Shreyas Kulkarni

Disney+ Hotstar's CMO on winning rural and urban viewers through ads for the Cricket World Cup

Sidharth Shakdher dives deep into the creative strategy, and why he prefers an in-house agency to get the job done, and streaming beyond cricket.

To an outsider, Disney+ Hotstar’s move to stream the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 for free on its mobile app appears to be a winning move considering the revered status Indians bestow on the sport and its players.

The video streaming platform tasted success when it deployed the same strategy for the 2023 Asia Cup held in September. The cricket World Cup, however, was a different beast to tame.

India last won cricket’s biggest prize 12 years and 7 months ago in April 2011, when the tournament was held in India. Fans expect nothing less from the host nation this time and the pressure ballooned after it won the Asia Cup.

Disney+ Hotstar, despite the expected highs of viewership, was staring at a perception challenge. One it had created for itself. 

“People have a cynical view of brands that say ‘free,'” remarks Sidharth Shakdher, head, marketing, Disney+ Hotstar.

Viewers would assume a match is free to watch but once logged in, they would realise it is free only for five minutes. A scene common to the industry.

The marketing challenge for Disney+ Hotstar was to make sure everybody knew from day one that they could stream the World Cup for free so that it would not lose viewership at the beginning of the tournament, as catching up later could prove challenging.

Shakdher divides viewers into ones from the metros, followed by the people from tier one, two, and three regions. Following them is the rural target group.

“We never felt that we were missing out on anything by having our internal team do it versus a bigger agency externally.”
Sidharth Shakdher

Metropolitan viewers have engaged with Disney+ Hotstar in the past, but they stopped using it due to the perception that its content was no longer free to stream.

To satiate this demographic, the video streamer dropped the ad starring actor Kartik Aaryan, which proclaimed that the Cricket World Cup and entertainment is available for free streaming.

People from tiers one, two, and three posed a different challenge. “They need a larger push because free is not their only concern. The deeper insight was that these people sacrifice a lot in their daily life for their family members and do nothing for themselves,” explains Shakdher.

A 45-second ad shows actor Abhishek Banerjee (of Stree and Paatal Lok fame) facing judgment from Disney+ Hotstar’s version of Chitragupta (a deity who serves as the registrar of the departed). The latter lauds Tyagi (Banerjee’s name in the ad) for the sacrifices he made for his loved ones, and instead of sending him to heaven, suggests he use Disney+ Hotstar to stream free cricket and entertainment and live a bit for himself.

Free lo, thoda jee lo! goes the ad’s title. 

“We are saturated in the metro and tier one and two markets. The challenge is to keep them after cricket.”
Sidharth Shakdher

“It was about resonating at a life insight level,” says the head of marketing. 

While the first two viewer sets had used the video streamer in the past, the rural audience posed multiple challenges to Shakdher and his team. 

“There was low penetration, a massive disbelief around free, and issues with data,” he remarks.

Teaming up with creative agency Manja (the first two ads were made in-house by the video streamer), Disney+ Hotstar kidnapped former India captain Kapil Dev.

Not literally, but for an ad that served to answer all three pain points of the rural audience: loss of electricity, free streaming, and, data saver mode. The endorsement by a former cricket World Cup-winning captain further lent credibility to these claims.

Sidharth Shakdher
Sidharth Shakdher

“We married the problem of kidnapping Kapil Dev and the issue of electricity. The kidnapper says he did it so that there is no loss of electricity but the daroga (inspector) understands it is because they want to watch the Cricket World Cup,” he states. 

Celeb for celeb’s sake 

Today, using a mere celebrity in an ad or communication doesn’t cut it among viewers because they – thanks to video streamers – have become smarter, more exposed to better quality content, and understand what is real and what is faff. The effective use of a celebrity is the real challenge today rather than whom to use.

“It is content marketing using content. And it's based on earned media and social media more than anything else for Koffee with Karan.”
Sidharth Shakhder

“We are always ideas first,” says Shakdher, stating that before any campaign his creative team poses three questions to themselves: Where are the consumers? What is their behaviour? What is their perception of Disney+ Hotstar? These questions serve as the foundation for their campaign ideation process. Once the answers are collected, the campaign ideation begins.

Also Read: Are brands tapping into Disney+ Hotstar's vertical ad offering this cricket world cup?

The head of marketing always tells his creative team to think of an idea without a celebrity, and then see if putting one makes sense or not. “A good idea is a good idea, period. It will work without a celebrity. But if you have a good idea and the celebrity can find a role in it then you have gold on your hands because it then elevates and helps you break through.”

In all the Disney+ Hotstar ads, Shakdher says, the celebrities are part of the drama and do not endorse the product. Kapil Dev for instance only nods along to the daroga and does not endorse the app.

“The celebrities heighten the product’s appeal by not endorsing it, and that is the brand tonality. It is one of the tenets we follow when we cast celebrities. They are delivering life insight and not product speak,” states the head of marketing.

Andar ya bahar wala? 

Disney+ Hotstar’s internal creative team made the Kartik Aaryan and Abhishek Banerjee ads, and this was by design.

The video streamer’s in-house creative team is comparable to a full-service creative agency. “We put out hundreds of creatives in a week across sports, movies, shows, and other things. Outside agencies are not built to handle that kind of flow,” he explains.

The company has, over the years, hired the best people in the business to become part of its internal creative team. It has people from BBH, BBDO, Ogilvy, and Creativeland Asia, who have all worked on big campaigns during their time at these agencies.

“We never felt that we were missing out on anything by having our internal team do it versus a bigger agency externally.”

A major advantage of the internal creative team is their longstanding association with the brand. “You start developing an intuitive understanding of the brand, the personality, the character, the tonality, what the brand will say that will connect instantly with the users and what the brand will say that is alien to the brand and will dilute it.”

This does not mean external agencies are a strict no-no. Manja is behind the Kapil Dev ad and Disney+ Hotstar had invited pitches from agencies for the Asia Cup. To make sure there are no biases, external stakeholders are asked for their opinions on the pitches.

Keeping the internal creative team motivated is a tough challenge because they, unlike external agencies, work on one single client – Disney+ Hotstar.

The antidote lies in the video streamer’s portfolio. While the brand is Disney+ Hotstar, “We also have this large body of work around different titles and so the packaging is unique in itself. The creative team needs to think through very unique creative ideas for every title,” explains Shakdher. 

The team is given a marketing and a business challenge at the same time.

For instance: “My challenge is: People who come to watch the World Cup, how do I retain them and make them watch entertainment after that? How do I keep them on the platform?” he states.

Marketing beyond cricket 

One may rightfully assume Disney+ Hotstar is only about cricket right now, but the video streamer has several titles that bring in the eyeballs. “We are saturated in the metro and tier one and two markets. The challenge is to keep them after cricket.”

Koffee with Karan is one of the most popular titles on Disney+ Hotstar. Shakdher and his team primarily market it on the back of the content that is being made. They do not ask people to watch it because of ‘him’ or ‘her’, instead, they present viewers with interesting snippets of things that have happened on the show.

“It is content marketing using content. And it's based on earned media and social media more than anything else for Koffee with Karan.”

And there are shows like The Night Manager and The Trial that resonate well with a TV-watching audience. During cricket season, the shows are marketed a lot on Disney+ Hotstar because few platforms can rival its reach during a cricket match. 

“I market it with the tonality of the audience, action audience or thriller or drama. But if there is no cricket, then a show like The Trial will get a little bit of weightage using a TV media plan and a little less on digital.”

When it comes to shows like Criminal Justice or Special Ops which have a male audience skew, the marketing head believes digital plays a larger role.

“We have our brand events, which are the big sports events. We have our marquee shows. These are the spikes we get and where we build funnels. And then we have smaller or newer shows and movies that are not franchises or do not have such a big star cast. And we run a more targeted digital campaign on all of them,” he says.

Every time Disney+ Hotstar gets into a spike, it tries to exit higher than when it entered the spike. It tries to move it up a little by implementing small, sharp, and targeted marketing strategies. 

Does it work? The answer will show itself once the Cricket World Cup ends and people are lost for what to stream. Maybe these shows will become the answer to the sudden emptiness. 

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