Feature
THEATRE OF COFFEE

By: Gaurav Puri             Dated: November 01, 2013

When coffee and performance blend, it’s the ushering in and reenactment of an inclusive civilisational experience… a fine choreography of a shared vision, emotion and cultural capital

It’s a classic. Coffee meets Theatre. Together they set the stage for a new cultural experience. Only coffee is the southern kaapi and theatre is a wondrous Oho!

Manu Srinivas and Annamalai dreamt up their dreams in MICA or the Mudra Institute of Communications in Ahmedabad, where they were batchmates, not too long ago in 2009-11.

So, what were their dreams?

Manu wanted to recreate the kaapi experience while Anna wanted to reenact life as it were. It was thus that Manu christened his dream ‘KaapiCheenu’ and Anna named it ‘Oho’, Oho Productions to be precise.

There’s no mistaking a distinct inverse resonance that KaapiCheenu produces in relation to a distinctly Western cultural marker – the capuchino! ‘Cheenu’, of course, is also an affectionate corruption in Tamil of the name Srini, too! So, it’s culture!

But where do the two intersect and how?

Kaapi and Oho had a shared philosophy and embodied similar brand values – to summarise in their own words: “modern yet rooted, youth centric, quirky, irreverent, Tanglish (Tamil + English) in lingo, and new age/media driven”.

So, what’s the synergy the two have struck?

While KaapiCheenu was the official beverages partner of Oho Productions in the latter’s debut show ‘REFLECTIONS’ in 2012, the year the two were founded, Oho is the former’s official end-to-end branding partner.

The branding project involved in the initial days “the conceptualisation and execution of the brand kit (name, logo, story, avatar/character), kiosk design (kiosk exteriors, interiors – wall art illustrations, wall copy, props), on-ground promotional campaigns (flash mob-like improvised jigs), and online integration (facebook/twitter/mailers) of all these elements”.

The fundamental difference is that as MNC brands introduce desi versions of international products, KaapiCheenu is offering interesting international variants of traditional products

So, their relationship is more organic than technical. So, KaapiCheenu recreates the kaapi experience redolent with nostalgia and at once seeks to connect with the post-nostalgic generation of what Anna describes as “fragmented identity”. And Oho backs it up the “human touch” through “on-ground-activation which in its very essence is physical, intimate and direct”.

What does KaapiCheenu do in an environment that is increasingly assuming global attributes with global brands becoming local markers of aspiration and identity?

Creative Brands spoke to Manu and Anna and sought to delve into a unique relationship where there are two equal protagonists on stage, seeking to share the limelight and the audience equally.

CB: Manu, why ‘Kaapi’?

Manu Srinivas: Born and brought up in a traditional environment, it was no wonder that I developed a liking for this delightful beverage. My initial liking for kaapi grew on me and became a passion which I could no longer separate from my identity. Being a coffee lover and having tried many Western coffee variants, I personally felt the need to celebrate our traditional kaapi, considering its rich cultural heritage. In a world where Western coffee variants are celebrated, KaapiCheenu’s vision is to take our traditional filter kaapi global.


CB: Anna, why ‘live entertainment’?

Annamalai: We are living in virtual times. We are living in the virtual age of Facebook, Twitter, Gtalk, Whatsapp to Flickr and all other photo-editing apps. A virtual world that dominates the way we think and feel in the real world. Thereby people have lost touch with their ‘real’ selves, ‘real identity’. All of us, today have, what I call, a fragmented identity – like the 2 videos, 3 links, 4 pictures that we keep switching between on our browsers. In such virtual times, live entertainment is an exploration of people’s real selves. We are there on stage in flesh and blood for real, and we express our real selves. In this expression, we seek to connect with the real selves of our audiences and help them further explore it as well. Basically saying, enough of watching Youtube on that couch – get off your seat, and turn up for our LIVE shows. Get a reality check. Get back to your real self, at least a little.

Personally, my partner and I are people, who like things that are real. Spontaneity, energy, face-to-face and thereby heart-to-heart human connections, the real self, and the truth are some words which can describe why we are into live entertainment or theatre.

THE MARKET ENVIRONMENT

CB: Your vision is a synthesis of modern and traditional worldviews. Both of you speak ‘Tanglish’. Your communication campaign is an integration of technology and nativity. Glocalisation is the new culture as many brands are adapting to the ethos of the local community they serve. How does such a market environment react to a small-scale local brand?

MS: As you rightly mentioned, glocalisation is the new culture, where international brands are not only introducing localised variants of their products but also adding local lingo to their marketing communications. However, the fundamental difference is that as MNC brands introduce desi versions of international products, KaapiCheenu is offering interesting international variants of traditional products. For example, we have a ‘Corn Chilly Cheese Vadai’ – a traditional vadai with an international flavour. This range of products complements our regular traditional menu items on offer. Despite being a small-scale local brand, we have the power to reach out to a larger audience due to our strong social media presence. Being a youthful traditional brand, speaking the language of the local modern young, the market environment is responding positively to our brand.

AM: Firstly, it’s a great question. It’s the question of our times. English is more than just a language today. It’s a mindset, a lifestyle. So, on one hand, more than merely the upper/elite class having or wanting to have a western lifestyle like before, today there is a mass upsurge of the middle class and everyone above to have a western lifestyle. That is reflected everywhere – in their lingo, apparels, hangout choices, choice of food brands... And in tune with this change, the MNC brands are also coming out, albeit in a small way, by localising their products and promotions to suit the local lingo and culture – so that there is a two-way handshake between these MNC brands and the middle class that aspires to a western lifestyle. So it seems to be a win-win for the MNC brands.

But on the other hand, what about the indigenous homegrown brands that have been operating in the local lingo and culture, catering to the middle class and thereabouts? It’s time for them to adapt and co-exist as well. They got to get to speak more English and imbibe some of the relevant western attributes into their brands. And here’s where a new brand like ours – Oho Productions, comes into the picture. We are a new-age brand that speak the lingo of the youth (Tanglish, smileys, hashtags, chat acronyms and the likes), appeal to their hybrid lifestyle or culture (like cooking Pongal in a microwave for example), and understand their miniscule attention spans, among other things.

My partner, Sam, (Sambamoorthy Sundaresan) has something to say:

Sam: At a time when the lines between east and west are blurring, there is a need to appeal to both. We have a large community of locals abroad who miss their home. We want them to experience their home, their language, their roots through us... We want to be the bridge here. I think in a way we are the exact opposite of glocalisation. We are taking/making local – global. And on the other hand, importantly, reminding our youth in India of our own roots. It’s an emerging market here, where everybody has a place. The response to our work so far, be it our shows, promotions, or the brand launch we have done, has been very encouraging and positive. More power to social media.

CB: What do you think of ‘branding tradition’?

MS: Branding tradition is extremely important, especially in the current globalised environment. As the young of modern India increasingly celebrate international brands as lifestyle brands, our traditional elements are increasingly becoming overshadowed. There is a strong need to brand tradition for our native population by making it more exciting, especially for today’s younger generation, and then eventually take it to the global population. Globalisation is complete only when our local brands are celebrated by the rest of the world like how we treat international brands here.

AM: I think that’s pretty much my answer, too. I would just like to add that branding ‘tradition’ puts India on the global brandscape. We have very few indigenous brands that are currently doing that at a global level.

We are a new-age brand that speak the lingo of the youth (Tanglish, smileys, hashtags, chat acronyms and the likes), appeal to their hybrid lifestyle or culture (like cooking Pongal in a microwave for example), and understand their miniscule attention spans, among other things

CB: What does branding do to tradition? So, there is life beyond the business proposition it also represents?

MS: Branding has the potential to showcase the positive elements of tradition and influence the audience to understand, appreciate and celebrate the same. We are striving to make tradition fashionable to the youth of today.

AM: When a Taj Mahal or a Tanjore Temple gets recognised as a UN heritage site, it’s a story of our history, culture, roots being told to the world, with credibility. When a UN (it is in many ways, a brand on its own) can come and do that to Indian monuments, I think existing and new Indian brands should look to do the same and more of it. It’s, in fact, our responsibility.

THE BRAND ENVIRONMENT

CB: The kiosk itself is crafted on the lines of a traditional Kumbakonam house. Cheenu peeping out as her grandmother gives her a cup of coffee evokes a homelike aroma. KaapiCheenu as a brand stands for the traditional homegrown experience and is redolent with nostalgia. How does such an environment play out for the ‘modern’ young? What would it say about KaapiCheenu?

MS: The KaapiCheenu kiosk offers a memorable experience for both the older and younger generation of visitors. The moment they see the kiosk designed on the lines of a traditional Kumbakonam house, the older visitors are filled with nostalgia. While the modern young who rarely get a chance to explore these unique traditional elements, often find our kiosk design a refreshingly novel experience.

And on ‘KaapiCheenu’, our young visitors have gushed excitedly about our unique kiosk design and some even mentioned that they started drinking filter kaapi only after they were introduced to our brand. Even the ones, who don’t prefer kaapi, seem to enjoy the refreshing chilled rose milk that we offer.

AM: I think for the modern young, a visit to a KaapiCheenu kiosk is like a visit to their grandma’s. It’s a whiff of nativity and tradition, in what is an increasingly westernised world around us. Ironically, it’s ‘exotic’ to them in their own homeland. But, am sure, it’s addictive as well which keeps them coming.

We have a large community of locals abroad who miss their home. We want them to experience their home, their language, their roots through us... We want to be the bridge here

CB: Kaapi and International coffee symbolise two different lifestyles. Who are the consumers of KaapiCheenu? How does KaapiCheenu visualise the Kaapi culture in a homogenised brand-led environment?

MS: Kaapi has a rich cultural heritage in south India. It is a personal drink that’s savoured in a ‘davara tumbler’, first thing in the morning, in traditional households. International coffee promoted through cafés has become an integral part of today’s lifestyle. In fact, the café culture has turned coffee into a social drink consumed in a comfortable environment where the focus is more on having a good time hanging out with friends/meeting people/conversations around the coffee.

However, we firmly believe that there is yet another culture, the ‘On-the-Go’ kaapi culture that is bound to rise. We have had an encouraging response so far with visitors from all age groups frequenting our kiosks. We provide them with a unique kaapi experience that starts with the kiosk, the interior art and copy, and finally the refreshing cup which is served up instantly.

AM: Firstly, I don’t think kaapi and international coffee symbolise two different lifestyles. Like I said earlier, today’s youth have a fragmented identity. We don’t belong to just one place or just have one lifestyle. We are a mish mash of a whole lot of things. That way a bunch of four can spend few hours at a café and on the way back home, drop at KaapiCheenu for some vadais. There is enough time, money, place and mindspace for both these lifestyles to co-exist in the youth of today. And finally, when KaapiCheenu becomes a really strong brand, it means it’s Kaapi culture has become ‘cool’ and vice versa.

THE RELATIONSHIP

CB: ‘Experience’ and geography are at the heart of KaapiCheenu and OHO Productions. Before brands, both of you (Anna and Manu) have been friends. I am assuming it would have been easier to create a friendly brand environment. How do you visualise extending the KaapiCheenu tradition to the bigger, wider world?

MS: We believe that the most difficult market to make a mark is our own local markets. The fact that filter kaapi is already consumed at home and in restaurants, fast foods and the presence of international coffee variants makes the local market extremely challenging. Once our brand is established here, extending the culture outside will be challenging and interesting and we believe we would appeal owing to the unique value that we will be providing.

AM: Yes, the common bond between Manu and me has been MICA. And my partner, Sam, is clearly a MICAn by spirit. We have fed into and fed off each others’ brands organically as well. On the other side, when pizzas and burgers can rule Indian tongues, filter kaapi can rule foreign tongues as well. So, the core product (filter kaapi) has it within itself, to begin with. And thereafter, the brand elements should take it to different parts of the world. Again, more power to social media

CB: Be it ‘Kaapiholics’ selling kaapi or KaapiCheenu being the beverage partner for shows put up by OHO Productions, on-ground activation is the fundamental medium for both the brands. What advantages do you see in a non-technology route for brand communication?

MS: Although technology plays a critical role in today’s brand communication, there is too much clutter everywhere. Attention spans are coming down and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand out in the minds of the audiences. On-ground activation is an important medium to effectively reach out and engage the audience here. Being quirky and irreverent in our communication through the non-technology route helps us in breaking the clutter, thus enabling a unique brand experience for our audience. All this eventually has helped us acquire customers.

AM: There have been people who followed our entire on-ground activation drive, online – through our Facebook albums and all. So, it’s very tricky and challenging today. Like Manu says there is a lot of online clutter. It’s a clutter of the same things they see through in different pages/channels, so to say. On the other hand, on-ground activation in its very essence is physical, intimate and direct. In short, it’s some form of a human touch – something which we seem to have long lost in this era of the touch-phone. Like for example, we had kaapi-mask clad people wearing KaapiCheenu T-shirts, doing an improvised jig in a park, engaging the morning walkers and joggers there. So, to even someone, who is tracking our on-ground activation online (through our albums or posts), it’s different from the other stuff he/she is watching online. That creates quite an impression in their minds. So, perhaps, we already have people who want to try our brands.

THE WORKING STYLE

CB: OHO Productions is a theatre-cum-marketing communication company. Where does theatre stand today as a communication form? Do you see theatre becoming a regular feature of mainline agencies? If it does, what could be its effect as an advertising medium on audiences?

AM: Like I mentioned in my earlier answer, when everything’s going digital and virtual, there’s a huge void in terms of the human touch. Herein, an adaptation of theatrical forms (I wouldn’t use the word ‘theatre’ for its too pure and sacrosanct for that) can be effectively used for branding. I am unsure if it was an on-ground activation for Maaza or Slice, where a big spongy mango-like thing is being rolled off a cliff-like road and people scurry away to save themselves from being crushed by it. I think, it has been quite a while since I saw this. But it sticks in my mind. There’s wide scope for such stuff. Remember, youtube videos only make you more numb. These kind of human experiential branding jigs, leave you with a shock and/or an impression in your minds.

CB: Manu, kaapi being an emotive peg especially in South India, KaapiCheenu offers a traditional kitchen menu. How do you differentiate yourself from regular restaurants/stalls offering the same menu? Who forms your core competition?

MS: Apart from the regular traditional menu items, we also offer a range of innovative traditional recipes that are unique to KaapiCheenu. For instance, we provide Corn Chilly Cheese Vadai which is an international version of our traditional vadai. Also, we are looking at offering products that are usually not available in most traditional food outlets in the city.

Filter kaapi is continued to be consumed at home and outside at restaurants/fast food joints. There are a number of filter kaapi kiosks that are also operating in the city catering to the ‘on-the-go’ consumers. To add to this, international coffee brands are promoting international variants of coffee through cafés. All of this provides a highly competitive environment for a young indigenous traditional brand like KaapiCheenu.

CB: How has been growth…

KaapiCheenu launched two kiosks in the first eight months of its operation and is likely to open two more outlets soon. We have garnered over 1,000 likes on our official Facebook page and what we believe to be our strength is our regular customer walking in, whose day is incomplete without our kaapi.

Oho Productions completed three shows of its debut production –‘REFLECTIONS’, launched KaapiCheenu, involving an end-to-end on-ground and online branding campaign, conducted theatre workshops for kids, performed a few private shows, and swept most of the awards at a recent Singapore theatre festival.

CB

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