the claims in the advertising are not mirrored in actual performance.
When I entered advertising in the Eighties, cola was the happening category. Agency creative types would give an arm and a leg to work on a cola or a soft drinks account. Captions resonated in young people's minds, won awards for the agency that created them and quickly made it to the editorial as newspapers and magazines adapted the lines and made them their own. In all fairness many of the other categories, dominated as they were by multinational style advertising, had boring and predictable ads. Thankfully people still watched these ads as there was only one channel and usually half a programme to watch. This was before the days of oongli cricket as the remote control had not yet made its diabolical presence felt. And if my memory serves me right, there was research to suggest that people found the commercials more entertaining than the programmes themselves, which was perhaps an indication of how sad the programmes were at that point in time.
Having said that it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the pathbreaking ads of the Eighties, some of which I can still recall and which I still show my students today, some of whom were born after these ads were made. Ads for Vimal, the ‘I love you Rasna' ads, the ‘Lalitaji' commercials, ‘Give me Red' for Eveready, ‘Hamara Bajaj' and the commercial of the Cadbury's girl in the cricket field to name just a few, kept our collars up even if our wallets were thin. And yet, when I show these ads today they seem hardly as exciting as they were when I first saw them. It was for nothing that Bill Bernbach said “Today's smartest advertising style is tomorrow's corn.”
Variety, the spice of life
Perhaps the greatest shot in the arm not only for the Indian economy but for Indian advertising was liberalisation when foreign brands came in quest of the ‘great Indian middle class'. Some flourished while others floundered but advertise they did, with varying shades of creativity. And yet the greatest revolution, to my mind at least, has been the ‘mobile revolution' as India took to mobiles the way a young Sachin Tendulkar took to cricket nearly three decades ago. Young India goes to sleep with its mobile and old India has sleepless nights about the next generation's addiction for mobile phones. But one industry that has not lost any sleep about the phenomenal growth of the mobile services industry is advertising.
Mobile service companies are advertising-dependent, to put it mildly. Companies are in cut-throat competition with each other in the prepaid and postpaid categories, have mindboggling schemes and sexy advertising. The target audience is young, irreverent, has a sense of humour and is completely relaxed as it spends its parents' money! Mobile services is a brilliant advertising category that can entertain, beat the clutter, make you smile and even win your agency awards. What more can anyone ask for?
Of course, there is a slightly discordant note that I must bring up (I think it is my horoscope that prevents me from seeing the brighter side of things) and that is about how far removed from the truth this advertising often is. Every mobile service ad talks about phenomenal coverage. The pug follows the little girl wherever she goes, signifying the depth and width of the coverage. It is a completely different matter that my colleagues in Mumbai are extremely fit as they have to run out every time their mobile phone rings, as you can't hear a word inside the office! Of course, the fact that I do not run much is evident from my middle!
One of the most recalled commercials for Airtel is one in which the grandfather who is in the village and the grandson who is in the train play chess. Forget connectivity on a moving train in distant lands; as an Airtel customer I can vouch for how dismal the coverage is in not-so-distant places such as Mumbai for I have hell when I go there and even in Bangalore where I live and work. Coverage is the last thing the brand should speak about, for it is like a red rag to disgruntled consumers such as us.
In fact, the advertising for mobile services reminds me of a competition that most management schools have called ‘mad ads' where students are asked to do advertising for an imaginary product or service. Mobile services are definitely there and thriving, but they are like several other service products in the country whose actual performance has no relevance to the advertising that they portray. Make no mistake, mobile services advertising in the country is by and large brilliant, entertaining, and clutter-breaking. Why ask needless questions like “is what they are saying true” and “how good is the actual coverage?”
Withdrawal symptoms after IPL
The IPL is over and for a few days I had withdrawal symptoms as I would mechanically go and sit in front of the TV at 8 p.m. I miss the hysterics of Danny Morrison; Navjot Singh Sidhu's profound wisdom that would fill an entire calling card; the show of legs as the cheerleaders danced to Kannada and Tamil songs; the wistful gaze of an heir apparent on a largely disinterested young star; and the elusive smiles of Preity Zinta as her team discovered new depths; the missed sitters that made me think ‘S***, I could have caught that'; the multiple teams on 12 points; the strategic breaks where the commentators were hard pressed to say anything remotely strategic; the haunting images of Lalit Modi with some pretty woman or the other… A weaker man might have been driven to drink! But thankfully, the ads for mobile services continue to entertain even if Lalit Modi or Shashi Tharoor refuse to. So let me talk about the mobile services ads that I like and that are current.
Show me your tattoo and I will show you mine
Have you seen the one where a lady with South Indian features is chopping vegetables on a kitchen table, Suprabhatham is playing in the background and her pretty daughter approaches her reluctantly and says, “I want to show you something”? The mother looks up, one suspects with dread, God knows what today's youngsters can show and lo and behold, she displays a huge and grotesque tattoo on her lower back. I stared aghast at the tattoo as I thought her mother would and imagine my surprise when the mother says in her pronounced Madrasi accent, “very nice”. It was for “my song” and asks people to listen to what they would like to listen. I am sure lots of people with grown-up children like me love this commercial for Tata Docomo, as they would of the young man who goes for an interview and says exactly the wrong things and yet gets a job! Tata Docomo has been a game changer in the mobile category and its pricing has turned the market on its head. But its success in no small measure is due to the advertising.
Not far behind are the Airtel ads for night time calling featuring Sharman Joshi (I finally figured out his name, after all, South Indian names are a problem for North Indians too) where he speaks to his girlfriend's brother and advises him on what to study before he gets to speak to the girl or when he makes the shopkeeper speak to his mom and bargain on the sari price and butters up his professor on thermodynamics thanks to the Net … So what if Airtel has call drops and you can't hear, at least, they have interesting commercials. And what about Idea Cellular and its whacky commercials that feature crazy contests with Abhishek, his fat attendant and the dumb blonde? The whackier the contest, the more I liked the commercial. And what about Vodafone and the Zoozoos? I know that I am going to upset a few people, including my colleague who is a fervent admirer of the advertising, when I say that the current advertising is not as endearing as the earlier edition. Is it more in your face? More strident? More tailored to suit the brand IPL? I don't know, but I have seen better from the same brand.
And finally it is not only advertising
I have a sneaking suspicion that the mobile brands are taking the easy way out and focusing on creativity and advertising that is manageable. What about customer service and engagement? Let me give you an example as recent as yesterday. My wife received a mail from her personal relationship manager whose name I shall not mention saying “thank you” and that she was “special” and how she was her personal relationship manager. There was a small problem though; the mail started with “Dear Sir/Madam,” and went on to say all those glowing things. My wife being the difficult customer that she is wrote back:
“Thank you for your mail (here she had addressed the relationship manager by name). If I am such a valued customer, I am surprised that your database does not tell you whether I am a male or a female.
I think it is time mobile service companies realised that there is more to life than advertising. Advertising is fun. It is glamorous. It is sexy even, like the tattoo ad. But the boring stuff is what customers bond with and that is customer experience and service.
Is anyone listening or are they too busy making ads?
Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of 'Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.