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What is common to now-iconic dialogues such as “tu beer hai” or “baba, you’re beautiful” or “syllabus hi badal gaya”?


Back in 2014, The Viral Fever popularly known as TVF debuted its first web series ‘Permanent Roommates’ on Youtube. Since then it has played a prominent role in producing both original Indian web series and thought-provoking branded content. In fact, TVF can be called the pioneer of branded content in India. So, what was or is the TVF phenomenon about?

As per TVF’s founder Arunabh Kumar, TVF catered to young Indians who rarely watched television dramas as they were written with women audiences in mind. The youth audience was starved for content that mirrored their realities and their concerns. Back in 2014, OTT platforms such as Netflix were yet to enter the Indian entertainment scene. It would take longer still to begin producing content relevant to or customised for the Indian audiences. Therefore, TVF not only entered what was largely a white space in entertainment but also delivered. Brands such as Ola, Kingfisher, and Tata collaborated with the company to become a part of new-age stories or well, branded content.

Before they came out with an entire web series, the content creators at TVF produced short humorous videos on Indian politics, cinema, lifestyle, etc. They offered a youthful take on youth matters. Of course, there was content being produced for the youth in the mainstream but it remained unfulfilling and at times, even frustrating. TVF’s first course of action probably was to tap into this unfulfilled need and frustration with mainstream content. MTV Roadies, a popular youth-oriented show was spoofed in a much-loved video by TVF:

Rowdies 9

Since its inception, TVF prided itself upon giving voice to some of the most unheard people and groups in creative narratives. Much of it is to do with the composition of the company itself – many in the creative roles are former engineers or other professionals who did not necessarily set out to become actors, directors or writers. So, initially, at least a bunch of IIT-ians from tier-2 and tier-3 cities came together to create from their experiences which would cater also to tier-1 city audiences. Gradually though, stories have moved from urban centres to semi-urban and even rural spaces. While Permanent Roommates and Pitchers were set in Mumbai, TVF ventured to small towns and villages with Kota Factory, Gullak, Panchayat, etc. 

Yes, TVF was a pioneer in creating youth-centric content for OTT. Equally, it was a pioneer in the way it did brand integration into its storylines.

Let us now explore how TVF wove in brands and products within the format of web series; inventing interesting ways of brand integration beyond basic product placement:

Permanent Roommates - Ola

TVF's Permanent Roommates Season 2 Promo #2 | Now on TVFPlay (app and website)

Permanent Roommates depicted the several challenges faced by an urban young couple. It questioned ideas associated with romance such as happily-ever-after. The series even ridiculed Valentine’s Day celebrations – a trend that many brands tend to follow now. Apart from personal challenges, the narrative also covered the social challenges that a live-in couple faces.

So, this show was basically about a young urban couple going about their lives. Where does a cab-booking app such as Ola come in?

Ola, a young four-year-old company back then was presented as a part of the urban youth lifestyle. Visiting to see a tentative flat, going for a movie or simply visiting each other - Ola’s app interface had its own space in the series as the lead couple booked their rides using it.

Similarly, Tata’s Tiago is featured in TVF’s Tripling almost as the fourth character:

Doing a show focused on a road trip automatically means that one’s vehicle of choice occupies a prominent place. The opportunities to elaborate upon the car’s many features are abundant – except that the characters are not inherently placing themselves in the position of a salesperson as is often the case in advertising. Tripling is a show with a lot of emotional and physical drama with or without the Tiago. But when Tiago is around, it functions as an enabler in the sense that it facilitates not just travel, but also communication. For instance, stranded one night in the desert, the three titular siblings share their secrets while listening to soulful music through Tiago’s powerful speakers. So, the product is also a plot device. Another road trip-based show featuring the Ford Ecosport is The Trip, a story about 4 friends making a bachelorette trip to Thailand. 

Yet another example is the popular series, Pitchers where beer is not only a part of the corporate and start-up ecosystem but also a metaphor in itself signifying independence, courage, risk, etc:

Pitchers - Kingfisher

TVF follows the aforementioned approach more or less in all its brand associations. At times, it is more direct as in the show Aspirants:

Aspirants - Unacademy

The brand in Aspirants – Unacademy is featured almost in the advertisement template where some underprivileged students are guided by a civil services teacher towards the use of Unacademy. This is also the case with Kota Factory. But while both the shows make a case for the brand rather directly, their narratives do not eschew the struggles faced by almost all students and Unacademy users alike. Therefore, the show maintains a far wider relevance that goes beyond the brand. In fact, through its messaging, it enhances the brand image in addition to obviously increasing sales.

Narratives in branded content produced by TVF are highly contextualised in order to weave in the brand or the product and yet they retain the quality of staying relatable in large measures. Relatability to basic human emotions and struggles in their plots gives them the space to introduce pitches that otherwise can seem far-fetched. Consider, for example, Yeh Meri Family– a show which despite being set in a small town during the late 90s, talked about mutual funds investment:

Yeh Meri Family - AMFI

Since, the context of a small town from the 90s appeals strongly to today’s youth or what is now AMFI’s target audience– the show is able to make a case for something as prosaic as mutual funds amidst a highly romanticized depiction of the audience’s childhood.

Ironically, most of TVF’s initial pitches were rejected by Media houses that then had a so-called monopoly on youth audiences citing the reason that Indian youth audiences were not ready for such content. Of course, the said media houses could not have been more wrong. Youth audiences then and now are eager not just for content but for meaningful content. They engage with the content actively and to add to it, they often go beyond the content.

The stagnation in TVF’s almost meteoric rise is a testament to youth audiences' way of engaging with content as well as content creators. TVF’s viewership dipped considerably after multiple women opened up about sexual harassment by the founder Arunabh Kumar. It took TVF some time and more importantly some crucial changes in leadership to overcome the crisis. Another comedy company- AIB is yet to overcome a similar crisis.

Why is this important?

If anything, the Indian marketing and branding scene is becoming individual-led day by day. In addition to content companies such as TVF, hordes of influencers are now creating content. If companies have had to change their modus operandi on charges of poor personal conduct of a few individuals, influencers definitely need to learn from it. More so, because for individual creators – their personality in itself is a big part of the content. Put simply, in their cases, art is not at all separated from the artist, they are completely intertwined.

Therefore, while TVF provides some invaluable lessons in content creation vis-a-vis context setting, narratives, characterisation, plot devices, and overall execution, it also presents an example of how to survive on the new, democratised internet. With increased access, audiences are interested in watching both the fictitious world of the show and the real world that they and the Show’s creators live in. The fiction that they consume and the reality that they inhabit - both need to be realistic and relatable.