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Analysis: Shaken Not Stirred

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Titan ads, with their finger on the pulse of middle India, remind me of ‘Hamara' Bajaj and Dhara adverts from the early-1990s. But to the viewer these lovingly crafted montages to the tune of Mozart symphony 25 could have been made at any point in the past 50 years. It is a purely functional ad and it does exactly what it says on the tin. On the contrary, Benetton's ‘Unhate' campaign showing an altered image of the Pope kissing the Egyptian Imam bears more of the hallmark of a political campaign, the date of which can be precisely located in the DNA of the message (always the message Adrian, not the medium).

Using the sort of shock tactics much loved by animal rights protesters and campaigners against child abuse (territory with which the Vatican is very well acquainted), the campaign delivered high on all parameters. Just do the math. It has been all over the Twittersphere, in columns, blogs, forums, news channels and dailies, and will not be forgotten easily for many years. The cost of running such a campaign via regular media-purchasing methods would have meant a subsequent dismissal among the management ranks of Benetton, whose revenues dwindled between 2001 and 2004 across Europe (80 per cent of their market). Their target market (urban young, sick of stereotypes and want to improve the world) had not heard from the brand in over two decades, thanks to the founding family scaling back their involvement, and fashion players such as H&M and Zara completely changing the rules. With this campaign, Benetton resoundingly brought the brand alive.

Nimki is right. Yes, audiences are sophisticated, but brands are even more so in specifically appealing to those who can see the dark humour in their ads. Similarly, Frequa, too, must know upfront who it is appealing to. Unfortunately, it seems that Adrian favours the safe strategy behind brands such as Tag Heuer, which with all their hype (remember the SRK ad?) aim profitably at the burgeoning Indian middle class. Nothing wrong with that, except they don't believe in having a dialogue with consumers. It is an old-fashioned top-down brand message.

For all its high school crassness, the Benetton campaign at least taps into something real. It showcases a deep tissue understanding of how networking makes ideas go viral and global in a matter of days if not hours. It shows that you no longer need to spend millions on media to get the message across. It shows you how from drawing boards they allowed consumers to take the brand idea to their drawing rooms. I am not sure if Dushyant agrees more with the poetic licence of a creative or just because he is more clued in, he is going in the direction in which many future campaigns are headed. He is right though as Benetton's strategy resonates closely with the way consumers relate to brands these days. So does their timing. With ‘Spring' across the world, the ‘Unhate' campaign torches the nervous energy for change. Leaders shake hands and hug all the time. But who believes their friendship? For a moment, don't mock the liplock, look at how it stretches that handshake — from history to race, from homosexuality to geography, from religion to peace. John Lennon's song Imagine comes to mind. Benetton's Oliviero Toscani eloquently defends: "There isn't such a thing as a shocking picture. There is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren't there."

Indian politicians and religious leaders may be demi-gods but didn't Anna Hazare's successful anti-corruption social media campaign throw light on a growing trend that cannot be ignored? Politicians need disharmony to remain powerfully relevant. But brands like Frequa can break free. In this digital world, brands have the latitude to be ever freer, farther from logic, utopian and rebellious. Frequa can build a virtuous ‘timely' campaign that sparks a political debate, a policy revolution and stirs the collective consciousness of an entire nation. Much like Benetton India's ‘Broken Bangles' campaign (highlighting women's causes), by indirectly promoting Frequa as ‘timekeepers of a nation', the campaign can create a buzz about taboo topics that people care about, leading to positive emotions and feelings about the brand itself. Surely, such ads cannot corrupt the fabric of religion or morality. In fact, India needs them more now than ever. Not for a moment should Dushyant let Adrian assume that a "simple sports watch" cannot do better than (its simpler cousin) candy-coloured sweaters. After all, advertising buzzwords have moved from command, control and implement to connect, collaborate and adapt. Brands like Frequa cannot just deliver functional value but have to co-create with customers. Will Benetton goods fly off the shelves, thanks to that campaign? They have done so previously, and there is no reason to believe it won't work again. That will not be a shock, nah, not even a surprise.

Kamal Julka last worked as a brand director for Hewlett-Packard, EMEA at Publicis London. She teaches at ICSC European Retail School. She has recently moved to Chicago.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-04-2012)