Campaign India Team
Feb 03, 2014

IAA Debates Chennai: Verdict - ‘There will be no real consumer connect, unless advertising is created specially for each South market’

The event hosted on 31 January featured Senthil Kumar and Madhukar Sabnavis taking on KV Sridhar and Shaleen Sharma, moderated by Latha Menon

IAA Debates Chennai: Verdict - ‘There will be no real consumer connect, unless advertising is created specially for each South market’

The IAA Debates series arrived in Chennai on 31 January 2014, and was hosted in association with the Advertising Club Madras. The topic was: ‘There will be no consumer connect, unless advertising is created for each South market’.

The verdict delivered by the 100-strong audience at the end of the hour-long debate was in favour of the motion, urging advertisers and marketers to tap into the opportunities offered by these markets by addressing them with specially created communication.


Moderating the discussion was Latha Menon, director, Iris Films. Setting the tone for the motion, she noted that while the South was very much an intrinsic part of India, each South Indian State had its unique cultural and linguistic identity. Emphasising her point, she added that four of the five classical languages – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam – were from the South, while kicking off proceedings.

Speaking for the motion were Senthil Kumar, national creative director JWT India and Madhukar Sabnavis, vice chairman and country head – discovery and planning, Ogilvy & Mather. Opposing the motion were KV Sridhar, chief creative officer, India sub-continent, Leo Burnett and Shaleen Sharma, partner – national planning and strategy initiatives, RK Swamy BBDO.

The ‘Madrasi’ is dead’


"The ‘Madrasi’ is a North Indian. The term ‘Madrasi’ was coined by racist North Indians who were clueless, insensitive, ignorant of the fact that there were actually four different kinds of Dravidian people in the South. And these four people are not differentiated by the colour of their skin, but characterised by the colour – or flavour, rather - of their mother’s tongue. When such a difference exists by birthright, how can you hope to unite them by one communication?” said Senthil Kumar, opening the arguments for the motion of the debate.

He underlined that the idea of a single South has not vanished yet, and urged marketers to think in the four South Indian languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Kannadiga, Telugu), warning that otherwise, their brand and its communication would be ‘lost in translation’.

Any brand coming into the South has to exhibit an understanding of the people, their language, their traditions, their local context – if it needed to thrive in the South, he argued.

Senthil Kumar went on to underline the culturally different South through its consumption of entertainment.

He said, “There is a reason why America has one ‘wood’ and India has five ‘woods’: Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood and Sandalwood. In terms of the real consumer connect with just one expression, then there would be just one Bollywood, and the rest of us would have been dubbed as ‘Dummy-woods’. Add the fact that not one movie dubbed from Hindi to Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada or Telugu has been a box office hit in the last many years of cinema. And vice-versa. Tell me why ‘3 Idiots’ was not dubbed in Tamil. It was remade in Tamil and Telugu with a completely different cast and context. Even the locations were different. The story was also changed slightly. Even the title was changed to ‘Nanban’ in Tamil – which means ‘friend’. Because ‘3 Idiots’ when translated into Tamil would mean ‘Moonru Muttalgal’. Only a Muttal would watch a movie with that kind of a title, right?”

Citing examples of brands that have recognised the need to address the South markets differently, the speaker pointed to the cola warriors who have had different brand ambassadors and communication for the South markets.

“A familiar face helps. A familiar expression does better. It helps the brand travel further and deeper if the communication has a strong local connect, both in terms of the stitch - and the sticker,” he explained.

“India would have been 22 different countries if we were in Europe. Now tell us, how many ads created in Europe are pan-European? There would be none. The Italians hate the Spanish. And vice versa. The French would never talk in English. And vice versa. The Germans hate everyone else. And vice versa. So why would you want the South to hate your brand, by forcing the North Indian flavour down the throat of the stubborn South Indian consumer? Note the size of the South Indian markets when compared to European countries. Italy has a population of 60 million; Andhra Pradesh is 84 million. France has a population of 66 million. Tamil Nadu has 72 million. Germany has 80 million, Spain has 47 million. But Karnataka has 61 and Kerala has 33 million. Four of the top 10 cities (by GDP) are in the South. South India ranks highest on several parameters of socio-economic development, including infrastructure. So why do you really want to ignore this potential and insult the South Indian with dubbing artistes, instead of engaging each State with special communication and giving them due respect? As they say in the South, ‘Give respect, and take respect’,” he argued.

He quoted examples ranging from Mirinda and 7Up to ‘the world’s largest read English daily’ that decided to speak to the Tamilian in his mother tongue, with ‘A Day in the Life of Chennai’.

“If you want your brand to travel North East on the sales graph in the South, try and express yourself like a South Indian would,” surmised Senthil Kumar.

‘Ideas travel, emotions are the same’


Citing the first speaker’s work ‘Parallel Journeys’ for Nike as one of his favourites, Shaleen Sharma started making the case of the universality of ideas and their ability to travel. “I quote it everywhere. Some of the assumptions you are making are plain naive,” began Sharma.

“The topic today, is that ‘there will be no real consumer connect...’ What is connection about? At the most fundamental, connection is about human emotions. And human emotions are universal. There is a discipline in consumer sciences – anthropology. Anthropology says that there are 10 or 12 universal human drives that cut across cultures. For example, when Honda says ‘The power of dreams’ sitting out there in Japan, it affects my solar plexus sitting here in India. When Johnnie Walker says ‘Keep Walking’, I empathise with it. When Bournvita says ‘Tayyari Jeet Ki’, whichever language you render the emotion into, it hits the mother everywhere. Human drives and human instincts are universal. Language is not culture. Because by that logic, you should have a separate ad for Telangana versus Rayalseema versus Vidarbha versus coastal Andhra,” emphasised the first speaker opposing the motion.

Ceding that differences would exist, he underlined that the relationship between a mother and daughter in Bombay is the same as a relationship between a mother and a daughter in a Madurai, and added, “Our responsibility as ad makers – or culture crafters – is to capitalise on that particular emotion.”

Sharma argued that the universality of ideas, and the singularity of ideas, travels in today’s world. He cited the example of the Aam Aadmi Party and Kolaveri Di.

Closing his opening remarks, he said, “The point is we are increasingly living in a world characterised by a mono-culture. By trying to celebrate the differences and emphasising those differences, we are not doing any service. Take for example, ‘Aaj Kuch Toofani Karte Hain’. The idea remains the same, while you adapt it for different markets. Adaptation can happen at the execution end, but the ideas do not change. And by the way, Rajinikanth is loved as much in North India as he is in South India – he is a national superstar.”

[Cross question: At this point, Senthil Kumar questioned what  ‘Aaj Kuch Toofani Karte Hain’ was in Tamil and Telugu and Kannada and Malayalam, and was told by Sridhar: “I will answer when my turn comes.”]

‘Executions cannot travel’


In his opening remarks, Sabnavis ceded that human emotions were universal, before emphasising that to appeal to the masses of the South, one needed to understand the unique culture, and therefore the triggers and nuances to adopt.

Whether it is the navras from Indian culture, or any of the emotions – love, joy, hope, sorrow and so on – they are all universal. I do agree that when you tap into emotions, you do reach some people. However, whom you reach is very important if you look at every single market. Very often, these universal, global ideas that are released, touch the tip of the iceberg in India. We realised this with a lot of global campaigns which were brought in from abroad, thinking that they would have some consumer connect. But by running global ideas, they just touched the coconuts (‘brown’ outside, ‘white’ inside). They have all realised over the years that to get real connect, they have to reach out to (what I call) the cappuccinos – people who, irrespective of skin colour, are all dark brown inside,” he said.

“I am a planner. And there are two words in advertising I don’t understand – ‘insight’ and ‘idea’. At the broadest level, ideas can be the same...  anything that is about friendship, or love, if you say that is the idea and can travel, I completely agree. But what touches the consumer is the execution – the expression, of the idea,” noted Sabnavis.

Much like global brands customised their communication for India, one needs to recognise and customise communication for the South, he noted.

“Are we making the mistake of doing a single expression across India, not recognising that the cultures between the North and South are very, very different? And within the South, the four States as demonstrated by Senthil. Are we oversimplifying? Are we making the same mistake that global guys had done, treating all of India as one with the thought that emotions are the same, and ideas will travel? Executions cannot travel,” underlined Sabnavis.

“I accept that I am a coconut – I know only English. But because I know only English, I cannot be insensitive to the fact that cultures in South India are distinctly different from the North. Language is a very big representation of culture. I clubbed all the South Indian States to say they are very different from the North. But as I dived deeper, I realised that even within the four, there are lots of differences. There is a huge opportunity if we recognise that we have four sub-cultures within South India. As an advertising agency, we recognise that if we connect with this group of people more minutely, we will be better off. Famous sociologist Paul Harris said, ‘Consumers globalise. People don’t,’” surmised the second speaker in favour of the motion.

‘Across the world, the child cries the same way and the mother emotes the same way’


“I agree that it is we as marketers and advertisers who brand people as consumers. They are people. The moment we leave advertising and marketing and think about people, we view the people, their emotions, feelings and the environment in which they live. You can use different languages. You can use different cultural nuances. But at the end of the day, whom are you dealing with? What do you want them to see? Advertising is not about cracking some silly jokes. Good communication is all about changing human behaviour. For that, it does not matter whether you live in Madurai or Timbuktu,” began Sridhar, in his remarks against the motion.

He quipped, “We had snacks a little earlier – why did you borrow the samosa from the North? We are all human beings first. If we want to see dissimilarities, we will only see dissimilarities. If we choose to see the similarities, we see the similarities.”

The creative veteran underlined that if the market opportunity was large enough, marketers would create customised communication for each South market. He explained, “If your city is big enough, they will come and create advertising for it. If your colony is big enough, they will come there also. If you consume Rs 40 crore of condoms in one household, they will come.”

He cited the example of a Woodwards Gripe Water commercial, which used the same idea (and same language, he said, across a few markets), to get the message across. “It is not about language all the time. It is the emotion. Across the world, the child cries the same way and the mother emotes the same way. So our job as communicators is to hang on to those emotions and then communicate with them.”


Madhukar Sabnavis

  • “Yes, we are talking to people, and not consumers. But people are by product of a culture. We must recognise that the four South Indian sub-cultures are distinctly different from the North culture. And I agree that maybe UP and Bihar are also very different. As Senthil said, we could be 22 different countries with 22 different ads. But, it is a case of oversimplification to say that because of efficiencies we want to do a single ad.”
  • “You mentioned that if a market gives Rs 40 crore or Rs 400 crore to a brand, the marketer has to go there. It is not that; it is a question of claiming the market. Asian Paints created a market by going to Kerala and addressing that market specifically.”
  • “Let me take the case of 3 Roses and Red Label. 3 Roses is about husband and wife. Red Label is about family bonding. We tried our level best to test out the 3 Roses (type of) ad in the North (for Red Label). We tried the reverse too – it didn’t work. Yes, it is about people, but to connect with them we need to recognise the culture.”

KV Sridhar

  • “We tend to fool ourselves saying that husband and wife values are important only to South India and not to North India – so be damned with their wives. We must not confuse cultural differences with difference in brand personalities – what is the distinction between husband and wife in the North and the South?”

Senthil Kumar

  • “When you say we are people, not consumers, I find it very strange. We consume food. We consume colas. We consume a lot of alcohol. We consume content on Television and online. And what we consume is very different in each of these four States.”
  • “For example, we openly ask in the South for pickle (Avakkai in Andhra, Oorugai in TN, Upilkai in Karnataka or Kadumanga in Kerala). People like it in the South. But in some parts of the North, people will get very upset if you ask for pickle – they will think you don’t like the flavour of the food.”

KV Sridhar

  • “No, they won’t. I come from mango country. There are 72 variants of mango pickle in the South. There are over 740 variants all over the North. Get your maths right. I am Aam Aadmi. Don’t tell me about aam (mango).”

Senthil Kumar

  • “I agree with Shaleen’s point on not changing the idea. I think it is very lazy to also not change the expressions. Creative people in all agencies in this country have to work hard on the expressions of the idea. Because that is where you convert the consumer to your brand.”

KV Sridhar

  • “You are stating things as convenient. You say that you don’t want Hindi ads. But you want Nagma, you want Khushboo, you’ve now got Kajal Agarwal, you have Tamannah. Accept everything gracefully rather than living in a little cocoon. We want our Rahman to go global but we don’t want to accept an Anu Mallik here?”

Madhukar Sabnavis

  • “I am not saying that we should not accept anything. I am only saying that we are oversimplifying things by saying everything can be universal.”

Shaleen Sharma

  • “There’s a vedic saying ‘Ekam sath vipra bahuda vadanthi’...”

Senthil Kumar

  • “Nobody understood you.”

Shaleen Sharma

  • “It means that the truth is one, people call it by many names. John Lasseter, chief animationist at Pixar, which has created many movies like Finding Nemo, Cars and Ratatouille, was asked about the secret of so many successful hits in a row. His answer was: ‘I celebrate the universality of human emotions’.”
  • “Should we celebrate our differences? Or should we celebrate our consistencies? I am a hundred per cent sure that the kind of world our kids will grow into, will be populated by brands that are universal. Two days back, Apple launched its phone in China. There was no advertising by Apple and the product is flying off the shelves. When you see a good painting, across cultures, people are stunned. Contrary to what Madhukar said, great ideas travel – and they are culture-neutral.”

Madhukar Sabnavis

  • “We have to be very sensitive to culture if we want to have deeper connects. If you think you have changed the celebrity and created an ad in the local language and it’s enough, you are wrong. Marketers who are waiting for markets to become big before addressing them with local communication, are committing a mistake. There is an opportunity to do local connects and become big in each of the four South markets. And cultures are not going to die.”

KV Sridhar

  • “There is no one answer to anything, because people are different. You cannot take the view that if anything comes from the North it is bad and it will not be accepted. We have accepted many things. We should not stereotype our own selves. We are changing. We need to look at similarities and then reach out to people.”
  • “Our opposition is talking of 22 States, but every 22 kilometres the dialect changes in our country – there are more than 6500. What do you do? If each 20 kilometre stretch is going to give you enough returns, if the media is available, and you can localise your communication to that, then they will do it. Till then, you need to optimise it. If you want to look at the differences, you will see lots of differences. Though we are South Indians, we are an integral part of the country. Let us not allow us to be stereotyped. If we do, we will see more ‘lungi dances’ coming out of Bollywood.”


At the end of the debate, moderator Latha Menon urged the audience, which had taken a stand at the beginning ‘For’ or ‘Against’ the motion, to revise their positions based on the arguments made by both teams.

Based on the audience’s response, Menon declared the team speaking ‘For’ the motion as the winner. The verdict was: ‘There will be no real consumer connect, unless advertising is specially created for each South market’.


Campaign India

Related Articles

Just Published

2 hours ago

Dentsu appoints new president and chief strategy ...

Narayan Devanathan who rejoined Dentsu in June 2023 after he vacated his role as the Group's chief client officer in August 2022, now takes on a new regional remit.

3 hours ago

Pepsi unveils new logo and identity; colours 120 ...

The bold logo shift after 14 years resonates with the “ripple, pop, and fizz” effect. To celebrate, Pepsi has activated over 120 CGI moments across the globe in a coordinated first

4 hours ago

Moves and wins roundup: Week of 4 March

Read all the latest news from the marcomms world including updates from Zade, Angel One and more here.

4 hours ago

Accenture acquires martech consultancy The Lumery

The Lumery's 80-strong team across Australia and Bengaluru, India, will join Accenture Song’s marketing practice—delivering services including personalisation, CRM and loyalty, testing and automation