For most ardent Ganesh devotees, a ringside view of the Ganpati visarjan at Mumbai’s Girgaum Chowpatty would probably be a dream come true. For 18-year-old Malavika Amte, the dream came true last year when she won a chopper tour of the Ganesh idol immersion ceremonies across the city. The contest was a joint promotion by Vodafone and RadioCity, and Amte was among 22 winners from across Mumbai. Neither company says how much the contest cost, but clearly both consider it money well spent. They’re planning to repeat—and extend—the contest this year, taking it to Pune and Kolhapur, and also launching a similar theme around Navratra in Ahmedabad next month.
What the Ganesh Mahotsav is to Maharashtra, Onam and the snakeboat races are to Kerala. And if Lalbaghcha Raja is the undisputed king of celebrations to honour the elephant god, Alappuzha’s Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the de facto leader of the 20-odd snakeboat races in Kerala. This year, though, the long sinuous raceboats were upstaged by a small raft—it entered Punamuda Lake before the chundans, holding afloat a Mahindra & Mahindra Maxx, launched in the state just a month earlier. M&M also sponsored a boat for the race; team members wore red t-shirts with the Maxx logo and the vehicle was part of the pre-race parade. All this for just Rs 2 lakh—the cost of sponsoring the boat. The return on investment, though, is expected to be manifold. “Once people know that a company is supporting them in the boat race, even if it sells poison, they will readily consume it,” remarks Sunny Thopil, a veteran boatsman from Alappuzha.
No one is selling poison but, yes, companies are seeking new ways to curry favour with their consumers. And festivals seem to have the ‘it’ factor that’s crucial to success; indeed, increasingly, festivals are becoming big business for India Inc. The growing community participation is a heaven-sent opportunity for marketers and brand managers to showcase their offerings and make an emotional connect with a virtually captive audience that’s eager to spend. And since the Hindu calendar is bursting at the seams with celebrations for one deity or the other, there’s occasion to do this almost without pause from August until January. (The festivities around other religions, such as Eid and Christmas, are welcome bonuses.)
Take a peek at some numbers: there are over 10,000 Durga Puja pandals, more than 20,000 Ganesh Mahotsav pandals and several hundred Garbha mandals during the respective festivals. Chennai alone hosts 3,000 music concerts during the katcheri season. A few hundred million people attend these festivities across the country every year, each spending two-three hours at the venue on average. Imagine the customer-brand interaction potential.
The Spending Season
So, what are companies doing? Festive season marketing immediately calls to mind ‘puja’ discounts and exchange offers. But that’s not what this is about at all. Activities centred on the congregation sites—the Diwali melas, Garbha mandals and Ganesh and Durga Puja pandals—are the flavour of the season among marketers. They put up banners and hoardings at pandals, set up stalls and even do on-site brand launches. Branded entry arches, pillars, gateways and visitor-assistance booths are also becoming commonplace—some companies even set up their own puja pandals.
Not surprisingly, there’s big money involved. Brand specialist Harish Bijoor, who is CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults, estimates the festival advertising market to be worth at least Rs 1,000 crore. (Many media planners think that’s an underestimation, since the Mumbai Ganesh festival alone garners a few hundred crore.) According to Bijoor, in a market where brands are largely seen on television, festivals are an opportunity for the consumer to touch, feel, smell and even taste them. “The brand gets off the pedestal and into people’s lives as they celebrate something close to their hearts.”
For marketers, the choice of festival is easily decided: there has to be large-scale community participation and it has to be family-friendly. That’s why the biggest Indian festivals—Holi and Diwali—don’t strictly qualify. Holi and Janmashtami celebrations are boisterous, raucous affairs and not very family-friendly, while Diwali is mainly celebrated at home, with close family members. Even the now-popular Diwali melas are largely about pre-festival purchases of lamps etc.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of being present in a puja pandal or any community-based festivity is that the target consumer group is available en masse and virtually captive (“trapped” inside the festive arena). Consumer interaction with the brand in these places is then measured in hours, rather than minutes—exponentially increasing the chances of conversion, since even the usually-value-conscious Indian becomes an unapologetic shopaholic during festivals .
Queues at Lalbaghcha Raja, one of the oldest and biggest Ganpati Mahotsavs in Mumbai, stretch for kilometres and devotees wait for several hours along the road for their chance to see the idol. For a brand manager, then, it is unthinkable to be not present on the Parel-Lalbagh road for those 11 days. Huge banners and hoardings cover the two-km stretch of road leading to the pandal, while beverage companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola set up stalls at regular intervals.
According to Sudhir Salvi, Committee Member of the Lalbaghcha Raja Mandal, the queue of advertisers seeking branding space begins in May. Last year, the committee earned Rs 2 crore as ad revenues, while donations from devotees crossed Rs 10 crore; this year, Salvi estimates ad revenues will be around Rs 3 crore, and daan-peti (donation-box) collections, Rs 13 crore.
Radio channel Big FM has paid the committee Rs 25 lakh to air the aarti live for the duration of the Mahotsav, while Tata Indicom and Varun Industries have paid similar sums as sponsorships—their hoardings dominate the pandal and its surroundings.
Not Just Ads
Of course, it isn’t only ads. Tata Indicom has launched a prepaid mobile plan especially for the festival season, which is being promoted with television commercials on local Marathi channels as well as an elaborate on-ground activation programme at the puja pandal and 13 other Ganpati pandals across the city. “This is the perfect occasion for us to amplify our message,” points out Lloyd Mathias, Chief Marketing Officer, Tata Tele Services. “People are in a festive mood and are much more receptive to our messaging than they would normally be.” He adds that while such an association does result in incremental sales, what is more important is the resonance it creates with consumers.
More than the Ganesh Mahotsav, though, companies make a beeline for Durga Puja and Navratra. George Agnelo, Vice-President (Sales), Dabur India, explains why. “Ganpati celebrations come with strong religious sentiments. So, you can’t do many activations around the Ganpati pandal and are restricted to, at most, a few branding activities.” Durga Puja and Navaratra, on the other hand, are more like “carnivals”, says Anuradha Aggarwal, Vice-President, Brand and Insights, Vodafone. “Not only do people come to offer prayers but the fun element is much higher.”
And companies are only too eager to join in the fun. That means programmes such as the makeover marathon launched by Dabur at 10 Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata last year; centring on its facial bleach brand Fem, the company promised women a makeover in just 15 minutes. Dabur’s Agnelo claims that such activations lead to an almost 30% jump in seasonal sales of the company’s beauty brands.
Other FMCG companies are also thinking out of the box. Marico, for instance, has a tie-up with the Lokhandwala Sarbojainik Durgoutsav in Mumbai where, in exchange for 1,000 litres of Saffola oil, the bhog offered to the deity through the five days of festivities and subsequently distributed among devotees is branded as Saffola Healthy Bhog. “This is an excellent way to reach out to the community and make them feel we care for them,” points out Sameer Sathpathy, Marketing Head of Marico. He adds that associations such as this lift Saffola sales by almost 10-15% post the festival season.
Similarly, the Kolkata-based Emami has earmarked Rs 1 crore this year for spends on festivals. And that’s not for putting up Emami posters in pandals. Instead, the company will organise a bhog competition between the various Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata. The bhog is to be cooked using Emami’s recently-launched edible oil brand, Healthy and Tasty. Another event involves door-to-door delivery of bhog in branded containers. “The idea is to integrate Healthy and Tasty in the day-to-day life of people,” says Aditya Agarwal, Marketing Director, Emami.
Of course, increased visibility of the brandname is also vital, especially given the footfalls at Kolkata’s puja pandals. Emami doesn’t plan to be left behind in that; in fact, its branding exercise will begin before the puja starts. Typically, Kolkata pandals are theme-based and organisers keep them shrouded in tin sheets until the grand opening, so the mystery is maintained. This year, Emami plans to sponsor branded tin sheets for some of the biggest pujas in the city.
Even more than consumer products companies, though, telecom companies are seeking new ways to reach out to devotees during the festive season. “Festivals give us the opportunity to know our customers. For a brand such as ours, which doesn’t have much legacy, it is crucial to bond with our target audience,” says Rajiv Bawa, Head, Corporate Affairs, Uninor. That means going beyond mere sponsorship and advertising—Uninor has an elaborate festival marketing plan this year and plans to be present in festivals across the country. Bawa declines to share details but others aren’t so reticent. While puja organisers in Kolkata point out that the company has been willing to buy inventory (ad space) at even twice the asking rate, JD Bhai, an Ahmedabad-based Garbha organiser, claims to be organising a Navratra event for Uninor in the city. “Uninor felt it is better to have a Garbha of its own rather than sponsoring here and there,” he says.
Festival season marketing doesn’t impact regular advertising.
Better Than TV?
Does the economics of festival-season marketing pan out? Most companies, especially those in the FMCG sector, report spikes in sales during and after the festival season. “By giving them an experience such as this [the aerial visarjan tour], we succeeded in touching their emotions. Listenership will automatically follow,” points out Ashit Kukian, Marketing Head, RadioCity. That confidence is echoed by Jubin Mani Kurien, Sales Manager, Mahindra & Mahindra, Kerala. Referring to the Maxx activation during the boatrace, he says: “All this will definitely help Maxx sales pick up in the coming months. The impact will be over the long-term.”
But ’tis the season to spend, after all. So, will on-ground activations trigger the spurt or will it happen more naturally? Most companies aren’t sure, but they aren’t too worried, either. “I don’t think people purchase SIM cards at a puja pandal. The idea of being in a festival is to tell people we are a part of them and we care for them,” points out Bawa of Uninor. Dabur’s Agnelo seconds that viewpoint. “Our brands do see a decent increase in sales during this time, but the idea of being on-ground is more to connect with people,” he says.
For their part, media planners believe on-ground festival promotions do give brands a fillip. Compared to a below-the-line activation on a regular day, festival-season engagements will generate higher returns, believes Ambika Sharma, Chief Operating Officer of Jagran Solutions (the activation arm of Dainik Jagran). And compared to TV? A 10-second spot on Star Plus on primetime would cost a brand Rs 1-1.5 lakh. In contrast, Indicom’s activation (the prepaid scheme launched at Ganesh pandals) “will enable the brand to reach millions at almost 1/15th the cost of what it would have paid to be on prime-time on a leading general entertainment channel such as Star Plus,” points out Srikanth Raman, General Manager of StarWiz, the activation arm of media agency Starcom MediaVest.
The hype around festival marketing notwithstanding, regular advertising continues to grow. In fact, the festival season often sees new advertisers appearing on television, radio and print (See: Ad Season). Still, on-ground activations often prove invaluable. “Star Plus definitely would give the advantage in terms of reach, but a branding in a puja pandal has an advantage in terms of the captive audience a brand would get. The translation of the message into sales could be higher,” he adds.
That’s an insight consumer durables, FMCG and telecom companies have known—and used to their advantage—for a while. Now, increasingly, radio and television are also finding festival gatherings an excellent platform to connect with their audiences even off-air.
Already, the daily soaps on Hindi channels weave special, festival-centric episodes into the storyline. They’re now going a step forward by taking stars of the popular shows out of the screens and into pandals, where they interact in character with visitors. Last year, Zee Bangla took Oindrila Sen, who plays Dusthu in the popular show Saat Paake Bandha, to the Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata. ‘Dusthu’ participated in the festivities, chatted with her fans and gave them insights on the show. This way, the Bengali channel not only encouraged sampling of its shows but also strengthened ties with existing viewers. The Zee group also owns four big Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata, costing about Rs 25 lakh each. The investment makes immense sense, says Sujay Kutty, Business Head, Zee Bangla. “During the pujas, it is not only the people of Kolkata, but lakhs of people from various places in Bengal who visit the city to see the pujas. This makes it the best opportunity for us to showcase our shows.”
Meanwhile, the Zee Group’s Marathi channel, Zee Marathi, has been leveraging the popularity of the Ganesh Mahotsav. It has organised the Sarvojinik Ganesh Utsav Mandal Spradha, a pandal contest across 12-13 towns in Maharashtra. The judges will be characters of popular shows from the channel. “The entire state waits year-long for these 10 days of festivities. By these activities, we build a direct rapport with our consumers,” points out Nikhil Sane, Business Head, Zee Marathi.
The Star Network, however, has a slightly different approach. Instead of setting up its own pandals, Star Ananda, the Bengali news channel, has created an on-air property Sharad Ananda, which features pandals across Kolkata. The channel has tied up with more than 50 pandals across the city to buy visible branding space across these pandals, which it resells to on-air advertisers. For instance, a consumer durables brand that buys inventory in Sharad Ananda also gets an on-ground presence in the pandals. The property, according to Neeraj Sanan, Head-Marketing, Star Ananda and Star Majha (the Marathi news channel from the group), is worth Rs 2 crore. “An activation exercise like this makes more sense because I can reach out to more pandals and more people. Had I adopted a few pandals, my access would have been limited,” he points out. The network has a similar property for its Marathi channel, Majha Bappa.
Divine Opportunity For Organisers
It isn’t only the marketers and brand managers who benefit from spending on festivals and community gatherings. For the organisers of such events, it’s a divine opportunity to make their celebrations bigger and better. The cost of setting up Lalbaghcha Raja last year was Rs 2 crore, which it made up in ad revenue alone; the Rs 10 crore collected from devotees were used for the committee’s various charities and community activities.
The scale of Kolkata’s pujas has also increased exponentially with increased corporate participation. Arijit Maitra, President of Samaj Sebi, a puja committee in South Kolkata, recalls how difficult it was to get a sponsor for his puja just five years ago. Now, he routinely turns away advertisers, citing lack of space. “Two years ago, I sold stalls for Rs 5,000. Last year, stalls went for Rs 20,000 each,” he says. This year, brands are even willing to pay 50% more.
In Gujarat, too, brand involvement in Garbha mandals has made the nine nights of festivities more colourful. Popular clubs such as Karnavati and Rajpath spend Rs 50-70 lakh in organising a Garbha event, and usually end up richer by Rs 10-15 lakh; more than half the money comes from advertising. For the past few years, Airtel and Vodafone have been the leading sponsors of most Garbha events in the city, but this year, two new telecom rivals, Uninor and Docomo, have jumped into the fray. Despite the increased competition, Airtel claimed the title sponsorship of the coveted Karnavati Club Garbha, but at Rs 20 lakh—a 30% premium over last year.
Of course, there are festivals that are thriving even without advertising. The 117-year Shrimant Dagdusheth Halwai Sarvajanik Ganpati Trust in Pune is one of the richest in Maharashtra and has still managed to stay away from advertisers. Mahesh Shankar Suryavanshi, Accountant at the trust, declares that the trust relies only on its Hundi collections, which were Rs 10 crore in 2009.
There’s also a different type of corporate association at play in Chennai’s music festival. Corporate sponsorships are the bread and butter of these music sabhas—the Music Academy, the largest Carnatic music organiser in Chennai, for instance, has N Murali, Joint Managing Director of The Hindu and R Seshasayee, MD, Ashok Leyland as patrons. But there is no commercial angle—the associations are driven more by love of music.
Meanwhile, even as companies and brands vie for pride of place at festivals, the nature of the event itself may be changing. In Mumbai, for instance, many Durga Puja pandals are becoming elitist affairs, focusing on advertising by premium brands and catering to a more upscale crowd. At the Lokhandwala pandal, which is led by Bollywood singer Abhijit Bhattacharya, advertising rates start at Rs 5 lakh and go up to Rs 20-25 lakh. Bhattacharya is clear he will only entertain top brands; last year, Kingfisher Airlines created an air-conditioned lounge inside the pandal for VIP devotees. “Our puja attracts the cream of Mumbai in terms of footfalls,” he says to explain the puja pandal’s positioning. The pandal attracted 30-35 advertisers last year and 50,000 visitors over five days.
Bhattacharya isn’t alone in going upmarket. Krishnendu Sen, CEO of outdoor marketing agency Katha Advertising, also started a premium pandal in Mumbai last year. “The promise I made to the advertisers was that this would be a corporate puja that would be graced by the who’s-who of the corporate world.” The advertisers were asked to customise stalls to suit their brand identity. A leading five-star hotel chain set up an air-conditioned lounge in the pandal and was also asked to take care of the F&B section within the lounge. Similarly, restaurant chain Mainland China, which set up a food counter at the pandal, had a custom-designed stall. From 15 advertisers last year, Sen claims to have got half as many more this year. He also expects the number of visitors to go up from 10,000 last year to 20,000 per day.
The Fatigue Factor
The premium pandal may not bring brands the eyeballs they would get at more traditional gatherings, but such innovations do address a problem that’s creeping into festival marketing: fatigue. For a relatively new marketing avenue, the risk of burnout has assumed alarming proportions. Already, companies are complaining that the festival marketing space is becoming overcrowded and that there’s a sense of sameness to the activities. “We are reaching a point where the law of diminishing marginal utility will kick in and the effectiveness will reduce,” points out Atul Nath, MD of below-the-line marketing company Candid Marketing.
With everything about the festivals—from the rituals, to the physical space, from the arati to the prasad—becoming monetised, an overdose of brand participation is perhaps only to be expected. Bijoor agrees, but also believes that consumers are becoming increasingly desensitised. “The thinking is clear: ‘If the pandal has to be as big as the one I want to see and hang out at, it needs money. If a corporate is paying that money, so be it.’”
Perhaps the way out may be to increase the depth, rather than the breadth of association with festivals. Starcom’s Raman suggests that “brands need to create a value chain and ensure that they associate with the community even after the festival. Many festival organisers spend a significant amount of their festival spoils on CSR activities. Companies should also participate in those CSR activities.”
By Ajita Shashidhar With inputs from Navan Ignatius, Karthik Krishnan, Sriram Srinivasan and Himanshu Kakkar. Email us at business AT outlookindia.com
The cover story was bang on. Festivals have become very commercial over the last decade. Before that, festivities used to be less showy and more religious. Soon, I see festivals becoming only a means to rake in more money.
In Festive Business (October 2, 2010), Sujay Kutty, Business Head, Zee Bangla, was identified as Nikhil Sane, Business Head, Zee Marathi. The error is regretted.
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