Ashwini Gangal

"When this idea was pitched, initially all of us fell off our chairs": HUL's Shiva Krishnamurthy on Red Label's transgender 6-Pack Band

Dancing hijras. Digital content. Music videos. Minimal branding. Not the kind of mix one readily associates with a tea brand from the house of Hindustan Unilever.

But all these ingredients have fetched the team the highest honour at the International Festival of Creativity at Cannes - a Grand Prix (Glass Lions category). Mindshare and Y Films have worked on this campaign.

Over a steaming cuppa Brooke Bond Red Label at his Mumbai office, we spoke to Shiva Krishnamurthy, general manager, tea, marketing, HUL, who has been heading company's tea category for about five and a half years, about the 6-Pack Band campaign.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

How did it all start? Why was it important to do this?

It all starts with the brand's purpose. That's the springboard from where ideas strike. Unilever's marketing is now increasingly about purpose - What are you there for? Why do you exist?

For us, it's about making the world a more welcoming place, one cup at a time. When you look at content from this lens, you're able to evaluate it very well.

We weren't even thinking about tea, about who will drink what kind of tea and why; we were operating purely at a philosophy and purpose level.

Speaking of content, the 6-Pack Band campaign is a digital content-led effort. That's a flight from tradition for a TV-led brand like Red Label...

We are the 30-second TVC type so content doesn't come naturally to us. When this idea was pitched, initially all of us fell off our chairs, but when we thought, "Does this help make the world a more welcoming place?" we said, "Yes" to it.

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. The second song (Sab Rab De Bande) is almost like our anthem, because the integration of tea in it is so meaningful.

"When this idea was pitched, initially all of us fell off our chairs": HUL's Shiva Krishnamurthy on Red Label's transgender 6-Pack Band
Right, in digital content the branding-quotient is never as high as it is in TVCs...

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. But 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, just like in-your-face branding in movies does. If you do things guided by the purpose, it works... not if you're pre-occupied with the price and exposure of the content. So this campaign is not 'traditional' in that sense.

Today, people seek out and watch content, versus advertising that's just thrown at them. They seek out content, music, celebrities and causes.

Your competitor Tata Tea made a big purpose-led statement with Jaago Re. Is this transgender-themed campaign Red Label's way of staking claim to social reality?

Consumers don't think like this. A tea-buying housewife in Bhopal doesn't say, "Tata ne social main kiya hai, abh dekhtey hain Red Label kya karega..." People don't think like that.

Yes, but brands do. To what extent was this campaign reactive?

There's enough room for every brand, across categories, to stand for its own purpose. Dove's purpose is to bust beauty stereotypes; that doesn't mean L'Oreal or some other brand shouldn't have a purpose.

No, it is not reactive. The people who buy our brands dictate our actions, not competition. We do whatever consumers want to see, hear and respond to, irrespective of what competition does. In most categories, and certainly in tea, you don't do a certain kind of communication just because one brand in the segment is doing it. It doesn't work like that.

It's interesting the way you say 'certainly in tea...' - Why so? What's it about this segment that made you say that?

The tea category is typically guided by what we call need states - 'pick me up', 'bonding' and 'indulgence'. We can't change these need states, just because one competitor is doing something.

Tea is an undifferentiated category. Core tea has always survived on salience. And we all need pegs for salience. Since the 1990s, or even earlier, Red Label's peg for salience has been warmth, togetherness and taste.

We just have to keep finding new ways of bringing that about, whether it's through content or themes like these. There has to be some tension which gets resolved over a cup of tea. That tension could be religion, values, generation gap, gender - tea is the great equaliser, the leveler.

The imagery in Red Label's ads has always positioned it as a 'family' brand. Are you, at some level, looking to move out of this zone?

I don't think we should be literal about it... For a warmth brand, a deviation would be - an ad where a person is shown drinking a cup of Red Label tea on his or her own, all alone.

We don't want to re-position Red Label through the 6-Pack Band campaign. Red Label is still a family brand. Only the context is changing.

Yes, 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. In that sense, this campaign is different.

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.

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. 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?..."

We had to understand that nobody is watching this content the TVC-way. That was my biggest challenge... to almost just let go.

This was not about advertising or dictating what will happen frame by frame. The content got consumed just like music videos do.

Several brands seem to be riding the 'LGBT marketing wave' nowadays. Red Label is not the only one...

We are not competing in the LGBT space. We didn't say, 'Okay, there's this great space called LGBT and we need to appropriate it'. No.

We make the world a more welcoming place. One way of doing it is by talking about a marginalised section which happens to be in the LGBT area. So we're not in the LGBT race. We're not trying to hop onto any fad.

But yes, it helps if the tension you select as a campaign theme, and the edge you pick to walk on, is contemporary and topical. We can't pick a tension from the 1980s like say, parents being opposed to a marriage. That's just not valid today.

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