Opinion: Three cheers for hypocrisy

Updated: May 21, 2021 8:02 AM

The ban on surrogate ads by liquor brands during IPL 2021 is welcome, but what explains team brand ‘Royal Challengers Bangalore’ and promotion of liquor brand extensions?

The problem with the legitimisation of advertising of surrogates with scale is also that one can actually recreate the established brand in a new category at scaleThe problem with the legitimisation of advertising of surrogates with scale is also that one can actually recreate the established brand in a new category at scale

By Gokul Krishnamoorthy

When Vijay Mallya took brand Kingfisher to the skies, he did it in the only way he knew – in style. When Kingfisher Airlines took off, it would also have put to rest certain conditions that have been drawn up for a brand to pass the original versus surrogate (advertising) test – that it should have a certain presence and scale, among other things.

Kingfisher Airlines had it all. When it advertised, it was not surrogate advertising, it was a brand that had extended into an unrelated category, connected by the thread of a ‘Good Times’ experience and hospitality. When people saw Kingfisher Airlines, people saw the brand Kingfisher.

There apparently existed a law that should have stopped an airline from taking a beer brand’s name, but I’ll leave that debate to the legal experts. The point of this article is not that because as we know, law or not, the airline did take off flamboyantly and folded for very different reasons.

While ASCI banning surrogate ads by liquor brands during the curtailed IPL 2021 was a welcome move, it prompted a question in many minds. What explains the existence of a team called ‘Royal Challengers Bangalore’? One can’t help but remember that the current captain of the team, Virat Kohli, is idolised by a young boy in a health beverage commercial, among many others.

Royal Challenge is a brand of whisky owned by United Spirits, which also owns the Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket team. If scale of presence, volume of advertising, market share and the likes are the key metrics by which one decides whether or not an alcohol brand can advertise its extension, then Royal Challengers Bangalore has no problem at all.

This is not about RCB. There are alcohol brand extensions on the sleeves of many IPL jerseys. We need to look at the larger picture. By that I do not mean the huge revenues alcohol and tobacco companies bring the government. But there are questions to be asked within the realm of regulation of promotion, of extensions of brands in categories where promotion is banned.

The problem with the legitimisation of advertising of surrogates with scale is also that one can actually recreate the established brand in a new category at scale. Take for example, bottled water. There are many bottled water brands where the core play is in alcohol or beer. The market is also rife with local players, many of whom would happily sell out their brand label for a price. It would take some effort, but it will be easier for an alcohol brand to establish itself in that space than sell music CDs at scale. And then if it were to advertise the brand – of bottled water of course – should that be accepted?

It is a ludicrous argument unless we forget why we banned alcohol advertising in the first place. There is a school of thought that states that if a product is allowed to be sold, it should be allowed to advertise. I do not think we are going to go that way anytime soon.

The only seeming solution then, albeit rather simplistic and overarching, is that if a brand is present in a category where promotion is banned, it should not be allowed to promote itself in any context.

It should be denied the right to promotion, whether for its shared corporate brand, for its extension, for its event, for its cricket team or whatever else. Anything that reasonably resembles the brand name or can promote its identity, should be disallowed the license to advertise or be seen beyond its permitted ambience. So branding at an event for those over 18 at a pub would be legit, as long as it is not amplified to audiences beyond.

Let’s look at a corollary. How would brands thrive without promotion in categories where competitors promote themselves? They won’t.

(Disclaimer: The author worked for an agency that handled United Breweries and United Spirits brands circa 2002. He is an independent content consultant and founder and curator of www.ClutterCutters.in. Views expressed are personal.)

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