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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Why Micromax switched from Hugh Jackman to Kapil Sharma

Smartphone companies play regional card to woo small-town customers

For a company that had Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman endorsing its products since 2013 until as late as last year, bringing comedian Kapil Sharma on board to push its Unite 4 series of smartphones was a big detour.

There was a reason Micromax Informatics Ltd did so. To promote the local language feature in the phone, Micromax hired Sharma to attack the arrogance attached with the English language in ad films—Angrezipanti ko Angootha (thumbsdown to Westernization)—and made a case for finding comfort in one’s own language. Its series of television spots also highlighted why local language is the new ‘cool’ in smartphones.

Micromax is not the sole player pumping advertising money in promoting the local language feature. Japanese company Panasonic’s mobility business in India has also been pushing its P series of smartphones with local language support through a long-running campaign.

The television campaign, rolled out some months ago, features people across age groups sharing messages, jokes and recipes in their local languages.

Earlier this year, Karbonn Mobiles, too, released a television spot promoting its K9 smartphone model, which supports regional languages. The commercial features a bunch of young consumers accessing information about various career options on their smartphones in local languages.

The underlining thought of the spot was that language will no longer be a barrier for the young India’s aspirations.

While a local language function in smartphones is not new, companies pumping advertising money to promote the feature certainly is. Panasonic, for instance, has invested around 25 crore in promoting its regional language smartphones in the last one year. Karbonn Mobiles claims that its new K9 smartphone campaign is its biggest marketing initiative, with spending ranging between 25 and 30 crore. Micromax did not divulge its advertising spending.

The companies’ focus on promoting the language feature can be attributed to their taking note of the enormous market that exists outside the metros; in the smaller towns, consumers upgrading from feature phones confront a language problem because most smartphones usually come with an English or Hindi operating system. Those may not necessarily be languages they are familiar with.

In spite of India being one of the fastest growing smartphone markets globally, smartphone, and hence Internet, penetration growth in India has slowed a bit, said Pavel Naiya, an analyst at Counterpoint Technology Market Research. Only one in five users owns a smartphone or is connected to the Internet. Counterpoint is a market research firm that analyses the connected electronics market.

“This has been mainly due to lack of localization and multi-lingual support in today’s mass-market phones. In the light of this, in the last 12 months, domestic brands such as Micromax, Karbonn, Lava and so forth have launched devices with deeper integration and customization to support multiple native languages. The idea is to rope in next half-a-billion users who do not speak, read or write in English or Hindi as their first languages," he explained.

According to Counterpoint Research’s senior analyst Tarun Pathak, the current installed base of smartphones in India is close to 250 million, which is one-third of the potential user base.

The installed base of feature phones is close to 400 million and in every quarter in the past few years, there has been a significant jump in feature phone users upgrading to smartphones. In late 2015, there was a steep decline in the rate of growth of users shifting from feature phones to smartphones.

“In India, only 100 million people can read and write English properly, which is just 10% of the total population. It is a huge opportunity for all the brands to tap this growing user base who are upgrading from feature to smartphones. If a user is coming to a feature phone ecosystem with a particular brand, the chances are that he/she will switch to a smartphone of that very brand, considering his/her experience with the brand has been good," Pathak added.

The simple insight for the handset maker is that small-town consumers are affluent enough to afford a smartphone and data charges. They are aspirational and probably experiencing the Internet for the first time on their mobile devices.

Hence, experience is crucial for them. While they understand English, they are more comfortable in their own language. Take, for example, the young woman in the latest Micromax Unite 4 campaign who uses Punjabi on her smartphone, but is a skilled ballet dancer, a western dance form usually perceived to be associated with big cities and English-speaking crowds.

Shubhajit Sen, chief marketing officer, Micromax, said that the company is targeting two consumer sub-segments. The first set comprises consumers who are living in Tier II and III towns—they understand English but prefer using a vernacular language.

For them, one of the barriers in moving from a feature phone to a smartphone is language. “We are trying to provide them a simple user interface in their mother tongue, making things easy for them," he said.

The other segment is urban middle-class consumers who are fluent in English but find an emotional resonance in their own language.

The Angrezipanti ko Angootha campaign targets the second sub segment with the Unite 4 smartphone. The company claims that it has been promoting regional language-based phones since 2013 through its Unite series—which also happens to be its most successful range, having sold 2.5 million units so far.

Panasonic India, in its internal research, found that consumers from Tier II and III towns in the South, Hindi belt and eastern parts of India were using stock Android (pure version of Android that is directly provided by Google without any modifications), which had English as the primary language.

Although Hindi support was available in these devices, the user experience was found to be sub-standard. The company decided to integrate 21 Indian languages in the entry level phone Panasonic P9, priced at 4,500, in April 2014.

“There was a surge in sales without even doing any ATL (above-the-line or mainstream advertising) activity. The product was promoted only through select print advertising in regional languages along with Point of Sale promotions. This motivated us to take regional language integration in our over 5,000 phones range. Currently, the company has eight models with regional phone support," said Pankaj Rana, business head, mobility division, Panasonic India.

Panasonic is currently promoting its P66 model with 21 languages’ integration through a 360 degree campaign. It claims that it has sold close to one million regional language supported phones, with the P55 Novo being the highest selling one.

Apart from familiarity, local languages also bring an emotional connect when it comes to sharing content online. Micromax’s internal study showed that about 70% of all YouTube content is non-English, while 40% of WhatsApp messages are in local languages.

“There is a lot of content available both offline and online which is in local languages. In print and electronic media, nine out of the 10 newspapers or TV channels are vernacular. The top two Twitter trends will always be in a (local) language," Sen said.

Everybody from small entertainment start-ups to tech giant Google has been pumping money to promote Indian languages. Google, for instance, has been focusing on expanding the usage of its products such as ‘Maps’ and ‘Search’ to local languages. especially Hindi.

While local language support is a baby step in wooing small-town customers to adopt smartphones, the experience can be made immersive by introducing services in their mother tongue.

The momentum in smartphone adoption will only continue if the smartphone experience is delivered in local languages, said Shashin Devsare, executive director, Karbonn Mobiles. “Smartphones are no longer just about voice and text," he said, noting that it is crucial to deliver services in regional languages.

Karbonn Mobiles has partnered with Times Internet-owned cricket portal Cricbuzz and news aggregator Dailyhunt (formerly Newshunt) to provide cricket scores and news updates in local language. The company offers local language support in 80% of its phones.

The regional language-supported phones are helping companies penetrate key markets such as West Bengal, the Hindi belt of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Maharashtra, Gujarat and southern markets (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala).

“We estimate that by end of 2016, more than 10 million smartphone users will have phone supporting at least more than 12 languages and this will be very important trend every original equipment manufacturer or handset maker will have to follow to further penetrate in Indian smartphone market," said Counterpoint Research’s Naiya.

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