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Friday, Aug 16, 2002

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Simply surrogate

BE WHAT YOU want to be, taking things the way they come... goes that famous Bacardi white rum jingle which helped the company's eponymous brand make great strides in the Indian market, and gave it a high profile. So much for the power of advertising. The ban on liquor advertising on television dealt a blow to the company's plans. So, what did it do? It brought out a series of cassettes called Bacardi Blast and on again was another commercial showing people having a blast. Of course, they were not sipping white rum, but listening to some good music!

Unlike in the Bacardi jingle, a host of liquor companies were not going to `take things the way they come'. Unleashed were TV ads under the same liquor brands for apple juice, water, soda, men's accessories, sporting equipment and tournaments and even awards — surrogates that even made the very word squirm However, with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry cracking down on TV channels airing surrogate liquor and cigarette ads, liquor companies have asked channels to take off these ads. Now, a body of broadcasters and another one of alcoholic beverage companies are working on a code of self-regulation and say that all new ads would have to pass the scrutiny of a committee set up to monitor liquor ads. But are we being a little nave here? While advertising messages do influence purchase decisions, merely disallowing sponsorships and advertising of liquor is not going to stem the habit. Just a glance at the hangers on at the thousands of licensed bars round the country makes one wonder if the scene would be any different without their favourite brands being advertised on TV. Also, as long as the sale of liquor is legal, youth, who are ostensibly being protected, will find the means of sourcing it.

The industry is miffed that even as the Government takes away Rs 20,000 crore in imposts, the industry should be prevented from getting its brand message across. The players also argue that brand extensions are legitimate business propositions. For example, McDowell & Co sells 1.5 million cases of water and soda through 20 franchise plants and since these are added to its core product — liquor — it says it needs to advertise these brands. The rub-off on the mother brand is incidental. But if company sellsapple juice under its liquor brand name in precisely four outlets in Bangalore but spends a couple of crore to advertise it, surely, its position is untenable. These are issues the committee will need go into.

Growth of established brands from large liquor companies, and consumption of the products are unlikely to get affected, as they already have a large consumer base. But it could impact the new entrants seeking a profile in the market. They will have to rely on ground-level promotions, with their limitations. A sobering statistic is that almost 88 per cent of the market for Indian-made foreign liquor is catered to by brands that carry a price tag of Rs 250 or less for a 750 ml bottle. That is the segment growing fastest while the premium end, at which most surrogates were targeted at, has either stagnated or declined. The mass segment — the core of the market — is thriving. Ads or surrogates are at best a side show.

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