Cobra beer and how to break into a crowded market

ONE MINUTE BRIEFING: Lord Bilimoria shares how he pulled off a product launch on a shoestring.

Last Updated: 11 Dec 2018

A successful product launch can be the difference between a famous brand and an also-ran. In some respects, the launch is more important than the product – it’s a business lesson learned countless times that quality doesn’t automatically rise to the surface.

Karan Bilimoria faced particularly tough odds when he launched Cobra beer in the early 90s. The market was crowded, a recession was raging and nobody knew who he was. What he did have was a point of difference – a beer specifically designed to be paired with food, particularly Indian food –and a well thought-out plan.


"When you’re up against thousands of competitors, some of which were centuries old with big marketing budgets, you need a breakthrough strategy. Even with the best sales skills in the world, I’d have got Cobra onto the shelves of Tesco or Sainsbury’s, but it would have just gathered dust because no one would have known about it.

"We had an unknown product, zero credibility and no money. In fact, I had £20,000 of student debt to pay off – forget advertising, we couldn’t even afford branded beer glasses.

"There’s no substitute for hard work. The distributors wouldn’t talk to us, so we went door to door at the top restaurants, convincing them that the product was differentiated and would sell. We built up a base of about 100 restaurants with a 99% repeat order rate.

"We used the upmarket restaurants to get into the wider marketplace – now we’re in 98% of high end Indian restaurants in the UK, and we’re also in hundreds of Turkish, Chinese, Thai and Lebanese outlets.

"The beauty of starting with absolutely nothing is that you build it up through word of mouth. We didn’t do any mainstream advertising for eight years – we couldn’t afford it – but  that turned out to be a great thing, because we developed a cult following.

"We actually just launched our Malabar Blonde IPA, and we did it the same way. There are no shortcuts – we went door to door convincing outlets face to face. We couldn’t have done it without that."

For more information

Here are Simon Calver’s lessons launching Pepsi Max in the UK. See this piece for a general guide to product launches, or read this for a take on the value of word-of-mouth brand building.

Image credit: Chan Walrus/Pexels

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