Regional representation in creative teams can help reduce blind spots: Karthik Srinivasan

A communication consultant, Srinivasan shares insights into the state of regional content in India

MUMBAI: If you’re not in tune with the intricacies of a different language, you’re going to land yourself in a soup. Just like Google’s voice assistant Alexa a few months ago when it had censored the word “chhod” (meaning ‘leave’ in English) from a number of popular Hindi songs, as it confused it with an expletive that is spelt the same way when written in English.

While the world is currently moving in an inner spiral with people and cultures merging, the vernacular is extending outwards. And in an assorted country like India, this trend only deepens. As lucrative as it sounds, advertisers are still struggling to extract the most from this.

Case in point is the latest ‘Tinda Moments’ campaign by Uber Eats, as highlighted by communications consultant on digital/social media marketing and PR Karthik Srinivasan in a LinkedIn post. Srinivasan, who has earlier worked with companies like Ogilvy, Flipkart, and Edelman, noted that a Tamilian or Malayali might not be able to get the reference of Hindi word ‘Tinda’. He asked an important question, “Is it too much to expect the brand to customise/localise the ad for the regions it is advertising in? Or is it ok in these multi-lingual metro-centric days where having your ad understood by those who can (and if it is assumed to be a sizeable number) is good enough?” got in touch with Srinivasan to discuss more on the subject of the need of regional content in the advertising sphere and he shared some interesting insights with us. Edited excerpts follow:

The need for vernacular content in advertising is rising steadily, especially after the boom of digital media. Most of the marketers are talking about it. But do you think the brands understand this requirement?

First of all, I would like to note that the term vernacular might not be the best one to describe regional languages. The origin of the word goes back to the varna system in India - it is literally 'language spoken by different coloured people' according to the British. I believe that ‘regional language’ should be used in fact.

On your question, I'd say that the local brands understand this better than the national brands. Those brands that have a strong regional-decision making team for marketing get this really well. If the decisions are made for all of India, in say a Mumbai or a Delhi, unless the teams have adequate representation from the regions or good, sensible counsel from the agencies, they could miss this aspect. It's hardly ever intentional but more of a blind spot.

Isn’t it going to cost the brands more if they create the same ad in various languages? How can this progression towards personalised content be made more cost-effective?

Brands (at least the ones that are national) already do this. Even regional brands, when they go national, do this quite effectively. For example, Manappuram had 8 versions and 8 brand ambassadors, one for each region (Mohanlal, Vikram, Venkatesh, Puneet Rajkumar, Utham Mohanty, Mithun Chakraborty and Sachin Khadekar). I'd not see it as a cost imperative. This is more targetting and effectiveness imperative. Having a nationally known brand ambassador is easy - there are enough Hindi film stars or sports stars, who can be recognised across the country. Having them talk in various regional languages is also a good deal and already happens. But, if you want to reach the heart of a region and not just its eyes, you need to contextualise its communication to appeal to its specific sensibilities. That's not just locally known brand ambassadors, but also locally nuanced content.

How are programmatic advertising and artificial intelligence contributing to the growth of regional content in advertising space?

To the best of my knowledge, AI hasn't really caught up with the nuances of Indian regional languages. There are broad efforts to get the basics right, like Google Maps translating names of areas in all Indian languages. But understanding and translating with context to local nuances is quite some time away. Programmatic does help in micro-targeting. There is better awareness in building a pool of localised content and let the right one be used for the right region. But even here, it is the intent that is the starting point. The marketing team should realise the need for localisation first.

Can you think of any brand that is using regional content to its benefit smartly?

For instance, take Muthoot's campaign featuring Vidya Balan. The choice of Vidya Balan as a brand ambassador is a good move, given her almost pan-Indian appeal and familiarity. But beyond that, it is very interesting that they use 'Blue' (an English word) as connecting glue for the campaign tagline. 'Blue' is the term for smart entrepreneurs (who get some help from Muthoot Finance, of course). The end tagline, 'Blue hai आत्मविश्वास' (Atmavishwas, meaning confidence) translates to 'நம்பிக்கையின் (Nambikkayin meaning confidence in Tamil) niram blue', for instance. The word blue is not translated and is retained as a common factor to connect across multiple regional languages. If blue was translated too, then the statement may seem different in each language. You can argue that 'neel' in Hindi or 'neelam' in Tamil or similar variants is the most common translation for blue in many Indian languages, but that may not be uniform in all languages. The effort in understanding local nuances and working accordingly shows. Another was an effort by ET Money last year in its “Upar Ki Kamayi” campaign, which was printed in seven different languages for different areas on the same day.

What can be the key strategies of a brand to design and implement the right form of multi-linguistic content?

The first, and most basic, is the intent. It is simply recognising the need that regional language content if you have a substantial target audience in that region, will simply work far better in reaching them. It is the humility in accepting that I don't know everything and I can do better by asking around and learning other kinds of effective communication.

Then you have the strategies and processes. Ad agencies and brands simply need to look for inspiration from the dubbing and subtitling industries in India. If you switch on cable TV and look at any Hindi movie channel during non-peak hours (sometimes even during peak hours), they only play Hindi-dubbed South Indian movies. And that dubbing is done brilliantly, placing the location to Northern regions and even using local Northern dialects and nuances.

The subtitling industry is also doing some stellar work since that's a basic requirement for films to be shown in OTT platforms. So, much of the subtitles are done professionally, understanding the context within films and not just transliterated. If the film industry can pull it off, there's no reason a far more professional and educated bunch of people in marketing and advertising cannot. It all boils down to the intent and getting the right people.

How do you see the growth of regional content industry in general?

I'd say it is the next big frontier. Most large brands like Google, Facebook and Twitter are trying to crack that in order to reach Indians better with better context. Even in the OTT space, there's a profusion of regional language content. From a user interface/user experience perspective too, most of the mobile wallets that are from startups have a multi-lingual interface, while those from larger, legacy banks still lack this feature and use English as default.

To a large extent, the bigger technology brands are leapfrogging the complexities of written regional language by taking the voice input route. Google and Amazon's smart speakers already recognise and respond to a few Indian regional languages well and are improving.

Any special pointers you want to share with the brands and marketers regarding the topic?

The most important one is again on intent. We Indians seldom venture beyond our comfort zone when it comes to languages. For instance, our choice of music or movies is usually in English + our mother tongue. It is only now that subtitles have opened up the audience for all kinds of languages but they remain small. With music, is a classic case - if I ask a Hindi speaking person for his/her favourite Tamil or Telugu songs, the standard reaction would be to name a song from Baahubali (pan-India) and say they don't understand the language so they don't listen. But remember, music was supposed to be universal, and we gladly listen to Latin and Spanish hits from the US, like Despacito! The point is, if your target audience is in Karnataka, get to know the local nuances first and not assume that mere Hindi and English would do. They would, no doubt because most people have been conditioned to learn English and perhaps know functional Hindi too for day-to-day survival in cities, but when they see or hear something in their mother-tongue, the appeal goes straight to the heart. It’s much like you being in another part of India and seeing a car with a number plate from your state!

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