Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Guts, Glory, Gum-ption: How Center Fresh came back from the wild

As Center Fresh completes 25 years in the country, Forbes India traces how Perfetti Van Melle's flagship brand used strong advertising to make it big

Rajiv Singh
Published: May 2, 2019 05:18:07 PM IST
Updated: May 3, 2019 12:55:36 PM IST

Guts, Glory, Gum-ption: How Center Fresh came back from the wildRohit Kapoor, director-marketing  and Rajesh Ramakrishnan, managing director at Perfetti Van Melle India

To be marketed as the ‘official chewing gum’ of the Indian cricket team, and that too during the marquee World Cup in 1996, was a coup for Center Fresh, a two-year-old brand at the time.

When Italian confectionary major Perfetti Van Melle set up shop in India in 1994 with its flagship gum brand, it had a lot to chew on: The market was highly unorganised, the quality of products left a lot to be desired, technology was mostly absent, and, alarmingly, there was no chewing gum ‘brand.’ Chewing gum was a product, a commodity.

The cricket World Cup seemed like the perfect opportunity to set things right. As the ‘official chewing gum’ of the Indian cricket team, Center Fresh managed to grab attention. “It was the first liquid-filled gum in the market,” recalls Rohit Kapoor, director-marketing at Perfetti Van Melle India. “Consumers loved the innovation.”

Unfortunately, the gum failed to stick. Reason: The communication didn’t click.

Perfetti had been running ‘dubbed’ versions of the global advertisements in India before the World Cup didn’t help build stickiness for the brand. Take, for instance, the ‘rafting’ commercial in 1994, which was made for international market. Or another campaign in 1997: Titled ‘andar hai wo baat’ it also failed to stir imagination of people in an impulse category.

For the next decade or so, Center Fresh took a back seat in consumer consciousness. Perfetti, too, shifted the brand from the centre of its attention. Brands such as Alpenliebe, Mentos and Center Shock hogged the limelight.

Guts, Glory, Gum-ption: How Center Fresh came back from the wild

Fast forward to 2007. The Zubaan pe rakhe lagam (control your tongue) advertisement hits the television. The commercial was deemed hilarious, the brand was using humour for the first time, employinh Ogilvy, and Center Fresh was back in action. Interestingly, the brand got a new lease of life after the ‘death’ of a similar-sounding brand from Perfetti stable: Center Shock.

Launched in 2002, the sour flavoured gum ‘almost killed’ Center Fresh between 2003 and 2006, when it became a rage in the country. A large role in making the brand insanely popular was its maiden ‘barber’ commercial. A man enters a hairdressing salon, and wants a particular hairstyle shown in a magazine. The barber, after having a look at the magazine, gives the man Center Shock chewing gum. The customer undergoes convulsions with its extreme sour taste, and finally, ends up with an ‘electrocuted’ updo. A voice over says: Naya Center Shock chewing gum, hila ke rakh de [The new Center Shock chewing gum will shake you up].

The meteoric rise of Center Shock, unfortunately, met with a meteoric end.

By 2006, the brand had faded away. But its biggest positive was to make the word ‘centre’ fixed in the consciousness of the consumers. “Its impact on the motherland was tremendous. It brought back the memories of Center Fresh,” recounts Kapoor, who joined Perfetti in 2000. Over the next nine years, a series of hilarious Center Fresh commercials amplified the reach and impact of Zubaan pe rakhe Lagam. The blockbuster commercials from Ogilvy had already made the brand iconic. Over the next few years, however, brand fatigue set in and Center Fresh threatened to look jaded.

It was around 2015 that Perfetti decided to come with a new brand positioning. It was clear that Zubaan pe rakhe Lagam has outlived its life. “It was important to go back to the core of the category, which is fresh breath,” recalls Kapoor. The new tagline, Chali Hawa Mastani took it back to the core, and also meant an attempt to revive the sagging sales of the brand. The gambit worked. “We managed to win back the consumers,” he says, adding that other gum brands too started highlighting functionality.  

After two years, Perfetti refreshed the brand again. The new tagline--Taazi saans rakho paas—was an extension of the strategy. Rajesh Ramakrishnan, managing director at Perfetti Van Melle India, explains the reason behind the shift.

One of the decisions taken in 2014-15, Ramakrishnan says, was around how to anchor the brand on fresh breath. “What we needed was a strong architecture we could leverage,” he says. It allowed the company to expand the brand into multiple product formats and categories. Take, for instance, the decision to launch Center Fresh mints. While the core chewing gum gives you fresh breath, mints offers instant fresh breath discreetly. “The brand had gold positioning,” he says. “The idea from here is to see how the brand can branch off into different areas.”

Apart from innovative product, extensive distribution and iconic advertising, what probably also pushed the brand is something that happened by default. Kirana and paan shops across the country started using Re 1 packs of Center Fresh as a substitute for monetary change, say marketing experts. “The product found new utility. And it happened by default,” says Abraham Koshy, professor of marketing at IIM-Ahmedabad. While advertisement seeded the brand into consciousness of people, the neo-utility helped it get far greater trial. What made it worked was not the push by the shopkeepers but the perceived value of the product. “The consumers were satisfied that the shopkeepers were not cheating them by peddling an inferior product for Re 1,” says Koshy.

Guts, Glory, Gum-ption: How Center Fresh came back from the wild

The fact that Center Fresh survived, and flourished for 25 long years exhibits the inherent tenacity of the brand. “It could have easily died when it was left on its own by the parent company, which started pushing Center Shock,” says Ashita Aggarwal, marketing professor at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. “Gutsy brands survive to tell a glorious tale,” she says. Look at the numbers. With 31 percent (market share of Center Fresh), Center Fresh tops the chart in the gum category, and is followed by another brand from Perfetti stable--Center Fruit—which has a 25 percent share. 

To survive 25 years, a brand must exhibit guts, glory and gumption to remain at the centre of consumer consciousness. Center Fresh is one of them.