Brand Saga: McDowell’s No.1 – An ode to ‘Yaari’ with Bollywood, sports & music

McDowell’s No.1 advertising journey

The brand has leveraged India’s passion and love for sports, Cinema, and music with the likes of MS Dhoni and Farhan for its campaigns. This week we revisit McDowell’s No.1 advertising journey to discover how the brand strived to become the equivalent of friendship in India.

How do you sell ‘alcohol’ without selling ‘alcohol’? Appropriately called ‘surrogate advertising’, spirit brands have been adhering to the ban on liquor advertising in the country but haven’t stopped promoting their products through other means. One of the prominent ones in the category is Diageo India’s McDowell’s No.1. From harnessing the power of content marketing to devising new jams for the young and old – McDowell’s No.1 advertising journey entails a few of the finest marketing lessons.

McDowell’s No.1 was also one of the first brands to create an IP based on the theme of yaari reaching out to the Gen Z that have been known to put camaraderie above anything else.

McDowell’s Indian Venture 

United Spirits Limited’s (USL) flagship brand McDowell’s No.1 also known as the largest spirits brand in the world comprises three categories – whisky, brandy, and rum.

Back in 1826, USL was founded by Agnus McDowell as a trading company called McDowell and Company in India. He bought a warehouse in the Madras (Chennai) region and began importing liquor, tobacco products, and other consumer goods to serve the needs of Britians stationed there.

Sensing an opportunity and rising demand, in 1951, Vittal Mallya-helmed United Breweries Group bought McDowell and Company and established the company’s first distillery at Cherthala, Kerala in 1959.  McDowell’s began bottling Bisquit Brandy and Dorville French Brandy, from imported concentrates, becoming the first company to manufacture Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL).

In 1962, the company rolled out Golden Grape Brandy, its first original product and the next year witnessed the launch of McDowell’s No.1 Brandy in 1963–64. The company launched McDowell’s No.1 whisky in 1968, and later went onto commission new distilleries in South India.

Vittal Mallya’s son, Vijay Mallya took over the reins of McDowell’s in 1973 and assumed chairmanship of UB Group and McDowell’s after the former died in 1983. McDowell’s No.1 Rum was launched under Mallya’s supervision in 1990 when the company also acquired the spirits business and manufacturing facility of Forbes Campbell & Company Limited.

The year 1994 gave birth to McDowell’s Signature whisky and after many mergers and acquisitions, in 1999 the company was incorporated as McDowell Sprits Ltd. It was renamed McDowell & Company Ltd in April 2000.

In 2006, McDowell & Co Limited, Herbertsons Limited, Triumph Distillers and Vintners Private Limited, Baramati Grape Industries India Limited, Shaw Wallace Distilleries Limited, and four other companies are merged to form United Spirits Limited. After acquiring a significant stake in USL, Diageo’s shareholdings rose to 54.8% of USL in 2014.

That was in brief how McDowell’s came to be formed and went onto acquire and merge with a number of distiller companies and spirits brands to own up the alcohol market. Launching products one after another, the company also invested big in advertising its portfolio and build an empire in India. Thus started McDowell’s no.1 advertising journey which is as magnanimous as the brand.

McDowell’s no.1 Advertising Journey

The Cable TV Regulation Act 1995, prohibits the advertisement of liquor and tobacco products on TV  channels stating that “No advertisement shall be permitted which promotes directly or indirectly production,  sale or consumption of cigarettes,  tobacco products,  wine,  alcohol,  liquor or other intoxicants”. However, satellite television allowed them an opportunity in the form of surrogate advertising – a form of advertising which is used to promote banned products, like cigarettes and alcohol, in the disguise of another product.

Although alco-beverage brands resorted to rolling out products like music CDs, playing cards, soda while also getting inspired by the West to associate themselves with sports events and programmers, the spirits brands in the country were slowly and steadily marching towards the new normal for advertising their brand and generate a recall value among the consumers.

One of the early advertisements of McDowell’s featured Vijay Mallya himself wherein the business tycoon urged the viewers to drink responsibly and sensibly with the tagline- ‘No.1 McDowell’s where good fun and good sense go together’.

With DDB Mudra (then Mudra Communications) on board as the communication partner, in 2004, McDowell’s no 1 rolled out a print campaign to support the launch of its lime and ginger flavored whisky. The tongue-in-cheek creatives amalgamated fun with the word ‘kick’ and thrived on surrogate advertising to take forward the message.

McDowell’s ‘Mera No.1’ had TVCs targeting the young adult and working population who get together to watch a cricket match or go camping but, not without McDowell’s No.1. The drink accompanied them in celebrating the little moments of joy and helped them spread positive vibes around.

Romancing Bollywood, Music & Sports

As far as McDowell’s No.1 advertising journey is concerned, it’s been a mix of Bollywood, cricket, sports, and music. The brand’s ‘infotainment’ approach towards product packaging and marketing has multiplied its growth curve to fuel the company’s business and advertising revenues alike.

When the Information and Broadcasting Ministry laid down stringent measures to curb TVCs and print advertisements from promoting alcohol, McDowell’s and others in the category turned to the oldest love of India – cinema and explored various other avenues to advertise their product range.

The brand has associated itself with Bollywood films such as DevdasRoadKaante, and Stumped, through its Mera No 1 Entertainment banner. It positioned itself as the perfect blend of scotch and select Indian malts making it a favorite among discerning whisky connoisseurs in India for more than a decade.

Along with celebrating festivals like Holi, New Year, and Diwali by releasing special packs for its Whisky range, McDowell’s has also sponsored several music concerts in India featuring artists such as Mark Knopfler, Elton John, Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy, Vishal Dadlani, and Shekhar Rajviani, and Rabbi Shergill, Strings, Bombay Vikings, Shibani Kashyap, Abhijeet Sawant, Kailash Kher, and Mika Singh.

One of its early stints with music concerts was when the brand conducted one of a kind pub promotion in Mumbai in April 2004 as part of the pre-buzz for Enrique Iglesias’ live concert. There were various contests for participants rolled out across a select few lounge bars and pubs across the city of lights to gather viewer attention and rake in more participation for the concert.

In August 2009, the brand announced a tie-up with Shillong Lajong F.C., the first team to qualify for the I-League 2009-2010 from North-East India. During the same time, it signed Mahendra Singh Dhoni to a three-year endorsement deal, worth ₹26 crores (US$3.6 million), for McDowell’s No 1 Platinum soda.

The brand aimed to underline the true essence of unconventional leadership through a television commercial and recognise themselves as the No. 1 spirit of leadership.  

The idea for the TVC stemmed out from the thought that as the captain of the Indian cricket team Dhoni has been the epitome of unconventional leadership. The campaign was also launched as an ode to India clinching the World Cup trophy in April 2011.

Also Read: Celebrating campaigns narrating tales of unsinkable friendships

In 2012, the brand roped in Farhan Akhtar to star alongside Purab Kohli, Cyrus Sahukar, Zoa Morani, and Chang. Through the TVC, McDowell’s No.1 brought alive the promise of Dosti Ka No.1 Spirit, with the insight that McDowell’s No. 1 represents the social aspirations of today’s youth. Spending time with friends is paramount for them and McDowell’s No.1 group of friends – the new brand ambassadors from Bollywood – echoed these sentiments very well.

During the IPL in 2013, despite the Royal Challengers Bangalore being out of the race to win the season’s trophy, Mc Dowell’s No. 1, engaged users in the last leg of the IPL through the McDowell’s No. 1 Guess The Sign contest executed on Facebook.

Reportedly, the brand achieved retail sales worth $3.8 billion in 2012-13, selling nearly half a billion 750 ml bottles of its whisky, rum, and brandy, making the brand the largest alcoholic beverage franchise in India by volume and value.

In 2014, a three-minute-long film featuring Chang, Sahukar, and this time MS Dhoni was rolled out wherein McDowell’s No.1 Karaoke app took the center stage with the core message as ‘Celebrate Responsibly’. Titled ‘Asli Yaari ka no.1’ spirit the video revived evergreen Bollywood track- ‘Tum Kya Jaano Mohabbat kya hai’ amidst a party setting.

Against the backdrop of stricter norms against liquor advertising, McDowell’s No.1 soda kept the spirit alive and went ahead attempting to make its presence felt with appropriate communication strategy, distinct content approach with contemporized product packaging which gave an uplift to the brand’s image.

Competing with brands like United Breweries, Pernod Ricard, and Allied Blenders among others, McDowell’s has strived to grab a larger share of the alco-beverage category while advertising soda, bottled water, and associating with entertainment shows to keep the consumers engaged.

McDowell’s, over the years, through television commercials featuring ‘the popular lot’ and print advertising largely complemented by digital, has innovated ways to drive home the brand message. From sponsoring sports events to helming music concerts and launching exclusive music properties to roping in known faces from the cinema world – all the efforts have reflected in McDowell’s advertising journey so far giving it a significant share of exposure amidst the rising number of alcohol brands.

Trumpets blow for ‘No.1 Yaari’

McDowell’s No1 has always claimed to be a brand that has been deeply entrenched among ‘Yaars (Friends)’ in the 100 plus years of its existence. From celebrating the bonds of friendship to enabling yaars to express and acknowledge their Yaari to each other, McDowell’s No1 has created a unique bond with its consumers through its absolute stance of celebrating unsinkable friendships with the ‘No.1 Yaari’ proposition.

The content property #No1Yaari saw its first full-fledged campaign in the form of a 7-minute musical wherein the song ‘Aisi Waisi Dosti Nahi’ was sung by Mohit Chauhan and the lyrics were penned by Sonal Dabral, then Executive Creative Director and Chairman of DDB Mudra and was directed by Anupam Mishra.

The overall essence and message of the film – of close buddies, nostalgia, and special moments resonate with the brand proposition of McDowell’s No. 1 hence the right fitment. McDowell’s No.1 created a huge burst digitally (using their social assets and ads), cinema, radio as well as television to promote the film.

Within 1 week of release, the campaign received over 1.33 million views (Facebook + Youtube) and the number has only increased thereon garnering more than 10k shares. The ad film was touted as the biggest content campaign for McDowell’s No.1 in India.

The campaign was part of a repositioning exercise where the purpose, as per the company, was to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood or ‘yaari’ among young urban consumers. By facilitating intimate conversations and creating memorable moments, the brand takes a generation of friends on a journey of discovery – A journey that both initiates and strengthens the bonds of brotherhood.

In Part 2 of McDowell’s No.1 advertising journey, we take a closer look at the brand’s journey of celebrating #No1Yaari which went onto become the brand’s biggest IPs and under its banner cradled exclusive shows, music concerts, jam sessions, and other digital content activations.

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