Idea Cellular was a late entrant to a category, which had established players with iconic ads. How challenging was it to build the brand Idea? What was the initial communication route?
Idea as a brand was born on 30 April 2002. We were operating in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In Maharashtra, we were operating under the brand name AT&T. In Madhya Pradesh we were under the brand name RPG. And in Andhra Pradesh, we were under the brand name Tata Cellular. Also, at that time we got the licence to enter Delhi. So it was becoming very important that we go to Delhi with one brand name, a new name. After a lot of brainstorming internally and with the agencies involved, we hit upon the idea of Idea Cellular.
In the initial phase, since it was a nascent stage for mobile telephony, the primary focus was to promote the hygiene aspects and features, which was primarily the network, pricing, value added services (VAS). The launch advertisement that we created was purely on network coverage. It was under the mnemonic of the number series. It was a very, very successful campaign and till today we use the same signature tune.
There were two, three things that came into play. First, was the mnemonic of numbers because we realised that the number is going to become the identity of the person. Second was the signature tune. And third was our network coverage, pricing and VAS.
It was in 2006 that we decided to spread our wings as a national player and that marked the second phase of brand Idea. We were present in eight circles and we had merged with Escotel and we had licence for another three circles. And we were in the process of applying licences for other circles. The objective was to project ourselves in line with our aspirations. We looked around and saw the communication pieces that were being created for this sector. With a name like Idea, it was important for us to stand for some cause in our communication. The promise that our brand brought to the fore was ‘An Idea can change your life’.
After a lot of discussions internally, we decided that Idea should stand for some of the problems that India as a country was facing. The first campaign we launched was around the caste war. For the first 15 to 20 days, people did not realise why a mobile company was talking about this issue. The campaign became iconic. The idea was about how you can solve a social problem through mobile telephony. And we finally hit upon our brand strategy. All our communications post that involved storytelling. That helped us overcome Idea’s late entrance as a pan-India cellular company.
Idea Cellular is a company that has grown through mergers and acquisitions. Did this union of various companies at different markets impact the way the company planned its marketing activities in the initial years?
Prior to us taking them over, each one had their own strategy. But once we had taken them over, there was a quick transition. And there were not too many stark differences anyways. We had a well thought out launch plan for each of the circles we entered and then there was a no looking back.
What is Idea Cellular’s advertising budget and by what percentage have you increased it over the last five years?
I cannot talk about absolute numbers. But on average, we have increased our advertising by 30 to 35 per cent annually. The primary medium we use is television. Of late, we have also started using digital and we have in fact doubled our spent on digital in the last two years. And we have been able to put in fresh money because our revenue growth has been robust in the last three to four years.
In 2002, the company launched commercial operations in Delhi. Tell us about the marketing strategy of that period.
In Delhi, we entered as the third player. Bharti and Vodafone were already there. We were still in the acquisition mode and network was our primary strategy. We worked that network strategy to give great coverage to customers, so that we could get as many subscribers as possible. And our marketing plan was primarily driven by our sales and distribution teams as they are the backbone of the company. We also did some local level advertising through OOH.
In 2007, the company crossed the 20 million subscriber mark. How much would you credit the company’s marketing plans for this?
Till 2007, our advertising had a lot to do with promoting various VAS, tariff plans and features like the network.
Obviously, it did create some affinity for the brand, but from a very functional perspective. The 20 million mark was achieved through the inorganic route also. One was the merger with Escotel; and we had also expanded our geographical boundaries.
In 2008, the company launched its commercial operation in Mumbai. How did you build the brand in Mumbai?
We entered Mumbai with a campaign called ‘Mera number Mumbai ka toh mein Mumbai ka’. And that gave us a huge boost. Along with Mumbai, we also entered Bihar, and prior to that we had already entered UP and Rajasthan. So Mumbai and Bihar took our tally to 15 circles. By that time we had also become very strong in terms of our marketing and communication strategy.
Tell us about your association with Abhishek Bachchan and the communication using him.
In 2006-’07, we were looking for a celebrity who would tell the story of our brand and not take away the limelight from the brand. The important factor was how we used him. The creative team used him as if he was a character that was telling the story and not a Bollywood celebrity. He completely moulded himself into the character and launched the campaign ‘What an idea sirji’. It has been a very fruitful journey, which we plan to continue in future.
Why did you decide to adopt social messages in your campaigns? Another brand that was using a similar route was Tata Tea. Interestingly, the creative agency for both the brands is Lowe. So was it an idea that came from the agency or is it something that Idea wanted to do?
We never intended to do any social awareness campaign because as a company we are not here to solve social problems. Most of the solutions that we have offered through our advertising are whacky - and in many cases difficult to implement. It is just a coincidence that the agency is same for both the brands.
You launched the ‘population control’ campaign to introduce 3G services in India. How do think this ad fared compared to past campaigns?
We had a 3G launch campaign prior to this TVC which had three Abhishek Bachchans. But we wanted our own style of 3G advertising. And that is when we thought of the ‘population control’ campaign and I believe it is one of the best campaigns. It did address a problem that India is facing and we did it in a unique way. May be it was bit tongue-in-cheek the way it was executed and probably it was long and loud. But I feel it was a great idea and a great execution.
Tell us about your association with the IPL and if it has delivered the ROI for you.
We have been associated with the IPL since its inception but not as a sponsor. In year one, we were sponsors for Mumbai Indians. The following year we were sponsoring Deccan Chargers. And then we became sponsors for Delhi Daredevils and we have been associated with them for the last three years. As far as on-air sponsorship is concerned, we have been buying spots on television but last year we became the associate sponsor and used to platform to promote our handset business. It is a great platform to launch new products because of the kind of reach it offers and the viewership it delivers. This year, we were not there as an associate sponsor and simply bought some commercial time.
In the recent past you have launched two new commercials – one started off as a viral (Honey Bunny) and then went to become a TVC and the latest ‘telephone exchange’. Tell us about the campaigns and the idea behind them.
We had some internal research which revealed that in certain pockets of the country Idea was still not perceived as a national operator. So when we discussed this with our communication agency and told them this is what we intended to do, they came back to us and presented a thought. They said if we talk about network in the traditional way, it will be boring, and suggested that we do it through a song. And they made us listen to two lines of the song. The minute we heard the song we knew it will become a catchy tune and we worked on it. The idea was that this trekker will move around in different parts of the country and people will be singing this song using their unique mannerism, accent. We realised that the song is going to be a hit and so we went viral first and then the TVC followed.
We have been talking about social problems through our campaigns. With the ‘telephone exchange’ campaign, we wanted to see if we can address personal problems. Understanding each other in today’s world is becoming an issue. The campaign has reached its last stages. We will be launching a new campaign in the next one and a half months. We should also launch one campaign using Abhishek Bachchan this year.
How has the handset strategy/integration fared? What are the plans going forward to grow it?
Our handset integration strategy is looked upon as a big support as far as the data business is concerned. So our endeavour has been to bring smart phones at the lowest prices possible. The lower the price, the better the penetration in the smart phone category - which will drive our data business. We sell nearly 30,000 handsets per month. In the last 12 to 15 months, we have sold nearly three and a half lakh handsets.
The voice business has slowed across players. What are the plans to enhance it?
While the rate of growth has slowed down, the voice business still delivers 80 to 85 per cent of the revenues for most telecom players - the non-voice business is still small. The growth rate of the voice business is bound to slow down because the faster growing business is data. But we will stay focussed on the voice business.
You have seen the telecom sector very closely for more than a decade. How has marketing changed and evolved in the sector?
The biggest change has been in terms of sales and distribution purely because of the kind of geographies we have reached. Earlier the market was post paid-driven (against pre-paid driven now).
The challenge (in the past) was who was growing the fastest, who lapped up more subscribers. Marketing was trying to keep pace with the kind of expansion that was happening and so the number one selling point became network. Then it graduated to tariff innovations. And when all those hygiene issues settled, then it became what the brand stands for.
What are biggest challenges in terms of marketing?
The biggest challenge is how we can make the data business more relevant. We know it is relevant for consumers, but how do we communicate that? Second is about how we can make the customer feel trustworthy with the operator. Every minute, he is spending his money to make calls - so building this trust is extremely important.