May 15, 2015

Dialogue: Paper Boat

by Amishi Parekh

Remember those homemade recipes passed down from grandmother to mother, which provided abundant refreshment on hot, summer days spent playing outdoors? This is the story behind Paper Boat, a range of traditional Indian drinks, whose creators saw an opportunity to preserve those time-tested beverages, by making them easily available in the market and relevant to a young, global audience, with the simple premise of “packaging childhood memories”.

When developing the brand, Neeraj Kakkar, along with co-founders of Hector Beverages, Suhas Misra (who left the company last year), Neeraj Biyani and James Nuttall, first defined their core value as a “reaffirmer of our faith in life”; quite a tall order for a range of packaged drinks. “Once we had that, then we went to Elephant,” explains Neeraj Kakker. The team at Hector then posed the challenge to Pune-based Elephant Strategy + Design, to design the identity and packaging. Bangalore-based Fisheye Creative were brought on to develop the website and online campaign. In October of this year, Paper Boat announced that it was transferring responsibilities from Fisheye to Lowe, who will be taking on not only the digital campaign, but will also develop print ads and TV commercials.


“I have made a lot of calls at different points in life where we were given different design options and had to choose one. Generally you go back and forth and change things and move forward and it’s always an iterative process. But in this case [with Elephant], the very first second, we knew, the first time we saw it. There were a few other options, a couple of other names in front of us, but when we first heard ‘Paper Boat’ and when we saw the first picture (of Aamras), we simply fell in love. There was zero contradiction from there onwards and it simply flew through from the presentation to the final packaging.”

We picked up on a rare dynamic between Hector and their creative partners Elephant and Fisheye, one that felt genuine and filled with mutual respect. To understand it better, we spoke to each of them about the experience. The following are excerpts from interviews with Neeraj Kakkar at Hector Beverages, Ashwini Deshpande at Elephant, and Dave Banerjee of Fisheye.

Many creatives will complain that they don’t receive the kind of respect for their work and the time that they put in from clients. What’s your take on that?

Neeraj: As a company we owe almost everything to design. When I look at design, or when I look at design thinking, I look at it in three ways: the design on the packaging, everything you see, I look at the tone, at the communication and I also look at our recipes as a form of design. It’s culinary design, getting those recipes out. It’s these three things combined and put together which is the basis of our company.

In the case of developing creatives for Paper Boat, he says, “The brief was good and the way they [Elephant] got the brief was commendable. We were able to translate it to them and were on the same page. We looked at the brand so similarly. There was a clear understanding between what I was thinking and what Ashwini [Deshpande] was thinking.

Fisheye came in many a times. Once the name, design, packaging were done we started looking for an agency that could handle it [the digital strategy], and we chose Fisheye. The brand did not exist yet and they knew us only through Tzinga (Hector’s energy drink), but when they looked at the brand and the brief they were very excited. If you talk to Dave, he understands the brand extremely well, in some ways probably better than I could or anybody else. Whenever I have to discuss it, I would discuss it with him. And then they gave us the communication tone, the language we started using on social media and on things other than social media, they even worked on a print campaign.


We then asked Ashwini Deshpande of Elephant and Dave Banerjee at Fisheye about their experiences working on Paper Boat.

Ashwini: The brief was well-articulated and yet very open. They were looking at creating a brand of ethnic drinks, the ones that many of us grew up drinking at home, like nimbu pani, aam panna, kokum, jal jeera and so on. The objective was to create a simple, honest brand for a young generation that would bring them joyous memories from childhood. Though the drinks would be rooted in Indian households, the brand had to stay away from so-called “Indian” clichés of hot pinks and paisley motifs so as to start a genuine dialogue with young people with global exposure. The brand also needed to be cautious of being perceived as a kids’ brand.

Shouvik Roy (Elephant Delhi) facilitated a lot of insights as well as brought synergy between the design teams in Pune and the Hector team, that was then located at Gurgaon. It has been a long distance relationship, but one that has been full of commitment, exchange of ideas and sharing successes on both sides. We always meet and discuss important milestones in face-to-face meetings that mostly happen at our Palm Beach Café at Elephant Pune. We also get to taste each and every drink multiple times in its development stage. So that’s a bonus, if you will. Along with Mayuri who leads the design teams at Pune, I have personally remained deeply involved in this project as it is a sheer joy to see the baby growing.

The design strategy was to keep it simple, uncluttered and use natural ingredient colours with a conversational tone across all communication. Hard to believe, but the design that you see on the shelves is about 95% the exact same design that we shared in the first presentation, among two other ideas.

The pouch was a result of a decision by Hector’s team to go for packaging that will cause the least harm to the environment. The shape is designed keeping in mind shelf presence, ergonomics involved in holding and drinking as well as the sturdiness of a filled pack.

We took time in getting the right printing effects and colours as we wanted the pouch to look and feel like a paper pouch to align it with the name. The PPL (Paper Products Ltd.) team has given us outstanding support to get it “just right”. It also helps to have a client team that gives adequate time for experimenting, learning and redoing to reach the desired point.

Dave: The brief was ‘Paper Boat’s authentic taste brings back memories.’ We worked on the brand very closely. While it was there it was our favourite brand. I think at some point everyone in Fisheye worked on it. Everyone wanted to work on it, but the two people who put in the most effort were Praveen Balachander and Arnab Datta. For us losing Paper Boat was like losing someone in the family. We were heart broken.

When Neeraj came to us packaging was already closed. Elephant did a tremendous job. We were under pressure to match up to their packaging. Thankfully we did manage to do that.

We were successful in designing the basic communication grammar for the brand. Now it is for anyone to take it forward. We can’t take the entire credit for the work we did on Paper Boat. A lot of the thinking came from them as well. They had set us on a very clear path. We just followed that and tried to bring back lost, childhood memories. And we did it in an innocent, childlike manner. But lately I see that is changing. Somehow Paper Boat is losing its innocence and childlike tonality. I’m not quite happy about that.

Were there any disagreements or conflict? Neeraj: No, I don’t think there was ever an area of disagreement with any one of those people. There have been a couple of debates like with Elephant, which were generally about whether this is the right shade or colour or not. But I think these guys are experts and many times we always bow down to their judgement, and they generally have the final call. At some point of time with Fisheye there would be a minor discussion on what kind of language to use, or the way it is scripted and we always end up doing what they have suggested. There was no conflict.


Were there any disagreements or conflict?

Neeraj: No, I don’t think there was ever an area of disagreement with any one of those people. There have been a couple of debates like with Elephant, which were generally about whether this is the right shade or colour or not. But I think these guys are experts and many times we always bow down to their judgement, and they generally have the final call. At some point of time with Fisheye there would be a minor discussion on what kind of language to use, or the way it is scripted and we always end up doing what they have suggested. There was no conflict.

Paper Boat’s social media campaign features nostalgic vignettes, rendered as illustrations or short films, that harken back to incidents many of us would have experienced first-hand as children. When the company started out last year, their initial marketing was through word- ofmouth and tie-ups with airlines such as IndiGo and Jet Airways, who sold the drinks on flights. Realising the potential and cost-effectiveness of a well-thought out online campaign, the company spends 50% of its marketing budget on digital media. Recently, however, the company decided to invest in print and TV commercials, and we asked Neeraj about these recent changes to Paper Boat’s marketing strategy.

What prompted the decision to add more traditional media like print and TVCs into the mix?

Digital will remain a big part of our [strategy] going forward, and it should be a big part of anybody’s plan. At the same time, we thought that brand awareness levels needed to rise. It is a challenge we still face, there’s a certain set of people who are aware of the brand, but there’s a bigger chunk who still don’t know about Paper Boat drinks and what it stands for, and we have to reach those people at a much faster pace. There is no recipe for this, you have to go out and tell your story to as many people as fast as we can, and that’s why we’re reaching out through mass media.

Is that why you recently moved to Lowe?

We have a tremendous relationship with Fisheye and it will always remain strong, but we have to go out and find a partner who has already done the kinds of things we are looking for, such as real campaigns. That’s the reason we decided to move out.

The way I think about it is: With my son, he goes to a school in Gurgaon, a good school, and he’s doing extremely well, but at the same time, I would want him to go and study at a bigger name, an even better school. He’s doing well here, the school gets him, but you’d still want to go out and explore other things and find out what else is there.

From the name, to the packaging and the heartfelt online campaign, with Paper Boat, there is a pattern of being unconventional and doing the unexpected. Neeraj shrugs this off, saying “For everything we do, we never ever think of what has happened before. That [risk] doesn’t come into the picture at all. For example, when we first came up with Paper Boat as a brand name, a lot of people said ‘That doesn’t fit in’, that there was a lot of science behind what a brand name should depict. It’s similar in the case of packaging, and in our choice of drinks. We believe in first principles very very strongly. And for every question, we will try to find a first principle answer. What is the best it could be. For us it’s the normal thing to do.” The result is a brand that stands out for being authentic, both on a market shelf and its innocent tone of voice online.

While the inspiration behind it is Indian, the brand could easily sit anywhere. “That’s the beauty of the design, it is not quintessentially ‘Indian’,” explains Neeraj. The drinks are now available in Indian stores in USA and they are also working on non-Indian drinks for other community stores abroad. Horchata, a Mexican rice-based drink would be one such variant. “If you take the Paper Boat pack as it is, and instead of Aamras, you write the Mexican drink’s name, it works exactly the same, from the name to packaging. It’s pretty international because people from all over the world can relate to it. It’s rooted, but it’s not… retro. It’s not fixed to a geography,” Neeraj elaborates.


Ashwini adds, “Paper Boat has a universal appeal. There is hardly anyone in the world (not just India) who wouldn’t have memories of making and launching paper boats as kids. So the name would always bring individual memories and stories from early days.”

Behind every great brand story is a successful client-creative relationship, often considered the holy grail of the creative industry. In the case of Paper Boat, it all starts with Hector Beverages — their unconventional approach to running a company and the unadulterated enthusiasm that comes with creating a product that is 100% honest-to-goodness.

In reading of its origins and hearing about the personal connections its founders have to the drinks, international brands such as UK-based Innocent Drinks and US-based Honest Tea come to mind. Both companies have become wildly profitable without sacrificing their integrity. Since its launch in August 2013, Paper Boat’s popularity has far exceeded expectations — today they sell roughly two million drinks a month.

When we asked Ashwini Deshpande, what appealed to her most about the brand, she replied, “We all live in our fast-paced, gadget-filled lives and forget the innocence of simple joys in life. We run, but forget to notice the flowers on the way. In this brief I saw an opportunity to create a reason to relive the unadulterated life from the past. How could we not take it up?”

For Dave Bannerji, the answer was, “Honesty and integrity. I’m yet to meet an Indian company that has so much integrity towards whatever they do. Their ‘nothing but the best’ attitude sets them apart from other brands. If Neeraj and his team can stick to this, they’ll be unstoppable.

A version of this article was published in Kyoorius 23. 

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