Thums Up faces brickbats for roping in athletes in its latest ad for Olympics

Industry observers weigh in on whether the cola-athletes partnership is a cautionary tale for marketers to tread through when conceptualizing ads and brand associations

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Jul 14, 2021 8:51 AM
Thums Up

At a time when more and more athletes from around the world are standing up against soda advertising, Thums Up last week roped in wrestler Bajrang Punia, boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav, archers Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das and members of the Indian shooting team including Manu Bhaker, to launch their campaign, positioning itself as a brand attempting to bring out the struggle of the Indian athletes to the masses, and celebrating them. However, many netizens soon started questioning the brand and wondering whether our Olympics-bound athletes indeed gulp down bottles of Thums Up after training to regain their ‘thunder’.

Here’s what netizens had to say about the brand roping in athletes.

A cautionary tale?

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Cristiano Ronaldo made his stance on Coca Cola clear leading to a $4 billion drop in the brand’s market capitalisation. At the same tournament, the Euro, Paul Pogba removed a bottle of Heineken kept on the press conference table. Pogba did the same with an understanding of the health and social implications of trivialising beer as part of a larger footballing spectatorship culture.

Russell Barrett, CCO and CEO, BBH- PWW India observes that the recent incidents have only brought to the forefront issues that cola brands have been facing for decades. As Barrett notes, this time, the awareness and the conversations have been amplified by social platforms and a louder, stronger audience voice. “Even if they tide this crisis over, there will be another that will be louder and so on, till something breaks. The biggest worry for these brands is the next generation. They’re growing up with a strong point of view that’s being endorsed and fuelled by their heroes,” he says.

Barrett notes the Catch-22 for cola brands. “They realise that messaging can't be functional. So one chooses the visceral - happiness, thrill, or national pride. Then again, consumers are seeing through this rainbows and sunshine propaganda. It's a fine line & the question is how can one tread it? My take is only with the advice of honest and smart creative and strategy folks who understand modern consumers and have the guts to call it bullshit. Not yes, men. Till then, distraction is the only tactic at hand and speaking as a father of two, it is temporary,” he asserts.

To be sure, the recent instances have highlighted the risks brands face associating with sports stars made powerful by the social media era as they call out the company for being contradictory to get elite sports stars promoting junk food and drinks.

Ramanuj Shastry, Director and Co-founder, Infectious Advertising, notes that cricketers and sports stars have been promoting soft drinks and beers on television for decades now. “Carbonated soft drinks and beer are not the ‘go-to’ hydration fix for elite athletes. Everyone knows that. We don’t need Ronaldo and Pogba- two ballers capable of more drama than Broadway- to tell us that. Thums Up has made a spot with the top athletes of India? Good on them. We need more big brands to promote sports other than cricket. Does this tantamount to repositioning Thums Up as a sports performance drink? Hell no! No one believes that. Let’s not get our knickers in a twist over nothing. The outrage does not make sense,” Shastry states.

Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Ricardo Vaz, Creative director, Enormous, signals that the most vocal part of social media isn't a large part of the Thums up's consumer base and unlike other countries where social media conversations may actually sway on ground numbers, with India it doesn't seem to be the case yet. “The moral dilemma is for the athlete who's to bear, not the brand. And honestly, any brand giving our non-cricketing athletes some money and endorsement deals is great. Especially with stories of our Olympic heroes often being neglected,” Vaz remarks.

According to the press release shared by the brand, the Thums ad campaign aims at reflecting the mood of not just the athletes representing India at the Olympic Games, but the entire nation.

A voiceover at the end of the advertisement drives home the message: ‘Toofan wahi jo sab palat de’ (the real storm is one that turns everything upside down). Thums Up, which has a tagline ‘taste the thunder,’ rolls out global partnership with the Olympic Games and aims to instil ‘thunder’ of hope among consumers.

Sidharth Singh, Co-Founder of CupShup, feels that the Thums Up campaign is a welcome change signifying that brands are piggybacking the newfound equity of Olympic hopefuls (notice that many are yet to win a medal and still featuring in Thums Up ad!) voiced by a film personality from the hinterland. Singh views this as a tweaked strategy and amid the din of social media, he believes that this sounds like a breath of fresh air.   

“Soda and carbonated drinks have been spending the top dollars for decades now and have left an indelible imprint on the consumer psyche. Who can forget the brand wars of 'Official sponsor' and 'Nothing official about it' or the inimitable Aamir khan oft repeating "Thanda matlab Coca Cola" to cement the colas as right at the top of mind items and thus grabbing a lion's share in discretionary spending? But in the 25 years of post-liberalized India, the cola sponsorships have been with the Who's Who of either cricket or Bollywood superstars,” he remarks. Singh opines that this superstardom has been a harbinger of cola advertising and vice versa. 

“If you look at things from this perspective, you will find that India is moving in the right direction. It is searching for its heroes from the pool of unsung but deserving talent pool. The choice of voiceover in the ad is interesting. It is of Ravi Kishan. Again a regional star whose talent and hard work are widely accepted and acknowledged but somehow his stardom never matched that of his peers. So in my opinion this is a new India where the discussion has moved from who is endorsing the big bad cola to who has refused to endorse cola. Gopichand refusing to be the brand ambassador of a cola brand at his prime is making news along with Kohli's refusal to do so,” he opines.

Asheesh Malhotra, Executive Vice President & Branch Head, dentsumcgarrybowen India, feels that these trends for a country like India are very elitist in nature and only a smaller urban population probably is even affected by it. “The times are changing. But just because there is this sudden consciousness trending in the West of the world, doesn’t mean, we should start seeing Virat Kohli putting aside a Coke / Soda bottle during a press conference. Our reality is very different from the West. We need sponsors that promote a poorly backed sports culture in our country. And Thums ups of the world aren’t exactly sucking people’s lives out. There are bigger causes for that. According to WHO, more people have lost their lives because of Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS than drinking soda (I don’t think anyone ever died of drinking soda),” he opines.

Malhotra adds that in these times, brands need to be responsible, but brave at the same time. “In this world of social media, there is a little research/thought that goes into making judgments… we needn’t always have a knee-jerk reaction to such trends. As a community of brand builders, we need to have a narrative that suits our reality. Which balances responsibility along with a practical approach. Moreover, we’re all mature enough to understand that overindulgence of any kind is bad. Common sense must prevail. Be it soda, or water. As we move into the new world, we may see a complete ban on soda advertising, just like we saw with alcohol. But did that reduce its consumption or sales… I guess not!” he asserts.

exchange4media reached out to Thums Up but didn’t get a response until the time of filing this copy.

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