Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Brands and Authenticity: What can Big Cola learn from Indomie and Cowbell?

As a brand and marketing analyst, I take pleasure in watching how new or rejuvenated brands choose to position themselves in the marketplace, aiming to gain visibility and appeal among its target consumers and the general public. This ‘brand watching’ habit has taught me one interesting lesson – that brands behave just like us humans, with all our ethical, moral, ideological and many other foibles.


Two consumer goods brands made lasting positive impression on me in the earlier 1990s and early 2000s by how they chose to position themselves upon entry into the Nigerian market, and by the phenomenal success they achieved as a result. These are Indomie and Cowbell, two brands with little or no pedigree at the time and which stood no chance against rival products and long established brands that were entrenched market leaders.

Their market entry and growth strategies were similar in their (un)commonsense simplicity, clear value propositions and effective execution. Time and space constrain me from launching into a treatise on the respective strategies of the two brands, but suffice it to say that they focused their marketing communication on what they can offer consumers, they were proud of who they were (which was really nothing at the time), and they did not waste their resources struggling to project themselves in comparison to bigger brands. I just loved their authenticity! Indomie was proudly happy to be “Indomie” and Cowbell did not try to pass off as “Peak” by another name.

This is why I struggle to understand the ways of the latest entrant into the Nigerian carbonated soft drinks market that goes by the brand name “Big”, hence Big Cola, Big Orange and Big Lemon. While I have nothing against the name “Big”, I find somewhat pompous. But like the name or not, the brand seems to have some footprint in a few other countries and aspires to become a global brand too like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.


What I struggle with is why a brand with apparently good credentials would wittingly or unwittingly allow itself to be portrayed as a “wannabe” Coca-Cola, as is obvious from many of the media reports that hype its recent launch. Rather than focusing on projecting Big’s unique attributes and value proposition, the brand by its media reporting seems quite eager to be accepted by consumers on the basis of a perceived or even bogus similarity with Coca-Cola. The sound bites include “same quality as Coke”, “same taste as Coke”, etc. One gets the sense also from interacting with its distributors and retailers, many of whom swear, perhaps ignorantly, that Big Cola is another product of or another name for Coca-Cola in a bigger bottle.

I doubt that this is a deliberate marketing strategy by the owners and handlers of Big Cola to gain acceptance in a new market. If not, then they should take quick measures to correct it. The folly and danger of this ‘marketing strategy’ is best captured in the timeless saying “You can fool some of the people some of the time; you cannot fool all the people all of the time”. As we all know, people generally have little regard for name-droppers, whether they be individuals or brands.

The second disturbing aspect of what I hope is not Big Cola’s ‘strategy’ is the big talk which seem to have a taste of crude arrogance. I have seen media headlines and sound bites that claim that Big Cola “threatens” Coca-Cola. That seems, indeed, a farfetched, if not quixotic, ambition considering that Big Cola ought to be contending with smaller industry players like La Cassera and mid-market players like Pepsi before it could hope to scratch at Coca-Cola, which has perched at the top of the market since the 1950s. Again, the question is why the obsession with Coca-Cola?

Humble confidence is a time-tested virtue for persons as well as for brands. And while ambition is a necessary stimulus for progress and success, combative ambition is not only distasteful but self-destructive as well. Consumers, can always tell when a brand is propelled more by hubris than by substantive virtue and value. Even Pepsi, despite its relative proximity to Coca-Cola’s success, does not openly ‘celebrate’ what I believe is its burning wish to someday overtake Coca-Cola in brand value or market share. That’s is maturity. Anyway, it is not for nothing that the word “upstart” exists.

As a popular Nigerian saying goes, “It is always a tragedy when the tongue precedes the head in warfare”. What I find intriguing, however, is that Coca-Cola has chosen to handle this media affront with silence. Is this a classic example of the wisdom of age indulging the exuberance of youth? Or is Coke simply allowing Big Cola to wear out itself dancing naked in the market square?

A final word to Big Cola is a reminder that a brand is supposed to inspire consumers with confidence and pride in itself for what it stands for, and can hardly do so by sending a message that it wished it was some other brand. So, if Big Cola wants to be like Coca-Cola in quality and taste, it is clearly telling consumers that Coca-Cola is its role model. In simple language, that Coke is the real thing! Or, as we would say in Nigeria “Coke is the koko!” This situation reminds me of the comic ad of yesteryears where a Volkswagen Beetle wished to become a Mercedes when it grows up.

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