Bollywood and brands: what can marketers learn from product placement in the world's largest film industry?

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2013 film Ram-Leela, filmmakers chose to worked with fashion brand Cbazaar.

Product placement in Bollywood could at one time have been described as blatant and unapologetic. But with social media users in India now numbering some 200 million, many of whom are all too happy to call out the brands and studios getting it wrong, the industry has been forced to rethink its approach. We look at the lessons to be learned from this lucrative market and, over the following pages, find out what programmatic could mean for product placement and look at brand integration in the age of streaming.

Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès and many other luxury brands popped up, unquestioned, in Sex and the City for six seasons and two films. More recently Old Forrester launched a new whiskey for the new Kingsman film and audiences barely batted an eyelid when an early scene pivoted around a bottle of the stuff. But it isn’t just western TV and film that continues to get into bed with brands. Much like Hollywood, Bollywood also has a long history of product placement. And it’s a relationship that has had as many highs and lows over the years as the characters in its movies and shows.

But as India’s digital sophistication reaches mainstream levels, an increasingly savvy audience is expecting a new type of relationship from its actors, directors and producers. Being on top of this is paramount because, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian media and entertainment sector is expected to grow at 13.9%, to reach $37.55bn by 2021 from $19.59bn in 2016, outshining the global average of 4.2%.

This growth has empowered product placement in the Indian entertainment industry, which has become more sophisticated in recent years. Previously, placements were unsubtle and generally stuck out like a sore thumb, creating limited impact and the potential to actually make the audience annoyed with the product.

Filmmaker Vikram Bhatt believes product or in-film brand placements have almost become redundant in Bollywood. “There was a period of years when it was a huge thing, and it still can be,” he says. “However, when it doesn’t seem like a natural fit in the script, the audience today is smart enough to know how to distinguish between something subtle and something seamless. Unfortunately, for a long time the product placements were too loud in films.”

According to a report released by GroupM – Showbiz, the Indian Superpower – the total co-branded marketing media spend for Hindi films has reached approximately Rs.100 crore [$15.7m] a year. More brands tied up with films through co-branded marketing associations than in-film associations across all years. Brand alliances increased steadily from 2010 onwards until 2016, with media spend exceeding marketing budgets of the film in few cases.

Bhatt believes the growth of digital will create new opportunity. “With the digital era exploding, there’s a huge integrative opportunity for product and brand placements in web series and over-the-top (OTT) platforms, more than films. Audiences of the digital formats are more aware and will respond better to such techniques.”

The brands have already cemented their future with OTTs. The Indian digital sector is expected to cross the Rs. 20,000 crore [$3.14bn] mark by 2020 from Rs. 8,490 crore [$1.33bn] at present, largely led by OTT and digital advertising, according to an EY report, ‘Digital Opportunity: India Media and Entertainment.’

OTT players are catering to the millennial needs by integrating brands. SonyLIV rolled out a new home improvement show, House Proud, in association with Asian Paints and home accessories e-commerce business CuroCarte. Last year, SonyLIV partnered with digital entertainment company Pocket Aces, which earns its revenue by syndicating content to various OTT players like Uber rival Ola Cabs and airlines like Etihad and Jet, as well as selling merchandise based on the series.

Most recently, Pocket Aces partnered with Dice Media and Pepsi Co brand Kurkure to create a web series called 2by3.

Rahul Puri (above), managing director of Indian film production company Mukta Arts, says that an increasingly savvy audience has also made actors and producers savvier, with brand relationships becoming subtler and having longer lifespans.

“As marketing tie-ups and brand positioning have become more intrinsically linked with actors and actresses, the positioning in films has also found a way that doesn’t offend the audiences and is well understood. Shah Rukh Khan [known as ‘the King of Bollywood’ having appeared in over 80 films] using a Nokia phone in his films is now a given, and audiences completely relate to why it’s there. Similarly with Sonam Kapoor [one of the industry’s highest-paid actresses who also has her own clothing line] and her multitude of brands. Actors themselves are also smart enough these days, as are producers and brand managers, to not force products, but to read scripts and carefully choose the type of placement according to the story and the film’s characters.”

E-commerce is indeed empowering the actors in Bollywood to integrate their own entrepreneurial ambitions within the content they are in. It is expected that Shahid Kapoor will wear his brand, Skult, and Anushka Sharma will wear her brand, Nush, in their upcoming movies. As to whether it is an effective way of getting brands in front of consumers, Puri says: “It can be. So much of it is to do with how the placement is done. Something that works well in the story and is relatable will have a lot of value for the brand. Remember, Hindi films are extremely well watched in theaters and on TV, so once the placement is done it will have immense repeat viewing as well.

For example, the hit movie 3 Idiots maintained an association with Pantaloons, who organised a fashion show featuring actor Aamir Khan and co-stars Madhavan and Sharman Joshi showcasing a range of 3 Idiots t-shirts, manufactured by Pantaloons. Ranbir Kapoor, star of Wake Up Sid, teamed up with Provogue to launch a range of t-shirts tying in with that movie.

Preeti Mascarenhas, principal partner of strategy at Mindshare, says Bollywood has been a strong recall and engagement medium for many brands. “It’s interesting to see the way brands have dramatically moved beyond using the medium tactically and borrowing the imagery to build relevance for the brands.”

When thinking about what not to do, Varun Duggirala (above), co-founder and content chief of The Glitch, an agency focused that produces video for the web, argues that having actors emphasize the name of a brand too often, or too obviously, could result in negative responses from the audience – and social media trolling.

He says: “The true future [of brand placement] lies beyond the film. Think about the opportunities the digital space has thrown out, by allowing filmmakers to create content surrounding the film for the audience to understand and dive into the world of the movie before they see it. Can these extensions be used to make the brand’s plug in the film less blatant yet balanced, and give the brand more eyeballs overall so it’s a better return on investment for both sides? Also, we have music and music videos as a great asset, but often under-used as a means of brand placement.”

As to what brands should do to make product placement work, Xiaofeng Wang, Forrester senior analyst, says: “They should normalize product placement and make the product fit naturally in the movie. It can’t be too forced or intrude on the movie’s plot, it has to be seen and used in a natural context. Brands should create signature moments that an audience can easily notice and memorize – a natural placement doesn’t mean invisible or easy to neglect. Pick an important scene or leverage visual and audio to make product placement memorable.”

According to Statista, in 2019 it is estimated that there will be around 258.27 million social network users in India, a prediction which shows that digital is already influencing the Indian audience at a huge scale.

However, despite digitization, television will continue to be the biggest advertising medium in the country. The Media Partners Asia report forecasts that over the next five years, the fastest growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region will be India at 10.7%, China at 8.4% and then Indonesia at 8.2%.

Product placement may not be new to Bollywood, but savvy digital audiences are already calling out those who get it wrong. The smartest actors and producers are signing deals with brands that have longevity on both the big and small screen, meaning that those brands are presented with a highly lucrative opportunity in this rapidly growing and dynamic market.

This feature was first published in The Drum's February issue, the Future of TV.

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