Rapid innovation had Indians taking to mobile services, originally seen as imprudent. Players old and new continue to woo customers with smart deals and offers..
Innovation is the name of the game: A customer checks out a touchscreen information kiosk at the Docomo Dive-In store in Vijayawada. _ CH. VIJAYA BHASKAR
Even the most diehard admirer of India knows, deep down in his heart, that as a nation we have not too much to celebrate, despite the self-congratulatory messages that we keep giving ourselves in the media, which seem to be for the consumption of FIIs. But no one can deny the phenomenal success of the telecom and the mobile market over the last decade or so. The numbers are there for all to see and exult. The Indian mobile market has done a Sachin Tendulkar on us, leaving the rest far behind. In January 2010 the number of telecom connections crossed the mind-boggling number of 545 million with a tele-density of over 49.5 per cent even as landlines accounted for a mere 36.75 million. Older Indians would probably recall the waiting, heartburn and stress in their attempts to get a landline, and the consequent euphoria on getting it after a waiting period of seven years!
I remember when I started the Bangalore office of Mudra Communications, getting the landline connection after moving heaven and earth, meant that we were finally in business! I wonder if our first account gave us as much satisfaction. After all, that was 1987 and mobiles came into the country much later, so one had no option but to wait. But it is not as though India took to mobiles as a duck takes to water. The operators struggled to sell the concept, people worried about paying for incoming calls (usually wrong numbers from lazy or short-sighted callers), the prohibitive costs of outgoing calls (Rs 17 per minute, I think it was) along with statements of “my privacy matters to me”. Now all of these have become things of the past thanks to the innovation of the mobile operators.
Who would want prepaid?
They made “prepaid” a phenomenal success. Prepaid is probably 90 per cent of the market today and even if “post-paid” users such as me crib that we are being robbed to pay them, the mobile operators do not seem to be unduly bothered. The western world scoffed saying “why would anyone want to pre-pay, unless he is a drug dealer?” Well, Indians are like that only and constantly confound other Indians and the rest of the world. Credit must be given to companies such as Airtel who quickly realised they were in the business of selling minutes. And boy, did some of us buy!
Indian mobile services companies and companies such as Nokia opened up the market with handsets that were created specifically for value-conscious Indians. It is not uncommon to find sweepers in J. P. Nagar catching up with their counterparts in Malleswaram and as a result both those areas of Bangalore are less than spick and span. But who cares, certainly not the mobile companies who have provided the high points of a normally monotonous day through their connectivity! Today many of the earlier pain points have been addressed - incoming is free, which soon became “lifetime incoming free” which means that a person could receive calls on the same mobile number for life , so someone who had not paid the mobile operator for months on end could still receive calls. What a boon for the electrician, the plumber and other small traders!
Your life can change in seconds
While companies obsess about market share, it is common knowledge that market expansion is a function of more than one player not only competing with each other but also promoting consumption of the category. Take the cola market, for instance – its growth has largely been because Coke and Pepsi have gone at each other hammer and tongs, even as they have expanded the overall market. The cola wars, however bitter, helped grow the overall market.
I remember in the late Eighties and early Nineties Rasna being a dominant player with over 80 per cent share of the soft drink concentrate market. Remember that cute girl eyeballing the camera with her “I love you Rasna”? Well, the biggest advantage and yet largest threat was that they were the largest player, and were equivalent to the category. So when the cola market took on the concentrate market, youngsters moved to the more interesting, increasingly aspirational category, and Rasna had to fight single-handedly against a category with deep pockets that was willing to wait for returns.
Thankfully, the mobile services category has many players with a few others coming in or waiting in the wings. One of the later ones has been Tata Docomo which seems to have shaken up the market and made the biggies sit up and take notice with its “per second billing”. Competitors who had underestimated the game changing nature of this offering had to grudgingly follow. What bigger tributes for a newer entrant to have larger, more established players follow it?
What's in a name?
The brand name is the single, most important element in a brand's success. Enough theories exist about how it should be two syllables, sound well, be easy to pronounce … You have heard all of that and more. I am not sure the name Docomo would score on every count, but who the hell cares about theory, the proof of the pudding is in how often the cash register rings or is it how often your ringtone is downloaded? Be that as it may Docomo (which is perhaps less of a mouthful than alpenliebe) has been accepted, recalled and bought. A lot of the success has to be attributed to the advertising. The early advertising was merely intent on getting the brand name across, making it familiar to millions of Indians challenged by names foreign. The Tata name which means so much to the average Indian was underplayed, in my view at least. But the brand name was sung, the letters formed themselves into a recognisable logo and the first task of awareness was achieved with a high-profile integrated campaign that hit you whether you switched on the TV, looked up at a hoarding or opened the newspaper.
Young and aspirational
I am not sure who the Docomo user is. I am sure the user is young , technologically-savvy, can handle two SIM cards and is constantly looking for value that the brand seems to provide readily. The advertising is young. My favourite is that of the guy in the airline who, being like me, is unable to say no to leave a seat next to a pretty young girl for an older man, only to find that he has been allotted a seat where two gorgeous babes flank him on either side, and soon has one of the sleepy travellers nuzzling even closer to him even as I wonder why such happy results never follow my inability to say no! There are more commercials on the same lines - a triumphant kid emulating some of his more demonstrative football idols, hitting himself against the goal post, which he had crossed just a few seconds earlier.
My eternal favourite will be that of the traditional looking South Indian girl with a vivid tattoo which her mother approves reluctantly, or so I think; I am a parent too! It brought back memories of my son's tattoo in Tamil of the name ‘Sevilimedu' - the village we all hail from. I am not sure if we were shocked, happy he went back to his roots or sad that we had forgotten our roots till this reminder! While parents may not love this ad, I am sure the young consumer would love it. The signature tune has been a strong factor in holding all the communication together. India loves music and the “friendship express” too, I am sure has its admirers.
The power of an idea
I think the mobile market is the most exciting market to be in and people who relish a fight can learn a lot from the heady, competitive marketplace where you have to be on your toes all the time. Brands such as Airtel, Vodafone and Idea all have done their own share of innovation and have produced, and continue to produce outstanding advertising. Visible advertising seems to be par for the course, even for brands such as Virgin that have interesting advertising. Yet, I believe the value and power of advertising can be overstated. The key differentiator is the offering, as Tata Docomo has demonstrated. It changed the rules of the game. It certainly helps to have visible advertising beaming at you from every channel, particularly if the advertising is interesting.
The future will belong to brands that continually innovate and one hopes that all innovations will not be built on price cuts or offers alone. As a consumer I am really delighted that mobile service operators are falling over themselves to offer something or the other new. I only hope that they will spare a thought for a poor postpaid user like me too. And is it too much to ask for less call drops and better coverage?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)