Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Sheer Metamorphosis: Being Human, Selling Gently

By M H Ahssan | INNLIVE

SPECIAL REPORT Indian adverstising is distancing itself from Western emulation and presenting ideas that are sentimentally native and pushing boundaries. INNLIVE scrutinises this evolving trend.

Awww. Somebody recorded a baby’s first walk; cautious, hesitant but willing to run. Another eager mother filmed hers cooing, drooling and rocking unsteady to the rhythm of music. Yet another caught the merry abandon of the senses and a carefree tossing of the head. Babies, their one-toothed smiles and unconscious behaviour patterns, have always elicited a smile. 
Be it in home videos, the collage of dancing toddlers in Tata Docomo’s latest ‘dhinka chika’ advertisement or the Huggies campaign, where the baby follows the shadow of his mother, in this case Kajol in an unconventional second role, and kisses it, creative directors world over are using first-born moments to rekindle human stories in an anodised world, increasingly dependent on automated emoticons.

It’s not just babies. If the latest Budweiser’s super bowl commercial is anything to go by — a lost pup finds his way into the stables and befriends Clydesdales who prevent their owner from finding another home for him — innocence is the only experience. The beer giant decided to indulge in some clever wordplay, extracting “bud” from its title to build a “best buds” campaign in conventional and social media.

And in a classic twist of ‘dosti’, the social service ‘Taare Zameen Par’ ad features a blind girl sheltering a physically-challenged boy under an umbrella just to hear his story about how Spiderman grants kids’ wishes.

Brands across the globe are now looking for more “slice of life” slides for their storyboards, using a multitude of ordinary faces cutting across generations, to sell what is now a rare commodity in a digital society, the human touch. As cellular service provider Idea, itself an enabler of smart devices applications, in one of its ads on language barriers, had effectively communicated, “You don’t really need a language. Because an idea can change your life.”

“Advertising is weaving a story that makes a brand endearing to the consumer. That story can be something that makes you jump out of your chair, laugh out loud, bring tears to your eyes or cuddle the person sitting next to you. But the essential of a good story is that it should strike a chord with the person who’s watching it. The more potential the ad has to evoke emotions, the more relatable and better it is. 

You will notice that most recent successful ads establish an emotional bond with the audience, so much so that the ad lingers on in the minds of viewers, not because of the brand or the product, but because of the story or its characters. Each ad film has to present emotions differently and sometimes share a message too. 

Our Asian Paints ‘Har ghar kuchh kehta hai’ ad with an army officer recreating the room of his wife’s maiden home is not only about human sensitivity but about the softness and warmth behind a tough exterior. It is a lot about comfort that we are constantly craving for,” says Abhijit Awasthi, national creative director, Ogilvy India.

Emotions in a digital age
Brand managers across the world are using the classical tool of irony to tug at the heartstrings. While the digital revolution has connected us from moment to moment, sometimes making even the insignificant ones stand up and be counted, this over-saturation and full engagement of the senses have alienated us from the touch and feel of simplicity. 

We may stay in touch with the tap of the button but not in touch with reality, a reality where family members are clued into their respective devices in the same house but text each other through the day rather than talking or hugging. Marketers are tapping the wellspring of human emotions sitting deep inside us, unexpressed but bubbling over.

This is one of the reasons why the zany slickness, smart lines and photoshopped perfection of an aspirational society has in fact deglamourised itself, choosing normal 35 mm film type formats, grainy home video styles, slice-of-life stories and a pan-Indian regular Indian family to convey its message very simply. Storyboards are not sensational but sensible, taglines aren’t just clever, they are simple and the characters are no longer stars but the ordinary Indian. 

In a sense, emotions are the new nostalgia, longed for only because they are slipping away. As a noted brand expert says, “In a way emotions re-establish our own sense of historicity, particularly in Asia.” A study by Asia Emotion examined ads that people rated highly and found that engaging emotions in communications led to a more powerful audience response with better messaging and better brand impact.

The findings of the study emphatically proved that “emotional appeals used in TV ads were preferred and had a positive impact for respondents with different demographic and psychographics profiles. This was more profound among female respondents from a lower age group and among respondents having achievement as their highest priority need. 

However, a mixed response was found for TV ads dominated with emotional appeals when a cross comparison was made across demographic and psychographics profile along with product life stage. In some cases, emotional appeal was preferred to rational appeal while on the other hand, rational appeal was preferred by respondents under some specific situations proving the fact that the impact of appeal is situation-specific.” Either way, the emotional response is vital, particularly among gender and age categories.

While the women orientation dominated much of the earlier storyboards, premised largely on the supposition that they are the ones who make a bulk of the buying decisions, the new demographic profile of India has necessitated a shift in target groups. So most advertisements are focussed on the two age groups that would influence opinion with their numbers in this decade — the young and the old. Both groups are most receptive to emotions.  

So while the Cadbury’s Silk campaign focusses on the sheer physicality of emotion and enwraps the fullness of the senses with the very teen cheesy line, “kiss me, close your eyes and miss me,” Google India’s cross-border friendship ad of two men separated by the Partition and reunited by the granddaughter of one of them using Google maps reinstates the primacy of being worthy at an old age. A happy, independent senior citizen is a recurrent theme of pension plans or insurance campaigns focussing closely on rediscovery of youth, be it by taking a much delayed honeymoon or following passions.

Products with a dry appeal, like cement, are expertly playing on emotions to convey their brand philosophy of rootedness, permanence and providing a solid anchorage to a nation in change. The one by ACC even connects the so-called “vulnerable” generations. The 100-second film opens with a conversation between an old man and his grandson. The grandfather gives directions to a friend’s village, to bring mangoes. 

He describes the railway station where the young man must get down as a ‘small station in a small village’, adding that he wouldn’t find taxis and would have to take a rickety bus from there. The accompanying visuals tell the opposite story, with a large railway station with taxis lined up outside. The narrative continues with the grandfather’s voice saying that the road from the station to the village would be kachha (rough) and would only take him up to the river. 

The visuals again paint a different picture, with the taxi taking the grandson across a modern bridge. A ‘small ground’ described by the grandfather as a place for cricket and cows, is shown playing host to young cricketers in whites and an umpire in uniform, signalling a modern cricket facility. At the spot where a ‘big tree’ under which the village kids had their classes according to the grandfather is the Saraswathi High School. The grandson meets his grandfather’s friend and returns with a box full of mangoes and a story of change. 

The voiceover goes, ‘Badal raha hain har gaon, har sheher’ (Every village and every city is changing) and the spot ends with the message: ‘ACC Cement. Cementing Relationships.’ Clearly, the empowered, urban grandfather and grandson haven’t been able to map a changing India despite their access to technological platforms.  The unseen is visceral but more immediate.

Binani Cement uses Amitabh Bachchan in a library full of photo frames to communicate the idea of continuity with your ‘maa-baap’, ever present in the thoughts, smells and corners that you have grown up with. In fact, though Amitabh is considered a star endorser, the focal point of the campaign is on his being just a link in the continuity with a worthy legacy before and after. 

The family is the king in the Coke ads as is life on the fringes (last IPL’s ‘open happiness’ theme by a group of boys practising cricket under the desert sun). And going by the assemblage of regular faces, from big brands to the small ones, everyday ordinariness is the new pitch, poking you out as a valued endorser in an economy that is spreading out across middle India and encouraging start-ups resonant with effort and born out of far-flung pockets. (For example, the Tata Sky ad which shows two Himachali girls wondering if a dish connection can work in the Himalayan heights).  Brands are amassing new segments in a fiercely competitive market. 

“Emotions have been an important part of advertising. Our 90-second slots are like any other form of entertainment which keep in mind the navrasas or the nine emotions. These navrasas never change, what changes with time is the treatment and context. So on one hand we have stories on bonding and friendship, while on the other there will be motorbikes with something adventurous and an extreme sport. 

There will be some funny, crazy stories, totally based on imagination. So I think with the passage of time, the way we bring out our emotions have changed. We have gone more guttural perhaps,” says Awasthi. “We all know of some person in our family or an acquaintance who has memories of the Partition. The Google reunion ad reminds people of those sweet stories in an engaging way,” adds he.

Ajay Chandwani from Percept Limited adds, “We are changing fast in terms of technology and it is a fact that technology does alienate people. But people in the creative world realise that and are using technology to highlight emotional stories people can connect with. Technology is being used to serve a balance and fill the void.”

Marketing tool among a clutter
The eternal question is one of breaking through the clutter of products and the sameness of quality. “There has to be an edge and that can happen only when your brand not only has a philosophy but a strong personality,” says a market watcher.

The slew of ads that comes to mind includes ICICI, known for human interest plots around the family, weaving a campaign called ‘Bande acche hain’. It pans several Indian men going about their tasks on a given day and shows how they still care despite the haze of mistrust caused by recent documentation of their vices and abuses in the media. 

Uncannily, it almost seems to echo the phonetic power of Surf’s cleanliness tagline, ‘Daag achche hain’. The men’s actions speak louder than their words, almost mimicking the art of subtlety amid the noise. The ad stands out against the tide of popular sentiment and dares to invest our men with character at a time when defence isn’t too politically correct.

Then there’s Tanishq’s latest ad of a dusky bride entering a second marriage in the presence of her daughter.

The adoptive father and groom picks the little girl up, demolishing any taboos that people may harbour about celebrations not being platinum size every time life throws up a second chance. Gillette’s ‘Soldier for Women’ turns gender politics on its head with women giving testimony on how they want their men to be while Kareena Kapoor, who flaunts her diva status in many campaigns, reveals her vulnerability as ‘Everywoman’ in solitary spaces in the V app ad.   

“People respond better to a human interest angle and an interesting story in a flooded marketplace with increased awareness. With our ‘Har ghar amul’ campaign, we are not pushing a brand, we are narrating a story; one that stays in your mind. Present-day advertising should not tell what the brand is about or what it can do. 

A consumer should get an emotional benefit out of the story. Once the story reaches the target audience, it is an easy sail,” says Rahul DaCunha, managing director and creative head, DaCunha Communications, the advertising agency behind Amul.

Explains Arun Iyer, national creative director of Lowe Lintas & Partners, “Ads with human interest stories spread fast today, thanks to the social media and word-of-mouth. Since these ads share interesting stories, they are shared worldwide on digital platforms and that helps in the promotion of the brand beyond their psychological hold.” The clear example of such a beneficiary is Maggi which, through its ‘my story, my recipe’ interactive campaign, has been able to push new lines with specialised recipes.

A social tilt
Remember the Tata Steel campaign with the tagline ‘We also make steel?’ While Tata Steel’s brand value was undisputed then, the company cleverly showcased its corporate social responsibility showing happy faces of employees revelling in the concern it had for them. It pitch forked Tata as a maker of steel with a core value system.

Social messaging and cause-endorsement are now openly used as an imaging tool by big brands to entrench themselves firmly in the minds of consumers. Tata’s CSR continues with its tea company’s ‘Jaagore’ campaign, which is currently sloganeering “The Power of 49”, urging women voters to transfer a half of their demographic advantage into a sound electoral choice. 

The Visa Debit Card revolves around processing smart loans to set up local vocational training facilities for village women in Rajasthan who travel miles to fetch water. Even beauty brands like Dove have progressed from celebrating the politically correct inner beauty to a full frontal celebration of the outer body, warts and all. 

As real women with imperfections step out confidently from its frames, another beauty major L’Oreal is reaping the benefits of its rootedness campaign, where the concept of strong hair roots was linked to an online campaign of uploading family pictures and establishing personal history and growth. Ostensibly a sub-text, it has overtaken the supermodels the brand has traditionally promoted. 

“Brands have started realising their social commitment more than before. Dil ko chhoota hain ad toh lamba asar hota hain (recall is stronger if an ad touches your heart). It’s a smart strategy. Such advertisements meet two requirements. You advertise yourself and also fulfill part of your CSR activity. If you look back, the Tatas and Birlas have always kept the human element in their marketing campaigns. 

They are always at an advantage because they think socially. They enjoy immense credibility and are considered premium brands just because of their ethics and marketing strategies. Having said that, I would like to believe not many companies are moving in this direction. We have hundreds of clients and a handful of them are pushing the envelope. There’s a long way to go,” says adman Prahlad Kakkar. DaCunha adds, “Brands are beginning to realise that they can fare well if they become socially responsible.”

Iyer, who can be credited for bringing about the social interest angle through his Tanishq ads, says, “We thought about making the idea of remarriage a cosy affair with the bride wearing muted colours. We chose a girl with a dusky complexion to make a statement. When we make a statement with a social context, it helps people connect with the brand better. 

When we came up with the ‘Par bande achche hai’ ad, there was a lot of negativity in society about the way men were being projected. The reason why it went viral was because it restored balance in a polarised debate. When everything was so negative around, it was such a fresh concept that it worked well for both people as well as the brand.”

The new Indian identity
The abandon of expressions has given our ads a distinct identity vis-à-vis the universal template that would earlier be tweaked around to make it look local and relatable. While we are not averse to chasing bright sun spots like the Mahendra Rise campaign featuring “Amazing Indians,” we are not averse to looking at the downside to better ourselves. 

Social awareness campaigns do not mind telling a story like it is. Be it the Forgotten India campaign by MSE, the Excellence to Change ad showcasing how a blind man is pushed around with irreverence and blatant disregard of basic civilities with a tagline ‘sight not enough, vision counts,’ the thalassemia ad by NACO AND NBTC, where a girl thanks every adult she chances upon thinking they are blood donors who save her life, Breakthrough’s ‘Bell bajao’ campaign urging people to confront homes with victims of domestic violence, the message is clear: To be an agent of change rather than hide in shame.

The Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Atithi devo bhava’ series is not about saccharine gloss but acknowledges the problems that tarnish our ancient culture of hospitality. The ad came in the wake of a series of brutal incidents involving foreigners. The first ad from the lot showed a tourist guide harassing a foreigner only to be ridiculed and reprimanded by the general people and good citizens later.

“I think the recent ads have been such phenomenal hits because we have stopped copying Western concepts. We have started feeling comfortable in our own skin, however scaly, and we are coming up with content that reflects issues faced by common people in our country. We focus on events, celebrations experienced by everyone, so that the people watching them would immediately feel like the ads are talking about their life; they are their stories,” says Iyer.

“The reason why the quality of our ad films has gone up several notches is because the quality of filmmaking has improved in our country. The creatives we have in our industry today are educated from the best universities, they understand trends, they know the demand of the youth, the needs of a changing India and produce something that is of an international standard,” says DaCunha. 

Iyer agrees with DaCunha and adds that as the craft of filmmaking becomes more innovative, ad films will improve too. “The best filmmakers from our industry are working on ads. The condensed time and attention span is challenging them more and bringing out their creative best. Better budgets are cushioning their ideas,” he says.

Even the manufacturers have a better understanding of what an ad film should be like and creative teams are specially devised for a certain slot or a product. “An understanding has evolved and society is done with accepting anything that is served. 

As consumers are getting smarter, the advertisers have to come up with not an extraordinary trick but an extraordinary conviction,” says Awasthi. And that is the forte of the ordinary Indian.

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