I first met Dr Kurien in 1986 when Ulka was invited to Anand. Sensing an opportunity to get some advertising work for this iconic brand, a large team was sent, led by a senior professional who was an ex-Unilever man. Our then CEO, not knowing Dr Kurien’s antipathy for MNCs, decided to introduce the team with a flourish, quoting their relevant experience on various MNCs. As it turned out, this was like waving a red flag in front of a bull [pun intended]. Thankfully, being the junior-most member of the team with no MNC experience, I was introduced last and that is probably why I survived the trial by fire. After 26 years, I still continue to service the business and am grateful to God that I had the chance to interact with such a legend. He not only taught us a lot with his vision and perspective, but was a torchbearer of principles and values. In many ways, not only was Dr Kurien an inspiration, but such was his sphere of influence that he moulded many lives, including mine.
Dr Kurien gave his advertising agencies a free hand like no other client I know, and rarely questioned or changed the work we presented. We learnt this early enough on our first assignment when we presented pack design options for the launch of Amul’s Amulya dairy whitener. Considering that this was our first presentation, the pack designs were put in front of him to select. He merely asked which one we wanted. Not expecting this response, everyone from the agency was tongue-tied until, once again, the junior-most person on the account pointed to one design. Dr Kurien drummed his fingers on the table (we were to discover later this was his way of saying okay), got up, and walked out. Till date, the green and white pack of Amulya remains unchanged, for good or for bad. We realized then that we had to present our best work and the work we believed in - that is what would go through.
Dr Kurien truly believed in everything Indian, and the only time I remember anything getting rejected was when there was something foreign - be it a model, a brand name, or any other detail.
Dr Kurien understood the power of master branding much before anyone else did, and gently nudged us to the umbrella position of ‘The Taste of India’, which remains unchanged even after 20 years. In fact, he believed in the power of consistency, which is why the Amul butter hoardings have been running for so long. The same was practised with sponsorships – Amul sponsored Surabhi for more than nine years and would have continued for many more if Doordarshan hadn’t lost interest in the programme. The same was the case with Amul India Show, an iconic show anchored by Sanjana Kapoor and ran for six years on Star, and maybe would have run for more but for Star changing to Hindi and dropping the show.
For me, the most amazing story is the time we were discussing the possibility of Amul sponsoring Shree Krishna on Doordarshan. He felt that advertising was intrusive in this case as people watched television to watch the serial. His solution was to buy up all advertising time on the show but not show any advertising so that viewers could have an ad-free experience; all he wanted was a super saying ‘This experience is brought to you by Amul’. He really thought ahead of his time. It is no wonder then that he managed to build a Rs 13,000 crore brand with the smallest of ad budgets and virtually no promotional expenditure.
The one thing which was topmost priority for him was to conduct business with utmost integrity. There was not a single instance of wrongdoing for such a mammoth operation which collected milk from lakhs of farmers twice a day and paid for their milk in cash. I don’t know of too many companies, public or private, which can boast of such an enviable record. At the funeral, when each one of us was coming to grips with our emotions, I asked Mr Utsav Kapadia (MD, Kaira Can) what that one thought on his mind was. He said he had not met anyone else with such supreme integrity.
It will really take a lot to make another Dr Kurien.