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The art of surrogate advertising

Surrogate advertising has come a long way from bottled water and music CDs. Today, brands are toying with virtual reality, music festivals and short stories to make their presence felt. BestMediaInfo traces the evolution of surrogate advertising

Roshni Nair | Mumbai | August 8, 2016


If you too have wondered, as I did, why men will be men? Then, it is possible that you too must have been alien to the term surrogate advertising. I had spent days trying to comprehend why there was an ad for music that did not come from a movie or even a popular singer? Why strangely there was no mention of the artists or the songs in the ad itself? It was after a few more years of wondering that I was introduced to the concept of surrogate advertising, the art of indirectly advertising a product.

The beginning

Surrogate advertising came to India because of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 read with Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, which banned direct promotion of production, sale or consumption of cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants.

With a ban on directly promoting their products, brands sought out another way to reach out to consumers and started advertising surrogate products under the same brand name as their prohibited items. This is when music CDs, bottled water and award ceremonies started making an appearance.

Companies find a way out

Today, surrogate advertising is so much more than a soda bottle. Companies now have technology at their disposal and are toying with virtual reality, short films and big music events to bring attention to their brands. But who could be considered a pioneer in this subtle art of advertising?

MG Parameswaran MG Parameswaran

“I think Bagpiper was probably one of the first brands to do surrogate advertising, by creating Bagpiper Soda. Many other brands did try to ape them but not all of them succeeded in creating the magic. Among other brands Officers Choice, McDowell’s No.1, were also successful in creating a buzz. Among beer brands it was Kingfisher that managed to build traction. I was involved with the launch of Kingfisher Strong some decade or so ago. The first ad used sports imagery, signing off as a soda. It was around that time UB (United Breweries) managed to build a Caribbean imagery around their brand. That coupled with the music and use of sports / cricket stars worked wonderfully for them. Bacardi came later and tried taking away the Caribbean theme from Kingfisher, not sure what was the final result,” said MG Parameswaran, Brand Strategist, Founder, Brand-Building.com.

But changing times and technological advancements have opened many avenues for brands, allowing them to come up with innovations and effective communication tools even with the restrictions in place. Recently, Kingfisher launched their branded virtual reality campaign ‘Kingfisher 360 cities’. As a part of the campaign, people will be able to view online videos and experience what it would be like to visit popular places in a particular city. The videos can be viewed using simple Google cardboard, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR or the HTC Vive.

Budweiser recently partnered with Tomorrowland, one of the world’s largest electronic dance music festivals, to bring exclusive music experiences leading up to and during the festival’s Belgian edition. Royal Stag put a new spin to surrogate advertising when they launched a platform to showcase short films by celebrated directors. The Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films has already showcased popular short films like ‘Ahalya’, ‘Nayantara’s necklace’ and ‘Interior Café’.

Termed the ‘Dark Market’, does surrogate advertising really work for the brands that fall under this sensitive category?

KV Sridhar KV Sridhar

“There is a reason why in the last 10 years not many brands have been built under the category. Because it is really difficult to talk about the softer aspects of branding through surrogate advertising. You can depict certain values but not everything. For instance, say Chivas Regal stands for celebration or friends or art. They can benefit from surrogate advertising because it is a brand which has been established for so many years. But when a new brand comes in how will they tell people whether they are a whisky or rum? Whether it is mild or strong? What values it has? Is it a social drink or a loner’s drink? Different brands are consumed for different moods and different occasions, so how will one bring in a new brand? So legally, it is a nightmare for anyone,” said KV Sridhar, Chief Creative Officer, SapientNitro.

While established brands may have it easier than new entrants, even the big players have their fair share of troubles, one of which is cost escalation. Brands not only have to manufacture the product they actually want to sell but also the surrogate products they advertise, resulting in added production cost. Many brands have in fact legitimised their surrogate products. Wills Lifestyle is an established fashion line and today a McDowell’s No.1 packaged drinking water can be found in most stores.

Multiple issues

Apart from the cost factor, with surrogate advertising, brands have to face the problem of not being able to communicate the finer aspects like ideology, brands ethos etc.

Vandana Das Vandana Das

Shedding light on how difficult or different it is to create communication for products under such categories, Vandana Das, President, DDB Mudra North, said, “It is a tough task to connect the brand personality, ideology and positioning through surrogate advertising but it is not impossible. Communication partners have to try harder and find the right fit with surrogates and then look for nuances like tone and manner, the mood, etc, which best captures the brand essence.”

Ashish Chakravarty Ashish Chakravarty

Ashish Chakravarty, National Creative Director, Contract Advertising India, also believes that surrogate advertising works only as a reminder. “Surrogate advertising basically works just to remind the consumers about the brand. They don’t entice new users or draw new people into the fold.”

Harish Bijoor Harish Bijoor

Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., concurs. “Surrogate advertising can at best promote only the brand name and possibly a wee bit of its persona. In the current circumstances, even this is enough to keep the brand thought alive and kicking,” he said.

Brands speak their mind

What do the brands have to say about surrogate advertising?

Lisa Srao, Chairman & MD, I Brands Beverages, in a recent interview with BestMediaInfo, called surrogate advertising a waste of time.

Lisa Srao Lisa Srao

“I think surrogate advertising is absolutely a waste of time. I do it because of the rules and regulations but I think everybody knows a Royal Stag soda and a Royal Stag water is a Royal Stag Whiskey. So I think it makes no sense and nowhere around the world that I know of do they do these surrogate advertising per say,” Srao had said.

Instead, I Brands does a lot of retail activity to promote their products. “What I have done in terms of marketing is that we do a lot of retail on-ground promotions, where we can actually promote the whisky and the brandy and the rum as the whisky, brandy and rum. Also, in the stores we give gifts like glasses and do a lot of on-ground retail activity.”

Has digital changed anything for the category in terms of communication?

“There is a bit that has changed because you have got access to people and you can connect with them directly. One can also have content which is a little more liberal than the censored content on television. You can also take other forms of entertainment to use brand placement into it. Like, if somebody makes a short film which has got a bar, you can’t restrict those shots. Internet has helped brands to reach out to the exact target audience,” said Sridhar.

So, should there be restrictions on directly advertising a product that is allowed to be manufactured?

Sam Balsara Sam Balsara

Sam Balsara, Chairman and Managing Director, Madison World, said, "I believe that while advertising products that belong to sensitive category, there should be some restrictions or guidelines on what you can do and cannot do. What could be a better alternative to surrogate advertising if brands are allowed to advertise after 10.30 pm. In many other countries there are no restrictions on advertising liquor brands. There is a ban on advertising tobacco products but not liquor. It is also important for the govt to recognise that if a product is allowed to be manufactured, it should be allowed to be advertised as well."

Can we see direct advertising for brands under the category anytime in the future?

Sandip_tarkas Sandip Tarkas

“We are in fact moving in the opposite direction right now. A lot of states have started imposing ban on liquor, so we are moving exactly in the opposite. Politically, it is a very hard decision to take and I don’t see it happening for the next five, seven years,” said Sandip Tarkas, President, Customer Strategy, Future Group.

Bijoor, to the same question, replied with an emphatic, “Never. I really do believe never!”

The TVCs:

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