New Delhi: Kiran Khalap, the founder and managing director of Mumbai-based brand consulting firm Chlorophyll, rock climbs, speaks Sanskrit and is a prize-winning writer of short stories.
He’s also one of a small team with a big task—convincing more than one billion Indians from all walks of life to register for the unique identity programme, or Aadhaar.
On 15 July, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will launch its first large-scale national test, set to run through February, when the programme itself officially begins.
The organization’s branding and awareness team is headed by UIDAI official Shankar Maruwada and advised by a team of five of India’s top communications and marketing professionals, who are not on the organization’s payroll but meet frequently, discussing plans via email and teleconference and reporting to UIDAI chief Nandan Nilekani and director general R.S. Sharma.
UIDAI, based in New Delhi and chaired by Infosys Technologies Ltd co-founder Nilekani, aims to assign 12-digit universal identity numbers to more than 600 million citizens over the next four years.
The marketing team is one of the more high-profile examples of UIDAI’s ability to tap both the public and private sectors as it attempts to launch one of the largest government schemes in decades.
Joining Khalap in advisory roles are D.K. Bose, a trustee at the Centre for Advocacy and Research, who is regarded as one of India’s most experienced social marketers; Praveen Tripathy, the president of Pidilite Industries Ltd, widely recognized as one of the smartest marketing companies in the country (it makes the Fevicol brand of adhesive); Santosh Desai, the chair of Futurebrands; and Sumeet Vohra, marketing head of Procter and Gamble India.
Combined, they have more than 150 years of marketing experience.
All were headhunted by Maruwada, who looked to bring the country’s most experienced minds in communications, marketing and advertising to tackle what is arguably the UIDAI’s most important challenge—marketing the idea of a universal government identity to citizens from every caste, region and religion.
“UID is not a one-size-fits-all product,” said Maruwada, who himself is no slouch when it comes to marketing. He was the founder of Marketics, a market analytics firm before he joined UIDAI in July 2009.
“Marketing quite often is seen as an effort towards profiteering, an effort towards extorting people’s motivation,” Bose added. “This, meanwhile, is concept marketing, value marketing, intangible marketing. When you promote education, you don’t say ‘I’m marketing education’. You’re marketing certain values and concepts.”
The team has its task cut out. The rich hesitate to register, because armed with passports and driver’s licences, they don’t require the UID to register for simple things such as bank accounts and cellphone connections.
“Our efforts must give them a sense of ownership,” said Bose, who has 48 years of experience in communications strategy. “That comes not because I’m, as the advertiser, saying it’s important, but because they start believing that it’s important to have UID in their lives. So the marketing and communication gears itself towards each individual mind saying ‘it is mine’.”
“This concept of identity is a very, very abstract concept, and to give meaning to this concept, to understand the manifestations of identity in the life of an unskilled worker in a rural area or in a city, is a great consumer research challenge,” Tripathi said.
“What does the UID really mean to him and what are the emotional obstacles to getting him to register? If we can figure this out, we’ll have a much better chance,” he added.
Meanwhile, citizens whose identities rest in community, religion and family are afraid that being identified solely by a digital number will strip them of their traditional sense of self.
“Their challenge is to understand what the sense of identity in Indian rural areas is, and to develop their marketing sequences that way,” said Y.K. Alagh, an economist and chairman of the Institute of Rural Management Anand, speaking of the challenge facing Aadhaar’s marketing team. “Instead of expecting India’s social structure to change...Indian society will not be changed because someone came up with a numerical scheme. So it’s not that you won’t be able to sell to them—the question is, do you have an understanding of (individual community traditions) or not.”
Straight advertising is ruled by the concept of brand switch—convincing consumers to change the brand they’re currently using—whereas UID’s marketing pitch must focus on behavioural change.
“We’re dealing with much stronger attitude issues when it comes to convincing them to give their biometrics or personal info,” Bose said. “Molding their minds towards that calls for a different kind of communication.”
As part of its attack plan, the team is launching a UID learning programme, a test run of its branding strategy the launch of which will coincide with that of the national trial. Headed by Tripathi, this will start in 10 villages in Madhya Pradesh.
“We’ll learn how people respond to the (UID) proposition, what is it they find attractive or meaningless about it, and use that to revamp the plan,” he said.
Tripathi has known Maruwada since their days together at advertising agency Leo Burnett.
The tasks he will face monitoring daily response from UID testers in the field will be different from the obstacles encountered in the advertising business.
During small-scale May enrolment drills in rural Karnataka, ground zero for UID test runs, for instance, citizens waiting in line for registration remained unaware to what a unique ID would mean for them.
But the team seems to have done its thinking on this.
In June, it released an awareness paper that sketched out the components of its communication strategy, including plans to identify stakeholders and a “brand equity pyramid” diagramming how the emotional benefits of an Aadhaar ID were important to convey during the marketing push.
“We need to share our thinking with people,” Maruwada said. “That’s why the report clearly states that the pyramid, which lays out the building blocks of Aadhaar, needs to be tested on the ground. It’s a road map towards the destination, a standard tool in all brand-building exercises.”
He said that the project had one major trait in common with private sector advertising—the need to understand the consumer.
It also has one more claim to being a mainstream marketing project, having brought top New Delhi-based advertising firm Percept on board this month to design the television and print ads which will accompany Aadhaar’s launch.
In whatever form, the team feels urgency. “Right now, our communication has to be about creating ‘want’ for this identity number,” Khalap said.
Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Mint and Hindustan Times to track and understand policy reforms that will, if they are successful, change the very way in which India goes about its efforts to create an inclusive and progressive country.