There is a fine line between genius and stupid. Sobranie, who can best be described as a fourth-tier tobacco player in a three-tier market, has somehow managed to overstep this line. I'm talking about their 2007 advertising push for Sobranie Red, a mid-range cigarette brand produced in Austria for that exotic Evropeyskiy effect. Incidentally, I've always been amused by local brands who, in order to somehow seem more premium, talk-up their European roots. They incorrectly assume that The Old Continent's stagnant social rot isn't nearly as despicable as Russia's New Reformer corruption. Personally, I'll take the latter any day. The sex is much better.
Sobranie's first ads are starting to appear in subway stations around Moscow. The image, oddly similar to Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory", depicts a cloudy field and what looks like a ficus tree tied to a golf iron, with the slogan "your style".
Sobranie Red is a mass consumer brand, with really confused positioning. On the one hand, it tries to appear premium, using icons like a Ferrari on its website, playing on its import status. On the other hand, Sobranie is priced like any cheap mid-range smoke. Anyone who has ever worked over here knows that Russians are very suspicious consumers, and don't believe in a good deal. If something is under-priced or is on sale, to a Russian it can only mean that there's something wrong with it. IKEA had to completely re-brand their clearance sales away from the notion of a "good priced deal" last year so that consumers wouldn't think that there was some sort of defect with the offered sale items.
When the brand launched last year, Russian consumers didn't know what to make of it. Quasi-premium positioning, and a suspiciously low price? Feeling like they made no impact last year, the Sobranie team has created their magnum opus of marketing vaudeville and possibly alienated every remaining consumer with a surreal campaign appealing only to the most astute student of Surrealism.
Despite what Sobranie may believe, they are still in launch phase for this brand, and will remain there until consumers begin to understand it and show loyalty. When you launch a brand, you need to create a lasting and relevant message for the consumer to take away. This message needs to somehow relate to the consumer's sensibilities, or at the very least, stay relevant to their scope of experience and understanding. For many Russians, the ficus-golf thing may very well be the first time that they experience the brand. Who in Russia, other than Sobranie's expat directors, play golf? What the hell does an Asian fig tree have to do with local common sense? If you're confused, so is the rest of Russia. It's like a David Lynch film in print.
Incidentally, the top tobacco players got together a long time ago to set out a few rules of engagement between themselves. It's sort of a way to stay ahead of litigators by doing some internal policing. Top amongst these rules are internal restrictions on the usage of nature, sport or any other healthy-lifestyle associated imagery in tobacco advertising, meaning that Sobranie's ficus-golf ad is a big no-no. Obviously, Sobranie wasn't invited to this particular meeting. Seeing the ad really drove home the tobacco industry's non-perception of the Sobranie brand as true competition. It reminded me of that scene in Animal House when Greg Marmalard, president of Omega House dismissively led Larry and Flounder to the back of the Omega rush party, "...over there is Terry Auerback, captain of the swim team...and Jugdish, Mohammet, Lonny..."