Thursday, September 27, 2007

India expects!

In the mid-nineties we used to have a cute, precocious boy of seven who used to be a frequent visitor at our house. The reason? He was not allowed to watch television in his house and whenever there was an India match he would slink in surreptitiously. But once he was inside and away from the prying eyes of his parents he would park himself securely on my sofa at a prime spot in front of the television set. We were watching an India match and Tendulkar played an audacious, amazing shot as he used to do often those days and my young friend jumped up and pronounced “I have not seen a shot like that in my entire life!” A lot of India watched something that they had not seen in their entire lives - India winning a cricket world cup! It was amazing! What an eloquent way I have with words! And what was making it even more pleasurable was that it was not expected. Our one day form which hit its nadir in the World Cup in the Caribbean has not been anything to write home about despite the odd win here and there. Three of our all time greats Sachin, Rahul and Saurav opted out of the tour or so we were told. We had a young captain and a younger team and we were taking on the likes of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and our friendly cricketing neighbour Pakistan. Teams like England(!) spoke about their experience with this format and South Africa, as always before any tournament pronounced itself as the favourites as the matches were being played at home and they already had a domestic twenty twenty competition in place. Let me not go on and on about how well we played or how we humbled the Aussies or beat Pakistan twice or beat the much vaunted South Africans. However I must digress and mention that South Africa as a team never ceases to amaze me. Ever since the tied game at Edgbaston when they lost the world cup (and I can say with real pride that “I was there”) they have discovered new ways of losing. Perhaps this one must rank close to their Duckworth Lewis fiasco. Confronted with a choice of three different scenarios, they chose the unlikeliest and made their way out to sulk and hopefully learn some maths. But the team that the bookies had not bargained for made it and that is our own. As a result of this win our expectations are sky high. We believe now that the world is our oyster.

The power of expectations

“England expects every man to do his duty” said Winston Churchill. Clearly the present English team was after his time. But to get back to expectations. Now with all the euphoria about the twenty -twenty triumph it is easy to believe that a golden era of Indian cricket has arrived. While I hope it does, it is possible to be just a little circumspect as one who has watched Indian cricket ebb and flow for over forty years. One has also watched the weight of public and media expectations and its impact on team (non) performance. It has humbled quite a few. I suspect Yuvraj in the finals was probably weighed down by the collective expectations of a billion people. We are a funny lot, we Indians. We alternate between complete diffidence and absolute arrogance. Now I can see us getting into arrogance mode. “Bring on the Aussies” is the chant now. Look at our schedule. Our team comes back on 26th to a ticker tape welcome and an open bus ride in Mumbai but will have to play the Aussies on 29th in Bangalore as part of a seven match series. Then we host Pakistan and go to Australia for a four match test series followed by a tri-series in which we could play ten one day matches at least. The other teams? Australia and Sri Lanka. All this after a close test series in England followed by seven one dayers. While the BCCI and the TV channels are raking in the money, there will be injured bodies, tired legs and stale minds in the team soon. Look at the rush of injuries in world cricket. The Australian team already has four doubtful starters for the India series in Ponting, Watson, Hussey and possibly Bracken. Sehwag had to miss the finals. Yuvraj has not played all the games while Dhoni seems to be showing more of his back to the camera than he ought to in the field as he gets treated for some ailment or the other

What has worked

How did we win this 20-20 world cup? We won it simply because new, untried, youngsters who were not bothered by reputations played calmly. In fact we won the final because we held our nerve and if one may add catches. Let us use this great opportunity to get in more youngsters. Let us use the “rotation policy” that is easier to talk about than practice. Suddenly our chairman of Selectors is talking about our bench strength, something that he said that we did not possess a few months ago! The same Indian malady of alternating between diffidence and arrogance starts with the chairman! We are playing at home against an Australian team that is struggling to get into a season after a long break and is already haunted by injuries and a defeat in the twenty twenty world cup. If one knows them they will come out flailing. Thankfully we are playing at home in front of a fantastic, biased audience and a team that is on top of the world. Yet all is not hunky dory with our team. Our bowling weaknesses remain, more so in the sub continent and our fielding will take a toss for the worse with the entry of three seniors. This leads me to the next concern. Now that India has tasted blood, I see our thankless people baying for the blood of the seniors if they do not perform at the rate we wish them to.

Patience a wonderful virtue

Parents, at least the smarter ones, have discovered an important route to happiness. The secret is to have no expectations from children. The moment you expect certain things from them you get into trouble. You are disappointed, sometimes because your expectations were not justified in the first place. If India thinks that we are going to become the number 1, one day and test team in the world just because we won the truncated version of the game, then we could be in trouble. Yes we have done something unique. We are the first winners of this new format which is going to be the future. We have come from the cold without any of the stars. Let us savour the moment without worrying about the future. Then when that happens we can have the same unexpected pleasure we had on the 24th of September. Expect at your own peril. As for me I am still celebrating!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What can media brands do to be different and become an integral part of their consumers’ lives?

I spent my childhood and youth in Madras (that was the name then, however much our politicians might scowl). That was in the Sixties and Seventies and it is hardly worth the effort to figure out my age! The only newspaper that we read then was The Hindu. The easiest way to create chaos in our lives then was to interchange our morning kaapi with a cup of tea and replace The Hindu with another newspaper. That would ensure that the day started wrong and continued to go wrong!
That newspaper was an important and integral part of my life and of others’ lives as well. When I tried to read the paper and Jack Fingleton’s column before my uncle had seen the paper one morning, I got slapped by him for the first and thankfully the last time.
I remember going to Bombay (that was the name again) for a holiday when I was in Class V and I can still remember going around the streets of Matunga asking at every shop for The Hindu while other sympathetic, like minded-people said, “Hum bhi Hindu hain.”
Newspaper brands in our youth were strong brands whether it was the one from Tamil Nadu that I have spoken about so lovingly or The Statesman from Calcutta. Parents urged their children to read these papers so that they could improve their English. Did we feel strongly about these brands of our youth because we were exposed to them at an impressionable age? Or was it because they were almost invariably the only ones we were exposed to? Or was it because these brands were relevant to us as consumers?
Whatever the reason for this, one fact is clear, today the challenge is inherently more complex for media brands than it was 40 years ago. Why do I say that? In Bangalore, the city where I live in, one has the opportunity to see 11 English newspapers every morning. What about television? There are 388 TV channels in the country with the expectation that it will become 400 in the near future. (Never mind the fact that when you switch the television on over the weekend you still can’t find anything worth watching). As for FM radio, there are 69 radio stations in the country and the expectation is that the number will grow to 245 in the near future.
What makes brands successful? Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition. Are any of these media brands different? What can they do to be different and become an integral part of their consumers’ lives?
Positioning … the name of the game
David Aaker describes positioning as “A part of brand identity and value proposition that is to be actively communicated to the target audience and that demonstrates an advantage over competing brands.” This leads one to ask the question: How well are today’s newspapers positioned? I spoke about the 11 newspapers that I get to see every morning and once in a while to actually read – now how well are they positioned? What really makes for the positioning of media brands? What makes them different?
Let us first stay with brands and see what makes them different. Every brand, whichever the category it belongs to, has a few elements - the name, to start with. You can have a name that is generic, ordinary even. Consider a category like telecom. In a category which has brands like Singtel, Bechtel, Alcatel and Airtel, one brand has (or is it ‘had’?) the name of Orange. Clearly a stand-out. In India when most newspapers had some chronicle or times to their name a newspaper has the name Mint. Clearly there is a point of difference in one element of the brand at least.
Some brands have their packaging as an element that is different. In India, we are familiar with the sachet, a completely different packaging form that has now become a way of life for the category of shampoos and now for other products as well. Packaging in the case of the newspaper could be important as well. Newspaper brands too are continually upgrading their look and feel, type styles and page layout. It is perhaps worthwhile for newspapers to remember that while they keep upgrading themselves and modernising themselves in an attempt to contemporise and get new readers, they run two risks. The first is that in their quest for younger, newer readers, they might be alienating their longstanding older readers who have been reading the same newspaper for years. The second risk is that they end up becoming exactly like their competitors, ape them and finally end up confusing the consumer. A number of newspapers that I read have similar Page 3 type offerings. Yes, I suppose I am not the target audience! But still …
But at a more basic level, what makes brands successful?
Very often we get carried away by the emotional aspects of branding and the imageries conveyed by advertising. The risk with an approach like that is that it underplays the basic importance of the product or service. Having a high-quality product or service is the bare minimum or hygiene factor in today’s crowded, competitive, cluttered world. While it is perhaps easier to determine what makes a good product or service in the world of consumer products or services, I wonder if it is as easy to figure out what makes for a successful media brand.
One can recognise a wonderful media brand like The Economist which one admires, but how do you figure out the causes of success? A true media brand, in my view at least, stands for something. Editorial integrity, for instance. The essence of a brand or its raison d’etre is often ignored. It becomes even more crucial in the case of a media brand where the interplay of editorial and marketing and their relative importance to each other become crucial factors. How many of today’s media brands have a point of view? How many actually stand for something?
Advertising… does it really matter?
People in marketing believe in the power of advertising, as they should. While agreeing with that, one must also mention in the same breath that advertising is, perhaps, less critical in the case of the media brand, as lots would depend on the product itself and the reactions of consumers to the product. In India and perhaps, one must mention, in the rest of the world as well, there is a tremendous reliance on giving the paper away at a ridiculous price, if not for free. How will the consumer value a brand that is given to him free? Yes, the Indian market is perhaps very different from other Western markets. We are growing and the regional newspapers are growing quite significantly compared to the Western world which has mature markets that are at best constant if not declining. So the strategies that work in the West may not work with equal success here. Yet, it is perhaps worthwhile to ask a few questions to owners of media brands. After all, it is certainly easier to ask questions than to find answers.
Are you trying to address ‘eight to eighty-eight’?
How good is your online offering?
Are you ready to reinvent yourself on the net?
Are you ready for personal, proactive media?
Do the people that trust us and value us want to buy other things from us?
Are you as Rupert Murdoch said, “remarkably, unaccountably complacent?”
That in fact leads me to the final point that I wish to make. These are exciting times for media in India. The markets are growing, the consumer’s literacy is improving dramatically, as is the affluence of the average Indian if such a person exists. Media brands can, as they are probably trying to, ride the momentum, give away free copies, try hard to be like their competition and still get away with it in a booming economy. But it is decision time as well. The right decision is to think long-term. It is to carefully evaluate their current position. Is there an opportunity to fine tune their offering? Is there a difference in the product now or can it be built in? Yes, it is a wonderful time to be in business in India. A wonderful time to be in media. But the time to think about tomorrow is today. How many of today’s Indian media brands are ready?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Umpires better managed than hounded

Umpiring is hot in India. Certainly as a topic for discussion if not as a career option! Just look at the ICC elite panel! But the ICC’s elite panel which has no Indians in it still continues to make Indians fume. “God, give me a break” is the title of the caption in the story which has an anguished Sachin Tendulkar on page 1 of the Times of India in Bangalore and quite possibly in other editions of the newspaper as well in other centres like Mumbai and Delhi. The umpires involved in, what the newspaper describes as shocking decisions against the little blaster are none other than Steve Bucknor, Simon Taufel, Ian Gould and the latest and perhaps the most visible offender? Aleem Dar! Not too many people left in the panel are there? In fact if the ferocious straight drive of M.S.Dhoni had carted the dapper Dar to the sightscreen along with the speeding ball the reaction of a few Indians at least, callous though it may seem, could well have been “He deserved it”. Why is it that we get the worst of the rub of the green? Is the whole world, match referees included, out to get us? Is there something that we are doing wrong?

So what’s new?
Contrary to what the young Indian believes, umpiring controversies are not a phenomenon specially designed to stop Tendulkar in his tracks but something that is as old as the willow itself. Of course the ire it created was more pronounced and perhaps even more violent when the umpires were from the same country that was waging battle. Some of the major achievements of post war Australian batsmen were looked at with a jaundiced eye by English supporters. Not even the great Don Bradman was spared. Remember Jack Ikin? As for umpires from Pakistan it might be worthwhile to remember what touring players like Ian Botham and Mike Gatting had to say about umpiring in Pakistan and visiting cricketers had their own choice description of our Indian umpires as well. However aggrieved we may be at the current rash of appalling umpiring decisions, it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that things sort of even themselves out in the long run though Indians might remember what J.M.Keynes said about all of us being dead in the long run!

Are Australians a favoured lot?
I have watched a lot of cricket over the last several years, not to forget the highlights, the reruns and the rereruns and something seems apparent to me. Australians seem to be more fortunate in the interpretation of the umpiring laws though one must say that they got the short end of the umpiring stick in 2005 when the Ashes changed hands. I am not sure how many front pages of Australian news papers carried Billy Bowden’s gaffes crooked finger et al! But otherwise it seems apparent to everyone but the officiating umpires that Hayden, Ponting and Langer seem to be struck on the pads more in front of the stumps than other less fortunate batsmen and live to smite the ball to all parts of the field. Shane Warne and Glenn Mcgrath have more appeals sanctioned than bowlers from other parts of the world. Warne has taken appealing to a new artistic level. Just last night I watched Warne spin a huge leg break in the Pro 40 final that was clearly missing off stump. The verdict? Out! Maybe our bowlers can learn to appeal better. Show more passion. Focus on the ones likely to get a nod rather than fritter away energies and success rates on iffy appeals. Let us not make such a hue and cry about umpiring errors. I did not see too much of a hue and cry about Robin Uthappa getting the benefit of an edge. Nor did anyone mind when Steve Bucknor did not give Sreesanth out in the first test match. He seemed lbw, thanks to the replays which make all of us such wonderful critics! Well we drew the match didn’t we? I wonder if any country humiliates umpires the way we do when they make an error. The poor umpires are grilled in front of television cameras and even made to apologize! Someone would think that they have fixed the game, the way our media treats them. I think our desire to tell the world how important we are I think works counterproductively against us. I think more mistakes are made against Indians not because the world dislikes us but because we put more pressure on the umpires. Like our cricketers carry the burden of a billion Indians one wonders if the umpires carry the fear of failure like the sword of Damocles whenever they officiate in an India match.

Better losers and winners
Winning is a rare phenomenon for us, so I guess we overreact when we are thwarted either by the opposition or the umpires, usually the latter. The umpire is doing his job. Often enough poorly it would seem, because we have the benefit of a squeaky snickometer or a faulty stumpvision. The solution is not technology. It is well accepted that it is still not perfect. Nor can you use technology selectively when it suits us. Just as we want players to sledge less, be more honest, let us also try to be more balanced. That way we would perhaps drink less, argue and fight less and waste less newsprint!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Good times, bad times…

We, Indians are a philosophical bunch. We believe in Karma. If something goes wrong with our lives, health or jobs we check our horoscopes to see if our time is bad. I think Rahul Dravid’s time is good,[ though I have no access to his horoscope, assuming I had the capability to read it], simply because India won an astonishing game at the Oval on Wednesday which, if our past record is any indication, we should have normally lost. Where does the good time come in? In my opinion Rahul Dravid did quite a few things that defied logic{ though Rahul makes the most bizarre of captaincy decisions sound so logical and well thought out in his post match media conferences] and if his time had not been okay India would have lost by a mile and he could quite easily have taken all the flak. Yesterday’s match and this entire one-day series make me wonder if he is the best choice to be India’s one day captain. Before I get lynched let me explain. To my mind Rahul Dravid is India’s best-equipped batsman, who excels in different conditions and against the best of bowling attacks. He is a wonderful person, a great advertisement for a game that is getting increasingly unruly; wonderful with the media and a great role model for youth, but with great reluctance I must say that as a one day captain I find him increasingly wanting.

Batsman or captain?

A lot of Dravid’s ills stem from his basic, nice nature. An element of selfishness is not necessarily a bad quality in international cricket at least. Let me explain. Rahul Dravid has been the person most used {or is the right word abused} by Indian cricket and not often fairly. He has been asked to keep wicket, open the batting and also captain the test team half an hour before an important match with Australia simply because Sourav Ganguly opted out, whatever the official version for his not playing the game. But I think Rahul Dravid has realized that it is his lot to serve Indian cricket even if it works against his own and the team’s interests as well. But Indian cricket would be better served by him batting at the position he should be batting and where he can make a difference to the team as a top-flight batsman. He cannot be either performing as a batsman or as a captain. Floating up or down the order can work for Robin Uthappa but not for Rahul. Indian cricket still seems to suffer from the legacy of Greg Chappell and his penchant for experimentation and seems to be forever experimenting without ever settling on a course of action. This to my mind leads me to believe that Rahul Dravid is better off being told what to do. He is a wonderful follower and the ideal guy to have in the team. The wall that you can fall back on.

Back to the good times

But to return to the match … India won the match, admirably. Despite Rahul Dravid tossing the ball to Yuvaraj for the fiftieth over, despite persisting with Agarkar who has no business to be anywhere near the Indian team, despite batting poorly and losing his wicket at a crucial point in the chase and despite handing the advantage earlier to England by letting them bat first on two earlier occasions Dravid and the Indian cricket team has been handed a lease of life. It is Rahul’s good fortune that Sachin has batted like a dream over the last couple of games, Robin Uthappa played an outstanding innings that belied his youth, India actually fielded passably and Robin actually hit the stumps directly, Sourav again demonstrated his increasing value to the team.
Different captains for different versions of the team
Australia first demonstrated that there could be two different captains for the test and one day and Steve Waugh, unthinkable as it seemed, was shown the door in the one-day version of the game. England is realizing that Collingwood can actually make the normally ragged English one-day outfit competitive. Of course his job has been made easier by India’s own incompetence and Rahul Dravid’s uninspiring captaincy {Rahul forgive me}. Thankfully we will have a chance to see how Dhoni shapes up in the “hit and giggle” version of the game in South Africa soon. India should seriously consider an alternate one day captain. Let me make one thing clear. Rahul Dravid should be an integral and important part of the Indian cricket team. He should continue to captain the Indian test team as the Indian test team has done significantly well under his leadership. He has demonstrated tremendous capabilities as a one day batsman too and should be there to guide the team and be its most important batsman as long as he wishes to.
For too long Indian cricket has suffered from its inability to take hard decisions. We don’t drop players; even if they are out of form we “rest” them! It will not be easy to take this decision I am sure. But that to my mind will be one more step to help build the future of Indian cricket and see that its senior most, trusted cricketers are used in their right capacities. Rahul Dravid, the wonderful man he is, will be disappointed but I am sure he will take it on his chin and continue to serve Indian cricket with the same determination and distinction that has marked his long and illustrious career so far.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Monday, September 3, 2007

One day, some day…

We love watching one day cricket and notwithstanding the recent aberrations where we have won important test matches abroad, one suspects that our players too prefer the shortened version of the game, whatever they may say to media. God knows that our test cricketers have played more one day internationals than players from any other country in the world. Despite the predilection of our administrators and cricketers for the shortened version of the game it must be mentioned that our skills leave a lot to be desired. Teams like Australia have moved to a different orbit, if one may use the word. The first major match{to my mind at least} of the enormously long world cup of 2007 was the much awaited game between Australia and South Africa when the two top teams crossed swords in the small ground at St.Kitts. That game showed up the difference between Australia and on occasion South Africa and the rest of the one day cricketing world. Also one needed to have watched the India England match at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday evening to understand that while India may be a fantastic one day team on some day or the other in the future it is certainly far from that today. At the time of writing this India is 1-3 down to England who is hardly an ideal one day side!
Aussie Aussie Aussie !

It is difficult to talk about one day cricket without talking about the Australians and their fantastic record in this aspect of the game and in others as well. It might be worthwhile to look at a few key aspects behind their success and maybe see where we are with reference to some of these proven success formulae. .Win the toss and? Australia would invariably bat first and put on runs on the board, choke up the opposition for 15 overs and then the asking rate would climb, the opposing team would commit hara-kiri. You get the picture. Contrast this with what Rahul Dravid has been doing in England recently. We bowled and badly at that, particularly at the Rose Bowl. And as England piled up the runs, we were on the back foot and continued to be there till we lost the match by a mile. A margin of defeat over 100 runs is equal to a defeat by an innings in a test match. Of course we can say that the conditions looked deceptive and Collingwood played along by saying that he too would have bowled. How often do captains demonstrate charity to their counterparts? Quite often in press conferences at least!! More than the conditions I think the Indians believe they can chase pretty well and our mind must go back to Srilanka when they visited here and our own success with the West Indies. Well the artificial lights in England are different and the English bowling at home is a different kettle of fish. In fact England’s few wins in the past including the much vaunted Commonwealth Bank tri –series win in the finals in Australia have had the same formula. I think the learning for India at least has to be not to be guided by the past but by the conditions. Here too I would be guided by Steve Waugh’s laconic view that the conditions cannot change dramatically in one hundred overs so the toss should not be too important though in India all of us agonise over every decision or non-decision of Rahul Dravid! The Australians play at a frenetic pace so even when wickets are falling the run rate stays at 6- 7 in the first 20 overs at least. The power plays are made to count. But I suppose it helps if you have Hayden, Gilchrist and Ponting batting in the first three slots with Clarke, Symonds and Hussey to follow. But Sachin and Sourav are no slouches except when it comes to running between the wickets. We often talk about why we do not need a coach. I wonder who will tell Sourav off after his appalling running between the wickets .Will it be the young Chandu Borde? The fact that Greg Chappell made a hash of his coaching stint should not make us believe that all coaches are bad or that we are great enough to play for ever without a coach. We need a coach who can teach running between the wickets definitely!

Demons in the mind or in the dressing room?

Another distressing habit that we have developed over the last few years in Indian one day cricket has been the frequent, unnecessary {in my view at least} changes that our batting order is subjected to. I cannot remember an occasion in recent times when Ricky Ponting has not batted at no.3.He will come in whether Gilchrist is out first ball or the score is 150 at the fall of the first wicket. Why does Dinesh Karthik have to shield Dravid who is arguably the best batsman we have? Dravid should theoretically get the best opportunity to score 150.He can do that only by getting at the top of the innings .Captaincy can play havoc over your thinking .Rahul Dravid has to remember that the greatest captaincy he can do is by playing a great innings first. The only game we have won on this tour in one dayers has been due to his fantastic batting at Bristol. I wish he has the same confidence in his batting that we have! Or is there something else that we do not know about?

Fielding, oh what a bore!

When we were at school and college, all of us would practice batting and bowling assiduously but by the time we had to do fielding it would be dark and we would all heave a sigh of relief. The Indian team sadly seems to suffer from the same malady. Romesh Powar who reminds me of Erapalli Prasanna in the way he tweaks his off spinners rivals the great man when it comes to immobility. How can young cricketers like him, Munaf Patel and even Gautam Gambhir be allowed to play a one day game with this level of fielding? The South Africans have demonstrated to us from the days of Jack Cheetham that fielding can and will make a difference to your team’s results. We all know that fielding is something that can be practiced and perfected even over a period of time. Even Monty Panesar is a far cry from his stumbling, bumbling efforts in Australia .Remember his well-flighted and yet accurate throw to get rid of Sourav Ganguly? It is really difficult to think of India winning close games if our fielders continue to let the ball rush for four through their feet, hands and bodies and dropping catches left, right and centre. Let us just get better fielders in like Suresh Raina even if he have some other cricketers whose batting reputations are better .That will improve our overall competitiveness which is now shakily resting on a few individual stars

Let us start at the bottom

India is close to the bottom of the one day cricketing pecking order or will soon be if we continue to field like this and run like headless chicken between the wickets. Soon three of our all time greats will no longer be able to play international cricket whatever the sponsors say .Let us blood more youngsters, give them more opportunities .Let us not expect anything from our team for the next 3-4 years. God knows that our expectations only puts unnecessary pressure on our players .Let us get a coach who is good. I remember the sad state of Australian cricket in the mid eighties and the difference that Bobby Simpson made to them .And let us not; even if we manage to win the remaining one dayers lose sight of one important fact. We have serious problems in one day cricket and the solution has to be long term not a quick fix that we are famous for. Let us be patient. For one day we shall rule the world!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)