Friday, June 25, 2010

'CK: The inveterate optimist.'

I've had the opportunity to listen to CK Prahalad a couple of times, once at IIM where we were involved with the event - he was addressing the Alumni.

On a personal level, he was very easily approachable, friendly and there were no airs about him. No one interacting with hi
m on a casual level, without knowing who he was, would have been able to guess that this was one of the most respected management thinkers of our time.

On the professional front, the key thing that always struck me about him was that he was an inveterate optimist. This was even while all around us, and particularly those in India, were always negative about what we perceived about the business environment. He was optimistic bout the India story, and stories of few companies that he had watched grow made for inspiring and motivating talks across the world. Whether it was the case of Aravind Eye Hospital or the sachet revolution of CavinKare, they opened up the world to the Indian opportunity and innovation.

Even if you look at the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid approach, while many of us were stuck in theories of how the burgeoning Indian population meant impending doom, he forced MNCs to look at the emerging Indian middle class from the other perspective of untapped opportunity. While he was contributed in many ways to many organisations, and inspired very many individuals and corporate leaders, he will be remembered most for awakening us to 'core competencies' and 'bottom of the pyramid'. Those shall remain etched for long.

To me, someone of his capacity and competence, and someone who commanded so much respect, speaking the India story, at forums of repute around the worlds, was his greatest contribution to our country.

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


Thursday, June 17, 2010

The human side of branding

There is a lot more to branding than identity, advertising and public relations. Brands also need to get in touch with their human face.

I want to build my brand.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this statement in the 11 years since we started brand-comm, a consulting company dedicated to building brands. And yet, as is to be expected, people have different expectations from branding and the entire process of branding. The next steps to these statements usually follow one of the following courses of action. ‘I think our identity is dated and today's consumers are young, so let's change it, and shouldn't we be thinking global?' This is good news for international brand consultants and design experts as they instantly see (million) $$ signs. The identity change is announced with great fanfare and it usually goes down like the Indian team went down in Zimbabwe — with scarcely a whimper — as nothing except the identity has changed and the brand is still the same boring brand.

Another alternative is to try to build corporate image through a high-profile TV commercial, probably shot in New Zealand, but without the benefit of a core idea that defines the essence of the brand. “The execution will be clutter-breaking” says the agency Creative Director. The brand promise is not delivered, after all “Yuvarajs” exist in corporate life too!

Another way forward is to hire a public relations firm which goes hammer and tongs at the media — organises one-on-ones, speaker and photo opportunities — all of which generate intense interest about the MD in cocktail parties and amidst head-hunting firms but nothing much happens to the brand. And today there is another option as well.

Sponsor some high-profile IPL team and even if the team does not win a single match, the players dutifully land up at post-IPL parties wearing your brand on their sleeves (if not their hearts) on them.

I know that I am perhaps sounding cynical, a not unexpected reaction from someone my age, but that is hardly the impression I wish to convey or the point I wish to make. There is a whole lot more to branding than identity, colours, TV advertising, sponsorship, events and public relations. While I am not denying the importance or value of these, I think there is something more basic, more obvious and yet, perhaps, more difficult to manage, which is why companies seem to spend so little time on this and that is what I would call the “human side of branding”. Here are a few examples of how companies, however big, get this important aspect of their functioning woefully wrong.

The first impression …

… has the potential of being the worst impression. You enter an impressive building, exquisitely designed, wonderfully architected with a fa├žade that could make you stop in your tracks. You cross the manicured gardens and enter the plush reception. And whom do you meet? A security guard in place of the young, efficient, smiling, helpful receptionists that people of my age were used to seeing earlier, but then this is perhaps the order of the day in most companies.

Of course, some of these security guards are smart, even speak good English and can be courteous enough, as was the security guard at the Oberoi in Bangalore last week. He welcomed me in the traditional Indian way. But many are not the way they ought to be and you can easily imagine the impact on the brand when they are found wanting. Of course, I am fond of repeating my experiences of having been welcomed in a company by a security guard whose company name tag read “Doberman”. Obviously, you can understand my nervousness! Did the Chairman of the company ever walk past this, I wonder, or does he have his own private elevator that enables him to bypass this welcoming committee?

You don't call me,

I will call you

Another quick reality check for a brand is the way the company answers, or should I say does not answer, the phone. How often do we get the impression that the phone is ringing and the operators are having a good time, when the phone is actually busy?

Let's assume that you have achieved the holy grail of actually getting through to the company and to an operator who puts you on hold. Of course, you may be calling the company not because you are in love with it, but probably because it has goofed and you want to give it a piece of your mind.

What happens then? You are put on hold and the company's jingle of how it is God's gift to the human race goes on endlessly like the maiden overs that Nadkarni used to reel off and you are seething. So what is your view of the brand at that particular point in time? Top-of-mind for all the wrong reasons is probably your reaction.

Let's move on to a slightly more sensitive topic of company or brand culture. Have you ever tried getting in touch with the CEO of a large company? Life seems to be one long meeting; senior people are constantly in meetings, unreachable despite being online 24 x 7. They never take calls, respond to text messages or answer mails. After all, they are busy. I remember my first boss telling me “you are paid to be busy”.

But are these captains of industry so busy as to be completely unresponsive, sometimes to calls even from their friends and former colleagues? But what happens then? The company takes its cue from the CEO and soon you have a company that is completely, totally inaccessible, at times even to the media.

If, for whatever reason, the company needs you, it will call you a few hundred times! Do these companies ever bother to assess what the rest of the world has to say about them? Do they even care?

And this is precisely how the brand comes across to the rest of the world and I cannot imagine the ignored parties being quiet about the company and its total lack of response. Surely there has to be a better, more sensitive, more humane way of doing business that can impact the brand and the corporate image positively?

A better way to recruit?

Bangalore is the software capital of India, if not the world, and if you were to believe everything that you read about these companies then you would be convinced they are the greatest places to work in. They probably are.

Make no mistake about this, I am a great admirer of Indian software companies and yet here is an incident that made a profound impression on me, even if it had me a bit concerned about how the brand was getting it wrong.

I am going to talk about one of the top software companies in India if not the world. They needed a director for their brand and I had with great difficulty organised one of my juniors from IIM for this; she was the head of a large advertising agency and went for the meeting at my insistence.

There were many calls reminding her of the meeting. She went to the complex and found herself with hundreds of engineers looking for a job. She also found herself at the venue much earlier because the company wanted her to fill up a form! She was hopping mad, and to add insult to injury, it was not the HR head that she met but her lackey.

Clearly, the company was better suited to recruit thousands of engineer trainees but was probably not geared to deal with a senior employee, particularly someone who needed to be wooed. Luckily the lady in question did not have a blog or she could have told the world about the company and its manner of recruitment.

There is nothing wrong with the company, its financial results or even its image. It is still admired and will continue to be admired but such incidents can and will hurt the brand. But then someone has to be aware of the implications of the acts of commission and omission of each and every one of its employees and we are not talking of CEOs here.

Let me end this piece with a quote by Lee Clow: “Managing brands is going to be more about trying to manage everything that your company does.” Yes, everything that your company does! Every action that every employee or your outsourced partner does or does not do continues to impact your brand.

Let's continue this discussion next fortnight. But in the meanwhile can you think about how good your brand's human side is? Think about it and write to me about it at brandline@thehindu.co.in.

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

Monday, June 7, 2010

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Is your advertising outrageous?

An ad that succeeds need not always be politically correct but one that identifies with the target consumer..

Fairness for better prospects, marriage so that you can look like a princess - whether you take theads with a pinch of salt or righteous indignation, they will be successful if the insight is right.

Make them laugh, make them cry, for God's sake make them do something” is an advertising dictum that one has read and heard, even if one has not been able to get the creative person to follow this principle as often as I would have liked. Now why do I say that? Everyday there are hundreds of ads that come on TV (millions or so, it seems, on IPL) and in the newspaper that could easily be described as “ships that pass you by in the night” making no impact whatsoever on you, or on thousands of customers like you. And then suddenly you notice an ad that makes you sit up. An ad that hits you in the gut, an ad that perhaps gets your hackles up and you sit up and take notice and you might even say “how dare they do this”. If you are not the target audience and the ad has still intrigued or irritated you, you may try to get a second opinion and may even take the trouble of asking the person for whom you think the ad was meant.

I remember trying to do a review of one of the earlier Fastrack ads set in a classroom when there is a roll call and a number of girls drool “Yes sir”, “Yes sir” when the name of a handsome boy wearing a sexy watch is called out. Of course, the ad was interesting, but however young at heart I may claim to be, I must confess that I did not get it in its entirety, so I did what most parents do when confronted with something new. I asked my second son who was 19 then, the target audience for the ad, what he thought of it and he said, “It's kickass, Pa!” without batting an eyelid, basically saying that it was up to scratch. Of course, I need to confess that if I had spoken like that to Ramanujam Senior, my dad, I may not have been alive to tell the tale.

But the point I wish to make is that often enough, while all of us view advertising and usually have a strong point of view about it, we are not the target customers. Of course, we can certainly air our views to whoever cares to listen and even write about it in blogs but the advertiser, really speaking, should be concerned about the views of the real target audience who is a genuine prospect for the brand and not so much about everyone who has a point of view. Though I daresay people like me also voice their opinion using the Net and making their opinion heard, if not count.

Is it fair?

Another ad which stirred things up quite a bit was the Fair & Lovely ad - I am sure you remember the one with the air hostess, featuring a father who openly wishes he had a son and the indignant daughter uses Fair & Lovely, becomes an air hostess and takes her father to a five-star restaurant where the father naively asks her for the same cup of coffee that created happy chaos just a few weeks ago.

I have seen enough people rave and rant about this ad. I suppose if you live in Lavelle Road in Bengaluru, Boat Club Road in Chennai or Nepean Sea Road in Mumbai, this ad can affect your sensitivities and make you vocal. But then if you live in these places, chances are that you can get your conditioners from Paris. The target audience, however, lives in interior Tamil Nadu or Gujarat, where people unabashedly demand not only dowry but fair brides. Should Hindustan Unilever worry about the people in these smaller towns or the elite group that lives in high-rise condominiums but will never use their product?

We Indians are a hypocritical race, we often mean exactly the opposite of what we say and often pay lip service to lofty ideals. Mind you, I am not saying that everything that manufacturers and advertisers say is true or has to be accepted, but one of the things going for this commercial is that it strikes a chord in the hearts of dark girls even as it makes you and me say “How dare they?” I have seen enough bridegrooms reject my cousins because they were dark even as they blatantly used to say that the “horoscopes were not matching”. They do say that truly great advertising is “on the verge of being outrageous”. To my mind, at least, this ad fit the bill, never mind what people had to say about it and boy did they have a lot to say, even though this was in the ‘pre-blog' days!

Take me to the church on time

A recent ad that stirs up similar sentiments, if not more acute, given the fact that we have people who are blogging, is the ad for Tanishq. You might have seen this ad, which features a modern family, the daughter driving an SUV, the family speaking English, a girl undecided on marriage, but whose life plans quickly change for the better as she tries on the wedding collection from Tanishq. If the girl is independent as she ostensibly seems to be and is not keen on marriage, how can something like diamonds, however exquisite, make her change her mind, the critics ask. If she is a woman of today who is logical and practical and knows what she wants, how can she change her mind, just for the jewellery? And yet, are decisions about marriage so well thought out? I wish they were. Is it also so easy to unravel a woman's mind? From time immemorial, man has tried and failed miserably. Others like me have given up, as we do not believe we have a hope in hell. Don't people say that a woman's mind is as unpredictable as English weather even if the current one promises to be the hottest in years? Hardly surprising that we are not touring this summer, for we are usually followed by wind and rain!

Much as I would like to probe the recesses of the woman's mind, let me reluctantly return to the task on hand and the commercial at hand. Once again, I was intrigued by the commercial and not having a daughter to be married, I turned to the young girls in my office who seem to relate to and conform to the girl in the commercial. They too are educated, know what they want in life, have a point of view and are not afraid to express it. ‘Girls want to look good when they get married.' ‘Marriage is an important occasion.' ‘Anyway one has to get married, why not look good on the occasion?' to a lone voice saying “As if a girl would get married for the jewellery!”

Let's take a closer look at the commercial. It gets your attention, has a good cast and one can certainly expect Arundathi Nag to turn in a good performance. It has an element of surprise in the fact that it proposes something that is unexpected, radical even. But does it offend the sensitivities of the core target audience?

Tanishq is probably not a major player in the wedding market, which is a huge buying occasion which perhaps explains the rationale of the commercial. I have attended weddings in small towns in India, in metros such as Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore and more recently in far-off places such as Chicago and Detroit. Last week, I was at a Tambrahm wedding at Detroit where the father of the bride had the first dance with his daughter, a far cry from Mylapore, but the wedding set still seemed to be very critical with all the women, both young and old, going gaga over it.

What should brands do?

I think the easy, boring way is to take the predictable, non-controversial route that most commercials seem to follow. I wish more clients and agency heads would take risks. I know clients will say that it is their money that I am talking about! But having said that, I do know that in creative and in life the dictum ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained' has some merit. And yet a word of caution is in order. It is not about people like me who write or bloggers, however powerful they may be, but focus on the consumer.

When in doubt, go to the consumer. Tanishq might do well to talk to its consumers through the length and breadth of India and ask people whether people are saying ‘It's cool' like the girls in my office or ‘How dare they?' as a blogger asked. As I often do, let me end with a quote of Bill Bernbach: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you and nobody for you.”

Stand for something, but just check with your consumer whether you are standing for her or against her!

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