Read the local newspapers of any city and certain stories seem to repeat themselves. In Mumbai, one such story is the impending demise of Aarey, the only government-run milk supplier in the city.

The latest eulogy appeared on July 23 in the Mid-Day. It said that Energee, the popular flavoured milk that is also Aarey's iconic product, tasted different lately because its production had been outsourced to a company in Pune. The company said it was difficult to distribute Energee in Mumbai.

There are more stories. The most frequent ones allege that the government is deliberately allowing the milk supplier to die out in order to be able to redevelop its three dairies located in prime locations across the city. Employees are transferred to different departments, suppliers are being fired, only 400 of the city’s 1600 Aarey booths still function, and aspiring Aarey booth licence holders have to wait years to receive any documentation.

It is no surprise then that Energee is dying.

“Energee is popular only with the '90s generation of office people now,” said Ritesh Parshikar, licence holder for an Aarey booth in Fort, in South Mumbai. “All the young people only have soft drinks because they are Rs 10 cheaper.”

Parshikar’s father rented this stall in 1988. Parshikar himself has seen the decline in Energee over the decades.

“There is not that much margin in Energee anymore,” said Parshikar. “Earlier, we used to sell 10 to 12 crates of Energee in a day. Now we are lucky if we sell even half a crate. They are not branding the product properly.”

It is an odd statement for a product that reached popularity on the strength of its branding campaign in 1981.

The campaign, executed by Roger Pereira, a Mumbai adman, transformed a stodgy flavoured milk bottle manufactured unenthusiastically by the government into a snazzy drink that became as popular as aerated drinks.

But the campaign, Pereira says, is about far more than just a brand. It also holds a crucial piece of the city’s social history.

The mill strike connection

The story begins, not with Aarey, but with a series of textile mill strikes of the 1970s in Bombay. These strikes would eventually culminate in 1982 in the longest ever strike of a single industry the city had seen. In the 1970s, the number of unemployed workers on the streets had already begun to grow. And politicians in the state were concerned.

Then came Vasantdada Patil, chief minister of Maharashtra from 1977 to 1978 and then from 1983 to 1985. His ambitious idea, Pereira says, was to promote cooperative dairies as an alternative for striking mill workers.

“He urged workers to go to their villages, instead of staying idle in the cities,” Pereira said. “The workers knew only textile work, not agriculture, but at least they could rear buffaloes.”

The resulting surge of dairy cooperatives across western Maharashtra also resulted in a boost in milk production. While the price of milk itself was controlled by the government, byproducts such as butter, ghee and lassi were not. That is when Maharashtra’s Dairy Development Department entered the production of bottled flavoured milk through their Aarey brand.

Aarey’s flavoured milk

Key to the project was V Srinivasan, secretary of the dairy development department, who was at the time in charge of Aarey. He worried if they were unable to sell their surplus milk, the workers who had left Bombay to rear buffaloes would return to the city. The milk, however, simply was not popular.

The earliest version of this product was called Aarey Flavoured Milk. The milk came in a squat bottle sold at 75 paise per bottle. A bottle of the same quantity of Thums Up, by comparison, cost Rs 1.25. With its stodgy name and sarkari packaging, the flavoured milk was not particularly popular. By 1980, it was selling less than 7,000 bottles of the milk each day.

Then Yashwantrao Chavan, who had been the first chief minister of Maharashtra, met Pereira at a felicitation function in Gujarat and asked him to work for his home state as well. Chavan referred Srinivasan to Pereira and the idea of Energee began to take shape.

Milk or soft drink?

Srinivasan had a vision for the flavoured milk but he had not been able to promote it effectively through government bodies.

“They were selling 7,000 bottles a day for less than even Re 1, so what revenues could be there?” said CR Sridhar, who was the head of research and planning at the company. “The marketing manager at MAFCO [Maharashtra Agro and Fruit Processing Corporation] said they could not sell this product, but they would distribute it wherever it goes.”

Srinivasan’s first idea was to sell it as a soft drink. Pereira was sceptical. Aarey Flavoured Milk was milk. How could they sell it as a soft drink?

“I remembered there was a drink called Mangola which was not aerated – it was diluted mango juice,” Pereira said. “And then I thought this could work.”

Next came the branding process. Even Pereira’s team had initially thought of the product primarily as milk.

“When we started research, people said they drank it to quench their thirst,” said Sridhar. “For us, that was a surprise because we saw it as milk.”

Sridhar’s research was confirmed when he observed the people who already bought the milk. They were office-goers who needed a pick-me-up after work hours and before they boarded the train. They said it gave them energy.

"Energy" was already an existing brand, so to avoid contesting claims, they named the milk Energee instead.

Mahalaxmi Glassworks, which manufactured Aarey’s squat bottles, also happened to manufacture soft drink bottles at a far larger scale. The team asked the company to show them suitable designs.

In keeping with its new classification, the first Energee bottle prototype was copied directly from the design of Coca Cola bottles. To keep production costs low and to avoid copyright, they opted to make it without the flutes on its body.

With no advertising budget, the team turned to existing infrastructure. Whenever milk vans and booths had to be repainted, they gave the painters designs for Energee ads instead.

And the campaign worked – within months, sales soared from 7,000 bottles per day to 93,000.