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India 2015: THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | Digital

The number of Indians online is enormous, but small if compared with the potential 

Brands need to supplement TV with practical digital channels 

Ashwath Ganesan
VP and Head of Planning
Ogilvy One Worldwide

OgilvyOne Worldwide is the world’s leading Customer Engagement Agency, as ranked by Forrester Research, Inc. Our core promise to clients is to help them unlock the full value of customers. We do this by turning big ideas and data into personal experiences to help our clients win more customers and make them more valuable. OgilvyOne India has been named No.1 Digital Agency in India; it has also earned the title of 5th Smartest Digital Agency Worldwide by WARC100..


The numbers can seem magical, if not outright overwhelming: 100 Million active monthly Facebook users – the second largest user base in the world; 30 Million Twitter users. Out of every eight people on LinkedIn, one is from India. New platforms are exploding across the nation. WhatsApp has massive penetration. There are reports, admittedly generous, that 200 Million Indians are using Instagram. These are numbers straight out of the hungry fever dreams of marketers and media planners.

But India is a nation of big numbers. We talk about India as a nation of a billion people. When we do that, we’re rounding down – and the remainder that we’re ignoring is roughly the entire population of the USA. Against this backdrop of abundant humanity, digital penetration numbers suddenly start to look positively dainty. Certainly, when it comes to reaching young, professional, and wealthy Indians – which many brands want to do – digital channels are powerful.

Mass brands, however, can’t operate in the rarefied air of the top of the pyramid. They have to get down into the scrum; they have to communicate with hundreds of millions of potential customers. So are mass brands stuck with television in India?


While we like to focus on the innovation, visual appeal, and Internet culture of today’s digital channels, the digital revolution in marketing is more than the sum of its distribution outlets. Going digital has forced us to fundamentally change our thinking. Some of what we’ve learned is new(ish):

  • Your brand belongs to consumers, not to you (because they’re much better at informing each other about it than you are at

    informing them).

  • Consumers create “ephemeral
    art” (ie. content trends) much more effectively than brands do.
  • Attention has become a scarce, and thus nearly priceless resource. Context, more than content, is king.

    On the other hand, a lot of what we’ve learned is actually quite old. It turns out that customers like being treated as individuals. They are curious, and want to

know more about the products they buy. And, while brands are less trustworthy than friends and family, each brand does have a zone in which it is trusted. We trust Apple when it comes to design, and Cadbury when it comes to joy.

The trick, then, is to combine these insights, and find new (or old) ways to deliver them to India’s mass audience. How can we customize experiences? How can we answer curiosity? How do we provide great content? How do we do all these things – classically the realm of digital – for an audience that isn’t online?


Here’s another big number: 900 million mobile subscriptions (representing roughly 700 million mobile customers). That’s a number big enough for any mass brand. And most of those (about 85 to 90 percent depending on the source) are feature phones. Indian feature phone users are surprisingly mature in their usage, despite not belonging to the smartphone ecosystems that the rest of us take for granted.

They expect to use those feature phones for banking, texting, checking the weather, listening to music, watching videos, and, yes, interacting with brands. In the poorest areas of India, where even radio can be a challenge, automated hotlines (Interactive Voice Response) have provided consumers with music – interspersed with brand messaging.

There will be a time when the majority of Indians are online. But why wait? Successful mass brands in India’s next handful of years will be the ones that capture the spirit of digital – individualization, content delivery, information matched against intent – and apply it across practical channels like SMS and IVR systems.

In fact, it’s already started. In recent work we’ve done with a client, we’ve explored the power of automated, voice-navigated phone systems. We’ve encountered platforms like Rocketalk, which serves content and brand channels to users for whom Facebook is a thing distantly heard of.

It’s time for mass brands to supplement the megaphone of TV with the relevance and personalization of digital thinking – served across practical, innovative channels. 

Insights for building digital impact in India

  • India’s online population is massive – but only represents the most prosperous fraction of the addressable consumer universe.
  • Television remains the favorite platform for mass brands – but it’s only a megaphone (one- way communication).
  • Just because India’s masses aren’t online doesn’t mean they aren’t learning “digital” habits.
  • The key elements of digital thinking – personalization, content, and information delivered against intent – don’t require digital channels.
  • Brands need to innovate down the pyramid, not just up, leveraging practical technologies to reach their consumers on a more personal level.