New Delhi: In April 2004, Coca Cola kicked off a retro ad campaign in India for the launch of its brand new “ice-creamy thanda” called Vanilla Coke.
Central to the campaign was an iconic advertisement inspired by the disco decade. It starred a then 27-year-old Vivek Oberoi in a bright red suit and polka dotted tie, spinning on a giant turntable, driving around on a Lamby scooter and screaming “Wakao!” at the camera.
“The creative challenge with Vanilla Coke was to grab the young adult’s short-spanned attention,” Prasoon Joshi, the-then national creative director of McCann Erickson, the agency that conceptualised the advertisement, said.
Joshi opted to apply a retro theme to a product aimed at the urban youth, that too with a catchy jingle — ‘ab parampara nahi, paramparampara’ — sung by 1980s disco legend Bappi Lahiri.
However, the retro theme was risky “considering the slew of ads on the same theme already on television — Aaj Tak, Playwin, Close-Up and Kit-Kat”, notes author and journalist Meenakshi Radhakrishnan-Swami in her book Stratagem: Cases on Retail, Products, Services, and Trends.
While the word ‘Wakao’, which the ad soon came to be associated with, is gibberish, it has roots in 1970s Hindi cinema and is a mnemonic familiar to Indian audiences. It is meant to communicate something as cool and different like Tata Sky’s “Jhinga la la”.
Aimed at youngsters, the commercial was played frequently on youth-centric channels like Channel [V], MTV, HBO and AXN.
Vivek Oberoi’s rising fame
Picking Oberoi as the ‘hero’ was a change from the brand’s previous ambassadors, Aishwarya Rai and Aamir Khan. Khan had already made waves in 2003 as the face of Coke’s ‘Thanda matlab Coca Cola!‘ campaign, again conceptualised by Joshi.
However, Oberoi was a rising star at the time, having impressed audiences in Ram Gopal Verma’s Company and acting alongside Rani Mukherjee in Saathiya.
“Vivek Oberoi is one of the most promising new stars on the Indian film horizon and has in a very short span, not only tasted success but proven to be extremely talented and promising,” Shripad Nadkarni, the then vice president of marketing at Coca-Cola, had said.
Apart from the advertisement, the product’s launch was accompanied by lifesize cutouts of the actor in an Elvis Presley-inspired outfit at cinema halls and a contest to collect six Coke labels, with winners getting to attend a retro party with him.
Mumbai-based marketing strategist Ishaan Pujari tells ThePrint that the timing was right in casting Oberoi. “It’s like Thums Up having Ranveer Singh in their ads now,” he adds.
However, even Oberoi’s disco moves could not save Vanilla Coke, which fizzled out soon after in India.
Why Vanilla Coke fizzled out in India
In 2004, it was introduced in India, two years after Pepsi’s lemon-flavoured drink ‘Pepsi Aha’ hit the shelves. It wasn’t uncommon then for beverage companies to compete and experiment with brand variants around the summer season to ramp up consumer demand and boost sales temporarily.
Vanilla Coke was inspired by ice-cream soda pops commonly found at US fast food joints. “There’s cola you drink and vanilla you eat, they say, but Coke has it all blended in for you to slurp,” an India Today report at the time had noted. It was available in 500ml bottles, priced at Rs 15, and 200ml bottles at Rs 6.
However, a survey conducted between 2003 and 2004 found that the drink failed to excite Indian consumers. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents felt Vanilla Coke was “not successful” while 32 per cent said it was the “least successful” brand launch at the time.
“Irrelevant advertising” was cited as one of the top reasons for the product’s failure — a direct dig at the retro-themed commercial.
It was also reported that the hype around the fizzy drink died down with consumers preferring “strong” products such as Coke, Pepsi and Thums Up. Vanilla Coke was eventually discontinued in 2005.
Speaking to ThePrint, former president of McCann Erickson Santosh Desai said once something fails, it’s easy to judge it retrospectively.
“At the time, we were focused on vanilla — a warm, pleasant, universal and almost nostalgic flavour. Keeping that in mind, we created an ad based on a fantasised, exaggerated past. Hence, the Elvis look,” he added.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.