Two and a half decades is a long time and the general premise is that a lot should have changed over such a period – and that much of that change should also have been in a progressive direction. And, more importantly, one should feel that this would be the case with advertising in Pakistan too. However, when we see that almost everything around us has regressed, it does not bode well and it makes me weary about delving into the topic of exploring how some big brands have evolved in disseminating their message over this period.
As someone who had his formative years in the eighties and nineties – and that too through the eyes of an expat, a sense of identity and having roots in Pakistan was something that could not have been avoided.
We were brought up on stories of smart Pakistanis across various fields contributing to nation-building as well as achieving great things on an international scale. PIA pilots training their counterparts in other countries, our engineers helping set up airlines like Emirates, our sportspeople winning world championships in hockey, cricket, squash and snooker. Our armed forces taking part in UN peacekeeping missions around the world, our scientists helping us stay at the forefront of nuclear advancements and our music continuously evolving and leading the way.
We had greats in the entertainment industry and our dramas were renowned for being craved in India. We had a genius in Shoaib Mansoor, who churned out content like Fifty-Fifty, Geetar ’93, Gulls & Guys and Supreme Ishq for fun. We had the two Ws, Wasim and Waqar swinging us to unbelievable victory after victory on the cricket field (nostalgia fudges the facts here) and we had Vital Signs and Junoon along with a score of other musicians making Pakistanis sing and dance to their tunes. How could you not take pride in being Pakistani, and how could advertising be any less good?
It is, therefore, with some trepidation that in this article, I venture to explore how Pepsi, Shan, Lipton and Sooper have fared since the late nineties in terms of their advertising and how their message has developed over the last 25 years. Why these four brands? I chose two international brands that entered Pakistan early and two local brands that made it big. The fact that all four have woven themselves into our daily lives was also not lost on me and which is what made the journey more intriguing.
Let’s start with Pepsi – the quintessential representative of pop culture in our country. From a treasured treat that we got to enjoy once the guests had left or on special occasions only, to becoming an almost ever-present entity on the dinner table, Pepsi has been as much a part of our lives as anything else. Along the way, Pepsi has mimicked the global shifts in its local positioning but has always managed to tap into the relevant agents of change and made the right calls.
Cricket and pop music were always going to be the two big passion points in Pakistan and leveraging them was a no-brainer. Starting with Imran Khan in his heyday in the early to mid-eighties, moving on to Wasim Akram and then stars like Shahid Afridi and his dynamic partnership with the swashbuckling left-hander Saeed Anwar, Pepsi ads at the turn of the last century were a celebration of a generation asking for more. The taglines went from ‘Generation Next’ to ‘Ask for More’, translated as ‘Dil Maange Aur’ or ‘Dil Maange More.’
It was at about this time that Pepsi ventured into Pakistan’s music scene through the discovery of new talent, and the Pepsi Battle of the Bands was born. Held in 2002, this initiative proved immensely popular and capitalised on the live concert craze that was sweeping the nation. It unearthed talent such as Aaroh, EP and the Mekaal Hasan Band; musicians who went on to have hugely successful releases and took the music industry forward. For some inexplicable reason, the show did not continue and went into a 15-year hiatus. Much like everything else, the noughties are labelled as Pakistan’s ‘lost decade.’
We became inconsistent in sports and lost the stars that had brought us that success. This revealed cracks in the system; the fact that there was no systematic way of producing new stars and all we had was luck to rely on. As the results on the field faltered, so did the lure of most of the so-called stars and ads resorted to using ensemble casts instead of the more popular personalities, especially for cricket.
There was also a slight detour to the world of movies with Reema featuring in one Pepsi ad, based on a song by Strings. Gradually, Pepsi shifted to Pakistan’s third big passion point – food – and began to feature Pepsi as an essential dinner table partner. The Fawad Khan ads would have been okay had not another drink from the same company also been encouraging us to ‘Mana lo food ka love with 7Up’ (Celebrate the love of food with 7Up). There was also an attempt to tug at the heart’s strings with the ‘Liter of Light’ Ramzan campaign, aimed at bringing electricity to areas of the country where there was none, by urging us to drink more Pepsi. However, it all felt sporadic.
But all is not lost and Pepsi’s latest positioning of ‘Why Not Meri Jaan?’ (‘Why Not My Dear?’) has come as a breath of fresh air. The local adaptation of the global repositioning ‘refresh’ is steeped in the local vernacular and embodies much more than its literal meaning. It captures the care-free attitude, resilience and fortitude of the current generation, while providing relief to the divisive world we live in today. The first three TVCs under this umbrella received mixed feedback but the follow-up with the rap songs and more TVCs making the positioning clear, saw the phrase take on a new life as it began to be strongly associated with the brand.
This was preceded by a few more seasons of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, which brought Bayaan, Auj, Kashmir, Pindi Boys and Badnaam, among others, to the fore. Yet, sadly none of them went on to achieve super stardom as was the case with the original season. There has been some backlash on what some would call a schizophrenic approach, with the sudden emergence of a Mahira Khan TVC, followed by Babar and Naseem driving down to what could be Gwadar or Nevada (very cool TVC BTW). But I for one am enjoying Pepsi’s new positioning.
How can we not talk about food after Pepsi? Shan came into being in 1981 (the year I was born) and has since successfully found its way into millions of people’s hearts via their stomach. The backstory of how Shan became a global phenomenon faster than a national one, when the now famous Shan recipe mix travelled to the US with the founder’s daughter after her marriage as a way to help her settle easily into her new home has become the stuff of folklore (a story that continues to repeat itself in countless homes and families). The fact that both locals and foreigners were discovered enjoying the authentic taste of the recipe mixes gave the founder the confidence to produce them at scale locally. Karachi-based, the business quickly made the city its stronghold. Relying only on word of mouth and smart sampling, the brand established itself quickly and became the go-to solution for many people who did not know how to cook traditional dishes.
Having worked on the brand, I have always marvelled at how the product entered the market right when the landscape was evolving, and because people were looking for convenience, anything that offered to save time was welcomed, while the practice of passing down recipes for traditional dishes was waning. Yet, the quest for authentic tasting food remained and Shan recipe mixes were able to capitalise on this trend by providing the ideal solution.
Shan Foods didn’t advertise in the traditional sense until the early 2000s, after which they started with food shot-based TVCs to complement posters with catchy taglines. The brand was put on the map with the now iconic ‘two brothers’ TVC that came out in 2015. This film played on the strength of the brand being a crucial reminder of home for millions of expats. The acting by the younger brother has been the subject of many memes and has only added to the longevity of that film. This was followed by what is known as the ‘Chinese copy’, which was falsely assumed to have been inspired by CPEC and the anticipation of many Chinese relocating to Pakistan. However, it turns out that the timing was more a stroke of luck, although it did play on the theme of foreigners using Shan recipe mixes to gel with the local community (which turned tables on the previous communication, but did show that the brand works both ways).
During this time, Shan launched Shan Stories which were real life testimonials of people from different walks of life talking about how Shan helped them settle in foreign lands by providing them a way to hold on to their sense of identity and roots.
The next film attempted to fix a long-standing problem of Shan not having broken into the Punjab market in the same way they had done in Karachi. This film depicted a family of seven brothers evaluating a suitor from Karachi for their one and only sister. The parallel about being an outsider from Karachi trying to prove himself to people from Punjab was probably lost on most consumers, and only added to the narrative of Shan’s ability to come up with great pieces of individual advertising, but failing to have a consistent thread. However, one of the things that did stand out (whether by accident or design) was that so far, none of the Shan thematic films showed a Pakistani woman cooking. (Before the next thematic came out, we could see a more coherent message forming with SKU-based TVCs depicting women, but as being much smarter and more than just homemakers). The creative team behind most of Shan’s great films has been led by Ogilvy who were able to leverage the regional expertise of the team who developed the memorable Google Delhi Lahore TVC. So when they came up with the ‘father-daughter’ film to showcase changing mindsets – an elderly father realising that a woman, be it his daughter or wife, does not have to be the one who cooks – it was well received. Shan has taken this narrative forward in their ‘Doctor *Bahu’* and ‘Khushiyan Banane Wali’ (She Who Creates Happiness) campaigns. Overall, Shan Foods have done some excellent work, have also progressed in their ancillary advertising and have also ventured into creating another brand asset under ‘Shan Kitchen’ and are doing very relevant and interesting digital content as well.
To avoid this article becoming a book, I will keep my comments on Lipton and Sooper succinct. Lipton Yellow Label came up with an iconic jingle in the fifties and ever since ‘Chai Chahiye’ (Want some tea?) has proved to have more lives than those of a cat, although subjectively speaking, each rendition has not been well received.
Lipton did dip its teabag (pun intended) into the local pop scene with the great Nazia and Zohaib dosti (friendship) TVC, followed by the not-so-great Ali Haider and Hadiqa ones that attempted to take the friendship narrative forward. It also tried to increase consumption by making a mehndi-based film, while simultaneously attempting to weave Chai Chahiye into our everyday lingo. From there Lipton resorted to global films and came back with ‘Jaago Un Ke Liye Jo Waqai Aham Hain’ (Wake up for those who really are important) which is a good local insight, but a mouthful and not very exclusive. Lately, we have seen yet another rendition of Chai Chahiye with a pivot to functional strong tea communication. All in all, it has been a mixed bag where great original work is still being relied on, as no new positioning has been stuck to long enough to carve out an identity.
Sooper, an amazing local brand, has come a long way since its inception in the mid-nineties. Starting with Mehreen Raheel replying ‘Sooper’ to everything her mom says on the phone (a smart way to instil the brand in our everyday lives) to the memorable take on the Shankar Mahadevan Breathless song/jingle to the current Seedhi Saadhi Khushi (Simple ways of happiness) positioning, it has been a long journey and with not many missteps. There was, however, mixed feedback for the slightly upscale pivot of Seedhi Saadhi Khushi in the first three films, but the two back-to-back Ramzan films and the launch film for the soft bake cake, have kept the brand anchored.
All the above is subjective and viewed from the lens of the basic teachings of marketing. Has the positioning remained consistent long enough to be embedded in the minds of the consumers? Have the distinctive brand assets been cultivated to become synonymous with the brand in the minds of consumers? Have the platforms and associations evolved to stay relevant to new audiences? These were some of the questions I asked while making my comments. Obviously, some brands will be better at doing the above than others, but these are some of the ways to stay top of mind and increase mental availability.
Has the state of our advertising degenerated like everything else? The hard answer in my view is yes. Summing up 25 years is hard but generally we, as an industry of clients and creative agencies, have moved from collective to individual interests. We have stopped taking ownership and stopped investing in and cultivating relationships and stopped thinking long-term. It’s a long and slow journey back to the top, just like for our country, but someone needs to start somewhere.
Sheikh Adil Hussain is Marketing Director – Hair Care, Unilever Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org