Saturday, December 17, 2016

The legend of Amma

The story of the iron lady who built, sustained and proliferated her personal brand
On December 5, 2016, J Jayalalithaa passed away, ending an era even as millions of adoring Tamilians lost their Amma. Let me quickly clarify that I am no political analyst, and my only relationship with the departed leader is that I too passed the same Matriculation examination that she did in Presentation convent, albeit four years later, at Don Bosco.

Yet, I have always admired her intelligence, and her understanding and execution of the complex and confusing subject of branding without ever going to business school. Let’s take a look at the evolution of the Amma brand and see what we can learn from it. 

Politics, films and branding
Tamilians, as a race, seem obsessed with films and people connected with filmdom. Which probably explains the success of people like Annadurai and Karunanidhi, who were scriptwriters before they made it big in politics. The DMK too realised that the easiest way to get crowds and votes was to rope in an actual film star into their fold. And who better than MG Ramachandran, or MGR, as he is better known?

Anna was the universal leader who held the party together, and after he passed away things soured. MGR then formed the AIADMK, and Jayalalithaa, who was one of his more popular co-stars, joined him in politics.

She inherited the party leadership (with some difficulty) and made it her own with no second-in-line anywhere in sight — something which may come to haunt the party. Jayalalithaa had been groomed in Dravidian politics as an observer (thanks to her proximity to MGR) and one of the many things she must have learnt from the DMK was its understanding of branding, symbols, colours and slogans, which were extensively used and repeated, lest we forget.

You just need to watch MGR’s Enga Veetu Pillai to understand what colour coordination and subtle branding is all about. This is something even established brands tend to forget. Jayalalithaa obviously applied all this to great effect in her use of the ‘two leaves’ logo of AIADMK, which often reminds one of the victory sign that we are all familiar with.
The brand matures with age
One of the challenges brands constantly face is that of ageing. Younger customers come into the market, find existing brands fuddy-duddy and move on to hipper, younger brands. Examples of McDowells No. 1, VIP and possibly even Titan come to mind.

Jayalalithaa, however, handled it brilliantly. The “Kanavu Kanni” or dream girl of the silver screen became Puratchi Thalaivi or revolutionary leader a la the departed MGR (who was known as Puratchi Thalaivar) and later, only Selvi Jayalalithaa.

It was here that the leader’s marketing acumen came to the fore as she realised she wasn’t getting younger and was plagued by ill health, not to forget the cumbersome protection she was rumoured to be wearing.

She actually deglamourised herself even as her channel kept propagating her former youthful films! She was conservatively dressed and referred to herself as Amma, for she was, after all, a person without a family and the entire Tamil race was hers to claim!

Let’s not forget too that Tamilians love handles, and easier ways of remembering people — Anna, Kalaignar, MGR, et al. What better title than Amma, which is ubiquitous, universally recognisable and automatically loved?
While film stars never age and remain 18 forever, brands may or may not have that luxury.
The personal brand extends
The strategic masterstroke, however, was to prefix everything with brand Amma, be it eateries, water, salt or cement. The opponents were napping as the brand proliferated and some of the offerings (like the eateries), even if they lost money, were appreciated by the freebie-loving populace. Everything pointed back to her personal brand.

Even if the State was paying for it, Amma was doing it. Everything added back to her popularity and generosity. The logic might have been flawed, but it was one more reason to love the generous leader who was helping her forever needy children. And everything had political mileage, since she was the party, the government and just about everything, as far as the AIADMK was concerned.

Carrying a personal brand to the consumer is not exactly new but her unique feature was that she carried her equity to a host of subsidised products and services, all of which just furthered her personal brand. This translated into votes as recently as the bye-elections that happened while she was in hospital.

Her personality too shifted. While political analysts called her “the iron lady”, she was benevolence personified to her people.
What of the future?
The Amma brand had been inextricably woven into everything the government did during her tenure. While the future seems uncertain at this moment, I am sure the AIADMK, if it has any sense, will live on the legacy left behind by her.

Whilst it may seem a subjugation of their personal identities, it makes sense to live off the equity of a carefully cultivated, consistent brand. Whether they have the wisdom to understand or even appreciate the strategy and the thought that went behind it, is a completely different discussion.

But I, for one, will never have anything but admiration for the leader and the clarity of her thoughts. 

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