Shreyas Kulkarni

PhonePe’s new ads, starring Alia Bhatt and Aamir Khan, are more infomercial than anything else

Five 20-second ads and each talks about one particular aspect of the digital payments app.

By the time you read this story, the Indian Premier League has started, MS Dhoni has made his much-awaited return to the field, and brands have begun to encourage consumers to spend as the festival season beckons.

PhonePe, the Bangalore-based digital payments company, however, took a different gateway. In the last two weeks, it released five 20-second ads that tied together made one complete story: The guide to PhonePe.

Made by Leo Burnett, the ads tell us the story of Alia Bhatt who’s at the police station for her brother Tyson who’s behind bars because of an ambiguous road mishap. Inspector Desai (Khan) instructs her to pay a fine and she uses the PhonePe app to do so; the conversation from Desai’s instruction to Bhatt’s action is the sum of the five ads.

A few weeks ago, PhonePe had released an ad featuring Aamir Khan in a cameo role that spoke about the 'spirit of India' in the face of coronavirus. A press note mentioned that the message was inspired by the brand’s philosophy of 'Karte Ja, Badhte Ja'. The new ads fall under the same philosophy too.

When inspector Desai learns that Bhatt will pay the fine through PhonePe, he’s amused and questions his assistant Shinde, “Who uses PhonePe…?” The answer is…

Inspector Desai is further surprised when he finds out Chintu the chaiwala accepts PhonePe as a mode of payment as well.

An interrogation scene reveals all the features packed inside the PhonePe app.

Right after Bhatt taps the ‘pay’ button to pay the challan, inspector Desai questions her about the safety of her password.

Inspector Desai is sceptical about the speed of the payments but he is proven wrong in a jiffy.

A striking aspect of the ads is the disclaimer at the bottom that states you can’t use PhonePe to pay fines at a police station or to an individual police officer. We (afaqs!) tried to speak to PhonePe and Leo Burnett but didn't receive any response from the two.

Anupama Ramaswamy
Anupama Ramaswamy

We found the concept interesting because here are five ads that are nothing but a presentation of the app’s features. According to Anupama Ramaswamy, managing partner, Dentsu Impact, “It's more of a pure demo but in an interesting storytelling format.” She thinks of it as an assurance campaign because “… while we ‘city dwellers’ feel this money transfer phenomenon is popular, many people still have various apprehensions to accept it because safety is at risk.”

The ‘demo’ nature of the ads

At a time when the IPL and the festival season marks the restart of India’s consumer spending as per pundits and brand managers, PhonePe’s ‘demo’ like ads surprised us.

Amar Wadhwa, founder and executive director, CrystalEyes (A marketing consultancy) remarked that in the early stages of a category the focus has to be on the acquisition of customers and “PhonePe is making sure to erase all the misgivings (about the app) of those who’re coming onto the digital payments platform for the first time.”

Amar Wadhwa
Amar Wadhwa

As per Wadhwa, there’s a war brewing between the digital payment apps: Google Pay, PhonePe, and Paytm. He spoke about the telecom wars of a decade and more ago, “Like it happened in the war amongst the mobile service providers, the initial focus will be on customer acquisition. Just as focus on ARPU and quality of customer came much later for mobile service operators, similarly size of transaction etc will be factors that will become relevant down the line.”

He further said that PhonePe doesn’t need to encourage the enhanced spending during Diwali and should instead get more new users to sign up. A couple of years later they may be doing campaigns encouraging people to use PhonePe to buy gifts.

About the campaign, Wadhwa said PhonePe has built a 'story' based campaign. However, there isn't a chronology to the ads. “It doesn't really matter which of the spots you see first. A 20-second spot is very efficient from an ATL and a digital perspective,” and added, “I think they have hit the right strategic and creative notes.”

The brand ambassadors

The ads feature PhonePe’s two brand ambassadors Alia Bhatt and Aamir Khan. The two, however, have been embroiled in controversy - Khan for his meeting with Turkey’s first lady Emine Erdogan (Turkey and India’s diplomatic relations strained after the Indian government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood) when he visited the nation for his upcoming movie’s recce.

Bhatt, on the other hand, is facing tremendous negativity for gaining benefits due to nepotism along with other star kids after that demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. A possible result of the negativity? The trailer for ‘Sadak 2’, her latest outing is now one of YouTube’s most disliked videos.

PhonePe’s new ads, starring Alia Bhatt and Aamir Khan, are more infomercial than anything else
PhonePe’s new ads, starring Alia Bhatt and Aamir Khan, are more infomercial than anything else

Here’s a look at the comments people have left on PhonePe’s Facebook account.

We asked Akanksha Patankar Mirji, brand and corporate storyteller, (she was AVP at GolinOpinion, Mullen Lowe Lintas’ PR services firm) on the impact this negative opinion surrounding Bhat and Khan will have on PhonePe and on the brand’s decision to roll out the ad.

Akanksha Patankar Mirji
Akanksha Patankar Mirji

She remarked that what a brand needs to do at this point is to have a crisis communication plan of action (CCPOA) in place. Referencing the lockdown, unlock, and then lockdown again in some places, she said, “… you’ve to be able to deal with these situations as a brand…”

The digital world moves at a great pace so a brand needs to implement its CCPOA right away. They (PhonePe) shut down comments (on Instagram) to try and minimise the trolling which is the big problem on social media.

As per Mirji, this is the time when integrated marketing communication assists the brand: ad team, marketing team, and PR team work in unison to put out the right news and the right kind of stories about the brand. “Instead of focusing on the brand ambassador, spin the story and focus on the brand.”

Every brand goes through ups and downs. There is something called a story curve, it moves upwards and after a certain point, it will go downwards, you either maintain status quo like a plateau or take it upwards again. “The issue isn’t about the actors, it’s about brands dealing with communication… spin the story in your favour.” signed off Mirji.

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