Three big campaigns are running on TV at present from the big three of Indian telecom service providers – Airtel, Vodafone and IDEA. All aim for the same sweet spot and implied emotional promise – we connect people and help them build deeper bonds and relationships – whether through speaking, sending email or searching. In effect, it seems to an acknowledgment by all three companies to the consumer that all our services are all pretty much the same, pick whichever you like based on random criteria or if you are already our customer, please continue liking us.
There was a time when the three big brands of Indian telecom aimed to create distinct perceptual spaces for themselves via communication. Since 95% of the Indian market uses pre-paid SIMs on their phones and the base service quality was not that different (or if different due to variable coverage, not much could be done about it), it followed that in order to build the brand, they should aim to create and own a perceptual space in the consumers’ mind and drive preference.
In the last five years, Hutch-Vodafone stayed with the strategy of using cute and unexpected, non-human characters to tell product stories – first the dog and then the Zoo-Zoos. This gave the brand a premium image. It also represented symbolically a brand world of tranquility and happiness. It thus elevated one of the basic benefits of communication and connectedness among people that it makes them feel happier and tried to associate this emotion most strongly with the Vodafone brand.
Airtel, on the other hand, chose to stay ‘real’. Its brand world built via consistent advertising was about people coming together through communicating better and sharing their thoughts and feelings. Even its most recent “Har Friend Zaroori Hai” campaign, featuring college students – the ‘digital native’ generation continued to build this brand world. The depictions of youthful friendships were very grounded, genuine and felt ‘true’.
IDEA on the other hand, perhaps because it began as a challenger, chose to be the voice of and champion of the masses of people. Its tagline ‘What an Idea, Sirji’, playing on the brand’s name celebrated the creativity of the solution employed to solve the problems of the people. The brand world of IDEA was much more the world of the masses of India where life is more problematic and far from ideal. It yet functioned as a beacon of hope and optimism – reflecting a different facet of the benefits of telephony.
Of the newer brands, Tata Docomo succeeded in establishing a brand space for itself using humor. It showed the lighter and comical side of human relationships, which are well understood to be enabled by a high quality telecom service provider.
If one were to correlate the direction for branding effort via communication in the sector, in the 2008-12 period – during the boom years so to speak – there was a concerted effort by the leading companies and the challenger companies to define and own distinct ‘perceptual’ spaces for their brands. This supported their expansion efforts.
Now, let’s look at the new campaigns from all three brands. Vodafone shows real human relationships and the role of the service in connecting real people – whether it is lovers in the throes of first love or an over-bearing/over-loving mother and her son. IDEA shows urban families and urban individuals engineering bonds of affection, be it the elderly father or the young girl tying a raakhee to the policeman. And Airtel shows connecting across class barriers. This is not friendship but a reaching out to others crossing barriers.
In effect, all three brands now hail from the same brand world – a world of real people and helping them talk, share and connect with one another; all three tell human stories well. So, where’s the difference then? True commoditization begins here – when the average consumer cannot find a difference between the three service providers – either by way of actual experience of features or service or overall brand image. Thus, there is neither competitive edge nor perceptual edge. In all my conversations with consumers, they felt that there was no correlation between actual service quality delivered and experienced on ground and the communication that was on air, hitherto. Hence the communication had to be viewed on its own terms as being entertaining or not while the service quality had to be experienced on its own terms too.
Perhaps this convergence of communication is an attempt to bridge that gap. However, the unintended consequence could be greater commoditization of the business. One hopes that the missing ‘brand’ will soon make its way back into this sector’s communication.
Hamsini Shivakumar is the Co-founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting