Storyboard | We don't engage in surrogate advertising: Bira 91's Ankur Jain

In a conversation with Storyboard, the company's founder and CEO talks about what it takes to build a homegrown beer brand in a country where advertising alcoholic beverages is not permitted

Updated: Oct 27, 2021 07:08:01 PM UTC
Ankur Jain, founder and CEO of Bira 91. Image: Madhu Kapparath

Indian beer maker Bira 91 launched its first-ever 360-degree campaign—‘Make Play with Flavors’, recently. As the company scales up its portfolio of flavours across the country, Ankur Jain—founder and CEO of Bira 91—says its campaign is a call to action.

“We feel that beer is a generational product category. Every generation has a new definition of beer and for this generation, beer means flavour. As a change of guard happens, I believe that this generation is almost screaming, ‘make way’”. For Jain, it is the disambiguation of ‘make way’ to ‘make play’ inspired by the blurring boundaries between creating and playing, he tells us during an interview.

With this campaign, Bira 91 intends to own every occasion in a consumer’s life that’s worth celebrating. The brand has seven brand films—each aligned to a different occasion like the barbeque, the picnic, the night out, day at the beach, and so on.

Bira 91 launched in 2015 in a category dominated by established Indian brands like Kingfisher and several international brands, including Heineken, Carlsberg, and Budweiser. Bira 91 carved a space for itself just as the demand for homegrown and local brews picked up as younger consumers were more willing to try new things.

But in a country with so many restrictions on advertising alcoholic beverages, how did Bira 91 stand out?

Speaking about the journey, Jain says, "Opportunity for us has always been that we can innovate ahead of incumbents at a quicker pace. 'Can we listen to our consumers?' because we are them and, 'can we ensure we are not saddled by what conventional codes for beer would be?'”

Still, as a challenger brand, raising awareness in a category severely restricted on the advertising front was challenging.

Advertising of goods like tobacco and liquor products is banned on mass media under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995. Hence, to advertise alcoholic beverages over the years, advertisers have used something called ‘surrogate advertising’.

Surrogate advertising is the concept where one product, which cannot be advertised, is plugged via an advertisement for another product. There are plenty of examples of such ads in India where the actual alcoholic beverage is masked behind an ad for music CDs, mineral water, club soda, etc.

Recently, actor Amitabh Bachchan’s decision to withdraw as the brand ambassador for a pan masala brand again put the spotlight on the practice of surrogate advertising in India.

Bachchan pulled out of an endorsement deal with Kamala Pasand on his 79th birthday after facing a backlash on social media. The Bollywood megastar, who featured in the ad for the brand’s ‘silver-coated cardamom seeds’ with actor Ranveer Singh, claimed that he was not aware when the ad was being filmed that it fell under surrogate advertising. He also reportedly returned the money he had received for the endorsement.

We probed Jain for his take on the practice of surrogate advertising. In his view, as consumers become more conscious, it is only natural that they make more responsible choices about everything they consume. He says, “I think that also reflects upon the type of narratives and the conversations that are happening around surrogate ads, etc. That’s also a part of the reason why we don’t engage in surrogate advertising".

Jain explains the company’s approach: “We think of ourselves as a lifestyle brand.” Citing the example of the first brand extension, ‘the merch shop’ in 2016. “We had run for over four years and it is a significant part of our revenue. This is not minimal revenue. It is an integral part of our brand story,” he adds. The store has a dedicated buying team, there is a customer service team, and it is “almost like an ecommerce operation in a way,” says Jain. “We feel that it genuinely reflects the brand ethos and the aspirations for the brand to fit into the lifestyle of this generation.”

The other key area of focus is building the restaurant side of the business that pushes forward the company’s and Jain’s ambition to build a lifestyle brand. “It is not just about the beer, it is about the experience—whether it is an at-home experience or an out of home experience". The company opened its first taproom in Bengaluru, the second one is on its way and a few more in Delhi-NCR. Jain says, "Our effort here is to fit in as a lifestyle brand and not just as a beer brand.”

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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