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Airtel vs Hutch: And the winner is...

January 04, 2006 09:01 IST

Telecoms are rolling out like never before. And that 100-million mark doesn't look too far away. The mobile subscriber base crossed 65 million in September 2005, an over-30 per cent increase over the previous year.

Last quarter, market leader Airtel (22 per cent market share, over 15 million mobile subscribers, source: Cellular Operators Association of India) witnessed its highest-ever net addition of 1.8 million mobile customers in a single quarter.

And it's not slowing down; the company's busy rolling out networks, targeting its presence in over 4,500 towns and locations (from 3,200 in September) in the next three-four months.

Hutch, with over 10 million subscribers (15 per cent market share) may be No. 4 (behind Reliance and BSNL) at present, but it has the highest average revenue per user.

With the recent acquisition of BPL Mobile, its subscriber base should increase to about 13.5 million later this month when the merger is formalized - pushing it up to the No. 2 slot. Of course, right now, the focus is more on its orange-pink transformation.

What makes Airtel and Hutch pull such numbers? The Strategist examines how Bharti Tele-Ventures Ltd and Hutchison Essar built, sustained and strengthened two of India's biggest telecom brands in the 10 years of mobile telephony.

Airtel: Leadership, power. . . feelings?

"In a service industry like telecom, people live a brand 24X7. It's all about experience; and for Airtel 'brand=customer experience," says Rajan Mittal, joint managing director, Bharti Tele-Ventures Ltd.

That's now, but when mobile telephony began in India a decade ago, the brand was all about aspiration. That's understandable: a handset cost about Rs 45,000 - the price of a second-hand Fiat - and call charges hovered around Rs 16 a minute.

Naturally, the target customer was clearly defined: elite, upmarket professionals and entrepreneurs. "We positioned Airtel as an aspirational and lifestyle brand, in a way that trivialised the price in the mind of the consumer. It was pitched not merely as a mobile service, but as something that gave him a badge value," recalls Hemant Sachdev, chief marketing officer (mobility) and director, Bharti Tele-Ventures.

Airtel was on a power trip: the logo was black, uppercase bold lettering; and the baseline was "the power to keep in touch". "From day one, it was decided that the brand should always connote leadership - be it in network, innovations, offerings or services," says Diwan Arun Nanda, CMD, Rediffusion-DY&R, the agency that has created all Airtel ads over the past decade. The taglines emphasised that stance: "Airtel celebrates the spirit of leadership" and "The first choice of the corporate leaders".

This was also a time when customers needed to be educated; interest levels were high, but customers' exposure to the cellular world was limited. Airtel took out full and half-page ads in newspapers, answering queries like "what is roaming?", "what is coverage area?" and "how to make international calls".

In 1999, the rules of the game changed. The New Telecom Policy came into effect, replacing licence fees with a revenue-sharing scheme and extending the licence period from 10 to 20 years. Now, cellular service operators could drop their prices and target new customer segments. As SEC B became part of the catchment area, Airtel's communication changed from "power" to "touch tomorrow".

The focus now was on the endless possibilities of technology to make life good and advertising became two-pronged: a product-driven communication that showcased new offerings like the Magic prepaid card, and an emotional communication that showed younger people.

In 2002, Airtel signed on music composer A R Rahman and changed its tune to "Live every moment": Rahman's signature tune for Airtel is, perhaps, the most downloaded ringtone in India. But that was just part of the ongoing communication.

The following year Airtel adopted the "Express yourself" positioning, which is also its current tagline. Now, the emotional angle was predominant - and stark, black and white imagery to stand out in what was becoming a highly commoditised, crowded market.

The latest campaign continues that thought. Only, mobile telephony is now extending to even low-income mass categories. So the first TVCs in Hindi and regional languages are now on air, as are low-priced products, like the Rs 200 recharge coupon.

Communication was just part of the battle: customer service would prove more critical. "We were very clear that Airtel will be a service-led brand," says Mittal.

Accordingly, Airtel was the first cellular service provider to start customer centres (called Airtel connects), where customers could pay their bills, apply for new connections and touch and feel new handset models.

The way to the future, though, seems to be through product innovations such as easy charge (recharging prepaid connection through SMS), hello tunes, the Blackberry option, stock tickers and M-cheques (mobile credit cards).

The customer care centres, too, are metamorphosing into "relationship centres", one-stop shops where subscribers can not only pay their bills and have their queries answered, they can shop for new phones, surf the net and enjoy a cup of coffee. "What matters is what the customers want," points out Mittal.

Hutch: Colour coded

Back in 1995, using "Hello Bombay" as the tagline, and pitted against consumer electronic giant BPL, the campaign for the unknown Max Touch got underway. Says Narayan Kumar, executive creative director, TBWA Anthem, part of Mudra's creative team for Max Touch, "We consciously decided to cultivate the brand personality as foreign."

The international pedigree was underlined by the baseline "World in your pocket", but local relevance was built using celebrities to endorse the brand ("Citizens of Mumbai"). Like Airtel, Hutch, too, needed to educate consumers about cellular telephony. So, it also had ads like "Can I call STD?", "Can I use my phone in a lift?" "What is airtime?"

International was believed to be synonymous with sophisticated, and the customer service reflected that. Max Touch introduced Integrated Voice Response systems, and for face-to-face interactions, it had swanky customer spaces with smartly dressed executives who had been trained in customer relationships.

"The advertising and the delivery of services were in tandem, something that continued with Orange and Hutchison affiliates," says Gangadharan Menon, director, Octane Communications, then a member of Narayan's creative team.

Even as Hutch's communication appealed to the upper class, it was working on innovative product offerings: in 1996, it was the first cellular company to establish national roaming; later that year, it introduced over-the-counter prepaid cards.

And if black proved to be Airtel's winning colour, Max Touch found orange worked for it. The almost accidental use of the colour in an ad campaign - changed at the last minute from green - was fortuitous.

In February 2001, Max Touch became Orange and the account shifted from Mudra to Ogilvy. By replacing a highly recognised brand with a virtual unknown in just two weeks, the new Ogilvy campaign redefined conventional communication strategies. In Mumbai, for instance, ads compared the cost of a mobile phone call to an inexpensive cutting chai.

A big success factor was how aspirational overtones in brand imagery stayed, even though price wars had started. Again, the colour orange was a seminal attribute; the brand's slogan was 'The future's bright, the future's orange'.

The next year, though, it was time for another name change. Hutchison announced the creation of an umbrella brand, Hutch, although to confuse the issue further, Mumbai retained the Orange brand. The separate identities of the two brands were duly emphasised, although strategic sponsorships of theatre, music and art events overlapped - as did the use of orange colour.

The new brandname also heralded the arrival of a new mascot, the "Hutch" pug. When Hutch launched the Abby-winning "Wherever you go our network will follow'" ad, viewers believed that was Hutch's new slogan, but it was just one brand attribute. Twelve other campaigns followed; each one with a single communication of a value-add, all stylised to be uniquely Hutch.

"In a service business you can't have high imagery and low delivery. Effective branding has to be built on a bedrock of fundamentals of service - great network, customer service and great billing systems," Harit Nagpal, chief marketing officer, Orange had said a couple of months ago.

Value-added services - such as "Privileges" (discount coupon booklets), cricket scores and stock market information - have formed as critical a part of Hutch's marketing efforts as its advertising. Other services like Hutch World (GPRS service), Hutch Alive (non-stop, streaming action) and Hutch4Help, a unique dial-in 'convenience' service, all emphasise the premium attributes of the service. But now there's Chhota Recharge, small value recharge cards (starting at Rs 10), which will also help mobilise small spenders.

And now there's pink. Last month, Mumbai was overrun with billboards that simply said "Bye". A week later, the same billboards, along with the rest of the country, sported the Hutch tristar in a new, vivid pink.

At the time, Naveen Chopra, corporate vice president, group marketing, Hutchison Essar, said, "The idea is just to refresh the brand, and inculcate a new 'Hutch spirit'." But the brand makeover had less to do with creating excitement and more with renouncing the Orange brand to Orange Telecom and creating the new pan-Indian Hutch brand.

Airtel or Hutch? you choose

Samit Sinha, Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting

Airtel seems to have consciously decided to go for the belly of the market and aggressive market expansion, while Hutch seems to be pursuing a relatively more sophisticated consumer. There isn't a great deal of differentiation in terms of pricing, services, schemes and so on, but there are differences in approach. Overall, AirTel is focused on functionality and efficiency, while Hutch has veered towards warmth and emotions.

Harminder Sahni, Principal, KSA Technopak

Hutch has developed a more effective branding strategy purely through its emotional connect with customers. While Hutch used the powerful visual imagery of a dog, Airtel chose to use music, which is not nearly as effective. Ad recall for Hutch has always been much higher.

Still, Airtel is more powerful by sheer physical presence, while Hutch has been too fragmented.

Meenakshi Madhvani, Managing Partner, Spatial Access

Brands of most mobile service providers enjoy a high unaided recall. One would assume that this high level of awareness is driven by a constant media presence. But this logic does not explain recall for BPL Mobile in Mumbai, which has minimal media presence. In such a scenario, it would not be right to conclusively say that Brand A is stronger than Brand B. However, if you consider adoption of the service by consumers as an indicator of brand strength, then Airtel would rank reasonably high.

Amit Ranjan Rai & Aarti Menon Carroll