Aamir Khan is no idiot. Well, that certainly seems like a `no brainer' but let me clarify based on my own experiences. Nearly two decades ago (although it seems like just yesterday), I used to be the head of the Southern operations of a large advertising agency and TI Cycles was one of our best, if not one of our largest, clients. One day we got a call from the client asking us if we could come over to discuss something. Agencies are normally pretty good at obeying instructions, so we promptly landed up at the client's office. There were two young men from Bombay (as the city used to be called in those glorious days) nattily dressed as MBAs usually are, making a slick presentation on `in film' placement. They were describing a scenario with great gusto.
The film, they said, was about two schools in a hill station. One was a government school where ordinary people studied, including the hero. The second school was the upmarket, private school with rich (read spoiled) kids. The two schools were bitter rivals and the high point of their academic life was the annual sports day, which featured a cycle race as the show piece event. Here the pitch got interesting, as they said the film would feature the BSA SLR (the brand made and marketed by TI Cycles) which the hero would ride. He would win the race against the 16-gear sports bike ridden by his rival, a snooty kid from the elite school. The bike would be featured prominently in this climax scene with logo shots, tight close-ups showing the features of the bike . the works. The heroine would hug the hero (and, if we wanted, the bike) after the race.
You get the picture! They offered this package for Rs 5 lakh, I think (though my memory for numbers is no longer as reliable as it once used to be). The client baulked and sought our opinion. Now agencies are extremely protective of their turf (read budget) and this was money going straight from the overall advertising budget. So we hemmed and hawed and the client declined. That movie was Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, one of Aamir Khan's earliest hits. Simply put, we had missed a wonderful opportunity. But I realised even then, though I had no idea how successful he would become, his ability to market and monetise ideas.
Learning from filmi types
Gary Hamel, the renowned management guru, was of the view that companies are better off looking `outside' of their industry if they are to learn rather than look at their own peers and competitors. As we tend to look down at the creative ability of Bollywood, we often underestimate their great ability to come up with marketable ideas and their capacity to create excitement around the films they produce. I realised the wisdom of this statement again when I saw Aamir Khan's 3 Idiots which, incidentally, has been shot at the IIM Bangalore campus, an institution that has made a tremendous difference to my career. Let me quickly reassure you, dear reader, that I am no film critic and my observations will be restricted to the tremendous marketing initiatives and learning that the film provides.
Hype - a double-edged sword?
We live in a world of hype and nowhere is it more in evidence than in Bollywood and Kollywood! Yet one has seen instances where the films do not match up to the tremendous pre-release hype and end up as flat as last season's beer. In films, marketing and life, if one may add, success is all about delivering expectations. 3 Idiots was no exception to the pre-release hard-sell and publicity. The build-up was phenomenal. Hype can and often is a double-edged sword, it is like good advertising for a bad product as it can make the product go downhill faster. But thankfully in the case of 3 Idiots, the film was interesting, justifying all the pre-launch publicity. But there is more.
Excitement is the name of the game
3 Idiots did many of the usual things that films do prior to their launch. There were promotions on TV, star appearances with the stars walking the ramp, appearances at showings of the film (nearly causing a riot in Bangalore), online contests, game shows, invitation to three school officials from a small village who took their first flight, to seat butts in multiplexes so that people could photograph themselves like the protagonists in the movie, to customised merchandise designed by Pantaloons.
Now while it is quite easy to create excitement, more so for films in a film-crazed country, the challenge is to sustain it. 3 Idiots certainly was able to do it. The greatest news-making event (though I am not sure if it was planned) was the controversy regarding Chetan Bhagat and his book Five Point Someone on which the film has been based. I have something in common with Aamir Khan (finally) as I too have not read the book but then I am hardly a hero!
In case you have not been reading the papers or watching TV over the last few weeks, the bone of contention was simple. Chetan Bhagat believes (perhaps rightly) that he has not got the credit he deserves for the film as his name came at the very end. The producers believe they have paid him the money and adhered to the terms of the contract. Given the track record of film producers when it comes to authors in the past, this is, perhaps, not unexpected. Without going into the rights and wrongs of this, I will just borrow a phrase from Vir Sanghvi's column where he gave the example of Slumdog Millionaire and unlike the people involved in that project, in the case of 3 Idiots the producers acted without `grace'. But the audience was titillated with people taking sides, writing about it in blogs and giving television interviews. Not surprisingly, Chetan Bhagat's books flew off the shelf. I am reminded of what a wag had to say about the highly visible Vodafone campaign when it was first launched: "It increased the price of pugs in Mumbai, definitely." The media had a field day, particularly when the producer who lost his shirt at a press conference told an inquisitive journalist to "shut up!" Oh, did the film get publicity or what!
The power of public relations
Producers are getting smarter at promoting their films as we know. Recently the film Paa had slides in multiplexes with lines like "If you don't switch off your mobile phone I will tell Paa," and another which said "If you don't stand up for the national anthem I will tell Paa." Cute! Evidence too, of the value of integration that agencies can be good at. Yet I do feel that agencies do not realise the potency of public relations as a discipline and what it can do for brands. The publicity that 3 Idiots has generated has been phenomenal. Everyday there has been a talk show or a feature on one aspect of the film or the other. Is the quality of our education bad? Does it prevent our children from being innovative? Does it encourage mugging? All these thoughts that were aired in the movie were discussed in the media and people got involved.
Everybody had a point of view; after all, all of us have been to school and watch our children struggle, don't we? The film has ragging scenes which, in my opinion, eulogise ragging, leading to the discussion on whether the film encourages ragging and if films such as these should be permitted? Throw in the earlier controversy about Chetan Bhagat and whether authors get a raw deal and you get the total picture. The film has not been off media for a single day and has constantly created interest, involving them and engaging them. Fantastic!
Engage, not merely integrate
Today we live in times of clutter and that, as we know, is an understatement. The old rules of the game "let's try to reach the consumer in as many ways as possible through integration", may not do. The mantra has to be customer engagement and the film is certainly an example of what savvy marketers can do and mind you, they are talking to every single Indian, not some niche audience where it is probably easier to create a strategy.
Yes, all around us are examples of failure and success, at times from the unlikeliest of sources. But are we ready to notice them?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)
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