Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blast from the past

Favourite old ads are making a comeback. Did they have to disappear, in the first place?.

Is this revival of old commercials a trend? Or just the action of some smart marketers who are realising that they have good stuff in their own cupboards that can be brought out and screened again to an old audience that recognises them and a new audience that is bound to like them? And more significantly, are there consumers who prefer these old ads to the current crop and would much rather see them?

In the early days of brand-comm, the communications consultancy firm that I founded and that I (occasionally) work for, we did an interesting consulting assignment for Parry's Coffy Bite. For the benefit of those who may not have a sweet tooth or may not have tasted that wonderful bite of confectionery priced at the magical figure of 50 paise, it has a distinctive taste that is a unique blend of coffee and toffee. Children loved the forbidden coffee taste and adults enjoyed the toffee taste.

The first commercial done for the brand was arguably the best, featuring the father and his eight-year-old son both chewing the candy enthusiastically with the son saying “Coffee!” while the father said “Toffee!” and the argument started and continued over the years. Simple thought, clear position, effectively executed. Consumers liked the toffee, not to mention the ad, the brand did well and everyone was happy.

Came the time to change the commercial and complicating the issue was the fact that adults too were tasting the product and enjoying it, and slowly but surely, the focus moved from the taste of the candy to the argument and boy, was it continued! Commercials were made on a number of people having arguments. The commercials became cleverer, the subjects more convoluted and the taste platform was deserted in favour of this more exciting platform, for advertising, at least. The advertising won awards even as the brand, hit as it was by the entry of brands such as Alpenliebe, started to feel the heat in the marketplace.

We came in to look at the situation objectively and all the research seemed to point to a few obvious things. While adults consumed the product, if it happened to be at home, they were not going out to actively buy it. The primary consumer and the heavy user was the kid aged between 8 and 14 years and the product's key attribute was its unique blend of coffee and toffee. The client and agency had moved to the more intellectual terrain of arguments from the taste and it was an obvious solution to come back to the original position that the taste is so good that it is difficult to say whether the taste is coffee or toffee and even run the same ten-year-old commercial for a short time before another execution could be done.

The Tamil poet Kannadasan might have written that the “legs that stray from the right road will not reach their destination” but brands can be more fortunate. They can come back to either running their old commercial or at least reviving the earlier position that served them so valiantly in the past.

Nootruku Nooru Vajram

Another brand which taught us interesting lessons was Vajram, a brand of cement from Dalmia that brand-comm had branded, created the packaging and advertising for and launched in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The communication and branding were research-based and the television commercial ‘Nootruku Nooru' Vajram resonated in homes in Tamil Nadu that avidly watched Sun TV. The brand was one of the most successful cement brands launched in Tamil Nadu and soon became the company's mainstay. The commercial ran for several years and the client, and sometimes even the agency, got tired of it.

Every year at dealer meets we would ask the dealers the same question — “Should we change the commercial?' — and the dealers would look at us as if they had been told ‘India is the best T20 team in the world' and echo a resounding “No!” I am sure they must have been often wondering if the brand was in safe hands. ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it' might well have been their impression. Several years later, just recently, in fact, the commercial has been changed. I do not wish to comment on that as we no longer handle the communication, but I just wonder! I am sure the results will soon be out for the customer tells us in no uncertain terms what she thinks about the communication and the brand.

People of my age may be forgiven for living in the past and going back to ‘those good old days' when batsmen walked and bowlers politely questioned umpires and where captains did not blame IPL parties for their lacklustre performance. Similarly too, ads were few and far between just like cricket matches and people remembered ads and spoke about them, as they did about deeds on the cricket field. All of this leads me to the key point that I wish to make:

Why can't agencies run some of their old commercials for the brand rather than creating new, expensive advertising which often enough is not a patch on the old one?

To prove my point: ITC Sundrop had a very successful launch commercial of a boy doing somersaults in the midst of some fluffy puris. I was pleasantly surprised to see the same commercial after several years, a commercial that I had liked even if it did nothing to make me more careful about my spreading waist even if the waist was not accompanied by the usual material prosperity that people associate with it. I also saw a commercial featuring Hrithik Roshan where a little boy is having difficulty watching a match in a dealer outlet because taller, stronger, more insensitive people were blocking his view. He sits dejected on the pavement only to be joined by Hrithik Roshan who sees his predicament and switches on the match in his mobile on R World and Yuvraj hits a six and the world erupts.

Yes, my friend, those were the days Yuvraj was fit, was hitting sixes and India was winning matches and commercials were working. Again I am getting sidetracked. Another commercial that I saw recently and that was made earlier was for Mak lubricants featuring a young, sexily dressed girl with the song ‘ Jawaani something something' playing in the background (You must forgive me, I can remember the tune and the music but cannot remember the Hindi words).

Is this revival of old commercials a trend? Or just the action of some smart marketers who are realising that they have good stuff in their cupboards that can be brought out and screened again to an old audience that recognises them and a new audience that is bound to like them? And more significantly, are there consumers like me who prefer these old ads to the current crop and would much rather see them?

The paint of India

Asian Paints is one of India's most savvy marketers and I have always loved its advertising. Whenever I have had the opportunity I have written, spoken about and brought it out as case studies in my classes and training sessions. Take the case of the Asian paints Apex which too has had some outstanding advertising over the years. It started with ‘Sunil Babu' whose tone of voice and style of delivery became a way of speech in India and when it got translated into Tamil the ‘ Kalkarrey Chandru' became a part of the local idiom of Tamil Nadu. What more can a copywriter hope for?

The next ad was for Apex Ultima and featured another popular TV commercial (in my book, at least) of a Chote Nawab standing in front of racing horses who kick up a cloud of dust. The villagers are astonished and the shaken Nawab preens himself ready to receive the accolades of the villagers rushing towards him. He finds to his consternation, however, that the villagers are running towards the house and the line says “ Haan toh bhai, bahari diwaron par dhool ko tikne na de” which I am told is ‘Dust can never remain on a wall painted with Apex Ultima'. Even if I did not understand the words, it made sense to me and an impact on me.

I wish I could say the same about the new Apex Ultima commercial featuring a performing magician who is able to make the house disappear but not the paint. I can't explain why the ad leaves me cold. Is it because I prefer the older, simpler ones? Is it because the brand suddenly tries to be upmarket and suave in startling contrast to the earlier ones? Of course, the standard responses of agency types to statements such as these are usually “You are not the target audience?” Excuse me, but I am, I am just building a house in a golfing resort in preparation for my retirement and in the hope that my golf handicap becomes less of an embarrassment!

At stumps

So here are a few thoughts for your consideration:

Are you getting tired of your commercial before your customer is? Have you checked with the consumer or the trade?

Does it still have legs? Have you measured wear-out?

Who is pushing for change, you or your agency? (One client shared the funny problem of the new creative director in the agency trashing the client's commercial made by his predecessor in the same agency and pushing for change).

Are you changing your position?

Are you losing out in the process of change?

In short, are you throwing the baby out with the bath water?

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

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Have mobile, will go to town

Cellular services are thriving, but like several other services and products,
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.

Regards, …”


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.