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What brands can learn from Bollywood

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Note from the FreeFlowing team: This is the first of a series of FreeFlowing articles penned by guest authors. We believe complacency kills creativity. One of the ways to prevent that from happening is to constantly solicit creative and incisive marketing thoughts from practitioners outside our team. This series is a humble first step in that direction.

And we couldn’t have hoped to get a better practitioner to pen this first article than our guest author for the day – Diptakirti Chaudhuri. A marketer with over 2 decades of experience in marketing and sales, Diptakirti has worked across the spectrum of marketing jobs in both legacy brands and startups. But what makes his perspective unique is his abiding love for Bollywood. He has penned several brilliant books on Bollywood. In this article, he tells some beautiful insider stories from Bollywood, with intuitive and powerful brand learnings for marketers.

Let’s deep dive into what brands can learn from Bollywood*.

[The content below is contributed by our guest author: Diptakirti Chaudhuri. You can read more about him on his Linkedin profile here]

(*Bollywood is a lazy shorthand for commercial cinema. Seeking forgiveness from South Indian readers right at the outset)

My original blog bio (‘Salesman by day, writer by night’) was coined on the fly, for a piece I wrote for a blogging platform. I was literally a travelling salesman then who used to blog in the evenings, sitting in faraway hotel rooms.

Sometime in the late 2010s, I modified that tagline to ‘Marketing by day, movies by night’. By this time, I had spent a lot more time in marketing than sales and I had also realized that I loved movies more than writing. (Yeah, it took me about five books and forty years to come to this realization!)

I love movies and marketing in equal measure though I am always a bit wary of pontificating on either topic and ending up sounding like a LinkedIn guru (which is fast joining politicians, used car salesmen and TV news anchors in the list of most hated professions on earth). I approached this offer from Gurudev with caution – trying to think of some interesting stories about movies and stars, and trying to gingerly link them to marketing to-dos. (I am mortally scared of articles like ’10 Leadership Lessons from La La Land’ and have tried my best to avoid that trap!)

Know your audience, listen to the experts

When Nasir Hussain entrusted his son, Mansoor, to direct his new film in the late 1980s, he didn’t realize he would be locking horns with him soon. Mansoor brought a unique freshness to the treatment of an age-old Bollywood formula but gave the film a tragic ending. Industry veteran Hussain (who burnt his hands with Baharon Ke Sapne’s sad ending) believed audiences didn’t like tragic endings and insisted on shooting a happy ending as well. The hot-headed Mansoor was so upset with this that he threatened to take his name off the film’s credits if the happy ending was chosen.

To resolve this deadlock, Hussain fell back on the great tradition of trial shows – the Bollywood version of focus groups! In the shows, younger audiences loved the tragic ending while the older crowd preferred the happy one. To break this tie, Hussain fell back on his trusted friend and legendary writer, Rahi Masoom Raza. The industry veteran said the happy ending would make more money in the short term, but the tragic ending would become an all-time classic. Needless to say, he was bang-on accurate about Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak – the film credited with bringing back romance to Hindi cinema.

While consumer research and data-backed decisions are not stuff Bollywood is generally associated with, the best creators of Hindi cinema have always been great barometers (or even predictors) of public opinion and taste. As the Indian society and economy evolved, Bollywood was often the first industry to anticipate the changes and modify its offerings accordingly. The middle-class anger of the 1970s, the widespread frustration of the 1980s, the liberalization-led hope of the 1990s and finally, the urban boom of the 2000s, Bollywood films have smoothly fit into every up and down of our history. And doing it well even now.

Do the same thing over and over again

Kamal Haasan recounted that while shooting Ninaithale Inikkum, Rajinikanth showed him a cool trick of throwing a cigarette in the air and catching it with his lips. Kamal thought this would click with audiences and a new scene was scripted to make Rajini do this trick. Rajini kept doing this trick in his films and it was a key aspect of his stardom. Kamal explains, “Rajinikanth is a great brand. He stuck to what he was good at and fulfilled his fans’ expectations of him. I love experimentation and hate repetition. Maybe that’s why I am not a bigger brand.”

David Aaker (who quite appropriately runs a brand consultancy called Prophet now) had said ‘Brand is a promise’. If you’re able to do the same (good) thing over and over again, with almost-boring precision, you have a brand. Commercial cinema everywhere repeats formulaic stories and stars derive popularity from typecast roles. Bollywood is not different and does this to perfection. Despite higher critical and commercial success, Aamir Khan is not as big a star as Shah Rukh Khan. His cultivated mannerisms, his endearing stutter, his lean-back-stretched-hands pose give him a recognition that’s at par with the biggest stars of Hollywood.

Logos. Mascots. Colours. Icons. Fonts. The whole point of all these brand identity elements is to create a library you can keep borrowing from. Not to mention, the more difficult things – actual product and service experience. Bollywood’s personalities – from Ranveer Singh to Ashish Verma (Google him up and you’ll know what I mean!) – are perfectly entrenched in their roles, from hero to hero’s friend, from flamboyant to muted, from their on-screen to off-screen persona. Earlier, it was only their film roles that were typecast. Now, thanks to social media and PR agencies, even their off-screen personas are uniform and integrated.

Source: Arvind Subramaniam’s Linkedin post on this subject. You can read it here.

Shorten it, sharpen it

Two young writers once wrote a film script – complete with all dialogues – in 18 days. This, in itself, is not a great feat. Scripts have been written in Bollywood in far less time (and sometimes, not at all). But this was not any ordinary script. Deewaar has often been called the ‘Perfect Hindi Film Screenplay’. To drive home the point about the sins of the more successful brother, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar wrote a scene in which the successful brother reeled out all his worldly possessions. Only to be stunned into silence with four words: Mere pass maa hai.

Some of the best advertising slogans are less than five words long. So are some of the greatest movie lines. This is not a coincidence. After all, what good is a line if it can’t fit on a meme template? But jokes apart, this is not the hallmark of the current attention-deficit generation. Advertising always had to sneak in between pieces of content and needed to get noticed quickly. This is even more important in today’s marketing priorities, where the success of every campaign is critical – be it in the context of this quarter’s results or the next funding round.

As we get deeper and deeper into marketing technology, tech priorities often expand to fill up available time. This is almost never a conscious choice. With more custom audience buckets to define, with more user flows and communication triggers to create, with more size adaptations to approve, ‘paperwork’ can leave too less time for shortening and sharpening. But then, modern marketing also demands pithy creativity, to say the most in the least number of words: The 6-second bumper ad. The email subject line. The packaging slug line. The PR note headline. The CEO tweet. Aapka samay shuru hota hai ab!

The End

What I did just now is to put together a few marketing truisms: Do research, focus on strengths, keep it short & simple. And framed it in the context of India’s favourite pastime – Bollywood! This is also what Bollywood teaches us. Use well-established formulae but in new, attractive packaging. Invest deep thought and creativity, so that it never strikes the audience you can move Anand/Safar to New York and call it Kal Ho Naa Ho.

You can keep making reincarnation films for the last ten decades, from romantic to sci-fi and people would still come flocking.

Just do it (well)!

Hope you liked this article. As usual, keep the comments flowing freely at freeflowing@winnerbrands.in. We read all your emails.

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