Profile: “I built my brand UniverCell through advertising”

Sathish Babu of UniverCell tells Jagadeesh Krishnamurthy on how he built the retail chain through advertising

Profile: “I built my brand UniverCell through advertising”

Starting from a less than 100 sq/ft. store on Chennai’s busy TTK Road in 1998, Sathish Babu, founder and managing director of large-format mobile retail chain UniverCell Telecommunications, feels he has come a long way over the past 13 years with over 400 showrooms across southern India. But with ambitious plans to increase that to 700 stories across the region within the next three years, he feels he still has a long way to go.

Prior to establishing the retail chain, Babu started off as a door-to-door salesman selling vacuum cleaners and then managing sales of water purifiers for Eureka Forbes. He believes that those experiences gave him the basic training required for an entrepreneur: turning a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ and retaining your workforce.

Though he was not the first person to enter the mobile phone retailing business, he pointed out that it was early days and the industry was highly fragmented and disorganised. “Mobile handsets and even call rates were very expensive, the grey market dominated the space and there were only a few showrooms around to showcase mobile products.” Starting off by selling post-paid mobile connections, he made the jump to selling handsets by upgrading the store’s ambience and appointing knowledgeable salespersons manning the counters.

Talking about his initial days as an entrepreneur, Babu recalls, “When I started out, I realised that I wanted to be a retail chain owner and not just a retailer. If you want to go beyond the geographies of one city and create history, you need to think big. Even my company’s name – UniverCell – was conceived with that thought in mind. I had two options at that time – give discounts on mobile handsets and get more customers, or build a brand through advertising. I realised that one cannot be looking only at the footfalls coming in through discounts; I have to be a destination store which will make people come from other parts of the city.”

UniverCell’s first set of advertisements appeared in the classifieds section of Tamil dailies. The one-line text ads, written by him, were a success and increased footfalls and phone enquiries. This prompted him to gradually make investments to employ a DTP operator who helped him with bigger format of ads in the same section. “With an intention to get the best for my brand, I always used to compare my ads with that of others created by big brands, and I realised the importance of having a professional agency handling my communication plan. Moreover, instead of relying on the discount and offer model practised by other retailers in the business, I was willing to experiment and invest in brand building,” he added.

Babu roped in a small Chennai-based agency to handle his communication. “Over the next few months, as I got comfortable with their ads and style of working, they changed the company logo, added a tagline and there was some decency in the way my ad looked. We also started going beyond print and used a lot of hoardings with one or two word ads like ‘Largest’, ‘Best’, etc. That transition was also a successful experiment, and people were able to quickly recognise my showrooms when I opened new ones across various parts of the city,” he recalled. 

Taking cue from Chennai-based retailer Pothys Silks, who were already a well established player in the textile market by the time UniverCell was expanding beyond the confines of Chennai, Babu decided to take the big leap toward television advertising.

“The fact that my agency was handling Pothys account gave me the confidence to take the plunge. So, when the agency recommended me to go on television, I took the bait and it proved to be a huge success for me when I started expanding beyond Chennai in 2001. Though it was very expensive for me, at that time, but I was getting instant recognition wherever I went.”

However, when UniverCell expanded its business from around 10 stores to over 100 stores across the state, Babu changed it to a bigger advertising agency and also increased his marketing spend to cover the new markets.

Celebrity endorsement and engagement has played a big part in his advertising campaign, and UniverCell signed up with film actor R Madhavan as their brand ambassador in 2007.  A great believer of research, Babu pointed out that Madhavan was signed up following an extensive three-month survey spread across the markets he operates in.

Around the same time, Babu changed his advertising agency and appointed JWT, which has been handling the account for four years now.

“Since we had expanded our presence to cover all the four southern states, we needed an agency that has people who can think in that local language, and JWT was capable of delivering that owing to its size,” he explained.

Speaking about his first tryst with television advertising, he pointed out that media placements were purely intentional and based on personal relationships. “At that time, Vijay TV was a new entrant in the Tamil media space and they were also looking at stabilising their presence in the market. I did not go by any TRPs or reports, but I got value for my money.  Moreover, since I did not have a presence in smaller towns at that time, I was happy with Vijay  TV’s reach across the urban audience.”

When questioned about his media decisions at this point, he is quick to point out, “Things have changed completely now. Earlier, even if I fell down I could get up and run without losing much. Now, I am flying at 35,000 feet with advertising spends over Rs 40 crore, and therefore cannot afford to take such chances.”

Observing that his advertising spend is only increasing year on year, he said, “My main competitors are not the mobile phone retailers; I compete with any category which takes money from consumers.”

The highlights

Where do you live? Bishop Garden, Chennai

How do you relax? My morning exercises, listening to all kinds of music, watching movies at the cinemas, long drives and even analysing people’s shopping patterns.

Always in my fridge... Lots of international chocolates and, if wife is not around, some of my favourite beer

Gadgets that I carry around... My iPad 2 and one of the most recently launched smartphone models. At present, I have a Samsung Galaxy S II

Favourite media... Any HD sports channel, and definitely The Hindu

Motto... Positive thinking and hard work definitely pays

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