Vodafone-Idea merger: The making of a brand behemoth

Representative Photo: Reuters
A new Vodafone campaign brings back the iconic ZooZoos, first introduced during the second season of the Indian Premier League (2009). Now, just a couple of weeks before IPL Season 11, they are back. Many say this is not just proof of the longevity of the alien-like, eggshell white characters that Ogilvy & Mather created for its client, but an indication of the way the Vodafone-Idea brand is likely to be pitched to consumers in the coming months. Using familiar characters to reach consumers in unfamiliar and uncharted territories, while assuaging the fears of old loyalists under a new brand.

However, Vodafone and Idea are tight-lipped about the future look, pitch and promise of the giant brand in the making. But brand strategists and industry analysts read the signs on the street to pick out a potential trajectory for the Vodafone-Idea combine.

According to industry analysts, the ongoing campaign is a sign of things to come. The iconic ZooZoos are mascots of Brand Vodafone and when the storyline has them swooping in to help subscribers join their network in impossible locations, hinting at their readiness to go the extra distance, there is not much being left to chance or conjecture.

It is possible that industry hands are reading much into a campaign as the ZooZoos are an O&M creation after all and last October, Vodafone and O&M reiterated their brand commitment with a campaign that focussed on their 4G services. Idea Cellular on the other hand, recently parted ways with Lowe Lintas, the agency that gave them their iconic “What an Idea Sirjee?” and “An Idea can change your life” campaigns. Idea has always had an earthy brand image catering to their largely rural market with Bollywood inspired jingles, lush fields and quaint villages. They haven’t had a campaign since January 2018.

One brand or two

Idea is a “people’s brand”, powerful in small towns and villages. It is dependable, local, well-priced. Vodafone is urban, young and international. Both identities have value,” says Bharat Bambawale, brand strategist.

So the challenge really is not which identity should the new company pick but how well can it balance the two so as to appeal to a wider consumer base say many. It is more than picking a new name or launching a new campaign.

This isn’t Vodafone’s first acquisition. In 2007 it entered India by acquiring 67 per cent in Hutchison Essar from Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa. The entity was renamed Vodafone, but they maintained the brand campaign of Hutch with its iconic pug “Cheeka” while also bringing in Vodafone’s classic red and white template. That could be one way to keep two brands under one identity, the pug is still part of the Vodafone communication strategy while the Hutch name has faded from public memory in India.

In 2001, when Vodafone acquired J-Phone in Japan, the former replaced the latter’s logo completely while bringing in celebrity footballer David Beckham to endorse the brand. Around the same time, Vodafone acquired Irish telecom company Eirland and the brand was renamed as Vodafone Eirland completely wiping out the earlier identity of the company.

Vodafone’s launch in Italy through a stake in Omnitel went from being called Omnitel-Vodafone to Vodafone-Omnitel and finally Vodafone Italia in less than four years. Turkish telecom operator Telsim also evolved into Vodafone Turkey post its incorporation into the Vodafone universe.

Globally, Vodafone has replaced the original brand identity of acquired entities with their iconic red and white speech bubble. However, the roaring success of the Hutch puppy conceptualized by Ogilvy & Mather ensured that the ad campaign was carried forward and still continues to make appearances on the brand portfolio.

Rural, urban or 'rurban'

Brand expert Sandeep Goyal notes that Idea’s existing user demographic is much closer to that of industry rival Jio. He believes that Vodafone would do better to push its identity through instead of competing with the crushing power of Jio.

“If we look at the brands, Jio is more universal in its reach across the country. So a merged brand would do better by not going into what is Reliance Jio territory currently,” said Goyal. Vodafone has always been an “aspirational” and “upmarket” brand. In this scenario, it will be to their benefit to let brand Vodafone weigh in on the merged entity to continue attracting the aspirational segment, he added.

Vodafone has always maintained its core image despite multiple acquisitions and brand overhauls. While there is no need to read too much into their recent campaigns, he thinks the telcos will take time to figure out which brand image is more beneficial for them and until then they will continue as twin powers.

For the subscriber, not much will change really. She will still be concerned about basic pricing and service quality. If some companies have outlasted their peers, and in case of Vodafone – multiple avatars under different brand names, it has been more than just due to the brand name. As Bambawale said, it is about a lot more than just campaigns and branding exercises.

Expert view

 

Brand challenge

 

Idea appeals to India Rising, that surging swell of demographic and demand from smaller towns. Vodafone appeals to India Arrived, urban self-definers creating nuanced careers and life spaces. Vodafone may  temporarily gain from Idea’s absence.

That said, the answer for Idea does not lie in airing TVCs—or indeed in marketing communication. There is a more fundamental question: is a two-brand play better than consolidating marketing resources behind Vodafone? The case for a single Vodafone brand is strong against Airtel and Jio. Alternately, can Idea do battle with Jio for India Rising while Vodafone challenges Airtel for India Arrived?    

Building a brand requires an understanding of the principal drivers of brand preference, these are network coverage, data (speed and quantity), service (chiefly problem resolution) and plans (which includes pricing). Brand identity matters of course, but is impotent without differentiation in preference drivers. Over the last decade, Airtel, Vodafone and Idea have reduced to commodities. Against this new campaigns and offers do very little.”

Bharat Bambawale,  author is Founder, Bharat Bambawale & Associates