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Airtel: Spend on customer service or brand makeover?

Last updated on: December 8, 2010 11:11 IST

Airtel: Spend on customer service or brand makeover?

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Bhupesh Bhandari & Preeti Khicha in New Delhi/Mumbai

Airtel has a new identity, complete with a new logo and, for the first time, a symbol.

A new television campaign, shot in Prague with models fresh out of acting school, is on air; its international look and feel is unmistakable.

The old Airtel logo has more or less been replaced at all shops and billboards in the country, television shows, cricket fields et al. It's a huge exercise but nobody will tell how much it cost.


Image: Bharti Airtel's new logo.
Photographs: Reuters.
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"It is not insignificant or marginal; it's pretty serious," says Bharti Airtel CEO Sanjay Kapoor.

The jury is still out if Bharti Airtel has got it right. The comments on cyberspace, says Bharti Airtel Head (brand & media) Mohit Beotra, are 70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative.

All this money, the naysayers have argued, could have gone into improving customer service and decongesting the network.

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Image: Sunil Mittal, chairman, Bharti Airtel and Sanjay Kapoor, CEO, Bharti Airtel (R).

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Some experts have said the red and white colours are the same as the house colours of Vodafone. "The film is very generic and the promises are what any service provider would talk about. It is not really a differentiator," says Dentsu India Executive Vice-chairman and Chief Creative Officer Gullu Sen.

"Any good symbol should be describable; if you can't describe it, you have lost half the battle," adds Leo Burnett India National Creative Director KV Sridhar. "For example, the Vodafone symbol represents a quote or a speech blurb, and is therefore something that people can recognise. With Airtel you don't know what the symbol is."

Bharti Airtel is convinced it has got it right. The new symbol, says Kapoor, is an interpretation of the A in Airtel and shows the company's willingness to embrace anything new.


Image: Airtel's new logo.

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"The curve with the red highlights makes it more inviting and warm. It looks like a living object and represents the dynamic force that exists in our lives."

The Airtel logo is now in lower case, which is an attempt to show the humility that is required in a service brand. "And the red colour is a part of our heritage not only because it is auspicious in our environment but also because it's truly vibrant and has played a role in our success thus far," adds Kapoor.

The Airtel signature tune created by AR Rahman some years ago, which has seen 150 million downloads, has been re-crafted by the musician to support the new symbol and logo.

Airtel's new identity, Kapoor feels, goes beyond telecom. So, in the future, if the company wants to get into new services, the brand image will not be a hindrance.

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Image: Brand Airtel.
Photographs: Reuters.
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The next few quarters will show if Bharti Airtel did the right thing or not. The timing should not be lost on you. Number portability will finally happen soon; lesser brands can prepare to lose customers.

Third-generation mobile services too will kick off soon. Companies like Bharti Airtel that have paid a bomb to buy spectrum must ensure there is adequate return. The brand that positions itself right will walk away with the new business.

With mobile telephony set to undergo a paradigm change, Bharti Airtel decided to be the first off the block with a new look. "When you change proactively you are more in control than when you are pushed into it," says Kapoor. "It is for the right reason; so we are not apprehensive of the change."

Kapoor says there's more to it.


Image: Competition hots up among telecom players.
Photographs: Reuters.
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The brand needed to speak to the youth better, value-added services are gaining in size with each passing day, and the company is now global with operations in India, Africa, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Bharti Airtel offers services under the Airtel brand in India and Sri Lanka, Zain in Africa and Warid in Bangladesh. In a few short weeks, all the geographies will move to the new Airtel. Once that is done, the brand will have annualised sales in excess of $13 billion.

How they did it

The work on the makeover started some six months back, before the Zain acquisition was announced, though it was on the cards. Earlier in the year, it called a pitch from the world's top brand specialists. Four made elaborate presentations.

Finally, Bharti Airtel selected Brand Union. Actually, the company was no stranger to Brand Union - the two had worked together on some projects since 2005.

In mid-April, Brand Union for the first time met the five-member Bharti Airtel Brand Council led by Kapoor. The agency was given the makeover brief but with the caveat that the red colour should be retained.

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Image: A customer centre.

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Bharti Airtel had beforehand touched base with its customers who said red was core to its brand identity. It took little time to figure out that it held tremendous appeal in other markets as well.

"We did some research which showed that red was an incredibly positive colour in Africa. You look across a lot of the African markets and you see they have used blue and purple or green as important telecom colours. So red was a differentiator," says Brand Union CEO Simon Bolton. This was the starting point.

Brand Union, in turn, wanted to know to what extent was Bharti Airtel ready to change on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 represented the subtle changes Google makes and 5 the metamorphosis of British Petroleum into BP.

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Image: A new colour code.
Photographs: Reuters.
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The matter was put up to Bharti Airtel Chairman Sunil Mittal. Top Bharti Airtel executives enjoy great autonomy except in four or five matters where Mittal's concurrence is required; the brand is one of them.

"He made our task easier when he said that the change should range between 4 and 5," says Beotra. (Mittal it was who suggested that the brand should be written in lower case.)

The next task was to find a symbol - something that Airtel lacked. "We were looking for one that was young, dynamic and warm. We wanted an identity beyond the way Airtel was written. The earlier logo was slightly older," says Beotra.

The task wasn't easy; in its attempt to connect with the youth, it could not afford to alienate others. The logo and the brand had to be inclusive.

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Image: Bharti Chairman Sunil Mittal.
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.
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"We got huge inspiration from the name Airtel. We played a lot with the thought of air and bubbles, openness, though in the end we got to something that we call the air-curve - it is abstract," says Bolton.

"We wanted something that is as vibrant as the work of Anish Kapoor. We also thought about Zain; so we wanted some subliminal connection to what the brand had been in Africa. If you look at the Zain logo, it is a swirl that comes from the solar system."

Brand Union presented close to a hundred symbols to the Bharti Airtel Brand Council. Two were shortlisted and shown to Mittal who selected the one in use. For further validation, a large set of customers was shown the two symbols.

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Image: A sticker of telecommunications company Zain in Nigeria.
Photographs: Reuters.
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"We were hoping they would select the one we are using, and that's what they did," says Beotra.

Bharti Airtel has now launched an online competition to name the symbol. An internal team will select about half a dozen entries, and then put them up for popular vote on the internet. According to Beotra, in a few days after the launch, there were as many as 7,200 entries.

Brand promise

The next task for Brand Union was to refine the Airtel brand promise of magic happens when people talk. Two options were given: Dil jo chahe paas aye (what your heart wants comes closer) and dil jo chahae paase laye (what your heart wants is brought closer). Again, the company went to the customers with both the lines; they selected the second one.

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Image: An Airtel advertisement.

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Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel switched its creative agency from Rediff to JWT because it wanted one with international expertise. JWT, in fact, and Bharti Airtel had worked together for its DTH service.

So, the company knew how the agency worked. Madison was brought in for media and webchutney for digital communication.

"The brief from Airtel was that 'connections' is the heart of what mobility does. Right at the onset, we wanted to break a little from the past so that the viewers see a new Airtel and see the new idea without any celebrity," says JWT Managing Partner Rohit Ohri.

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Image: An airtel sponsored event.

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"The company wanted us to let everyone know in the shortest possible time and most cost-effective manner that there is change at Airtel, and reach out to most of India in a short span of time," adds Madison World Chairman & Managing Director Sam Balsara.

All this perhaps was the easier part. The Bharti Airtel Brand Council then sat down to identify the touch points that needed to be changed with the new identity - the list was 650-strong from glow signs on shops to drop boxes, billboards, letterheads, identity cards, visiting cards et al.

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Image: An Airtel advertisement.

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"We have 1.4 million retail outlets in India; we had to change all of that," says Kapoor. "Our big challenge was also the Delhi half marathon and the cricket series with New Zealand. The logo here had to change overnight. It was very immaculately planned, and at the press of a button it all changed."

A lot of this work was outsourced. Stationery with the old logo was stopped some time before the launch. Television shows sponsored by Airtel posed a peculiar problem because they are shot a month in advance.

So, the old Airtel props were removed well in advance.

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Image: Bharti Airtel advertisement.

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Each of the 22 circles (the country is divided into 22 telecommunication circles) was asked to appoint one person to coordinate with Beotra's team at Gurgaon. Cross-functional teams were set up within the company to roll out the change.

These people were told that within a fortnight of the launch, the new brand identity should cover every nook and cranny of the country. Sri Lanka, Africa and Bangladesh will come next.

Of course, some of the stock in the market - SIM cards, set-top boxes etc - still carries the old Airtel logo; so do locked devices like the Apple iPhone and BlackBerry handsets (the logo of the service operator comes on the screen when the device is switched on).

These customers will have to wait till they buy a new handset for the new logo.

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Image: Sachin Tendulkar and A R Rahman are part of Airtel's celebrity brigade.

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Any brand makeover can backfire if it is not supported with improvements in customer service. Kapoor is only too aware of it.

"It's not a cosmetic identity change. The way we work will change after this. We have to change our processes, systems, investments and information technology to support this change," says he.

"At any time, we watch the company and gauge it on a balanced scorecard. It includes customer advocacy and satisfaction, employee engagement and satisfaction, process improvement and financials. The organisation and performances are being evaluated on all these parameters."

According to him, Bharti Airtel performs better than others in consumer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and financials.

Mobile telephony just got a little more interesting.


Image: Shahrukh Khan in an Airtel advertisement.

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