A 2014 Hindi book, Kingfisher, and Red Label’s social network ad

In a way, ‘tea’ is also a kind of social network through which we make so many connections and relationships and end up calling them ‘friendship’ or ‘love’. We make these connections so effortlessly, like ‘Ok, let’s meet for tea sometimes’, or ‘Let’s talk over tea’. Of course, it’s the conversation that brings us together, but it’s ‘tea’ that creates the conditions to actually bring us physically together!

Does that sound familiar?

If you have seen the new Brooke Bond Red Label tea ad released on World Social Media Day (June 30, 2023) this year, the opening paragraph sure would seem familiar.

But that paragraph is from a 2014 book in Hindi, written by writer Divya Prakash Dubey who also is the dialog writer for the Hindi version of Ponniyin Selvan 1 and 2. The paragraph appears in the writer’s 2014 book titled ‘Masala Chai’, right in the foreword!

Almost as if anticipating someone to point out the book in connection with the ad, the media release that accompanied the Brooke Bond Red Label ad has a specific year mentioned!

This campaign is thirteen years old! Our strategy partner Prem had shared this insight with us, back in 2010. Even today, it is super relevant. That is the power of this insight but that is also the power of tea. A simple but well-made cup of tea is the glue our country bonds over. Friends are made, friendships are rekindled and this tea time, is truly a time for togetherness” (the quote is credited to Harshad Rajadhyaksha & Kainaz Karmarkar, Chief Creative Officers, Ogilvy India)

(Having worked with Prem while I was at Ogilvy, I can totally imagine Prem coming up with, and explaining that insight.)

The simple insight is this: ‘tea as a social network’.

From there, the ad traces ways in which social networking actions and terms can be mapped to offline situations and actions where tea is the connecting factor.

In hindsight, if you think about it, Brooke Bond Red Label has been relentlessly associating tea as the object that brings people together for a very, very long time. From that thought… to framing tea as ‘India’s favorite social network’ is a small leap.

Consider any of Red Label’s previous, famous ads. They all involve someone offering tea to someone else under some pretext or other. This is simply a ‘friend request’ in the social media world, with tea being the lever.

And when the other person accepts the tea and smiles at its pleasant taste, what else is that but a ‘request accepted’ or a ‘Like’? 🙂

A couple of Red Label ads that fit this simple template:

So, ‘tea as a social network’ has always been true as an insight within Red Label’s advertising. It’s just that it was explicitly articulated by writer Divya Prakash Dubey in 2014.

Brooke Bond and Ogilvy extended their own long-running series to make it work specifically for World Social Media Day in 2023.

In doing so, Ogilvy drives the basic concept in specific directions to make the mapping explicit and obvious.

So, offering tea to new neighbors becomes a ‘friend request’.
The neighbors accepting the tea with a smile becomes ‘request accepted’.
The number of people enjoying tea at Damodar’s tea stall becomes ‘Likes’.
When Atul makes tea in his hostel room, the aroma bringing other students to his room becomes ‘Trending’, just like how the trending topic gets more people to opine on the same topic.
Sharing is quite direct – you share tea with someone else.
Reposting is interesting: the way a cup of tea is passed on from person to person till the person it was intended for gets it!
Stories are quite obvious too – people talking while having tea 🙂

The reason why the ad works almost instantly and effortlessly is because the brand (Brooke Bond Red Label) is not pushed at all. The ad does not frame the brand as ‘India’s favorite social network’. It frames the product (tea) as ‘India’s favorite social network’. That’s less presumptuous (that the entire country prefers only one brand of tea) and hence makes almost anyone relate to the larger sentiment since only one brand is not being pushed.

In fact, there are only 2 throwaway shots of Red Label tea in the ad (from what I could observe), while the last one is relegated to a by-the-way painting on the wall.

Incidentally, another beverage brand tried the very same idea, with a twist, in October 2015, with another variant added in April 2016! Here is that brand!

October 2015:

April 2016:

The ads, made by the agency J. Walter Thompson (now called Wunderman Thompson) make the mistake that the Red Label tea ad avoids – it frames a single brand as ‘The Original Social Network’.

(Digression: It feels terrible to realize all over again that this happy, vivacious youngster, Sushant Singh Rajput, is not among us anymore. Digression ends)

Barring that mistake, the idea of mapping offline actions with their social networking counterparts is identical, though less impactful.

So, getting a seal on the wrist to enter a pub becomes ‘password’.
Entering the pub is ‘Checkin’ (something we used to do, have stopped since Foursquare went out of fashion).
‘People you may know’ is straightforward – you head towards people you know in the pub.
‘Friends’ is direct too.
Meeting someone new becomes ‘friend request’. Them talking to you becomes ‘request accepted’.
Cheering for a moment on TV with everyone else becomes ‘Likes’.
One person imitating your dance move becomes ‘Following’. Many more people imitating your move becomes ‘Trending’.
‘Tweet’ and ‘Retweet’ are mapped to graffiti on the wall – adequately lacking imagination.

The biggest and most obvious difference between the Red Label ad and the Kingfisher ad is this: the tea is instrumental in all those offline actions that can be seen in context to the social networking equivalents. But in the Kingfisher ad, not only is the beer (the brand, or the product) nowhere in sight, but it also does not act as the lever to make people do any of the actions depicted as offline equivalents of online/social media actions!

One can argue: we cannot show beer on TV ads in India. In fact, the ad showcases ‘Kingfisher Packaged Drinking Water’ in the end along with ‘The King of Good Times’ as the caption. Even a child in India knows that Kingfisher packaged drinking water is NOT the King of Good Times 🙂

That’s a reasonable argument since Kingfisher can only do surrogate advertising for beer using bottled water.

However, even if you discount that explanation, the mapping is not done for actions performed for or while consuming the beverage being advertised.

Unless you explain that the very point of entering the pub is only because of Kingfisher beer, and everything else that happens inside is incidental, the mapping hardly works. Beer does bring people together (at least in Bengaluru) as much as tea. But the writing in the Kingfisher ad is superfluous and less thought-through. It has the right idea, but it is executed haphazardly without conviction. That lack of conviction could also be because they are working with a crippling constraint of not being allowed to either show or talk about the product.

That could also explain why they frame Kingfisher (the brand) and not beer (the product) as ‘The Original Social Network’.

But looking beyond these reasonable and valid constraints, think about how Red Label does the mapping (the reason why I explain it so explicitly above).

A person offers tea to a stranger – friend request.
The stranger drinks the tea – request accepted.
The product (tea) is the fulcrum.

A person greets a stranger in a pub that serves Kingfisher, when he is introduced to her by a common friend – friend request.
The stranger starts talking – request accepted.
The place (pub) is the fulcrum. Not the product (beer) or the brand (Kingfisher).
Of course, we can go back to the argument – why are they in that place? To drink Kingfisher beer. But that is less convincing generally, and more convincing to the brand managers alone.

People enjoying tea with happy faces at Damodar’s tea stall – ‘Likes’
The product (tea) is the fulcrum.

People cheering a moment on TV in a pub – Likes
The moment on TV is the fulcrum. It has nothing to do with the product that is advertising.

Atul making tea in the hostel and its aroma bringing more students to his room – ‘Trending’
The product is the fulcrum.

Many people imitate one person’s dance moves – Trending
The dance move is the fulcrum. It has nothing to do with the product that is advertising.

You get the idea.

When you look at the 2 subsequent ads by Kingfisher – one set in a beach, and another set in a cricket stadium – things go from far to worse in terms of realizing the potential of the core idea. At least with the beach idea, one could argue that people may be consuming beer on the beach (though it is not permitted in India, from what I know), but linking beer consumption to playing cricket in a stadium seems preposterous.

In comparison, the Red Label ad’s places are hardly relevant and happen just about everywhere where tea could be served by someone.

Broadly, the Kingfisher ads focus simply on social actions and attempt to map offline actions with online social networking equivalents while keeping the product almost incidental – a vague, ‘it brings people to places where these social actions are performed’ excuse.

It almost feels like Kingfisher and Wunderman Thompson produced the first, tentative draft of a great idea, while Red Label and Ogilvy released a stupendously good final version.