About 8 percent of India’s population—everyone from billionaire Anil Ambani, brother of India’s richest man, to hardscrabble peasants—has trekked to the Ganges in the past eight weeks, seeking salvation at a religious festival called the Maha Kumbh Mela. Companies including Coca-Cola, Hindustan Unilever, and Colgate-Palmolive have made the same journey in a quest for profits.
Billed as the world’s largest gathering, the Kumbh is expected to draw about 100 million people before its conclusion on March 10. For advertisers, that’s roughly a once-a-decade chance to reach millions of new consumers. “The Kumbh is like an advertising bliss,” says Vipul Salvi, national creative director for OgilvyAction, a unit of Ogilvy & Mather. “It’s some 100 million people in one place, and that never happens anywhere else on the globe.”
The Hindu gathering offers a way to reach shoppers from rural India, where the World Bank estimates about 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people live. Explains Espirito Santo Securities analyst Nitin Mathur: “Here you are reaching the mass end of the consumers directly.” That’s important because for the past two years, per-capita spending by India’s villagers grew faster than that of urban dwellers for the first time in two and a half decades, according to ratings agency Crisil. Rural spending was 12.9 trillion rupees ($235.7 billion) in the two years ended last March 31, compared with 10.4 trillion in urban areas, the Mumbai-based unit of McGraw-Hill Companies reported in August.
Unlike TV commercials, outdoor marketing campaigns at events like the Kumbh can be done in multiple dialects or languages and allow visitors to “touch and feel” products, says Pradeep Kashyap, president of the Rural Marketing Association of India. “Television is essentially a one-way medium, and for rural communities it is a totally inappropriate, inadequate way to communicate,” he says. Rural advertising “has to be a two-way communication where people can clarify their doubts and understand what the product is capable of doing.”
The Maha Kumbh Mela is held once every 12 years in Allahabad, the north Indian city at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The devout believe bathing there on the festival’s most auspicious days cleanses sins. A typical Kumbh day begins at 4 a.m. when thousands show up at the rivers’ banks. Men leap into the icy water in their underwear with their hands folded, while women mostly bathe fully clothed.
Nearby, about 30 companies, including telecom operators, banks, and snack makers, operate stalls offering discounts and freebies. On a recent afternoon, Colgate-Palmolive hawked toothbrushes, Britannia Industries pitched cookies, and local consumer-goods maker Dabur India sold hair oil—all at steep discounts.
The Kumbh will generate overall business of up to 150 billion rupees, according to Assocham, one of India’s largest business lobbying groups. Total advertising spending this year should be about 200 million rupees, estimates Sanjay Kaul, chief executive officer of outdoor promotions company Impact Communications, which handled Kumbh marketing campaigns for 15 companies this year. A small kiosk costs about 500,000 rupees; a major campaign with kiosks, signs, interactive demos, and consumer samples could hit 10 million rupees, says Kaul.
Some businesses use the festival as a soft-sell opportunity to burnish their brands. U.K.-based wireless operator Vodafone Group, for instance, ran a 40-seat theater featuring a cable TV program on the religious story behind the Kumbh. Others use the Kumbh to generate leads that would be tough or time-consuming to assemble without such a large gathering. U.K.-based construction equipment maker JC Bamford Excavators marketed a backhoe loader, used for digging trenches, at the festival. Salesman Deepak Tiwari says he received at least 142 serious inquiries from contractors, politicians, and village chiefs interested in buying the machine.
Coca-Cola had kiosks around the Kumbh area, where it sold 150-milliliter glasses of its namesake soda for 5 rupees, or less than a dime, along with bottles for 25 rupees. Coke had the rights to put up 12 billboards under a railway bridge near the river’s holiest spot. Ads for Hindustan Unilever’s Close Up toothpaste and motorcycles from Hero MotoCorp, the country’s largest motorcycle maker, hung nearby. “Kumbh being a large aggregation of people, we wanted to be a part of their experience there,” Coke said in an e-mail.
Hindustan Unilever, India’s No. 1 detergent maker and a unit of Anglo-Dutch consumer-products giant Unilever, also put ads on rotis, an Indian bread. The rotis were marked with a message reminding people to wash their hands with the company’s Lifebuoy soap before eating. Salespeople employed by Unilever’s ad agency, working alongside cooks at participating restaurants in the area, used electric irons to stamp each flatbread with the marketing pitch. The wash basin in each restaurant was stocked with Lifebuoy soap.
For all the promise, some Kumbh advertisers have found the path to marketing nirvana strewed with boulders. The festival can produce the kind of negative publicity marketers loathe. At least 36 people were killed in a stampede on Feb. 10, when pilgrims leaving the Kumbh rushed to board trains at the Allahabad railway station. At a smaller Kumbh in 2003 held near Mumbai, 39 people were trampled.
Selling at the Kumbh also doesn’t guarantee a crowd. A Coke stall with nearly 1,300 bottles of Coca-Cola sodas, Dasani mineral water, and Maaza mango juice in coolers was mostly empty on a chilly February evening. At a nearby kiosk run by regional producer Ramesh Tea Traders, dozens of people lined up to buy a hot cup of tea for 5 rupees, which came with a free packet of biscuits. “Most people come here looking for freebies, and Coca-Cola is losing out because it isn’t offering any,” says the manager of Coke’s stall, Sanjay Sharma.
That wasn’t Coke’s only worry. Most of its billboards were destroyed in heavy winds and rains, and some were picked up by sweepers and other workers living in huts under the bridge. Strips of the thick red-and-white tarplike material were soon reincarnated as roofs for workers’ tents. Nearly all of Coke’s billboards were taken down beginning Feb. 16, about three weeks before the end of the event, after strong winds ripped the fabric from their metal frames, says Arvind Rathod, who oversees operations for Touch Wood Admark Solutions, which installed the signs. Someone shouted “Loot it all!” as one of them was dismantled on Feb. 18, and a dozen people seeking insulation for their tents rushed in with knives to strip out the fabric. Rathod says Coke’s damaged billboards were removed after the peak visitor period at the Kumbh, so they most likely achieved their purpose of being seen by “massive crowds on the key dates.”
Unilever’s roti-stamping operation was hindered by several hours of power outages each day—a perennial problem in India—and difficulties negotiating with eateries, says Ravi Pratap Singh, a coordinator for OgilvyAction. Restaurant owners weren’t paid and received only a banner with a large Lifebuoy ad and the restaurant’s name written with a marker.
At Life Insurance Corporation of India’s stall, only about 500 people had signed up for an accident insurance policy costing 21 rupees a month. The weak demand meant the company fell behind its target of acquiring several thousand new customers during the festival, says assistant administrative officer S.K. Sharma.
There were “far fewer” advertisers this year compared with previous Kumbhs because of new conditions imposed by organizers, says Impact’s Kaul. Companies with posters and billboards mounted on the festival grounds this year, for example, were required to devote 70 percent of their poster space to promote the Kumbh itself, or for public service messages. (Ads on the bridge, like Coke’s, were exempt.)
Some critics grouse about commercialization of the event. Branding tends to distract people from the true purpose of the festival, says Sarvabhauma Das, chairman of the festival tent encampment run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishna movement. “What’s the use of putting boards for cold drinks in winter—nobody will buy it,” Das says as he sits inside a tent in the organization’s camp under the bridge. “It is neither good for spirituality, nor for the safety of the people living here.”