upGrad’s plans for 2023: Ankit Khirwal on increasing digital spends in the EdTech advertising game

upGrad campaign

With the government increasing focus on education, EdTech too stand to get more exposure. Ankit Khirwal speaks to Social Samosa about marketing an EdTech brand in the current economic climate.

The EdTech business is fast expanding in India and is likely to rise in the next few years with increased attention from the government. In the recently presented Union Budget 2023, the government allocated Rs 1,12,898.97 crore to the Ministry of Education for the fiscal year 2023-24, which has been touted as a breakthrough for higher education. 

One of the first entrants in the online industry, upGrad, started its journey in 2015 when its founders noticed that the rapidly evolving industry required professionals to continuously upskill themselves. From 2015 to date, the brand’s marketing journey has evolved and its campaigns mirror how the businesses have elevated over the years. 

In Q3 CY22, in the EdTech segment, 81% of funding activity was contributed by UpGrad, which raised USD 225 million, according to PwC’s report. Its marketing and advertising expenditures have also jumped three times in the last three financial years from Rs 95 crore in FY19-20 to Rs 393.68 crore in FY21-22. 

In conversation with Social Samosa, Ankit Khirwal, Head of Marketing, upGrad shares the brand’s marketing journey, the challenges it faces when it comes to marketing in an EdTech industry, and insights on the new campaign.

Upgrading upGrad’s marketing strategy

From humourous campaigns to targeting and encouraging the ambitions of working professionals through anthems, series, and now, new TVCs, upGrad’s marketing strategy has changed over the years.

upGrad started its journey with data science and entrepreneurship courses in 2015. When data science became the business’s cash cow, the brand introduced MBA doctorate and tech courses. 

In 2020, upGrad spent Rs 175 crore to encourage working professionals to follow their passions with the integrated media campaign #RahoAmbitious

Later, the brand added humor to its campaigns to connect with its audience.

Its  ‘Kaam ki degree’ campaign in 2020, ‘Specialisation hai right toh future hoga bright’ in 2021, and #AssNahiAssetBano in 2022, upGrad used a tongue-in-cheek approach in marketing. The humor in these campaigns helped the brand gain traction on social media platforms.

Khirwal said, “Last two years, we did a lot of humor and now we’ve changed that tone of voice. If I have to use just one word to define a new tone of voice, it will be sincerity. We cannot come across as cheeky, irreverent, or funny. So every time we’re speaking to a consumer, we have to come across as sincere and that we are genuinely interested in fast-forwarding the careers of our learners.” 

With its objective of enabling India and the global workforce with the skills of tomorrow, the brand upgraded its focus from specialization to all skills necessary to help its audience advance their careers. 

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In its latest marketing activity, upGrad launched a new leg of ‘Real Life Real Stories’ campaign. The brand had launched the first leg of the campaign in November 2022 and with it, changed how it communicated with the audience.

upGrad’s first campaign of 2023 features honest on-screen dialogues by its alumni, who share their struggles and shifting perceptions towards the online learning model. 

“It’s by celebrating these micro stories, we were trying paint a picture that it’s not just these three [alumni] but 70,000 more people like them, who were touched in some form and manner,” said Khirwal. 

Media Mix 

In 2021, upGrad was very heavy on TV and digital, while in 2022, the EdTech platform was 100% digital barring the time when the brand integrated with Shark Tank. 

Last year, India’s EdTech industry, according to TAM AdEx, saw its ad volume on TV plummeting by 62% in comparison to 2021. On the other hand, the sector significantly turned its attention to digital advertising with a rise of 74% in ad insertions from 2021. 

This pivot in media from TV to the digital mix comes after a majority of the EdTech industry has been facing layoffs, a winter in funding rounds, and reporting losses

upGrad also saw a spike in its losses by 3X in FY22 and crossed the Rs 600 crore mark in FY22. At the same time, the platform grew its scale by 2X. 

In 2023, said Ankit, 80% of upGrad’s advertising budgets will be spent on digital. Its core target audience is working professionals in the age group of 21-35 years, who are more active on digital platforms.

So, upGrad would continue to spend on YouTube, social media, and other digital platforms such as performance marketing. 

For the recent upGrad campaign, it would focus on micro-markets with a traditional + digital mix. 

Khirwal said, “You choose a market where you think you have a high chance to win and then you index your spends and media budgets towards that region. So we’re choosing Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for the first leg. We have shot not just English and Hindi films but also Telugu. And not just digital, but for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, we are also going with TV.”

He further said that if this strategy works, it will be replicated in Tamil Nadu and perhaps the rest of the country in the next quarters.

Future of upGrad

As per a recent Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) report, the education industry, which includes local tuitions, renowned institutes and EdTech platforms, has been blamed for engaging in misleading advertising. As per ASCI, coaching classes and EdTechs make the most false claims. 

upGrad is also trying to improve trust in the industry, which Khirwal says is one of the biggest challenges for the brand and online education sector.

“One biggest challenge in EdTech is trust towards online learning in general and trust towards the brand. And the challenge in consumer behavior is that structured learning is not a constant in anybody’s career,” said Khirwal. 

So in 2023, the platform will align its efforts towards changing consumer behavior by pushing them to trust the EdTech industry, especially upGrad, and make them include lifelong learning as an essential part of their life.