Taking on a 90-Share Rival With the Dictionary, Dolphins and a Sex Symbol

Argentina's Fernet 1882 Uses PR, Ads and Experience to Go After the Market Leader

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It's not ever day that local landmarks, or even local sex symbols past their heyday, can attract worldwide attention.

But ever since the Argentine spirit brand Fernet 1882 installed 1,882 effigies of former erotic starlet Isabel Sarli, known as Coca, at Buenos Aires' monumental Floralis Generica (an 18-ton, 83-foot steel flower that opens up during the day and closes at night), news of it has been revolving around the world, even to distant places such as India, where newspaper The Times of India published a story about it. Brazil, the U.K., Chile and Uruguay also reported it and the buzz was so intense, Buenos Aires' council office for tourism declared it of municipal interest.

1882's Coca Sarli exhibit
1882's Coca Sarli exhibit

But what Fernet 1882 did was indeed no news for those who know the brand closely.

Managed by José "Pepe" Porta (its owner), and his so-called dream team -- designer Rubén Fontana; Carlos Bayala, leader of agency Madre, the Argentine branch of Mother; and marketing strategist Fernando Moiguer -- 1882 began with a major challenge: enter a market more than 90% dominated by the brand leader, Fernet Branca, and one in which consumers know all about the product. Not only are they aware of it, they've even invented product combinations, such as mixing Fernet with Coca-Cola, a drink usually called "Fernando."

1882 approached this by opting not to confront the leader ("We admire and respect them," said Mr. Moiguer) and never telling the consumer what he already knows about the product. "The consumer is the master Fernetician," Mr. Bayala said.

What 1882 did do was try to create an option for the consumer. "If you ever get tired of your current brand and want to try something new, give us a try. That's the brand's message," explained Mr. Bayala in an interview in early 2007, when the brand was just appearing.

The launch campaign's TV spots looked like this:

Following its launch, 1882 steadily began to intervene in the public space -- 1,882 brilliant dolphins were planted in Argentina's second-largest city, Cordoba, where more fernet is consumed per inhabitant than in Buenos Aires. Later, 1882 installed 1,882 figures of rally driver -- and local hero -- Jorge Recalde in the hills that surround the city.

After that, they did a TV spot for a very small local town-car company, aiming for it to get 1,882 customers (which it did).

The brand later launched a TV ad asking the Spanish Royal Language Academy to include the word "fernet" in its dictionary. To make sure it happened, they edited 1,882 copies of the Royal Language Academy's Dictionary (the Spanish-language bible) to include the word.

So, when the brand finally decided to enter the nation's capital, Buenos Aires, it announced its arrival by the now world-famous installation of the 1,882 figures of "Coca" Sarli. Which is not strange, after all, when you consider "Fernet con Coca" (remember: mixing fernet with Coca-Cola), was a joke waiting to happen.

And there she was, the evening of the launch, smiling in the sun, the woman no Argentine man was able to ignore, Coca Sarli herself, now a respected and honored aged lady, enjoying what she understood was an homage to her.

"I just love it," she said.

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