Peoplewatcher: Why are IPL ads as bad as they are?

What are Indian ads supposed to do? Besides bring IPL into our homes so we watch this event-blitz for free? (IPL Edition)

The Four Horsemen of the Indian Adpocalypse

I’m an industry insider — advertising and research. I’ve worked in this space for 26 years, loved ads since TVs landed on Indian shores and I’m not sure anymore what Indian ads are expected to achieve.

What brand books, ad schools and idealistic or iconic ad gurus will teach you is that it’s about building worlds, firing imagination, feeding dreams etc. It is all about the feels.

Reality Hits

Consumers generally let ad pleas wash over them like ducks in Speedo suits. They literally don’t care about most things marketers and advertisers orgasm about.

So media folks will hunt them down while creative teams find ways to grab their attention (“eyeballs”). Perhaps in that order. The best ads are supposed to cut through the clutter and make an impact.

Are the ads we are seeing today, especially now during IPL season, doing what they should for brands and consumers or is it largely just a repetitive, anodyne shouting match from people who have money to throw at the system?

When I speak to consumers for whom these ads are ostensibly made — they often can’t recall much of it. It’s super rare they can link ads correctly to the brand that paid whopping BHIM-loads of money for the ad.

Most people may not see a big difference between knowing “Vivo IPL” or “CEAT strategic timeout” or “Unacademy Cracking Six” VERSUS actually buying a Vivo phone, recommending CEAT tires or paying to have an Unacademy account.

But for marketers and brand stewards, there is a burden to ensure that money spent for brand presence is followed up with people buying into the franchise. Even if the core goal is to “generate awareness at top-end of the funnel”— a massive spend without establishing why consumers should care — is morally questionable, self-indulgent extravagance.

Spokespeople for brands will tell you, on record, how spending 145 crores-ish, over 3 years, to be an IPL partner is totally worth it.

Gun to the head, truth serum to the vein, life on the line — we must ask the question, “Is it though?”

So what’s an ad supposed to do?

Here’s the thing. No outsider can reliably tell you that. Sometimes, even marketers paying for it can’t tell you that.

Why spend lakhs and crores then?

For one, that’s what it costs to be out there and do business. If you’re not out there, no one will know you exist. If they don’t know you exist, people won’t buy you and soon you REALLY may not exist.

In India — in-your-face omnipresence, loud ads and 4–6 crore celebs (who may never touch the brand they’re hawking) are seen as markers of a legit business and brand. This ability to spend like a boss distinguishes monied brands from dubious, fly-by-night wannabes that flood the market. And so a lot of our ad and brand dysfunction becomes the norm.

What Ads have the Potential to do for their Brands

Here’s a 100% non-Indian ad.

Watch it. Trust me.

Random Social Experiment — watch with headphones and without pressure to react.

What does it make you feel?

While we can feel anything we want to — including complete disconnect, here’s what the ad will do for the people that it’s dog-whistling to (which is also the intent of the ad and brand):

Consumer KEY (insight or truth, what opens that magic door to hearts and minds)

The lockdown forces us all to feel stuck in our boring, chore-ridden, now stunted, home-imprisoned (American) lives. It seems to snuff out the will to live even more than before — but it doesn’t have to be that way. In our day dreams (the refuge of little kids in boring classes) — we can be better in so many ways. We can look, dress, sing, dance, twirl and flirt better. We can come alive! Not just us, even sexy actors are just like us and get upgraded in their daydreams. That light, affirming feeling of being in a better place even if reality sucks — that’s the dream.

Brand KEY (insight or truth, that ensures the consumer KEY fits ONLY this brand and not a competitor — most ads fail this part)

It’s that alive, upgraded feeling you get to experience, when you partake of Stella Artois. Not any brand or any drink, just this one.

That’s what the brand is selling here. That feeling of lightness, liberation, relief, joy. That promise to be and feel better. To dream. To be alive.

I am not a beer drinker but it makes me wonder for a second if I should try it — it may perhaps not be as bitter and beer-y as other beers I’ve tried. This seems different. What would it hurt to try?

The Indian Market is Different and yet the Same: Because all people Dream

Indians too will tell you these stories if you ask them not just about things they consume but stories around how they feel. Indians more than most people, feel many feels.

Why aren’t there more Indian TV/video ads that made us feel this way? These are our ads seeking our attention, faith and money. They should be singing to us.

An Inside Look: Four Stakeholders of this Ecosystem

  1. Product Manufacturers/Designers/Engineers: These are people who talk fluently in obfuscating specs. Most consumers will tune out product-centric specs. George Tannenbaum, ex-Ogilvy Copy Chief and lone Linkedin entertainer, writes beautifully about this here.
Consumers who pay for the brand and product — aren’t typically as much a focus as they should be

2. Marketers: They usually get that there is a manufacturer vs a consumer perspective. That they will need researchers and ad agencies to ensure the brand isn’t lost in translation. They fight a gazillion process fires which in India can involve anything from a trip to the police station to greasing bureaucratic palms to dealing with legal teams to the gnarly headache of logistics topped off with the overwhelming pressure of numbers, office politics and the Board. Given the load they carry, it stands to reason that the core language of consumer needs, pains and feels isn’t usually first nature to marketers. Being consummate experts in sales figures by zone, NPS scores by segments and having to “achieve” growth, expansion, acquisitions, lapsers and other MBA-y things doesn’t automatically make Consumer and Brand Keys accessible.

3. Advertisers: The ad agency or similar partner will grab the baton and try to convert the specs of (1) product people and the business goals of (2) marketers by being the Pied Piper that makes the right music that consumers will respond to — not to imply that consumers are lemmings or children of Hamlin. The point is that the Magic is supposed to happen here. But it can’t happen without Consumer and Brand Keys and they rarely have the budget or expertise to access those.

4. People: While the first 3 groups usually refer to people as consumers, the truth is people are not consumers — they choose to be when conditions are right. They have the choice to stop being consumers and will exercise that choice in most markets that aren’t North Korea or pre-lib India.

In a market like India, people may buy Lia agarbatti, Vimal Pan Masala, Tata Safari or Cadbury 5 Star simply because the brand had the money to throw at “the problem” and the buyer was in that space. Most Indian consumers will tell you that they really don’t care for any of those brands and for as less as Rs.5, they will switch to another brand because they really can’t tell much of a difference. It is also true that they can be made to care but these instances with mass brands are rare.

True Lies

While there is a general consensus in India that movies, ads, marriages and politicians don’t have to be completely honest — the better movies, ads, marriages and politicians should hold themselves to a higher standard.

Which begs the question: Are you being honest about who you are and your attempt to understand what the consumer wants — or are you a smarmy snake-oil salesman?

Recently this Bhima Jewellery ad showed the journey of a transwoman and used the tagline — Pure as Love. This spontaneously got a lot of “kudos” and “hails” and “stereotypes breaking” praise from various netizens, with and without blue ticks.

Here’s the thing though — when you pay 14 crores for a Glenn Maxwell, do you care that he delivers (scores, fields, helps team win — match after match all the way to the Cup) or do you care that he’s loved and “hailed" by Indian Twiteratti? By Bollywood?

Back to the Bhima ad, sure the journey shown is beautiful, the family acceptance etc is all nice. The more pertinent question that brand-insiders should be asking is — what does the ad honestly do for the brand?

Is the brand truly as progressive as it claims to be? Talk to women who shop for gold and you’re not going to get the positive gushing that men like Devdutt Pattanaik on Twitter were doing. Yes, the ad is well shot, it’s sensitively executed and India can always use more progressive messaging that’s empathetic to marginalized groups.

Here’s a quote from a Tanishq and other brands gold shopper, “Lovely to see a transgender story…this needs to be normalized…I saw a lot of Millenials sharing it on my timeline. I have accidentally been to a Bhima store once and interacted with their staff. They have nothing to do with the mindset they are projecting. I didn’t buy it for a second.”

This may be anecdotal and qualitative but it bears out decades-worth of research. When there is a mismatch between who the brand is and what they portray in the ad — less engaged consumers will miss the message, more engaged, evolved consumers will see the disconnect.

Indian social media is full of exaggerated, poorly articulated reactions with no guarantee that ANY of them has the willingness to be a consumer and put their money where their ungrammatical tweet is. This should rarely, EVER be used as an index of what is right or wrong for the brand. An interesting barometer yes, but not a reliable diagnostic of brand/ad success or failure.

Get the attention of your Crush, not the entire Class

A whopping majority of people (Universe) don’t know you exist. They may never care. Accurate unaided recall metrics from quant trackers will prove this. Even for legacy brands — the existence of sub-brands, rebrand efforts etc will ensure way more people don’t know a brand exists, than those who do. This also proves the 80/20 rule — most of your sales comes from the few.

A note to brand-insiders: The reverse is also true. The more you know a brand, the larger the size of the blindspot about people whom you NEED in your fold but they don’t care about the brand. Which is why it’s important to have reliable eyes and ears on the ground.

A skewed reality: Getting attention of a tiny group while shouting at the whole, blasted ocean.

Within this Universe is a small subset of people who know a brand exists (most people, even actual consumers, have a fuzzy recall of brand names and distinctions) and in this group you’ll have a bell curve of haters, lovers and meh-ers. The middle tends to be inert.

The distraction: There’s a tiny group (red dot) there that amplifies reactions in social media and usually, these people cannot tell if an ad is good or bad even if it came with a video manual. They will tell you whether THEY liked it or not. And that metric is invariably useless. You don’t get to be an enduring, profitable brand on Likes. Alia Bhatt in a pink kurti is a Like magnet with the ability to deliver profitable hits but most brands don’t get that lucky. Social media saying an ad sucked or was offensive doesn’t mean anything unless people who buy into the brand franchise feel that way.

The only true metric for an ad should be if it did what it set out to do (generate awareness, change perceptions/behavior etc.) and didn’t SNAFU the situation (eg.Tanishq).

Reacting to social media Noise is a guaranteed way to miss the consumer Signal.

Marketer focus really should be on the light colored circle or “low hanging fruit” — people who are willing to consider the brand, buy it, talk about it and bring lapsers into the franchise. Over time, bring new consumers in from the broader Universe.

On CRED ads, where nearly every Indian has an opinion…

This is why the CRED ad — while it was entertaining, well shot, went viral, has the Wall and what not — doesn’t do much for the brand beyond getting people to talk about Rahul Dravid, his brilliance and Indranagar ka gunda.

It’s an executional (how it was relayed) win where credit should go to the filmmaker and Rahul Dravid. Both of whom got paid by the brand but owe it scant little. The brand is the bride who discovers at the altar that the groom ran away with the bridesmaid.

If your brand is associated more with celebs than anything about you — you are not building a brand or speaking to consumers about it.

CRED may not care that no one knows what the brand really does (check this sketch by comedian Abhijit Ganguly) for as long as they have unicorn-sponsored yottabytes of cash to throw TRPs in our faces, but that’s not a luxury most brands have.

If the game is only about buzz and not about figuring what consumers want or how to get them to change beliefs and behaviors — isn’t that like buying a 12 crore IPL player to warm the bench?

Thalavaipuram: The TN-based Bangkok of Nighties

In sharp contrast, there’s this video for Arthi Nighties that’s completely devoid of sophistication, media monies, celeb strut or MBA cliches.

Image not video: Video link is above

What this amateur delight does is speak fluently, the language of the market, and directly to people (wholesalers and retailers) who buy, sell and wear nighties.

Sure, it doesn’t create a dream world and it reaches a small audience versus what IPL blasts can — but it speaks to its audience with an honest, aware sincerity and that’s a fantastic thing. It will blow that resonant dog whistle so they hear the right positive triggers and buy wholesale batches of nighties.

For those not Tamil aware — that’s the proprietor of Arthi nighties acknowledging that there is a lot of competition in Thalavaipuram but here’s what they can do for you:

Give you the right quality — guaranteed by double-stitch, double overlock, reliable (standard-aana) quality at astonishingly affordable prices (Rs.115–155) and they also enable small businesses and women-only entrepreneurs. The trump card she wields is the never-ending buffet of designs (necks, cuts, sizes, pockets, embroidery, Titanic Model etc) which may blind people with a more premium, sophisticated sartorial palate, but for the nighty buyer in that segment — this is like A to Zed of Amazon. No intended target watching this ad won’t get what Arthi is about and the vlog clearly hits every attribute that nighty retailers and wholesalers care about — there is a staggering power to that.

What may seem like gauche, shot-gunned neon paint is really “Titanic Model “— or Rose print to give what the nighty buying audience in that price segment will see as great variety, a brand and unique designs at an affordable price

Yes, a video that reached (at best) a few tens of thousands (views alone isn’t the right metric here because there will be group watching in this segment) — should not be compared to ads that cost crores to produce and air to millions.

What is remarkable here is that the designer, marketer and advertiser are all the same person and she — and others like her — have the pulse and lingo of their people and therefore know their consumer. They get this because they listen. They are invariably the same segment of people as their consumers while marketers and advertisers tend to be more affluent than mass India (a different segment.)

The Three Stakeholders Talking At the Fourth (People)

I’m definitely not romanticizing small scale, lower-tier brands but want to establish that there is a challenge in understanding what consumers think and want. It’s hard to get them to care.

The farther away we are from them, the less likely we are to make ads or post Insta Stories that speak to them the way IPL speaks to the nation.

This gets even more complicated when selling brands at a premium because we pay extra for intangible factors that need to be conveyed by the brand world and ads.

Indie brands on Facebook and Insta (like itokri, Bhavya Ramesh Jewelry, Fabriclore etc. have the advantage of smaller size, niche target, clarity around their brand story, the ability to be closer to their consumer and being the same segment.)

That’s where Consumer, Brand and Culture keys (insights) come into play for mass and premium brands. There is a need for brands to invest in finding those keys so ads aren’t just media-blasts and Twitter-bait. So brands aren’t generic defaults but strive to be something more — that justifies their premium.

The IPL is Our Super Bowl

In ceremony, viewership and boosted ad spends — the similarities are all there. The Super Bowl is also when the US ad industry showcases their best work that’s not just engineered for virality, but packs an enviable punch in terms of brand vitality.

Can we say the same of the IPL ads we are seeing now?

::Nima:: is the Founder of Berylitics and a consumer, brand and culture insights expert. It is undeniably self-serving to have written this Medium article. Which is also true of most social media expression. But this is also honest.

The reference to the Four Horsemen isn’t to establish anyone is evil as much as to say — these forces, together, have the power to herald the end of the ad world when it really shouldn’t be that way. Researchers are the Fifth Horseman but are often written out of the equation.

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Get paid to judge people. It’s okay when professionals do it.