N Rajaram aims to transform Airtel from one-service brand to broader tech products & services provider

The Harley Davidson store at DLF Promenade, a tony retail destination in Vasant Kunj in Delhi, and Airtel’s headquarters in Gurgaon could not be more different. Harley’s store typifies everything about the iconic biker brand: leather, dark colours and the shining chrome of the much sought after bikes. That’s in sharp contrast to the aseptic home – all steel and glass — of India’s largest mobile services provider and lately a vendor of DTH television too. This stark difference hasn’t diminished the admiration N Rajaram, the marketing chief of Airtel’s consumer business, has for this 110-year old brand and he’s hoping he can imbibe some of the tricks that built the brand’s intense and undying loyalty.

“I look up to Harley Davidson for its ability to attract and retain consumers based on a sharply defined set of core values and beliefs,” says Rajaram, who was a Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) lifer before jumping to Airtel in April last year. From marketing haircare and skincare products, he moved to a mobile services provider struggling to refresh its sense of identity, Airtel was a pioneer in mobile services some 15 years ago, but a year ago nimbler rivals such as Vodafone and Idea Cellular had used newly minted number portability norms to poach many of its customers.

Says a senior marketer with a smaller mobile services firm who does not want to be named: “Airtel was a pioneer with mobile telecom, but its brand doesn’t have the stickiness of Vodafone, which has endured with the pug, zoozoos and now the old man.” Mahesh Chauhan, co-founder of Salt Brand Solutions, also contends the brand transformation (when the logo went from a flag with the brand name, denoting its pioneer status, to a less distinct insignia as it went global), hasn’t been a standout success. “I am not in agreement with the changed identity of the brand… the older logo was more distinctive,” he says.

Airtel managed to strike back with the Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai campaign, which hit a crescendo with the ‘happy tera mera friendship day’ blitz on August 5. But then rivals point out that Airtel’s expanding consumer portfolio, which includes services like the nascent telemedia and DTH, needs some strategic marketing direction.

That’s part of Rajaram’s overall mandate of driving a sense of urgency into the consumer business, which comprises mobile, DTH and telemedia. After grouping all its consumer operations into one, Airtel roped in Rajaram to reinvigorate the portfolio.

The consumer-side integration isn’t easy and the challenge will be to get customers to buy multiple services of a single brand. The learnings in telecom, though, will come handy. “Airtel has always been at the forefront of driving innovation in the telecom industry, even in today’s perse and hypercompetitive market,” says K. Srinivas, president, consumer business, Bharti Airtel.

Rather than fight this marketing battle based on voice services alone, Rajaram who looks up to Steve Jobs and Apple as brand icons, says Airtel will look ahead to the mobile internet and data services as its two major levers.


“We want to look at one household and one relationship with the brand … going forward the lines are going to get much more blurred, since a multi-screen environment will be the next big opportunity,” says Rajaram.

The success of this brand positioning will be centered around Airtel targeting the 18-year old consumer, who not only uses a mobile phone, but is also likely to be a buyer or influencer of a DTH platform at home. “We want Airtel to be the brand of preference for young consumers,” says Rajaram. On the marketing front, Rajaram has been instrumental in giving Airtel customers control of their consumption and billing, pushing concepts such as self-care to promote Airtel’s brand in a tough market. Rajaram, an engineer by training, is pushing the envelope on how this $10 b, 15-year old company is perceived in the consumer market.

“We want to be thought leaders… so we sponsored Satyamev Jayate TV,” he says. “Like we did with mobile services we will be among the first in a market like mobile internet and we will create this market.”

An aggressive consumer goods marketer, Rajaram also thinks consumers are remapping their lives. He contends that rather than have one best friend, the internet and social networks are allowing them to build a circle of good friends, who they can connect with in multiple ways.

Simultaneously, he adds, they are changing the way they consume media, making marketers like him rethink the way their build their marketing strategy. “Young consumers, who are our key target, watch far less TV, for example and rely on the internet heavily,” he says. “This is making us rethink the traditional 360-degree marketing strategy we use.”

The consumption of Airtel’s services, he adds, can no longer be measured in usage, but must become more granular in its approach to identify increasingly picky consumers.