From Madras to movies - Cobra beer sheds its skin

Having struck gold with the less gassy beer, now the silver screen beckons too

Cobra beer is climbing up the social ladder so fast that its founder, Karan Bilimoria, will soon be claiming that it has replaced Pimms No 1 as the essential liquid refreshment at Glyndebourne and Henley. One minute, the less gassy lager was being branded as the tipple of choice for the likes of "Curry Dave", a scruffy Tindaloo monster with a paper bag on his head.

Cobra beer is climbing up the social ladder so fast that its founder, Karan Bilimoria, will soon be claiming that it has replaced Pimms No 1 as the essential liquid refreshment at Glyndebourne and Henley. One minute, the less gassy lager was being branded as the tipple of choice for the likes of "Curry Dave", a scruffy Tindaloo monster with a paper bag on his head.

The next moment, Bilimoria had given the green light to a surreal - some would say pretentious - but apparently successful outdoor campaign using slogans such as "Ingenuity" and "Imagination".

And from today, he would have us believe that Cobra is the ideal beverage for the film buff; a perfect accompaniment to watching the acting talents of the likes of Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.

Bilimoria has signed a £1m deal with ITV2 and ITV3 to sponsor more than 300 movies screened on the digital channels during the next year. The project - called "CobraVision" - is more than a sponsorship deal. Prospective movie-makers are being invited to submit short films, 50 seconds long in five, ten-second bites, that will be broadcast in the breaks of the main feature. Bilimoria says: "We just thought films would be ideal and especially films for a whole year. Films are such an expression of creativity."

Speaking last Thursday evening, he says he has watched eight of the submitted films and that entries are being submitted from other European countries. 'They are so clever," he says. "I think it's going to be so exciting - it will give so many people a break to get their work shown on national television." An awards ceremony in March next year will celebrate the best entries shown and offer prizes of free beer and a trip to India. The movies start on Monday, with ITV2 showing The Whole Nine Yards.

According to Bilimoria, there are advantages to being associated with digital channels that have room to grow. "We like being with go-ahead brands, and ITV2 and ITV3 are going places."

The CobraVision idea was put together by the Joshua agency, part of the Grey Global group. Bilimoria says the campaign is designed to lift the beer from being a respected product to "a household name".

Cobra has only once before ventured into television advertising, when it used the gag of an elephant performing the role of a car wash. This is very different.

Bilimoria says that Cobra is not trying to turn its back on the Indian restaurants that have made him a rich man. "We have grown Cobra with the Indian restaurants as our base and foundation. We always want that foundation - we are sold at 6,000 restaurants around the country and we want to firmly establish that we are the best beer to drink with Indian food."

But he says that it was "always my strategy" that consumers would want to drink Cobra at home and at the pub as well (he recently clinched a deal with the JD Wetherspoon chain and has managed to get his product stocked in supermarkets). The Cobra deal is very significant for ITV as well and is the first broadcast sponsor for the newly launched ITV3.

Gary Knight, the head of sponsorship and branded content at ITV, says that the arrangement will build a rapport between the channels and the creative community. "What's nice about this is that we are starting to appeal to people who, one day, might be making shows on television," he says. "That is a strange thing to come out of a commercial client."

The arrangement with Cobra follows deals between ITV and the film giants Warner Brothers and NBC Universal to significantly extend the range of movies the network can offer. Knight says advertisers want to be associated with feature films because they still deliver good ratings.

"Advertisers follow audiences," he says. That sounds simple enough, but Cobra is hardly an average client. Bilimoria is already planning to release his own movie - a DVD of his favourite Cobravision shorts. "The potential of this is incredible," he says. "To our knowledge, this has never been done anywhere in the world before."

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