Arya and the missing caramel custard

If you have been watching the Cricket World Cup 2023 (CWC2023) matches, I’m fairly sure you may remember this PhonePe ad – watch:

Almost anyone who watches the ad for the first time has an opinion… not about PhonePe being interoperable with any other UPI app, but about what happens at the end of the ad. About that missing caramel custard, to be specific.

It happened while I watching the ad for the first time on TV during a match break too. Someone in the family felt that was akin to stealing food that belongs to the neighbor, while another justified it by saying she paid for it, after having responsibly picked it up (and paying the delivery person because it was cash-on-delivery) since the neighbor wasn’t around to do so (despite having ordered it).

Now, we do not have any backstory on why the guy living in the Daruwala house ordered something on cash-on-delivery and went missing when the order was delivered.

But, interestingly, we do have a backstory on Daruwala’s neighbor – Arya!

What PhonePe has done (agency: The Script Room) here is to create a 3-ads series with the same protagonist – the character Arya.

Making a 3-ads series with the same central character is not new, of course.

Take the other current 3-ads series from ACKO Insurance that pitches its health insurance services. That series has the same central characters – Munna Bhai and Circuit. But they are the same central characters in the series because they are famous and easily identifiable.

This is the same logic in having Ayushmann Khurrana in more than one ad for Amazon Pay (this series, in an edited, shorter version, is running during CWC2023).

Or, consider this Swiggy Instamart ad featuring Madhavan and Simran – a 3-ads series:

Zepto did it with 3 ads featuring Bumrah:

In comparison, the PhonePe ad features the same protagonist who is not a famous celebrity that we can instantly identify, and yet the script gives that lead character enough background details.

What I’m referring to here—the idea of having a non-famous/non-celebrity as a character-named central character across multiple ads in the same campaign—is different from, say the Ramesh-Suresh series from Cadbury 5-Star. Why? Because the Ramesh-Suresh spot is usually singular, not a series. New episodes are launched afresh as part of another campaign – again, a single ad.

Why is this worth talking about? Multiple reasons.

For starters, watch the series first.

Ad no. 1 – Arya moves into a new house, but we do not know her name in this ad.

(Considering the advance is only 2 months’ rent, I’m sure this is not Bengaluru where the norm/unwritten rule seems to be 11 months.)

Ad no. 2 – Arya (we now know her name because it’s on the name board, and on her phone screen) picks up the cash-on-delivery order of the neighbor, after having moved into the new place and getting adequately acquainted with the Daruwalas.

Ad no. 3 – Arya is selling her 2 books (one, a poems collection called ‘New City. Same Old Girl’, and another, a short stories collection) in the neighborhood! We now know her full name – Arya Kumar. It is on both the books.

There is a semblance of continuity in the ads, despite their mere 20-second duration each!

Could PhonePe have cast new/different lead characters instead of ‘Arya’ in the 3 ads? Of course – that would have been the usual norm. In fact, they should showcase more user profiles for increased relatability had they cast different people.

For instance, in the 2nd ad, the one who ate the caramel custard could be a young guy and the Daruwalas could be an old couple; an older Mr. Daruwala admonishing older Mrs. Daruwala for ordering a caramel custard despite her sugar, and winking at the young neighbor as if to thank him! In the 3rd ad, the bookseller could be an old lady and the buyer could be a middle-aged man.

Such casting/character choices expand the kinds of user profiles who receive money in PhonePe across the 3 ads – it builds on the ‘it’s for everyone” proposition unlike now where it looks like only Arya uses PhonePe 🙂

And yet, what we have is the same non-celebrity character in all 3 ads!

Based on how most people are exposed to these 3 ads—via ad breaks in CWC2023 matches—chances are, we see all 3 ads, not just one, during multiple breaks.

If we were to see 3 different ads featuring well-known characters like Munna Bhai and Circuit, the chances of seeing one and assuming that the other one (“Oh, it’s that Munna-Circuit wala ad – I have already seen it!”) is the same as what we saw first, is higher. But in the case of this PhonePe ad series, if you see the first one featuring Arya and the landlady, and then you start watching the one featuring Arya and Daruwala, you are likely to make the connection consciously that both ads are different (though from the same brand) and that they exist in the same shared ‘Arya universe’!

Swiggy did something similar with the Gulab Jamun Uncle universe, but that wasn’t a series where multiple scenarios were released in the same campaign. Instead, it was the same character that featured in multiple campaigns across time, much like 5-Star’s Ramesh and Suresh. I wrote a detailed note on the Gulab Jamun Uncle universe – take a look.

Ditto with Airtel’s ads featuring Sasha Chettri – it was multiple individual campaigns—as against the same campaign’s 3-ads series—featuring the same protagonist who wasn’t given a unique character name either, unlike ‘Arya’. She was just known as ‘That Airtel Girl’.

Of the 3 ads, the one involving the food delivery seems to have the best closing punch.

It features a scenario that is bound to evoke interesting reactions from people given how unique it is. Even if that scenario is unrelated to the actual product being sold (UPI payment app and its interoperability), because of the unusual ending, the overall ad gets considerably better memorability too.

In comparison, the ending in the other two ads try to emulate the uniqueness of the food delivery ad, but don’t land as well as this one.

In the one involving the landlady, her ‘Bas itna hi?’ doesn’t make any contextual sense, while Arya’s does. Arya is referring to the size of the home, presumably, while the landlady’s ‘Bas itna hi?’ doesn’t mean anything specific (unless the script intended to refer to the ease of PhonePe’s interoperability with that phrase, which doesn’t add up meaningfully) – she quotes a figure and Arya has to pay that amount. If she pays less (the reason for the landlady’s ‘Bas itna hi?’), the deal would perhaps be off.

In the 3rd ad, the guy picks up Arya’s other book after Arya tells him, ‘Whatever is your thing’ in response to his, “Poetry is not my thing’ quip earlier. This seems cute but still lacks the zing of the 2nd ad’s closure that had something specific to hold on to.

But, even overlooking that aspect, I really like what PhonePe and The Script Room have broadly attempted here. They have invested in a central character, given her a name and some minimal background, and added continuity across 3 ads in a series that is bound to be seen (because of their combined release) together during cricket match breaks.

The context of cricket match breaks is very important because that programming ensures that people stay glued to the medium for a prolonged period of time, and offers a higher probability of them catching up on all 3 ads… and registering the protagonist and her PhonePe connection, even if it is at the back of their minds (unlike my post that brings both to the forefront).

And it clearly looks like Arya (played by actor Naina Bhan, who played Koel Kalra in Netflix’s Indian adaptation of Elite, Class) is a success!

A majority of comments under the ad’s YouTube and Instagram uploads are about wondering who the girl is.

She’s getting attention from famous people too!

All thanks to a 3-ads series that gives her more scope than a single ad, and of course, the missing caramel custard 🙂

I won’t be surprised if PhonePe does another 3-ads series featuring ‘Arya’, and extending the story further. Perhaps the guy who bought both books comes home and both the landlady (to intrusively remind Arya about the ‘no boys after 10 pm’ rule) and Daruwala (to ask about an order that may have been delivered wrongly) drop in at the same time? But there’s no PhonePe connection here – I’m sure the good folks at The Script Room would think of something.

Or, even better – how about ‘lending’ the Arya Universe to a friendly company, say Myntra (since both PhonePe and Myntra have the same Flipkart connection)? Perhaps the book-buying guy drops into Arya’s place because her Myntra pack was wrongly delivered to his home (similar door numbers? 201/301 types?) and he, without looking at the name or door number, paid for it (cash on delivery) and opened it too, only to figure that it wasn’t his order at all! What could Myntra sell with this premise? I’m sure they, along with their agency + The Script Room could figure out something!