Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where are the iconic Indian brands?

The sight of a Harley Davidson has our columnist reflecting on legendary brands and which Indian ones can one day fit the bill.

It is 3 o' clock in the afternoon outside the garden café in Leh, Ladakh and I stand transfixed, watching with undisguised lust a Harley Davidson motorbike which presumably one of the international visitors to the tourist destination must have driven in on. My expression is akin to that of a 5-year-old wistfully looking at another kid sucking a lollypop with great relish. What is this emotion that a 58-year-old who is extremely sober (mostly anyway) and who would be probably described as boring and who grew up in Madras not Minnesota is experiencing? Strange, when you consider that during my formative years my main means of transport was the Pallavan Transport Corporation and the No 10 buses which took me from T. Nagar to Casa Major Road in Egmore. How do I explain this unreasonable yearning to have my hair, or whatever is left of it, to fly in the wind as I visualised myself zipping around in a Harley? Why am I thinking of going to the Harley Davidson showroom in Lavelle Road as soon as I return to Bangalore to check out the bike that I may never buy? Is it aspiration? Is it the stuff that dreams are made of? Is it what makes Harley Davidson the iconic brand that it has been for as long as I can remember?

Icons are Inclusive

Today the brand is over a 100 years old and continues to captivate people all over the world, old or young, tattooed or not, whether they live in Nebraska or the Netherlands. The brand has people who are in love with it, who are passionate about it, not merely customers but the promiscuous variety that most marketers keep grappling with all their lives.

The brand has many things going for it. The sound of a Harley can be recognised by a Harley customer a mile ahead evoking memories, nostalgia and a wonderful feeling that only lovers of iconic brands can understand or appreciate. Its dealers are people with a difference. They are owners of Harley Davidson motorcycles, not merely people who make money selling a product. The Harley owners club has several thousand proud owners who meet, bike, bond, trade and create memories. The consumers keep the brand's flag flying high and core to the brand's success is its inclusiveness. It never has given the impression that it is not for you or me and that is probably why I certainly yearn to own one. The brand has evangelists backing it, not mere consumers, and that probably explains its cult status.

The Apple of My Eye

If ever there was a brand that could live up to its tagline of “Think Different” it has to be the company that Steve Jobs continues to lead with such dynamism. The Apple story has been often recounted and yet it is perhaps worth remembering something that has been crucial to the brand's continued success over the years.

That has been, in my view at least, Steve Jobs' obsession to make it as easy for the consumer as possible. In a team meeting to discuss the operations manual for the Macintosh one of the engineers suggested that the manual be so simple that a twelfth grader could understand and use it. Steve Jobs butted in (he used to keep doing this at meetings) to say it had to be so simple that even a kid in the first grade should be able to use it! This has been the design philosophy of Apple products since inception and driving the whole process with demonic zeal has been its founder, whose ill health had immediate and drastic implications on the stock price.

Take the iPod, for instance. Steve Jobs” design brief to his engineers was easy to communicate and difficult to execute. “The music has to come on with two touches of the index finger,” said an obstinate Jobs, and while it meant late hours and tremendous stress for his engineers, it has meant enormous ease of operations for countless technophobes such as me who continue to be addicted to the brand and are proud to flaunt it on our travels. Take the iPhone too. Jobs was particular that there be only one control button. His engineers resisted, but Jobs won and ultimately it was the consumer who gained.

In a day and age when sales promotions are more frequent than Dhoni's sixes, Apple has commanded a price premium for all its products. Its consumers go to town talking about the products on the Net and are the brand's most powerful evangelists. What greater testimony than “word of mouth” can we have in today's world which is rocked by a complete lack of trust? Consumers love the company and its products and are willing to pay a price premium and more critically are willing to tell anyone who cares to listen about how good the products are. I know several people who own an Apple computer, an iPod and an iPad, not to forget the iPhone. They just seem unable to get enough of Apple products. Loyalty is rare, evangelism even more so, making Apple another iconic brand that many secretly admire even as they compete with it.

Think Small

No discussion on iconic brands can be complete without the Volkswagen Beetle. Just imagine a German car, which Hitler had branded the people's car making a big success of itself in post-war America which was still hurting after World War II and still obsessed with ‘big cars. The campaign done by DDB Needham for the Volkswagen which Advertising Age rated as the best campaign of the last century was the starting point of some great advertising, and in many ways the launch of the brand's road to iconic status. A well-engineered, reliable product backed by some of the greatest advertising that we have been privileged to see, passionate consumers, all contributed to make the brand what it has become. I know that anyone in advertising and not necessarily in Madison Avenue yearned to own a Beetle. After all, some of us had sold our soul, hadn't we, and here was the brand offering us redemption. Who wouldn't take the option? These three brands are in India, though not in a big way. Others such as Ikea, Oprah Winfrey, Linux and WWE, to name just a few, have all been spoken of in the same breath, but not many Indian brands have achieved this rare status. But before that, let us examine some of the iconic brands that have ruled the roost for years now and understand what makes them what they are, or what has made them iconic.

Success that all so rare Elixir

Invariably these brands enjoy far higher top-of-mind recall. In a cluttered world where brands are perhaps satisfied with familiarity, these brands enjoy “super familiarity” status as a researcher classified them. They cater to the need of consumers wanting to be part of a group that is different, distinctive and a touch aspirational even. The owners of iconic brands keep experimenting and taking risks. Apple is a case in point. While its competitors have stayed traditional, Apple has taken risks and now with the wisdom of hindsight we can say that this pioneering spirit has probably ensured that the brand has stayed streets ahead. Cult brands have always remained hot to consumers because they are cool and have remained cool for years and will probably remain so. As mentioned earlier iconic brands are inclusive. Iconic brands too have a phenomenal cultural connect with their audiences. Seems simple doesn't it? Then why is it that few Indian brands are spoken of in the same breath as these iconic brands?

And the future winner is...

The last few months have seen two enormously successful brands – one Indian and one global – deciding to hang up their boots. The Sony Walkman, which defined the way individual music was heard for close to three decades, has decided to stop production of its once enormously successful product. Not very long ago, the Bajaj scooter that many of us took our entire family in for years on end decided to stop production. People talk of the Ambassador car, but it seems more a relic than a cult brand. The Maruti, perhaps? I have been an admirer of the Bullet motorcycle which I grew up with. Its familiar sound stoked our imagination even if some of us were not strong enough to handle its stand. Of course, Tamil films did a major disservice to the brand by showing it as the favourite vehicle of rapists! Thankfully, the company seems to have turned the corner and is doing many things right. I was delighted to see the rocky, mountainous terrain of Ladakh swarming with Royal Enfield motorcycles. Who knows? India might have an iconic brand after all!

Any names for iconic Indian brands, anyone?

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

Camel and natraj pencils are some of the brands i could think.For me,they evoke fond memories of childhood.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes Natraj certainly seems to be dominant even today. Were you referring to Camlin by any chance?