It must remember that training is crucial; every single employee is a brand ambassador
I am no great admirer of IndiGo Airlines, let me state that up front. They are too full of themselves, constantly telling us how they are on time, once again. I must confess that they are generally on time and that is a great boon if you live in a city like Bengaluru, where the air traffic is as unpredictable as the weather and even a few minutes delay can throw your entire schedule out of gear.Yet, they become strangely silent when they are late, blaming the air traffic control.
And they are reasonably inhumane as they ruthlessly offload passengers who come even a few seconds late, without bothering to look at the genuineness of the case. Yet, even their detractors might hesitate to gloat over the airline’s current predicament, after the recent fracas in which a passenger was manhandled by staffers. The sorry incident demonstrates, more than anything else, that companies obstinately refuse to learn from the mistakes of others and insist on making fresh ones themselves.
It can’t happen to us!
Crises are not new, nor are they ever going to go out of fashion. If anything, they are going to multiply in the digital world. But it seems to be a bit like our attitude to death. We somehow seem to think that it’s not going to happen to us, even when we are attending someone else’s funeral!
Airlines, by the very nature of the industry, with frequent customer contacts, multiple moments of truth and the shared use of several common services such as airports and air traffic control, which are handled by others, are more prone to trouble than other industries.
In the latest case, of course, IndiGo doesn’t really have an excuse as its employee and ex-employee are clearly to blame, even if there was severe provocation. Yes, it was not a flight attendant but a logistics person. This brings to mind what Disney used to talk about: every employee is either “on stage” or “off stage”, depending on whether he/she is facing customers or not. A janitor in a theme park is equally important because the visitor is going to ask him/her for directions. They are, therefore, all brand ambassadors, so it’s not enough to merely train the stewardesses and the people at the counter. The person who guides you on to the bus is perhaps more prone to the stresses and strains of customer contact and its risks. Though, in this case, it seems the passengers are the ones who are at the receiving end of the violence.
How prepared are we?
Every business, whether it is an airline, a mall, a hospital or a garment factory, is prone to crises. In the age of social media, the crisis can actually put forest fires to shame, so ruthlessly and violently does it spread. Speedy response is of the essence and IndiGo has been lethargic in this respect, given that the incident happened quite some days ago.
The smarter companies work closely with their communication agencies to catalogue a list of crises that can besiege their business and have a contingency plan to minimise the risk. The focus is on damage control. How can they keep the crisis from trending online? Can the PR company make sure that the ticker of a news channel does not include the company’s brand name? Can they move the news from page 1 to page 7 of a newspaper over a period of time? Can they hope for a bigger crisis to happen to someone else so that their crisis is forgotten?
Don’t gloat over someone else’s crisis
While it is natural for competitors to gloat over IndiGo’s crisis, my suggestion to them is this: look out for a similar or an even larger crisis that can come back to bite you. It may seem cute to create memes or send funny WhatsApp messages mocking the other company but we live in crisis-filled times and it speaks well of a company which stays dignified when someone else is going through a tough time. Who knows what might happen in the shifting sands of business? Keep your head even as your competition is losing theirs. This says a lot about a company’s leadership.
And the lesson to learn for IndiGo is simple. When you keep blowing your trumpet at every possible opportunity, you are opening yourself up to criticism when something goes wrong. If I sounded harsher than deserved, it is simply because I am a customer and I prefer my service provider to let others do the talking.
Recent ads featuring Virat Kohli show a hitherto unknown side of the cricketer
What comes to your mind when I say Virat Kohli? Champion, competitor, intense, aggressive, in your face, loud, brash... You could reel off these adjectives and for most part, you wouldn’t be off the mark. The overriding impression, in my mind at least, would be of unbridled aggression.
In fact, Rahul Dravid, who is the quintessential well-behaved cricketer, said in a recent interview that some of the things that Kohli says before a series makes him cringe!
Whilst Rahul Dravid may might have effectively signed himself off any major coaching assignment with the BCCI with this statement, it raised my own estimation of him for speaking his mind and echoing the sentiments of people like me. But what’s all this got to do with Virat’s alleged softness?
The king of celebrities
Virat is not only the undisputed number 1 in One-Day batting rankings, but he is also one of the richest sportsmen in the world, as per the latest Forbes list. So he’s clearly a hot celebrity endorsing a whole range of brands, including the tremendous Puma deal.
Yet, most celebrity advertising is similar looking as it focuses on the celebrities, their demeanour and achievements. Using Virat’s example, a usual ad would show him celebrating, shaking a triumphant fist or smashing the ball over the ropes as despairing fielders watch helplessly. No one is really sure whether this advertising and the celebrity, who is so highly paid, is actually helping the brand, given the number of ads and brands the same celebrity endorses.
So how does one break the clutter? The answer, as always, lies in the script: the often ignored component in celebrity commercials. Can we show a new dimension of the celebrity rather than the clichéd, similar ships-that-pass-me-in-the-night visuals? Yes, we can. How? By showing a side to the celebrity — Virat, in this case — that was hitherto unknown. The following commercials demonstrate this.
Are you a younger sibling?
If you are a younger sibling like me, you know what it is to be ignored, to be taunted and be asked to get lost by your elder brother or sister, as they carry on with their secretive business! Although the situation itself is not new, one can easily relate to this commercial.
In this ad, the game begins with the picking of teams. And guess who is left out? The youngest kid in the block. As the older kids speak to him derisively, Virat solicitously asks him whether he would want to open the batting for his team. And in a surprise twist, the kid belts out runs all around the park.
The new improved Virat
The commercial that really caught my fancy, however, is the one that shows Virat in a completely new light. In this, he is wearing a kurta, and talks about common themes that you and I can relate to. He says how he does nothing on Sundays and just as he is about to take off in his car, he is called for a game of cricket by kids who, cheekily, ask whether they should give him batting.
Mostly, the commercial shows Virat’s softer side as he talks about traffic jams and playing antakshari with his family.
Do they? Don’t they?
The romance-rumours of Anushka and Virat have been doing the rounds for years now. Now, there are rumours of their intended wedding!
This commercial is set in an actual wedding, and has Virat and Anushka decked in traditional clothes. Looking at the couple tying the knot, they discuss what the bride and bridegroom might be promising each other. The commercial actually ends on a sentimental note.
Interesting, more so for a brand like Manyavar.
Celebrity endorsements often end up as double edged swords, as the commercials are so eminently forgettable. Which is why script writers must strive that much more to beat the clutter and explore new avenues like the personal lives and emotions of celebrities rather than use their exploits to catch our fancy. Yes, perhaps there is another side to Virat Kohli that I did not know existed. And I like it.
With 14 million swipes per day, the dating app is garnering popularity globally
Challenging the concept and the market of shaadi.com are many dating apps, which are targeted at freewheeling millennials in India. The most popular app in the country, is also the global favourite, Tinder with 14 million swipes per day. Breaking expectations that it will cater mostly to millennials, a large number of Baby Boomers are using the app, along with users from Tier-II and Tier-III towns, indicating its unchallenging popularity.
“People do not call it Tindering but it is just as popular. Any new brand that comes will have to create the same kind of appeal, ubiquity and applicability. New apps might match the depth that they have in terms of database too, because the ability to match depends on the number of users which is already high in India,” believes Harish Bijoor, the founder of Harish Bijoor Consultants, a private label consulting firm.
Yet, the market of dating apps, is buzzing. A large number of global and local apps, be it Woo or Truly Madly are making ripples in their own way. The most notable of the challengers is the French dating app, Happn which launched last year. The app came in with a big-bang ad campaign featuring Hrithik Roshan. The app is built on the concept that a chance meet with a person can turn into a possible date, with a little bit of help from technology.
Unlike Tinder which matches people based on age, location, common friends and interests, Happn romanticises meetings, in a truly French manner. It matches people who would have met otherwise too, and brings them together based on the grocery stores or laundromats or coffee shops that they visit. Their India ad, narrated by Roshan, shows two people bumping into each other, getting attracted and walking away hoping to meet later.
Experts believe that Tinder and Happn occupy different market segments and cater to different needs. “Tinder has a USP which few other apps can match. Happn’s USP is different and might not appeal to Indian sensibilities where reservations are higher. In India, the odds of a person one sits next to on a bus, not having the best of intentions on mind, is much higher,” says Anil Patrick, CEO at Thinking Hat Corporation, a branding and content management company.
Happn too seems to realise this. The app which launched last year, set a target of a million users in a year, even as they kicked off to a good start with 200,000 users. Tinder, on the other hand, came to India after it was an established brand abroad, and also had the first-mover advantage unlike Happn. “Any later entrant will have to play the catching-up game. Even when global majors like Uber and Amazon came to India with established players like Flipkart and Ola, they had to work towards being seen as an Indian brand catering to Indian situations and emotions,” feels Sridhar Ramanujam, CEO at Integrated Brand-Comm.
Tinder has failed to Indianise itself and its so-called ‘Sanskari’ ad failed to connect with its users, though it did not have any devastating effect on the usage itself. The ad, which came under considerable online ridicule, shows an Indian mother approving her daughter going on a Tinder date, with a tagline, ‘It’s how people meet.’ This is starkly different from its American ads, as one of them shows two people getting bored on a date and simultaneously searching for others during the date, with a tagline, ‘The only dates that matter.’
In India and abroad, Tinder has earned the repute of being popular for casual dates and hook-ups, which users seem to have taken to, even in India. Happn successfully occupied the sweet spot of romance in the many countries that it launched abroad, setting itself apart from the frivolous nature of online dating. If the French app wants to market that as its USP, it might be a long journey in India.
Dating is a relatively new concept in India. The market is catering to two different segments of population, those who are interested in getting married and those who are looking for something casual. And both these poles are occupied with strong brands. “If there is any space within dating that is not hook-ups, Tinder can cater to that too,” observes Bijoor.
Experts believe that Tinder and Happn cater to different market needs
While Tinder has failed to Indianise itself, it still has the first-mover advantage
Considering new phone buyers are young millennials, can the handset maker recapture market share?
Last week, I bought a new mobile phone. Now, before you dismiss this news with a ‘so-what’s-new’ flick of your hand, let me tell you — it was a Nokia . And I was very excited about this phone.
But before that, I need to tell you that this is not my main phone but my second phone. Like many diehard Apple fans, my first phone continues to be an iPhone with its ever-dying battery! But back to the excitement. A few months back, I was a judge at a case-study competition in a business school, and the brand being discussed was (hold your breath) Nokia. I heard millennials say that the greatest thing going for Nokia’s revival was the nostalgia factor.
I was intrigued, as I knew for a fact that many people who are currently in their 50s had Nokia as their first phone. As they grew in affluence (and also in waist size), they moved up to the more expensive Nokia models. But I wondered if the recommendation was feasible, considering that the primary phone buyers in India today are youngsters. Would the young user have the same nostalgia towards the iconic brand of yesteryear? But let me tell you my own story.
Remember the mid-nineties?
Even earlier, I had a special affinity for mobile phones. The agency I headed then was responsible for the launch of Birla AT&T (this brand later became Idea) in Pune. Working with the AT&T team was a great experience. If memory serves (and, I must confess, that it is today almost as reliable as the Australian batting middle order), we paid a princely sum of ₹17.88 for a minute of talk-time and ₹8 for incoming!
People used mobile phones primarily to give missed calls so that the recipient would call back from the landline. The generation had mixed feelings about mobile phones, assuming it was a luxury and an encroachment into their privacy, among other things. But amidst all this, one brand stood head and shoulders above the rest — Nokia, with its Indian sounding name.
With Nokia, they could manage to send SMSes and give missed calls. In fact, the brand had, at one point, a dominant market share of over 80 per cent if reports are to be believed. Unlike Motorola which, despite being the inventor of the mobile phone, struggled in India (due to its practice of shipping those phones that did not sell in the US), Nokia actually created phones for India and Indians, which sold like hot cakes.
Here is the ad for one of their top selling models of the past — the Nokia 1100.
Back to the present
So, the weekend before Diwali, I asked my colleagues which phone they would recommend in the ₹15,000 range. I got a number of recommendations like Moto G, Samsung, Redmi and even Nokia. I strongly believe that timing is everything in marketing and, on the same day, there was a huge ad for the new Nokia phone series in the newspapers.
I went to Reliance Digital to check out the phones. I must say that the service across the board in retail outlets in India has improved phenomenally — including Reliance Digital. The sales girl kept pushing Oppo, making me wonder if she thought I was PC Sreeram without hair, as she kept talking about the camera.
I asked for the Nokia and ended up buying it. My wife, who is the techno wizard in the family, reassured me that the interface with Google was very clean. Like most husbands, I have this enormous propensity to agree unconditionally to what my wife says and ended up buying the Nokia phone for less than ₹13,000.
Will Nokia succeed?
I know that my forecasts are usually wrong, so I won’t even venture in that direction. But I believe the brand has great equity, at least with older users. It may not be as glamorous as its Chinese competitors or as large a spender as Samsung. But it could be a good, reliable phone that has its own niche in a cut-throat market convoluted by the great online bazaar.
A lot will depend on user experience and how vocal consumers are about the phone and its functions. I am waiting to see how my phone and my favourite brand will perform in the marketplace!
Consumer insights are waiting to be observed and acted upon. The key is observation
It’s no secret that India (particularly, its youth) is addicted to mobile phones. According to Nielsen, the number of smartphone users has risen from 130 million in May 2014 to 180 million in May 2016.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that every mobile maker in China and his brother-in-law is in the country! Whatever be the political tension between these two Asian superpowers, there is no shortage of selfies being taken on Chinese phones in India. Even as the customer beams at the camera, the manufacturers and marketers of the brands in question smile their way to the bank.
If mobiles are growing at such a rate, can services be far behind? The overall smartphone usage has been multiplying, with the Indian consumer spending 178 minutes (on an average) a day on shopping, banking, entertainment, music and other activities.
As a consequence, the mobile services category is one of the most exciting advertising categories to work on today, replacing the Cola of my times, in terms of attraction to creative people.
I’ll give you a missed call
The easiest way to open a conversation when you are in a room full of strangers is to talk about your mobile services. You’ll suddenly discover how the room is full of similarly aggrieved customers, who complain about call drops being worse than Indian slip fielders, networks being as sluggish as the Australian batsmen’s footwork against Indian spin, and a service that is best not spoken about.
In a nutshell, all brands are equally bad when it comes to service. The only differentiating factor is the advertising. So what do you do when you have to advertise a product that is similar in features and service to its competition? You look for consumer insights. And what does is this oft-quoted, yet misunderstood term in marketing, mean? According to brandgymblog, it is: “A discovery about your consumer that opens the door to an opportunity for your brand.”
And just how do you make this discovery? By observing the consumer and playing back your observations creatively to her via different communication media, so that when she sees the ad, she says, “Hey, is this about me?”
How often do we pay attention to something when it is about us? Almost all the time. So here’s a quick jog of your memory to Airtel’s youth campaign that resonated extremely well with the youngsters — every young Indian could relate to the heros and their friends in these ads. Even though the two commercials were aired years ago, they still work.
Oops! I dropped my phone again
One of the most commonly distressing habits of people is their amazing propensity to drop their phones. Samsung latched on to this and offered a ‘one time screen replacement’ for all of us casual, careless mobile phone users.
Here’s a commercial, which has two distracted young men bumping into each other and promptly dropping their phones. One of them is fortunate enough to have a Samsung phone and is secure in the knowledge that the screen can be replaced; the other, unfortunately, can only look on in horrified silence.
As far as commercials go, this probably lacks the appeal of the Airtel commercials you saw earlier. But it does have a powerful insight — of phone dropping — that overshadows the ordinary picturisation and acting of the models.
Not just the ad agency’s responsibility
All around us, consumer insights are waiting to be observed and acted upon. The key is observation. Sadly, many of us ‘see’ without ‘observing’ and ‘hear’ without ‘listening’. Don’t abdicate the discovery of insights to your ad agency — it is your brand and your consumer.
Walk in their shoes, live their life, go through their pains and empathise with them. You will observe interesting things about what they feel, experience and care about. And remember, insights by themselves are useless. They must be integrated with your product or service’s usage. Like the insight about missed calls is brilliant for Airtel, but will not work for Nike.
And this leads me to a slightly uncomfortable question: when did you last have a consumer insight on your brand?
The company should be more about consumer experience and less about advertising
Let me quickly tell you that I like Uber. I wish I could say ‘I love Uber’, but I am just a selfish consumer, warts and all. I liked Uber because it is so much cheaper than the Airport taxi that people in Bangalore are used to.
I didn’t need to count my change for the toll, nor did I have to fret and fume when the driver didn’t have the difference amount at 11.30 pm, when I was tired, angry and sleepy. I liked Uber too as the cars were newer than Ola’s, and drivers seemed less surly. Ola drivers, whom I bumped into, usually launched into a diatribe about the company and its policies — or the lack thereof.
Of course, these were the hey days of cab drivers when some made ₹80,000 or more a month, even as cab companies bent over backwards to get drivers on board and incentivised them as though there was no tomorrow. Why should I have worried that these cab companies were losing money left, right and centre, as long as I was getting pampered?
All goods things end
Of course, the Utopian days could not last — and indeed, it did not. Today, there are more cabs, poorer service, unhappier drivers and consequently, dissatisfied consumers. It is not only the users but the drivers too who reminisce about those ‘good old days’ that may never come back.
To counter the simmering discontent, Uber, which is certainly giving Ola a run for its money in India, is doing what many multinational brands do in our country — use mass media advertising. So here’s the new Uber ad, which some of you may have seen.
We can’t pay you, so we’ll praise you
As you can clearly see, the ad is a tribute to the Uber driver, of how sensitive, considerate and caring he is in the way he drives the car, in how he handles himself and even how he handles your vegetables!
Sadly, service brands seem to forget that ‘service’ is all about delivering expectations — and all this commercial does is fuel them. Despite my preference for Uber, I am getting annoyed by drivers who are constantly on the phone.
They are so busy complaining about the complexities of incentives to other drivers that they scarcely pay attention to the passenger — this is hardly what is being portrayed in the commercial! But in the same breath, I need to tell you that I find drivers in smaller towns like Vizag a lot more courteous and considerate than in the larger cities like Bangalore.
What are the moments of truth in cab travel?
All of us are familiar with the five moments of truth that Jan Carlzon spoke about in airline travel which are:
~ Making a reservation
~ Getting Tickets
~ Retrieving Baggage
What are the ‘moments of truth’ in a cab ride? How often have we been annoyed by the driver cancelling the trip and you getting charged for it? How often have we met surly, rude or badly turned-out drivers who are unmindful of everything you say?Yes, Uber does have a system where both passengers and drivers can rate each other.
But can something more than advertising be done? Can we have mystery passengers who rate drivers objectively and give feedback to the company on the actual state of consumer service and the on ground — or in the cab, if you will — experience? Incentives could also be considered for softer factors like customer experience and delight, not so much on the number of trips or mileage that is clocked during the day.
Blinding flash of the obvious
Very often, companies forget that customer service is boring — it is doing things right, repetitively, time after time. In Uber’s case, the complexity is that the experience is being delivered by drivers and even if you call them partners, they have their own agenda which can often be at odds with the company’s objectives.
I am sure Uber realises the value of drivers and also knows that things aren’t hunky dory between the two, given the company’s focus on profitability. So the easiest way to make drivers happy is by releasing television commercials like these. The trickier part, however, is training, building their motivation and demonstrating to the drivers that they truly are partners and not mere actors in a TV commercial.
I know it is easy for people like me to do back seat driving from an Uber cab even as I check my Facebook notifications. But on the plus side, I am a regular customer who constantly refers the brand. I may be critical, but I sure do mean well.
Virat Kohli decided recently to stop endorsing cola brand Pepsi
He said he would not ask people to consume something that he himself does not
Amitabh Bachchan ended his 14 year association endorsing the brand Pepsi in 2014
While it has seen several times where brands dump their celebrity brand ambassadors over certain controversies or scandals, Virat Kohli's decision recently to stop endorsing cola brand Pepsi despite being offered a lucrative deal came as a change.
In the past we have seen even cola brands ending ties with their celebrity endorsers due to controversies. This was seen with Salman Khan when cola brand Thums Up decided to end their association with the star who at that time had was steeped in controversies. Even Snapdeal had ended their ties with Aamir Khan after a controversy regarding his comments on rising intolerance in the country.
International tennis star Maria Sharapova who had admitted to doping later resulted in an exodus of brands from her portfolio. The same was with Tiger Woods after news of his several affairs came to fore.
However, Kohli's decision to dump Pepsi is one of the few but growing examples of how celebrity brand endorsers are today taking it endorsement seriously.
He refused to renew the contract which ended in April this year saying that he would not ask people to consume something that he himself does not.
Besides this, Kohli will no longer endorse fairness creams or products of that genre, an official who works with Kohli told PTI.
This is definitely a bold stand taken by the Indian cricket captain to endorse brands and products he utilises and believes in. This is considering that cola brands can offer very lucrative deals. While his deal with Pepsi was not disclosed, his deals with Puma and MRF itself are worth Rs 100 crore each and the deal with cola brand was expected to be somewhere along the same line.
But Kohli is not the only celebrity that has dumped a brand selling a product which is unhealthy or frowned upon in society.
Actor Amitabh Bachchan ended his 14 year association endorsing the brand Pepsi in 2014 when he was confronted by young schoolgirl about being the face of a product that is full of negative ingredients. This he said made him brake off his association with the cola brand.
Other Bollywood actors such as Anushka Sharma, Kangana Ranaut, Ranbir Kapoor, Nandita Das and Randeep Hooda have all dumped the fairness creams category as a whole and have taken a stand that they will never endorse such brands or products. Many of them are reported to had even turned down deals to become the brand ambassadors of such products.
Another sports celebrity that has shunned endorsing cola brands is Olympic medal winner at Rio PV Sindhu. She clarified soon after winning the Olympics that she would not endorse cola brands or anything harmful for health.
Even the one time king of brand endorsements, cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, had turned down a group of advertisers saying that he would never endorse any alcohol or tobacco brands.
Actor Aamir Khan has also reportedly turned down from endorsing a luxury car brand which had offered him a huge deal. The reason for this decision was that the actor currently only wants to work on ads that are socially relevant and that the brand did not come under the umbrella of social issues.
Even Akshay Kumar is said to have turned down a lucrative deal to endorse a paan masala brand.
One of the reasons why celebrities today are picky with which brands they endorse is due to backlash from people on social media and the greater public scrutiny that they come under as role models.
For instance, Deepika Padukone received severe backlash on Twitter and social media sites over her recent endorsement of Coca Cola. Some of the people called her irresponsible for endorsing such a drink.
Even former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan faced a barrage of tweets and comments condemning his endorsement of Pan Bahar masala in their ad campaign.
According to K V Sridhar, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Hyper Collective there are two reasons for celebrity brand endorsers to be so picky these days is when they have money they can afford to be selective and how close the values of brand and them match.
“When you do have enough money then you do everything. When you have money, you have a choice on which brand you can endorse and which you do not want to. Added to this is the social media scrutiny that these celebrities have to endure these days,” said Sridhar.
He further says that the vales of the celebrity and the values of the brand must match, because if they do not match then there is friction.
Ram Gudipati, Founder & CEO of brand consultancy firm Brand Harvest too says that every celebrity today is social and interacts with their audience and fans, and this is a reason why they have to picky with brands.
“Virat is seen as the epitome of fitness and his association with Pepsi would be seen as counterproductive. It will also be seen as a hypocrisy as cola brands are being reported as unhealthy in media,” Gudipati said.
He too points out that money at this stage for celebrities such as Kohli and Amitabh Bachchan is not an issue. “They have reached a stage where Rs 6-7 crore won't matter.”
He further points that this can even add to their benefit as they can charge a premium for those brands they do endorse. “Take for instance Aamir Khan, he is said to charge a high rate of Rs 8 crore per day. He can charge such a premium as the value he brings to the table for a brand. Even Amitabh Bachchan for that matter, what he charges and what value he drives for a brand is several times more,” said Gudipati.
Sridhar Ramanujam, Founder & CEO of Integrated Brand-Comm says that Kohli has now become one of top sportsmen globally and with that comes reputation which he has to manage. He further adds that brand endorsement rules have become strict too as celebrities today cannot endorse things they don't use.
Recently, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) released new rules that held celebrities responsible for the claims made in ads in which they appear.
“Celebrities have to worry about their reputation more than the money, as that is taken care of. They have to come across as concerned about the society,” said Ramanujam.
Companies need to be smart about their positioning in the way they handle media relations
As I write this piece, a public relations adage that comes to mind is “Any news coverage is good”.
In this column, I am going to focus some of my observations on what recently transpired at Infosys and the hit its image took as a result of ineffective media management. Before that, I must state upfront that I have benefited both personally and professionally from the company. I was fortunate to own a few hundred shares in the company and to have spent time with the founders, for whom I have great regard; they have featured in my books and classes as role models in not only managing media but also in transparency and ethics.
But now, uncomfortable questions on corporate governance and ethics are raising their heads, causing some of the people in question to look elsewhere as the media focusses its attention primarily on the company, its founders and its erstwhile CEO.
In this background, let us look at the possible learnings for other companies, especially those seriously looking at public relations as a means to communicate with the external world.
Let’s be very clear about one thing: public relations works. And the principal reason is that it generally has a greater source of credibility than paid advertising. Infosys, in the early years, used this ploy to great effect, as it had a better strategy than its competitors and was actually able to change its positioning over the years through astute media relations.
This is normally done by the traditional companies that adopt more expensive, but largely controllable, routes of advertising. Infosys has been following the media route over the years, even if it has come to grief with the most recent fiasco.
So let’s look at what other companies can do if they’re looking at media relations seriously.
Does being an eager beaver help?
There are enough people ready to offer their opinions and advice on a variety of topics, some of which may even be outside their areas of competence. While this is a great strategy for start-ups and even standalone consultants, this is something you will need to revisit as you grow in size. Be selective in offering your point of view. And, when dealing with the media, keep in mind that you are perfectly within your right to walk away from story opportunities that you are not comfortable with.
What are your own value systems?
I have a great friend in the corporate world who runs one of the most successful marketing companies in India and has a clear guideline on the sort of media that he wants to be part of — “I will agree to any story on the company, but no personal profiling. I don’t want to talk about my holidays, my hobbies, my clothes or my interests”.
That clearly means no low-hanging fruit for the PR company, and it also establishes the company culture, as far as the media is concerned.
What’s the company’s life cycle?
Clearly, start-ups and nascent companies are hungry for coverage, any coverage, and we don’t blame them for that. For who knows where the next round of funding will come from? But as companies grow in visibility and stature, they need to do some serious introspection as to whether the company or its executives are too ‘in your face’ in the media.
The same applies to social media as well. I have stopped following CEOs who tweet several times a day. Clearly, the activity is outsourced and lacks the personal touch. So review your entire offline and online strategies periodically.
CSR should not be personal profiling
Today, many companies support causes, some of which may seem frivolous rather than a serious purpose. It may be quite tempting to say cheese in front of those popping flash bulbs, but do you really need to be there or can someone else step in for a change? It’s not an easy call, but think about it.
Can less be more?
So what are we saying at the end of all this? That there is no catch-all media strategy that companies can follow irrespective of their size and current standing. The old objective of column centimetres has to give way to quality of coverage. Companies need to look beyond traditional media to influencers and opinion-makers in the online space.
There is a crisis lurking around every corner, and the smarter companies are prepared for most eventualities.
Johnson & Johnson recently lost its fifth court case in the US, which has understandably lent a blow to the brand’s image world over. Several legacy brands from McDonald's to Volkswagen have been taken to court for selling ‘substandard’ products. How do they deal with such situations and how difficult is getting back?
What do global Giants Volkswagen, Tata Motors, Nestle and Johnson & Johnson have in common?
All of them have lost market share in respective industries because of controversies surrounding quality issues or faulty products.
Germany-based Volkswagen lost its dominant position in Europe because of manipulating with fuel emission norms. Tata's Nano car could never pick up after a number of cars caught fire within a year of launch. Nestle fought the Maggi battle with Indian food regulators after lead above permissible limits was found in its two-minute noodles brand.
And just last week, a Los Angeles jury directed Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million to a 62-year-old woman who has blamed the company and its talcum powder for her ovarian cancer. This is the fifth case that the baby care giant has lost. Johnson & Johnson, which faces a staggering 5,550 claims in US courts, has lost four previous cases in St Louis amounting to $300 million in all.
While J&J will appeal the verdicts, its brand image has taken quite a hit. It is not just in the US that the brand is facing a tough time. Johnson & Johnson used to enjoy a market share of about 80 per cent in the year 2008 in the baby care segment in India and today the brand holds over 50 per cent of that market. The difference is huge and this is despite the brand investing huge monies in marketing.
As per Kantar Media, the brand invested $1.12 billion in marketing in the US alone in the year 2015 and an estimated $2.5 billion globally, according to reports.
BestMediaInfo.com spoke to a few brand experts to try and understand how popular brands are impacted because of that one mistake and how do they get back on track.
Harish Bijoor, Brand-expert and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, believes that in case of J&J, the stigma from the court cases the brand is battling in the West is the reason for its declining popularity in India.
“Stigma is strange and it has the habit of following you from shore to shore. In today's viral environment, no one is an ignorant person. Word of digital spreads faster than word of mouth! I do believe J&J has suffered an image hit with the global controversy on its talc. Bigger than the compensation payout claim is the hit on brand image, value and credibility. This has affected the brand badly in India for sure. The brand needs to undertake very quick and effective surgery on its image,” said Bijoor.
However, experts feel that trusted brands do get a second chance from consumers. "In case of Maggi, you see Nestle is back with a strong product line with different flavours. Now they're offering more value. It won't be easy to reinstate the dominant leadership it held earlier but it still is the most selling instant noodles brand," a brand consultant said. The consultant didn't wish to be named as he works with a conflicting brand.
However, the impact on brand revenue is huge because of less than expected sales and huge marketing budget to reinstate its position.
Volkswagen despite losing market share is trying to rebuild its position in Europe on the back of the strong marketing campaigns. In the campaign launched last year, post the emission scandal, the company said, “Volkswagen is more than a car, it’s a lifelong companion.”
However, all are not as lucky to make a comeback. Nano, despite being the most affordable car, could never pick up. Dhara, the edible oil brand, could never fight back.
Experts feel that the reason a few brands could not gain their share back was not because they lost people's trust entirely and did nothing to rebuild it. But also by the time they set their house in order and tried coming back, the competition in market had already intensified.
Experts point to reasons such as the growing market, intensified competition and fragmentation of the sector for the brand’s falling numbers when it comes to market share.
Talking about J&J's court cases, Vibha Desai, Director Vibha Desai Consulting, feels the court cases in the US have no bearing on the brand’s performance in the Indian market.
“I personally think that the average Indian consumer will not know about the court cases. People in India traditionally have used the ‘ghar ka nuska’ on their children but now a lot of people are not living in joint families and have moved away from their hometowns to metros. As all these factors come together, the market would have expanded. You have to understand that J&J has grown the market. Brands like Himalaya just came in and there was a market ready for them as they concentrated on the middle class and the lower middle class families. So I think the falling market share is a mix of factors like the shift from ‘ghar ka nuska’ to branded items and the market expanding rather than the US court cases,” said Desai.
Experts say that brands that have been around for generations also get confused in dealing with millennials.
Ramanujam Sridhar, brand expert and Founder, Brand-comm, said, “People today are not consulting their parents. It is therefore possible that they are finding better and cheaper products that their peer group is recommending online."
Speaking specifically about why J&J lost its market share, Sridhar said it's not only about court cases but also because its products are expensive and people have cheaper options available now.
"The biggest challenge that Johnson & Johnson usually faces is the fact that its products are generally higher priced. So, it is possible that young parents today are looking for products that are cheap but of an acceptable quality,” said Sridhar.
Sharda Agarwal, Co-founder, Sepalika, agrees that the market is far more fragmented today than what it was before. This has led to entrance of brands that have brought to the table many more propositions.
Talking about why FMCG brands now have a tough time rebuilding their brands, she said it is because of the concept of supermarkets. "Consumers get to see a variety of products on the shelf. Hence, they just don't rely on one product," she said.
Taking J&J as an example, she said, “The arrival of the whole concept of the supermarket means that consumers can now pick their brands. In the past, one of the big advantages that J&J had was the huge barriers for entry. The only way to make yourselves heard was through advertising, which is an expensive way and only established companies like J&J could afford to do it. Today, for new brands to exist in the market, you don’t need to advertise because you can be discovered by the consumer. So, the growth of retail players has helped smaller players with limited advertising budgets to introduce brands. The barriers to entry have come down and that means more brands are entering the market.”
According to Agarwal, as any market matures and grows, there will be more players staking a claim on the pie, which would in turn mean the biggest player that used to control a majority of the market will be the most affected and that is probably what is happening with J&J in India.