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Upgrad, an Indian edtech company specialising in higher education courses has been on a growth path since its launch in 2015 and emerged as South Asia’s largest player. The Drum speaks to Upgrad CEO Arjun Mohan about the brand’s plans, life after repositioning last year and the expectations from the current face of the brand: a donkey.

How has Upgrad managed to fight the battle of tech-product messaging getting lost in a sea of sameness?

To make our brand stand out in the attention economy, we did not want to make the mistake of setting our benchmarks on our previous campaigns. We have pitched ourselves against every other brand that is active in the market right now and battling for the consumer’s attention.  

We have taken conscious efforts in keeping our communication light-hearted, humorous and, very importantly, relevant for the audience. This strategy translates not only into brand communication but also in performance marketing creatives. In 2020, we did a campaign using cat images, which had one of the best CTRs (click-through rate) and performance.

How does the current brand campaign help take the narrative forward?

Our previous campaigns - ‘Raho Ambitious’ (remain ambitious) and ‘Aage ki Soch’ (think ahead) were mirroring the sentiments of working professionals. With the changing times, we realised that they are no longer lacking ambition and drive but what they are missing out is the means to achieve and materialize their ambition. Fuelling the ambition was no longer enough - what was needed was a solution. Hence, we let go of the previous brand propositions and moved to the positioning ‘Sirf naam ki nahin, kaam ki degree’ (don’t get the degree for the name but one that helps you move ahead and get a job) backed by Upgrad’s promise to provide outcome-oriented specialisations that help learners to achieve the ROI on education - job/profile switch, increment or promotion. In other words, we support Employability.

The current brand film is the second leg of our brand campaign launched last year. This time, we have reincarnated the donkey in a new avatar of a feisty fortune-teller to put across the message that specialisations and up-to-date degrees are the need of the hour.  

The ad camapign:


Getting a donkey on board as the face is an interesting and many would say, a brave marketing decision?

We had our reasons: primarily to have a ‘donkey’ as the face draws from the cultural insight, that in the corporate world, everyone wants to climb the ladder and choose various ways to get ahead. One of the most common ways to get ahead being the tendency to ‘lick ass’. It’s humorous, clutter-breaking and most importantly, it fits our brand narrative and starkly brings out the brand positioning.

While other players are banking on celebrity endorsements, we are shaping our charmer donkey into a clutter-breaking celebrity.

How has Upgrad's journey been since the brand's launch in 2015? 

Upgrad started its journey with a conviction to bridge the gap between working professionals and rapidly evolving industry requirements. Along the way, various domains of tech, management, data and law got added to the portfolio. Currently, there are 100+ online programs on offer. We have grown 100% year-on-year, and recently crossed the milestone of INR 100 Crore a month. We have achieved an annual revenue run rate (ARR) of INR 1200 Crore /165 Mn USD in FY’21.

This has been on the back of some key achievements: we have tripled our course offerings, hit the ball out of the park on global MBAs, scaled university partnerships, delivered 10 million hours of learning experiences, all of which has helped us become South Asia’s largest higher edtech company.

What kind of pivoting has been done on the back of the pandemic in 2020?  

To be honest, we did not have any hurdles in terms of business as our entire delivery system has always been online. We believe Upgrad’s growth in this period is a tailwind – which is here to stay and not a Covid phenomenon that will stop once the situation normalises. There has been a massive increase in the demand for online courses amongst consumers. For instance, pre-April all our batch (cohort) launches were once a quarter, while post-April, our batch launches became monthly to cope with the ensuing demand. 

Recently we crossed the mark of 1 million lifelong learners on our platform. (Lifelong Learning is an upGrad learning initiative exclusively designed to help fast track career growth by helping people upskill in a span of two to four weeks.)

What is the kind of demand being seen, from the non-metro cities, for the courses?  

There has been a significant increase in the total number of learners coming from non-metros in the current quarter. With about 110% increased intent since Q1'FY21, we currently have 39% of our total paid learners coming from the non-metros. Withing the degree/undergraduate programs, there has been a 273% increase in intent at an enrolment level from non-metros in Q4 compared to the previous quarter.

Last year in November, we acquired The Gate Academy (TGA) to make a foray into the test preparation market in India. Recently, TGA was rebranded to ‘Upgrad Jeet' and has been launched as a new business solution. The move to launch Upgrad Jeet is aligned with our ambition to penetrate in rural India and help make the hinterland employable.