OPINION: Cowen on ... Cobra

Cobra beer and tube cards have a lot in common. They're both

indulgences that have a lot to recommend them but struggle to overcome

an image as cheap and low quality. One of the pair has decided it's time

for a change.

Cobra is a brand with big ideas. It was launched in the UK a decade ago

and topped £20 million UK sales last year, dividing up the ethnic

restaurant market with Kingfisher. However, for Cobra to take a bite

from the mainstream beer brands, it needs to be accepted alongside

Stella and Budweiser as a drink for bars and clubs.

Moving restaurant beers into the brewing mainstream isn't a new


In New York, Japanese brews such as Sapporo have already used their

"less gassy" appeal to escape sushi restaurants for downtown bars. It's

logical that Cobra, in a country where Indian food is a cultural

mainstay and Indian culture increasingly mainstream, should aim for the

same territory. What's less obvious is why it should use the Underground

to get there.

You'd have thought that a move upmarket would necessitate abandoning the

media channel that Cobra has relied on in the past - most noticeably to

establish the "Curryholic Dave" character. After all, the public's

perception of brands on the tube isn't exactly highbrow. It's ideal for

direct response work but the clutter of cheap and cheerful executions

make it a dubious environment for serious branding ads - despite good

recent use of the medium from alcohol brands such as Asahi and Turning

Leaf Chardonnay.

At first the Cobra ads, through Magic Hat, appear too earnest when

compared both with Asahi's kitsch celebrities and the previous

"Curryholic Dave" work. They risk falling flat with commuters who hope

for a cheap and cheerful gag to lighten their journey - because there

isn't one. You just get a rhyming "lesson in lager".

These are ads, though, that will grow in effectiveness provided the

right kind of media planning is put behind them. The art direction,

after all, is nicely pitched for the hip, young demographic that makes

the tube such a perfect medium for challenger beers. The style may be a

little dated, but it's still interesting, familiarly trendy and easy on

the eye. The problem is that the images are left with too much work -

since the copy itself is repetitive and too short truly to absorb


This is where more effective use of the tube would really help


For starters, the six executions need to be dispersed more


There are currently only two circling the Underground, as far as I can

tell, which ruins the clever trick of numbering them so that we know

there are more out there to find. The prospect of hunting out different

ads is a good way of engaging bored commuters but they're likely to lose

interest unless Cobra gets the others rolled out soon.

There is, of course, another way of showcasing tube cards - one that

would get around Cobra's shortage of copy, display the full effect of

the artwork and show that the brand is serious about getting away from

its vindaloo-chugging heritage.

Other cities' subway systems are strides ahead of London when it comes

to taking over entire cars to get maximum effect from a campaign - yet

there seems little will to follow suit on the tube. St Ivel, Xfm and The

Economist have all put in the necessary cash and planning hours in the

past few years - but they are the exception rather than the rule.

If Cobra really wants to make an impact, it should consider a similar

tactic - otherwise the campaign, like the beer, could risk falling a

little flat.

Dead cert for a Pencil? The ads are too 90s for that.

File under ... P for potential.

What would the chairman's wife say? Poetry on the Underground isn't what

it used to be.

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