejigged its brand portfolio and kept the emphasis on a few strong brands, neatly clubbed under verticals like exterior (Apex Ultima), interior (Tractor Emulsion, Royale, Royale Play), solutions (Ezycolour) and waterproofing (SmartCare).
"In the last three to four decades, it transited from being a paint-can company to a solutions provider, moving to surfaces beyond walls, with metal and wood finishes," says B Ramanathan, managing partner, Ogilvy & Mather, Mumbai and Kolkata, the agency that has been associated with the company for the last 30 years. Contract Advertising and McCann Worldgroup also work on the account, handling Royale and Royale Play, respectively.
It was Ogilvy that took Asian Paints' familiarity created by Gattu to the next level with festive advertising in the 1980s that spoke of how occasions such as marriage or child-birth and festivals like Diwali and Pongal could be reasons to paint one's home. The idea was to bring emotional connectivity to paints, explains Ramanathan. It was a hit and paved the way for one of its most memorable campaigns - Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hain (Every home says something about its owner) - in the 1990s.
The nineties saw the emergence of the Hindi idiom in advertising, led by Piyush Pandey at Ogilvy. Asian Paints, besides Fevicol, led the charge as advertisers. Har Ghar… was popular, explains Ramanathan, because it addressed the need of self-expression among the burgeoning middle-class: "This was the post-liberalisation era, a home became a living space, where the consumer wanted to express herself. Decorating one's home via painting was one of the ways. The tagline lifted paints into the lifestyle domain".
Other iconic Hindi ads followed such as the 'Wah, Sunil babu, naya ghar…' (Wow, Sunil, a new house...!) ad that spoke of how a product could keep a house's exteriors timeless.
Since then, Asian Paints has also consolidated its earlier home solutions offerings under its paint solutions brand, Ezycolour, determinedly moving into the services space.