The holy month of Ramadan marks the beginning of the long drawn out festive season. Following in its footsteps in India are Ganeshotsav, Diwali and eventually Christmas and the New Year. The ongoing festivities will be accompanied by a constant stream of communication on themes associated with each festival. Family, society, love, compassion and forgiveness will be some of the stronger themes that will emerge, and some of them being common across festivals, cutting across religion and geography.
If the ‘Divine Faith’ (Din-e-llahi) proposed by Mughal emperor Akbar had indeed come to life, the advertising we see during festivals across the world would be evocative of the doctrine drawn from the best of major religions.
John Lewis’s Monty The Penguin film for the UK retailer’s Christmas campaign has been viewed over 23 million times on YouTube. The film even managed to win big at the recently concluded Cannes Lions, bagging a Grand Prix in Film Craft. There are others who will not win at festivals perhaps, but have been just as universal in their appeal.
Pakistani company Shan Foods recently released an Eid film that got spoken about not only in its home country, but also grabbed eyeballs in India. The common theme of ‘Ghar ka khana’ (home food and mom’s food) found resonance in the Indian market a tad earlier, for Fortune Oils’ ‘Mother’s Exchange Programme’. Ogilvy & Mather was the agency behind both pieces of much-appreciated work that played on a universal human truth.
Like a Coke’s Do Diye Diwali in India could work in Pakistan for Eid with a tweak on the theme, a Kit Kat’s Lonely Astronaut film could work for Diwali, Christmas, Eid or any other festival, anywhere in the world.
So what is it about festive advertising that makes it so appealing to customers? And can one theme fit all, with a bit of customisation?
Sentiment and customisation
While the universal themes do find acceptance due to similarities across regions and cultures, adlanders speak of the nuances that distinguish one religion from the other and thereby the slight variation in the visible communication.
Veteran adlander Ambi Parameswaran and author of the book on religious advertising ‘For God’s Sake’, had this to say on the issue: “Each religious festival has its own cultural significance and if you are not cognisant of that you could hit some wrong notes. Simple cues like smiling children, hugging families are cliché. But if you want to use fire crackers or colour then they will not go with all religious festivities. You cannot create a cookie-cutter festive advertising and super-impose different religious sub-texts.”
In an article around the theme, Parameswaran also spoke about how Indians of one faith are embracing festivals of the other, in their own ways. So a holiday for Christmas may see Hindus visiting their temples and so on. These complex codes of consumption could well be analysed by brands to have a larger appeal with their festive ads.
Asma Nabeel, chief creative officer, Walter Pakistan, explains, “A single theme can work for different festivals. However, relevance is the key. The theme should be relevant to the nature of festival. Themes like goodness are relevant for all as during all the festivals around the world, the urge to do good is high and that desire or urge creates that connect.”
Arun Iyer, national creative director with Lowe Lintas + Partners India, concurs and adds, “Ritually speaking things change. So I think that the visuals would change but overall if you see the mood that people are in during the festival season, people become religion-agnostic because what happens is that most people celebrate the goodness in people, society and talk about society. The themes are the same.”
Partha Sinha, director, South Asia at Publicis, goes on to further break down festive advertising into two parts and explains the causes for the variation in advertising. The two parts of festive advertising according to him, are: (i) the central thought and (ii) an executional element. He says, “Central thought is based on a bigger consumer insight and executional elements are based on behavioural insights. So in this case, behavioural insights will change with regard to geography, culture, religion etc., so execution will change. If you have come up with a universal human theme, it will work across festivals because people are at their happiest. Integrational elements are based on behavioural insights, which are different from universal thought. So in this case, there will be a change.”
Goodness vs. call-to-action
Another issue that often times comes up is one balances the issues of the festive sprit (goodness, family, sharing and the like) and the need to get people to purchase. According to Iyer, people are already in a festive mood and brands have realised that shouting from the roof tops creates a notion of over-selling. He contends, “Why don’t we appeal to them emotionally rather than seeming like we’re trying to sell them something?”
Nabeel and Parameswaran feel that one cannot ignore the call-to-action. Nabeel reasons, “Call-to-action is a must. You can’t leave a message incomplete. The beauty is how you knit the emotional connect with the latter.”
Parameswaran also points out that festivals legitimise consumption. He explains, “So if a society is conservative about its approach to spending, a religious festival gives legitimacy to spend. In my book, ‘For God’s Sake’ I have spent a whole chapter examining this in greater detail. As Indians start embracing a consumer culture they need the legitimacy of religious sanction to spend. So festivals like Akshaya Tritiya have become big consumption occasion; you can see ads by jewellers, builders and even car manufacturers urging you to pull out your wallet and spend. You need to pick and choose.”
Asim Naqvi, chief executive officer at Ogilvy & Mather, Pakistan, speaks of the relevance of Ramadan in Pakistan. “For us”, he says, “Ramadan is divided into two parts. It is a really important time. Eid is seen as the festive part of Ramadan. So four to five years ago, when it was less expensive to make films, brands would make multiple films which would start from spiritual content and go into festive content. Now, you only see brands like Coke talking about doing little good things, or Pepsi having communication that was an extension of something done earlier in the year. Earlier, Pepsi would run customer promotion campaigns and reduce the price of the bottles.”
Pakistan’s Coca-Cola and Pepsi campaigns from this Eid could be used as two examples of the different tactics used by brands. Both films were visually very similar. They spoke of kindness and doing good in society. But the creative routes chosen were far apart. PepsiCo lit up homes with #LiterofLight and urged action, Coca-Cola embraced the spirit of the season with an emotional film.
Dheeraj Sinha, chief strategy officer – South and South East Asia, Grey, speaks of specific brands and their approach to festivals. He explains, “In some cases, brands are associated with certain festivals – for instance Tang and Ramadan or Asian Paints and Diwali. In such cases, the adverting acts as a reminder. It brings the brand top-of-mind and re-affirms the emotional bond, thereby ensuring the transactions.”
Iyer corroborates this by noting that categories such as consumer goods, jewellery and apparel see big spending because they tend to have a natural affinity to the festive season.
Sinha sounds a word of caution in defining the purpose of the communication: “If you overtly try to sell using festivals as a crutch then that communication will fall apart. If you want to improve your brand recognition, brand love, people’s association with the brand, then the communication becomes different. If your communication looks to facilitate purchase, there’s nothing wrong with that. Another is when you want build affinity. A lot of times, these two get confused.”
So what about championing social causes?
Adlanders underline that it’s all about getting the balance right with festive advertising. After all, an offer cannot be communicated in a manner that is at odds with consumer sentiment.
What does festive advertising have to offer when it comes to tackling bigger social causes? Whether it is Petronas’ Our Deepavali campaign in Malaysia or Eye Bank of India work during (blind) Holi or Columbian FARC Operation Christmas, the examples of work riding the spirit of the season and changing human behavior abound.
Nabeel believes it all depends on the background of the particular festival. Giving the example of the recent Pepsi Eid campaign her agency worked on, she said, “If I take the example of Pepsi ad, the idea was completely in sync with the ideology of Ramadan and Eid. Ramadan is the month of giving and spreading goodness. That’s the connect that made the ad relevant to the festival. So if the change that you want to bring is relevant to the festival’s core then it makes all the sense to do it.”
Naqvi is of the opinion that the festive season does lend itself to socially relevant themes. He says, “People are receptive to this kind of advertising. When you see brands talking about little social change or a major change, people will connect because they are in that mindset.”
Dheeraj Sinha surmises, “I think it also depends on the meaning system of the brand and what it stands for. If the brand has large, social change as a part of its DNA, then it makes sense for them to drive a larger social stance during festivals. But if you are a fun and quirky brand and you want to do something around a festival, you should stick to your tone and mannerisms. There is no good or bad time to drive social change, if you are strong on a social change agenda, you don’t have to wait for a festival.”
(This article was first published in the 24 July issue of Campaign India)