Airtel versus Vodafone: Who won on the brand circuit?

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | October 29, 2012
As an aftermath to the three-day long Indian Formula One Grand Prix held in New Delhi from Friday to Sunday, afaqs! wonders which telecom brand stole the show on the communication front - Airtel or Vodafone. While Airtel is deemed to have outshouted Vodafone, the latter has garnered appreciation for its sound creative thought.

The weekend saw the second leg of the Formula One Airtel Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi. As ace F1 drivers battled it out on the racing circuit, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone's communication efforts, that were initiated weeks back and grew as the event drew nearer, reached a crescendo on the race days (October 26-28). As the hot wheels cool off, afaqs! analyses the Indian telecom giants' efforts to grab eyeballs.

Airtel, the title sponsor of the event and Vodafone, the title sponsor and 'Total Communications Partner' of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team, left no communication-related stone unturned before and during the event. Almost every media vehicle out there was leveraged by both the telecom majors' high-decibel campaigns across multiple touch points, including television, outdoor, print as well as experiential events, promotions, offers and contests that were driven primarily through the digital medium.

A peek into the efforts

Airtel rolled out three TVCs featuring drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg. Of these, two announced the brand's consumer contest. Vodafone grabbed eyeballs with its innovative, animation-driven 35-second TVC that was targeted specifically at fans of the sport.

In sync with the brand's 'friendship' theme, Airtel gave one F1 fan and a friend the opportunity to experience the action through its 'Join our pit crew' consumer initiative. Participation was incentivised as winning meant getting the chance to spend three days with the pit crew of Schumacher and Rosberg and to avail access to the team. The catchphrase of the effort was 'Let your heart race'. The contest was driven through Facebook. Participant incentives included tickets to the race and F1 merchandise.

Vodafone invested in aggressive on-ground communication. The brand showcased its car, the McLaren Mercedes, across eight cities in India as part of its pre-event promotion. The activation was done in Ahmedabad, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, New Delhi, Kolkata and Bhopal. Further, at the airport and malls in Mumbai, the brand used 'car simulators' that allowed participants to experience racing on F1 tracks across the world.

To fuel enthusiasts' pre-race anticipation, Vodafone also held a promotional event (Speed Fest) in which Lewis Hamilton drove the official Formula One car on the streets of Mumbai (Bandra Kurla Complex).

Vodafone also conducted an engagement initiative called 'Join the Team' that gave consumers the opportunity to spend the race weekend with the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team (including drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button), and to avail access to the Paddock club, Pit lane and team garage. Participation was driven through a digital contest (internet and mobile).

Vodafone's 'Drive into the Big League' initiative gave one SME the opportunity to have its logo on the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes cars. The brand also tied up with Delhi-Noida-Delhi (DND) Toll Bridge Company to make the DND Flyway toll free on the main race day on Sunday from 8 am to 10 pm.

Evidently, both telecom players tried hard to engage consumers across media touch points. So, finally who won the race on the brand circuit? afaqs! spoke to communication professionals and brand experts and discovered myriad points of view.

Volume versus value?

Overall, brand experts opine that Airtel seems to have outshouted Vodafone, from the perspective of sheer brand visibility. Experts are quick to attribute this to a presumed difference in the ad spends and media muscle of both players. However, Vodafone's creative thought has been appreciated more.

Independent brand consultant Cajetan Vaz finds Airtel's ads straightforward, extremely tacky, rushed and devoid of an idea, as compared to Vodafone's ads, but nonetheless feels Airtel wins as far as horsepower and media noise are concerned. He draws an analogy to explain his view.

"It's like the classic case of Nirma versus Surf - the former had tacky creatives but bombarded its message with high media spends and succeeded in creating better awareness. So if the objective here was to create awareness about F1 then Airtel has revved past Vodafone but purely based on the quality of the creative idea and concept, Vodafone's creative effort is more engaging," he says.

Cajetan Vaz

K V Sridhar

Dheeraj Sinha

Jitender Dabas

The magic of Schumacher?

Could it be the responsibility of title sponsorship that made Airtel attempt larger scale communication than Vodafone and hence garner more visibility? Or could the brand have grabbed more eyeballs because it rode on the popularity of Schumacher in its ads? Apparently, the answer lies in a third avenue - that of access.

Irrespective of whether one follows F1 or not, most Indians know who Schumacher is and as the title sponsor of the event, Airtel had access to him. Thus, Airtel's idea to leverage his popularity in its communication and craft original content around him - instead of a mere montage of shots of him from past races - is viewed as a smart one.

K V Sridhar (Pops), chief creative officer, Indian subcontinent, Leo Burnett, explains the advantage of access. "It's like a cola brand sponsoring a big cricketing tournament and a rival brand sponsoring a team participating in that tournament. The tournament sponsor has access to all the captains while the other brand has access just to its own team's players. Here Vodafone had access to its own team's drivers. Airtel had access to the legends. This gave the latter more power to hijack the show. And Airtel has used Schumacher intelligently," he explains.

The human element

Speaking of celebrity usage, some brand experts are of the opinion that Vodafone has under-used the famous faces it had at its disposal, Button and Hamilton. While Vodafone's TVC that featured animated caterpillars is being appreciated, it is seen as lacking in a much-needed human connection.

Some argue that despite India's representation in the sport in the recent past, Indians do not have a direct mental stake in F1. So we're psychologically impressionable and 'open' to becoming fans of big international stars in the game. "Using these faces in the ads makes more sense than using animation. Vodafone's ad is cute but when it comes to F1, Indian viewers are at a stage where they need to see and connect with famous faces. I would've preferred to see Hamilton's face a lot more in Vodafone's communication leading up to the event. Airtel has used the human element well," says a senior strategic planner from a leading ad agency in Delhi.

Addressing fans or generating fans?

Further, brand experts point out that the two players seem to have addressed different sets of audiences through their ads. While Vodafone seems to be talking to the niche segment of racing enthusiasts that are already clued into the game (recall the super in the caterpillar film that says 'Love Racing? Join the Team'), Airtel appears to be making an attempt to inject interest into the sport in a move to draw in a larger audience pool.

According to Dheeraj Sinha, head, planning, South and Southeast Asia, Grey, Airtel has recognised that the Indian masses may not be F1-savvy and F1 sportspersons are not 'top of mind' names; rather, they are 'back of mind' names. "Airtel has therefore tried hard to bring their brand value alive. The brand has done an 'entry-level' job for this event. Recall how the girl's voice in the ads emphatically stresses, 'Oh! Michael Schumacher!' -- This does the quasi job of establishing the fact that these drivers are big dons of F1.

Sinha adds that ownership of this event comes through strongly for Airtel, right from its pre-event activity to the announcement of the event, thereby positioning team Airtel as 'the guys who brought this event to India'. "Airtel looks like 'the enabler'. Vodafone is also seen as a brand that is giving people access to the event but not at a very large scale," he explains.

Agreeing, Jitender Dabas, executive vice-president and head, planning, McCann Erickson, offers, "As far as the status and stature of the event goes, Airtel has appropriated it better than Vodafone."

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