If you took NH27 from the Chaudhary Charan Singh International Airport towards Gomti Nagar in Lucknow, you’ll pass by a fairly chic-looking sheesha lounge, bar and café, in minimalist black & white signage and décor, signaling the onset of Modernity in what is otherwise a quintessentially ageless city. Where NH27 intersects with the Faizabad Road which then descends off to a side onto Marine Drive, there’s a rooftop Molecule Bar that has live music that pierces through the sound-proof rooms of the Renaissance Hotel next door. (Side note: Have you ever tried to explain to a Lucknowi cabbie how to pronounce Renaissance? Hey Marriott Hotels, maybe you should rethink that brand name.)
Where, you might be wondering, are these timeless brands mentioned in the title of this piece?
Patience, my friend. Timeless brands don’t appear – or disappear – overnight.
I went on a family trip to Kanpur and Lucknow this past weekend—ostensibly covering over 1000 kilometres by road, but the more important road we traveled over was that of time. We went back about 116 years in one instance (but that’s a story for another time), a little lesser in a couple of other instances.
One of those instances—on the face of it—defies all the rules that are supposedly creating the “new normal” in the world of marketing and brands. And is located amidst the labyrinthine streets of Kanpur in various locations.
Indulge me for a minute here.
The shop is called Cheater’s Sphere-shaped Sweets (when the name is translated into English). Its tagline (originally in Hindi, but here’s the translation): “There’s no friend or relative that we have not cheated.” In talking about one of only 2 products they sell—the “Disreputable Ice Cream”—this is the “encouragement” they offer to paying customers: “Don’t let your guests taste this. Or they’ll never leave.” Everything they say or do is only in Hindi, not English, not in any other language. They have no seating in any of their shops. And forget digital payments, they accept no form of payment other than cash. That’s right. No credit or debit cards or digital wallets.
Those who’ve been to or are from Kanpur and been “cheated” by this downright disreputable business doubtless know what I’m referring to. For the uninitiated, this is Thaggu ke Ladoo, first set up in Parade, Kanpur, in 1973, and then subsequently branching out to 5 other locations around the city. “Aisa koi saga nahi jise humne thaga nahi” is as famous as the Badnaam Kulfi’s caveat to buyers: “Mehmaan ko chakhaana nahi, tik jaayega.” (See translations in the previous paragraph.)
So, let me recount all the ways in which they defy the rules of new-age businesses.
They limit their customer base to only those who speak / read Hindi. Their brand name and slogan openly claim to cheat all and sundry, especially near and dear ones. (Whatever happened to brand authenticity?) Oh, and they don’t have a larger brand purpose either. I’m not sure if they could solve the problem of global hunger, but they’re not even claiming to try solving it.
They have a negative adjective in the name of their second-best-selling (also the only other) product. They have no e-commerce or delivery partners. They only have analog payment methods. They don’t capture any customer data. They don’t do digital marketing. They have no CRM. Their kulfi is hand-made, on-site, fresh, daily and they don’t have advanced machinery or AI “optimizing” their operations.
And they clock an annual revenue of well over half a million dollars (over INR 4 crores), with just two products that cost only INR 40 and INR 50 per single serving. Being sold out of just 6 tiny retail locations.
I’m not dissing the new normal or data-driven marketing or the D2C economy.
And granted Thaggu ke Ladoo have not been able to scale beyond Kanpur—the current, third-generation owners of the business (who are descendants of the brand’s original creator Ram Avtar Pandey) tried doing that but without much success.
But I want to serve a periodic reminder about what still continues to remain at the core of building desire, building brands, creating consumer pull. And I’ll quote the current owners again in doing that.
“Our grandfather, Ram Avtar Pandey, was a firm believer that you cannot sell something in a straight-forward way. People like a twist in the tale.”
Oh, and as for brand authenticity, you can only wish today’s brands could be as honest as Thaggu ke Ladoo is with its name.
Ram Avtar Pandey, a follower of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, once heard Gandhiji referring to sugar as white poison. Put in a quandary because sugar was an essential ingredient of his ladoos, Pandeyji decided to come clean and be upfront to his customers: that in using sugar to tempt customers with his ladoos, he was cheating them. So, his brand name was the most direct apology he could and did offer to his customers.
Perhaps all the brands that liberally play with the truth in using words like “organic” and “natural” to describe their products could learn more than one lesson from Thaggu Ram Avtar Pandey.
The ladoos have long since disappeared inside me. But lessons from this timeless brand remain.
(Narayan Devanathan is CEO, dentsu Solutions, India. Opinions expressed are his own.)