Devesh Gupta

Brands play with Selfies

How marketers are making use of the current rage to promote their brands on social media.

According to Hollywood Reporter, Publicis CEO Maurice Levy valued Ellen DeGeneres' star-studded Oscar selfie at between $800 million and $1 billion for Samsung after it got tweeted and re-tweeted massively across social media.

A selfie is the new way to start a conversation and it helps if a celeb is doing it. In India, Bollywood celebs Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor recently shared one, creating a talking point around their film 2 States.

Brands play with Selfies

Cricketers Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli posted a selfie from the T20 World Cup dressing rooms, which went viral and Twitter tells afaqs! that it became one of the most-talked-about content published by the International Cricket Council on Twitter till date. Now, brand marketers are jumping on to this bandwagon to make the most of a good thing.


Take your phone out, switch on the front camera, raise it above eye-level, bend the body backwards and tilt your head to a certain degree with a 32-bit smile or a whacky look and click. It's done. Upload it on social media networks and wait for the comments and appreciation from friends, family and others to start pouring in.
A Google Search for selfie fetches up nearly 6 million results in less than half a second. The word has become a phenomenon, a social trend and a marketing tool.

Going online
In the early days of mobile phone cameras, selfies were not shared or if done, were restricted to a private network. On social media, the word did not catch attention until 2013. Now, everyone - be it a celeb, sportsperson, young or old, couples, political leaders, and even the pope - is talking about it. The first photo with a hashtag selfie went online on January 16, 2011.

But it was the epic Ellen DeGeneres selfie at this year's Academy Awards that gave the phenomenon the right push it needed to go viral. The picture was re-tweeted over three million times, the highest in the history of Twitter.

On the spot

At the recently-concluded Radio Mirchi Music Awards, several Bollywood celebrities clicked themselves as they walked the red carpet and shared the photographs with #mirchiselfie giving the station huge exposure in the digital world. It was part of an activation launched by Radio Mirchi. The brand had some apprehensions about how it would be accepted, but surprisingly, the celebrities were comfortable clicking selfies as it gave them the opportunity to be in control of their photographs.

Rahul Balyan, head, digital initiatives, Radio Mirchi, says, "Celebrities have no reason to tweet about any brand or engage with it without incentive. But after they had clicked their own selfie, they had a stake in its creation, and they pushed it out for us to their fans. It worked very well," he points out.


Social media experts, photographers, parents, psychologists, youth and marketers have attributed the selfie phenomena to vanity, exhibitionism and narcissism. Most selfies are clicked for self-adulation because as human beings we like being photographed.

"It is similar to Googling your name," says Nimesh Shah, head maven, Windchimes Communications. "Social butterflies get an outlet to be more social. Introverts get an outlet to express themselves," adds Samarth Srivastava, vice president and director, client services, JWT Mumbai. However, the intimate nature of the photographs ensures more engagement, resulting in a higher level of appreciation or instant gratification in the form of comments, shares, likes and tweets. The obsession, after already sweeping the West, is growing quickly in India.

Digital narcissism?

Parag Gandhi, director, Flying Cursor Interactive, explains that selfies tell a lot about what and who you are. "If you meet a celeb on road and click a selfie and share it, the picture can possibly tell how open - or closed - you are with yourself." Sharing is easy because of the flood of affordable smartphones with smarter cameras, mostly front facing ones, especially after 2013.

Brands play with Selfies

Ekalavya Bhattacharya, head, digital, MTV, says, "The front facing camera has given a huge push to the phenomena." This digital narcissism is communicable. 'Since my friend is doing it, so I should also try it,' is the common refrain. Well-known global selfie-celebs like Kim Kardishan, Rihana, Justin Bieber, James Franco and their Indian counterparts like Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Soha Ali Khan, Nargis Fakhri and Poonam Pandey have contributed to the rush.

Karan Kumar, GM, marketing, lifestyle retailing division, ITC, identifies two key drivers of this trend. "Today, people have disposable incomes to spend on looking good. This makes them feel comfortable about themselves which, in turn, drives them to the visual platform," says Kumar.


Brands play with Selfies

Types of Selfies
Group * Couple * Butt * Kiss * Funeral * Bedroom * Car * Drunk * The Beach Feet Brag * Bathroom * Mirror * Restaurant/Pub * Workout * Celeb * Meeting-a-celeb * Criminal * Pet * No-make-up * Sellotape * Getting-caught-sleeping * Sad * After-sex.

First time
The earliest recorded selfie was in Australia in 2002 by a student.

There are angles at which selfies can be – and are – taken. According to a report from Selficity (a research group based in the US), Women's selfies are more expressive. For instance, the average head tilt is 150 per cent higher than that of men (12.3 degrees vs 8.2). This was based on studies in five cities - Moscow, Berlin, Bangkok, New York and Sao Paolo.

Apple store
Apple has introduced a store called Sharing Selfies - the apps available include Shots, Front-back and Snapchat.

The American Psychiatric Association is reported to term it as an 'obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one's self and post them on social media to make up for a lack of self-esteem and fill a gap in intimacy'.

The popularity stakes
Makati City is the selfie capital of the world. According to a 2013 report by Time magazine, it had 258 selfie-takers per 100,000 people. Manhattan, US ranks second with 202 for 100,000 people. The first Indian city in the list was Mumbai at No 131. The result was based on pictures downloaded from Instagram.

Indian celebs
Shahrukh Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Soha Ali Khan, Shreya Ghoshal, Nargis Fakhri, Jacqueline Fernandez and Poonam Pandey.

International celebs
Justin Bieber, Kim Kardishan, James Franco, Rihana

Some popular selfies
• Ellen DeGeneres with stars at the 2014 Oscars
• Obama at Nelson Mandela's funeral
• Pope Francis at the Vatican
• Astronaut

Share market

The kind of selfies is largely governed by the socio-cultural circumstances. While India is still at the nascent stage of exploring selfies, such as Plain, Group, Car or Feet, people in the West don't have too many problems about putting up even a nude selfie. In India, people still like to be in a group, not stand out. A simple mapping of the scenario can be done by the fact, that India is not ready for a lingerie brand to run a selfie contest, while West is doing it.

Recently, VIP Industries launched a Twitter campaign titled #BackIsTheNewFront, inviting people to share their reverse selfie: a picture of their back. The contest was part of a larger campaign to promote VIP Skybags. Sudip Ghose, vice president, marketing, VIP Industries, says that the contest got 800-900 entries. "People were surprised but found it interesting. We were trending on Twitter and the success of the contest was a huge boost."

ITC, at a recent activation during the Wills Lifestyle Fashion Week, found Group selfies (Gelfies) getting popular. It had set up a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) booth allowing people to click selfies and share with the #WillsFashionTag. In five days of activation, the brand received over 2,300 selfies, from people of all ages.

Says Kumar of ITC, "At the activation, we saw different generations coming together at a single platform, which was a visual treat." Agrees Harpreet Singh Tibb, managing director, Kellogg's India and South Asia. "The openness to share everything on social media space pushed this trend and today it's become a rage, irrespective of age group," he says. What about gender?

Many marketers and digital experts feel that women tend to share more selfies than men. Ghose of VIP Industries says, "We inherently want to see ourselves. The only difference is that men see themselves as perfect, no matter how ugly they look, while women always find something wrong with their face no matter how pretty they look."

In India, metros and urban centers dominate the selfie phenomenon but it's a pattern that is sure to catch on in the smaller cities. Bhattacharya of MTV says, "I think that rather than a geographical region, it can be better split based on the coolness quotient. And you'll find cool evolved digital natives even in smaller Indian cities."

Posting platform

Globally, Instagram has been responsible for the rise of selfies, but in India selfies is largely a Facebook and Twitter phenomenon. In 2013, over 73 million selfies were being shared globally on Instagram alone.

Some of the apps that have been partially responsible for the growth of selfies are Snapchat, Picr, Frontback, Everyday, SnapDash, 1 Second Everyday and Shots. Smartphone manufacturers are also coming up with tailor-made devices that cater to the selfie need. Twitter claims to be investing heavily in media rich content - videos and photos - and has found nearly 25 per cent increased engagement in the last quarter.

Rishi Jaitley, managing director, India market, Twitter, says, "For years, Twitter has ushered an era of personalised content via mobile devices and the selfie is just another example of it. A selfie is your real-time connect to people or the community."

In India, Facebook is the preferred medium as it accesses a private network. Twitter is popular with celebs but does not work that well for common users. Pinterest has more artistic value. What do brands prefer?

Brand pic

According to a report by Unmetric, more than 200 brands on Facebook and 750 on Twitter ran selfie contests in December, 2013 alone. In India, mid-sized, large-sized and unorganised players are using it as a marketing tool to engage with their target. Some of these brands are Mahindra Auto, Amul, Nokia, Signature, Oriflame, Vodafone, Van Heusen and Comedy Central.

Kellogg's India launched a campaign for Special K with Deepika Padukone using selfie as the central theme. It showed the actress recording and sharing every moment while preparing for a wedding - from selecting outfits, practicing dance steps and weight reduction. The insight? Women want to look their best during the wedding season.

Tibb of Kellogg's says, "Women love to capture themselves in different candid moments through the day. We used the idea in our TVC to build engagement with our target audience." Most brands have been using selfies as just a part of their campaign in the form of contests attempting to crowd-source pictures from the consumers.

MTV, in association with Philips, launched #StyleTurf (done by Pulp Strategy Communications) around Valentine's Day this year, urging couples to share their most stylish selfies with the best ones getting a prize. The activity was part of a larger campaign for Philips. Says Bhattacharya of MTV, "Our objective was to ensure that there is a woman in every picture that comes in." The campaign got over 1,700 entries.

Most marketers agree that selfies cannot be a stand-alone campaign. But the selfie is an effective tool to enhance and push what you are doing. Ghose of VIP Industries sums it up by saying that a "selfie is a tool or a weapon, but not the artillery."

Product placement

With selfies, brands also have an opportunity for product placements. They can crowd-source selfies of their loyalists with the actual products "but it has to be done in a subtle way," cautions Ghose. "It is like an editorial that works three times better than advertorials," he adds.

Amul recently concluded its #MyKoolSelfie campaign where it urged consumers to share their selfie with a Amul Kool Milk bottle. Mahindra also urged its fans to share their selfies with the Mahindra SUV. On the other hand, brands like Philips and Dove tweaked their campaign with the larger thought of the brand. While Philips asked for stylish couples, grooming was the larger concept, Dove took the selfie to a whole new level by saying how selfies can redefine a woman's inner beauty.

"The way a brand performs depends on the objectives," says Shah of Windchimes Communications. "You can link it with the product, which works well in the case of an auto brand. But with a soap brand like Dove, it has to be the larger thought," he adds. Also, there is nothing like a good contest to improve participation.

What works...

The idea of the contest should seamlessly fit with the brand, say most social media experts and marketers. People do not share because the brand asks them to. Their emotions have to be evoked and that needs creativity. A contest-campaign has to be fun in nature, quirky in theme, yet simple and doable, rewarding the user and using the best technologies. Recalls Kumar of ITC, "We did not want our user to feel reserved about it. People are not comfortable with gadgets when they use it for the first time," says Kumar.

An important aspect in crowdsourcing more selfies is to get the timing right. Occasions such as Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, Holi, or Diwali work very well. The Times of India ran a selfie contest on Holi, earlier this year, urging its readers to share the most colourful or the craziest selfies. Rahul Kansal, executive director, BCCL says, "On Holi everybody loves getting their faces coloured, though they protest. For us, it was an interesting idea to reward the most colourful face."

...and how

While some believe that stand-alone selfie contest-campaigns are difficult to pull off, Pranjal Prashar, co-founder and director, Piquor Technologies, which facilitates crowd-sourcing selfies for brands explains that it depends on budgets and what the brand is trying to achieve. "If you are trying to engage the users and collect some potential prospects it can done anytime, but if you are trying to leverage a particular occasion then you have to build a campaign around it," he says.

Marketers also point out that though the entry point to a contest needs social media, the announcement is not necessarily restricted to social media. It can come through newspapers or TV. Brands, however, have to be selective considering the TG and its preferences. Can all kinds of brands run contests?

Some experts believe that only lifestyle, fashion and retail brands should go for selfie contests, while others opine that the catch lies in smartly twisting the nature of the contest and relating it with the brand's larger theme.

What do they get?

ITC claims that it was able to engage with 18,000-20,000 people using the 2,300 selfies that were posted on Facebook and Twitter during its campaign. The Philips-MTV campaign got over 1,700 entries.

Once the entries are received, the engagement begins with likes, comments, shares, tweets, re-tweets, tags on Facebook and Twitter along with other mediums. Brands do reach out to the networks of contestants, but that does not guarantee increase in sales or better ROI.

The one thing that can be expected is that people may start taking the brand to be cooler, younger and it may have a better recall than before. According to digital experts and marketers, selfies become the yardstick for a campaign but not for a brand's entire social media presence. But there are factors to watch out for.

While running a selfie contest-campaign, a brand has to mention its privacy policies. Bhattacharya says that in the #StyleTurf campaign, the brand gave the participants an option to hide their photographs and reserve it only for the judges.

Fad or future?

With the country in the grip of election fever, people in different cities are posting selfies on the social media platform after casting their vote. So, are selfies a fad that will pass sooner than later? Marketers and social media experts believe like other trends it will vanish but not immediately. People will not stop taking selfies, but it will not be talked about as it is done at present.

It is possible that more and more brands start doing it and by the time the trend fades out, the ones who took to the concept early on, would possibly fare a better chance of higher engagement than the others. Priyanka Sachar, a wedding photographer, has this to say: "The professional photographer cannot be replaced by selfies, because the latter is restricted by the length of one's arm." That is so, but people will still keep trying their hand at instant fame. Brands will be the last to complain about that.

A Note From the Editor

You can gauge the pace of change in society in many ways. One is to check how often the dictionary adds new words. The subject of this issue's cover, the word 'Selfie', is Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year 2013 because its use grew by 17,000 per cent between October, 2012 and October, 2013. And mind you, according to Google Trends, search for the word has grown tenfold again since then thanks to the famous Oscar selfie.

The folks at Oxford Dictionaries now keep a sharp eye out for new words that emerge in popular media. When I was a sub editor in the 1980s, it took Oxford forever to incorporate any change. For example, 'Motor cycle' continued to appear as two words years after it had moved to 'Motorcycle' in common parlance.

Centuries ago, when dictionaries were compiled, the writers put in words that they assumed would be useful to people. Some were never used. In more recent times, words had to be in use for a couple of years before a dictionary would condescend to consider them for inclusion.

No longer. New words can gain currency rapidly in the digital age. However, it is hard for those working on a new edition to gauge whether the word will enter our collective consciousness or sink soon after. Some candidates for inclusion last year were 'Harlem Shake' and 'Sharknado' but Oxford gave up on them when their usage crashed a few months later.

Oxford has, in fact, begun a tradition of naming a 'Word of the Year'. Sample some from the past decade: Sudoku, Podcast, Carbon Footprint, Unfriend and, last year, GIF.

How rapidly the English language adopts new words is best illustrated by my favourite example, 'Refudiate'. Former US vice president aspirant Sarah Palin used it in July, 2010 in a TV interview, apparently mixing up 'repudiate' with 'refute' to create a new word. In spite of being scoffed at, 'refudiate' picked up such momentum that it not only made it to Oxford but was even declared the Word of the Year 2010.

Parting tip on 'Selfie': it is not just a self-portrait taken by a phone but is 'typically… uploaded to a social media website'. So if you take a self-picture and leave it in your mobile it doesn't quite make the cut :)


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