Atmanirbhar Bharat or Made in India might be all the rage now, but the 1990s were a whole different ball game. After liberalization in 1991, Indians lapped up foreign brands like there was no tomorrow.
Call it a post-colonial hangover or a lack of effective advertising, international brands were loved and supported more than Indian brands. The challenge for BPL, an Indian consumer electronics brand, was to fight off the Japanese and Korean giants that were invading its backyard.
“More than 25 years ago, BPL talked about ‘self-confidence’ as a key ingredient for the success of companies and individuals. This key ingredient is driving the India brand today,” says Ajit Hoon, co-founder of Dhar & Hoon, the agency behind the campaign.
The big idea of the campaign: to instill pride in Indians, to promote the feeling of Indianness.
“We had to show that Indians and Indian products were as good as the imported foreign products that came into the market. We brought in Amitabh Bachchan, who hadn’t endorsed any products at the time,” recalls Sanjay Prabhu, then VP of Brand Management at BPL.
Prabhu’s task was not only to find the right agency for this communication, but to convince Bachchan that getting into TV advertising for BPL would actually improve his image.
Initially, the execution did not go exactly as any client would have imagined. But BPL decided to persist.
The first print ad, ‘We Indians’, published on India’s Republic Day, raised uncomfortable questions about the self-esteem of our citizens. He asked questions such as “why do we need to impress all strangers”, “why do we blame our failures on fate”, etc.
Prabhu recalls getting a bag full of not-so-flattering mail on the ad. People wrote letters to the editor of any magazine it was published in, expressing their anger. The industry questioned the need for the announcement. But, they did what they always wanted to do, grabbing people’s attention.
Naren Kaimal, then creative director at Dhar and Hoon, and his team took a week to break the second ad, “I wish I was an American.”
Kaimal explains: “Amitabh Bachchan said he didn’t want to do Hollywood movies. We thought it would be very interesting if he said, “I would love to be American.” It was a great opening line to grab people’s attention.
The announcement again left people confused as to what BPL was trying to achieve.
“The third announcement was the most difficult to make. Abhinav (Dhar, co-founder) was desperate to see how we could crack a third. He invited a planner friend over to take a look. By the time this friend arrived, the rather provocative phrase, “My country’s contribution to the world: 0”, had already been written,” Kaimal recalls.
The campaign finally started to make sense to people. He tapped into a feeling that all Indians had, but which he did not openly express.
The fourth and fifth advertisements also denounced the Indians’ inferiority complex and urged them to believe in themselves.
The fourth ad, “Have You Noticed How We Think,” drew attention to the unique thought process of Indians. With statements like “we find the perfect washing machines for making lassi,” he wondered why Indians still didn’t believe they could surprise the world.
The fifth and final ad was titled “Our Ability to Believe”.
He asked the Indians what prevented them from believing in themselves when they could believe in the strangest of superstitions.
Print ads have been praised for their uniqueness.
“No one had seen a corporate campaign like this before. It built a brand. We used to get special positioning in magazines. a post. There were no repeat insertions, the five ads only appeared once in each post they went to,” Kaimal recalls.
After the print ads, a video film was released. Creating the commercial was also a roller coaster ride.
“I had gone on a vacation during which the idea for the commercial came up and it was rejected,” Prabhu recalls.
Prabhu then went to the agency’s office in Delhi to see what was being worked on. “I had a conversation with Abhinav and Ajit. Understanding what we wanted, they literally took the campaign out of the wastebasket,” he recalls.
An idea that had been abandoned has been resurrected.
The commercial begins with Bachchan naming the characters he had played. He points out how Indians feel foreign names have merit, but Indians don’t. He then challenges anyone with an Indian name and roots to show their strength. BPL’s name appears behind him as he begins to walk away trying to remember any Indian names that have merit.
The commercial was directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. He was talking about the strength of an Indian name.
In many ways the campaign was well ahead of its time and in other ways it was timely and relevant to the need of the hour. Anyway, it was a huge success and it made India believe in itself.
You can watch the announcement here: