1. 4G war: Vodafone Pug vs Airtel Girl

4G war: Vodafone Pug vs Airtel Girl

The fight for ad space on your television screens issued by leading telecom players Airtel and Vodafone for their 4G offering is just a precursor to the big war. With more players poised to enter the arena, is the player with the biggest ad budget going to win?

By: | Updated: April 19, 2016 12:20 PM
vodafone-pug-l On the creative communication front, Vodafone has rolled out 360 degree communication for its 4G offering, conceptualised by Ogilvy & Mather.

“Don’t count the days…make the days count.” These words by former professional boxer Muhammad Ali are what Airtel and Vodafone, the present players in the telecom ad battle arena, are playing by. Even more so, as they have a communication head-start on Reliance Jio and Idea Cellular. Both brands have pulled out the big guns — Airtel has the ‘Airtel Girl’ and Vodafone has the ‘Pug’ — amplified by the exhaustive 360 degree communication strategies.

Siddharth Banerjee, national head, brand communication and insights, Vodafone India, talks about going with the ‘original icon’ of the network for announcing SuperNet 4G. “The pug has been synonymous with the network. The way we see the pug is not as a mascot but as a brand asset,” he says. “For this marketing task, we wanted to announce our 4G services to consumers in a clutter breaking manner.” Earlier this year, Vodafone introduced a marketing campaign in Mumbai and Delhi to create awareness about 4G. The brand has a large retail footprint with 273 exclusive Vodafone stores (52 large retail format and 221 mini stores) spread across Delhi and NCR. Mumbai accounts for data contributing around 30% of total revenues for the brand. So how are the two brands managing this marketing blitzkrieg of gigantic proportions in the 4G ad battle, and who has more ammunition?

Brand talk

On the creative communication front, Vodafone has rolled out 360 degree communication for its 4G offering, conceptualised by Ogilvy & Mather. It leveraged ICC T20 World Cup to build reach and deliver impact in addition to OOH, radio and the brand’s digital channels. Vodafone is also the official partner for IPL T20 2016. “We are associated with the BCCI for all the on-ground media and with Set Max for on-air innovations. We are engaging in fan contests, social media and in-stadium activation to celebrate the cricket fever in India,” Banerjee supplies. Anand Chakravarthy, managing partner, Maxus, summarises the media strategy for the telecom major as having to deliver high visibility and build quick awareness starting off with TV followed by digital. More recently, Vodafone marked the launch of Vodafone SuperNet in the UP East circle by creating a 627 sq mtr (6746.5 sq ft) large disposable cup mosaic in Lucknow. 250 employees of Vodafone UP East circle created the mosaic using 1,40,000 disposable paper cups illustrating the Vodafone logo and Vodafone SuperNet.

In Delhi, Vodafone associated with Pet Fed and conducted the Vodafone Pug Parade in early April. The activity brought together pug lovers from the city with their pets for a day of fun activities. Vodafone launched its SuperNet campaign in time with the IPL 2016 to boost its 4G communication further.

At this stage, it is important to note that this is Vodafone’s first round of communication about 4G, whereas for Airtel, the current phase is the third one. Rajiv Mathrani, chief brand officer, Bharti Airtel (India and SA) speaks about what the head-start translates into for the brand. “We, in some sense, have moved far ahead or even virtually defined the category. Where competitors are announcing 4G, we are talking about being the widest
network,” Mathrani states.

Mausami Kar, managing partner, GroupM (Team Airtel), describes the intent of the brand campaign, “With creative assets as films shot across locales the campaign bets big on the T20 World Cup both on TV and digital to ensure that consumers register the amazing width and strength of the 4G network.” The brand has concentrated activity around 4G towns and is using different targeting mechanisms like cross-screen, appographic targeting and language to communicate. Taproot Dentsu has provided creative solutions for the TV, cinema, digital, print and outdoor legs of the campaign. The brand has also associated with platforms such as Flipkart which allow consumers to choose 4G devices from a list of brands like Samsung, Xiaomi, Motorola, Lenovo, Asus and Huawei with 4G data benefits.

Customers are also being offered special 4G double data schemes on the purchase of select 4G handsets. Airtel 4G is currently spread across over 350 towns in India. As a warm up exercise before launching the campaign, Airtel put out an ad with a free 4G SIM card attached with copies of an English business daily in Mumbai in February.

But at this stage of communication, do we really know what the two brands are telling the consumer? Is it just a 4G announcement? There are claims of reach and speed but those will take time and patience on part of the consumer to be substantiated. It would seem like skirting the issue if no mention is made of the brand faces of the current campaigns. For Airtel, the current campaign which shows the now infamous Airtel Girl as being on a vacation from 4G but not quite able to escape it anywhere, is an example of the brand smartly turning feedback from its earlier attempt on its head and making it work.

Vodafone fielding Cheeka the pug, thus evoking nostalgia, is an effort to counter Airtel’s aggressive messaging strategy.

Much ado about…?

Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications India Predictions report describes 2016 as the breakthrough year to kick-start the 4G revolution in India. As per the report, mobile ad spends are expected to grow from the current 2-4% to 15-20% of the overall media expenditure by 2020. “With telecom operators launching 4G and high speed Wi-Fi services, mobile-based internet connections are set to surge, which will also fuel growth in social media users,” says PN Sudarshan, senior director, Deloitte India. The report also talks about how 26% of smartphone users in developed markets this year are expected to stop making traditional phone calls in a given week. Calling is expected to be substituted with text messages, voice and video services delivered over the top. Similar trends, it states, are observed in India, with voice calling falling over the past two years (since 2013).

While from a communication strategy point of view everything seems to be par for the course, the conversation would be incomplete without taking into account the deliverable of this category — service/network. The trends mentioned in the report, ideally, are possible under the condition that consumers enjoy a generally consistent plus high quality of service. That is something of a concern at the moment. An industry source estimates that an average communication spend for both of these brands can be nothing under Rs 150 crore each — a modest approximation. Consumers are growing increasingly vocal about no amount of communication being of help, given the service — or the lack of it — being extended by the brands in question. Banerjee assures that Vodafone is not taking this lightly. “We have made a lot of investments in significantly upgrading our networks. So, it is not about 4G but about serving the whole of India. We are continually investing not only in 4G but in 3G as well,” he says.

Looking forward to when all players would have rolled out their 4G services, a chief marketing head, who did not wish to be named, estimates that consumers will see their mobile expenditure go up at least by 25% given the increased data consumption a 4G service is expected to bring in. Major players are driving consolidation by buying out smaller telecom players in addition to acquiring a greater spectrum share. This move is in the hope of having a thorough pan-India presence and the ability to provide the promised service. With various infrastructural issues still plaguing the telecom players, a few months down the line, the question that whether a bombardment of communication is enough to drive uptake will need to be revisited. If not, it will be a step back to the ad war days of ‘Hutch’ (now Vodafone) and Airtel of yesteryears —  only bigger. On the communication front, pricing is not at the forefront of the debate at the moment. Although, the discussions regarding this will heat up even more when Reliance Jio spurs a competitive price war. The question then is about what is on offer. The days of the network following the consumer wherever she goes seems like a message from another era because the basic premise that you can stay connected anywhere you go is no longer true.

So when you have migrated the consumer base from 3G to 4G, what will the conversation be about then — best deals or VAS or something more marketing driven than product/service? It is understandable that telecos have to bring about a category shift but it shouldn’t be at the cost of service. Because as ad legend Leo Burnett famously said, “Don’t tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it.”



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  1. H
    May 11, 2016 at 5:41 pm
    Pug is better
    1. D
      Dr. T.K.
      Apr 19, 2016 at 10:35 am
      May be that Airtel already has reached all the corners of the country, that does not necessarily mean that it is offering quality 4G service everywhere. In the city of Kolkata, there are spots where Airtel could not maintain the consistency of quality service. As a result download speed gradually came down to 1.5 Mbps even.
      1. V
        Vivek V
        Apr 20, 2016 at 6:58 am
        Leave mountains and seas... How about airtel and vodafone try n get 3g 4g coverage in cities... And how about putting towers near medical colleges? There isn't even 2g coverage here

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