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Marketing lessons from the 2024 Indian general election

By Amit Bapna, APAC editor-at-large

June 12, 2024 | 6 min read

The Drum delves into what marketers can learn from the recently concluded Indian parliamentary elections.

The Great Indian Elections 2024

The Great Indian Elections 2024 / (Source: The Leaflet)

The last few weeks were possibly the most action-packed for India as a country. Starting April 19, 2024, the world’s largest democracy launched a mammoth parliamentary election to elect representatives for the parliament comprising 543 seats. The seven-phased voting that covered the entire country ended on June 1 and the results were declared a few days later. The single largest party, BJP, led by prime minister Narendra Modi, came back to power – with Modi taking charge as the country head for a record third time in a row.

Contrary to many predictions about the outcome, the leading party emerged victorious with a thinner margin than previously and hence had to cobble a coalition with smaller regional parties to claim its majority stake.

The election campaign was run much like a well-funded brand campaign, putting many of the marketing principles and media planning metrics to a firm test. Digital deployment was at an all-time high, mirroring consumer habits. PR was used big time to establish the narrative at a macro level as well as at a regional level. The Indian consumer – in this case, the voter – was wooed and courted by the various parties with everything from memes to videos.

The Drum caught up with a bunch of senior marketers to ask what lessons could be learned from the way the marketing playbooks of the different parties played out across the consumer touchpoints, finding out what worked and what did not.

Dheeraj Sinha, group CEO, FCB Group India & South Asia: “The election campaign this year has been run with a high degree of marketing sophistication. It has indeed been a full-funnel approach, along with mainline, digital and PR interviews plugged in at the right time. The national themes were interpreted in local benefits and languages, too. There are a few clear lessons and interpretations from this year’s elections.

“Firstly, India isn’t an airdrop market – we can’t run a theme campaign and not worry about execution and conversions on-ground. Mere narrative and sentiment management is not enough; the experience of the product on-ground matters as much, if not more.

“Secondly, you may win India in parts and you can lose it in other parts. This happens as much for brands as it has happened for political parties. It’s critical, therefore, to win India region-up. The local wave is as important as the national wave.

“Thirdly, social media can also create an echo chamber, where you may feel the reverberations of the messages you are sending out, not necessarily that those messages are landing or impacting consumer behavior.”

Aditya Kanthy, CEO and MD, DDB Mudra Group, India: “While we weren’t watching, India kept its secret love affair with democracy and diversity going. That’s been the big message from these elections. We brace for the next cycle of growth with confidence in our institutions and the belief that the more voices we hear, the stronger we become."

"Our opportunity on the world stage is to be the flag bearer of creativity, freedom and innovation – robust debate and differing perspectives are central to these outcomes. This is the eternal appeal of Brand India. Listening more deeply to grassroots voices and using digital media to bring them center-stage was a particularly striking feature of the more effective campaigns in this election season."

"A stark reminder for brands and marketers to be wary of echo chambers and armchair analysts."

Manisha Kapoor, CEO, Advertising Standards Council of India: “There are quite a few lessons for marketers from this election campaign, starting with understanding the core expectations of your audience and delivering relentlessly. The bells and whistles may be welcome as an addition but not a replacement for the core promises. Focusing on competition rather than your audience is an age-old mistake that many succumb to; it doesn’t help a campaign in the long run.

“Sensationalism is short-lived. While it may be entertaining and may grab eyeballs, it usually erodes credibility.

“Audiences no longer rely on a single source of information; they are willing to listen to diverse voices and make up their own minds.

“Delivering versus expectations sometimes means more than absolute delivery. So, understanding and managing the expectations of your customers, stakeholders, employees and critics is key.

“A lot can be learned from criticism. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the critics usually want the same outcomes as you do, just that they may not agree with your methods, approach or metrics. Keeping your mind open to the diversity of voices is a powerful way to set yourself to do better.”

Sumeer Mathur, chief strategy officer, Dentsu Creative India: “CDC Lokniti data has shown that 41% of the electorate decided whom to vote for during electoral campaign phases; this makes snackable content important, providing longevity to the campaign and keeping it fresh and robust through memes, videos, reels and playing to platform strengths. The opposition created a hard, working mid-funnel campaign giving undecided voters new reasons throughout campaign phases.

“Social media, YouTube and especially the comments section helped gauge the mood of the voters. BJP used this information to alter and change its tack in the middle of the campaign when it realized that there was a mood of discontent. This source of information can throw real issues and help marketers keep their ears to the ground. Sometimes, this is even more valuable as the official sources may not highlight these issues.”

“Remember, even the best hero content has a shelf life, as shown by the wall-to-wall coverage of the Ram Mandir consecration. However, it was months before the actual campaign kicked off and became old news.

“It helps to find what resonates with your audience and then stick to your core message. Do not try to appeal to everyone and lose the power in your message. As the BJP campaign unspooled, it tried many different attacks, while the opposition campaign stayed on course, refusing to get drawn into distractions and managing to set the narrative.”

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