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BuzzInContent recently gave out awards for the best branded content to come out of India this year. They recognised content across business industries and content formats, while creating special categories such as ‘Best Tech Innovation in Content Marketing of the Year’ and ‘Best content during Covid crisis’ to reflect the year’s trends.

While the judges sorted and organised the winners on criteria relevant to content marketing (execution, distribution, audience reception and so on), we thought it interesting to see what reasons we’d find as Semioticians on why one piece did better than another.

Do note that the purpose of Marketing Semiotics is not to comment on creative standards or production value. It is to clarify conceptual boundaries through a broader understanding of context than communication specialists usually consider. To identify which elements comprise a concept and which ones do not, with other similar concepts used as points of differentiation. 

So, here, we have primarily considered whether the content pieces in focus – Unacademy’s Gold winner ‘Let's Crack It!’ and upGrad’s Silver winner ‘Aage Ki Soch’ – live up to the categorisation of branded content and if they stand apart from the adjacent field of advertising.

Here is what we have found.

Branded content or advertising jingle?

An advertising jingle leverages the memorability of songs to ensure greater product recall. But since it integrates the product mention and benefits with the lyrics, it no longer classifies as a song. This means that brands can’t liken it to any other non-branded music track their audience listens to.

Another reason they don’t classify as songs is because jingles are conventionally created by the brand’s creative agency and not by an artist from the music industry.

Where does this place Unacademy and upGrad’s anthems? They have both created their communication in collaboration with artists from the music industry and put them out for listening on streaming platforms such as Gaana, Saavn and Spotify. And in that, both equally meet the requirements of branded content. Beyond that, the differences begin to appear as one veers the jingle way.

upGrad makes multiple mentions of the brand – thrice within the lyrics and five times visually, all in a duration of one minute. Unacademy is subtler. It doesn’t flash the brand name and only shows the on-screen characters studying from the platform. The lyrics don’t feature the brand name either; their anthem would be just as relevant even if played outside the brand’s context.

Both anthems make references to the cultural context they have been created in, as expected from branded content. But upGrad presents those details as the problem/need gap it is selling its solution to:

Poora India soche kaise time kare kill

ghar pe baithe baithe lose kare chill

kaise kaire deal iss boriyat se

patience level upar chale gaya hadd se

bahar nahi aage ki soch

ghar pe baith naya kuch khoj

bahar nahi aage ki soch

ghar pe baith naya kuch soch

Unacademy, in contrast, raps about its target audience’s holistic experience of the education culture, its realities and the audience’s struggles:

Dukane hai badi enki bhokte bada bhari hai

Pheeeka hai pakwaaan inka shiksha ke vyapari hai

Ek number tera kaaam feees yahan bahot zyada hai

Tu bakiyon se piche tu dekh kitna easy hai

Uske baaap ka sikka chalta hai

Tera baaap kamata sikke hai

Mat sun inki ye dhun inki

Tu badhta ja bas karta ja

The uber positivity of ‘Aage Ki Soch’ strengthens its resemblance to advertisements that are known to leave no scope for nuance or subtlety. Much like an ad, the anthem shows the smooth, linear progression its audience can make from the challenge it faces to the resolution it desires by using the brand’s product.

‘Let’s Crack It!’, on the other hand, portrays the ups and downs experienced by its on-screen characters with greater complexity – like any branded content should. It is not as if the characters don’t find themselves flourishing at exam preparation with help from Unacademy teachers. But they also find themselves feeling insecure and facing rejection without any immediate fixes. The video highlights the upsides of product use but not without showing the grime and grit of the real world.

This realistic approach allows Unacademy’s content to do what branded content is meant to: establish a deeper connection and nurture greater emotional investment than ads can.

With branded content, cultural representation matters

Who is Unacademy’s audience? Youth who are willing to achieve success through relentless hard work but are often held back by the undemocratic nature of India’s education system. Youth who are unable to access high-quality tuition due to “differential pricing or ranks/marks based batches”. Youth who need an enabler to help them through their struggles with academics.

That’s exactly who the video reflects – lower middle/middle class youth working towards their goals by rising early in the morning, fighting away sleep, and not waiting to hit the desk to begin studying but taking their book along as they attend nature’s call.

By portraying their social background, daily routine, the pressure they face and the challenges their context creates, Unacademy represents them holistically, not just as consumers of an online education product.

upGrad’s video doesn’t reflect their target audience and instead features celebrities, possibly to endorse the brand through a likeable on-screen presence.

Their approach can’t be convincingly explained as the brand’s visualisation of where their target audience could reach if they took one of their courses and focussed on growing their knowledge and skills. Because the celebrities aren’t shown as being good at their art, nor do you see them progressing through the video having learnt an additional skill.

As a result, ‘Let’s Crack It!’ feels like it’s trying to reach out to its audience while ‘Aage Ki Soch’ comes across more as a sell.

How the two brands treat education

Indian’s cultural stance towards education is one of devotion, hard work and perseverance. And while it’s known to often create debilitating/pressurising conditions for students when taken to an extreme, it continues to remain an unchanged social reality.

Never do we treat education with playfulness or as something to take up after all other sources of productivity/ways to stay occupied have been exhausted, i.e., as a treatment for boredom.

Chosen by upGrad, this second approach was not logically/realistically off as a line of reasoning, given that many Indians did take online courses to spend the pandemic fruitfully. But as compared to the first approach, it doesn’t hold the same emotional heft or cultural relevance, and unfortunately loses out to Unacademy’s anthem deeply set in the context of competitive exams.

Final takeaways

We would like to emphasise here that if it were categorised as an ad jingle, upGrad’s anthem would have met with much lesser critique from us. Because it really does tick the boxes as a jingle. And it is largely by following the rules of branded content that Unacademy ‘Let’s Crack It!’ has outperformed ‘Aage Ki Soch’.

This case points to the larger issue of lines blurring between advertising and branded content, as many marketing and branding professionals still find it difficult to differentiate between the two. The resulting problem is not the hybridity itself; it is the weakened communication and the wasted moolah. How much longer before the industry reckons with it?

(The author, Hamsini Shivakumar is a semiotician, brand strategy consultant and the founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting. In her weekly column for BuzzInContent, she and her team analyse interesting content pieces done by brands in terms of their cultural leverage and effectiveness of brand integration. According to her, the content has a symbiotic relationship to popular culture; it helps to form culture and draws from it. It works as part of a simultaneous and virtuous cycle of mutual reinforcement.)