Monday, March 20, 2017

Should your brand ride the Women’s Day wave?

Can it beat the clutter or will it be just one of many brands jostling for attention? Choose wisely!
India is known for going gaga over a global concept that it speedily assimilates. Cricket is an example that comes readily to mind. A game that has often been described as one played by ‘flannelled fools’ has completely taken over the country’s imagination, as we saw last week in Bengaluru in a test match that had thrills, spills, excitement, controversy and the possibility of a major face-off between two of the most powerful boards in the world. Thankfully, the country quickly moved on to another international concept — International Women’s Day.

Women’s Day is probably more relevant for India than it is for the Western world, which probably treats the female sex as equal while, closer home, after taking the opposite sex for granted for 364 days, people are probably suddenly reminded of their obligations that seem to have been conveniently forgotten thus far.

Brands, too, realising that women are consumers and decision-makers (who dictate whether they flourish or merely exist) usually plan some activities on International Women’s Day, thereby adding to the clutter and the advertising revenues of channels. While there were several, let me focus on the ones that caught my attention.
Power of the idea

Star Plus, the popular TV channel with its huge base of women consumers, uses its enormous reach and viewership to extend its Nayi Soch concept to Women’s Day with an interesting, yet simple, commercial featuring the eternal celebrity Aamir Khan, who is shown running a very successful sweet store. When an acquaintance compliments him on his success, he attributes it to his smart children, who have converted the store online. When the admiring friend compliments Aamir on his sons, the proud father points to his two daughters who are responsible for the success and says it is not so much about son or daughter as it is about the power of the idea.

The commercial ends with the camera panning to the shop’s signboard, which proudly reads “Gurdeep Singh and Daughters”. Clearly, a commercial which is against popular sentiment and serves as an eye-opener in a country that blatantly discriminates against women, even at birth. And what better way to drive home the message than through a celebrity. Here’s the commercial that I liked.

The channel has gone further, featuring a series of successful fathers and daughters and the relationship between them, as this one featuring Sashi Sinha (IPG Mediabrands) and his daughter. Clearly, the concept is one that can be extended for it to get wider reach and appreciation.

Let the woman lead her life
Another stereotype we are familiar with is that of the woman who has to do everything for someone else, whether it is her husband, her children or even her in-laws, and has hardly any time for herself. We have seen this in mothers, wives and daughters, haven’t we? It is this consumer insight that Reliance Fresh draws on in its new commercial for Women’s Day.

It features a middle-aged couple and an annoyed husband who is just unable to handle the fact that his fifty-year-old wife is going on a “girls’ gang” trip to Goa for five days. He throws objection after objection to his smiling wife and threatens her that she will call him in two days because she will get into a problem! The wife smilingly laughs away all his objections and even ridicules his poor attempt at ill-health and cheerfully rushes off with her waiting friends, bag and bikini packed, with the closing line ”If I don’t do it at fifty when will I do it?” 

Then there is another disturbing commercial which talks about sex change, a sensitive topic if ever there was one. Here’s the commercial for UrbanClap that will certainly catch your attention.

But what should brands do?
Having said all this, what’s the way forward for brands on occasions like these? Here are a few thoughts for your consideration.

Think long and hard whether you actually need to be here or you could use your money elsewhere with less clutter.

Have a calendared, annual plan. Things like this should not be ad hoc.

Does your brand really belong here? And even if it does, can it beat the clutter or will it be just one of several brands jostling for attention?
Can your brand beat the stereotype? How many commercials can we have for long-suffering Sati Savitris?

Can your brand go beyond mere advertising, as Star Plus is doing?

Can you put enough media weight behind this?

Can you focus on men, for instance, in your commercial in an interesting way that will get the attention of all women?

Finally, the old adage is worth remembering. Don’t do something that you can’t do damn well, both in strategy and execution.

Yes, the world is full of opportunities. Sadly, everything comes with a cost. Choose your opportunities carefully and belated wishes for a happy Women’s Day!

Monday, March 13, 2017

I love you but I love my phone more ….

Is it enough for ads to play on the obsession with smartphones or should they go the extra mile?
Imagine if you had a choice between taking your spouse or your mobile phone to a desert island: which would you choose? Ok, ok you don’t have to answer that. I can, because I am secure in the knowledge that my wife never reads anything I write (even a shopping list) and can tell you that a mobile phone wins hands down.

Have you observed what young people do when they are sitting at a restaurant or even in a park? They keep staring intently at their mobiles instead of looking at each other, for who knows which WhatsApp message might disappear if they looked at it an hour later!

While this malady may seem particularly associated with young people, I think it is a universal problem that cuts across ages. Nowadays we have older people whose day starts with Facebook and not necessarily with Venkatesa Suprabhatam, as it might have done a decade ago. Yes, the mobile has captured our attention, imagination and hearts, hook, line and sinker! It is in this context that Vodafone has done a new piece of communication which says “Look Up”.
Look up at your partner
Watch this new video done for Valentine’s Day which is perhaps more interesting for picking on a theme that is universal and which everyone can relate to as it happens all the time in everyone’s lives; and that is about mobile phone usage. It takes a light-hearted look at how obsessed we are with phones so that, even when we are on a date with our loved one, we are peering anxiously at the mobile phone instead of looking lovingly at our partner’s face.

The communication starts at a fancy restaurant, where valets offer to take charge of your mobile phone for the time you are at the restaurant so that you can have undisturbed time and probably even talk (!) to your surprised partner! Unsurprisingly some mobile phone users decline the offer, saying that their boss might call, and so on.

Of course, a few others take up the offer. Obviously they enjoy the meal and, when interviewed later, relate a multitude of favourable experiences, ranging from how interesting their partner is without a mobile phone to how they actually looked at each other and what a fun time they had without the constant distraction of the phone.

While it is clearly a message for Valentine’s Day, there is a deeper message to all of us who seem to have difficulty in looking beyond our mobile screens, on how personal moments and relationships are getting badly hurt, thanks to this wonderful invention. 

As communication goes, it is simple rather than dramatic. Clearly, it does not have the sophisticated execution that earlier Vodafone commercials do but, then, neither does this seem a communication for mass media. 

Rather than get into the execution of the commercial, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the TVC has universal appeal as it is based on the obsession of today’s youth with the mobile phone and it seems perfectly acceptable behaviour; usually, the other person is too busy to notice this as she is peering at her phone too! Insights like this get the following reaction from consumers: “wow, it’s really true. It’s about me. I can relate to this”. This is precisely what the communication gets by way of response from viewers, and that is its biggest success. 

Insights are not new
Mobile services and their use have been a hot topic for years now for advertisers and ad agencies. I’m sure some of you remember the commercial for Airtel on a young person’s obsession with “missed calls”. A youngster’s car gets vandalised in a multiplex and, as the concerned youngsters hang around the car, the owner asks his friend if he has called the police. The young man replies that he has given a missed call to the police and they should soon call him back! This highly successful commercial, which made waves for Airtel, had youngsters look at the Airtel brand more seriously. 

Back to Vodafone
Having discussed insights, let us go back to the original Vodafone communication. While it is interesting, the way to really engage with the consumers and demonstrate to them that Vodafone cares about them is to take the concept online, request people to share their experiences when they are not on the phone, have contests, write blogs, do cartoons and just about anything that can be done to ensure that the concept of “looking up” gathers momentum and steam so that it becomes a mass movement that the brand can eventually claim credit for. 

Otherwise, it might just remain what it is now - an interesting piece of communication from a brand known for its creativity.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Will Virat Kohli be India’s Michael Jordan?

Puma might have bitten off more than it can chew with its latest endorsement
Last week witnessed two momentous events in Indian cricket, and neither took place on the field. The first, not necessarily in terms of importance, was when English all-rounder Ben Stokes, who bowled the disastrous last over in the T20 World Cup final, got picked up by Rising Pune Supergiants for a small matter of ₹14.5 crore. 

This paled in comparison to India’s cricket captain and record-breaking batsman Virat Kohli’s deal with Puma, which exceeds ₹100 crore! The eight-year-long contract beats all endorsement deals signed by other sportspersons in India. This is an indication of the growing significance of Virat as a player and a brand ambassador, and the increasing dependence on cricket by brands in India.
However, we must pause to understand why a major global brand like Puma, which has signed the likes of Usain Bolt, agreed to pay this mindboggling amount and royalty on sales to our star.
Celebrities, once again
India depends on celebrities for everything, from selling toilet cleaners to luxury cars. Sometimes, it makes me wonder if our marketers and advertising agencies are so bereft of ideas that they cling to well-known personalities the way foreign teams cling to theories about Indian pitches!
Sure, brands like Nike and Pepsi have achieved phenomenal success using this strategy, but I wonder how much other smaller brands introspect before making the same move.
So, let’s talk of the Puma deal. No doubt it is a fantastic brand fit; not only is Virat the most successful Indian captain so far, but he is also a premier batsman in all three formats with almost a fetish for fitness which typifies the brand’s values.
And despite attempts by many brands and marketers to promote other sports and leagues, cricket still rules the roost and consequent marketing money follows it with ease. So, what’s the catch?
Cost vs benefit
Marketers often forget that any decision is about costs and benefits. The cost of this deal is already well-documented but let’s not forget that a brand spends more to announce a deal — making new commercials with the celebrity, riding on their popularity through ads, and hoping they continue to break record after record. And what are the benefits?

While there will be a dramatic improvement in brand awareness, it’s still speculation whether celebrity endorsements actually lead to greater interest, desire, and purchase action.
The other doubt I have is whether Virat’s endorsements are within Puma’s control. Celebrities are products at sports management companies, and they look to maximise on the celebrity’s popularity before another hot star hits the firmament. Right now, Virat endorses more than 20 brands; how many of these do you associate with him? And should you associate Puma with Virat just because the brand forked over ₹120 crore?
Is admiration enough?
I recently read an interesting piece on ‘the Virat Kohli paradox’, which argues that while he could be the greatest Indian batsman ever, there is more admiration than love for him. I agree with the writer, as this admiration is not similar to the do-or-die sentiment we shared with Sachin Tendulkar or the regard we had for the Rahul Dravids of the world. Virat has placed himself on a pedestal with his passion, commitment and competence, and that makes me wonder whether he has distanced himself from his fans. I hope that’s not the case for Puma’s sake…
It’s easy to sit on the fence and look at both sides. What’s my own take on this deal? I admire it — it shows commitment to a sport, a country and a player. But something tells me that Puma has bitten off more than it can chew.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Mere nostalgia cannot make a brand iconic

The world has moved to a different level of quality; some Indian brands have been left behind.
Last week, I read the news, with a hint of regret, about the Ambassador brand being sold to Peugeot. Mind you, we never owned an Amby, as it was called, but I certainly have fond memories with it. 

Good ol’ days!
Invariably, all long distance trips were made in it, whether it was the holidays we took to Kodaikanal with its hairpin bends, the business trips to Chittoor with my team or the pilgrimages to Tirupati in the company of my late boss. It was dependable, could be repaired anywhere and seat at least six people comfortably, not to mention fitting mountains of luggage that most Indians still continue to carry.

It had literally no competition because the only other car you could own in those days was a Premier Padmini, for which you had to wait for four years! Of course, people less fortunate than you were waiting seven years to get an allotment of Bajaj Chetak and invariably re-branded as fortunate when the allotment happened.

Those whose horoscopes were special sold the Bajaj Chetak seven years later for the same price that they had bought it for and maybe even gifted themselves a HMT watch with the ill-gotten gains!
This was the India that some of us grew up in. A land of scarcity where even a pair of jeans had to be imported and watches smuggled in. And I think it is important to remember this fact, even as we look at some of these old brands with rose tinted glasses.
Changing the game
Many brands that had lived and flourished in a protected economy, started facing the heat in 1991, when the country suddenly (and not a moment too soon) opened its doors to international brands. And every foreign brand worth its name came into the country, whether it was American, Japanese, German or Korean!

The Indian consumer, who had been starved of choice and was considering choosing between two car brands, suddenly had a choice of 764! And this choice wasn’t restricted to just automobiles — refrigerators, colour televisions, mobile phones (which came a bit later) television channels, all came flooding into the market.

And the consumer just went bananas! Many brands — like HMT watches that proudly called itself the ‘timekeepers to the nation’, Hamara Bajaj or BPL colour Televisions (which had once been the market leader) — no longer ruled the roost as the consumer looked at smarter, slicker, better advertised international brands.

Ambassador — which is the hero of this piece and had been steadily dropping production, till the numbers dropped to laughable levels — is now on the block, and the price is a measly ₹80 crore!
What happened to all the goodwill, the equity built over the years and customer experiences of families that had used it for years? Why indeed is the ‘iconic’ brand, as some refer to it, being parked in the garage for keeps?
Being an icon is not easy
In this context, it must be said that people tend to get emotional about brands and give them iconic status a bit too readily. It’s a bit like calling Shikhar Dhawan great on the basis of a phenomenal debut series. But where is he now?
It’s easy to confuse form with class, and this is precisely what happened with the Amby, which was probably a flat track wonder that could not manage, as foreign brands swung, seamed and reverse swung!
World icons
Let us, in the same breath, look at the truly iconic brands the world has seen. These are brands like Volkswagen Beetle, Harley Davidson and Apple, to name just a few. They are in a different league with evangelists who are passionate about these brands and consumers who don’t mind tattooing themselves with the brand’s logo!

The Amby or the Bajaj scooter never really had this sort of appeal. They were the best available at that time and consumers have fond memories of them. But it’s important to remember that mere happy memories do not make a brand iconic.
What might have been?
And yet, I have an overriding feeling of regret at what the brand could have become. Brands are like children — they cannot grow on love and fresh air alone. They need nourishment. Brands too need sustenance and advertising support; they need to keep pace with times and technology.
They cannot survive on outdated models and poor quality. The world has moved to a different level of quality and sadly, some of our Indian brands have been left far behind, as their owners were businessmen, not visionaries.
Brands need champions and visionaries to guide and lead them and this is precisely where Amby lost out. Birla’s loss is Peugeot’s gain.
Will they have the courage, the desire and competence to revive it to its former days of glory? I wonder!

Monday, February 13, 2017

How you can improve your brand’s pricing

Here are five things you must do to build an enviable brand
When we provide a certain service, how often do we make this statement in frustration: “Why don’t we get the pricing we deserve?” I am sure this concern must have crossed your mind at some stage. I run a communications company, and I know that the inability to get the right price for the services rendered by us irks my team and me. 

In fact, this is perhaps a concern for most other companies who are in the business-to-business space - especially those that are not major brands, or are not as well-known as their competitors. Should we, then, just accept it as poor branding or our karma or fight for our own future? The answer is a no-brainer - we must strive to improve our image and pricing.
So let me share what we have learnt the hard way.

Minimum acceptable price
Be clear what your minimum acceptable price is. Very often, we get greedy and give a fancy quotation for our project or engagement. Let’s say we quote two times the price for a project we know fully well can be done in 1.4 times the cost. It is then that we are head for trouble.
More often than not, the client beats us down to 1.1 times the quoted price, including taxes. So what have we effectively done? We have basically sent out a signal that we are desperate for business and can even go down on our final price by 50 per cent! We are saying there is no sanctity in the initial offer and that we will keep lowering our prices to get the contract.
Is this what a serious brand will do? All too often, senior management gets involved in the deal closer to the finalisation. Ensure that your initial pricing is not way off the mark.

Be prepared to walk away
Very often, we find ourselves saying yes to deals, even though they make no financial sense. At such times, remind yourself that it takes the same level of servicing for a project, irrespective whether you are handling a client on a retainer of ₹50,000 or ₹150,000. You need infrastructure, technology and a team to handle the business. We often don’t take into account these hidden costs and worry only about employee costs.

And what about the opportunity cost? When your resources are locked up in servicing a demanding, low-priced client, you are denying yourself the opportunity to work on a more lucrative assignment. Have the courage to say ‘no’ and yet, not close opportunities to do further business with the same client. Only, on your terms at a later date.

Build competencies
Build competencies within your system. Branding is all about standing for something, and that includes skill-sets. A public relations company that specialises in healthcare has a better chance of delivering a hospital pitch, and a company with experience in education has a better fit with a university.

Carefully work on your competencies and practices so that your team can speak confidently to prospects. Put your team in front of the client, so they can experience what the team brings. This strength will enable you to speak confidently when it comes to price negotiations.
Remember, all of these are about perceived value and the client will not haggle for a few thousand rupees when you are able to demonstrate what you bring to the table by way of experience.

Be a professional service provider
People often think of branding as something magical that transforms their image in the minds of prospective clients and customers. Sadly, it is not. It is just a summation of all the things we do as a professional service provider. It includes the way we answer the phone, the way our people dress, the way we address customer requirements, the manner in which we word the mails, and the professional manner in which our proposals are sent.

Once, a client gave me very good feedback. We had done some outstanding media relations work for this client and got him great media coverage. Yet, the docket in which we presented the coverage to the client was so dull and unattractive that it actually took away the entire impact of the hard work we had put in. 

This is why you must present your achievements professionally.

Keep selling your brand
Somehow, all of us believe that once we are in a relationship, we are home and dry. This is hardly the case. No client is sold for life and it is important that we subtly keep reminding the client of the interesting work we do not only for him/her but for others as well.
Sometimes, we are shy of sharing the excellent work we do for other clients lest they turn around and ask us: “Why aren’t you doing the same for us?” In fact, we should take this as a challenge to do great work for all our clients. Very often, customers have a very limited view of our ability that is restricted by what they have experienced. If that is not adequate, we should endeavour to give the client the best of what we can provide as an agency, even if it means challenging our teams to superior performance.

Building a brand is not rocket science. It is clear strategy and relentless execution, day after day. It will not happen overnight, but work on it patiently and soon enough, others will look up to you as your brand becomes a role model.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Only time will tell

A still from the Titan Raga #MomByChoice advertisement

Titan Raga’s motherhood advertisement is impressive, but it isn’t an out-and-out watch commercial
If my memory serves me right, Titan, the brand, was launched in 1987 when I was a young upwardly mobile advertising executive.
Having been in the ad industry and having worked with HMT watches (a brand that got systematically slaughtered by Titan), I have always watched Titan’s advertising with keen interest and a touch of trepidation in the earlier days, as my brand would usually be at the receiving end.
I have also frequently complimented both Titan and Ogilvy and Mather, who have been partners through this entire period. What a fantastic partnership! Believe me, it is no small achievement, maintaining the consistency in strategy and smartness in execution of the ads. Who can forget Titan’s catalogue style launch advertising, its pioneering of the concept of gifting or the creation of a brand property with its Mozart music track?
It was therefore hardly surprising that I watched Titan Raga’s recent commercial eulogising the mom-to-be with great interest.
Mom: stereotype no more!
Moms tend to be an integral part of our lives and television scripts. They are forever rolling chapattis, picking up or dropping their kids or eternally waiting for uncaring kids who come home at night. You get the picture.
It is precisely this sort of mom that the Titan Raga mom does not wish to be. In case you haven’t watched the commercial that’s been recently launched here’s a quick brief about it.
It’s a tribute to a mom-to-be and there’s a fairly large family and friends gathering to felicitate her. The doting husband gifts her Titan Raga while she gets ready to deliver her acceptance speech. As is the current trend, she speaks in a combination of English and Hindi (I remember us referring to this as Hinglish in the earlier days).
She says her time has come (when she receives the Titan Raga watch as a gift) to be a mom. She goes on talk about how her mom was quite different from other mothers, as she was bindaas, and didn’t spend her life waiting for her kids to come back from school, or she wasn’t someone who followed them around endlessly or even made chapattis for them.
She was busy leading her own life, which meant that she was touring the most exciting places and did the most romantic of things, like getting a PhD at the age of 45!
The mom-to-be reiterates that her mother will always be her role model, as she has taught her that being a mother is not so much about making a sacrifice as it is about making a choice — and it is her time to make the choice now, Titan Raga, et al. Here’s the commercial.
Is there a catch?
Let me quickly clarify that I can never be too stern a critic of Titan as I keep flaunting their watches and writing favourably about them. Yet, while it is an interesting commercial, I must add my two cents, being a consumer and a consultant to boot.
The leading light is a touch older than the Katrina Kaifs of the world we have been hitherto seeing. Is the brand subtly accepting that even if it is not getting older, its consumers are? It’s been my considered opinion that the Titan brand has been aging and is probably not as hep as it used to be, though I have no evidence to suggest that Raga suffers from the same malady.
The other concern is that while it is easy to do commercials like these that are a slice of life, the challenge is that they apply equally to any category and are not intrinsic to watches.
Of course, there is a reference to time in the script, but this is not an out-and-out watch commercial, is it? The best commercials are those that intrinsically link the category to advertising and I don’t see evidence of that. I am sure that the ad agency will argue till it is blue in the face about how old fogeys like me don’t understand the young consumer or the category.
Whilst the ads may be interesting and probably award-winning and even make great conversations, they may not be hard working enough. But then, that’s just a point of view and only time will tell if I’m right.
Let me end with a note of congratulations to the client and agency for producing great work for around three decades. May you be a great example to other clients and agencies on how to be partners in progress!
So how’s your own partnership with your ad agency?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Don't judge a brand by its ad

Utopian scenarios shown in advertisements are far removed from reality
What’s the easiest way to break the ice in a room full of strangers? Just ask them what they think of Reliance Jio service and lo and behold! you’re in a room full of friends! I am sure a lot of people will be eager to share, criticise and give you feedback.
Today, people have a strong view and increasingly high expectations from their service providers. And here is another interesting insight about customer service. Many of us who are customers and also work in the service industry, have different standards for ourselves when we are service providers, and when we are customers.
Let me try and explain that from my perspective. While I tend to be extremely demanding as a customer (just ask my wife) at a restaurant or at a retail outlet, I am not so understanding of my own customers when they ask me for something. I end up classifying them as ‘too demanding’! Whether we like it or not, when it comes to customer service, we are a bunch of hypocrites! But why this sudden interest in customer service which is a concept as old as the hills? Well, because I saw this new commercial for a Samsung service.
As far as commercials go, it’s pretty interesting, even if it is long winded. The service executive takes a long drive through winding roads, falling trees, overflowing rivers, and sheep to fix a TV that is broken. The customer, a young girl, places several calls, anxiously asking him to reach before 7 pm. Imagine his surprise when he reaches the place only to find it a home for blind children.
He repairs the TV, even as the blind girl keeps worrying about the time. As the TV set gets repaired, she rings a bell and a whole bunch of children, come down a flight of stairs to experience a singing reality show on TV (at 7 pm), in which once of their own is participating. The girl who called the executive, tells him, “She is from our hostel and is my best friend.” Our service engineer goes back, thinking about the relationships that are so important.
This commercial is for the launch of Samsung’s service, and is meant to portray how it reaches out to even the most remote place in India.
Interesting and memorable advertising
I am sure the ad will be well-liked and probably win some awards as well. Which reminds me of a couple of other ads from the past that were interesting.
Let me start with Vodafone, a brand with very poor service (and I can personally vouch for this), but great advertising. Remember the Vodafone pug dog and the little girl? All commercials featuring the duo are cute, as the girl is adorable and the dog even more so. The canine is extremely loyal and follows the girl wherever she goes, going so far as to carry her tie to school that she forgets to wear! In an extremely creative fashion, the commercial tells us how extensive Vodafone’s service is and how it follows you, wherever you go and is always ready to help.
The next commercial is for a completely different category — a nationalised bank. It shows a conscientious bank employee, who is very worried that his elderly regular customer has not come to the bank branch on the first of the month to collect his pension cheque. He comes frantically searching for him and reaches the house, only to find him playing with children.
After he hands over the pension, the customer sheepishly tells him that he had got the date wrong. The two laugh and proceed to share a cup of tea
Far from the truth
We are supposed to be impressed at the personalised service that Bank of India provides. Which leads me to the important question — is this for real?
I have worked in a nationalised bank for four years, and bank extensively with another. While I do believe that nationalised banks provide more personalised service than their private counterparts, they are nowhere close to the giving service the way it is projected in this commercial.
Service is difficult
Having spent all my life in advertising, I know that the creative types are good at making great advertising for inferior products and services. I am certain that the agency which handles Bank of India does not hold accounts with the said bank, and hence has no idea of how the actual service is. Or they are keen on glorifying one isolated instance of great service.
They are like celebrities endorsing products they don’t use. How often do banks return cheques of customers wrongly credited, or credit wrong amounts to accounts, or make customers wait inordinately without apologising for the inconvenience? But if you look at the advertising, you will think the banking experience to be utopian, with great customer service. But it is sadly far removed from reality.
I wish companies spent less money on advertising, which is the easy part, and really focus on service delivery, which is the difficult part — it involves training, hours of practice, and people with an enormous attitude to serve, who value their customers and are willing to put up with long hours and pain.
More significantly, customer service is all about delivering expectations. So why on earth would anyone wish to hype the expectation so much? I don’t have an answer. Do you?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Amazon on the mat in India for wrong welcome rug

Today, managing brands is about controlling everything the company does; that includes sourcing

Have you ever played a game called ‘Snakes and Ladders’? If you have you will probably empathise with the way Amazon is feeling at this particular point in time. Till recently, Amazon had been making waves in India with its 8 crore products, high-decibel advertising with an essentially Indian appeal and insights, and its numerous offers. In fact, Flipkart kept looking over its shoulder as the global major kept sniping at it and went on acquiring market share.
But all that is changing, at least in terms of perception, with large sections of the country expressing their anger at Amazon for selling doormats with an Indian tricolour motif. The External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to whose notice this had been brought, lost her cool and rightfully demanded that the product be withdrawn and the company tender an unconditional apology. She also said that if Amazon did not comply, its executives would not get visas to India and even those who had them might lose them!
So Amazon knew precisely what it was to be on top of the world and very soon at the bottom of the ladder, all in a matter of a few seconds!
Global brand
I can empathise with Amazon, which operates in multiple centres and has products from a variety of sources that are sold in different countries. This particular product was offered for sale in Canada and, in defence of the seller, flags of some countries including the UK are already being sold as doormats.
Of course, Indians tend to be a little different from people in other parts of the world and are already up in arms, if WhatsApp is to be believed! I have received several messages from different groups exhorting me to boycott Amazon’s products as they have insulted our country. Messages of support and congratulations are being sent to the foreign minister on her taking a strong stance.
“How did Amazon even dare to make this offer? I’d choose to boycott them till such time they tender an apology. Let’s all post on Twitter and all other social media platforms.”
Emotions tend to run high in our country and passion can be easily lit if we provide the right spark. Indians also tend to be fairly jingoistic and have a very limited (!) sense of humour. So reactions can be swift, violent and often wrong. I am not, for one instant, suggesting that they are going overboard in this case, but the reaction is certainly strong and bordering on violent. Soon it could become a nationalist issue if local brands step in, making the right appeal.
Managing the environment
While no one is denying the value or the size of the Indian market, we have instances of brands failing to understand or, more critically, managing the environment. We are all familiar with what happened with Maggi. What started as a simple deviation turned into a major disaster for the global brand as the regulatory environment turned extremely hostile. The product ultimately had to be pulled off the shelves and Nestle ended up making phenomenal losses, even as local players gleefully tried to capitalise on the brand’s misfortunes. It is important for Amazon to realise that things could become worse for it in India if the situation is not handled quickly and satisfactorily.
Empathy is key
Every marketer worth his salt will tell you how important an ingredient empathy is for success. In this very column, I have lauded Amazon for its understanding of Indian consumer insights, and its ability to look at opportunities that are essentially Indian. Take a look at this new advertisement done in Tamil for Pongal.
Here’s a global brand that is more Indian than Indian brands, if this ad is any indication. But I have always maintained that advertising is the easy part. Today, managing brands is more and more about managing everything that your brand does, and that includes sourcing.
Clearly, Indian consumers are different from their English counterparts. While the English might not make a big deal of the Union Jack as a doormat, I am not sure Indians will be as sanguine about such an offering.
Strength in numbers
But we buy products and services, often much more than many other countries. This is why every multinational brand is making a beeline for this country. Companies like Uber have chosen India over China, and I am certain that Amazon too realises the importance of India and Indians. It is time for Amazon to take a look at its entire product portfolio and see if there are any other dicey products that could provoke Indian ire, and quickly withdraw them.
More importantly, it is time for the company to reiterate its good intentions and demonstrate to India and Indians how important they are. If it is a time to eat humble pie, so be it.
Remember, ego is great but will always be a poor second to national pride!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Brand-building is a two-way street

Clients, too often, don’t like to be advised by PR firms, despite mouthing platitudes that they are partners | Sentavio/Shutterstock

It is important for PR companies to lead the relationship rather than merely follow a client’s orders

How often do we (PR companies) feel frustrated when we are unable to convince our clients to take some action we know they must take for their own good, but they don’t do it? Very, I’m assuming!

Let me share with you a recent experience I had with one of our clients, a large, profitable firm that is rated very highly by its peers and competitors. The head of communications said, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that they could spare a couple of hours for the MD for media interviews — for the whole year!

Which brings me to a conclusion — that companies have time for discussions on revenue, costs, collections, operations, people, appraisals… basically just about everything except their brand image!

Why are discussions on brand image relegated to the backburner? And even if they do take place but the marketing communications head is unable to convince senior management about it, then isn’t the onus on the PR company to educate the client? And when we do get the opportunity, how ready are we to take on the leadership mantle?

Three kinds of companies 

In my experience, there are three types of companies.

The understated kind
The first, perhaps more popular in the south, is of large, successful companies who are understated and low key. Their attitude is “our achievements must speak for themselves”. While this is noble, it leads to even their genuine achievements not getting the recognition they so richly deserve.

The frustrating thing, however, is that their competitors, who are probably half their size and nowhere in their league of achievements, get disproportionate share of voice, thanks to their desire to be in the news and eager beaver PR companies.

Forward-looking kind
The second type of companies is that which makes forward looking statements — many of which are wishful. “We will open 1,000 stores!” they say without batting an eyelid. And what happens when they complete the year? They have a mere 80 stores!
In the early days, before the internet became a way of life, we had a number of companies which would casually talk in this manner, and without too many after effects. Today, however, companies would be well advised to be more reticent, as their statements are being recorded for posterity on the internet. And no journalist will meet a client without doing his homework first.

Role model kind
The third type of company is akin to Infosys. Now here’s a company that has been a role model of how to handle one’s image and public relations. Whilst they have had fantastic achievements - like being the first Indian company to be listed on Nasdaq - they also ensured that they got the maximum mileage for these achievements.

This leads me to an important observation. While companies should be careful about making forward looking statements, they should not hold back on their genuine achievements and ensure maximum visibility for it whenever and wherever possible.

While a lot of new generation companies seem to understand the value of being in the news, the older, better established brick-and-mortar companies particularly, still suffer from what I call the stiff upper lip syndrome.

So what should PR companies do?

Running a PR company myself, I must confess that too often, we are comfortable in merely taking orders. We don’t rock the boat or assume the mantle of consultants who advise their clients on the desired course of action. We often rationalise and console ourselves by saying, “Every client gets what he deserves”.

What you should do
I need to also tell you that clients, too often, don’t like to be advised despite mouthing platitudes that they have an open mind and that we are partners. But someone must bite the bullet or the PR Company will be left holding the baby. Of course, there is a time and place for everything. Clearly the PR Company must find an opportune moment to share their recommendations.

In my experience, the beginning of the relationship is a good time. Ideally, if we could start the relationship with a media workshop, where senior management could be present, that would make a good beginning.

The reality is that many CEOs need to be told how Public Relations helps their company’s stock price, get better employees and improves the company’s pricing. They simply aren’t aware of these things. I think it is important for PR companies to lead the relationship rather than merely follow the client’s orders.

Which leads me to another difficult question: How many of us are truly ready to be consultants? Do we possess the knowledge and the confidence so that clients can look to us for advice? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it certainly is something that should occupy our attention and energies, if we are to get the importance we deserve.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A twist to the gifting tale

Gifting has spawned interesting concepts and ideas by marketers and branding students

Gifting is as old as the hills. Even when I was a kid, Amul ran a campaign for chocolates with the tagline “A gift for someone you love”. But the pioneer in the Indian market when it comes to gifting has, arguably, been Titan. The brand’s gifting campaigns have set the tone for its advertising over the years.
People had been gifting items of their choice — jewellery, watches, et al — when Titan decided to make gifting its own with its “Joy of Giving” campaign. This was way back in 1999. Here’s the first gifting commercial that the brand executed, featuring a daughter who surprises her parents on their anniversary. 

Titan’s pair watch continues to be a star in the company’s portfolio, and the brand has stayed steadfast with its gifting strategy. The brand’s evolution has seen gifting moving away from birthdays and anniversaries to anytime gifting.
Here’s another commercial about a retiring teacher. (It’s a matter of considerable intrigue to me that in my last 25 years as a teacher, I have never received a gift. But then, I am not retired yet!) 

The saga continues
While there have been many commercials riding the gifting bandwagon, the ones that stand out are those which have a creative twist or those with consumer insights.
Like Nazraana Jewellery’s commercial, for instance, which has an interesting turn and features a husband (a bit like me) who seems to have forgotten his wife’s birthday. Thankfully, his mother comes to his ‘rescue’. 

The commercials that have made a greater impact on me, however, are the ones done for Amazon. One of the positive features of the brand’s advertising, as far as I am concerned, has been its ability to truly Indianise its advertisements. Not merely being satisfied with the fact that it can offer enormous choice to its consumers, it has constantly been searching for consumer insights about India and Indians. Here’s an insight I could relate to with the two commercials shown below. 

There’s that yellow sari again
There are a few of us who constantly get great satisfaction in giving. We are happier gifting to others than buying things for ourselves. After all, the smile on their faces when they receive carefully selected gifts is our ultimate reward — or so we would like to believe. Yet mothers do know their children and are able to see through some of their idiosyncrasies, as this commercial demonstrates. 

Then there’s another commercial where a young husband gets an increment and dedicates it to his wife, saying “What’s the difference, whether you earn it or I?” The delighted wife asks the husband if she can use the amount to get herself a necklace, and he says, “Order whatever you feel like on Amazon”.
When the parcel comes, she asks her husband to open it. Imagine his delight when the gift turns out to be a camera that he always wanted! Yes it is certainly gifting with a twist and it struck a chord with me.

A gift to remember
Another brand that has recently gained traction and market share with consumers has been the deodorant Fogg. It has become a force to reckon with in the fragrances market.
The brand recently diversified into a related category — scents — which, one can say, is a relatively nascent category in India. Most people who use it, usually go for international brands. Having said that, let’s take a look at this commercial, where a bunch of friends are talking about gifts they are carrying for their friend, Rahul’s wedding. While one gets him a bouquet, another talks about giving him Fogg scent, a gift that will keep reminding Rahul about the person who gave him the gift, every time he uses it. Interesting, though I am still wedded to my international brand! 

Yes, gifting is spawning interesting concepts and ideas by marketers and branding students. So what’s the next step? Gifting experiences! Why stop with gifting products when you can gift the people you love an outstanding experience that he/she can remember, recall, share and talk about?
Coming soon in this very column!