In 1992, a research firm gave a market report to Bharti Airtel. Talking about it in a media interview, in 2000, Sunil Mittal reminisced that the report had spoken of a market for 5,000 cellular phones in Delhi. “That was one more confirmation that these reports were silly and nonsensical, so we tore and threw it away. Even before the project was up, I was sure that on the first day of booking, we would have 5,000 connections, leave alone the market being that size!” reads a snatch of Mittal-speak cited in ‘Darwin's Brands: Adapting for success' by Anand Halve (

Exclusivity and business context

While Airtel had seen the long-term potential, in the short term the truth was that the handsets were expensive (upwards of Rs 25,000) and the tariffs could be as high as Rs 16 per minute, and to make matters worse there was even a charge for incoming calls, the author recounts. Cellular operators, therefore, took one of two approaches, he adds.

Explaining that the first approach focused on the prestige and exclusivity associated with having a cell phone, the author mentions examples such as MaxTouch (the precursor of Orange which became Hutch and then Vodafone) in Mumbai which ran a series of ‘Citizens of the World' campaign showcasing Sunil Gavaskar, Mohammed Khan, and other achievers as the ones who had chosen to go mobile.

The other approach, as Halve distinguishes, combined the sense of exclusivity with a business context. “This was the approach adopted by Airtel, with the early advertising focused on mobile phones as a key business tool. The tag line ‘Power to keep in Touch' used in the brand promise was designed to make the user feel ‘in control… powerful.'”

Music genius

Tracing the growth of Airtel, the author notes that the genius of the company was to use the genius of A. R. Rahman in not only creating a signature tune, but also in celebrating the creation of that signature tune. The story comes alive through the inputs of Prashant Godbole, then creative director at Rediffusion, recalling the making of the ‘Express Yourself' commercial. “Until then, Airtel had been running different commercials in different parts of the country. The brand had started operations in different circles at different times, and advertising had evolved independently. However, this meant that there was no common thread binding the communication across different regions.”

Godbole underlines how the landscape was competitive, with Orange (later Hutch) running ‘a lot of very powerful advertising' through the ‘Pug' commercials, where the strength was ‘a sophisticated simplicity that made even its feature-based advertising interesting.' So, how did Airtel propose to rebut that? By taking a much more emotive, ‘human' approach, elaborates Godbole.

In the path-breaking commercial, Rahman, playing himself, created the Airtel signature tune ‘live,' and that was the first time he had agreed to work for any brand, Halve writes. “It has been claimed that the music from the commercial became the most downloaded ring tone in the history of telecommunications…”

Engaging study of how enterprises successfully connect with consumers through brand imagery.


“Once we instituted the content filtering policy…”

“Everything became clean?”

“Very clean, indeed, because nothing could escape the filters, except punctuations!”