Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sleeping with the enemy?

Telecom brands are trying to outsmart each other to get noticed, but are they missing the bigger picture?

Post-independence, pre-liberalised India was a period characterised by paucity of choice. There were a few brands that dominated the Indian market. HMT watches, India’s only watch manufacturer, ruled the roost. One waited seven years for the allotment of a Bajaj scooter. Those who received the allotment of the scooter were fortunate (their horoscopes were good). The fortunate ones sold the same scooter seven years later for the same price that they bought it, to their less fortunate brethren. The two major car brands were Fiat and Ambassador which have become taxis since. The noted management consultant Sharu Rangnekar used to say that Indians became closer to God once they got into their Ambassador cars as their first expression invariably was ‘Oh, God!’

How things have changed in modern India! Today the country has 721 models of cars that an Indian consumer can choose from, 250 brands of pressure cookers, 152 brands of namkeens (savoury snacks), 336 brands of chips, 165 brands of washing machines, 637 brands of mixer grinders … yes, we have become a surplus society amidst all the poverty that stares us in the face. As Kjell Nordstrom & Jonas Ridderstrale, authors of the international bestseller Funky Business – Talent Makes Capital Dance, said, “The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar products, with similar prices and similar quality.” While this quote was made for a different country and a different economy, it has many similarities to the India of today. Yes, these are challenging times for branding and more importantly for advertising as very often the only thing different about brands is their advertising, not much else has changed over the years.

The power of advertising

Advertising can build brands, create imagery, build associations and help brands create properties that differentiate these brands from their competition. Advertising agencies have zealously guarded their brand’s distinctive characteristics and assiduously built on them.
Pepsi over the years has a tone of voice that is cheeky, irreverent, aggressive, competitive … all characteristics that young people can relate to, and it is hardly surprising that Pepsi continues to be a brand for the young and ‘young at heart’. Pepsi owns the colour blue and Coke the colour red (Remember the Coke commercial made for the 1996 cricket world cup that was held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka?) In fact, you just have to whisper the word ‘red’ to a Pepsi salesman and I am sure he would go blue in the face while a mere suggestion of the word ‘blue’ to a Coke salesman would make him see red.

As a consequence of all the efforts of brand owners and agencies, customers tend to make associations with the brands they consume and any others that they may recall. They respond to questions like ‘What comes to your mind when I say Pepsi’ by saying ‘blue’, recall the signature track of Titan and Britannia’s tin tin da din, and so on when asked about those brands.

In the crowded and cluttered world that we live in, brand associations that are recalled are extremely important as they ensure that brands stay within the frame of reference of the consumer and in her consideration set. Some of these associations that are particularly strong become brand properties over time.

From fizzy drinks to cuddly things

There was a time when cola advertising was one of the few categories that people remembered, recalled and watched out for, in India at least. Today there are other categories that are jostling for the consumers’ attention, eyeballs and wallet. Many of these brands are no slouches when it comes to creativity. Notable is the category of mobile services. India is a young country that has taken to mobile phones like ducks to water. All the service providers, whether Airtel, BSNL, Vodafone, Virgin, Idea or Aircel, are outdoing each other in seeking attention and spending money. Idea’s ‘What an idea, Sirjee’ and Virgin’s ‘Think zara hatke’ immediately come to mind. Airtel too has used a host of celebrities and has entertained even as it leads the pack in market share and spending (perhaps). The less we talk about BSNL’s advertising the better as the brand strives hard to battle perceptions and tries to be something that it is clearly not. But the belle of the advertising ball has been Vodafone, earlier Hutch, with its little girl and pug and the Zoozoo campaign for value-added services. And it is about Vodafone that we will talk for some time now.

Of curly locks and helpful dogs

The Vodafone campaign has arguably been one of the most creative campaigns of recent times. Invariably, it brings a smile on to people’s faces as I guess everyone of us likes cute children, and when you throw in a cuter pug into the fray, then you have a sure winner. There are a series of commercials that have been on air for some time. The girl and her companion dog are in a variety of situations and the dog is always helping his mistress, who is in strife on occasion. In the morning she has difficulty in finding her socks which the helpful dog finds, rushes to school and boards the bus without her school tie, and we have the visual of the dog running faithfully after the school bus hanging on to the tie for dear life.

Other commercials feature the same duo - one where the little girl nonchalantly uses the dog’s tongue to seal envelopes, another where the dog keeps following the child around the pool with the towel in his mouth and one more in which he dutifully digs up the sand for her to plant her shrubs. All cute, all widely shown and all well recalled. If you were to do an association test and ask people what comes to their mind when you say Vodafone and the responses could vary from ‘cute girl’ to ‘girl with curly hair’ to ‘dog’ to ‘helpful’. Most certainly, the two emphatic and widely recalled elements or associations would be ‘girl’ and ‘dog’. These are what consumers are saying are clear associations with Vodafone. So if I was their competition, I would steer clear of these associations. But then what happens?

Airtel’s special five

Airtel immediately came up with a commercial that seems to be shot in a street in London. A little girl comes out of a house with a tiny boat made of paper in her hands. She places it in a small puddle and follows the path of the boat down the street even as the London weather stays true to form and the skies open up causing strife to the boat. A bunch of five hands help the troubled girl by putting their hands protectively over the boat.

The ad is for Airtel’s scheme introducing a ‘special five’ numbers that enable you to choose certain numbers that you can speak with, at a concession if not free.

As advertising goes, it is pretty noticeable, well shot in excellent settings and has a fairly simple story idea.

The message too comes across fairly clearly. And yet, I have a major disconnect with it. Why, oh why, would Airtel chose another young girl with curly hair presumably around the same age? There must be other ways of communicating friendship and the gang of five.

Why choose a character that cues your strongest competitor and someone who is directly associated with that brand? Maybe I am overreacting and Airtel’s research is showing this commercial as effective, though I have my doubts.

A word of caution

Too often clients and agencies are so close to their brands and their problems that they tend to miss obvious things. Otherwise, even a preliminary examination would have suggested that the brand is treading too closely on its competitor’s toes. Is ‘cuteness’ something that Airtel wishes to attain or is it something that Vodafone already has? Agencies spend a lot of time on the script, the locale, the music track, the feel of the commercial … all of these are extremely critical. But it is important to remember that every advertisement is just one more addition in the edifice that is the brand’s image. All the commercials together must build some clear, recognisable associations that the brand can own even as they steer carefully and widely away from the competition.

Airtel is not alone in this and many brands, one believes, are equally remiss in this regard. Take Taj Mahal tea, for instance. They have historically used celebrities and I really loved their use of the renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain.
For some reason best known to themselves, they moved to Saif Ali Khan who is one of the most abused celebrities endorsing a host of brands. Meanwhile, liquor brand Royal Stag too used Saif Ali Khan and he had a recognisable image with his guitar, bandanna and black shirt. I recently saw a mailer of Taj Mahal tea with Saif in about the same get-up as the well recognised Royal Stag look. I know that tea and whiskey do not compete – whiskey is consumed in the night and tea the morning after – but it certainly confuses and befuddles the consumer when it is the same celebrity, in the same outfit as well.

We live in challenging times and to classify what we are being exposed to as clutter is a horrible euphemism. It is time more than ever for agencies to watch not only their competition, but also the environment and what is happening around us, to ensure that we stay with our original brand promise and build our own set of associations instead of being confused by the competition and ending up imitating them.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

7 comments:

Saminathan said...

In my opinion, I sincerely feel Airtel is desperately trying a lot of things to get into the "CUTE" category. If one notices all the advertisements in the Airtel Special 5 series, it all has 6 cute and lovely kids trying to support the message. Even their online communication of the Special 5 on Facebook seems to be in sync with the motto of “GETTING CUTE”.

The following (Anna, Popo, Pia, Bo, Neo, and Josh) are the names given to the 6 characters you see in the TVC. I need not say that these are again “CUTE” names.

I think this “GETTING CUTE” campaign started with the “Boy and the toy phone advertisement” if one could recall. On a sarcastic note, I feel that the brand managers would have got fed up with the Khans (Sharukh + Saif), Madhavans, Kareenas, and Vidhyas. On a more serious note the only consistent thing or nearly consistent brand property that has been synonymous with Airtel has been A.R. Rehman (either by virtue of his signature tune or now and then ad appearances) and I hope they do not messup with him too.

This is one brand that has been consistently inconsistent with its advertising and I hope they will continue to remain the same. Frankly speaking, their market share and growth rate are huge enough and I think it is this which gives them the confidence to be inconsistent.

Vivek Singh said...

It is an interesting insight Mr. Ramanujam.

Given a strong association between Vodafone and Girl, using a girl for Airtel seems a bit weird.

But we are talking about Airtel here. I am personally a fan of their advertising. They should have done some research before approving this ad. But in the light of your article, it does seem a thing to avoid.

Amidst hair splitting on the storyboard marketers are prone to overlook the bigger picture.

Nanda Kishore Sethuraman said...

Airtel has been around for a long time and they are (to my belief at least) in the Mature stage. Having spent a lot during the early stages of its life, all Airtel has to do is to ensure that the brand is continuously in the consumer's mind. This can be possible with the 'all so powerful' Airtel tune or just by putting the name in front of the consumer in different situations. Airtel now enjoys a status where they can 'entertain' (without of course, losing their core brand values) and still build their brand.
On the other hand, Max, Orange, Hutch and Vodafone has had a roller coaster past! Needless to say, Vodafone did well by retaining the 'girl & pug', however, the 'Hutch' connection is still not out of the consumer's mind (on a sample size of one).
It is possible that Airtel is trying to confuse the customer by introducing elements from the competition!
However, I do subscribe to your premise on not including elements from the competition's communication!

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

You are very right in saying that Airtel has got a head start and the others have to play catch up.

Yes at least in India Hutch thanks to its advertising was really, really strong and it will take some time to erase the memories of Hutch and all the good work they have been doing over the years.
The challengers have to do the creative stuff but the point was that Airtel had so many options available to it.

Sid Saxena said...

I would disagree with people here. Top of Mind right now for the Vodafone brand are the Zoo Zoos and the Pug. The cute girl has recently been incorporated in the communication. In the days of hutch it was the cute boy. More over, the focus in the Airtel 5 communication is more on a group of friends rather than just a girl. Through this they represent not just the service, 'Special 5' but add another chapter to the Airtel Brand Story which is about a medium of expression of emotion and feelings. The emotion here is that of the feeling of being close to your special friends. The background tune and the brand logo are fairly visible reminders of Brand Airtel. For more on the Vodafone brand, do check: http://punchlineexpert.blogspot.com/2009/09/vodafone-make-most-of-now.html

Sid Saxena said...

I would disagree with people here. Top of Mind right now for the Vodafone brand are the Zoo Zoos and the Pug. The cute girl has recently been incorporated in the communication. In the days of hutch it was the cute boy. More over, the focus in the Airtel 5 communication is more on a group of friends rather than just a girl. Through this they represent not just the service, 'Special 5' but add another chapter to the Airtel Brand Story which is about a medium of expression of emotion and feelings. The emotion here is that of the feeling of being close to your special friends. The background tune and the brand logo are fairly visible reminders of Brand Airtel.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

I am sure you have a point of view based on your own understanding and experiences. My view is that the creative could have been done wonderfully well without the use of the girl. Our research suggested that girl was one of the associations of Vodafone. The zoozoo campaign is a recent, tactical one. To prove my point, the current commercial with Shah Rukh addresses the "group of five"