Malavika R. Harita, CEO of Saatchi Focus Network, spent the first six years of her career at HMT Watches. She was fixated on the brand. Though she moved on from the company, the love story continued. Her mother still wears the HMT watch she gifted her when she got her first salary in 1982. But now Harita looks depressed when she hears about HMT, as an inept management has destroyed the iconic brand and the company is on the verge of a shutdown.
So what is it that makes people like brands? Harita is an expert in branding, who knows how brands are created as a marketing tool. Still, she is not spared from its influence. Harish Bijoor, CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults, likens brands to human beings, who take birth, grow, flourish, live, die and eventually decay. Even iconic brands, with whom we have grown up, follow the pattern.
Many brands that have a bit of history attached to its name have become a thing of the past. The iconic magazine Reader's Digest recently filed for bankruptcy. Legendary music company HMV has faded into oblivion. Earlier last year, Eastman Kodak, which revolutionised photography, filed for bankruptcy. Vimal, which was at the forefront of the textile revolution in India, was shut down by Reliance Industries earlier this year. Dunlop Tyres also shut operations recently.
How did then brands, which enjoyed great loyalty and long-term dominance, fade out? “The biggest mistake that many of these brands make is that they often forget the business they are really in. Kodak forgot they were in the memories business. HMV forgot they were in the business of creating a loyal following. Vimal thought they were in the suiting business,” says Sumit Roy, founder-director, Univbrands, a brand-building training provider. Raymond, on the other hand, realised they were in the business of 'helping men look sensitive', he says. Hence 'The Complete Man' resonated and still does.
Many companies make the mistake of thinking that their products are their brands. “If Kodak knew they were in the 'memories' business they would have invented their equivalent of Facebook. Just creating a sharing platform called 'Kodak Moments' would have made it still a rich company. Instead of creating better cameras or films they should have been developing better ways to share memories,” says Roy.
Similarly, says Bijoor, Reader's Digest remained what it was. “The magazine believed that the biggest strength of a brand is being consistent and static, which was a mistake. Readers morphed, but Reader's Digest did not. In the end, it became a grandfather brand while its readers were brand-new grandchildren. The disconnect happened,” says Bijoor.
In India, many brands' decline is attributed to complacency. They faltered when they turned a blind eye towards what was happening in the marketplace. “Success is its own enemy and we stop listening to the voice of the consumer because we believe our dominant market share makes us invincible. In fact, it makes us vulnerable and prey to younger, more contemporary brands which are more attuned to changing customer attitudes, beliefs and expectations,” says Harita.
A classic case is HMT Watches. “HMT never realised that the 'timekeepers to the nation' could become irrelevant to a generation which looked at a watch as a fashion accessory. And that is how Titan took over the market. And, though Titan did go through a period of stagnation, it reinvented itself with superb, contemporary design and new product offerings like Fastrack,” says Harita.
Many Indian brands have succeeded in living up to the expectations of the consumers for decades. Amul, for instance, has remained contemporary for more than 50 years. The brand managed to remain cool even at a time its flagship product, butter, is not recommended by doctors.
When Dove realised it was in the business of 'helping women discover their inner beauty' rather than selling soaps, it created a tribe of Dove loyalists all over the world. Health drink Horlicks, shoemaker Bata and Red Label tea still remain relevant by listening to the consumer. “Certain brands in India, like Colgate and Surf Excel, have stayed on top for years. Lifebuoy and Vim, too, have been leaders for years. These brands have kept up with the times, changed their offering, modernised their packaging and made their advertising snazzier,” says Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand-comm, a brand communications consultancy.
A crucial moment for the American sportswear brand Nike was the realisation that it was not just in the business of selling shoes. It also realised that its original positioning of “helping people rebel” by “just doing it” was no longer relevant when it itself had become mainstream. So now the brand sees itself in the business of making people fit and trumpets “the self esteem of being fit”.
Experts say brands can remain relevant to generations of consumers. “Brands cannot age with their customers. Brands need to be perennially young. If you age with your customers, you die with your customers. If you are perennially static at an age group, you will be perennially relevant to the new generation of consumers. Brands need to invest in being relevant, original and innovative all the time. Brands that fail to do this die,” says Bijoor.
Youngsters, probably the biggest target group for most products in India, are not easy to be impressed and easily get bored. “One of the biggest challenges that brands face in a country with lots of youngsters like ours is that many of the brands of the past are 'dated' or 'their father's brand',” says Sridhar. “So brands must try to remain young and forever interesting to people.”