The moment from 20 years ago is still rather vivid in memory. The star of the moment – my newly acquired mobile phone. Torn between work going on in office and a date with my girlfriend, I experienced the power of mobile technology. I could be with her, assured in the knowledge that my team could reach out to me if needed (trust me, two decades ago, this felt nothing short of sci-fi magic!).

In these two decades, mobiles and then internet have been the most salient characters in the liberalisation story. And the stories told by brands, largely the mobile networks, a great lesson in how brand meaning making works best and when it doesn’t.

It is possible to sum up the successful strategies across brands – they have all addressed our anxiety around the price we have paid while pursuing (upward) mobility. The variations in brands have come from the filters through which they looked at the price.

Airtel began with the most fundamental one – the price our family relationships paid as we pursued economic mobility. As duty separated Dads from kids, couples, sons from fathers and even generations (remember ‘bas kar pagle, rulayega kya?’)

Vodafone (then Hutch) chose a more nuanced (and a less obvious, but powerful) one. The price our somewhat cutthroat and ruthless pursuit extracted in the form of our innocence. As relationships gave way to ‘networks’, Vodafone reminded us of the most innocent connections we had experienced before getting caught up in the race.

Idea looked at progress from a societal lens as opposed to the family and friends filter the big two brands had used. It tapped into the other side of the India Shining story – that unless our progress as a country was more equitable, and accessible to the not so privileged, maybe it wasn’t such a shiny story after all.

Do you see a pattern in these? The stories have carefully steered clear of what would be a more obvious proposition from the mobile category à the enabler of progress or mobility. Instead, all three have looked at the downside of progress and our resultant guilt.

Isn’t it interesting that stories around success and achievement, be it Tata Indicom’s ‘ Insaan phone lata hai taraqqi ke liye’ or Reliance’s ‘kar lo duniya muthi mein’ have barely passed muster?

There’s a lesson somewhere in that. Brands need to acknowledge what the consumers are themselves seeing the category deliver. And avoid wasting stories trying to tell them that. Instead, they need to focus on the other end (and there usually always is one). The downside of the proposition. In this case – the guilt of mobility. And build stories addressing them instead.

Looking back, maybe the reason why the moment 20 years ago felt special was not the date itself, but the guilt I would have experienced being away from work. Darn! Hindsight can be cruel at times!