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With the highly anticipated 5G spectrum auction over, India’s private telecom service providers (TSPs) are now gearing up to launch their 5G services in the country. The consensus is that we should see a rollout of next-generation technology networks by Diwali 2022.

What we can also expect to see is the final installment of communication to promote the new technology. Telecom operators had a memorable run with brand campaigns. Whether it’s the old ‘What an Idea’ Sirji‘ or Airtel ‘Har ek ami zaroori hota hai‘ or the former mascots of Vodafone, ZooZoos, campaigns and communication have left their imprint in the collective memory of consumers.

Each generation of technology offered better and faster networks, and campaigns had to reflect that. Of course, times have changed, especially the size of the market. From an industry of 7 to 10 players, telecom in India today has three private TSPs and one public telecom operator in Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL).

Big brand, small ad agency

Santosh Padhi, CCO, Wieden + Kennedy India, worked on the Airtel 3G campaign while at Taproot. He recalls that the campaign, which has become iconic, paved the way for a change in the way brands engaged with small creative agencies.

“It was only after the Pepsi ‘Change The Game’ Cricket World Cup campaign and this campaign, [did] the equation between the small creative agency and the big brand is changing. We still see a reflection of the same relationship in our industry, where clients are open to working with independent creative agencies,” he adds.

Padhi recalls that the campaign also marked a change in communication for telecom operators. Until then, Airtel focused its messaging on families. With the 3G campaign, he focused on young people, appealing to the new generation with faster speeds and better user experience on a 3G network.

“When more than 50% of Indians were under 30, that clearly defined the TG and where we should be focusing. Therefore, we decided to celebrate youth and their world, which brought a very new language and energy to the brand,” adds Padhi.

An Airtel spokesperson said: “With Airtel, we seek to humanize the brand, every step of the way.”

This strategy has manifested itself in different ways. For the 3G campaign, it was the angle of friendship, while in the 4G campaign, the telco had a human mascot (Sasha Chhetri), extolling the virtues of its network.

“Sasha, the model, was a great discovery and over time has become one of the strongest assets of the brand. So much so that she was nicknamed the Airtel girl,” adds Padhi.

“A crazy and daring leap”

Idea and Vodafone, then operating as independent telecommunications operators and competitors, also had memorable campaigns for the launch of 3G. While Vodafone used its popular mascots, the ZooZoos, Idea launched the campaign featuring Abhishek Bachchan with the slogan “What an idea, Sirji!’

Vodafone first introduced the iconic ZooZoos in the second edition of the Indian Premier League in 2009. The idea was to create a branding tool (which eventually became a kind of mascot) and use it to elucidate various characteristics of the Vodafone network of that time. ZooZoos were eventually adopted to promote the telecom operator’s 3G services (2008-2011), but then-era pug Hutch (another memorable mascot) promoted its 4G services.

Meanwhile, Sagar Kapoor, CCO, Lowe Lintas, the agency behind Idea’s 3G and 4G campaigns, shares that since the technology wasn’t exclusive to Idea, the trick was to creatively break the communication.

“With Idea Cellular, it was always about breaking that big advertising idea. Yes, the big idea existed back then. So every memoir would put us in search of the ideawow“Idea,” he said.

“The mind can travel as far as possible. This is the brand in which Lintas built Idea. A crazy, daring brand, always ahead of its thoughts. Like most ideation sessions started with ‘what I’m saying might sound totally silly…’ most of the time and that’s what we ended up presenting,” Kapoor adds.

Now, of course, Idea and Vodafone have merged in India and operate under the Vodafone Idea or Vi brand.

The path to follow

It remains to be seen which communication channel telecom operators will take when it comes to 5G. There will be a slew of firsts. Jio, for example, the youngest telecommunications operator and market leader in terms of revenue and volume share, has not had a tactical campaign since its launch. It used promotional offers and offline communication to interact with consumers.

Its flagship campaign — ‘Jio Dhan Dhana Dhan‘ — was used by the telecommunications company almost as an annual exercise during the IPL. Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani during RIL’s Annual General Meeting recently announced that the Jio 5G network will start rolling out around Diwali this year. Airtel is expected to follow similar timelines.

So, Airtel and Vodafone Idea will also be looking into heavy marketing when launching their 5G networks.

“Especially for Vodafone Idea, this can be a good opportunity to create positive conversations around the brand,” says Harish Bijoor, brand strategist. The two-year-old merged entity has been under severe financial strain, with the viability of the operation threatened at one point. He has embarked on an external fundraising exercise but has yet to be successful.

Although Vi has yet to launch a 5G-specific campaign, it recently launched a campaign to highlight the efforts of its network engineers to constantly work to make “the best network even better”. Theme ‘Best ho raha hai aur bhi behtar‘, the #BestIsGettingBetter campaign launched in July.

Old campaign?

Another question telecom operators like Airtel and Vodafone Idea are facing is whether to bring back old mascots/campaigns in a new avatar, or go back to the drawing board and launch a new campaign.

Bijoor says going back to an old campaign, while successful, would defeat the purpose of “promoting new technology.”

“5G is synonymous with novelty and speed. So if a brand has to bring back an old communication tool like a mascot, it can be perceived as offering something not so new. It is not recommended,” he adds.

For Airtel, it will be about ensuring that communication has moved with the times. The last time new technology was introduced was about seven years ago. The digital ecosystem has evolved a lot since then. It will seek to marry existing brand attributes and traits with the novelty offered by 5G.

“We will ensure that we take advantage of the digital ecosystem. We have a strong personality as a brand and equally strong audiovisual mnemonics to use. Our packaging and signature are strong identifiers,” the spokesperson adds.

Although the campaigns have not yet launched, media planners and buyers are confident that telecom operators will step up their marketing efforts. Media spending by telecom operators could even double – to about Rs. 700 crore in total – with the rollout of 5G, according to estimates.

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Airtel

3G campaign, from 2011. Included the ‘Har Ek friend Zaroori Hota Hai‘, as well as some tactical advertisements.

4G campaign, 2015. ‘Airtel girl’ Sasha Chhetri issued a general challenge to find a ‘faster network’ than Airtel.

Idea
3G campaign, 2011. Slogan: Get Idea 3G (with Abhishek Bachchan).

4G campaign, 2016-17. The theme “How an idea can improve your life” evolved into the slogan “An idea can change your life” in later campaigns.

Vodafone
3G campaign, 2011. ZooZoos debuted at IPL 2008, with 30 commercials, a different commercial aired each day. They continued until the deployment of 3G in 2011.

4G campaign, 2016. After the pug’s iconic “You&I” debut in 2003, Vodafone brought it back in 2016. The pug with a blue scarf towed a boy in a toy truck.

Tagline: The world’s largest 4G network is here.

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