Prabhakar Mundkur
Guest Article

The 'King' of good surrogate advertising…

The former adman recalls his Kingfisher Airlines pitch and credits Vijay Mallya for creating what he terms as the only real surrogate in the liquor category.

When the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) took action against brands’ surrogate liquor advertising, which aired during the Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, there was a hush! Was it too late? The IPL, after all, was well behind us. Well, yes, but as the adage goes, ‘Better late than never’.

Despite being banned by the Cable Television Network Rules, liquor advertising has carried on for over two decades now. Everyone knew that it was a bit of a sham. Fake surrogate brands, like CDs, events, sodas and bottled water, masqueraded freely, along with the names of the original liquor brands.

Often, the products being advertised, be it sodas or bottled water, were not real businesses. A few of these products were being produced under the pretense of a surrogate. It exposed the liquor companies for their colossal lack of imagination. Or, marketing myopia, to use Theodore Levitt’s immortal words.

My mind goes back to 1993, when I first met Vijay Mallya for a pitch in Bangalore. Poor Mr Mallya has been discredited in many ways in the recent past. But let us give him credit for creating the only real surrogate in the liquor category, Kingfisher Airlines.

The main thrust of our pitch from the then HTA (later JWT and now Wunderman Thompson, how confusing!) was on how to create real surrogates. The ban on liquor advertising (as well as the tobacco category) was imminent.

Fortunately, HTA had a rich experience of working with the FMCG major ITC, which had already imagined the future well before its time and started promoting surrogate brands.

Prabhakar Mundkur
Prabhakar Mundkur

Our pitch strategy was to impress Mr Mallya with our rich experience of surrogate brands, and also our ITC experience. As many of you will remember, Wills, ITC’s bestseller, had already started the ‘Made for Each Other’ contest, long before the advertising industry had started using words like event marketing and activation.

Wills had created several long-standing properties, starting with the Wills Made for Each Other contest to the Wills Book of Excellence, finally culminating in the launch of Wills Lifestyle Stores (WLS) in 2000.

The 'King' of good surrogate advertising…

So, our pitch to Mr Mallya was to create an endearing surrogate brand for Kingfisher. No wonder then that we walked away with both the McDowell’s and Kingfisher brands. And, hats off to Mr Mallya, he did it, though it took some time. After all, you don’t launch an airline in a jiffy.

So, when Kingfisher Airlines was launched in 2003 with much fanfare, it became the best liquor surrogate ever. The trademarked Kingfisher bird was the airline’s motif, just like it was for the beer.

The 'King' of good surrogate advertising…

The bird stood proudly on the tail wing of the aircraft, with the prominent red Kingfisher brand colour. So much so for all the fuss we make about ‘design thinking’ these days. This was seat-of-the-pants thinking, and it worked very well!

I shed a tear when Kingfisher Airlines closed down. Not because it is uncommon for airline brands to shut down. It is a volatile industry, but because here was an absolute marvel of a surrogate liquor brand that went down with the airline.

And it was not only Kingfisher Airlines, although it was the best surrogate. There were others like the McDowell’s Derby, the Royal Challenger IPL team, the famous Kingfisher calendar and many more.

So, should we be jumping with joy that we have finally managed to ban liquor advertising? Yes and no, I would say.

Some really conservative countries allow liquor advertising. I wouldn’t dare to mention them. Some disallow it only on TV and outdoor. Some disallow it during particular times of day on TV, allowing it to appear only after hours. Other countries have framed strict guidelines for liquor advertising so that liquor marketers are forced to be responsible with their advertising.

But if you mix a cocktail of marketing myopia with a dash of cultural myopia, you can’t help but arrive at a ban on liquor advertising! We just managed to get there. So, maybe, some of us would like to pat ourselves on the back!

(The author is an independent brand strategy advisor. The article has been reproduced with permission from his post on LinkedIn.)