Friday, November 25, 2011

Brands get older, consumers younger

The human race is a wonderful species. It must be the only species that can actually exult at someone else's misery. Children specialise in this. However, I must quickly add that some older people are similarly gifted. Have you ever noticed (gleefully) the anguish a middle-aged woman experiences when she sees her first grey hair, or her horror when the mirror shows up her first wrinkle? Her pain, I am sure, is greater than that of the entire Australian nation that watched in disbelief as its cricket team was shot out for the mammoth score of 47 last week! Yes, wrinkles or greying are all tell-tale signs of ageing and no self-respecting woman would like that. And yet, I admire their dread of ageing, even though it is part of evolution.

Ageing is as relentless as forty-year-olds needing spectacles to read the newspaper. However, it is a completely different story when it comes to people like me who have needed spectacles for the last forty years to see anything. But I am rambling and will not try to stay with the process of ageing. I wish people in brand management were as paranoid about the ageing of their brands as their spouses are about their own looks. Yes, we have lots to learn from our spouses (and every other woman) if only we stop to observe them. (And one has also heard that watching women is a pleasurable occupation though one always wishes that one had done more of it.)

Brands, contrary to what we may wish to believe, are not timeless. They do not have the longevity of a Sachin Tendulkar and often run the risk of having as brilliant and yet as brief a life like that of his schoolmate Vinod Kambli. Yes, brands continue to age in front of the marketer's eyes and the smarter ones are those who can spot the warning signals early and actually do something to arrest the decline and ageing. Which are the anti-ageing cosmetics brands need in today's world? And which are the brands that seem to be ageing in front of our eyes? Which other brands run the risks of being seen as ‘dated' or ‘fuddy-duddy' by their consumers? What are the things that people in brand management should worry about when it comes to ageing?

My daddy's drink

Let me start with a brand I used to patronise. In the mid-Eighties, I was young(er), upwardly mobile and aspirational. I was then a whisky drinker and continue to drink the same poison nearly a quarter-century later though my brand has changed. The greatest characteristic of this heady brew is that people who drink a brand of whisky, sadly, do not stay with the same brand as they get older and more affluent. This may not be true for drinkers of rum or vodka, who may continue with their brand of drink even as they spread around the middle and become more successful. However, as always I am digressing, so let me return to my early brand of whisky.

McDowell No.1 was the brand of whisky I used to drink in those days. Mind you, it was a good whisky, not that any tippler can identify his brand in a blindfold test. I was glad to drink it and offer it to my friends who dropped in for a drink. It was an accepted social drink of middle-class India in the Eighties. Today the situation has changed for the brand. Mind you, it sells cases and cases of whisky, but the profile of the drinker has changed.

Today's the McDowell drinker is older, from a lower socio-economic class and runs the risk of being described as an auto driver's drink in focus groups, even if that sounds a bit harsh. In brand association tests, it is possible that youngsters are classifying the brew as their “father's drink”. And I don't see today's youngsters drinking the same brand as their dated, fuddy-duddy fathers. While I am sure the brand manager of McDowell's will hotly deny this, in my opinion today's youngsters, if they have to drink a whisky in this price bracket, are more likely to try Royal Stag even if one can laugh at Harbhajan Singh's commercial for the brand. I feel Royal Stag is more likely to be the aspirational brand for youngsters and in my opinion at least McDowell's is ageing and running the risk of finding that both its imagery and consumers are older than that of its closest rival. Is McDowell the only Indian brand to go through this tension? I am not so sure.

The world of luggage

VIP was a brand of luggage that we all grew up with. Some of my older readers, I am sure, can recall some of the earlier ads of the brand which featured separations, people crying as the daughter of the house left the family after marriage or a reluctant schoolboy left tearfully for boarding school. The situations were sad and this brand of luggage was at the helm of sadness and tears. While the brand was a leader it quickly lost speed as smarter, hipper, global brands with younger images entered the market. The brand was seen as old and “not for me”. The brand did take remedial measures, starting with a campaign that was happier with the theme of Bye, Bye focusing on travel situations that were happier with younger models and products that were contemporary. The brand undertook a 360-degree communication programme that was visible and seemed to have an impact on its image.

I have not followed the recent progress of the brand and would be keen to know how it is doing in the larger centres. One of the direct fallouts of image deterioration in the Indian market seems to be that the number of consumers has reduced in the cities while those in smaller towns, semi-urban and rural markets continue to buy the brand happily.

Market success and leadership invariably mean that the brand has been in existence for some time and has some regular customers who have been patronising it over the years. Over a period in time as newer, different customers enter the market, they may view this established player as “not the brand for me” and choose a younger, more happening brand.

So what should brands do?

I think it is important for brand managers and custodians to be honest with themselves. Very often companies and managers live in denial. Like the wife who is the last person to believe that the husband is unfaithful, it is the owners of the brand who refuse to see the danger signs. “Young people are buying our brand,” they vehemently say. “Our brand is aspirational” they insist. Even a simple analysis of the sales data in an outlet can give you an understanding of who exactly is coming to our stores and buying our brand. Is the person older, is he a school teacher, when we would like to believe that he is a high-flying executive? Observation of the store and seeing the sort of people who come into the store can be invaluable. Are more of the sales happening from smaller towns and semi-urban markets? Is our brand, even though a market leader, quietly being pushed into the interiors? Companies need to analyse their market data and do constant research amongst its customers and prospects.

Another possibility is that while the sales may be good, it is important to analyse the usage of the product as well. Is a lot of gifting of your brand happening, which means that the brand is not being used by the buyer? Sometimes it might be a good idea to ask young people, what their reaction would be if someone gifted your brand to them for their birthday. You will hear interesting things that young people have to say about your brand. Sometimes they are so forthright that it may not be easy to listen to them.

We live in times of turmoil. Brands are being built much quicker but also being threatened much quicker than in the past. Ageing brands particularly do not have the luxury of time. The time to do some soul searching is now. Are you ready?

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