Thursday, June 2, 2011

Change is the name of the political game

The recent elections have demonstrated how people can become brands and capture the public imagination.

Advertising agencies have, over the years, perfected the art of being wise after the event. Let me explain. Usually, a creative director comes up with a brilliant ad for a brand, a thought based on an idea which translates into an outstanding TV commercial or an award-winning press advertisement. The agency swings into action and lo and behold a fantastic presentation has been created to sell the ad after it has been created. It is what is jocularly referred to as a strategic retrofit in the agency circuit!

Similarly, after two outstandingly dissimilar women swept the polls last fortnight, analysts and consultants are ready to make a case study of these victories and do political postmortems ad nauseum after the ladies have done the hard work.

I am as knowledgeable about politics and its nuances as Mandira Bedi was about cricket and the Chinaman when she first started her stint with IPL, though I have a lot less hair than the charming hostess and even less television presence.

But this election has brought back memories of other political campaigns and my mind goes back to arguably the greatest political campaign created for another lady in a different part of the world, Margaret Thatcher. It is often claimed that the poster ‘Labour isn't working' created by Saatchi and Saatchi for the Conservative Party overthrew the Government and made the agency an overnight sensation.

While it is probably an advertising claim, there is no denying the campaign's effectiveness, even if the cynic might quibble that the queue in front of the employment exchange was made up of Saatchi employees.

I am not sure if our own advertising campaigns on the current election have been a patch on this for creativity, but the results throw up some interesting learning's for anyone interested in the theory of how people can become brands and capture both the imagination and the electorate, and also throw up interesting debates on what works — the message, whether it is by clever advertising or by way of an electoral theme, and the value or otherwise of freebies or sales promotions as people in the business would call it.

Poriborton! (Whatever that means)

My capacity to understand or learn languages (other than Tamil and English) has been limited as both my Hindi and French teachers will tell you. One quickly learnt Tamil as she found that it was easier than trying to teach me Hindi, while the other went back to Paris, a shadow of her former self, to relearn her French! Yet, even I could figure out that Mamata's campaign theme of change went down well with a State that has witnessed the same lack of progress for 33, or, was it 34 years?

While commentators may laud the lady from Bengal's achievements, I for one believe that people get tired, even the most patient ones, and that is what happened, though, as strategic retrofit kicks in, people are talking of positioning and packaging and how the shining knight in her Hawai chappals symbolises the hopes of the East.

But there is no denying the fact that she has been consistent in her policies — the Tatas might say against industry, her supporters would say for the poor, for, after all, she has been one of them for years now and struggled with them and for them, often sounding frustrated and ineffective as her political opponents might say.

But the feature of personal brands is consistency and her achievements in this election speak for themselves. The associations that would be evoked by her as a leader would be “simple”, “one of us” and “committed to our progress”. She, not surprisingly, emerged as a viable alternative to a Government that was not performing.

The iron lady

Let's move south and discuss someone who has achieved similarly dramatic results in the same election. Jayalalitha swept the elections in a State that has been ruled and dominated by the DMK, which was routed to an extent that it may never have imagined in its worst nightmares. It was worse than the three innings defeats that Australia suffered in the Ashes last winter at home, as minister after minister lost the people's mandate and went into political hibernation.

So, what happened? Of course, it was change, not after 34 years but dramatic change nevertheless. At the forefront of change was the leader brand. In many ways, very dissimilar to the lady from the East, but a strong brand nevertheless. What are the associations that one might associate with our southern leader? Extremely confident certainly (her critics might even say arrogant), intelligent, decisive in her actions and able to hold her own in discussion and debate with the most troublesome of press persons.

If Mamata Bannerjee is recognisable in her Hawai chappals then our own Puratchi Thalaivi is resplendent in her cape. Different leaders, different upbringings, different languages, but both led the same change that the two States desperately needed and, thankfully, experienced.

Advertising or sales promotion

While the elections in the East were fought on ideological issues, the situation was drastically and dramatically different in our own neck of the woods. Freebies were the order of the day. David Ogilvy might have thundered about how sales promotion can only produce a kink in the sales curve; but it certainly works down South.

Never mind who is going to pay for it, poor people in the State got free TV sets. It is a completely different matter that there was no power to watch the programmes on the free TV set, so people kept looking at the TV set. This reminds me of a panel discussion on television viewing that I participated in a few years ago when someone from interior Karnataka made a telling comment that made a lasting impression on me. “You city people can comment on which programme is watched, but in Hubli we can only watch the TV set as there is no power!”

Unlike in Karnataka, the power situation in Tamil Nadu, in my view at least, could have been one major issue. Of course, it certainly helped that the lady who won the election matched the offers for freebies one-to-one — laptops and fans and mixer grinders, which must have made these manufacturers lick their lips in anticipation of a bonanza. Having said that, I still believe that change, which has been one of the constants in Tamil Nadu politics too, had a major role to play in the overwhelming sweep that the election results provided.

What of the future?

People in marketing know the trouble with promise. Over promise and under delivery normally leads to post-purchase dissonance, consumer dissatisfaction and word-of-mouth that is unfavourable, leading to ill will. Thankfully, politicians have a longer window to deliver what they promise. Never mind the fact that the Left spent all of 34 years delivering nothing in the East and the DMK party members ended up in monumental scams.

So I guess the time to deliver starts now for both the leaders in question. At the risk of repetition, I must say that true leaders are those who have delivered results, whatever their field of interest and expertise. Mamata's results as a minister have been like those of the teams in the bottom half of the current IPL and Jayalalitha is going to be watched with keen interest, not only by her political rivals but by the people who voted her to power with such hope. Results have to be the operative word now that change has happened.

And just a little about brands

When we speak about brands, there are two aspects of a brand — the rational and the emotional. The rational is the functional utility of the brand — say, the fuel efficiency of a car. The emotional is the fact that the driver feels as though he is the sexiest man in the world. But if the car does not deliver or packs up on the road when our sexy man is going to meet his date, then no amount of advertising is going to help. Similarly, there is a lot of euphoria and emotion around the two victories that we have just seen. But now is the time for the functional quality of these two leadership brands to assert themselves in no uncertain terms, as now is the time to deliver.

Mere promise or actual delivery? Both leaders have won the toss on a belter of a wicket and have decided to bat first. Will they build a mammoth score and put the opposition under pressure or crumble like a pack of cards to the delight of their political rivals?

I am no match fixer. So l will wait and watch like you after the IPL is over!!

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand – comm.
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Anonymous said...

very interesting your experience in learning hindi and french.
surprised that in chennai, with anti hindi sentiments, you tried to learn of all languages hindi, and to top it up with french.
d.chowkhani, am from pondicherry.

shrini said...

Hi sir,
From advertisements to cricket to politics, and i bet you are way ahead when compared with Mandira Bedi. As the laptop vendors queue up for the tender, (one of such heavy bulk seen never before), the grinder makers being grind-ed to deliver, and with the State electricity board under SHOCK to provide power supply with infrequent power cuts (i don't expect a 3 hour per day ONLY ONCE power cut thus justifying the claim of infrequency), it really has raised the expectation of a common man (and woman)... The transformation already started wit Birthday babies spendig their day on court, (Rafa Nadal on tennis court while Mr.Karuna on delhi high court)... More drama is expected... and the chappals lady in kolkotta also promises equally high... Awaiting your review comment ("report card", similar to wat Mamatha is suggested for ministers) on these issues after a few months...

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thank you. My interest in politics is more from a branding perspective. Nice suggestion about "report card."

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Unfortunately my efforts to learn these languages was not very successful.