Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cricket break in between commercials

Brands need to continually reinvent themselves as they grow older but it does not stop with merely changing the identity and creating new commercials to announce it. Does it demonstrate a new focus to the customer, better customer service or more contemporary products?

Cricket has audiences who are glued onto the TV set for hours on end, starting with the pre-match build-up, the toss, the pitch report, the highlights at the end of each innings, the presentation ceremony, the concluding remarks and whatever else follows it. On one single match day, a consumer could end up seeing the same commercial 10 times.

It is 8:45 pm on Tuesday –May 6 – and yet another IPL match is being telecast. I watch religiously despite the mediocre fare being provided by the depleted Chennai kings who clearly miss the likes of Mathew Hayden (who has recently been a t his diplomatic best) and Mike Hussey (who continues to be Mr Cricket).

One more wicket falls as the home team struggles. As I wait for the replay, a commercial comes on air for the nth time.

The IPL has been a succession of TV commercials, several of ordinary quality, like some of the players on display, interspersed with some cricket, some of it lacklustre.

Even as I contemplate switching the channel, the phone rings. It is my friend who calls to tell me that a wicket has fallen in the Royal Challengers camp too as the CEO has just quit. The CEO later reiterates that he has been “summarily dismissed”!

What with the cheerleaders having to tone down their act and actually being made to wear some clothes, Harbhajan’s hand straying onto his India team mate’s cheek, the ‘excellent’ relations between Warne and Ganguly… the IPL has had its fair share of excitement. My regret, though, is that the advertising that has been the foundation for the entire economics of funding the IPL – barring a few exceptions – has been quite boring, at least for diehard viewers like me.

Opportunity to see. But what is there to see?
Media planners swear by OTS or ‘Opportunity to see’. They want consumers like you and me to see the commercials a few times at least, during the purchase cycle. But how many times can one see the same boring commercial which precedes, interrupts and follows a game, which also happens to be dull and one-sided on occasion?

So, here is my question to agency creative and strategic types: What is your view on ‘wear-out’ of TV commercials?

Cricket has audiences who are glued onto the TV set for hours on end, starting with the pre-match build-up, the toss, the pitch report, the highlights at the end of each innings, the presentation ceremony, the concluding remarks and whatever else follows it. On one single match day, a consumer could end up seeing the same commercial 10 times.

Clearly, some of us do not learn or are gluttons for punishment. I read somewhere that the IPL could well be the ‘Superbowl’ of India. Superbowl is a big event in the US, as most of us know, where several brands launch new, edgy commercials at a phenomenal cost. One recalls the impact made by the ‘1984’ commercial previewed by Apple when I was young and actually had hair on my head!

This tradition of launching commercials in the event continues. While the IPL may present a great opportunity for Indian advertisers to showcase their creative talent, one wonders if they have risen to the challenge or even understood the mindset of the viewer of 20-20 cricket.

My submission to advertisers, agencies and marketers is to watch both games on the weekend at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., particularly the commercials, without switching the channel once and see their own commercials several times over to empathise with the viewer. They will quickly realise that their execution does not measure up to the challenges of repeated opportunities to see on the same day on the same channel.

Having said that, let’s take a look at some of the commercials that have been on air, not necessarily in any order.

Change for the sake of change
It is that time of year when companies seem to be dissatisfied with the way their brands look. Everybody wants to look younger, more with it, and in tune with what a younger audience wants. After all, we are a young country and even if we forget it for a moment, the agencies who have been behind these identity changes will quickly remind us! Ceat, one of the well-known if not iconic brands of my time, has suddenly woken up to the fact that younger customers do not even know it exists.

Marketing as we all know seems to be full of companies who ignore the importance of investing in their brands in a sustained manner! So, out goes the rhino, out goes the ‘born tough’ (a clear position if there was one) and in comes a new colourful logo which is announced with a lot of fanfare.

A lot of the communication on TV is about change itself and how it is inevitable and necessary. There was a level of intrigue in the first commercial where a middle-aged man tries to take a picture of a young girl in a bikini (when will middle-aged men improve!) while a young man wearing a t-shirt with the caption ‘change’ is blocking the view. The other commercials, in my opinion, lack the same level of interest and intrigue.

Godrej, another ‘old’ brand, has reinvented itself in design and Shoppers Stop too has a new identity.

All these campaigns feature heavily on the IPL, some as ‘creepy crawlers’ below and on the side of the screen, which, instead of reminding, actually end up repelling me.

Rejuvenation is an important part of branding and brands need to constantly monitor themselves, keep measuring how consumers feel about them and look for ways to engage the customer.

But identity, however visible, is just one aspect of the brand. Brands need to continually reinvent themselves as they grow older but that does not stop with merely changing the identity and creating new commercials to announce it. Does it demonstrate a new focus to the customer, better customer service or more contemporary products?

My concern about all these identity changes is that there is a predictable pattern to it. The logo is changed, often without continuing any aspect of its past; it becomes a lot more vibrant and colourful; there is a high-profile ad campaign that touts the change and then life goes on. What has changed for the brand or the consumer?

Hawaai at your feet
When we were kids (there I go again!) we used to wear a brand of rubber chappals called Hawaii made by Bata. Every second person used to wear it. In fact, I later discovered that Hawaii had become a generic name and several other manufacturers sold their brands as Hawaii to unsuspecting and uniformed customers.

Paragon, a company that makes rubber chappals has a new commercial featuring actor Shriya (Rajnikant’s lady love in the film Shivaji) who is dancing in the streets with a group of people, one of whom is a lady with a broom! Another celebrity commercial without a script or an idea … quite like a formula film that cannot find the right formula.

In defence of the commercial, I must tell you that my 17-year-old nephew, who is visiting from Malaysia, wanted to buy the chappals because he likes Shriya … So there you go.

The agency might well say “you are not the target audience!” But I am the target audience for the commercials done by Citibank. Clearly, the bank seems to be stressed out because of all this sub-prime crisis and I do recall one commercial with a girl jogging, talking to the camera and I could not for the life of me figure out what she was saying. Citibank has a series of commercials which are not too different.

From banks, we move on to insurance and another commercial for Max NewYork Life which has a harried housewife whom we later discover is paranoid.

But I am getting ahead of myself. A lady enters an empty house and searches high and low for her husband. He is not answering his phone, his shoes are strewn carelessly on the floor and he is nowhere to be found. The tension increases for the lady as she rushes from pillar to post calling out to her husband and her panic increases. She finally finds him slumped in his chair and rushes to him, only to wake up the poor sleeping man who probably was having one of his few moments of peace undisturbed by his wife…

Yes, insurance is a difficult subject and fear is not an easy emotion to handle, but after all this build-up, staccato images, black and white treatment, all adding the tension, it’s a letdown as the film ends almost comically. As my nephew says, “God! She almost gave him a stroke waking him up like that!” Yes, advertising works differently for different folks I guess.

Love me, love my dog
Advertising uses the unnatural liking we have for children and dogs. I love dogs and children (especially when they are not my own) and I just love the Vodafone commercial which has a cute girl with curls and our pug which has now acquired celebrity status. The brand which used to talk about coverage is now talking about service and helping consumers.

The commercials are charming, to put it mildly, and restore my faith in the power of advertising to charm and sell. Being an Airtel consumer, I am unable to talk about their service. But being an avid television watcher, I can tell you that I do not mind ‘opportunities to see’ commercials like these.

Another interesting commercial is for the Moto Yuva where a middle-aged father apes his teenage son while his family watches in amusement. While I have discussed a few commercials that were sad, weird even, there is nothing to beat the Animal Welfare Board which claims that the dog has been mistreated and the ad should be pulled off air!

So, here’s hoping that we get better cricket breaks!

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Would Richard Branson have done the same thing?

Sir Richard Branson is a one man PR army. He has built images, brands and businesses in a manner that few, if any, have done using public relations as a strategic differentiator. He has been lowered via a crane in his birthday suit for the launch of his mobile services in New York, dressed himself as a bride to promote bridal wear, danced the bhangra at Heathrow airport when Virgin launched its flight into India, went around Connaught place on top of an auto and went in a second class compartment with the dabba wallahs of Mumbai. The list of photo opportunities that he found with such regular ease goes on. Sir Richard Branson, although frequently found in the company of models and long legged beauties, knew the difference between being on Page3 and Page1 of the newspapers. He had amazing self assurance and could think on his feet. When once asked at a press conference on how one could be a millionaire, he said, “You start out as a billionaire and then run an airline!” to howls of laughter from the media. Vijay Mallya has lots of similarities with Sir Richard Branson. He could have even modeled himself on the maverick business man for all we know. But that is pure conjecture. What is not conjecture however is the fact that he is in your face in the media and is a successful businessman recognized globally with a range of diverse brands that he markets internationally. His latest venture is as the franchisee owner of the Royal Challengers team in IPL and sadly for him this venture has caused him a lot of embarrassment and heartburn, in that order of importance.

A team in disarray
20-20 cricket is perhaps a lot more unpredictable than regular cricket which already has a reputation for unpredictability. However there has been nothing unpredictable about the performance of the Royal Challengers’ team that has lost 7 out of the 9 games that it has played so far and is predictably at the bottom of the table if not at the bottom of the popularity charts. Gifted as we are with enormous hindsight, it is obvious to see that the team management, whoever it may be, has done many things wrong or could have done things differently. It is perhaps a problem with Bangalore in that it has two senior players Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble who have never played this format before, and in fact are not even regulars in the one day version of the game. Rahul Dravid, instead of finding people with diverse skills who would complement his own solidity has found players with similar styles like Wasim Jaffer and Jacques Kallis. Yes, the critics have labeled it as a test team in surrogate uniform. The successful teams have entertaining and match-winning Australians like the Hussey brothers, Gilchrist, Symonds, Hayden, Watson, Warne, McGrath, and Shaun Marsh… the list goes on. The Bangalore team has only Cameron White who is not even a regular in Australian one day team and yet he commanded a price higher than all of them (with the exception of Symonds) and not surprisingly is not a regular in the Royal Challengers team. I suppose the management of the team does not have the same respect for Australian cricketers as the rest of the cricketing world. As a person who lives in Bangalore I am terribly disappointed with the team’s performance, but have not watched it live as the team does not have a single cricketer who can set the stadium alight, with perhaps the exception of Dale Steyn who is constrained by his being a bowler who can only bowl four overs in a match.

Vijay Mallya loses it
As defeats happened with depressing regularity Vijay Mallya lost his cool. His ego was hurt, which was understandable. But his reaction was irrational and poorly handled and difficult to understand from a public relations point of view. His sacking of the CEO was poorly done and created bad press, and Charu Sharma continues to talk to the media. Instead of talking to Rahul Dravid about the team’s performance he continues to talk to the media about how he was unhappy with the team selection and how he had a different list of players whom he wished to select. Is this his way of getting the people he does not like out of the team, Rahul Dravid included? But surely there has to be a better, calmer way of handling this crisis. If only Vijay Mallya looked at this as a business loss he would have taken in its stride. But his ego has been hurt and he has reacted poorly, irrationally even, and shown himself in an unfavourable light to some of his admirers.I for one am a great admirer of his airline and am a frequent flier on it. Mr. Mallya is a successful businessman with a track record that many lesser lights would envy. But his childish handling of this situation is something that we expect from the BCCI, not from a corporate leader with a reputation. As we all know the Chairman of Selectors, also has this distressing habit of talking to the media about his displeasure with individual players! If one of the CEOs of Mr.Mallya’s businesses had not delivered, how would Mallya have handled it. Quite differently I am sure. Why does managing cricket cause people to lose their heads?

Mr. Mallya I am no expert in public relations, but something tells me that Sir Richard Branson would have handled the situation differently. As a cricket lover I can only say that “its just not cricket”. But as an observer of public relations I can tell you that good businessmen “praise in Public and criticize in private”. And to criticize to the media, that is just not the done thing. The Royal Challengers team has its fair share of problems, some of which can be fixed. But the largest problem seems to be a jittery owner.

Now who will fix that problem?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Midsummer night’s excitement

It is just a week (at the time of writing) since the IPL had a spectacular opening night at the M. A. Chinnaswamy stadium at Bengaluru on April 18. Opening night hardly seems the way to describe a new cricketing format and tournament, but that is pre cisely what it was.
It had glamour, excitement, extravaganza, music, performances, laser shows and, to top it all, a fantastic display of fireworks that had live and television audiences oohing and aahing. The show was something that any Indian would have been proud of and I am no exception. Sadly, the match that followed was a damp squib, or at least the Royal Challengers’ innings, if you could call it that, was a demonstration on how not to play the 20-20 format.
The last week has been a kaleidoscope of action on the field, some truly exciting games that have gone to the wire, some typically one-sided games, a few goof-ups in the organisation of the game, ratings on the rise, a lot of advertising on the screen – a lot of it, as it happens in India, intruding into the game, controversies regarding the cheerleaders, some of it probably justified and perhaps a taste of the overkill on cricket that one is sure to be exposed to before the finals on June 1.
BCCI or IPL? Who runs the game on the ground?
In my view, and that is not an isolated view, the IPL as a concept in cricket has been a marketing coup. It has been a well orchestrated sales pitch culminating in the finalising of the cash-rich franchisees, a players’ auction where players were bid for and bought - making Adam Gilchrist feel a bit like a cow (albeit a well paid one!), the enormous build-up and hype preceding the event with every newspaper and television channel in the country (the numbers of which seem beyond my comprehension, at least) devoting entire sections to it and the television commercials promoting the event before the tournament …

Thankfully, the IPL at least seems to have got its advertising act right for the later commercials are far better than the karmayudh ones that launched the event. Of course, there is learning for us as well. Just check which team your dentist supports lest you end up in the dentist’s chair – naïve and as a supporter of the opposing side as the IPL commercial depicts! Beware too of thin ladies with keychains who get into the same lift as you, they just might be supporting some other team!

But advertising is the easy part; the more difficult part is the organisation and here the IPL or BCCI has miles to go before it sleeps. Take the match played at the Eden Garden before a capacity crowd of over a 100,000 people and television audiences of a few millions. The pitch that was dished out for such a crucial game was a landmine and the batsmen were expecting the ball to explode in their faces and they played tentatively. Of course, an enquiry has been ordered into the affair and we all know what happens to enquiries in our country! However, let me quickly mention that a sporting pitch is not such a bad idea. People do not want to see only sixes and fours, but tense, tight games.

As though we had not had enough excitement for one evening, the lights failed at a crucial stage of the Eden Gardens game and we almost had a record in the possible intervention of Msrs Duckworth and Lewis in deciding the outcome of the match! Thankfully, there was light at the end of the tunnel literally and the match was resumed after a delay of half-an-hour which seemed like two hours, late as it was in the night.

The matches too for some strange reason start at 8 p.m. and given the lethargic manner in which some teams bowl and the dew which makes them rub the ball after every delivery ensures that most matches end only at 11.30 pm. Why are matches starting so late? Is it to woo the soap audiences who can join the second innings after seeing Kolangal? Incidentally, Tamil Nadu seems to have pretty low viewership still. I suppose it is difficult to beat the lure of the soaps and the tearjerkers!

More confusion followed in Mumbai where a fantastic show of fireworks was followed by a shower of debris on the playing area and one saw a bemused Jacques Kallis, who was perhaps more used to repairing the damage in the South African innings, actually repairing the playing surface and cleaning it up! And finally, the cheerleaders! I read the interesting comment by someone saying that the gyrations of the cheerleaders were not much different from what one saw from the Mumbai bar girls. Having never had the good fortune of visiting these heritage spots of that great city, I cannot comment. But what I can say is that US audiences have demonstrated time and again that cheerleaders do not make a difference to audiences or viewership and if what one is seeing on television is any indication, I am sure it is just a waste of time and money. I suppose too that our cameramen can find better angles than the ones they are using now to show the Redskins and the other cheerleaders at the various venues. What seems to be on offer most of the time is skin while reason suggests that people might be more interested in the sight of wood striking leather!
Taking the audience for a ride!
IPL has delivered ratings to the franchisees and advertisers as the games have overtaken ongoing reality shows and family soaps. Clearly, IPL is the season’s biggest blockbuster; whether it is because of the cricket or entertainment is still a toss-up.

What is not in doubt is that the games have got a much higher percentage of women viewers as 8.2 million women in six metros watched the initial matches and the average viewership was as high as 23 minutes. Yes, the initial excitement, interest and viewership are all heady, and yet a word of caution is relevant here. As an avid watcher of the cricket, I repeat, and not the cheerleaders, I am appalled at the high percentage of television commercials. I am sure the network was happiest when the lights went out at the Eden Garden as commercial after commercial kept getting repeated, many of them boring. The sad part is that while advertisers and agencies are going gaga about 20-20 as a great opportunity, the sad reality is that none of them has done anything specific for the event or the format, except the IPL itself and the teams. They keep showing the same commercials, many of these commercials are too long for a shortened version of the game.

Also, there is a distressing reappearance of the creepy-crawlies that used to bother us in the old video cassettes that we saw a few years ago. Remember those obnoxious ad messages that used to be below the visual, often encroaching into the visual area? Well, they seem to be back with a bang. I remember a few commercials – maybe they were from Hyundai or Godrej. I think channels have a duty too to the viewer. I am sure they will find enough ways of making money, but remember you are killing the golden goose and are putting off the genuine viewers who make this whole economy sustainable.
So, whom should I support?
I have spent the last 28 years of my life in Bangalore, a city I love, traffic jams, airport controversies et al. Yet, I cannot imagine supporting this team though I personally admire Rahul Dravid. Should I support the Chennai team because I was born there and spent the first 27 years of my life? Should it matter to me that the highly paid captain of the Chennai team, the charismatic M.S. Dhoni, cannot speak a word of Tamil? Maybe I should support the Rajasthan team as perhaps I could take a holiday there or because Shane Warne has given me more pleasure as a viewer than any other cricketer?

Ultimately, it will just boil down to the cricket, which is probably why that all this new viewership caused by stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta and the entertainment such as fireworks and concerts by Hariharan may dwindle, and women will go back to the familiarity of the soaps and leave only the diehards like me to watch the cricket.

This is the biggest challenge. Rahul Dravid, before the first match, said he wanted to see a sea of red in the stadium as red was the team’s colour. But were the T-shirts available before the match? I am not sure, as the launch seemed to happen much later. To me, the defining moment of the week’s cricket so far was in the match between the Mumbai Indians and the Royal Challengers. Mukesh Ambani, the owner of the Mumbai team, was in the crowd wearing his team’s colours. Rahul Dravid, the captain of the opposing team, played a wonderful on drive (he does that when he gets rid of the shackles in his mind) and Ambani stood up and cheered. Yes, thank you, Sir, for reminding us it is about the game and its quality and not the narrow confines that have been artificially created by marketers. It is only the quality of the cricket and the talent of the cricketers that will sustain the IPL, aided as it will be by the very natural excitement that the 20-20 format inherently provides.

Here is hoping that there is more excitement in the game. Therein lies the real entertainment.

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