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It all began when Airtel started running teasers that showed a red couch and beckoned the viewers to "come home". The campaign was almost hijacked by Reliance ADAG's Big TV, which sought to connect the teaser with its own service.
While Airtel's teaser had animated characters running about a chair, chanting, "see you at home soon", Big TV used a similar set up with an extended voiceover that went, "see you at home with 32 cinema halls", "see you at home with over 200 TV channels", and "see you at home with digital picture and sound".
Come October and the rivalry only seemed to have escalated. First to break on October 7 was Airtel's launch pad.
Its commercial tells us about an ordinary man, Rahul, who is making his way out of the airport. At the exit foyer, he is greeted by a host of television stars carrying a placard with his name. Next, a limousine driven by a formula one driver pulls up and Rahul finds himself sitting between actors Madhavan and Vidya Balan.
On reaching home, cricketers Zaheer Khan and Gautam Gambir receive him at the elevator. His wife opens the door along with actress Kareena Kapoor. Inside his home, music maestro A R Rahman is playing the piano while Saif Ali Khan gestures him to sit on the couch. As Rahul takes a seat, Saif hands him the remote to watch the Airtel-powered digital TV. A voiceover follows: Come home to the magic.
Four days after Airtel launched its service and unfolded its entire commercial, Big TV released its counter campaign. The film, its second since the August launch, is about a guy who is stuck on one single line from a movie he saw in childhood - mere paas ma hain (Mother is with me). In every situation - a traffic cop asking for his licence, the girlfriend expressing her desire to be the mother of his kids - the guy deadpans: mere paas ma hain. But like a perennial hiccup cured by a shock, the entry of Big TV's 32 cinema halls changes the protagonist's life, and puts more lines in his mouth.
Notice, both Bharti Airtel [Get Quote] and Reliance Big TV play on the theme big, although Airtel does it more subtly. Gatecrashing the Reliance and Airtel parties, though claiming to be unruffled, is Tata Sky, which last August launched its first ad campaign in two years with Aamir Khan.
Once again, aware that the newer rivals were rolling out ads in October, Tata Sky decided to shoot first, launching the new Tata Sky Plus commercials on October 27.The campaign features Aamir Khan and Gul Panag as husband and wife. Panag wakes up one morning to be serenaded by Khan's caring and thoughtful gestures that include making breakfast for her and buying groceries. In the evening, as Khan enters the house after work carrying a number of shopping bags and insists on making tea for the two of them, Panag realises that it's all for a reason - to watch a cricket match that comes in the way of her favourite soap.
When confronted, Khan feigns ignorance of the match schedule. But Panag tells him not to worry, as the new Tata Sky Plus would allow them to watch their favourite shows without a clash. Not surprisingly, marketing campaigns are not just restricted to the tube. With 360 degree initiatives becoming the norm rather than the exception, all three players are already out with radio, outdoor, digital and point-of-sale promotion activities.
At stake is a large, fast-growing market. In the next one year, DTH players hope to hook as many as 10-12 million customers - almost three times the current figure.
"There are 80 million TV homes, of which over 7 million are DTH homes. That's a penetration of just under 9 per cent, allowing for a massive growth rate," says Bharti Airtel's head of brand and media, Chandrashekhar Radhakrishnan.
Airtel is upbeat. "We want to garner at least 20 per cent of the market by the year-end," says Radhakrishnan. He is happy to report that on the next day after the launch, Airtel was one of the top three searches on Google and managed to get 6,000 hits on YouTube.
Radhakrishnan's opposite number at Reliance, Sanjay Behl, is just as upbeat, if not more. By March 2009, Behl predicts Reliance will account for 40 per cent of the DTH market. "We launched on August 25 and by October 13 we had half a million customers, and today we're inching closer to a million," he exclaims.
Where does that leave Tata Sky? Slightly ahead of the pack, it seems, and the Tata Sky Plus campaign has given it a boost. "As of October, we had 2.7 million connections. What's astonishing is that between October 14 and October 27 we had 6,000 pre bookings for Tata Sky Plus," says Vikram Mehra, the chief marketing officer of Tata Sky.
Winners and flickers
While the marketing battle may be a boon to advertising agencies, the closely-fought match is no doubt a costly ordeal. Industry estimates peg the monthly ad spends of the five DTH players at approximately Rs 30-40 crore. But it seems the companies are putting their money where their mouth is.
"DTH is a big value space. It's just as ubiquitous as TV viewing in India. In that sense it rivals the telecom industry," explains brand consultant Harish Bijoor. "Naturally, then, all the players will go mega and rightfully so because, as things stand, market leader Dish TV hasn't even scraped 5 per cent of the pie and, believe me, there's plenty left to eat into."
Shamit Sinha, managing partner of Alchemist Brand Consulting, agrees, "DTH is the future. We're talking about a convergence scenario becoming a reality faster than we expected."
Santosh Sood, independent brand consultant and former COO of Rediffusion, says late entrants Airtel and Reliance are more aggressive as they have more ground to cover.
Price and product wars aside, who stands out in the marketing blitzkrieg? Brand consultants and ad men aren't too sure. Bijoor thinks Airtel may have an edge, thanks to the sheer amount of money and glamour. "Besides, the theme of the common man strikes through immediately. That said, Reliance's humour is slick, but humour seldom works in India. As for Tata, they've finally got their act together with the new campaigns."
Interestingly, while rivals Tata Sky and Airtel have roped in celebrities, Reliance has shunned them so far. "We wanted to first focus on the superior product and didn't want any additional distractions," says Behl. That's what works for Sood, too. He says, "Reliance's Big TV stands out in the clutter. But will it impress people is what we'll have to see. I personally feel Airtel will lead Reliance simply because it makes the strongest suggestion and hence may motivate more."
Are we about to witness the Cola War, Version 2.0? No one knows. But even as this article goes to press, DTH players are preparing to roll out their forthcoming campaigns. Get the remote.
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