ITC's story through its iconic advertisements

Time and again, ITC has sensed the pulse of the nation with its ads

54-An-ad-campaign-for-Vivel-featuring-Amitabh-Bachchan Soap opera: An ad campaign for Vivel featuring Amitabh Bachchan.

THE STORY OF how two representatives of the British American Tobacco (BAT) company―Jellicoe and Page―came from London to Calcutta in 1906 to find a distributor for their cigarettes in India is now part of corporate lore. Finding a suitable wholesaler proved to be no easy task. Finally, they zeroed in on the only person willing to take a bet on a business others felt was sure to be unprofitable―a minor agent named Buksh Ellahie. Rumour goes that having no money of his own, he borrowed it from a courtesan he was interested in. The bet paid off, and both his business and love life flourished, with the courtesan soon becoming his wife.

Time and again, itc has sensed the pulse of the nation with its ad campaigns. They have been by turns innovative, heartwarming and quirky.

Less known is how the Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited (which would later become the present-day ITC)―formed on August 24, 1910, to develop BAT’s overseas operations―educated Indians on the pleasures of smoking cigarettes. Imperial Tobacco’s salesmen started off by giving away samples by the millions. “A district salesman was not considered worth his salt unless he gave away free samples of between 50- to 100 thousand cigarettes each month, a huge sum by any reckoning, and how he did it was his problem,” writes Champaka Basu in her book, Challenge and Change: The ITC Story―1910 to 1985.

The usual practice was to hire a horse-drawn carriage from the nearest market and plaster it with advertisements, so that it looked gay and festive enough for the curious to gather around, writes Basu. The salesmen in the carriage would toss out packets of cigarettes to all and sundry. Stalls were set up at festivals. Exotic ideas such as lantern processions, lucky dips and sports meets were conceived. The people had to be taught from scratch, from how to hold a cigarette in their mouths to how to light and smoke it. Even then, the human psychology of “getting something for nothing” was exploited. Customers would get little “giveaways”―a packet of Waverley 10s would contain a real photograph, and Sportsman 10s offered a prize coupon. Picture cards from cigarette packets soon became a collector’s item.

An unforgettable campaign took place in 1921 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the import of Wills’ famous Scissors cigarettes into India. Newspapers, hoardings and even sandwich men proclaimed to the public that the proprietors of Scissors were giving away Rs50,000 for nothing. One could compete for 2,000 prizes, the first of which was for the astronomical sum of Rs15,000. But there was a catch. Every entrant had to send in a certain number of Scissors packet fronts, and the prizes were given based on the number that was sent in. There was a tremendous response to the competition. Tens of thousands of fronts poured in every day. The winner of the first prize sent in seven lakh fronts.

57-Sunfeast-Dark-Fantasy-ad-with-Shah-Rukh-Khan Ad blitz: Sunfeast Dark Fantasy ad with Shah Rukh Khan.

The competition soon became an accounting nightmare for the organisers, with the onslaught showing no sign of diminishing. “For days on end, like robots, they opened parcel upon parcel, several of which had as many as three outer wrappings, weighed the fronts and recorded the details in a register,” writes Basu. But by the time the 2,000 money orders were sent out as prizes, the company’s mission was accomplished: Scissors cigarettes had become a household name.

In fact, it would be decades later, in the 1960s, when ITC would launch such a successful campaign again. This was after a series of flop advertisements for new brands like Matinee, launched in 1960, Savoy in 1961 or Horizon in 1958. Even an advertising film called The Discerning Eye, brought out by none other than Satyajit Ray, to promote Horizon failed miserably due to the cigarette brand’s phonetic similarity to the word harijan.

57-the-Happiness-Hack-Experiment-for-Moms-Magic The Happiness Hack Experiment for Mom’s Magic.

Finally, it was in 1965, when ITC launched the ‘Made for Each Other’ campaign for Wills Filter that it really began flexing its marketing muscle. It was an ingenious concept to promote the use of filter-tipped cigarettes, which were still relatively unknown in India. The idea was that, just like the most compatible and ‘made for each other’ couples, the Wills cigarette and filter were made for each other. Apparently, Shiben Dutt, a copywriter with the advertising agency Hindustan Thompson Associates, scribbled the famous line on the back of an envelope. Today, the picture of young couples laughing together while reading a Polish joke book, strolling on the beach, and playing in the rain has become synonymous with the iconic Wills campaign in the minds of many old-timers.

The campaign continued well into the 1990s, until tobacco advertising was banned in 2004. It peaked when a national search was held for the most ‘made for each other’ couple in India. The country was held in thrall while thousands of couples vied for the first prize of a car. Tennis player and Davis Cupper Premjit Lall and his first wife were the winners from Calcutta. The judges, of course, did not foresee that the most ‘made for each other’ couple in the country would soon file for divorce.

56-Savlon-Healthy-Hands-Chalk-Sticks-ad Savlon Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks ad.

Those were the halcyon days of cigarette marketing. But it would not last. With the mounting campaign against smoking, ITC realised that it was risky to place all its eggs in one basket. It began diversifying into hotels, apparel, rural retailing, finance, packaged food, personal care, stationery, paperboard, packaging and printing, safety matches and information technology. ITC hit choppy waters in the 1990s, when it was slapped with a retrospective excise duty demand and fought a battle for control with its parent company. But the 2000s were a period of vigorous growth.

This was also the golden age of advertising, when you had the “marketing cowboys who had the balls to do things that could [potentially] end their career,” says Sendil Kumar, who came up with the tagline ‘No confusion. Great combination’ for Bingo!―ITC’s first offering when it decided to foray into the branded snacks segment in 2007. Kumar, a filmmaker today, was a young writer at the advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, when they were given the seemingly simple brief from ITC: the word ‘Bingo’ should be on everyone’s lips. That time, Pepsico’s Lay’s was the market leader. How was Bingo! to change the narrative?

56-Bingo-ad-with-flamingo Bingo! ad with flamingo

“We decided to do a very irreverent and fun campaign,” says Malvika Mehra, a brand strategist who was Ogilvy’s creative head in Bengaluru then. The brief was opened up to the entire team and those like Kumar, who was working on the “fairly boring” IBM account, saw it as an opportunity to shift allegiance. The ensuing ads―which played on words that rhymed with Bingo, like Flamingo, Django, and Vango Pongo―were wild, edgy, and “completely mindless”, according to Mehra. They cracked the campaign and flew down to Mumbai to present it to Ogilvy’s creative chief, Piyush Pandey. His first reaction was laughter. And then he asked, “Are you guys mad? ITC will never buy it.”

But when they showed the ads to Hemant Malik, the current head of ITC’s Foods Business, he loved them. Though, when they took a poll before releasing the campaign, opinions were extremely polarised. People either loved it or hated it. But Malik believed in the ads. Although he asked the Ogilvy team to work on a backup, he took the brave decision to run these ads during the IPL, when it was very expensive to buy advertisement spots. Upon release, they were an instant hit. Such quirky and mad ads were rare those days. “I was getting calls non-stop,” says Mehra. “The ads hit it out of the park. Bingo! was on everyone’s lips.” They also yielded results. Ten months after it was launched, Bingo! had fetched the company a 16 per cent market share across the country. According to one survey, Bingo! was voted the most successful brand launch of the year.

Time and again, ITC has sensed the pulse of the nation with its ad campaigns. They have been by turns innovative, heartwarming, quirky, and ahead of their times. ITC’s soap brand Vivel, for example, came up with a campaign in 2016 featuring Amitabh Bachchan as a ventriloquist, which expressed women’s concerns in a nuanced manner. In an ad, a young woman wins an award at work and celebrates with her friends. An older man approaches her and leeringly promises to “take her to the top” if she joins his company. “That’s funny,” she quips. “Even the lift man told me the same thing yesterday.” It was subtle messaging, and a rare example of cause marrying creativity.

Incidentally, ITC has habitually put its money where its mouth is, being sensitive to the needs of its women employees. Last year, 45 per cent of the workers at the R&D centre in Bengaluru were women, and ITC aims for 50 per cent by 2025.

The R&D team, in fact, had an integral role to play in another of ITC’s iconic ads―the Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks initiative by ITC’s hygiene brand, Savlon. It bagged seven Lions at the prestigious Cannes Lions 2017, making Savlon the first Indian brand to win the Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness there. The campaign was conceptualised by Ogilvy & Mather to promote hand hygiene among schoolchildren. Finding that most children in rural India still studied with chalk and slate, ITC came up with chalk sticks infused with soap, so that when the children washed their hands, the sticks turned into a cleansing agent. Savlon reached out to almost one million children in over 2,000 schools. The initiative did face some criticism for not making the product available in the market, but ITC says its objective was not to sell it, but to raise awareness about the issue.

If one needs proof of how ITC has constantly reinvented itself, one can just study its advertising graph. When it decided to tighten its India-first image, it came up with ad campaigns like ‘Sab Saath Badhein’ and ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’, where it released a film of children dressed as prominent freedom fighters joyfully hoisting the national flag to celebrate 75 years of Indian independence. And when it decided to go for digital transformation, ITC used Generative AI, augmented reality and the metaverse in some of the most futuristic and interactive ads for brands like Sunfeast Dark Fantasy, Bingo! and Mom’s Magic.

As part of its campaigns for its cookie brand, Mom’s Magic, ITC has come up with imaginative social experiments, like the ‘Happiness Hack Experiment’, where a brain tracking device was used to record a person’s neuron activity throughout the day―when he was working, reading a book or surfing the net. Then the team got his mother to visit him. The maximum happiness surge was recorded when his mother hugged him. ITC used this insight to start the #HugHerMore campaign.

Equally innovative was the recent Sunfeast Dark Fantasy ad. Imagine superstar Shah Rukh Khan straightening a woman’s cushion during a film screening. Now, what if that woman was you? All you had to do was send in your selfie, and ITC would use artificial intelligence to send across your personalised ad with Khan. Initially, the concept was only shared internally among ITC employees. But it became such a smashing hit, with so many employees sharing and circulating it among their friends, that ITC’s systems crashed. Today, over a million people have shared it on social media. It was the perfect example of skilfully using technology to find alternate ways of building your brand in an age when 55 per cent of urban internet users have blocked online advertising in some form or other.

ITC has come a long way since its infancy, when its expatriate managers could be found cruising around on their motorbikes, with their wives seated in the sidecars, playing cricket on the beach, or indulging in “pig-sticking” competitions when wild pigs would flee the Ganges during the floods. Over its 114-year-long existence, the company has put steel in its spine. Despite occasional setbacks, it has met every challenge with grit, foresight, and even humour. And the ads are there to prove it!