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Brand Bollywood

I wrote this article for a magazine published in conjunction with the upcoming Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Malcolm Gladwell would have a field day in India. There is no greater cauldron of overflowing “tipping point” examples than there right now. Real estate, advertising, entertainment, technology, services…each industry undergoes a revolution more fascinating than the next. But given the emotional context and the sheer fervor with which its constituents are almost worshipped in India, the business of entertainment continues to be one of the most visible revolutions taking place in the subcontinent. According to a report published by PwC, the Indian entertainment industry is expected to grow at an 18% clip for the next four years, with a predicted worth of Rs. 1.15 trillion ($28.6 billion) by 2011.

Product placement, which has been a mainstay of American entertainment for decades, has become a significant component of entertainment revenues in India. Given that the industry is less than eight years old, the fact that 2.5% of all television revenues come from the practice is astounding. Brand Integration (which is strategic product placement in the context and within the creative fabric of an entertainment property) is also on the rise, and together – both the basic visual form of placement and the more strategic initiatives of integration have created, within just the past five years, a real and viable new business and marketing model in India: Branded Entertainment.

A few days ago, I wrote an article in my blog describing how brands in the US had focused most of its Branded Entertainment spend on television – indeed, in the period between 2002 and 2007, television placement spend overtook and left in its proverbial dust, film and other forms of placement. I attributed this primarily to three things: one, the growth of the reality television industry; two, the staggered nature of television spending – the ability to prolong a marketing campaign across an entire season, as opposed to event-based promotional ability that a film is more prone to provide; and three, resistance from consumers in having blatant placements within their theatrical films…which seem to be “entertainment hallowed ground”, and more of a source of escape for consumers and audiences than anything else. Which is why, in the US, you tend to find more “organic” placements within the film itself, and the bulk of the integrations taking place outside the film – in retail, advertising and general marketing.

In doing my research about placements in Indian film and television, I was fascinated to find a similar trend, but with one major difference: the audacity with which brands are integrated into Bollywood films, which in American culture would seem heavy-handed and perhaps even distasteful. In India, however, this is whole-heartedly embraced the movie-going audience.

No other recent film is a better case study of this significant point of difference than Krrish, the Hrithik Roshan starrer that got murdered by critics for the thirty seven brand placements within the film. (One reviewer, so annoyed by the overabundance of labels in his face went back and counted. He found, by his count, a product placement every 9 minutes.) And yet, the audiences both in India and abroad lapped up the film and made it one of the biggest movies to come of Bollywood in over a decade. Brand associations were embraced, and product sales shot through the roof; and with it, an official new business mode was born: post-launch marketing partnerships through a pre-launch rights purchase.

The producers of Krrish sold the post-launch marketing rights for the film to P9 Integrated, a marketing firm, while the buzz was still hot in the air. Said Navin Shah, CEO, P9 Integrated, “All this while, Bollywood had a cottage industry status with a limited budget to market a film. Through the concept of procuring promotional assets of films, we are creating an additional revenue stream for film producers and assuring them returns from the sales of the film rights.” While films had struck co-promotional marketing deals in past releases, it was the first time that Bollywood had someone put big money down on a film prior to it even being filmed – it was the “futures” market applied to the entertainment business.

In 2007, Bollywood film placement revenues were estimated to be at Rs. 200 crores ($50 million,) up from Rs. 80 crores in 2006. That’s a growth of 150% in one year alone. High profile films tend to get the lion’s share of branded placements, but like any fast growing industry, there are very little rules and best practices in place to guide the initiatives.

Farhan Akhtar’s Don featured Tag Heuer watches, Motorola, Garnier, Citibank, Oakley sunglasses and Louis Philippe apparel. Dhoom:2 promoted Coke, Pennzoil, Pepe, Sony, Disney channel, Sugar Free, McDonald’s, Speed, Suzuki Zeus and Lage Raho Munnabhai featured Worldspace, IOCL, Go Air, MSN, Good Day, Kurkure, Bright Outdoor and Reliance Communications. Krrish featured the Singapore Tourism Board, Sony, John Players, Bournvita, Tide, Hero Honda, Boro Plus, Lifebuoy, HP Power, Acron Rangeela, Hansaplast and Lays chips. In a ringing endorsement of its own, Krrish’s placement and marketing strategy is now a case study at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore.

Television, however, leads the way. In fact, the context of branded television content goes as far back as the launch of the Bournvita Quiz Contest on Doordarshan. Of course, there weren’t Bournvita mugs sitting at the contestants’ tables like they probably would now, but that title sponsorship led the way for non-commercial-driven television promotion. Now, productions houses, television studios and agency conglomerates have dedicated groups that focus on advertiser-funded-programming and Branded Entertainment initiatives. Star TV, Group M and Lodestar Universal are just three such entities that are making huge strides in the space. Lodestar Universal recently signed a joint-venture with marketing firm Direct Access and television production house Contiloe Films. Nerolac and Garnier have signed up to create for advertiser funded content, and given the merger of Lodestar and Universal McCann, the group now has access to a plethora of new brands to pitch and play with.

Of course, all this growth comes at a price. The lack of protocol and the traditional heavy-handedness that is the Indian business community’s double-edged sword can be a detriment to this growing space. Starcom Mediavest Group South Asia CEO Ravi Kiran says, “Planned and executed well, branded entertainment can be very effective in getting crucial consumer attention. But there is a lot of haziness around the way the concept is understood in India, perhaps because our media industry is still evolving.”

The intention of Branded Entertainment is make brands more accessible and present in a cultural context that audiences understand, and relate to. The caveat that most industry insiders feel should be heeded is the balance between additional revenue and brand fit. Lodestar Brand Experience consulting partner Dhruv Jha says, “We have to be careful that it should not become a documentary or intrusive material that hurts the brand equity. The intention is to make the brand friendlier more relatable and relevant to different target groups.”

However, in all my talks and research, two issues reign supreme when it comes to the proper and appropriate implementation of Branded Entertainment initiatives in India: a lack of clear metrics, and an issue of corporate ethics. The first one is easier to solve—it is understandable that a burgeoning industry would get a bit head of itself and not have all the right protocols and measures in place before embarking on an exciting venture. I tend to think that this is a self-correcting challenge – brands will demand measures, and they will have to be created. One way or the other, given the apparent openness of the Indian public to be swatted with brands, the industry will find a way to make that happen. One potential first step might be to convene a panel of insiders and progenitors to help determine what an appropriate first cut of a measurement system might be. Not everyone will use it, but the fact that it is published will get the ball rolling.

The second issue cuts deeper to the core of some of India’s larger problems. While we continue to see growth like very few countries have seen before, beneath the surface of a brightly humming, machine-like exterior, lays an irony that has plagued us for a long time: that for a country which less than 65 years ago came together in a conjoined battle cry and fought for independence, we have dissolved to a culture where each man seems to be for himself. A very senior executive in the media space that I spoke to while writing this article, who asked not to be named, said this: “Branded Entertainment initiatives are growing right now not just because they’re interesting to brands, but also because no one know yet how to audit them. In my estimation, at least 25% of the monies that come into these deals are pocketed by individuals who make the deals without considering the right brand fit, or the right entertainment program fit.” Similar thoughts were echoed by several other senior executives that I spoke with.

So then, as the industry find its bearings and readies its own guidebook, we find ourselves at an interesting tipping point in Indian marketing and entertainment. On one side is the almighty rupee, and the short-term potential of major investments in these initiatives; on the other, is a strategic roadmap to appropriate and ethical brand integration that can take the world’s largest nation of entertainment junkies and turn them into long-term, loyal and contextual buyers.

It will be entertaining to see how we walk this very important line.

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