Shreyas Kulkarni

"We've managed to use IPL footage well": Karan Shroff, Unacademy

Forced to pause its IPL campaign after the league's suspension, Unacademy's CMO talks about the impact of putting the brakes on his brand's big Super Bowlesque outing.

"And Sunny (Sunil Gavaskar), we're back live...," said noted cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle post the customary commercial break. Or was it? This was the question many had after Unacademy, a leading Indian edtech brand, released its campaign for the 2021 Indian Premier League (IPL).

What initially appeared to be live footage of the commentary box post the ad break was, in fact, a decoy. It was a setup by Unacademy to trick the viewers and, in the process, advertise about its various offerings.

On the brand's YouTube channel, there are nine ads (a mix of Hindi and English) featuring Bhogle and fellow commentators like Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag and Aakash Chopra.

We had a chat lined up with Unacademy's chief marketer Karan Shroff about these very ads that made me try and guess, a few times, if the match was back live after the commercials, or not. But a day before our scheduled chat, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Indian cricket's governing body, announced that it had suspended the IPL. The reason: the bio-bubble had been breached after several players and even non-playing staff tested positive for the Coronavirus.

The decision was taken keeping the safety of all the league's participants in mind. Please note that it's a suspension, so the remainder of the 2021 IPL season will happen at some point later this year.

"I think it (IPL) did run for a good 3-4 weeks and it would have been very unfortunate had it either not taken off, or called off a few days in," said Shroff. The fact that "it almost ran for a month did give us (Unacademy) the visibility, the eyeballs, and the reach..."

When the remainder of the 2021 IPL edition is staged, it will give Unacademy another burst from an outreach perspective, Shroff added.

Unacademy's ads caught people's eye last year during 2020 IPL, which was staged in the UAE due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Then there was the 'Hijack the commentary box' campaign this year. We wondered if building awareness is still the brand's main aim, despite the meteoric rise of edtech in India.

Shroff remarked that this year, the communication has evolved from beyond awareness to talking points such as top educators, live classes and 100-plus subjects that Unacademy offers to the learners/students.

A Forbes India story on April 16, 2021, remarked that Unacademy's "valuation has increased 4x, from $510 million to $2 billion between February and November 2020." It is, undoubtedly, India's leader in the edtech space, alongside Byju's.

But what's interesting to note is that Unacademy's most visible ad campaigns are always released during the IPL. The T20 league is to the edtech brand what the Super Bowl is to Pepsi in the US.

Said Shroff, "I think it's one of our most important inventories, given the fact it's a high-impact property with extremely high viewership… With its duration (50-60 days), it's a great property to be associated with to reach the masses."

He, however, went on to assert that Unacademy does not only make ad campaigns for the IPL. He pointed to the brand's 'The Greatest Lesson' ad on emerging victorious after failures, based on Sachin Tendulkar's cricketing career. Then there was 'Aspirants', a show from The Viral Fever (TVF) about the lives of civil services aspirants. Unacademy is one of the show's sponsors.

Talking about the ads, this year's 'Unacademy Hijacks IPL Commentary Box' was not the usual commercial. Shroff told us that Unacademy wanted to come out with "something intelligent, disruptive and unique, and this ad campaign checked the boxes for us..."

"It was topical and relevant because the entire setting and situation were built for the IPL... We used math footage in the beginning. It was created to look authentic. If you look at the commentary box, we used all the brand logos. The intention was that if you're going to run the ad 100 times, we wanted the users to notice it that many times."

Before ending the conversation, I asked him about what he observed during the IPL this time around that others might have missed. Said Shroff, "One thing we've managed to use well is the footage (Unacademy had obtained the footage rights from the BCCI)…"

He revealed that the ad was shot in March this year (IPL started on April 9). Unacademy was waiting for "the IPL to start. The moment IPL started, everybody started watching it. We started figuring out what footage fits where... We then started stitching it all and send it over to Star."

"We used an asset that was available in our creatives, as a part of the sponsorship, and it paid off well," he signed off.