Brand Saga: Idea Cellular Part 1 – What a journey, Sirji!

Idea advertising journey

Considering the remarkable Idea advertising journey, the first part of its Brand Saga series delves into the company’s initial breakthrough campaigns and some BTS.

“You’re my pumpkin pumpkin, hello honey bunny”.. I bet..I repeat..I bet no house party is complete without a chorus version of this jingle, followed by chaar bundo wala ujala and hema, rekha, jaya aur sushma. The advertising universe has gifted us with a few memorable jingles. Idea advertising journey has been an incredible part of this.

This Thursday, we cruise across one of the telecom majors – Idea Cellular’s marketing spell and unravel the tale behind the Idea advertising journey.

From Birla Communications Ltd to IDEA Cellular

After the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) granted licenses to Hutchison Max Telecom Ltd. (HMTL) for Bombay in November 1994 and Airtel in 1995, respectively, Birla Communications Limited too followed. After obtaining licenses for providing GSM-based services in Gujarat and Maharashtra Circles in 1995, the company became a joint venture in 1996, post-AT&T, an American entity joined hands to commence the operation on Indian shores.  The company merged with Tata Cellular Ltd in 2000.

The consecutive years witnessed AT&T being ousted from the venture followed by Tata. It was in 2002 that the company was officially named as IDEA. By 2005, the company had reached the two million subscriber mark.

Post the exit of two shareholders, the Aditya Birla Group became the sole owner in 2006 and since kickstarted the strategic planning to occupy certain markets. The company began focusing on building regional and local connections by strengthening leadership at each base station.

Being a late entrant, IDEA had an idea about the opportunities and challenges pertaining to the category. While the likes of Hutch and Airtel had to undertake heavy investments to build the required infrastructure, Idea was able to do it on lesser capital value and banked on sharing scalability.

Thus began the Idea advertising journey.

The Name Game

The helmers decided to go the unconventional route in naming the company where the thought behind keeping it IDEA was – unlike peers who used ‘tel’ or the promoter name, the Aditya Birla Group chose what it believed to be among the top five used words in the world: Idea.

IDEA’s Ad-Nama

While strategizing the expansion of its base pan-India, Idea advertising journey adopted to ‘Innovate, Stimulate & liberate’ as the core brand values.

After 11 years of existence, in 2006, Idea set out to challenge the competitors with the tagline ‘An Idea Can Change Your Life’ and positioned itself as a brand to connect people with their famous tagline, ‘Stay Connected’ and focussed on consumer experience.

The infamous Idea signature tone, a piece composed by music maestro, Ilaiyaraaja was conceived around this time and the commercials were conceptualized by Lowe Lintas with the core message – ‘A network that works everywhere is a good idea’.

During this period, most telecom ads focused on highlighting new tariff plans. While Idea went head-on with staples such as advertising the offers & schemes, it also took initiatives such as Idea My Gang – targetting ‘Close User Group’ and ‘What an Idea Sirji’.

Birth of ‘What an Idea, Sirji!

‘Aaj se nah koi Dhomiar, nah koi Purmi. Koi bhi apne naam se nahi jaana jayega”, said Abhishek Bachchan in a staunch Haryanvi tone. Bachchan was essaying the role of a sarpanch – not in a movie but for an Idea Cellular TV commercial in 2007.

While two individuals belonging to different sub caste continue quarreling, Bachchan’s phone rings and he gets an idea to solve the dispute. Everybody will be recognized by their cell phone number eliminating caste – the one thing differentiates that differentiates people. The ‘Caste War’ advertisement featuring Abhishek Bachchan as ‘Sirji’ is touted to have given Idea its identity.

According to reports, Jr. Bachchan had signed a 3 year deal with Idea which cost the company around Rs 30 Crore.

Advertising veteran K.V Sridhar a.k.a Pops mentions in his book titled ’30 Second Thrillers’ that it is with Idea that the audience found entertaining, engrossing and thought-provoking ideas for life.

R.Balki who headed creative at Lowe Lintas and Chrome Pictures’ Amit Sharma who helmed most Idea ads share anecdotes with pops in-the books, giving us a behind the scenes view.

“What an Idea”, R.Balki stated that Idea as a brand had a very complicated baseline – something about technology that does something. What he was looking for was an extremely simple way of communicating it. Thus was the term conceived. While ‘Sirji’ was added later during scripting.  

The entire ad was shot in a village called Samodh towards Jaipur except for Abhishek Bachchan’s shot which was finished at Film city, Mumbai.

Nikhil Rao and Ashwin Varkey, the then creative directors at Lowe created 4 to 5 concepts for the commercials – one of which was ‘Everybody has a number and not a name’ for the Caste war idea. This concept triggered a fantasy, which R. Balki always had: “We often see people fighting because of a name! What if everybody had funny syllables as their identity?”

The ‘Sirji’ Series

With the advertisement becoming popular owing to its quirky insight-led representation, it became quintessential for the brand and agency duo to extend the proposition of ‘What an idea, Sirji!’. “Ideas which aren’t complicated strategies but solutions that the mass understands.

For them to be resonating with the mass they needed to be ‘Ideas for Life’- Balki shares in the book.

Thereon, in 2008 and 2009, Idea and Lowe Lintas with Amit Sharma at the helm weaved ads under the title of ‘What an Idea Sirji!’ where each video came up with a new idea of using mobile phones to combat societal issues including education, caste, population et al. Idea advertising journey was blooming.

For instance, the democracy campaign ‘For the People, By the People’ was created to initiate better dialogue between politicians and the public.

From ‘Championing a world without caste’; ‘Championing a world in which no one suffers from the disability to communicate’; to ‘Democracy’ and ‘Education for All’, Idea’s campaigns acted like thought drivers, offering simple solutions to complex issues prevalent in the society.

Amit Sharma while talking about crafting the Idea films stated, “As this was being done, I started to get ideas for new scenes. Scenes like – ‘Someone hitting hammer on iron’, ‘Jalebi is being made and someone comes and shouts 992824-ke ghar pe bachha hua hai”.

After which he called Nikhil Rao from Lowe Lintas who worked with Balki in order to ask him if he could make any changes to the script and the improvisation kept happening.

Vodafone’s Hutch Pug was already a hit in the market, later with them introducing ZooZoos triggered Idea to keep experimenting and championing the communication space.

Talk for India Hour

In 2009, as India observed the one year anniversary to horrific 26/11 terror attacks, Idea launched ‘Talk for India’ to collect funds for security personnel.

Under this campaign, the telecom operator, which had a subscriber base of more than 50 million at that time, urged Indians to rise for the cause of national security and make as many calls as they can between 8:36 PM and 9:36 PM on November 26.

A short teaser campaign, on-ground activations, and a dedicated microsite were launched by the team before going live with the ad film on digital.

Idea and Purpose-Led Advertising

While causevertising has been the talk of the marketing industry since the last few years, Idea set out to champion the social wave right when it roped in Abhishek Bachchan to fight caste war and illiteracy.

In 2010, the ad unraveled an idea to help millions of Indians – who move out of their homes for Career, Education, Travel to communicate with people in different languages easily.

Also Read: Brand Saga: Vodafone India Part 1 – The pug that taught us to dial

Next, keeping ‘Environment’ as the big idea, the TVC showcased how a mobile phone can be used as an efficient tool to read daily newspapers, generate e-bills, make payments, issue e-tickets, thereby saving tonnes of paper every day.

A nationwide 360-degree marketing campaign was carried out over a few weeks involving listener engagement programs and green awareness activities on ground.

No Idea? Get an Idea

The same year, Idea and its long-standing relationship with Lowe Lintas saw yet another campaign with an objective is to pre-empt Mobile Number Portability (MNP). With it, Idea took the lead to inform consumers that MNP is coming soon and that they can exercise choice if they are not satisfied with their mobile service provider. Mobile consumers looking for better network, service, products & tariffs etc. can move to the Idea network, post-MNP.

Later the company launched Ab New Idea as the new sub-theme under its ‘What an Idea, Sirji’ promoted its 3G services pan India.

Spreads the ‘Honey Bunny’ Fervor

They said, if 2011 was ruled by Dhanush’s ‘Kolaveri Di’, 2012 was spent humming and dancing to Idea’s viral jingle – ‘You’re my pumpkin pumpkin, Hello Honey Bunny” composed by Amit Trivedi.

On the song composition, Trivedi was quoted saying- “I thought I have done enough nice tracks, now let me do an irritating track.” Love it, hate it, you can’t ignore it. The idea was to create something that could work as a ring tone, that was bizarre and annoying and that made people wonder: ‘what is this weird song that is being passed around?”

Idea’s campaigns so far served larger purposes banking on contemporary issues with a social message. In 2012, the brand took a rather different route to put the focus on stronger connectivity with Digital Law & Kenneth. The ad was produced by Jamic Films and directed by Lowe’s Nikhil Rao and ran for 1 minute, shot across Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh to Rajasthan and Kerela.

Digital law & Kenneth (Now L&K Saatchi and Satchi) leveraged the medium to drive consumer engagement online by premiering the three-minute song on platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Additionally, a set of fun videos were created to motivate netizens to participate in the activity and recreate the song in their own version.

‘Honey Bunny’ became the hero of the campaign ‘Idea Rings All India’ and also went onto become the ultimate ringtone of many smartphone users.

Idea wanted to differentiate from its counterparts by associating with topics larger than them. While this communication strategy was created to divert the audience from their not too strong network back then, it stuck around and most importantly, worked for them.

The second and concluding part of the Idea advertising journey will voyage through its festive advertising, conceptualizing of ‘No Ullu Bana-ving’, and the marketing shift post the Vodafone-Idea merger.

Stay tuned


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Sneha Yadav
An investor in playing with words, I can strike a conversation with no formal introduction and a chai in-hand. Also, doesn't require a dance floor when Punjabi music plays on.