#Retrace2021: Associating with marquee properties on TV helped us take a quantum leap on digital: Arjun Mohan

#Retrace2021: Associating with marquee properties on TV helped us take a quantum leap on digital: Arjun Mohan

upGrad India CEO Arjun Mohan on the year gone by, and plans for 2022.

Arjun Mohan

The only ed-tech “to have a ‘donkey’ as its brand ambassador”, upGrad has been hitting all the right notes, starting from its eye-grabbing ‘Don’t lick ass, instead kick ass’ 2020 ad to its fortune-teller donkey ad in early 2021 to drive across its “Sirf Naam Ki Nahi, Kaam Ki Degree” messaging. Having achieved the desired impact with its former campaign, the edtech consciously shifted its brand positioning to ‘Fast Forwarding’ one’s career with upGrad’s online courses, ending the year with a striking print campaign that took on CAT, while also tackling with humor the perception of ‘online’ MBAs not being effective.

The seven-year-old start-up, known to make full use of its marketing channels to amp up the reach has crossed a subscriber base of two million learners at last count, and the jump from one million to two million came about in approx. eight months.

As the person at the helm of upGrad’s India operations, Arjun Mohan has steered the edtech unicorn and helped put it on an upward trajectory. An experienced industry professional, Mohan has worked across domains spanning sales, marketing, and product development for over 15 years.  Before upGrad, Mohan worked with edtech major Byju’s as marketing vice-president and later as the chief business officer (CBO). A gold medallist from IIM Kozhikode, Mohan has worked with brands like Titan and Tata services.

In a free-wheeling conversation with IndianTelevision’s Anupama Sajeet, the upGrad India CEO Arjun Mohan talks about steering the edtech brand through a post-pandemic world and on the key marketing innovations adopted by the brand in the past year. He also shares his thoughts on being a ‘hardcore optimist’ and the trends that might dominate the edtech industry in 2022.

Edited excerpts:

On looking back at how the year 2021 fared for upGrad

In a growing industry, every year is a good year. So, from a business perspective, 2021 was a good year as overall business metrics have been quite good. But it was pretty challenging considering the multiple waves of Covid which struck us - the lockdowns, the inconsistencies of when to come to the office, and the problems that our consumers were facing. As a result, decisions were getting delayed. But then it was these challenges that pushed us and I believe as a result of that we were able to carve out several good ideas on all three aspects of business i.e. products, sales, and marketing. Hence we were able to create an impact in the market.

On key innovations adopted by the brand in 2021

Yes, between 2020 and 2021, there have been a lot of changes in the way upGrad communicated. That change is a testimony to consumer behaviour, where the association between education being something ‘serious’ is a thing of the past. And that is why we positioned the brand differently.  We realised that learning, upskilling, lifelong learning- all these aspects are no longer constrained to a few. There are guys who want to learn, upskill, and constantly improve themselves but at the same time, they want to enjoy life. We started talking to our consumers in a lighter vein, started communicating with working professionals in a language they connected to.

One of the initial communications we did was on office politics- on how one should stop bothering about office politics and focus on specialisations and upskilling that will take your career ahead. The second campaign we built upon was ‘Sirf naam ki nahi, kaam ki degree’. We continuously heard from customers that “we would definitely think of doing this course, par ye degree koi kaam ki honi chahiye.” In India, a degree is associated with - a better job, a promotion, a better salary, a future, and so on. So, we worked on those insights and repositioned the entire company into offering courses that will actually be life-changing. That’s where we moved to our positioning of ‘kaam ki degree’.

In 2022, we moved into phase two of it. Rather than just talking about online learning, we started focusing more on the value proposition part of it- On how the upGrad course/ degree is better than whatever options you have in the market. Thus, if you see our communication, it has also been based on the life-changing impact that upGrad courses have, followed by two or three shorties or 15-second films where we talk about the USPs. This format has been really helping us with the consideration part and we have been seeing that the conversion on the lead has been on the uptick. So, if last year the donkey was the high point from an ‘awareness’ perspective, then this year the MBA campaigns we did focusing on the ‘value proposition’ – that would be the highlight which saw a lot of impact for us. That’s been a big change in 2021. 

On launching campaigns sans any celebrity endorsements

While we do joke about it that every edtech out there has a celebrity brand ambassador- Byju’s has a SRK, Great learning has Virat Kohli, now Vedaantu has got Aamir Khan- and we have a donkey (!), it's not been a conscious decision. If at a point in time we feel we need a celebrity vehicle we would do that. Currently, we are at an early stage of our brand building and the aspect we have been focusing on, as well as the TG we are talking about, is very different. This is not for mass India; this is for a smart audience. We didn’t see working professionals as the right vehicle for getting a brand ambassador. Even if you look at who or what they follow on OTTs or YouTube platforms – the kind of influencers these people follow are not celebrities. They are very individualistic and iconoclastic in that they follow what they think is right- they don’t believe they need to follow the crowd. And that’s why we stuck to the basics and the donkey!

On exploring influencer marketing and subsequent ad-spends

The way we look at brand marketing is that there are three pillars- The first pillar for us is ‘Content’ which includes social etc. Then comes the ‘Mass media’ which is where the TV and Print comes in and finally the ‘PR’ and all other aspects.

For Content- we focus a lot on the content creators: influencers on YouTube, Instagram, OTT platforms, etc because our TG, especially the knowledge worker who is in IT/ ITES follows this segment a lot. We have started by working with multiple content creators like BeYouNick, Dhruv Rathee, who are very popular with this TG. We work with them on bringing Upgrad into their content very organically.

Apart from relying on other content creators, we have also started creating our own original content called ‘the office canteen’. This again revolves around the theme of office politics, along with BeYouNick and YouTube, Google and has been a big success for us (trending with ten mn views).

On the brand’s ad spend across TV, digital and print

When it comes to mass media like TV and Print, rather than a ‘spray and pray’ our strategy has been focused on large properties.  When we do it, we do it big because we want to work on those properties which have a huge reach. So, we worked on IPL, the Test championship, UEFA, Wimbledon, and such. You can also see the sports association- as sport is connected with winners and ambitions so that works for us. Even in newspapers, our ad was an impact ad. It was more like moment marketing in that we took a dig at CAT, saying ‘CAT is so yesterday’. So that’s the kind of 'big bang' approach we are taking with mass media.

We do digital marketing all the time and we’ve our leaps coming at particular CPL (Cost per lead) and traffic coming with a particular threshold. I want these brand properties on mass media to be at a point where I’ll get a quantum leap on the digital side of it. We plan it in such a way that our traffic moves a threshold and comes to a new benchmark. That’s been our larger strategy.

Digital is where we get to do direct marketing. And we keep using large-scale marketing properties to get quantum jumps. Because, the kind of scale these properties give, digital will take years to reach there. We are also seriously looking at OOH. We shall do a clinical campaign, once our TG is back in the office, by trying to focus on places where we know our TG is- for instance, an IT park- and then do BTL inside such premises along with hoardings etc.

So, all of this mass marketing is important to us, and we have a way to measure their impact. For that matter, even ‘Shark Tank’, where we are the title sponsors, we are quite sure that is the direction large-scale mass media is moving into. Rather than doing a couple of ads in between programs, writing your brand into the story is what really works. So that’s something we have really worked on and we have big plans for the show.

On rising competition in ed-tech space and strengthening their USP

We have complete confidence in our product. This product took almost five years to develop after multiple iterations. We were always clear that if we are able to get our customer to at least try our product then we can change his/ her perspective and even convince them that online is better than offline. There has been a lot of influx but if you see what's happening today is that the players with a strong product, and sales & marketing capability are finally emerging out of this. So, I feel the solution for us is just to have our ears to the ground and keep on listening to the customer and then be ready with a solution that they will love. And that’s what we have been doing with our products, sales and marketing.

On upcoming plans for 2022

I am a hardcore optimist so I am sure 2022 will be superb for the brand. We are very clear we want to be the largest integrated edtech in the higher education space (post K-12) across the globe. Our international operations, which we started in 2021, is panning out well. We have our offices in the US, APAC and India where we have set up our subsidiaries. Post-India, our focus market will be the US- we really want to crack that market. So really looking forward to 2022 when we can take this to the next level.

On key trends that might dominate the industry this year

I think most of the ed-tech players in the K-12 segment will ultimately stabilise with the hybrid model, wherein there’s an offline component to it and an online component. But in higher edtech I don’t see that happening. Higher online learning has gotten established as a clear option or a side-by-side alternative to what used to exist earlier offline. There’s a very clear value proposition that you can continue upskilling even when you are working: ‘Learn while you Earn’.

Hence, I believe, online education will be the preferred mechanism, at least from a Masters-degree perspective in India. The majority of Indians do not do a Master's today because they are not sure whether thereafter, they will be able to get a job with that kind of a package. Even from a NNation-building perspective it is important for a country like India, with such a young population that we have highly skilled people. That’s when the country’s economy will move to the next level.

Also, as we keep getting feedback from our learners, there has to be some social component to even online learning. So we are working to build a social module where learners can share their ideas, meet their lecturers, and have a session offline also. So that’s the way we see it and we will keep improving on it in 2022.