When a 100-plus year old chai brand from the house of Hindustan Unilever launches a music video-led digital campaign featuring six eunuchs, you know something larger than a regular advertising campaign is brewing. And six months into the launch, when this campaign pulls in a Glass Grand Prix - an award that recognises creative work around gender-related issues - at the 63rd International Festival of Creativity at Cannes, you know the brand has crossed a modern day milestone.
Now, Brooke Bond Red Label is a tea brand that is consumed by Geeta from Gorakhpur and Meenakshi from Madurai. How then, did Hindustan Unilever decide to take this unconventional plunge into the world of digital content? It all started with an over-the-top idea that made the brand team fall off their chairs.
It all began on HUL's 'Content Day'...
In June last year, Hindustan Unilever organised a structured event called 'Content Day' in Mumbai, which was, essentially, a pitch for content creators/producers, who came in and presented their ideas to the brand team. The objective was to leverage the burgeoning talent in the content space and find a way to integrate HUL's brands into it. The idea to create a music band comprising members of the transgender community for Red Label was pitched by Y Films, the 'youth wing' of Yash Raj Films (YRF). Y Films is a digital-led startup within the YRF system that's perched on the intersection between films, creativity and youth culture.
Patil's team, no more than four people-strong, worked with Mindshare to put this transgender music band, called '6-Pack Band', together. The music videos that ensued not only took Red Label down the rabbit hole but also breathed life into Y Films' hitherto dormant YouTube channel. The first song they released is a spinoff of Pharrell Williams' hit number 'Because I'm Happy'; a close contender was 'Imagine' by John Lennon. The songs are about the day-to-day challenges faced by eunuchs in India and how they smile through it all.
The band was almost called 'Chakkapella' (like Acapella) but that, Patil realised instantly, sounded derogatory. And that was the opposite of the objective - to drive acceptance for this community. In fact, the brief that Aditya Chopra, head of YRF, gave Patil was - "Make sure we do not caricaturise these guys. We do not want 'pity views'."
Goodbye Commercials, Hello Content
The songs were launched on YouTube, music channels on TV and radio, and were also made available on live streaming music apps like Wynk, Hungama, Saavn and Gaana. Mobile operators like Vodafone and Airtel offered these songs as caller tunes. The band was invited to perform at the Radio Mirchi Awards and Indian Music Awards. The campaign reached over 25 million people and, as per the official Cannes Lions website, earned PR worth INR 100 Million ($ 1.5 million).
For Shiva Krishnamurthy, general manager, tea, marketing, HUL, it was important to look at this campaign through what he calls the content lens. "We are the 30-second TVC type so content doesn't come naturally to us. But today, it's no longer about just putting a TVC on the most popular TV serial. We will continue to do the so called traditional advertising too, but we're also exploring all these new, digital consumer touch points."
Rewinding to Content Day, he says, "When this idea was pitched, initially all of us fell off our chairs... the theme is very daring and very risky. It is edgy work. It is not conventional. The usual for us is: 30-seconds, someone comes, something happens, everyone drinks tea and every one lives happily ever after... this campaign is different."
Krishnamurthy, who has been heading the company's tea category for about five and a half years, explains his point with, "The difference is between advertising and content. Content is something that people seek out. No one is ever going to go to YouTube and search for 'TVC of Red Label', no matter how good it is."
In contrast, "People might seek out and click on 'music', 'Sonu Nigam' or 'transgender band'. So this is classic 'seek out content'. And such content cannot be overtly branded. It puts people off. Today, people seek out and watch content, versus advertising that's just thrown at them. They seek out content, music, celebrities and causes."
For Krishnamurthy, what was the toughest part of seeing this campaign through? "For me, the toughest part was just getting used to this new way of doing things," he answers, admitting, "The original instinct is to almost gate-keep it like an ad. That's what we've done all our lives and it's what comes naturally to us. So the biggest challenge was to curb that natural back-hand and to not insist on saying things like, 'Could it have been better if we'd shown the tea before she drank it?' That was my biggest challenge... to almost just let go."
Easier said than done, for sure. How did he manage to go through with it, though? "We had to understand that nobody is watching this content the TVC-way," fields Krishnamurthy, "This was not about advertising or dictating what will happen frame by frame. The content got consumed just like music videos do... In some songs, you'll notice that Red Label is just a tile on the wall, but in that ambience, it fits in. It's not that we need one 'ad' there..."
Y Films' Patil vouches, "This is not commercial advertising. This is content...Shiva (Krishnamurthy) has been a dream to work with. He had brand managers who said, 'Sir isme toh Red Label dikh hi nahin raha...' but he would pull back and say, 'This is not a 30-seconder.' He handled the Unilever system and batted for content marketing."
Mobile-first Media Plan
So far, the videos have garnered over eight million views on YouTube, with an organic viewership of over 25 per cent; the industry benchmark is around 11 per cent. The video titled 'Ae Raju', featuring actor Hrithik Roshan, has fetched 100 per cent organic views, claims Mindshare.
Amin Lakhani, head, Fulcrum, Mindshare, says, "The task on hand was figuring out a way to leverage popular culture and the power of content. The biggest enabler for content today is mobile - that's where music gets shared and played most. One of the songs trended on Saavn and organically landed up on Saavn's masthead. We don't have a commercial relationship with Saavn."
But it was this very doubt that helped cement the team's conviction that they were onto something potent. "When the first response you get is 'Are you mad?', you know you're on the right track," laughs Mindshare's Lakhani, adding, "We thought, 'If it's making us think so much, it means there's merit in this'. There was a lot of tension. We were worried about entering unchartered territory."
We asked Prasanth Kumar, CEO, Mindshare South Asia, about the aforementioned 'Mindshare firewall' that Y Films seemed to face, initially. He explains, "In any project, if at all there's a word called 'firewall', it's about discomfort. It's about saying - 'Is there a risk if we do this?' Saying it's a bold, radical marketing move means it has risk. From a Mindshare perspective, it is important for all these ideas to have some amount of anchoring back to the brand. That's where there was a lot of intense deliberation. There were healthy differences of opinion. That's where the so called firewall comes in," adding as an afterthought, "But one has to overcome it at some point. And that point came."
How much of a challenge was it for Mindshare's Kumar to resist the urge to aggressively brand this content? After all, he is answerable to a client. "This was not about creating a 30-second-long advertisement. It's not about the product message and how good the tea is," he answers. Like HUL, he too wrapped his head around the content-over-commercial argument, early on.
"This is music content production," he states, going on to elaborate, "From the house of content, for any brand, there is a job beyond 100 per cent advertising. That job is about channelising the right message to consumers... it's about genuine storytelling. There's a difference between a 'brand message' about product features and a 'complementary message', that is, a story from the brand. There's no answer that says X per cent of every communication should be brand-led. Sometimes it's just about the first five seconds, sometimes just the colours of the brand are enough."
A Note From the Editor
A couple of years back, Hindustan Unilever struck Gold at the annually held International Festival of Creativity at Cannes, with its Kan Khajura Tesan campaign. Through a missed-call led effort, the team brought music and entertainment to media-dark areas in Bihar and Jharkhand. Many called it HUL's 'mobile radio' initiative.
This year, the company won a Grand Prix at Cannes for yet another campaign that has at its core the mobile screen. But this time, the magic lies at the other end of the idea spectrum: While KKT, as the popular acronym goes, was about bringing music to entertainment-starved regions in the country, the present day award-winning campaign is about subtly integrating a tea brand from HUL into full-fledged music videos created for the digital, mobile world.
The best brand ambassadors Brooke Bond Red Label could have ever landed are six eunuchs that Y Films, the youth wing of Yash Raj Films, hand-picked after tirelessly hunting across the length and breadth of the country, for about six months.
Did you know that the '6-Pack Band' was almost named 'Chakkapella', a play on the music related term Acapella? But that, thought the team, has a somewhat negative ring to it. And the objective of this campaign, in Lever tongue, is to make the world a more welcoming place, one cup at a time.
Outside of all the accolades it has fetched, this campaign is a milestone for HUL in an entirely different way. Here's why: It symbolises the leap of faith HUL's marketers are willing to take today. By their own admission, when Y Films first pitched this idea to the brand team, they fell off their chairs. But they went with it anyway. The brand marketing folks saw merit in taking a big risk.
That digital content is the way forward for brands is a fact lost on no one. Not even on a traditional, TVC-type chai brand from HUL.