Cobra Beer founder Lord Karan Bilimoria: it took us eight years to afford above-the-line advertising

Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder Cobra Beer talks about gluten-free beer in the UK and Indian beer market

Cobra Beer recently launched its gluten-free beer, available at Ocado and across Asda stores in the UK, and Cobra Beer founder Lord Karan Bilimoria says he wants everyone to be able to experience the taste of beer.

The beer brand's gluten-free beer product has been approved and accredited by Coeliac UK and for now is focused on off-trade customers.

The Drum spoke with Lord Karan Bilimoria to find out the idea behind the gluten beer. He says: "I wanted everybody to be able to experience the great Cobra taste and its unbeatable smooth texture – including coeliacs, vegans and vegetarians."

"We have now opened up the brand to those who previously could not enjoy it, as well as to those who consume a gluten free beer for health and lifestyle reasons. Cobra Beer Gluten Free is the closest match of any other gluten free beer I have tasted compared to its original, it is virtually indistinguishable."

Cobra Beer has continued to expand its inventory by introducing King Cobra, a double-fermented lager with an ale yeast, Cobra Zero, which is alcohol free, and Cobra Malabar, a blonde IPA.

The craft beer industry has well and truly brewed and boomed across the UK in recent years, with colourful and quirkily designed cans and labels becoming synonymous with the trend. According to Bilimoria, Cobra beer has been from day one the ultimate craft beer.

He explains: "I love beer and have done from childhood. One of my earliest memories is sitting with my maternal grandfather, squadron leader J. D. Italia, who loved beer and would drink it every day before his lunch. I can still remember the hoppy aroma and the foam. However, when I came to the UK as a student, I found that the lagers available in Britain very difficult to drink – they were gassy, bland and bloating, making them very difficult to drink on their own as well as with food. Meanwhile, ales were beautifully smooth but their bitter and heavy taste made them very difficult to drink with food.

"With Cobra Beer, we created a unique and complex recipe, double-fermented with ingredients including water, malted barley, yeast, rice, maize, wheat and three varieties of hops. This has led us to succeed in our aim of creating a beer with the refreshment of a lager, and the smoothness of an ale and the perfect accompaniment to all food – brewed smooth for all food and now having won 101 gold medals since 2001."

In terms of marketing strategy, Lord Bilimoria believes that it is his 'breakthrough marketing' approach which has worked to sell his beers. He says: "When I launched Cobra Beer from scratch in 1989, I had just graduated from the University of Cambridge as an international student which meant we had no marketing budget at all."

Despite its relative fame now it wasn't always easy, he says, with the brand taking years to build up enough money to afford big branding campaigns.

"I knew that with no advertising budget, our brand would simply gather dust on supermarket shelves, and so we targeted restaurants. I met face-to-face with both the big-name restaurants and smaller Indian curry houses. Our only marketing tool for these meetings was a small tent card with the story of Cobra printed, explaining what made it different to other brands and where it was produced.

"It was our unique brand that won everybody over. Firstly, the size of our beer bottles was double the average UK size at 650ml. Secondly, and even more importantly, was our name which has been our most valuable asset. We wanted something immediately recognisable and easy to pronounce for anyone around the world that also provided a subtle hint of India. ‘Cobra’ has the benefit of being both cool and contemporary, but also familiar. I’ve heard from many people that they believe Cobra Beer to have been around for over a century!

"Since those early days we have increased our marketing outreach, but we continue to ensure that our cool and quirky brand emanates through all of our communications. It took eight years for us to be able to afford above-the-line advertising, but this gave us the chance to build up a stable customer base. Brand loyalty is the most important marketing tool you can ever have, and this came from people discovering us organically. Today, Cobra is sold in 98% of Indian restaurants in the UK, as well as thousands of branches of supermarkets and off licenses nationally and increasingly in pubs, gastro pubs and casual dining outlets."

Cobra Beer was once quite popular in India. However for commercial reasons it became unviable and the company had to stop production. Still, Bilimoria wants to explore the option of going back to India and is of the opinion that If duties on beer were lowered, and distribution widened the market, it would rocket and India would soon compete with China to be the largest beer market in the world.

He says: "In India, it is less competitors that I am worried about, but more the attitude towards beer and alcohol in India. The country is the world’s fastest growing major economy and has the potential to be one of the two largest beer markets in the world, along with China. But India is still predominantly a spirit drinking market, with cheap, poor quality liquor widely available."

"There is prohibition in some Indian states, which has never worked and has been repealed in Andhra Pradesh on two occasions. If people want to drink alcohol they should be able to do so responsibly. It is inappropriate to put beer – a beverage consumed predominantly for refreshment and as a lifestyle choice – on a par with the 60% ABV spirits available in India. Even the strongest beers have less than 8% ABV!"

"This prevalence in spirits is also down to very high duties that make beer an unaffordable luxury for many. There are more licensed outlets in half of one Chinese province than in the whole of India."

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