Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bending the global brand

Successful brands, and global ones in particular, have a core they carry across continents..

Smiles all around: Tata Docomo with its revolutionary billing per second stirred the mobileservices market. _ ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

“There is no such thing as universal rationality… what is rational or irrational to a person depends on that person's value systems, which in turn is part of the culture that person has acquired in her or his lifetime. What people around the world value varies enormously.”

- Geert Hofstede

I heard this quote and a host of other interesting statements at a marketing seminar on global brands when I was speaking at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. This particular statement was quoted by Shripad Nadkarni, Director of Marketgate, who was part of the eminent panel that also included K.V. Sridhar (National Creative Director of Leo Burnett) or ‘Pops' as he is affectionately referred to, Radha Chadha, Managing Director of Chadha Strategy Consulting, N. V. Subbarao, Hub Head - South-East of Tata Teleservices, not to mention yours truly who had the dubious distinction of being the ‘oldest member', a designation that fans of PG Wodehouse would recognise! The discussions followed by a barrage of questions from the intelligent and interested students of the ISB for the best period of a pleasant November afternoon are what form the sum and substance of this piece.

Cheapest and best!

Pops spoke about an essentially Indian context and said that the Indian consumer from the days of his father has been looking for products that are ‘cheapest and best'. Well, even if that does not pass the acid test of a bespectacled and erudite English grammar teacher, that expression classifies and describes an ideal state that brands, whether Indian or multinational, should reach or leastways strive to reach if they are to crack the Indian middle-class and the Indian market. “McDonald's the global brand has run several commercials in different parts of the world,” said Pops as he showed a number of global commercials that were low-cost productions, with the tag line “Cheap for us, cheap for you.” The commercials had one actor doing multiple roles to save money, plastic actors, just about anything that would save production costs and ultimately bring down the costs for the consumer and more customers under those ‘global arches.' In India too, McDonald's, he said, ran a series of commercials featuring lookalikes of actors of my time such as Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Sanjeev Kumar talking about how old-world prices are being charged in McDonald's, all of Rs 20! Yes, the Indian consumer is a price-conscious value seeker and we know the truth of this dictum across categories and regions in India.

The essence of successful brands

Successful brands, particularly global ones, have an essence that they carry across regions. Shripad Nadkarni in his interesting presentation analysed a number of global brands and made interesting observations about their strategies. Brands, he said, must remain true to their very essence. Lux, which is the film star's soap to ordinary mortals like you and me, stands for glamour, he said.

Nokia is all about connecting people as the tag line very effectively portrays. Pepsi, the brand for the young and young at heart, is about youthful irreverence while De Beers is about romance and relationships. He did mention that some of the Indian brands that have global aspirations, such as MTR and Parachute, are not truly global unlike the examples mentioned earlier.

So what strategies do successful global brands have? The typical one is that of the global brand essence that is executed globally and perhaps only released in the various markets such as India - L'Oreal is a case in point. Many brands are comfortable doing this. After all, one of the major reasons why clients have global agency networks that create global ad campaigns is because the agency lives, sleeps and dreams the brand, and is able to create advertising that not only works in the country of origin but in other parts of the world as well, and you can well imagine the savings in the cost of production. Global brand managers know and recognise the value of this.

The second strategy which global brands follow is executing the global brand essence locally. Shripad shared examples of what brands such as Johnson & Johnson do, by executing the global thought and essence in different regional markets, India included. Lux, he said, was another case in point, using a top-flight actor such as Priyanka Chopra in India to execute a global concept across regions, races and if one may add, religions, with local film stars depicting the global essence of glamour.

Be Indian, interpret for India

Yet marketers are realising the value and importance of India even as they recognised the differences that this country has, even if it did not advertise them often enough. Brands such as De Beers have accepted the unique nature of the country, even as they realise its potential and reap the benefits. McDonald's too was smart enough to cater to India, not only in its value pricing, but also in the menu dictating the Indian preferences and the pricing certainly understanding the slimness of our wallets, whatever the shapes of our waists! He shared the example of Coke in India, pointing to the ‘ Thanda Matlab Coca Cola' campaigns featuring the histrionic ability of Aamir Khan. Clearly the celebrity, his histrionics and the local content made a difference to the brand though Shripad was characteristically modest about his own contribution to its success in India when he led the marketing in the company.

India and luxury. Are you kidding?

So much has been said about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid in India that not much attention has been paid to luxury brands in this country. After all, we are still obsessed with ‘ roti, kapda aur makaan' and ‘ garibi hatao' still seems an idealistic slogan than an actual reality!

But Radha Chadha, who is an acknowledged expert on luxury brands, gave a whole new perspective of an India that we all knew existed looking at the BMWs that we see in the streets of Delhi and if one may add, Chandigarh! She said that while China has taken the luxury market by storm with its huge potential, India could well be the next stop for the Louis Vuittons of the world. The opening of the Louis Vuitton store in Beijing demonstrated the pent-up demand for luxury brands in this part of the world.

Global brands, particularly luxury brands, were bending, she said, to conquer. The global brands were reaching out to their consumers by local events, such as models walking the ramp at the Great Wall to a phenomenal response.

The presentation was an eye-opener in the sense that we tend to cling to our pet theories about the India we think we know. But then India is a stunning bundle of variety if not inconsistency as Subbarao revealed when he spoke about Tata Docomo with its revolutionary billing per second that completely stirred and shook the mobile services market, leading even market leader Airtel to follow suit, reluctantly perhaps! Well, I am not complaining, because competition invariably benefits the consumer and that is me!

Don't talk down to India

Speaking for myself , perhaps the first thing that struck me over the years has been that the brands that talked down to India, like Kelloggs, perhaps, in its early days, with its claim of ‘eat the way the world does' usually run into rough weather.

The more successful ones have taken a global position and Indianised it brilliantly whether it is ‘ Daag achche hain' or ‘There are some things that money can't buy. …' Mind you, the quality of execution has been leapfrogging as too the ability of Indian creative minds to spot local insights that are tapped with global positioning ideas.

And yet, I think those multinational companies and people who refuse to listen to the people who know this country and its people tend to lose out. I remember years ago there was this gentleman from Manila who was an acknowledged expert on chewing gum. He chewed, ate, slept and dreamt chewing gum. He knew more about chewing gum than perhaps the entire local marketing team of the company and the advertising agency together. He said there was a lot in common between consumers in India and the Philippines. The Philippines was using a concept of “Exercise your face with chewing gum”.

I resisted vehemently saying Indians do not even exercise their bodies much less their faces, so this concept would not work. In any case another network agency did the commercial, which, I must gleefully tell you, bombed. So some global positions will not work in our vast and complex country. But some other brands have thrown their heart and soul into India as they realise the vast potential of this market, like Nokia whose 1100 series mobile phone was made for India. Given the reluctance of the smaller-town Indian to splurge on a mobile phone given his needs, Nokia appealed to his rational instinct saying he was not only getting a phone but an alarm and a torch too !

Yes, India is a vast, complex market with enormous potential. Some multinational marketers have found this to be a minefield whilst a few others who have got their strategies right have found this to be a goldmine of opportunity. Minefield or gold mine? Take your pick!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

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