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Exclusively Theirs

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In 2007, Vodafone splashed its ads all over the Star Network in what was the first attempt in India at ‘roadblock advertising'. The brand's change of name — from Hutch to Vodafone — was advertised throughout a given day by all Star channels, blocking out every other brand.

For a while, nothing more happened by way of exclusive advertising. Then, in July this year, Airtel came out with a first-of-its-kind deal with RK Cineplex — a ‘branded' mall in Hyderabad. It guaranteed exclusive advertising and naming rights to Airtel for two years. The deal disallowed other products from any static branding in between. More followed.

In August 2009, Cadbury's Dairy Milk purchased three days on MTV. And on 16 September, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) took a day of exclusive advertising all over the Star Network, following it up with blanket advertising on the Zee Network later in the month. Now there is unconfirmed talk of Nokia and ITC's Bingo storming the festive season with similar deals.

Heady though all of this is, exclusive advertising is as yet a poorly understood marketing initiative in India, not least because consumers are not acquainted with its subtleties. Few companies know whether its high cost has been, or can be, translated into the visibility they desire to have.

"The idea behind the Vodafone campaign was to announce to a wide audience that Hutch was becoming Vodafone, and to carry forward the goodwill of Hutch to Vodafone. That was successful," says Kumar Subramaniam, executive brand director at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, which created the campaign. On the campaign's commercial viability, he says that "it depends on what the requirement is and what the evaluation parameters are. If one of the objectives is to quickly ramp up awareness of a brand or a new proposition, it works very well. But it should be viewed as a one-off device."

Typically, exclusivity comes at a hefty price. With 10 minutes of commercial time for every hour of broadcast, HUL used about 40 hours of advertising time, and telecast 4,000 advertising spots on a single day with its Star deal. A 10-second spot on prime time television costs Rs 6,000-10,000, depending on the show and the time of day. Rough estimates place HUL's ad-spends at about Rs 1,000 crore. The premium cost for such a strategy was high, and sources say it amounted to about 100 per cent. That said, with the Star deal, HUL is expected to have reached more than 100 million viewers in India.

Now, the million-rupee question: is exclusive advertising worth its cost? Opinion is divided. "The impact of such advertising is huge, but it comes at a high premium," says Harsha Joshi, CEO, media buying and content, at Madison Media House. "It is an added ‘opportunity cost' that companies pay for when it comes to roadblock advertising. Innovative concepts help create a buzz, and exclusive space does just that. Especially with the festive season on, such strategies are working in favour of the firms."

However, "the Indian consumer is not yet subtle enough to realise this is branding", says Suhel Seth, managing partner at Counselage. "Abroad, Citi has done a similar job with the Yankees Stadium in New York, but that will get them huge on-air space and on-ground publicity, something that a multiplex will not."

At present, such advertising means high costs and uncertain conversion rates. Companies say it is too early to quantify how the ad spend translates into sales.  Airtel, for instance, says there has been a marginal increase in sales, but does not give definite figures.

The Blanket Strategy
What HUL did on 16 September was most dramatic. It bought spots across ten Star India channels to advertise a range of products. That day, viewers tuned in to these channels could only watch a slew of HUL products such as Lifebuoy and Fair & Lovely. Similarly, 25 channels of the Zee Network carried only HUL commercials on 23 September. According to Joshi of Madison Media, the HUL deal is commercially viable, as it covered the cost of promoting five of its FMCG products.

"Though HUL paid a huge premium, it is a win-win situation for both the players," says executive vice-president, Star News, Kevin Vaz. "This mode of advertising guarantees reach and helps grab more viewers, and brings stronger engagement with consumers."

For Cadbury's, "the idea was to create a huge buzz in the market. We were able to achieve that in three days", says Joshi. "The target audience tapped through MTV was just perfect." She, however, did not comment on the direct impact of the campaign on sales saying, "It is too soon to tap on to figures." But the strategy seems to have paid dividends: Ankit Verma, a student in Delhi, says the Cadbury's ad repeatedly aired during an MTV reality show "tempted" him to buy the product.

One Brand, One Mall
On the other hand, Airtel has tried a variant of exclusive branding. The RK Cineplex in Hyderabad's upmarket Banjara Hills has been renamed Airtel RK Cineplex. The complex is home to Airtel's mobile, broadband and DTH kisoks and 18,000 sq. ft of exclusive Airtel branding that caters to 5,000-7,000 visitors a day. With Blackberry and DTH service inquiries on the rise, the mall itself functions as a retail store for the telecom giant. "The ‘one brand-one mall' concept works well with us," says Rajnish Kaul, chief operating officer for Airtel in Andhra Pradesh. "This concept was based on picking up a prime location with high footfalls for food."


VODAFONE announced its rebranding, from Hutch to Vodafone, through a day-long roadblock advertising on Star network in 2007

CADBURY introduced one of its commercials for Dairy Milk through a three-day roadblock advertising on MTV in July 2009

AIRTEL bought exclusive advertising and naming right of RK Cineplex in Hyderabad in August 2009

HINDUSTAN UNILEVER struck a deal with Zee and Star channels to air only its commercials in September 2009

Airtel has not disclosed the cost of the project. "They have paid about 20-30 per cent less than what vendors pay otherwise. But we are satisfied with our association with a brand like Airtel," says Prasad Devimani, director at the Airtel RK Cineplex. "The deal has helped us part with other advertisers for the next two years, and reduced the processes involved in dealing with multiple advertisers."

But not everyone buys the logic. "This is a good idea for a certain type of outlet, not a multiplex, especially for a brand such as Airtel," says Seth. "To be associated with a multiplex is not the best image for a brand that constantly aims to be aspirational." But customers have a mixed response. "Initially, I thought it (the cineplex) was Airtel's property, but it was only after I spoke to the cineplex authorities I understood the concept," says Sudhir Ravat, a regular visitor to the mall. "But now I find it convenient to drop off my bill payments."

In fact, the deal took unusually long to play out due to a shortfall in Airtel's regional budget. "It was difficult, initially," says V. Rangarao, director, Lemon Media, the man behind the concept. "Many executives had to be convinced about the viability of the concept. The amount spent was equal to what is spent on a national-level ad campaign." Airtel says in the past four months, the ad spent has been paying off in the form of higher sales. It seems the adrenalin-driven world of advertising is cresting a new high that could, in fact, be another illusion.

bweditor at abp dot in