Shreyas Kulkarni

Brooke Bond’s new ad tests the water of its long-held philosophy of overcoming biasses

  • Brooke Bond Red Label has always championed overcoming biases in its ads.

  • The brand’s latest ad shows a blind man accepting a cup of tea from a stranger on a train.

  • It tests the water of the brand’s philosophy because most people are taught in their childhood to refuse any food or water from strangers on a train.

  • Ogilvy CCOs Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmakar explain how they came up with the idea for this ad and more.

First came parents paying a surprise visit to their young and single son Chirag at his home, only to realise he is in a live-in relationship with his girlfriend. 

The average Indian viewer expected nasty fireworks but a steaming cup of Brooke Bond Red Label Tea and Pallavi's thoughtful gesture of  serving Chirag’s father sugar-free tea helped the parents come to terms with this ‘modern’ set-up. 

Made by advertising agency Ogilvy, this push from the Hindustan Unilever tea brand, aimed at challenging biases and fostering progress, remains one of its most popular ads in the last decade. 

Following it were several such spots that urged people to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee, discard their society-influenced biases, and take the right steps, be it trusting their Muslim neighbour, accepting genetic conditions such as dwarfism, not conditioning children with stereotypical masculine behaviour, turning prejudice into acceptance, and even doing simple deeds to comfort people going through tough times. 

"While the task would be defined by the media plan for the primary medium, say TV, which is still big for our category, the growing realisation is that there are many more screens available for the same stories. So we have taught ourselves to think ‘media-hybrid’ when we think of our stories."
Ogilvy CCOs Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmakar

All these ads had one turning point in their runtime – a steaming cup of Brooke Bond Red Label and how its whiff or first taste marks the start of the change. However, the tea brand’s latest ad is pushing the waters of the philosophy that has kept it in good stead for more than a decade. 

A blind man accepts a cup of tea from a fellow stranger on their train journey, despite a fellow lady passenger (representing all of us), suspicious of the ill-intentioned looking traveller. She warns the good-natured blind person to not accept tea from strangers. 

So why does he? “Aunty, we don’t see and judge but we smell the difference between what’s bad and good,” explains the blind passenger. 

Yes, it alludes to other senses becoming more potent in the blind, as well as how the aroma of Brooke Bond Red Label’s tea inspires change. But, to trust strangers on a train – ingrained in everyone during their childhood – is a hard barrier to overcome. 

We (afaqs!) asked Ogilvy's chief creative officers Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmakar about the ad and the direction the agency chose to take. 

Edited excerpts. 

1. Overcoming personal biases upon smelling the tea serves as the turning point in a Brooke Bond Red Label ad.

Now, there is mistrust among people during train travel, particularly when it comes to accepting food or drinks from strangers, and for good reason.

Unlike earlier Brooke Bond Red Label ads where there was a semblance of mutual trust, how do you hope for a behavioural change here?

The behavioural change that Red Label aims for, is introspection at the moment of societal stereotyping. We as humans tend to judge ‘others’ for the way they look, talk, dress, speak, etc. 

While the reason for exercising caution when accepting food and drinks from strangers in train travel is valid, it is equally true that some of the best bonds and sometimes friendships also develop amongst fellow passengers while sharing each other’s food and drinks. 

The point to ponder on is, that if the person offering the chai felt like ‘one of us’, one would be far more agreeable to accepting chai from that person. Think about it, in our story, had the person offering the tea looked and dressed like an ‘uncle next door’, would the lady have judged him similarly?

2. How did you write this ad? How did you decide who is the viewer, who is the societal bias, and who is the brand in this ad?

Red Label’s communication journey has always been built on a human truth and a simple belief of the brand – that the hospitality one extends by offering a cup of tea can often melt hostility. 

From that aspect, the social tensions could change from year to year as seen across our ads through the decade. The differences between people could be on religious, cultural, generational, social or gender grounds, but the role of an offered cup of tea remains the same, in getting the two different sides of the tension to the same table, spending time, exchanging stories and melting differences. 

"We find the insights and inspiration in the same place that most meaningful work has found them in – in the world and lives around us."
Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmakar

Guided by that, our joint teams at the client and agency ends decide on the social tension that is worth addressing in each project. This time it was along a ‘class divide’, the way different socio-economic classes react to each other. 

With that brief, our team sets about exploring various plots. Of the shortlisted stories, this one seemed to be the best pick to address the brief.

(L-R) Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmakar
(L-R) Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmakar

3. What made you choose train travel as a plot device?

Context: It is slowly becoming expensive, and there are increasing news reports of compartments packed with ticketless travellers or incorrect ticket holders; it turns the whole journey into an inconvenient experience. The last time train travel was a positive or memorable part of the pop culture lexicon was in the movie ‘Jab We Met’.

A young writer in our team, Pooja Daga, came up with this idea. She and our ECD on the business, Akshay Seth, then crafted the script. What worked for the train is that it is such a relatable setting for our story, which most of India identifies with. And is also a place where different social classes of people travel together and hence, ‘collide’. 

The inherent social tension that springs from there, seemed to be an ideal setting to develop this engaging plot. As for the performances and making of this film so believable, a special mention of our film director, Sainath Choudhary, who understands the brand as well as we do, having partnered with us on most of the Red Label work right from the first Swaad Apnepan Ka film.

4. Why do ads employing the overcome-bias-trust-more narrative tend to be more effective with food and beverages compared to other products or services?

In the Brooke Bond Red Label ad, the guy didn't drink the tea first. Is the unspoken tradition of offering food or drink to the person in front of you, allowing them to taste it before you take a sip or bite, a factor in play here?

Context: There is a Cadbury Dairy Milk ad with the same treatment from Ogilvy Malaysia; the only difference is the so-called guy with evil intentions eats the chocolate before offering it to a kid’s mother.

On Cadbury Dairy Milk, another gem of a client for Ogilvy in India and worldwide, the communication platform is ‘generosity’ that brightens up someone’s life. Which works brilliantly in its own right for standing out in that category.

For Red Label Tea, ‘togetherness’ is a solid platform that is intrinsically brought alive by the role of the tea in bringing people together. This has worked wonderfully for Red Label for a decade now.

We won’t be able to speculate on why the chocolate in that Dairy Milk film was eaten first by the guy giving it, as it’s a project conceived and created in a different country and market by a different team.

What we can certainly say about our Red Label story, is that it’s the most natural thing for a person displaying hospitality to first offer tea to the ‘guests’. Who in this case, were his fellow passengers. Isn’t that the Indian way that we all practise at home?

5. How do these ads help the Brooke Bond Red Label brand because it does not need awareness or consideration in a consumer’s mind?

When we were starting off on the Swaad Apnepan ka journey, Red Label was a big brand but probably not the market leader. What this platform's belief in ‘togetherness’ has done, is give Red Label a higher-order purpose that is still deeply rooted in the cup of tea serving that purpose. 

Consistently creating great communication on this platform not only keeps the brand top-of-mind for our audience but fulfills that most coveted of results – it makes millions of people across the country think of it as ‘their kind of a brand’. 

After starting this journey, Red Label has been a market leader for a long while now and does not need awareness or consideration. But meaningful, creative and engaging work ensures that the ‘brand-love’ for Red Label is maintained at a constant high with consumers. That, we believe, is priceless.

6. The Red Label ads are about slice-of-life moments about overcoming one’s biases; where do you find the insights or the inspiration?

We find the insights and inspiration in the same place that most meaningful work has found them in – in the world and lives around us. In our trains and buses and rickshaws, in our markets and gullies, in people’s behaviour and habits and the way they love and hate the stuff, the way they interact with kids, with animals, with trees. 

Who they are offline and who they become online. All this and much, much more is the book of life that any creative person across any profession has to read with an open mind and heart. When we as creators put ourselves in the shoes of our audiences, only then does meaningful, relatable, empathetic work happen.

7. Which media platforms do you think of when you write such ads?

While the task would be defined by the media plan for the primary medium, say TV, which is still big for our category, the growing realisation is that there are many more screens available for the same stories. So we have taught ourselves to think ‘media-hybrid’ when we think of our stories. 

While our moms might see a crisp and effective 30 or 20-second of these stories on their TV channels, they can also see a more involving and leisurely version of the story on their Facebook feed or YouTube. Or a larger-than-life impact of the story on a cinema screen.

We have to think of compelling stories that can engage on each of these touchpoints when we write these stories.

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