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Ad Stand: The pan masala wars

The pan masala category bought social acceptance by signing up celebrities. It is an interesting category, trapped in its own culture and lingo. It’s good to get a celebrity, but no celebrity can save the brand from lack of coherent creative strategy

Delhi | October 18, 2016

Adstand by Naresh Gupta

Sometime in the 80s, Indian TV saw a commercial featuring Ashok Kumar and Shammi Kapoor having a conversation around guests, a wedding, welcome and Pan Parag. “Baratiyon ka swagat Pan Parag se kijiye” became more than just a TV commercial baseline.


It became the culture. The brand then signed up Jalal Agha (fresh from his exploits in Sholay) and Kalpana Iyer to further the brand story. The world’s largest selling pan masala became the toast of the town. These two were landmark commercials and in early days of TV advertising in India, they became the most celebrated ads. I think it was Everest that created the campaign and in the process created the category. Today Pan Parag is not the leading brand and has long back passed the crown to Rajnigandha and many more brands.

The category has always struggled with social acceptance

Pan masala, like beer, is a social category. It took wings because it allowed two strangers to bond over a can of pan masala, generated conversation and made friends. Yet the stigma of a category that has its own health issues never left it. The category bought social acceptance by signing up celebrities and mounting commercials on a grand scale. Ajay Devgn, Manoj Bajpayee and Saif Ali Khan are not the only ones who have endorsed a pan masala brand. Back in the 80s, Vinod Khanna had endorsed Baba Zarda (a category that has since got banned from advertising). The commercial was set in a casino in Nepal, which in those days was a bog lifestyle symbol. Vinod Khanna possibly set the tone for the category and celebrities became a part of the brand strategy.

Yet, celebrity can’t be the strategy

Every category creates its own symbology, pan masala too has created its own symbols. Alpha males and a bit of jingoism became the language of the category. Classic Maledom (almost like liquor category) was wrapped around in cues of taste and high life. Taste remains the positioning platform for most brands of pan masala. The saffron rain of Vimal pan masala, or the Swish friends discovering the ‘better choice’ of Manikchand, is all about taste as the brand proposition, but hidden under the packaging of an alpha male. Though off late Rajnigandha, the leading brand, has focused more on success, much like alcohol brands had done in the 80s.

Pierce Brosnan is neither good nor bad choice

Pan Bahar mounted a challenge using Pierce Brosnan. As an actor who once played James Bond, he is the perfect alpha male who the brand could have used. When you sign up an international celebrity for an inherently Indian product, the question of aptness will always remain. Does the core audience know about the actor? Does the core audience see the celeb as a source of extra value? Will the celeb help the consumers switch the brand choice? This is where the task of a brand gets tougher. Signing up a celebrity is just an indicator of resources available with the brand and nothing more.

The idea or the lack of it

‘Class never goes out of style’ screamed the ad in every newspaper, on outdoor and in TVC. For once it looked as if the former James Bond is referring to his own screen persona and may be why he should be the Bond again. This message was completely lost in the meltdown that the brand faced on social media. Yes, the brand got attention, heaps of it, but the attention was for signing up the celebrity and not for the message the brand wanted to convey. In the entire firestorm on social media, was the TVC noticed? Was it discussed? Did it have an idea?

Was the brand able to mount a challenge to the other brands in the category? Was it seen as worthy challenger to the crown? Or was this the shooting star that everybody looked and wondered and moved on?

Celebrities will always get you noticed. The saffron shower or the flying can of Pan Bahar will be remembered more because of a large amount of media monies and not because of the brand idea.

Pan masala is an interesting category, trapped in its own culture and lingo. It has over a period of time created a very similar imagery. That imagery can be broken and an interesting narrative can be created by demonstrated by Tansen, a small player in the category.

It’s good to get a celebrity, but no celebrity can save the brand from lack of coherent creative strategy. Sometimes the celebrity can put the brand in a very hard spot for this very reason.

(Naresh Gupta is Managing Partner and CSO of Bang in the Middle. The views expressed are personal.)


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