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What Kolaveri Di's success can teach marketing students

What Kolaveri Di's success can teach marketing students

Within three weeks of its release on YouTube, the Kolaveri Di video garnered 19 million views and was shared by 6.5 million Facebook users.

Executive Summary: Within three weeks of its release on YouTube, the Kolaveri Di video garnered 19 million views and was shared by 6.5 million Facebook users. It was drawing more than 10,000 tweets daily by the end of its first online week. Having garnered over 45 million views so far, it has proved with its success that viral marketing works in India too. This case study explores what made Kolaveri the sensation it became and lists the elements that make up an ideal viral marketing campaign in India.

It was agony and ecstasy in quick succession for leading Tamil movie star Dhanush last November. He recorded a song for the film 3 - a home production, in which he also plays the lead role - only to discover soon after that a disgruntled employee in his office had leaked it on YouTube.

It put him and his wife Aishwarya, director of the film - she is also the daughter of the superstar Rajinikanth - in an embarrassing position, since Dhanush had just sold the film's music rights to Sony Music India.

An early, unauthorised release of one of the songs could ruin the commercial prospects of the deal.

"The song was the rough cut of Kolaveri Di. I was terrified," says Dhanush. There was nothing he could do to get the song off the site.

"I realised to my chagrin that something leaked on the social media cannot be controlled," he adds. "I wanted to counter it, but how? I was at my wits' end."

{mosimage}Potent Mix
What Kolaveri Di teaches about creating successful viral marketing campaigns:

  • Product should evoke strong emotions
  • Should include humour
  • Should use all means to connect with audiences
  • Should have potential for parody
  • Should use simple language
  • Should generate curiosity
  • Should be carefully seeded through the life cycle
  • Should use multiple channels
  • Should avoid blatantly selling the product
He considered releasing a CD of the song as a single, but Sony Music informed him that this would take at least two weeks.

"Then someone suggested making a video of the song and releasing that as well on YouTube as the official version," says Shridhar Subramaniam, President, Sony Music Entertainment, India and Middle East. "The idea was accepted and we scrambled to make the video overnight."

This vital decision was to make all the difference. Sony Music hired a video camera and promptly shot a four minute video of Dhanush singing Kolaveri at A.R. Rahman's studio in Chennai. It was all done within half an hour and the video uploaded on YouTube on November 17 at 12.53 a.m.

What followed is now part of Indian music and viral marketing history. As if by magic, the song became a rage, effortlessly transcending language barriers - the first Tamil song, albeit with a smattering of English, to do so.

In the first four days, the video had four million views, swelling to 19 million in three weeks. On Facebook 6.5 million users have shared it, while 40 radio stations have played it across the world. At last count in February-end, the video had registered over 46.5 millions views on YouTube and been downloaded by two million people on their mobiles.

In the most unlikely way, Dhanush's agony thus turned to ecstasy. A Tamil movie star until then, it brought him a pan-India reputation. He is much sought after now by corporate houses to endorse their brands.

"Doors opened for me," he says. "Kolaveri's success exposed me to the world of marketing and I realised how much I had been missing out on."

The campaign was carefully designed to avoid sounding like a sales pitch. Some radio and TV channels got exclusive rights to use the song for two days. Noting the interest, news channels began discussing Kolaveri

A letter from Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata, thanking Dhanush for the time spent with him, and seeking to take their business discussion forward, now adorns Dhanush's office wall.

The film 3, earlier planned only in Tamil, will now be released in two more languages, Hindi and Telugu.

But successful viral marketing campaigns such as Kolaveri do not happen every time, not even for Dhanush. His next song on video, a paean of praise to cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar, Sachin Anthem, uploaded, like Kolaveri, on YouTube, has garnered only 4.9 million views in three weeks so far.

"Every kind of content has the potential to go viral when the consumer becomes the marketing channel," says Prashanth Challapalli, Business Head, Jack in the Box Worldwide - the agency which designed Kolaveri's viral strategy. "But no one knows which particular one will go viral. All we can do is to create content that has the potential to do so.

What are the elements that go into this kind of content? Something that evokes strong emotion is one. Kolaveri did: it is the song of a jilted lover pouring out his anguish.

"Emotions, especially unhappy ones, have a strong viral stimulus," says Jayaram K. Iyer, who teaches social media marketing and branding at Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Chennai. "So do narratives of an underdog beating the establishment. Both were present in Kolaveri."

By the time minister Sharad Pawar was publicly slapped by a young man on November 24, Kolaveri's meaning had become known and promptly many riposted: 'Why this kolaveri?'

The experience of having failed in love is also almost universal. But to counter the sadness, the song also had humour. Humour is key to viral success - outstandingly successful videos on YouTube like 'Charlie Bit My Finger' or 'David at the Dentist' have plenty of it.

The other aspect is to arouse curiosity. "It is critical to be intriguing. People should wonder what the campaign is all about," adds Iyer. Both Sony Music and Jack in the Box Worldwide invested intrigue into the process. "Non-Tamil speakers would not know what Kolaveri meant. Neither Dhanush nor any of us explained its meaning either," says Sony's Subramaniam. "It was a conscious strategy to evoke people's curiosity and get a conversation going." In the first few days after Kolaveri's release, a good deal of chatter focused on what on earth the word meant. Around 12 per cent of all conversation on Twitter about Kolaveri was confined to this particular point.

"The biggest myth is that viral marketing campaigns make themselves," says Iyer. "Campaigns have to be orchestrated." And indeed, once the official version was uploaded, Kolaveri was carefully managed at every stage. Sony Music began by putting a link to the video on its Facebook page, which has a million followers. Next, it began releasing tweets about the video, creating the #whythiskolaveri account on Twitter.

There were 179 tweets on the first day, which rose by 200 per cent daily, to peak at 14,907 tweets on November 24. "For people to share the video, they had to first see it," says Subramaniam. "We put the YouTube link in all our tweets. We were confident that once a person sees the video, he would share it for sure."

From the virtual world, the song was also shared with the real one towards the end of the first week, with radio stations and television channels being allowed to air it. FM station Radio Mirchi and MTV got exclusive rights to use the song for two days. Noting the stir in the entertainment space, news channels began discussing Kolaveri, further fuelling its popularity.

Those who were drawn in and tweeted about it included mega star Amitabh Bachchan and leading industrialist Anand Mahindra. There were also critics, but the attacks only reinforced its now iconic status. "Kolaveri-D. Everyone is praising the robes, but the emperor is naked," tweeted lyricist Javed Akhtar. "Getting celebrities and influential people to seed the campaign through Twitter or Facebook pages is key,'' says Iyer, the LIBA professor.

The success even saw parodies, says Challapalli. By the time Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was publicly slapped by a young man on November 24, Kolaveri's meaning - 'extreme frustration' or 'murderous rage' - had become sufficiently well known, and promptly many riposted: 'Why this kolaveri?'

The IT industry produced a kolaveri parody of its own, while neighbour Pakistan created another. Sony Music could have invoked copyright and tried to suppress the parodies, but it did not.

"People began to own the song and that helped," says Subramaniam. "Scope for co-creation is a critical factor for any viral campaign to succeed," adds Challapalli.

Yet the campaign was also carefully designed to avoid sounding like a sales pitch. The film the song figures in, for instance, was never mentioned. "Content that sounds like a sales pitch fails," says Iyer. "Never use viral marketing as a sales channel. It puts people off instead of getting them excited." So in the end the video's success may not guarantee a super hit movie. Kolaveri has set the stage for a good opening but how successful the movie will be would depend on its content," says Subramaniam.

Dhanush, naturally, is thrilled with the unexpected windfall. Has he identified the office employee who leaked the early version of Kolaveri? "No, but if I do find him, I will thank him," he says.

But for the leak Kolaveri would never have become the viral marketing phenomenon it did.


{mosimage}The Idea Is All Important

The idea behind advertising communication on any medium is to create impact, enable brand recall, establish a consumer connect and elicit consumer response. Whatever the medium, the content has to be such.

The TV commercials that get everyone talking, are they not 'viral'? Anything can go viral, even an e-mailer. The idea is the key. Virals are not born, they are made. The idea has to grab you. One of our very successful virals has been Adultdost for Tata Sky an e-mailer.

The three main qualities needed to go viral are:

1. The Content: The idea and the execution are critical. At times, something unexpected too has the potential to spread. Kolaveri, incidentally, was one such piece of content, completely unexpected but it still connected.

2. The Impetus: It is provided either via advertising or by piggybacking on a popular social media person's feed. This need not be a celebrity but any "popular" social media individual whose views are followed by many.

Such people introduce the content to a larger audience. The result is an accelerated start of a spread. That is the power of digital media.

3. The Participation: Consumer participation is what makes content stay fresh. Consumers create their own versions, upload and share. You must have seen Kolaveri versions getting uploaded.

Recently someone tweeted after India's cricket victory, "Hey Malinga Why this Kolaveri Di". So, the word Kolaveri will keep getting used, that's how the content gets refurbished and stays fresh.

CEO, Media2Win

{mosimage}The Appeal Of Imperfection

Kolaveri Di has broken most records of being the most watched, most talked about and most viral of all music videos. Was this an accidental mega-hit or was it the result of a well-orchestrated 'strategy'?

The debate between the influence of the invisible hand of Providence and the visible hand of real people increases the potency of the Kolaveri viral.

For a song, a video or a story to be successful, three elements need to be aligned message, messenger and media. The mark of a message that has potential to fire a viral phenomenon is its quality of being 'earthy', 'spontaneous', and 'identifiable with the messenger'.

A message needs to be worth talking about it should contain some comedy, some pathos, and some hope at the end. Had Kolaveri been punched and clipped to make it clinically precise, the song would have been robbed of its natural blemishes.

Lack of precision and imperfections are natural and the masses identify with stories that exhibit them, leaving some room for imagination, self-projection and empathy.

A lesson for viral marketing from the Kolaveri phenomenon is the unpredictability of the traction that messages acquire. The greatest utility of social networking is to use the technological possibilities as a vehicle to spread brand messages through community connections.

Viral messages spread very rapidly. Brands, on the contrary, need stories and messages to stay afloat in the social network for a longer duration. And that is where marketers' infatuation with social media networks ends and a durable romance starts.

Professor of Marketing, IIM Ahmedabad

Will Kolaveri's success trigger more such viral marketing campaigns in India? What made the video such a hit? Write to us at btcasestudies@ Your views will be published in our online edition, and the best comment will win a Harvard Business School Press pocket mentor. Previous case studies are at

Published on: Mar 24, 2012, 12:00 AM IST
Posted by: Surajit Dasgupta, Mar 24, 2012, 12:00 AM IST