Sanjeev Bhargava, Brand Director at TOI, tells Laura Swinton about the newspaper’s purpose-driven agenda and why he has no time for lip service
“Times of India has a legacy of picking up issues that are in the national interest. And I think that goes back to the journalistic traits of the brand,” says Sanjeev Bhargava, Brand Director at Times of India. “A newspaper needs to address issues that are facing the nation, whether they are social issues, whether they are political issues, whether they are cultural issues.”
The ideal of social purpose and pushing for wider change has been an undeniable trend in the advertising industry over the past decade or so. But for a news brand like Times of India, identifying overlooked injustices and campaigning for justice goes back to its journalistic roots. And, as the third largest newspaper in India by circulation and the biggest-selling English language daily paper in the entire world, Times of India certainly has the platform to get a message across.
From a marketing point of view, though, these purpose-driven campaigns play an important role for the brand. When Mr Bhargava arrived at the paper three years ago (he joined from JWT, where he was Managing Partner), he saw that legacy of campaigning for change would be a crucial part of the brand strategy going forward to bring the fickle and digital-savvy youth into the TOI fold.
“As a newspaper, I need to make sure that the brand remains relevant to the emergent population – and the emergent population is digitally savvy and their attention spans are shorter and they have so many more options for news and information. So how can a newspaper brand continue to be relevant for emergent audiences and, of course, for our traditional audiences too,” he says, explaining the quandary the brand faced. “
“The only way we can do that it is to make sure that we espouse the issues that are close to their hearts and close to their consciousness. We must not do lip service, we must do bigger things upon which a) must raise awareness and b) must raise consciousness.”
“I have a special facility, in the fact I have a newspaper, to be able to get into the fine granularities of the issue,” says Mr Bhargava. “As a marketer I feel I can’t be using a campaign as a blunt instrument. It needs to be incisive, it cannot be blunt. So here also while we first came to the issue of social acceptance, but then we delved down deeper into it and realised, hey, it’s not just about social acceptance it’s about a need to feel proud.”
Out and Proud was a campaign that was driven by a highly-publicised and discussed legal change, but the desire was to dig deeper. In fact, the brand’s approach to deciding what topics to tackle into isn’t about jumping on the obvious. “Yes, there are trend lines we look at from popular conversation. But we also look at topics that are not currently being addressed by anyone in the country. More importantly it is issues which no one is talking about but that we know are relevant to people – that’s where you can make the most impact.”
One such campaign is 2018’s No Conditions Apply. The paper has long been keen to empower and lift up its female readers, and they and their team at FCB Ulka managed to spot one anomaly that had left many women excluded and disenfranchised. Sindoor Khela is an annual Hindu festival for women – but only married women. Meaning those who are single, widowed, divorced or trans are left out of a time of great joy.
“All these people are part of the female community but the underlying assumption was that only a married woman would celebrate this festival, she is defined by the man she is associated with. So, it wasn’t just about saying these woman are excluded but the underlying assumption that women are defined by the man in their life. And that is what we wanted to improve,” explains Mr Bhargava. The team went to Kolkata in Bengal to activate the campaign, where the local people were welcoming and shocked to realise their own unconscious bias.
The key to changing attitudes was to inform and celebrate rather than to chastise. “The author of the campaign at FCB said, ‘this will not be a campaign that challenges, it will be a campaign of love’. It was a campaign of realisation. That is the belief she carries with her and all credit to her for being able to bring that alive,” says Mr Bhargava.
The brand is also in the second year of another female empowerment campaign. She UnLTD is a campaign that celebrates not just female entrepreneurship but, specifically, women who have been on a journey from housewife to business owner. It’s a campaign designed to create role models from women who have followed their dreams and provide inspiration for millions and millions of women who are not currently in the workplace. “These dreams exist in every woman’s heart. And thene there are some women who make this dream come alive. So we are celebrating women who have made their dream come alive and how. And to that extent when we celebrate these women we create role models for the entire mass of women who are currently only dreaming of doing something like this,” says Mr Bhargava. “The significance of this is not superficial it is very, very deep. If India is to progress the women of this country have to step forward more and more. We have a huge potential in these people.”
So why this consistent focus on women specifically? Well, there’s a moral and social answer, of course, but a business answer too. At the moment, only 38% of Times of India’s readership are women, meaning that in many households that currently buy the paper the woman of the house doesn’t always choose to engage with or read the paper.
Given the brand’s legacy in the area of socially responsible campaigning as well as current, more refined and contemporary purpose-driven approach, Mr Bhargava and his team have built up a knowledge bank about what works and what doesn’t.
“On social issues, I would say we need to real. We can’t be doing lip service. The moment we do lip service, people see through it. And so many companies make the mistake of doing lip service,” he says. “I will shy away any campaign that is not going to deliver some kind of a tangible result that I can show people.”
Taking a long term view is important, as is understanding that any one activation from any one brand is going to be a drop in the ocean when it comes to making substantive progress on an issue. That manifests itself on several levels. For one thing, when TOI does such a purpose or socially responsible campaign, they are careful to ensure that it is something that can be measured and show real results – that way the case study can provide an inspiration to convince other brands to get involved and do what they can to make a difference.
And, it also means that the brand is not afraid to find partners if that’s what it takes to do a project at scale. And they’re not afraid to give a project consistent attention over years, not simply months, if that’ what needs to happen. In 2015 Times of India launched its Green Drive, a tree planting initiative in partnership with Hero Motorcorp. Since then they’ve planted over 1.2 million trees across the country, with the support of NGOs and tens of thousands of volunteers. The initiative is still thriving and sees more trees planted every month and, impressively, the survival rate for the trees is 85-90%.
“That’s a an important metric; we’re not just planting trees and leaving them and forgetting about them; we have to nurture them. We have to make sure they grow into full blooded plants and survive,” says Mr Bhargava. “Therefore it’s not merely about planting it’s about nurturing. It’s at a scale that it will make a difference and we continue doing that year after year.
Similarly, the news brand has also taken ownership of the issue of water conservation, particularly industrial water consumption. To that end, they’ve devised a devilishly clever pincer strategy. On the one hand, they’re driving consumer awareness with a dedicated campaign, asking consumers to consider how much water is used to make their shoes, their shirt, their phones and, well, anything they purchase. On the other side of it, they’re talking to industry, asking businesses to tell them what steps they’re taking to reduce water intake, rewarding those that are making progress.
“It’s a two pronged attack. Why is industry responding? Because we’re also creating that consumer awareness around water footprint. If we are creating awareness in consumers, industry becomes more anxious to be recognised as water positive and once that happens we create tools around it,” says Mr Bhargava.
The campaign is already two years old and is been slowly but surely building traction. The end goal is to create a ‘watermark’, which will only be given to brands that have a positive footprint. “It’s a long journey but we have started on it already,” he says. “We make sure that our campaigns are not lip service campaigns or empty promises and proclamations.”
Ultimately these meaningful, change-making campaigns are only possible when they’re supported by those at the top. They take time to bed in and make a difference – but, really, that’s the same with any significant brand building.
“Stamina is important and patience is too,” says Mr Bhargava. “I think the highest authorities the Times of India believe and that’s why I’m able to do it.”