Until September, the apartment building owned by Daw Hnin Aye had little to set it apart from other ageing complexes in Yangon’s crowded Tarmwe township.
Fading tiles adorn the façade and blue SkyNet satellite dishes sit on tenants’ balconies. The building is remarkable if only for its height: at eight storeys, it is the tallest building at the corner of Banyardala and Kyaikkasan roads.
But after twice rebuffing proposals from Myanmar Distribution Group (MDG) to use the side of her building as a marketing canvas for its Sunkist soft drink brand, Daw Hnin Aye finally relented after the company agreed to use paint rather than vinyl.
“I finally accepted their request to use my building for the Sunkist advertisement using paint because I believed it wouldn’t bother any of the tenants,” she said, adding that she had been worried that the vinyl signing would block tenants’ windows.
Days later, painters dangled precariously from the building’s side with litres of orange paint. She is now the owner of one of Yangon’s “Sunkist buildings”, the name given by residents to the city’s apartment blocks that have been adorned with the soft drink brand’s massive murals.
The advertisements, eight of which now dot Yangon’s skyline, are the result of the marketing efforts of MDG, which last year began producing Sunkist brand products in Myanmar.
MDG was established in 1996 and its major products include Gold Roast Coffee Mix and Royal Myanmar Tea Mix. The company moved into the soft drink market in 2005, importing and selling Sunkist and 7-Up from Malaysia.
While the deal to produce Sunkist domestically was largely overshadowed by the arrival of larger brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, MDG’s efforts to advertise Sunkist have been among most novel for a Western brand in Myanmar, thanks in large part to the distinctive shade of orange used in its towering building campaign.
A creative director from MDG said that the idea was pitched to the company’s in-house marketing team after a member returned from a trip to San Francisco where large-scale painted advertisements had caught their attention.
So how much does it cost to pull off? MDG pays K10,000 per square foot to YCDC – but only for the area covered by the Sunkist wording and logo, not the entire side of the building.
The group also pays the landowner, while the owner of the top-floor apartment receives compensation for the slight damage caused by the ropes used by workers during the painting process. MDG refused to disclose how much compensation they paid to land and apartment owners, while Daw Hnin Aye also refused to say how much she received for allowing her building to become a billboard.
Tenants who live in the building on other floors do not receive monetary compensation, but instead get “seasonal gifts”, MDG officials said. The painting is done by a local company.
Not all are the jarring shade of orange. At least one, located on the Lower Pazundaung Road, is green, the color of the cans of Sunkist’s Sparkling brand.
The use of painted advertisements in Yangon has largely diminished in popularity. Most have been replaced by printed vinyl signs, billboards or lettering cut from brightly coloured plastic, which are cheaper and better suited to withstand Myanmar’s monsoon season.
But MDG’s campaign is certainly not all about throwback aesthetics. With the price of placing a billboard advertisement on the rise in Yangon, the use of buildings is a cost-effective way to raise brand awareness.
At K20,000 a square foot per year, traditional billboards are about twice as expensive on a per square foot basis, according to U Myo Thaw, the managing director of Milky Way advertising.
The painted buildings are also a creative way to slip by muddled city advertising restrictions that have been put in place by YCDC.
YCDC attempted in March to limit billboards to just three sizes and threatened to pull down those that fell outside the standardised sizes. Enforcement of the law has been sporadic but has nonetheless left advertisers questioning how many billboards they can erect and which ones they might be forced to be taken down.
However, according to an official from YCDC, there is no law on the books that pertains to buildings being used for advertising, leaving MDG free to approach as many building owners as it would like.
“If the place is free [from advertising], than we will permit it to be used,” the official said.
Members of MDG’s creative team declined to say how many more buildings would be given the branding treatment.
As for the orange colour, MDG is aware that it could be polarising.
“I am sure that there are many people out there whose favourite colour is not orange,” the creative director conceded. The company’s claims that the colour has the ability to “cheer people up”, might be a stretch but the reception has been largely positive.
Residents’ reactions to their buildings drastic face-lifts have been largely positive. All who spoke to The Myanmar Times said they were pleased with the fresh coat of paint, albeit an eye-catching one.
A resident in the Lower Pazundaung building said he thought the paint job made his apartment look newer, before adding, “And I have no complaint about that.”