N. Shatrujeet

AirTel: Appropriating the value of 'expression'

The new ad campaign for AirTel marks the brand’s departure from value proposition-based communication towards owning the larger value of ‘expression’

An irate mob battling riot police amidst burning debris. A couple seated on a sofa, backs turned, the air taut with miffed silence. A copy of The Satanic Verses being consumed by flames. A just-concluded child marriage, the three-foot something groom looking way out of his depth. A physically challenged girl painting a canvas, brush clenched firmly in her teeth…

Not the sort of images one would usually expect from the meticulously airbrushed world of advertising. Definitely not images one would expect to see in the advertising for a cellular service brand - particularly when category advertising has, so far, been firmly anchored to feel-good imagery. If for nothing else, AirTel deserves to be congratulated for sticking its neck out and busting the format.

Of course, ‘format breaking' isn't the reason why these images find a place in the new AirTel campaign. There's a context to everything. Like there's a context to the images of the bride at the altar or the three women huddled at a coffee table or the little girl kneeling by the bedside. And that context is ‘expression'. The fundamental human need to communicate thoughts, feelings and emotions.

So the long-edit montage film for the brand opens on a bride at the altar. ‘Say yes,' reads the super. Then comes the shot of the mob fighting the police. ‘Say no.' The cross couple. ‘Say something.' A man standing by a tombstone in a graveyard. ‘Say nothing.' A kid whispering into an adult's ear. ‘Confess.' Three women at a coffee table exchanging sly glances and giggles. ‘Conspire.' A penalized footballer making a fervent plea to the referee. ‘Negotiate.' Children participating in a vigil holding up candles. ‘Speak out.' A little girl praying quietly. ‘Be heard.' The film ends with the slug, ‘Express yourself.'

There are many more expressions and renditions of expressions in the campaign, stretching across media. For instance, the ‘child marriage' hoarding bears just one word: ‘Oppose.' The Satanic Verses hoarding says, ‘Provoke.' Another hoarding has the picture of an anti-abortion demonstration. ‘Debate.' There are short-edit films as well, the pick of the lot perhaps being the one that shows a blind boy reading Braille. Suddenly, a big smile lights up his face. A simple ‘smiley' appears as a super.

‘Express yourself.' AirTel is onto something big, no doubt. For this is the first time that the brand has delinked itself from a generic category benefit (like staying connected) or an arguable value proposition (like better connectivity or superior clarity) to own a larger value - that of ‘honesty of expression'. The reasoning at AirTel is not hard to fathom. Once de rigueur, feature- or value proposition-based communication is steadily losing its relevance as the category evolves and competition multiplies. Everything from strength of network to tariff plans is easily replicated, leaving little space for the consumer to exercise a rational preference. "Given the parity in the category, there is no point in selling the rational story any longer," says K Subramanian, planning director, Rediffusion | DYR, the agency on the account. "Creating an intangible preference in the consumer's mind is the need of the hour."

"Over the last couple of years, the market has grown considerably, with deeper penetration and wider usage of voice and data services, accompanied by much higher competitive intensity," Atul Bindal, chief marketing officer, Bharti TeleVentures, expands on this. "In this context, differentiating merely on network, coverage and SMS is just not enough. You need to go beyond all the rational identifiers - which are prerequisites in any case - and connect at a deeper level. We needed a strong differentiator in an increasingly commoditized and crowded market. We found this differentiator in a core human truth that defines our category - which is that there are moments when you need to make your point, when you need to be heard. Expressing and communicating are perhaps two of the most basic emotions. Only AirTel enables you to make your point in the most expressive way, anytime, anywhere. The campaign is towards owning this through ‘Express yourself.' We believe ‘Express yourself' allows us to connect at a deeper level and create a long-term platform for the brand."

For AirTel, the challenge also lay in presenting a unified ‘face' to the consumer. This assumes significance when viewed in the light of the company's pre- and post-paid communication, which, in the past, had been treated very differently. Brand image, as a result, was being driven in two different dimensions. "Brand AirTel is a category leader straddling completely different market segments such as consumer, business and corporate, as well as different voice, data and payment platforms," says Bindal. "‘Express yourself' enables the brand to unify and connect across the entire base of our existing and prospective customers."

One of the most obvious benefits of owning a property such as ‘candid expression' (and ‘Express yourself') is the expansive nature of the thought. "The moment you have as broad a canvas as ‘Express yourself', it becomes easy for anyone working on the brand to come up with new ideas and executions. That's what makes a good campaign idea," observes Rediff's Prashant Godbole, who, along with creative partner Zarvan Patel, conceived the campaign. This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, Patel adds. "We will be taking the idea forward in many different ways in the forthcoming work," he informs. Patel also credits his creative team (Kartik Smetacek and Saurabh Karandikar) for "fleshing out the idea".

Filmmaker Ravi Udyawar has contributed significantly to the final product on television. Be it in terms of ‘montage situations' (the simple idea of having the little girl praying for the ‘Be heard' thought was his, for instance) or the treatment. "This was a very challenging campaign because of the detailing involved," Udyawar recounts. "Because the campaign thought was ‘candid expression', my role as a filmmaker was to bring a certain candidness to what you saw through the camera. The camera had to play the part of a casual observer of something that was actually happening." He reveals that he used different types of cameras and processing techniques to create the impression that each sequence had been captured at various different points in time - whereas the entire campaign was shot over just three days. Entirely in Mumbai, it must be added. Interestingly, some of the situations look like stock footage, especially the ‘riot' and ‘football' scenes. They aren't. "We went into detail over every little thing to create an authentic look and feel," he says.

All said and done, the client deserves mention. Not just for backing a refreshing idea, but for portraying all facets of ‘candid expression' in the advertising. It would have been very tempting to weed out some of those slightly uncomfortable situations and retain only those goody-goody ‘family' sequences. Doing that, however, would have reduced the communication to yet another feel-good campaign. Worse, it wouldn't have been true to the larger idea of owning all forms of expression.

‘Idea', perhaps, is the wrong word here. Maybe it should read ‘philosophy'. Because that's where AirTel can go, if it perseveres with the thought. Where AirTel grows from selling a cellular service to standing for freedom of expression. © 2003 agencyfaqs!

Have news to share? Write to us atnewsteam@afaqs.com