Hindustan Unilever’s advertising approach is a life skill worth acquiring

The right display.
The right display.
Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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Advertising is the sexiest part of marketing… It is the only part of business management where both the right brain and the left brain, feeling and thought, magic and logic, are equally used. Though it can be learnt up to a point, very few people have a natural flair for it. While many people in advertising agencies have a natural flair, they often lack a strategic business perspective. If you have both, it is a serious competitive advantage.

While many of us may never make ads for television, all of us find the need to communicate simply. Some of us need to take the help of creative people to communicate better—a house we must build, a book cover we have to design or indeed a birthday party we have to organise. But getting the best out of creative people can be a tough task. The HUL approach to advertising is a great life skill to have.

HUL spends about Rs3,500 crore on advertising and accounts for roughly 15% of spends and 20% of the country’s ads on TV (we buy much cheaper due to scale). Unilever believes that advertising is too important to be delegated. A senior person should lead the process from brief to production. That person can choose to consult with others or not. That’s her call. But ultimately in advertising there should be one single decision maker, the advertising leader.

Be clear on who you are

The most important thing in communication is not what you say, but whether you are true to who you are. Actions speak louder than words, as the cliché goes. So, before you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it, you have to be crystal clear on who you are. In the case of brands, it goes back to positioning. Every piece of communication must reinforce the four or five associations consumers have about you. Why not keep building new associations with every piece of communication? The truth is that people have mind space only for a few key associations. Once built, it is difficult to add new ones and if you are not careful you will lose the old ones.

A few months ago, a picture was going viral on the Internet. It is a composite of the top 44 Indian ads since the 1980s, all in a single painting. We can identify many of these ads partly because they were great and partly because they either leveraged or built memory structures that could be remembered in the absence of the brand name.

In the foreground is Zakir Hussain playing the tabla in a Taj Mahal tea ad. Over time Taj had moved away from using Zakir as its ambassador to use more conventional celebrities like Madhuri Dixit and Saif Ali Khan. In 2013, just as I was taking over the tea category marketing in HUL, I heard two youngsters saying Wah Taj when they spotted the santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma at Mumbai airport. What a phenomenal memory structure to nurture.

We moved Taj back to its old memory structure—classical musicians (in three subsequent ads we have used Niladri Kumar, Rahul Sharma, and Nirali Kartik as our ambassadors) playing mesmerising music to the refrain of “Wah Taj.” Taj advertising has suddenly become recognisable again and the brand has started gaining market share after a decade.

The iconic Flipkart campaign is of two kids who look like adults making e-commerce look like child’s play. In 2015 I was asked to become a member of the Flipkart Advisory Board. Flipkart had recently changed the “kids as adults” idea for their ad campaigns. I remember telling Mukesh Bansal (who ran the company at that time) and the newly appointed CMO, my former Lever colleague Samardeep Subandh, to revert to the old concept. It was a brilliant idea to show how simple e-commerce was (even kids could use it) and more importantly it was the brand’s DNA. Samar, being an old Lever hand, thought the same way and the campaign went back to the earlier one.

Harish Manwani recalls how HUL’s marketing guru Shunu Sen was in a meeting where managers were saying that everyone was using film stars and perhaps Lux should move on. Shunu said something on positioning that Harish hasn’t forgotten: “Anyone can use a film star but only Lux can carry it off.”

Brands become great because at some time in their past, even near past as the Flipkart example shows, someone has an epiphany or a lucky breakthrough. It is wise to distil this moment in a bottle and constantly take swigs from it. Brands that haven’t had this epiphany need to understand their role in their consumers’ life and constantly look for clarity and insight. The moment will come, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, but when it does, recognise it, and make sure you stick with it.

Why fame is more important than persuasion

As a brand manager on Surf Excel some 15 years ago, I would eagerly wait to see the impact of every new ad we made on sales. While most of the time nothing happened, I did notice a pattern in the successful ads we made.

On our “mind measure market research” where we asked consumers every month what they thought of our brands, a measure called Spontaneous Awareness (SPONT) would be most sensitive to good advertising. If when asked to name some detergents, 50 of every 100 people said Surf Excel, the baseline SPONT of Surf Excel would be 50. When we ran good advertising, we would see this measure move up to, say, 55, and then sales growth would follow. Good advertising made you more famous, and fame, also called salience, drove sales.

Several subsequent studies within Unilever and, of course, Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow confirmed this early practical understanding of mine. The theory is as follows. The consumer doesn’t change the brand she mainly uses but is quite open to changing the set of brands she infrequently uses depending on whether it is at the top of her mind. You want a chocolate badly, your favourite Dairy Milk is not available so you buy a Five Star which you saw an ad of yesterday (even though you may not remember you saw it). The interesting thing is that the overwhelming bulk of the purchases in every category are actually the infrequent ones.

If salience is so important in driving sales, how does one make salient advertising? The HUL way believes there are two factors—enjoyment and branding. Of the two, enjoyment is the more important. It doesn’t mean that you laugh when you see an ad. You simply must like seeing it again and again. So the heart of advertising is making ads that people like to see.

Excerpted from Sudhir Sitapati’s The CEO Factory with permission from Juggernaut BooksWe welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.