Of the people, for the people – buy the people

P Anima | Updated on August 03, 2018

Keeping it real: In Soccer at Sixty, James, the football fan, plays with his dog as he talks about his team, seemingly unaware of the camera

God’s Own Country has a new tourism mantra — testimonies from the average Keralite, with a focus on local staples such as football and libraries

James PH is not your usual tourism ambassador. He is not a star, and doesn’t have a rich baritone or a diehard fan following. James is 60, drives a truck and plays football.

A video of James wriggling into a Number 7 football jersey, bouncing a ball off his head and chest, spinning it on his index finger and dribbling it across the ground, all along talking about what the game means to him, has been drawing eyeballs on the Net. The three-minute clip on James and his mates of the long-defunct Amabalavayal FC (football club) snagged over 1.5 lakh views in less than a month. The department of tourism, Kerala, released the clip on the obscure football lover from the hill district of Wayanad on its Facebook page during the FIFA World Cup in July. It narrates the story of James and the team of 1980-83 and, through them, of Kerala’s love for the game.

The video — Soccer at Sixty: A Football Story from Kerala — makes a pitch that is as understated as it is effective. In a competitive market where battles are fought over footfall, Kerala has discovered a new USP — its people. If other states rely on film stars and grand monuments, it is picking out brand ambassadors from among ordinary folks and aiming to sell simple pleasures. With campaigns spread across social media, the state is reaching out to a new segment by flipping tourism philosophy on its head: Visit the state for the people as much as the place.

“So many tourism boards are competing for the same pie. We are taking the battle to the next level. We are no longer appealing to the five senses, but to the sixth and seventh ones,” says P Bala Kiran, director, department of tourism, Kerala.

A state that has for decades marketed itself as ‘God’s Own Country’ and hard sold its backwaters, beaches, hill stations and organic cures, Kerala has now decided to place local people at the centre of its narrative. People are not props, but crucial points of interest in the new campaigns. “There is the physical space, but there is also an emotional one,” Bala Kiran tells BLink from Thiruvananthapuram.

The campaign does exude a feel-good factor. James was the team’s stopper back and football the glue that bound everyone together. The players, now grey, recall how they played impromptu matches on full moon nights and walked miles to watch World Cup games on a black-and-white television set in the village.

The star forward of the team is now a successful businessman, the goalkeeper is a tailor, the hothead wingback runs a furniture store. And 35 years later, James still needs his daily dose of football. “People are keen to know what I eat to remain agile,” he chuckles. “I have a handful of roasted groundnuts every day. It gives me stamina.”

The soccer story is the latest in the tourism department’s people-centric promotions which began a couple of years ago, and of which the ‘Live Inspired’ campaign that coincided with the Kochi Art Biennale was a big part. Called a ‘Reading Room With a View’, it used Kerala’s popular reading libraries to open a window into its cultural history. A little over three minutes long, the clips break the conventional format of a commercial and are more like short films.

Focussing on the local

The department is following up Soccer At Sixty with more clips that focus on people and cultural traditions. A set of filmmakers is working on themes ranging from food to backwater living. A video released on Eid in July centred on family, prayer and cuisine. More such videos are on the way. “We are making one on the musical notes of nature and how it is linked with the people,” says Bala Kiran.

Rowing ahead: The state, which positioned itself as a ticket to pristine greenery, backwaters and Ayurveda, is now focussing on its people   -  THULASI KAKKAT


The shift in focus is in tandem with international trends. There was a time when Kerala — with its luxurious resorts and Ayurveda packages — was the upmarket tourist’s dream destination. But today’s traveller wants down-to-earth and authentic experiences, says Shelton Pinheiro, executive creative director at Stark Communications, which handles brand communications and social media for the tourism department.

“Travellers are changing and campaigns reflect that,” he says. Picture-postcard stuff, clearly, is passé and lived-in experiences are in. “The new visitors are wary of ad-like pitches, and instead want experiences they do not get in their everyday life. In fact, they want a break from the places and the lives they come from,” he adds.

Pinheiro points out that a series of international studies has found that people are in search of unscripted experiences, a trend confirmed by feedback collected by the agency. “The travelling millennial is looking for real and warm interactions, so they meet the people of a village, talk to the driver… The days when a traveller moved about in a sanitised, isolated bubble of comfort is over. ”

Soccer at Sixty underlines the change. The commercial is made to sound like a story or a short documentary with a narrative. A local news item on football-crazy James led the film crew to Wayanad, and the story developed organically from an individual’s passion to a community’s obsession with the game — and, in the process, represented a slice of life in Kerala. “We did not train the subject to talk in a certain way. James spoke casually, almost unaware of the camera, even playing with his dog. We left those instances untouched at the editing table. It was shot without much artificial light; we let that be too,” says Pinheiro.

Industry insiders have been aware of the curiosity local people generated among tourists, especially international travellers. Brand campaigners are tapping the inherent contradictions that characterise the state.

“On the one hand, it has had communist governments but is called God’s Own Country; it has the old art form theyyam as well as the biennale. It melds the local and the global,” Pinheiro points out.

The Kerala blog express, curated by the department of tourism, invites bloggers from across the world to visit the state, and has been a barometer to what tourists want. An American blogger got lost in Idukki and found her way back to the town only to find red flags fluttering everywhere. “She was taken aback, but soon realised she is in a democracy. People were playing chess in a corner, and a few others spoke to her in English. The local people who can talk about Kafka and Nehru, or a tea seller who performs the centuries-old chavittunatakam [folk theatre] is fascinating for the visitors,” Pinheiro adds.

Smart campaigners

The focus on ‘humanscape’ is the latest turn in Kerala’s tourism promotion. Bala Kiran points out that for the small state on the country’s southernmost tip, tourism strategy has always hinged on innovation and thinking out-of-the-box. “Kerala is not blessed with great man-made structures. Even our palaces are simple. We have natural beauty, which we guard closely. When we are not bestowed with advantages that others have, we have to be smart,” he says.

On the ball: The soccer story is the latest in the tourism department’s people-centric promotions, which began a couple of years ago


Kerala tourism promotions took off in the 1990s with the God’s Own Country campaign. The phrase became synonymous with the state, and Kerala positioned itself as the ticket to pristine greenery, waterscapes and Ayurveda. “[But] over the years the focus shifted from the destination to the traveller — about how the place transformed them. For years it was the pivot of the brand, and campaigns such as ‘Your Moment is Waiting’ explored the epiphanic impact Kerala had on visitors,” says Pinheiro.

But when it became the template for promotions elsewhere, too, Kerala changed tack. In the age of social media, tourism promotion across the country demanded a hands-on approach. “In the first decades of the tourism boom people were interested in places. But after a couple of decades, and at least three to four visits to one place, they yearn for the local flavour. They look for signature experiences and the staple resort stay ‘paneer butter masala routine’ does not work,” Bala Kiran says.

Elsewhere, states often rely on celebrities to sell their tourism spots. The campaigns work. A video featuring Shah Rukh Khan — who has been engaged with West Bengal tourism since 2012 — has been viewed over 10 lakh times on Facebook. After Amitabh Bachchan became the face of Gujarat tourism in 2011, tourism in the state is believed to have grown by 14 per cent. Kerala, on the other hand, does not fare very well in the numbers game. In fact, the India Tourism Statistics 2017 places it at the seventh and 18th slot for inbound international and domestic tourists respectively, while neighbouring Tamil Nadu tops the chart. In 2016, the number of domestic and foreign visitors to Tamil Nadu was 34.38 crore and 47.21 lakh respectively, compared to 1.31 crore and 10.38 lakh in Kerala. According to, the state earned ₹33,383.68 crore from tourism in 2017, of which ₹8,392.11 crore was in foreign currency.

What it does not make up in numbers, it tries to overcome with impact — campaigns that have won multiple international awards. A department quick to change, it has taken to — and taken over — social media. The Kerala tourism Facebook page, followed by over 15 lakh people, was recently chosen by the social media company as the most popular page for government bodies.

Adman Prahlad Kakkar, who has returned from a 21-day break in Kerala, says capitalising on its people will serve the state well. He considers it the only sustainable tourist mantra. “At this point, tourists go to places not much for the monuments, but the people. When it comes to people in hospitality, there is none like Kerala,” says Kakkar.

The state, he adds, is celebrating its people when others are letting greed replace humanism. He cites the case of Goa and Rajasthan, where tourism thrived because it was once people-centric. “Goan tourism was innocent in the 1990s… The people and the government have forgotten that Goa was a destination because of its people and their warmth. That was the strength of Rajasthan tourism, too. ‘Hukum’ (Tell me what you want) was what they would tell their guests. But that warmth and innocence are waning,” Kakkar says.

Kakkar believes Bastar in Chhattisgarh will be the next big tourism destination. “The community treats you as a son of the tribe and they live in harmony with the forest. Tourism is not exploitative there. Once the Naxal problem settles down, Bastar will become a favoured destination. Kerala can ride the wind till then.”

Meanwhile, the Kerala tourism department is on its next video. Ready to be released soon, it captures nuggets from the lives of a fisherman and a toddy tapper. Welcome to the people’s own country, it says.

P Anima

Published on August 03, 2018

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