Monday, April 10, 2017

Blinding flash of the obvious

Title: The Curious Marketer: Expeditions in Branding and Consumer Behaviour 
Author: Harish Bhat ; Publisher: Penguin Random House. Price: ₹599

A marketing maven offers a candid reflection of our times

“Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.” 
I was reminded of this interesting quote by Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi when I read Harish Bhat’s The Curious Marketer, which is an interesting and insightful look at the world of marketing, among other things.

The book has an easy, conversational, non-jargonistic approach to writing which should appeal equally to your spouse and your teenage daughter. As the book is a a collection of articles that has appeared in this paper over a period of three years, it straddles events, people and places.
The book encourages us to “notice” things; somehow many of us seem to have lost the power to observe people and places, lost as we are in the security of, say, our mobile phones. And to impart his lessons, Bhat traverses not only the God’s Own Country, but such far flung places as London, New York and Austria to name a few.

The writing spans not only the wonders of modern retail, like the Apple store, but even the less heard of and more exotic things like the marketing of coconut water! Being a marketer at heart, Bhat seems to find opportunities in what might seem mundane things like us, for instance, there is a section on umbrellas, which might seem odd to someone who does not live in Kerala or Mumbai where the skies open up more easily than my accountant when he has to pass my travel vouchers!
Marketing wisdom

Bhat is a marketer of repute and has spent a majority of his life working on diverse brands and often writing about them. The book is replete with examples that the average marketer might not have come across like the origin of the brand name Lakme, which is how the French pronounce the Goddess Lakshmi!

Bhat talks about the power of circles in logos and how brands like the Olympics and Audi have used the time-tested power of circles as consumers seem to rely on them. The important lesson for me at least is the fact that most of us seem to be lost in our brands, our world and our planet to borrow an expression of Bhat. This limits our vision and impacts our ability to think out of the box.

Looking at other categories, brands and planets can substantially improve our ability to come up with innovative solutions. Something which management guru Gary Hamel used to advocate when he urged companies to look outside of their industry to widen their horizons.
Times are a changing

Since Bhat has spent a considerable amount of time with Titan, the company that changed the face of time in India, he discusses the origin, the advertising, the vision of Xerxes Desai and goes on to talk about the often controversial advertising of Fastrack including the ad that features women “coming out of the closet” literally! He speaks about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and urges us to open our eyes at least to the urban reality around us.

A reality that some of us studiously close our eyes to! And this is something that I feel strongly about. Marketing is never about yourself, or who you were when you were young, but about today’s young customer and too often our biases and prejudices prevent us from understanding or accepting this important fact.

The key theme of the book is about consumer insights and what he calls as “Small Data”. He strongly advocates Martin Lindstrom’s book on small data as a must read for anyone who is in marketing. Many of us will not have the capability to spend days on end with consumers and understand how they spend their lives, but we can certainly keep our eyes and ears open as Bhat advocates.

The other interesting point he makes is that very often we assume consumer insights are the exclusive domain of marketing and advertising. While the lead may happen from marketing and advertising, Bhat advocates the use of insights being harnessed by other functional areas like manufacturing, distribution and inventory management. This is an important difference as one can think of as too often insights seem to be the exclusive domain of marketing and advertising, and the other functional areas just seem to abdicate their own rights and responsibilities in this area.
Different strokes

While there is no doubt that Bhat’s book is an easy read with a wide range of topics, it is perhaps this factor that works against the book. The articles are too diverse and some of them certainly like the one on Muhammad Ali have limited place in the book. 

The author, because of his ability, manages to string together a connection even when it is tenuous at best and that to my mind is the weakness of this book.

The fact that many of the pieces have been written at different points in time is another factor which probably works against the same theme. A shorter, tighter book with articles closer to the central theme might have made the book even better than it already is. I would urge working professionals, not necessarily only from the marketing area, to go out and buy The Curious Marketer and read it. It has a lot of what Tom Peters would call “the blinding flash of the obvious”.

Let me end with an appreciation of the interesting epilogue by Gayatri Bhat, Bhat’s daughter’s irreverent and yet affectionate look at her father and his writing. Certainly a reflection of the times that we live in and that’s the key feature of this book; it reflects the times we live in, interestingly.
The reviewer is the chief executive officer of brand-comm 
Harish Bhat has held several senior roles in the Tata Group over the past 30 years. An avid marketer, he has helped create many successful Tata brands. Bhat now writes extensively and is a columnist for the The Hindu Business Line and Mint. His first book TataLog was published in 2012.
(This article was published on April 9, 2017)

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