Thursday, October 30, 2008

A week in the life of Jet Airways

The efficient airline’s image has taken a beating with the events of the past fortnight..

The media-savvy employees protested, politicians took up their cause and Jet Airways reversed the decision to lay off a portion of its workforce.

I have a confession to make. Jet Airways is my favourite service brand. I have been a raving fan of the brand ever since it commenced operations and have been part of its frequent flier programme for as long as I can remember. I make a reference to t he brand at every forum where I am invited to speak and do so with even greater pride when the audience has foreigners in it. My usual statement introducing the concept of service and Jet Airways is “We Indians have to be pretty good at service as we have a long track record of service. After all we served the British for a small matter of 200 years!”

While that sounds pretty funny when it is said, I must hasten to add that despite our experience, Indians and Indian service providers probably more often than not are more likely to be classified as “unacceptable” or “below average” rather than “world class”, with Jet Airways being one of the few which might classify for the “world class” tag. And yet the same brand has been going through a fairly traumatic time over the last few days and in my own estimation the brand’s image has definitely been dented in the eyes of the general public and consumers of media if not in the eyes of the actual consumers such as me who still continue to patronise the brand come layoff or pink slip.

Sorry, we don’t need you

October 15 was a normal day for most Indians, but for 1,100 Jet Airways employees it was going to be an unforgettable day for all the wrong reasons as they were asked to leave the company immediately as the company was performing badly. The media went to town, breaking news and giving different counts of the number of employees who had been asked to leave. The unwanted employees seem to be ‘last in’ into the company and are probably feeling the brunt of the global downturn and have been ‘first out’ of the company’s rolls.

However, one must give credit to the beleaguered employees who did not take all this lying down and took to the streets, albeit in an orderly way, and demonstrated in front of every television camera and media reporter in the country shouting slogans and asking for their jobs back. The obliging media recorded every slogan and every interview, had a field day and ensured that the agitation was in the news for the entire 24 hours of the day. To add fuel to the fire every politician got into the act, every political party in the country (and we know the acute shortage of them at present) joined its voice in support, trade unions found one more cause to rally around all, adding to the overall media mayhem. I am not getting into the rumour that many Indian politicians own stock in Jet Airways as that is irrelevant to the piece. Coincidentally, a group of us were travelling to Thiruvananthapuram on October 16 for a customer service seminar being organised by Custommerce, a day after all this drama. So I politely told the (still) smiling girl at the Jet Airways counter that I would pray for her job’s safety at the Padmanabhaswamy temple when I went to Thiruvananthapuram. She in turn asked me to pray for her colleagues who had lost their jobs. The service on the flight was exemplary despite the obvious turmoil in the cabin crew’s hearts and Jet Airways and its employees went up one notch in my esteem.

Conscience over commerce

However, when I went into my room and switched on the TV set (normally my first act when I enter hotel rooms) the airline had done a U-turn. Naresh Goyal in a hastily convened press conference announced that he was taking back the entire lot of displaced staffers as his conscience was bothering him, he had been unable to sleep and his senior management (sic) had taken the decision without consulting him! The staffers were jubilant, just as the rest of India was a day later when Sachin Tendulkar broke Brian Lara’s record.
Lots of people claimed credit for the ‘conscience’ of Goyal and it is really great news for India that we have so many Good Samaritans in the political system, some of whom pioneered the ‘conscience vote’ in Parliament and continue to selflessly work for the nation’s progress without claiming the slightest credit! The trade unions in Bengal were cock-a-hoop and continued their celebrations as Saurav Ganguly scored a century and promptly changed their slogan to “Dada don’t go”.

But to my mind amidst all this tamasha and happiness of the staffers, Jet Airways suffered as more reports came in of its cutting routes and entering into a strategic alliance with Kingfisher, its arch rival, even as the atmosphere was rife with stories of bail-out packages. In the midst of all this life was going on as usual for the airline and its staff. I took two more flights in the same airline over the next two days and was relieved and delighted to see that the brand was renewing its commitment to service and taking the reverses to its image and the bad press in its stride, pampering ill-tempered and demanding customers like me, replacing my warm cup of tea with a piping hot one as the lemon slice that I asked for was delayed and continuing to smile at the spoilt and ill-behaved children who come on their flights.

The most significant part was that last week when I was returning from Mumbai, the flight had a really rough landing, frightening some of the chicken-hearted travellers like me who promptly remembered God in their hour of need! As we were preparing to leave the aircraft the pilot promptly apologised for the bad landing! Honesty in accepting one’s own sins of omission and commission gladden the hearts of consumers.
So why do I like Jet Airways? I think it is because of real, live, committed people who are serving me. Contrast this with Airtel which, in my eyes at least, has moved from a human, customer-friendly organisation to an automated , unconcerned corporation which hides behind technology. Can someone tell me how I can speak to a human being at Airtel? Maybe I should try Sunil Mittal!

So where does Jet go from here?

I am no expert on business strategy, least of all on the business of aviation which seems to be going through troubled times, to put it mildly. But I do know that customer satisfaction positively impacts stock prices, even if the stock market is currently chaotic. Take Amazon, whose CEO Jeffrey Bezos says with great conviction: “I’m so obsessed with the drivers of the consumer experience; I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by the customer experience.” In the Custommerce seminar that I mentioned, Geet Sethi, the renowned billiards player, described “passion” as a very weak word and spoke about “obsession” as crucial to success. Yes, a passion for customers should well be replaced by an obsession with customers and their needs.

It is also at times like these that companies are riddled with self-doubt, a bit like the Australian team that has just been handed its heaviest defeat in recent years, and start worrying about what they are doing. They resort to short-term measures such as cost control and give the customer and her service less importance than they deserve. They tend to forget the reason for their original success and pre-eminence over the years in the current preoccupation with economic turbulence. Stick to the basics, be obsessive about your customer, lobby with the government if you must and soon there could be a break in the current threatening clouds that are hovering so worryingly.

Strong brands will continue to prevail because of their customer centricity and Jet is one such brand. And what about the Australian cricket team to which some reference has been made and which has been a dominant brand for the last 13 years? It has competed with Jet Airways in the same period in the sort of media coverage that it has got, mostly unfavourable and maybe they need a bailout more urgently than the troubled airline! I do hope that Jet Airways will ride this crisis, in the interests of customers such as me who are just discovering what it is to be pampered!

(The author is a CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's stopping you from a career in advertising?

Imagine you are sitting at home with your family and friends watching a T20 match and just at that time a commercial comes on air. The people around you love it and spontaneously say 'This ad is just great'. Imagine how delighted you would be feeling if you were to be actually involved in the making of the ad.

Such a scenario is not only plausible but possible if you enter the arena of advertising, which leads one to ask what the possible career options in advertising are.

But before I get into that let me quickly tell you that advertising, while it may not currently be “top of the pops” in the career sweepstakes, is certainly not an option to be sneezed at. Before I go into the specifics of career opportunities in advertising I need to talk about some basic skill sets that equip people not only for entry into the profession but also for success in it. The first is the ability to get along with people and that skill is perhaps much more important here than in other industries. The second most important skill is the ability to communicate well particularly for those who get into client management or client servicing as it is often referred to and that is the first area we will be talking about.

Manage clients

This is an important department of the agency. It has men and women who manage relationships with clients. Very simply put they meet the clients of the agency, understand their requirements, come back to the agency, brief the creative team and are responsible for releasing the ads, maintaining the relationship, getting new business in, collecting money. The job involves coordination, management and ability to handle stress. In fact client service is the key to an agency’s success and growth and many successful client service people have grown from management trainees to the level of heading large agency operations.

To enter the client service area, you need a degree definitely and it is preferable to have an MBA from one of the second line management schools at least, though in the eighties we had people from the IIMs joining the agency business. Today two year post-graduate courses in communication are also on offer and these too offer an opportunity to enter the profession to youngsters who pass out of these institutions.

Creative, the core competence

What sets apart one agency from the other is its creative ability. Advertising, it would help us to remember is the business of producing ads and TV commercials. To produce ads and TV commercials the agency needs copy writers and visualisers. Agencies have teams of copywriters and visualisers who come together to create advertising. Just like fast bowlers in cricket good creative people hunt in pairs.The copywriter is the one who writes the print ads and thinks up the script for those television commercials that we see on air. Many young copywriters have basic degrees in English or communication. Some of them have prior experience in writing and may have written for their school or college magazine.Of course it is important to remember that writing to sell products is very different from the literary writing that some of us have done in our youth. Copywriters are not writing to impress readers but actually persuading them to buy products, which they may not even need. This calls for a different set of skills and the usage of words and phrases that people can remember , like the Nike’s ‘Just do it’ campaign that was one of the most memorable advertising campaigns of all time.

Designing the ads

‘A picture paints a thousand words’ is perhaps a statement depicting the importance of the visual in communication. People remember strong, eye catching visuals and even more so today as people are getting busier and spending lesser time reading.

People want to get to the point faster and do not want to spend too much time thinking about what you are trying to say. Visualisers usually do courses in art for 5 years from reputed institutions like Sophias in Mumbai or Chitra Kala Parishad in Bangalore.

The difference over the years to today is that today’s aspiring young visualisers need to be more than merely computer literate but actually experts at creating on the computer. Both visualisers and copy writers must have a strong desire to think differently and stand out from the crowd so that their work is noticed.

It is also pertinent to remember that creative people are paid extremely well and at times are the highest paid within the agency's structure. So, if you think you are creative, maybe the agency business is the place for you to get into.

Media, the other unit

There was a time when the media department of the agency was known as the ‘back room boys’ as it was the creative and the servicing types that were hogging the limelight. Not any longer. Because of the emergence of stand alone media buying houses and their increasing importance, agencies are realising the value of media personnel.

Within media the less glamourous role is that of the buyer who is in charge of negotiating with media houses and television channels on rates. They work out special deals, preferred positions and bulk discounts for their clients. The more exalted role is that of the media planner who very simply decides how much to put in where, which newspapers to advertise in, which serials to buy.All of this is through analysis of various data that is available with the agency, monitoring of television rating points of popular programs, using sophisticated computer programming models to help optimize the client’s budget so that he/she gets the maximum “bang for the media buck”. Media planning too is becoming increasingly important as a career option and most media planners have management degrees with a strong liking for numbers and have the capability to understand and interpret research.

The greatest perk

One of the greatest perks of working in the advertising business is not money or incentives but the challenge of working on so many diverse products and services so that one never gets bored. If you are a salesman you are selling only one product or groups of products. If you are in marketing you are a specialist in only one category soaps or detergents. But in advertising you have to know about soaps, shampoos, clothes, shoes, computers… you name it. So there’s never a dull moment if you are in advertising. In fact it has been described as the industry where you have the maximum fun with your clothes on! Get ready to have fun!

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Brands in trouble

Some of the most iconic brands have taken a thorough beating with the recent meltdown in the global markets..

Neither brands nor businesses are immortal. Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition.

“Buildings age and become dilapidated. Machines wear out. Cars rust. People die. But what lives on are the brands.”
- Hector Liang, Chairman, United Biscuits

This is a statement that is often made at brand management conferences, reproduced in articles such as these and spouted at brand management classes by teachers like me. The brand is like a God, or so some of us say, and if you keep propitiating it,pay respects to it and invest in it, it will remain forever, long after us. I sincerely believed in the power of the brand and still do, but my unqualified and unquestioning belief in this statement has taken a severe beating as an aftermath of the meltdown in the US financial markets.
I am no expert on finance as my current portfolio demonstrates. (Portfolio! What a wonderfully packaged term for what are essentially pieces of paper that are fast attaining scrap status.) So I will not even tread the murky area of finance but stay with the more familiar if less risky area of brands and branding and see if there are learnings from the current imbroglio that has thrown the world into a tizzy, causing bankruptcies, destruction and even the death of an Indian’s entire family that was living in the US.

Brands under scrutiny

Let us take a look at some of the brands that have come under public scrutiny and been found sadly wanting. First and foremost is brand USA .The foremost nation brand for years, if Western media is to be believed. Let’s not forget that the US was the brand that eulogised the spirit of free enterprise and told the world that this was the only way to do business and run the world, if not the way to live life and use credit cards! To my mind the brand that has taken the most severe beating in recent days is this brand.

My mind goes back to the Seventies and my days at college. My friends from IIT Madras who entered IIT with the objective of going to America considered themselves failures if they did not make it to the land of apple pie.(In fact, some of my friends knew more about apple pie than kheer.) From where to where has this brand sunk? And the US brand sinks into a deeper quagmire as media abounds with stories of its bailouts protecting bonuses of overpaid finance executives from poor taxpayers’ money! Merrill Lynch might be “bullish on America’ but I wonder if the rest of the world shares that same sentiment!

Another brand that is facing a real crisis of confidence is Wall Street which, for years, has been the premium financial market of the world and is more than what Madison Avenue is to the advertising world.

I am not sure how many of you remember Harshad Mehta, the man behind those heady days of a bull run in India. One significant thing happened for Dalal Street and the Bombay Stock Exchange as our rates were flashed along with those of other major stock indices of the world, for the first time. We thought that we had arrived, so big were the other world brands.

Now let’s get to the companies that have been on intensive care. One of them, Lehman Brothers, has been pronounced dead. Last year Lehman brothers were valued at $4 billion by a consulting company and it is a high-profile company that has been making a profit every quarter! The company’s profit growth has been dramatic, as was its stock price performance, almost doubling from $44 at the start of 2005 to around $80 in 2007. And what is its value now?

Brands such as AIG, Lehman, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley have been on the list of the top 50 brands of the world and have been day zero recruiters at business schools. There seems to be a cloud on many of these brands now. This reminds me of a Tamil proverb that when translated, means, “Who knows which snake will come out of which pit?” Remember that the carnage is not over yet. All of this makes me believe that brands are certainly not immortal as we believed and need a lot more nurturing than we had imagined.

Answers to the future

Many of us are brilliant in hindsight and yours truly is no exception. We can all climb on the criticism bandwagon which anyone who follows cricket in India is familiar with or we can learn from this once in a generation happening. There is no doubt that a cataclysmic event of this nature is like a tsunami leaving financial death and destruction in its wake. But what can brands do?

I think the first realisation is that neither brands nor businesses are immortal. Brands that were on top of the heap a few years ago have been consigned to history in a heap. So the first point one would like to make is that the life cycle of brands is very, very different from the life cycle of people that we are familiar with.

We no longer live in the days of Shakespeare and the seven stages of man. Just as we have only the stages of childhood, youth and old age today, I think brands too have very compressed lives. How many of us are aware of this? And how does our strategy reflect this? As Jack Welch said, any fool can make money in the short run and any fool can make money in the long run, but it calls for real ability to make money in both the short run and the long run! So preoccupied were the finance whiz kids with the short run that they have ignored the long run and see where some of them are now!

It is not only the cosmetics

Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition. While this is not rocket science it does seem that brands tend to forget or ignore this important aspect.

Many of the brands that are under siege today have their cosmetic part of the brand right. The look and feel, the colours, lofty mission statements are all in place. But how different have they been from each other as all have chased dubious financial instruments and short-term profitability? They seem to have focused on the product category of financial services rather than on their own brand differential which is probably why many of them are in trouble and being tarred with the same brush quite easily.

The team matters

Given the similarity of the range of product offerings of many of these competing brands, what really sets one company apart from the other? It could well be the teams that are guiding the destinies of these firms, the board of directors and their ability to add value to the firm and its operations. Not to be forgotten is their ability to keep tabs on deviations from accepted practices, though what is acceptable in the finance industry in the US seems to be shifting just a little bit today. Bank of America picked up Merrill because it had a better team and clearly a better brand than Lehman which had no such luck.

In the long run we all drink Coke

Amidst all the uncertainty, confusion and chaos it is perhaps relevant to think that some things don’t change, and thank heavens for that! I speak of Coke which has been the most valuable brand in the world for several years now. It continues to enjoy the franchise of young and old in every part of the world and has been passed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom. Leadership is all about clarity, consistency and cohesion and the ubiquitous bottle of cola has demonstrated these qualities in no small measure, which is why millions of bottles of the fluid continue to be consumed.

Build a fund of goodwill

Many of us are great in good times at handling things. We also tend to forget that things can change around dramatically. How often do people go to temples when everything is fine and how quickly they rediscover the road to the temple the moment something goes wrong! Why wait for a rainy day or for trouble to strike?

Companies would do well to prepare for troubled times by investing in social causes that are close to their heart and try to build a corpus of public goodwill, so that they have some recall with the public at large and are not seen as just another large corporation maximising its profits.

Times like these are not easy to handle. But they serve as reminders to companies to focus on their basics, getting closer to their customers, constantly monitoring their own performance and letting their performance and service build value.

Easier said than done?

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Horn, ok, please...

A few years ago I was to do a review of the “yes sir” commercial for fastrack watches. In case you do not remember the commercial, it is set in a class room, which could be St Stephen’s in Delhi or St Xavier’s at Mumbai and it is roll-call time. (What a relief to parents like me that things like this still happen in college).

As students keep saying “yes sir” with varying degrees of disinterest, it is observed that one of the young gentlemen is wearing a groovy fastrack watch and all the girls in the class keep drooling and saying “yes sir” when his name is called out, to the embarrassment of the young man and the merriment of the rest of the class.

The commercial seemed interesting enough though I am not sure if I got the commercial in its entirety. Of course, I am not the target audience for the commercial or the brand, so I asked my second son who was 19 then, as to what he thought of the ad. His response was instantaneous. “Pa, it is kickass!” he said. If I had spoken like that to my dad, then I would not be sitting here writing this column, but that is not the point I am trying to make.

The point is that India is a young country with close to 57% of the population below the age of 24. But in the same country we have marketing managers in their forties and managing directors in their fifties who are trying to woo these twenty some things. If that is not a marketing and a communication challenge then I wonder what is!

What works, what doesn’t?

So what do we know about India’s youth? Not very much I am afraid but I think we need to feel our way through this generation as it is very important to understand this emerging segment of the market who could soon be leading it in terms of importance and size.
The obvious thing we need to remember is that this generation is relaxed if not spaced out. It can laugh at itself and others in stark contrast to dour middle aged professionals like me. So advertising like the ads for Mentos or Sprite works for young people, while people of my age may look at it with distaste.

Try to talk the language of the young however...

complex it is, which first means that you have to understand what they are saying and if they are your consumers, you better figure it out fast, in your own self interest.

Don’t lecture

My son, labels me as a dangerous combination as I am both a parent and a teacher. He says parents advise while teachers lecture and I do both! So as marketers, for God’s sake, do not lecture.

We do not have a captive audience out there, waiting to be converted. These sophisticated young things have a potent weapon in their hand, the remote control and so can easily shut out our message and our brand if it does not entertain at least, even if it does not engage this demanding set of consumers.

Surprise the key

I think we need to remember one important thing about today’s youth, particularly the urban youth. It has been there, done that, seen it all and is on the verge of being cynical.
You need to spring your brand message in a manner that is surprising to say the least and completely unexpected. Brands like Levi’s in India and Nike world over seem to understand the potency of this segment and have a better feel for what makes them tick.

A brand is a brand

This generation understands the need for and value of brands. Look at the importance it assigns to education at IIT, IIM or now the National Law School. It waits for sales to buy brands that it aspires to own whether it is Levis, Nike or Reebok.

My marketing professor called India’s young as the MTV generation, which is multiple processing, time compressed, value seekers. Seek them out for your own good!

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