Thursday, July 24, 2008

Prioritise or perish!

Today we live in a communicated if not wired world where people are an audience first before they even think of becoming consumers. So there is a crying need to understand the media exposure and consumption patterns of consumers.

_ Cartoon by Ravikanth “As you can clearly see in the chart, the market we’ve to capture is behind these two hills ...”

I was reading an interesting and yet contrarian article in a business paper recently titled “Ignorance is bliss? It may also be rational”. The article spoke about the theory of rational ignorance which dictates that for a person to justif iably expend that time and effort in collecting additional information, the value of that information has to outweigh the costs of collecting it. The piece ends as follows: “If the difference in the value of outcomes is not significant, you may be better off not spending your time and money on collecting information on the available alternatives.”

Yes, there are instances of primary research projects that may be poorly designed or shoddily executed or findings that often lead us to ask “so what’s new?” Not to forget marketers, who by their very nature, seem so well organised [!] that often they do not have the time for information gathering, which leads us to agree selectively to this point of view. Yet the value of secondary research is often not recognised or respected, which is perhaps an indication of some of the reports that are currently available. Having said that, I must concede that the recently launched RK Swamy BBDO Guide to Market Planning is an insightful edition containing proprietary research that can help marketers, planners and agency personnel to be better informed about markets and their potential, so that their decision-making can be better and better informed.

India, a land of myths

India by its very nature is complex, stumping marketers and, on occasion, analysts as well. Marketers too have their own pet theories about markets in India and the Indian consumer. I am no exception to this rule. Examples are rife – the rural market is all hype, the North is a better market than the South, Hyderabad is the best test market, everyone is watching cricket, the only thing that works in India is celebrities … All of us are guilty of adding to this confusion with our own two bits of wisdom which is often untested. But there is no substitute for comprehensive research as this volume demonstrates. The survey covers 515 districts out of 593, of both urban and rural districts, in 21 States and three union territories of India.

The basic questions that anyone would ask about a particular district might well be: Does the district have the “means to consume?” This is arrived at on the basis of crucial parameters such as per capita income, bank deposits, number of house owners and percentage of affluent households, which helps us to come up with certain meaningful insights. But our experience does suggest that market potential, while important, is only half the story. Whether the district and its constituents have the inclination to consume is a larger concern. What is the ownership of telephones, which includes mobile phones as well, the ownership of cars, fast moving consumer goods and durables in the district that we are studying? All of this can provide a reasonable pattern of buying behaviour which can guide us in making a prediction of the future. This analysis has been done by the research group blending different databases to give it a greater level of objectivity and accuracy.

Today we live in a communicated if not wired world where people are an audience first before they even think of becoming consumers. So there is a crying need to understand the media exposure and consumption patterns of consumers. The module gives us a better understanding of the diverse audience that is India. What is the level of exposure /awareness of the district to media such as TV and radio and what is the level of female literacy in the district? Finally, can the district support the activity? What are certain important parameters like road density and population density in the district under review? As a consequence of all these questions and the study it is possible to arrive at the aggregate potential of the markets, the quality and affluence of the consumers and markets and the availability of mass media to consumers.

A problem of plenty

Every marketer knows that there are never going to be enough resources to do what one wants all the time. The size, complexity and choices that are available in India excite, and at times, confuse us. Brands try to be everywhere all at once and forget the basic principle that there is a minimum threshold level required for a marketing activity to bear results and they often enough end up spreading themselves too thin. I, as one who consults for companies, would like to know the answers to questions like these: Which are the emerging markets for a product category like a small car? Are there any markets that perform less optimally? How can we help set sales targets taking into account the potential of the market? Which is the best area to test market our products? Are the five-lakh-plus towns the easiest and best “low hanging fruits’? What should be the mix of urban and rural markets? The guide helps us to find the answers to questions like these.

Nuggets of information worth considering

One of the major features of the study is that it covers both the urban and the rural markets and comes up with the surprising insight that the rural market is as big as the urban market. With the exception of Maharashtra and Goa, the rural market accounts for at least 40 per cent of the market potential. Maharashtra is as big as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa combined, thereby providing a greater opportunity to focus, consolidate and gain. Speaking of urban consumption, a relatively unheard of and often not considered market like Meghalaya finds a place.

The south zone offers the best quality markets be they urban or rural. Maybe one could see brands that are strong in South India continuing to grow and consolidate in these markets without trying to get national. The purchasing power per unit area is the highest in Kerala, which means that the State offers markets that are dense. One of the features of the guide is that it allows marketers to fine-tune or extrapolate the data in the context of the peculiarities of their own respective product categories. For example, someone who is marketing financial services can look into parameters that reflect means or ability to consume in addition to the quality of the market.

Information - the next big advantage

It is often said that any consultant is only as good as his current project, an agency is only as good as its current campaign, and a company is only as good as its current team. Yet in a constantly dynamic world there is one enduring fact and that is the value of information that is well-researched, timely and objective.

Although it is hardly original, I can say that you are only as good as what you know. In marketing what you know is about markets, their complexities, their peculiarities, behaviour of consumers, their affluence, their inclination to buy and their exposure to media. A study that provides information on these issues through the length and breadth of this diverse country is well worth subscribing to, following and using for making crucial marketing and planning decisions.


Hung over after the completion of IPL, I am not watching too much television nowadays, as meaningless contests such as the Asia Cup refuse to excite me. To add to my tedium was this uninspiring commercial from BSNL featuring Preity Zinta. In case you have not seen the commercial consider yourself lucky.

It features a traditional family coming to ‘inspect’ Preity Zinta for an alliance. To cut a boring story short, they check out the boy’s credentials and discover that he does not have a BSNL land line and reject the boy! BSNL like so many other brands has lost importance over the years to a variety of reasons and yet believes that all the complex marketing problems that arise out of poor customer service can be solved with a poorly executed TV commercial.
Long live the power of advertising, even if it does not work in this case!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brandcomm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is your company a ‘brand of choice’?

It is important to communicate with your employees.

One of the downsides of a booming Indian economy (current inflation notwithstanding) is the tremendous choice available to consumers across categories. While that is certainly a boon for consumers like you and me, it certainly is a cause for worry for manufacturers, more so, if the products they manufacture or services they offer, are ‘me-too’.

On to the world of employers and employees which is the focus of this piece, even if the rest of the world does not share my enthusiasm for the subject. Was a time when jobs were hard to come by and lifetime employment was the norm rather than the exception. Today the situation on the employment front is dramatically different and that would be putting it mildly. People have multiple job offers on hand and pick and choose the companies they wish to work for after extensive homework and discussion with friends and sometimes even with employees of the same company that they are considering. Employers too are actively scouting for the best of talent, even as they are desperately trying to retain the talent that they have, which, even as we speak, is being wooed assiduously by the competition. While it is a happy situation for employees, it is certainly a challenging time for employers as well who are being forced to get their act together both on the human relations and communication fronts.

So here is a quick question for you. Is your company’s brand a brand preferred by employees? Is it even possible for existing companies to become more interesting to prospective employees? How do they go about it?

The power of branding

At the risk of stating the obvious, one must say that people wish to work for companies that are brands. What sets these brands apart? These corporate brands stand for certain values, are recognised names not only in the world of business but by ordinary people as well, and are most critically, great places to work. In the world of marketing, we do know that while there may be a lot of attendant hype around brands and branding, we can never afford to forget one important principle. The starting point for a successful brand, whether it is in the product or service space, has to be built around a good product or service. The hype can follow later, if it must. That is the bare minimum, or the basic hygiene factor that any brand needs to succeed.

Product brands that are successful in the long run have excellent quality and they never compromise on that. Similarly, companies that wish to become attractive employer brands are successful, well-run and good places to work for. So a company that wants to be ‘a brand of choice’ has no option but to get its act right in terms of performance, culture and opportunities to learn.

A different audience with different needs

Every corporate brand has multiple audiences with widely differing needs. The investor wants capital appreciation, banks want their instalments on time, customers want value for money and government wants compliance with the laws of the land even if its officials want something else on occasion! So how companies position themselves is very critical, for one of the key factors behind a brand’s success is its clear and consistent positioning. Most companies are fairly well positioned for their consumers as positioning was seen and continues to be seen primarily as a marketing exercise. While there is no denying the importance of positioning for consumers, clever marketing slogans may have little relevance for the acquisition of talent or its retention. Of course, we do have slogans such as Nike’s “Just do it” which might work equally well as a rallying call for employees, but it must be observed that most brand and marketing slogans do not cut much ice with employees either existing or prospective and this is something that companies need to consider if not worry about.

How distinctively is your company positioned for its employees, both current and future? Companies often spend a lot of time in useless debate and eulogise the importance of product branding. While conceding the importance of product branding, we need to understand its impact and implications on the overall corporate brand with particular reference to the effect it can have on the appeal to prospective employees. So carefully evaluate your tone of voice, position and tagline and see if it means anything to your employees. While consistency is critical, one can consider another variation to employees for internal communication which is not at cross purposes with the overall position. It is important to recognise the diverse needs of different audiences. I must tell you, however, that people can have strong views on positioning and taglines, so be prepared for battle! May the better position win!

Category choice or brand choice?

In marketing we do know the value of the difference between marketing of the category and marketing of the brand. Let me explain. To someone who brushes his teeth using tooth powder, it is a major shift to move to toothpaste. Similarly, someone who uses double-edged blades will not shift easily to twin blades. A housewife who uses a bar to clean her vessels has to be wooed to change to dishwashing liquid and so on.

Similarly, prospective employers may need to do a category selling effort before they come to a company-specific pitch. The software industry marketed itself brilliantly a few years ago to prospective employees and as a consequence basic engineering, research and development suffered in their efforts to get talent. So how attractive is your industry to prospective employees? You need to understand that before you get to talk about your specific company. When I recently visited my alma mater, IIM Bangalore, I was surprised if not shocked to hear that marketing has very little appeal for today’s young MBAs and companies such as Hindustan Unilever that ruled the roost once have become reasonably low-involvement and courses like advertising are taken by students so that they can ‘chill’ in the middle of a hectic work schedule!

Internal and external audiences

In our preoccupation with wooing fresh talent, we seem to forget that we have a large, captive audience within the company that needs to be communicated to on an active basis. How engaged are our current employees with the company and its activities? Have the values of the company been communicated internally? Have they been understood? Is there some level of acceptance? Is communication within the company only top-down or is there a climate for it to be two-way? Are employees being heard?

In all this talk of “branding” that is being bandied about, we need to ask employees what they think of the brand. Do employees feel the same way that we feel about the brand or is there a significant disconnect? Do our leaders ‘walk the talk’? Is there an internal communication programme that has a clearly articulated set of objectives and strategy to go with it? Are there periodic events where employees can be heard, like the “all hands meet”? Is the programme being evaluated for results and possible course correction? Who has the ownership for the communication programme, HR or corporate communications? Is the CEO committed to internal communication as this discipline more than anything else needs a champion, and the higher the champion is in the hierarchy the better.

Branding is a process not an event

As we wind up our discussion let us just emphasise a few things that we need to do when we talk about building an attractive employer brand. The most important thing is for a brand to be “true to its self”. Branding is all about delivering expectations to all audiences and companies that go to campus promising Utopia come to grief when they deliver short to people who come on board. It is easy to get carried away by the hype and hoopla and focus on events like ‘Thank God it’s Friday!’ and ignore the basics.

The basics include having an open environment where people are recognised, rewarded, trained and valued. Boring but true! Identify what the brand stands for. See if you can build a point of differentiation with the competing brands in your category. But before that do a quick check on your industry, how attractive it is. My mind instantly goes to the advertising industry which, despite its ability to create and build brands, is really low-involvement for young people. Communicate your difference to relevant audiences externally. Customise your communication offering for your employees and monitor its progress closely if not constantly. Finally, remember branding is a process not an event. It is not a quick-fix. It needs dedication and commitment. But the results of making your brand an ‘employer of choice’ will be worth the effort.
Are you ready for the effort?

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of brand-comm and the author of “One land, one billion minds”.