India-based Airtel’s Vice President of Consumer Engagement and Digital, Vikrant Khanna, reveals how the mobile carrier, direct to home TV service and internet provider responds to the unique challenges of its home market.
Operating in nineteen countries, India-based Airtel is the largest mobile phone provider in its native country and one of the top five globally based on number of subscribers. But with hundreds of millions more users set to come onboard with their first smartphones and other next generation communications devices, Airtel can’t afford to rest on its laurels. To hear how it’s adapting its brand for the next generation of subscribers in India, Think Quarterly sat down with Airtel’s Vice President of Consumer Engagement and Digital, Vikrant Khanna.
Think Quarterly: What’s the biggest creative challenge that you face as a brand?
Vikrant Khanna: From a brand perspective, even though AirTel is only 17-years-old we are already an incumbent, because there have been a lot of new entrants. We have the typical challenge of a number one player in that we have to be everything to everyone, while these challenger brands can have a more differentiated strategy and edgier communication. We have three main consumer target segments and one of them, urban youth, is particularly driven in their purchase decision by brand first and foremost. So we really needed to align ourselves more sharply with the youth market. For other groups, there may be more salient factors such as pricing and distribution for rural customers.
How important is the brand of a mobile carrier in India? If you have the latest iPhone or popular Android model, what is the value of the mobile carrier’s brand independent of that?
This comes down to the relationship between carrier and handset in India. Unlike in the US, where phone models are typically ‘bundled’ with or exclusive to a mobile carrier, such as it used to be with AT&T and the iPhone, this doesn’t happen in India. In India, the entire concept of linking the handset to a specific carrier is still evolving. We have to create our own brand identity for the mobile carrier, separately from the brand of the mobile device.
You can take the Google Trends data as evidence for this: in India the search query volume clearly indicates that the mobile brand such as Airtel is equally popular as the handset brand. This is unlike the West where handset brands have a much higher search query volume relative to carriers.
What have you done to tailor your brand to the urban youth audience that you said is driven to choose a mobile carrier primarily based on brand perception?
To bring the brand closer to the youth, we have identified two defining elements. The first is that Airtel should allow them to showcase their talents. Increasingly in India, there is a belief amongst youth that to be successful in today’s world, you don’t necessarily need to go for the traditional careers; you don’t need to be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer. Increasingly you can follow your passions, whether creative or athletic or something else. You could be a great artist or sports person and that will work, too. So we thought there was something to this and decided to create platforms such as Airtel soccer schools, leveraging our sponsorship of Manchester United. With the program, for example, we identify talent from soccer schools and get the top twenty winners training at Old Trafford in Manchester. In all such programs our mobile or broadband services are integrated to ensure brand relevance.
The second role we want to play in the life of youth is to allow them to experience their passions in new ways. It could be the same old things you liked before, like sports, movies or music, but because of our technologies that enrich your life - voice, digital, and more - we can offer them to the consumer in cutting edge ways. We have done several marketing activations with sports and music in particular.
Can you describe what one of these ‘activations’ looks like? How does a mobile communications provider convince youth that they enable their passions?
One example is using the mobile phone to bring music to the masses. For example, we are in discussions with Google to create on YouTube the first ‘billboard’ for the top music in the country. I believe that music constitutes around 50 percent of search queries on YouTube, so there’s a huge demand, but there’s not anywhere you can go on the web to see what the top music is right now in India. There's no billboard that's truly democratic and transparent. So we want to create that on a platform like YouTube where the music rating will be based on user views and popularity. After consuming the content, if the user wants, we would give them the functionality to download the song as a ringtone on their mobile phones.
What’s the most creative project you have seen come out of Airtel?
Two examples come to mind. The first is our 'Har Friend Zaroori' campaign that celebrates friendship. To bring alive the campaign idea, we created a Facebook app that allowed users to select a friend from their friends list and label them as a certain friend type. For example you could tag a friend as a 'drama queen' or a 'rock star.' This would then reflect in your status update and trigger off a series of fun conversations, banter and retaliations amongst one's friend group. This app became one of the most popular branded apps in India and got a more than a million engagements. To take the activation to the next level, we hand picked twenty of the most popular tag types from the app and created viral videos which were recently released on our YouTube brand channel. These videos have a very interesting 'gamification' element built into them to get the jaded palette of kids excited. The videos have gotten more than seven million views in two months.
The second example I like is from November 2010, when we did a massive campaign to launch a new brand identity and logo. There were two or three initiatives we did that were very creative, including crowdsourcing the name of the new logo. The moment we launched the new logo, we put it up on our website and asked people to give us a name. This fit with our new brand identity of ‘Airtel brings you closer to things that you love.’ It feels participatory, and so to bring alive that brand promise we said if you can get the most votes for your logo name, that will be it. We got over 400,000 entries over a period of two months. There was finally one winner, and they got to go on holiday with their spouse. For a company with close to 200 million subscribers, it was very risky, but we pulled it off.