Harish Pathak has been going to Kumbh Melas for years. But the 45-year-old doctor from Mumbai was surprised to see the religious gathering in an upmarket commercial avatar this time.
The Maha Kumbh Mela, which began in Allahabad in mid-January, no longer has merely rickety stalls selling everyday products to pilgrims. It is also a place for companies such as construction and agricultural equipment manufacturer JCB India to peddle their wares priced at lakhs of rupees.
"Last time I was here in 2001, there were stalls of only consumer goods items like toothpaste." says Pathak, Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at Mumbai's KEM Hospital.
For dozens of companies such as JCB, the world's largest religious celebration held every 12 years is sheer marketing nirvana. The Kumbh Mela has always been a big business opportunity
, but this time companies are going the extra distance to promote their brands by using traditional entertainment and modern technology to connect with consumers, be it middle class pilgrims or ash-smeared sadhus.
"Not only are companies becoming more concerned about consumers at the Kumbh grounds but they are also realising the importance of subtlety for their services and promotions," says Pradeep Kashyap, CEO of rural marketing consultancy MART.
Mobile service provider Vodafone India, for instance, is reaching out to consumers by screening films and providing musical ear-muffs, wired with in-built speakers that play devotional songs. GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare has a basketball ring at its stall for people to shoot hoops and win free biscuits with their cups of Horlicks while cosmetics company Emami Ltd has set up massage kiosks for pilgrims to experience its Navratna Oil brand. It has also introduced stilt-walkers to hand out dry sampling packs.
Coca-Cola India has chosen to go hightech and set up Wi-Fi services at 12 of its 16 stalls where people can download free Coke-Studio music and other brand content such as a new ad jingle
. The strategy has paid off: it has logged more than 11,000 downloads a month since the nearly two-month fair began.
Number of companies marketing their products at the mela
"Drawing inspiration from the insight that the rural population loves cinema and entertainment, we decided to turn a regular stall into a cinema hall. We also handed out free passes for a film about the Kumbh," says Anuradha Aggarwal, Senior Vice President, Brand Communication and Insights, Vodafone India.
According to Infinity Advertising Services, the official advertising firm for the 2013 Kumbh Mela, about 52 companies are at the fair this year. Allahabad is not their only opportunity to reach out to rural consumers: India has about 25,000 rural fairs each year and companies use around one-tenth of them to expand their rural presence.
Number of companies at the Kumbh for the first time
"It takes organisers 60 days to set up this mela, which has an estimated population equal to that of any of the four metros. This has always been a great place for companies to market their products," says Kashyap.
All experts agree there is big money at the Maha Kumbh. According to an Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) report, this year's fair is likely to bump up Uttar Pradesh's coffers by Rs 12,000 crore, apart from generating employment for airlines, airports, tour operators and a host of other sectors.
Number of rural fairs in India each year
Government officials estimate up to 30 million people take a dip at the Sangam - the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers - on the main Shahi Snan days. With such massive numbers of people, the Kumbh Mela is the subject of a Harvard University case study on the logistics behind the "pop-up mega-city" that comes up in Allahabad during the religious festival.
As the Kumbh Mela goes upmarket, visitors do not have to grunge it out in makeshift tents anymore. For about Rs 11,000 a night, they can stay in luxury tents offering all the creature comforts they want from tiled bathrooms to buffet breakfasts. Laxmi Kutir, a private camp on a hill along the Ganga, for example, invites gurus and guides to engage with guests and organises daily prayers for spiritually-hungry visitors.
"This is a soft padding for our Kumbh guests," says Laxmi Singh, coowner of Laxmi Kutir. "We don't want to throw them into the chaos of the Kumbh off guard."
Slam dunk: A child at a basketball ring shoots hoops for free biscuits with a cup of Horlicks
The zing thing: Coca-Cola offers Wi-Fi at some of its stalls
Marketing nirvana: Pilgrims getting ready to take a dip at the Sangam during the mela
Care for a cuppa: Distributing free tea at the fair
Camping out: Luxury tents at the fair
Gurus and guides: Laxmi Singh (in foreground) who runs the tents