If Coke's current campaign Piyo Sar UtaKe, entertaining as it is, is `thanda' at the market place, then the brand has reason to worry and more importantly, act.

Ramanujam Sridhar

YEARS ago, I learnt an important lesson from a client who was one of those typical native Indian businessmen. Extremely shrewd, if not enormously sophisticated. Also, he had that all too uncommon trait common sense.

And it was heartening, from an advertising point of view, that he was a good judge of the creative. The agency I worked for had done a television commercial which we wanted him to approve. I led a huge contingent of agency personnel into his office.

My creative director loaded the tape of the final commercial onto the VCR, ready to play it. But before the commercial was played to him, I started my presentation, which I hoped was the clincher. I started with the background, the agency's thinking, our strategy behind the commercial and the creative rationale. I must have gone on for a couple of minutes when the client said, "Mr Shiridhar, stop." I stopped, a bit confused as this client was usually a well-mannered gentleman who let you speak, unlike a few others.

He continued, "Tell me, Mr Shiridhar, are you going to stand in front of every TV set in this country and make your presentation? Just play the commercial!"

We did. He approved it and we trooped out, having learnt a lesson. Yes, agencies articulate their strategies and creative rationale pretty well. They cling to their power points, the way a drunk would to a lamppost, and yet forget one important fact. It is only the commercial that will come on air, not the thinking that went into it.

and this was the thought that was uppermost in my mind when I watched Coke's new commercials - featuring Aamir Khan, Mona Singh (Jassi) and Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore along with a whole host of Indians drinking coke. The line

Piyo Sar Utha Ke

is another attempt by the global brand to be `Indian' in advertising thinking and execution.

The real Coke, the real story

Cola traditionally is a category that depends on advertising. Sales are driven by advertising. Pepsi has been the challenger its cheeky, irreverent tone-of-voice ensured that more often than not it was "the other guy that blinked." And usually Coke, which won the market share wars, lost out to Pepsi on creativity. Pepsi was younger, Coke steadier.

BBDO's campaigns for Pepsi were pathbreaking internationally. Commercials such as the one featuring MC Hammer and the anthropology professor were brilliant to say the least. Coke had its own winners like "I want to buy the world a Coke."

But it would be safe to say that, globally, Pepsi's advertising has shown the way, while Coke's superior merchandising and distribution has made it the leader, by far. This subtle difference between the two brands continued in India as well.

Coke's presence in India was considerably strengthened by the Thums Up brand, which had its own genre of creativity like "Don't blunder, taste the thunder." But let's return to Coke which for quite some time has been a distant second to Pepsi. Even though Coke was the official sponsor of the 1996 cricket World Cup in the sub-continent, it lost the advertising sweepstakes to its cheekier competitor.

Coke had a classic commercial on the world cup and the colour red. The commercial was shot in India and Pakistan, conceptualised, if my memory serves me right, by Weiden and Kennedy, and produced by the celebrated film producer, Tarsem Singh. And yet Pepsi's "Nothing Official About It" campaign featuring celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Dickie Bird and Dominic Cork taking potshots at Coke amused young audiences.

Yes, Coke in India, in advertising terms at least, was finding its way, constrained by its global position and the inability to `Indianise'. The brand's advertising was meandering and nowhere in the Pepsi class.

Enter Aamir

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I must say that Aamir's commercials for Coke quickly raised the ante. They were Indian. Brilliantly scripted (the wag would say by Aamir), in a variety of situations that reflected India's various cultures and languages. Aamir was a Mumbaikar, Bengali, Nepali, Punjabi and Hyderabadi, in turns. And he turned the brand's hitherto predictable advertising on its head. Suddenly, it was Pepsi that was on the back-foot.

It was advertising at its best - strategy-wise and execution-wise. For years, brands have tried to own `one word' in the consumer's mind.

Volvo has owned the word `safety', Volkswagen the word `reliability' and Coke was eminently poised to own the word `

Thanda

'. This word was already in use - a loose descriptor for the category of cool drinks, and Coke just took it over.

There was another brilliant tactical `

paanch'

commercial which flagged the Rs 5/- price point brilliantly. While the commercials were pretty good, they became brilliant embellished by Aamir Khan's histrionic ability that pushed the commercials to a different orbit. Consumers loved the commercials. For once they could relate to the people, the situations and the dialogue delivery. This was Indian. This was theirs.

And then the advertising changes

Cola is a category that needs a lot of excitement. The advertising executions change frequently. One is not clear whether it is the company or the consumers who get tired of the advertising.

Probably the former. Be that as it may, Coke launched its `

Sir Jhutake

' campaign with a lot of fanfare. The ad represented India's newfound strength and the confidence of its youth. A bit reminiscent of my `strategic adventure' with my client.

And yet a few questions remain. Is Coke getting carried away by its global position of dominance and translating it in India? Has it given up its

thanda

position too soon?

Couldn't it have conceptualised a newer rendition of the `

thanda matlab'

campaign ? Is the new turn of phase, however clever, more inward looking than its earlier campaign? Didn't `

thanda

' have a greater consumer focus and connect?

What Sergio says

Sergio Zyman's book

The End of Advertising as We Know It

is not exactly a favourite of advertising agencies. Nor is it mine, let me reassure you. Zyman spent a lot of time at Coke and I remember what he said, "Traditional advertising that only entertains doesn't work, and companies that don't get wise to this are going to fail. I tell people that awareness, which is what most ads are designed to increase, doesn't get you sales."

Coke is a smart marketer. It knows which advertising delivers at the market place and which does not. If the current campaign, entertaining as it is, is `

thanda'

at the market place, then the brand has reason to worry and more importantly, act.

(The author is CEO of Brand-comm.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 5, 2006)
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