The Harbhajan-UB row about a spoof ad is a storm in a whisky peg.
Even as England and India were getting ready for the clash of the Titans and a historic test match at Lords, the Mecca of cricket, another clash was in motion. This was between two of India's current greats, M. S. Dhoni, arguably India's most successful captain, and his premier off spinner Harbhajan Singh whose claim to fame was the subjugation of Ricky Ponting in his prime. The feisty off spinner promptly earned the nickname of “Turbanator”. An aggressive competitor if there ever was one, who came out unscathed after “monkey gate” even if he could not manage to escape censure for slapping Sreesanth, another team-mate of his who did not know what hit him and promptly burst into tears. But how is it that two of India's victorious cricketers who have been part of the No. 1 test team in the world and members of the World Cup-winning T20 and one-day teams in the world, are made to look as though they cannot stand the sight of each other and Harbhajan's family and the entire Sikh community is up in arms and breathing fire and brimstone. So what's upsetting the apple cart on the eve of what is arguably the most important test series in recent times?
Have I made it large?
It all started with a commercial by Royal Stag “mega cricket.” Of course, the whole world and its brother-in-law know that the ad is for whisky. We are a bit challenged, we Indians are, as sometimes we can't figure out the product that is being advertised! Anyway, to cut a long story short, the ad features Harbhajan Singh the brand ambassador for the whisky that has been doing quite well with the younger drinkers, at least on his first day at his father's ball bearing factory and he asks himself the question “Have I made it large?” If that isn't cueing the product category, I wonder what is. Anyways the young Sardar realises that his true calling is the game of cricket and bowling off spin with an occasional “doosra” thrown in and he keeps asking himself the question “Have I made it large?” and the tag line exhorts people like you and me to make it large. After all, it is our life, isn't it? As advertising it would hardly win an award, make it to Cannes or even make the person behind the edit proud. It is just another celebrity ad and then something happened to make me sit up and take another look at this ad.
Enter captain cool
Soon another ad started to appear which seemed surprisingly familiar. It is another ball bearings factory (isn't there any other industry in such a vast land as ours?) and a thin guy who looks suspiciously like our own off spinner on his first day there who asks the now familiar question, “Have I made it large?” He is surrounded by ball bearings that are larger than casks of ale and his furious father slaps him for being dumb and wasting money making oversized ball bearings that are useless and that no one wants even as the son protests that he has made it large. The scene dissolves to Dhoni with several young women in the background saying why think of making it large, just try to be different. Of course, it is an ad for club soda and the brand is McDowell's Platinum, a relatively new brand in the McDowell's stable. As ads go, it is a lot more watchable. Anyone loves someone who takes potshots at the competition especially when the competition is naïve enough to give them such an opening. Ideally, everyone should have had a good laugh and gone home, but sponsors are not like you and me who tend to laugh at minor idiosyncrasies but get very upset and look for redress, retribution and legal action.
How dare they?
Suddenly the situation became quite complex and emotional. Of course, it is common for brands that compete with each other head-to-head to bicker with each other and often resort to a legal solution to their squabbles in the market place. The ball bearing story too took an ugly turn just days before the all important first test against England at Lord's as Harbhajan's mother decided that the situation was large enough to send out a legal notice to UB spirits for creating an ad that mocks Harbhajan, his family and what's more, insults the entire Sikh community. Critically the ad creates discord within the Indian team and affects its morale. The demands were simple: Vijay Mallya was asked to make a public apology to Harbhajan and his family and also pull off the ad. Clearly the “king of good times” seems unfazed about this as I just saw the ad even as I was writing about the controversy. So what is happening here? Is there something that we need to think about or even learn from this entire controversy as students of branding, even if we don't drink the club soda that is advertised so heavily?
Mera No. 1
Let's first go back into the past before we venture opinion on the future of the brands in question. In the mid-Eighties when we were young and upwardly mobile (Wow! Now that sounds cool, was that really me!!), we used to drink McDowell's No. 1. Mind you, it was a good whisky and no one had any qualms about offering it to one's guest. I say it was because whisky is a funny drink in more ways than one. Because whisky drinkers as they get older, more affluent, they keep upgrading to more expensive and better brands, unlike rum drinkers who don't give a fig for what others think . So many of us have moved from McDowell's to other brands such as Antiquity, Scotch and ultimately to single malts.
Make no mistake, McDowell No. 1 is a popular brand still and enjoys tremendous franchise across the length and breadth of this country. However the market reality is that, unlike in the Eighties where the Indian consumer was starved of choice, today's consumer is spoiled by the enormous choice that is available to him. McDowell's whisky is facing a lot of challenge from a later brand, Royal Stag, that seems to have a younger, cooler image. On the face of it McDowell's is facing the challenge that many vintage brands face today from younger brands that challenge them. It is not uncommon for young customers to say “Wasn't that my father's brand?” In all fairness, McDowell has been vigorous in its marketing efforts and has not taken reverses if any, lying down. The ad in question is for its new variant McDowell Platinum.
Is this a good strategy?
Taking a potshot at your competition is not a new strategy. Brands such as Apple and Pepsi have been doing this for years with tremendous success so it is not surprising that brands attempt to do this and in all fairness Royal Stag has presented an opportunity to its competitor on a platter. In short, it was asking for it and promptly got it. But do strategies like these work in the long run? I think it works in the long run if the brands have a clear tone of voice and are aggressive in everything that they do. It also works where the target audience is young and has a sense of humour to see the absurdity of the situation. Brands such as Sprite have often attempted to make their competition look fuddy-duddy or slow, through their tongue-in-cheek humour and zany executions.
Is whisky a young person's drink? I am not sure; though I am sure there is enough research to suggest that in India the average age of the whisky drinker is dropping. It is also true that McDowell probably has older consumers in its fold and it obviously makes sense for it to woo younger customers and advertising like this would be one of the several things that the brand needs to do to catch up in the image stakes and remember that spirits are sold primarily on image. People have a very foggy idea of the brands they consume in blindfold tests and it is only the imagery that drives brands and motivates consumers.
Grin and bear it
Sadly, this is not a mere marketing skirmish. It makes for good copy especially when the family and the community get into it. But what was worrying was Dhoni's explanation that he did not know the script of the full commercial and he had only spoken his lines. Is this how India's foremost celebrity does commercials for multiple brands — without even knowing what the script is likely to be?
My advice to sponsors who use celebrities is simple: “Caveat emptor” - please be aware of your celebrities' weaknesses for if he is not even sure of the script of the film, then it is not good news for you and you need to take care of your brand's interests.
And finally one word of advice to the warring brands - just have a large club soda and move on!!
Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand – comm.
Read my blog @ http://www.brand-comm.com/blog.html