Shorter version on audio:
Way back in August 2010, Mondelez India, when they were still called Cadbury India, launched the Shubh Aarambh campaign for the first time. But unlike the conventional, traditional imagery of Shubh Aarambh, this one featured a young pair at a bus stop – understandably so, given Cadbury’s target audience for Dairy Milk.
The boy’s bizarre ask, the girl’s partly-annoyed-partly-intrigued response, and the boy’s comeback… all made for a memorable ad!
Later that year (November 2010), possibly because of how recognizable the young couple had become owing to the generous media spending by Cadbury, Airfone used the same couple, in almost the same costumes, for their ad! But the twist was that the two were not strangers anymore! Airfone had literally made a sequel to the Cadbury ad by roping in the same pair and extending the story!
On a similar note, remember the ‘Trivago man’ who infiltrated our TV ads in the mid-2010s? This guy!
Given the relentless ad push by Trivago India, Abhinav became a topic of discussion himself, alongside Trivago… so much that The Economic Times did a story on him!
As it turned out, Abhinav was the country development head at Trivago between December 2012 and February 2019! He quit Trivago and joined Paytm in September 2019. Paytm didn’t wait too long to use the kind of recognition Abhinav had gained thanks to Trivago’s marketing budget – they used Abhinav, the ‘Trivago Man’, in a Paytm ad where there is a nudge-wink reference without mentioning Trivago 🙂
More recently, Ryan Reynolds pulled off something similar to this. Peloton launched an ad in the first week of December 2019 that went massively viral for all the wrong reasons.
Ryan took just a day or two to utilize the recognition the woman from the Peloton ad had achieved, thanks to the virality, for an ad for his brand of gin, Aviation! The ad doesn’t mention Peloton at all, but given how incredibly familiar that woman (actor) was right then, even the very-mild cue thrown in (‘new beginnings’, ‘you look great by the way’, etc.) were read by people as the link! 🙂
But these are relatively minor instances of characters made popular by one brand’s advertising (media budget) being utilized by another brand because of how recognizably popular they had become.
The truly major instance, one that has become a legitimate trend, is the ‘Swiggy Gulab Jamun Uncle’!
Swiggy’s Gulab Jamun uncle first made his appearance in April 2018 during that year’s IPL, made by the agency MullenLowe. The ad was to sell the fact that Swiggy had no minimum order rule and that you can order really small and it’d be delivered to you. How best to present this scenario?
By showing a man, afraid of his wife’s strict conditions regarding his health, sneaks out to order a lone gulab jamun, eats it at the door in front of the Swiggy deliver person as soon as it is delivered and goes back inside as if nothing had happened 🙂
The actor, Naresh Gosain, really sold it!
Little did Swiggy or Naresh know that the ‘Gulab Jamun’ uncle character was going to be such a huge hit!
Swiggy went on to make more ads in 2018 featuring Naresh’s food obsession and almost making them seem like sequels to the first ad, but without the gulab jamun. His physical stature worked towards this narrative quite well!
The same uncle and aunty too!
The same aunty, and the same delivery guy too!
It’s clear that this is building itself into some kind of a Swiggy Uncle Universe 🙂
When Swiggy brought Naresh back in 2019, for the IPL, again, they realized that they had a property that has taken a life of its own. So even the ad’s name acknowledged that: “Our favorite uncle is back”!
May 2019 – the aunty remains, but not the gulab jamun. And she can’t say anything to do the laddu because it was purchased as part of a pooja (for the match!).
The 2020 return of Naresh, during the IPL, was on similar lines, but on a more somber note owing to the peak COVID period. The title rode on the ‘uncle’ sentiment again, plus the gulab jamun, but this time, the idea was to use him to assuage people that he’s one among crores of Indians confidently ordering on Swiggy despite the pandemic!
September 2020: “Trusted by our favorite uncle and 1 crore plus Indians”
With IPL 2021, Swiggy extended the ‘uncle’s’ interests.
It started with uncle acknowledging his ‘gulab jamun’ identity and then trying to look beyond it!
And the trials extended to… sushi!
… Sugar-free raspberry cup cake!
… and Kerala’s Pazham Pori!
3 years is a fairly long time in the advertising world to stick to a non-official brand ambassador (model). But Swiggy perhaps gauged the popularity of the gulab jamun uncle based on how much social media chatter he evoked and perhaps also through views of the video online.
If you notice the Cadbury’s Shubh Aarambh couple, the follow-up from another brand came a few months after (November 2010) the original ad went live (August 2010). With the Trivago man, it took only 3 months for Paytm to bring him alive after he joined the company! And with Ryan Reynolds, it took literally a day or two for him to sense the opportunity in the Peloton ad’s misfortune.
But, with the gulab jamun uncle, Swiggy has propped him for 4 years (or, 4 seasons!) while giving his ads generous media boosts on TV and online. That, plus the organic conversations he evoked, built him into a property.
And hence, 4 years after he burst into the advertising scene with his famous gulab jamun, he ventured outside Swiggy, taking his gulab jamun with him!
The first non-Swiggy brand to make use of the uncle character and his gulab jamun obsession was Dr Trust, courtesy of the ad agency 5W1H!
But instead of making Naresh eat gulab jamun, they made him work hard for it! And turned him into ‘Sugar Sharma’ since they cannot obviously refer to him as ‘gulab jamun uncle’ without annoying Swiggy and MullenLowe.
October 2021 – Dr Trust:
It’s a coup by another agency because MullenLowe itself had a similar idea to link the uncle character with ‘health’ for another client – MFine!
Unfortunately, Dr Trust did that before MullenLowe and MFine, though MFine did launch its campaign in November 2021, even featuring aunty too!
November 2021 – MFine
And yet another brand took the after-affects of his gulab jamun obsession on his health as the narrative for their ad – The Q!
But since Dr Trust has opened the floodgates with the possibility of the uncle and his gulab jamun obsession, other brands started considering the idea too!
Zunpulse featured him, with a bowl of gulab jamuns, in December 2021, after teasing audiences about his whereabouts in November 2021 (they did not know he was right there, inside an MFine ad!).
And followed it up with a sequel in March 2022:
The way Zunpulse announced roping him in is illustrative of the ‘gulab jamun’ trend!
Vadilal picked up the mantle with a hugely relevant product, in March 2022 – a gulab jamun flavored ice cream! Who better to sell the unique flavor than the gulab jamun uncle?
Quite a few other brands have used the uncle by featuring his general association/interest with any eatable/food.
November 2018: Crax Fritts chips (7 months after the first Swiggy ad):
January 2021 – Pepsi Lays
October 2021 – Kurkure
July 2022 – Shyam Steel
But beyond just Naresh playing a foodie, that he gets clubbed with gulab jamun too, for as many as 4 other brands says a lot about the package that has endured over 4+ years! Naresh’s very-human expression when he looks at a gulab jamun is perhaps the first reason for Swiggy deciding to extend his universe for so many years.
And it was Swiggy’s own consistent application of the Swiggy Uncle Universe for over 4 years that finally led to other brands tasting the same opportunity. By now, the ‘Swiggy Uncle’/’Gulab Jamun uncle’ is internet and advertising folklore.
But, having been used in so many interesting and contrasting ways (from gulab jamun flavored ice cream to the after-effects of this unhealthy obsession, that moves the narrative into health-related territory), I presume the uncle and his object of obsession have been adequately overexposed. He’d, no doubt, get instant recognition—more so when combined with a gulab jamun—but another (non-Swiggy) brand using him now would need to really think through taking the idea to another level where the intelligence of the script would make or break the ad.
Even Swiggy and MullenLowe would need to really think through season 5 of the Gulab Jamun Uncle series. The brand and its agency have done admirably well over the years, upping the ante in 2019, 2020, and 2021. And perhaps sensing that he has been overexposed by other brands too towards the end of 2021, they did not bring him back for their campaign in the 2022 IPL!
Would they bring him back later this year, say, during the festive season (perfect timing, given the food-related theme!)? Or, perhaps for IPL 2023? I can’t wait 🙂