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Kanika Datta: Animal instincts in branding

Indian firms resort to animal & avian kingdoms for brand names far more sparingly than their US and European counterparts

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

As Kingfisher Airlines flies deeper and deeper into air pockets of losses and indebtedness, spare a thought for the bird that bears its name: the stunning Common Kingfisher.

We know the airline is a brand extension of UB Group’s money-spinning Kingfisher beer, and the emphasis is on the noun “king,” with all its lavish connotations, rather than the less glamorous “fisher”— hence the tagline “The King of Good Times”. But if the avian variety had been able to exercise a choice, it would have probably strongly objected to having its name commandeered for either product.

In a 2008 speech, UB Group promoter Vijay Mallya said he had stumbled on the Kingfisher beer label when he was a trainee and was inspired by its “vibrancy and cheekiness”. He asked his father for a Rs 10 lakh budget to revive it, and was shown the door. But he did eventually manage to secure a modest budget and set about creating what has undoubtedly become an international brand.

The fun lifestyle positioning is designed to attract younger consumers but is also a reflection of the supposedly fun-loving personality of the promoter, which also plays into the overall brand values. No doubt the Common Kingfisher’s festive plumage, so elegantly reproduced on the beer bottles and aircraft, enhances these attributes. But that is as far as the resemblance between bird and brand goes.

Indeed, anyone who has observed the kingfisher in its many varieties will know that it is hardly a bird you would remotely associate with “fun” or “good times” at all. On the contrary, it has all the attributes of a humourless workaholic: phenomenal concentration and solitary habits. That personality and lifestyle are dictated by nature, of course. The kingfisher requires exclusive access to large stretches of water because it has to eat the equivalent of 60 per cent of its body weight every day.

Perhaps that single-minded focus explains why the bird continues to flourish despite the rapid destruction of its habitat, even as its airline namesake struggles for survival.

To be sure, Kingfisher is not alone in selecting brand names of animals or birds for its products with which there is no visible association. Shaw Wallace has a light beer brand called Rosy Pelican and Mohan Meakin a similar product called Golden Eagle.

The connection between Britannia’s wholesome mass market Tiger biscuit and the big cat is as hard to fathom — unless the idea is to provide some sort of subliminal link between the consumer of the product and the attributes of strength and toughness of the tiger. For that matter, what’s the link with the famous Singaporean brand Tiger Balm? The tiger is a majestic, beautiful, even fierce animal, but it cannot be considered soothing (the chief attribute of the balm) by any stretch of the imagination.

Or remember Camel cigarettes from R J Reynolds? Is there any visible connection between a cigarette, a product that contributes to lower lung capacity, and an animal that is best known for its phenomenal endurance (not to forget a ratty temper)?

Or take the famous Monkey Brand soap and toothpowder of Victorian times. No one is quite sure why the brand name was chosen, though any number of weird theories on its association with race and cleanliness has been bandied about (and monkeys are extremely clean creatures).

On the whole, Indian companies tend to resort to the animal and avian kingdoms for brand names far more sparingly than their US and European counterparts. One pop-psychology explanation could be that many of the animals and birds that are immortalised in the name of cars and aircraft and so on in the developed world are either extinct or rapidly headed that way — Jaguar, Cougar, Lynx, Impala, Bison, Cobra and so on. Oil major Shell, for instance, used to name its oilfields for birds — the famous global benchmark Brent crude, for instance, is derived from a species of goose (which is threatened but not extinct).

Philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky once highlighted the curious fact that the American military drew on the culture of American Indians, a people they practically exterminated, to name its matériel: Apache, Chinook, Tomahawk and so on. Maybe the sparing use of animal/bird/reptile names in Indian branding is a reflection that the country still boasts a wide variety of extant wildlife, despite the best efforts of poachers, corrupt forest officials and rapid industrialisation. And if that trend changes, maybe it’s time for environmentalists to be even more worried.

First Published: Thu, March 01 2012. 00:57 IST