Saumya Tewari

Brand Owner's Summit 2015: "Celebrity endorser is a double-edged sword": Sharat Dhall, Yatra

At the Brand Owners' Summit, New Delhi, Sharat Dhall, president of, traced how the online aggregator became a formidable force in the online travel space.

Going for a vacation? Great! Have a safe and nice trip, we tell each other when we learn of an impending trip. But, it may not be so nice after all as we have often spent hours waiting in queues for everything under the sun - from making reservations on trains or planes, or retrieving our luggage, or finding and booking hotels. The thrill of the trip is quickly replaced by the stress of organising the logistics of the trip.

Brand Owner's Summit 2015: "Celebrity endorser is a double-edged sword": Sharat Dhall, Yatra
And then arrived online travel agents who did everything, yes, everything for you. And all you had to do was just go for the trip. The online travel business had boomed and quickly occupied the leading slot in the digital commerce space., one of the key players in the online travel business, operates both in the B2B and B2C space. Founded in 2006,, which boasts of a workforce of 2,000, has quickly become one of the top players in the space.

Speaking about the company's journey at the Brand Owners' Summit held on October 21 at Le Meridian, New Delhi, Sharat Dhall, president,, talked about how they approached branding the platform in a cluttered online travel space.

The company started domestic flight bookings in 2007 and later entered the international flight booking segment in 2011.

"As online travel took off, it coincided with the entry of low-cost carriers offering good deals which broke the barriers in the online air ticket booking space. In fact, during the period 2006-2010, online commerce was all about travel," explains Dhall.

According to him, their business was growing fast as more and more consumers were coming online and experiencing digital commerce. Yatra made a few strategic acquisitions which included startups like Travel Guru which helped the company to diversify in the hotel booking business. By 2010-11, the company decided to diversify from pure flight bookings to hotels and holiday packages. This space had a large number of suppliers posing a great opportunity for an aggregator like Yatra.

Meanwhile, the low-cost smartphones had made their way into the Indian market and the internet penetration was increasing by then. The mobile medium, says Dhall, has been a big part of Yatra's business over the last few years.

"More than 50 per cent of the platform's traffic comes from the medium. In the hotel category, 40 per cent of bookings come from mobile," he adds.

After creating a competitive product, Yatra decided to create brand awareness and visibility. The company brought Boman Irani on board and executed its first television campaign in 2007. Its objective was to communicate the ease of using the platform and creating awareness about it. The brand leveraged Irani till 2009, and executed another campaign featuring him as a travel agent telling consumers that even their travel agents use Yatra for bookings.

In 2012, Yatra brought popular Bollywood star Salman Khan as brand ambassador.

"The idea was to shake up the category as everything then was status quo. We wanted people to re-evaluate the brands they were using. The idea was to break clutter by getting a big star featuring in deal-focussed campaign. It also took Yatra beyond large cities as Salman has a massive fan following in smaller cities," Dhall explains.

In 2014, our focus was on the online hotel booking business as the segment is still extremely under-penetrated as compared to flight booking business. Taking an insight from the category itself, we executed a humorous campaign 'Ehsan Mat Lo'. The core idea stems from the fact that people tend to stay with friends and family while travelling to other cities, assuming hotels will be expensive.

"We had a large inventory of budget hotels and we wanted to communicate the same to our consumers," Dhall says.

The Ehsan Mat Lo campaign used humour to drive the point across, highlighting the discounting scheme that the company was offering in the online hotel booking. Yatra claims to be a leader in the budget hotels segment. It has also recently launched Travel Guru Rooms (TG Rooms) and Travel Guru Stays (TG Stays). Targeting budget travellers, Yatra claims that it verifies and curates the listings on both these platforms.

In terms of advertising strategy, Dhall mentions that they have moved away from celebrity endorsements and focus on insights.

"A celebrity endorser is a double-edged sword. There is always an element of risk involved in terms of brand growth with that of the celebrity's career," he notes.

Yatra is focussing on insight-driven advertising with the aim to get consumer attention and let the brand and its communication to come through.

One example of this strategy is the brand's recent campaigns like 'Passion Trails' in partnership with The Times of India, which focusses on travellers. Another campaign by the brand titled, 'Yatra to my city' urges consumers to talk about what makes their city special from a tourism point of view.