Shreyas Kulkarni

The ingredients fueling Zomato's marketing juggernaut

From movies to outdoor ads to trolls to its people, a dive into how it captured India's marketing zeitgeist.

Like an aged handi in which people stack rice, meat, and spices and then place it on hot coal to give birth to a dish that brings joy to millions, diving into the marketing work Zomato has amassed over the past 16 years is a weary affair, yet ultimately satisfying at the end of it.

With countless memes on its social media accounts, several ads on television and online, many witty drenched-in-red billboards, and the immortal push notifications, Zomato, over the years, has led the moment marketing game and often ruled the zeitgeist charts.

And the brand knows it. How else do you think it had the self-awareness to make an ad about how people pronounce it as either ZoMaato or ZoMaito?

Zomato, as per its FY23 annual report, spent Rs 1,227.40 crore on advertisement and sales promotion, up from FY22’s Rs 1,216.80 crore.

"I call it ZoMaato," reveals Sahibjeet Singh Sawhney, head of marketing at Zomato.

Three months shy of six-and-a-half-years with the brand and as its head of marketing since November 2022, Sawhney admits Zomato heralded the trend of capture-of-the-moment marketing, at least from a social media point of view.

Also Read: Is Zomato a copywriter's new copy chief?

However, he is mindful that every second brand is at it today and wonders if Zomato is doing it better than the others. "You can tell me that," he remarks, pointing towards this writer.

Push notification sent an hour or two after the Indian government banned PUBG and other Chinese apps.
Push notification sent an hour or two after the Indian government banned PUBG and other Chinese apps.

Regardless of the answer, Sawhney traces all the marketing success of Zomato to the talent it employs, the system designs it has in place, and the freedom it offers its creators.

The filmy brand

In the past couple of years, brand integrations into movies have become the new vogue; Zomato was at the front and centre with "active integrations" in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Jawan, and appearances in Vikram, Doctor G, and Thank God.

Sawhney does not believe it is a new trend; he cites Domino's in Phir Hera Pheri and the many times Coca-Cola or Starbucks have appeared in movies. But he agrees that for an internet company, Zomato was "probably a little early to start movie integrations."

"Everybody watches movies, and we wanted to build that association of movies→Zomato→food. From that perspective, we thought about it early and did some interesting projects."

The process, he reveals, is time-consuming, and one only sees the result nine to 12 months down the line.

"We've paused working with agencies for quite a long time. We write our own scripts, our own creatives."
Sahibjeet Singh Sawhney

Zomato today has inbound requests; the brand is looking for active integrations rather than passive ones. "… Just putting my logo on the dabba is passive integration. But look at Jawan, that's active."

"The Spider-man piece took us almost a year. The earlier edition of the movie had a Coca-Cola billboard, and because Spidey was coming to India in the multiverse, we felt it was the right time to do it."

The people who built Zomato

When Odin told his son Thor in the movie Thor Ragnarök, "Asgard is not a place, it's a people," the eldest of Norse gods was wisely pointing to the power of the people over a place.

Zomato is no different. When its head of marketing says creators, he refers to his team. "When I say creators, I mean those who create content for Zomato; I encourage the creators to create something of their own."

Also Read: Meet Sahiba Bali - Zomato’s brand marketer-turned-content creator

And they do. This publication profiled influencer Sahiba Bali in 2021 when she was a senior marketing associate cum content creator at Zomato. She now works at edtech brand Unacademy. 

"70% of our team are creators like designers, editors, movie makers, copy editors," states the head of marketing. He asserts the system design wherein "all creators work in one team and pick up projects they feel connected to" makes the brand's marketing sizzle.

Unlike regular hiring processes where a potential candidate takes a test or submits a project, Zomato, especially for copywriting jobs, makes the candidate spend more time with the team than on a copy test.

Sahibjeet Singh Sawhney
Sahibjeet Singh Sawhney

"We meet the person, bring them to our team, jam with them for a week or ten days… the person will spend most of their time with the team, so the wavelengths have to match," explains Sawhney.

This hiring process is necessary because he believes one cannot judge a person's skill over an hour or a copy test. "It is more about how everyday ideas bounce, how you can take the idea that is 20% and make it 100%. How can you jam with the team and build ideas is what we look for."

The great Indian trolls

For an internet-first company, Zomato is no stranger to criticism, trolling, and boycott calls. Its ads and social media content are often the trigger, be it the Kachra ad called out for casteism, the Hrithik Roshan ad that supposedly hurt religious sentiments, or those iconic MC. BC. billboards which upset the puritans.

Nobody likes trolls, but their influence and potential impact for damage has increased as internet usage has spiked in India in the last few years.

"We are the nation's brand, and we never intend to hurt anybody," says Sawhney, and tells us whenever the brand feels something is going south and not going as planned, "We are upfront about it, will take it down promptly, and write an apology if needed."

He also reveals the team's diversity levels have increased, as have the checks and balances before something is published.

Zomato co-founder Deepinder Goyal in 2019 stood up to a user who asked for a non-Hindu delivery executive. Unfortunately, such moments are becoming fewer as the days pass.

In-house > agencies?

Zomato is part of a slowly burgeoning space of brands which tasks its in-house creative teams to craft its advertising and content, rather than relying on a creative advertising agency. Other famous names include Disney+ Hotstar and Godrej Consumer Products Limited (GCPL).

"We've paused working with agencies for quite a long time. We write our own scripts, our own creatives," he states, and is quick to clarify it is not because of lack of talent in agencies.

For Sawhney, it has more to do with the "loss of translation" when dealing with agencies and that there is an informed intuition and understanding of the brand and its customers, which is higher in the in-house marketing team.

Gaming the media spending game

Zomato's content often travels, especially on billboards. Speaking about its media game, the head of marketing says, "We are conscious about our spending."

Zomato works with media buying agency GroupM for television and outdoors.

Sawhney, however, points out, "You strive for every content to go as viral as it can… We'd want every billboard to be as good as Kheer Mangoge."

The ingredients fueling Zomato's marketing juggernaut

"For our billboards, we have a clear point of view – they should travel."

When asked how he balances conscious spending with the urge to go viral, he says the brand only puts its distribution prowess behind a copy or communication if it is confident about the ad doing well.

The brand wants its billboard copy to travel but seems to have switched off from television advertising. It is because it now focuses solely on connected TVs (CTV).

"We do CTV via YouTube and Disney+ Hotstar… A good percentage of our reach, due to new use of advertisement and brand campaigns, has been on CTVs," remarks Sawhney.

It has chosen this medium of television because when people watch content on linear TV, they always have a smartphone in their hands, and the brand's ads may not reach them.

To reach people on their smartphones, "YouTube and Instagram are the two platforms where we advertise and create content."

What bodes in the near future?

When asked about AI, Sawhney says, "Humans plus AI will beat everything. It can't be AI or humans." The company's product and technology teams use AI, but not the marketing team. It is their creativity which creates all the viral content.

The ingredients fueling Zomato's marketing juggernaut

But there are some experiments here and there. For instance, Zomato used AI to recreate footballer Lionel Messi, actor Leonardo Di Caprio, and entrepreneur Elon Musk, selling tea and food in India. 

The rise of AI is not his main challenge this year. It is to take the Zomato brand deeper into India, create the category, and use cases.

Will brand marketing or performance lead this foray? "We are very clear that it is a 50-50 game or 60-40 when the time requires," he answers, but when it comes to creating a category and understanding local nuances, "there will be a tilt to brand marketing."

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