Liquor brands have a clever new way of selling to younger audiences, through well-crafted web series and digitally-supported pop events

Very few really care if their mug of beer is cloudy or carries a hint of caramel. It is about the experience of sitting with friends in a familiar pub, glowing from diffused lighting. Beer-makers know this, and try their best to get an invite to that table. And this time, they have found a new ally on the web.

The story goes like this: a person returns to a bar near his old college, sits with the bar manager at a table and they tilt a pint of Kingfisher into their mugs. Then they phone their old friends after five years for a reunion in Goa. This is the opening shot of a web series playing on YouTube, called Cheers, owned by United Breweries. Every episode of this story, and every story, has characters with mugs of the bird beer. 

“There has been a tectonic shift in the way liquor brands advertise. Surrogate advertising has moved to surrogate story-telling,” says Shrenik Gandhi, co-founder of White Rivers Media, a digital agency that works with liquor brands. This started about two to three years ago, coinciding with the data explosion in India. Kingfisher Ultra, promoted through YouTube, has become the best performing brand – growing 45% over the past one year. “There are multiple factors behind that but a lot of narrations, web content, and on-ground activation, also seem to have worked for Ultra,” says Gurpreet Singh, VP of UB. Kingfisher has invested more than its peers in its web entertainment. Usually, companies get their content made from outside agencies and then brand them. But Kingfisher has an internal team that is involved in the content creation.

“With OTTs and YouTube, a large number of new avenues for advertising have emerged. When I spend on TV, I reach 20% of my audience; with digital, it is completely targeted,” says Singh.

TV, with at least 800 million viewers per month, continues to have the largest reach in India. But digital media is catching up. YouTube gets 245 million viewers per month in India; that’s a big number. It is the favoured medium of the young, and beer brands are largely targeting 21 to 35-year-olds. Singh believes Hotstar, which had 267 million viewers in the three weeks of Indian Premier League, will have the same reach as TV in 10 years because of cricket.

Kingfisher is relying on storytelling and Bacardi on its high-powered music-and-dance fest. The Bacardi Rum brand has been hosting the iconic Weekender NH7 for almost a decade, but is now looking beyond that. It supports the Hip-Hop movement with its Breezer Vivid Shuffle platform, through a combination of an annual stage event and social-media campaign. It keeps the brand alive in digital conversations. The head of marketing at Bacardi India, Anshuman Goenka, says, “Tracking and knowing the pop culture and sub-culture becomes even more important in our space, because direct advertising is prohibited.”

To engage with their buyers online, Pernod Ricard, world’s largest spirits company, has created an innovative repository for whiskey lovers (whiskey accounts for most of its sales). It’s called The Whiskeypedia. It collects everything on scotches and whiskeys of the world, from their history and food pairing, to cocktail recipes and glasses to use. This is a community-building exercise and the content is fed by the publisher and the users. Whiskeypedia has a popular Facebook page, a Twitter handle and an app. With the app, you can scan the barcode of any whiskey bottle and access data on the liquor. 

Clearly, the liquor brands have moved beyond calendars and the surrogate mineral water ads in India. The marketing is increasingly riding the digital wave — which also helps tap pop culture more effectively — to connect with their consumers.

Let’s talk brand

Singh, a hand at UB for two decades, has witnessed the shift in marketing dynamics. When it came to embracing digital, UB had a three-pronged approach: first, brand conversations with the consumer; second, content creation or storytelling (example Cheers) that started two years ago, and the third was driving traffic to partner bars through their app Pitchers. Digital advertising is allotted 35% of its marketing spend of Rs.3.25-5.20 billion. Four to five years back, its share was just 13%. “But that form of advertising is a one-way communication. We wanted to establish a conversation with the customers,” says Singh. 

Singh and his team decided to experiment with Kingfisher’s 20-year-old jingle Oo la la la le o, immersing in the regional pop culture. This April, they invited people to send in regional words, food habits, slang and nuances unique to their city. Professional musicians set these to a rap in several regional versions, which were played as TV and digital ads during IPL matches in the respective cities (Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru). The campaign garnered around 2.5 million viewers across social media platforms. 

Digital platforms help scale up such audience-engagement. “The reach of your message widens when you use your product as a creative thought-starter,” says PG Aditiya, executive creative director at Dentsu Webchutney. The ‘thought-starter’ is essentially a subtle suggestion, like the YouTube Channel Cheers gives, that drinking beer completes a celebration. 

Content creation gets 3% of UB’s digital ad spends. While it is a relatively small share, the company has the most elaborate set-up compared to other beer brands. UB’s internal team was set up in 2017 and Kingfisher debuted with a short story Half Ticket on its channel Cheers that June. The story revolves around a blind date that goes rollickingly well. It saw an encouraging reception and they followed it up with others such as Rise, What’s Your Status?, Mr Das, Born Free and One by Two. “Typically, the subjects we choose and the content we create is very relatable for young millenials. They are not happy to settle for a nine-to-five. They want to keep a balance between their job and other interests… that is the theme that inspires us,” says Singh. Kingfisher has a say in the script (written in house) and choice of actors. A production house is engaged for the making of the movie, and the beer company steps in when it is time for editing. Cheers has 8.88 lakh subscribers. 

Gandhi of White Rivers, says: “People don’t go online or on social media to search for an ad or a brand. They go there for entertainment.” Singh says, “Many of the stories include beer drinking on occasions. The idea is to do it in a less intrusive manner, introduce the brand language into the web series when a consumer is engaged in the story.” 

Shivalaya Gupta, content marketing specialist at 22 Feet Tribal Worldwide, which works with UB, says: “A research study from last year showed that people get to know gradually that it (Cheers) is an Ultra property. That is why this strategy has been continued.” The channel has more than 100 million views, four million shares, and an average consumption of two hours of content daily per user (total view time divided by views for a day). Adds Bacardi’s Goenka, “The more we can feed our brand and message into entertainment, the more effective it is.”

Goenka says the effectiveness of this form of advertising is also better measurable. “Traditionally, brands used to create a campaign, put it out on social media and boost it with money to go wider,” he says. But with an increase in number of fake profiles and handles, it is easy for an ad agency to overstate the effectiveness of a campaign. 

Web series are expensive to make compared to ads, Singh agrees, but it has a longer shelf life. “With short films/web series, I don’t spend money on advertising. It moves on its own. So, that seems to be working favourably for us in terms of RoI (return on investment).” UB’s digital division has plans to involve web series industry leaders this year and scale up their content. 

Singh’s third dart from the digital quiver is the Pitchers app, made for the ecosystem of nightlife. If you want to go out for a drink in the evening, Pitchers is who you ask. You can choose a place based on geography, price or variety. With a million downloads, it is available in six cities. “We do this to drive traffic to our bar partners,” says Singh. The company believes that people will choose their app over other regular food apps because it has filters that are more relevant to pub life, such as the kind of music being played and name of the performer.

King of pop

While Kingfisher is relying heavily on its digital foray, Bacardi is still sticking to its pop-culture corner. But it is using digital platforms for social listening.

Goenka and his team have to keep their ears and eyes open to the ever-changing pop-culture trends in the country. While it can be done by looking at available data, articles and talking to customers, he has found that the online chatter cannot be ignored. They track popular social media sites using in-house and vendor tools. 

Goenka says, “For any marketer, culture is the starting and the end point of any marketing plan.” Their marketing strategy rests on such associations and occasions. Having a pretty wide portfolio, the company decides which brands will fit in which sub-culture. Through this, they then design their digital, experiential and even activation strategies. 

“We stumbled upon a lot of chatter around the whole hip-hop scene in India, eighteen months ago. It was much before Gully Boy. Consumers were becoming more aware of what was happening in the hip-hop circuit. The conversations went from desi rap and hip-hop dance to rapping and battling,” says Goenka. This was not to be missed. “The hip-hop genre is all about colour, spontaneity, and movements, so it fit well with Breezer as a brand, which is young and colourful,” says Goenka. Breezer, often the starting drink for people who take to alcohol, is a flavoured drink with a dash of alcohol. This is what led to Breezer Vivid Shuffle. 

“It is in its second year now and the ambition is to become India’s largest hip-hop music and dance platform,” says Goenka. For Shuffle, the brand worked with dance schools, organised six rounds of hip-hop competiton, and a finale in Mumbai with 63 participants. They came from different regions and had to face judges with international repute such as Benji (Boston), Sui (Japan), Loic (France) and Jaja aka Jana Vankova (Czech).

Music has been a decades-old marketing pillar for Bacardi. It started with Bacardi Blast CDs in late ’90s and then came the annual music festival NH7 Weekender. It started from Pune, and is now a multi-city event, with its lower-scale versions being held even in Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns. But Goenka says that they are now taking it to another level. In 2017, Bacardi created a YouTube show called Bacardi House Party Sessions. With this, the brand entered indie-music talent selection and mentoring space. 

“We created it with DJ Nucleya and AIB (All India Bakchod) to provide a platform to independent musicians,” says Goenka. 

The artists were invited to send in their tracks. Over the two seasons, out of 2,600 applications, eleven musicians were picked winners. “We helped them create their first music videos and also provided them a platform through NH7 Weekender,” says Goenka. The result has been encouraging for the brand. One of the participants, Ritviz (with the song Ud Gaye), garnered 30 million views online and became wildly popular. The IP of the song remains with the artist. Goenka explains the importance of discovering and working with creators: “They are the manufacturers of pop culture in the country.” 

Aditiya tries to make sense of the pop-culture obsession of liquor brands. “I would rephrase ‘pop-culture’ to lifestyle associations. Every liquor brand is best appreciated alongside various experiences. Different elements of lifestyle and culture such as music, art, events, parties and films go with different kinds of alcohol. Jazz and blues might be more of a whiskey-friendly genre of music, while an Indie band might go best with a craft beer vibe. That is why you’re thinking of a hot day by the beach, when I say Corona, or a football match when I say Heineken,” he says.

Pop-culture events, which brands support, help in reinforcing these associations. Therefore, there are still events such as Sunburn (Kingfisher) or NH7 Weekender (Bacardi) or Bira 91’s April Fool’s Fest (hip-hop and stand-up comedy). 

In India, the way liquor is retailed doesn’t allow for fantastic scalable brand experiences at the point-of-sale, feels Aditiya. “Irrespective of your LSM (living standard measure), social strata and so on, your retail experience at an average wine store in India is similar to that of the next guy! So, creating premium or customised consumption experiences at events becomes that much more important. What they aim to accomplish can range from long-term brand recall, to creating brand conversations and aid moments of consumption (This is the same reason why wine and art gallery visits go well together!),” he adds.

The brands want to be part of your happy-life story. They want to be recalled as the fun or edgy chum that brings high spirits (pun intended) to your table. The secret is not to let you know that they have invited themselves to the party.