Thursday, December 17, 2009

Yeh dil maange more!

Look within and see if there is a latent desire you have forgotten, overlooked or are refusing to recognise..

One thing at a time and that done well” is a proverb that many people of my generation can remember and recall, though fondly! I was reminded of this often enough in my life and have often parroted it to whomever I came into contact with, despite their apparent lack of interest in this one-liner, which displayed my profound wisdom. My second son led the pack of disbelievers. One day as I found him at the dining table, simultaneously listening to his iPod, reading Calvin and Hobbes and munching his sandwich with peanut butter (what else?) I started again on my favourite subject, trying to impress on him the need to focus a la Jack Trout. My son has several admirable qualities that are not worth speaking about but one supersedes all the others. No one can accuse him of holding back his views; he rarely does. He certainly did not hold back on that day. Without even bothering to look up from his plate he said: “Pa, that is the problem with your generation. That is the reason why you have achieved so little.” He shut me up, for the present at least, and got me thinking (I do this too, once in a while) of people who had done multiple things in their lives and in their time with astounding success.

Dreams are goals with wings

Many of us dream of achieving fantastic things, sometimes in areas that are esoteric and outside the mundane world, that provide us with our very means of livelihood. Some of us dream of being writers, others of being experts on cricket on television, others of becoming famous musicians and others even of making films. Sadly, though, for many of us, these dreams run the risk of becoming mere pipe dreams. The reasons for this are not difficult to find. While we wish to savour the results and enjoy the fruits of success, we are not willing to put in the extra hours that these dreams need. Having another engagement can be heady, but it needs a commitment of time that many of us are loath to give, even as we yearn for the delights that it may bring. Having waxed eloquent about the philosophy of the situation let me get down to the actual example that demonstrates what I am trying to say as I can almost hear you say “It's about time”.

Way back in 1987 I was the Branch Manager of Mudra Communications in Bangalore. It was a small set-up for those days, and we thought and behaved like a start-up. We had a small, energetic and passionate team, hungry for business and visibility. One of the team members, the youngest, if I may add, was an intense copywriter who had the intriguing qualifications of a Master in Computer Applications. To cut a long story short, that writer was R. Balakrishnan, or Balki, as the advertising and the entertainment worlds know him today. He was mad about films, but then who isn't? Yes, I too was from Tamil Nadu and to me too Ilaiyaraja was God. But Balki had a dream. He wanted to direct films He wanted Ilayaraja to compose the music for his films. We were great admirers of P. C. Sreeram who, at that time, was doing the commercial for Padmini Lyrics, one of the emerging agarbatti manufacturers from Bangalore. He spoke about Amitabh Bachchan whom we had all grown up on. In the middle of this we pitched left, right and centre for advertising business, and while I felt that at times we were more concerned with Bollywood and Kollywood than our own business, life went on. We won business, did campaigns, started building brands and grew both professionally and personally even as the dreams continued in a copywriter's heart.

Balki continued to produce outstanding work in a different agency, eventually rising to become its chairman. But the story did not end there. He continued his obsession with films and directed Cheeni Kum which had Amitabh Bachchan as its hero. Not a coincidence. The film's music was composed by Ilayaraja (is there anyone else in the world of music) and the cinematography was by our old friend P. C. Sreeram.

I travelled to Mumbai for the premiere and I wonder who was prouder that day, me or Balki. My mind went back to those early struggles of 1987 and how he had retained his passion and his ability to pursue that dream. In all fairness, he has not been alone in pursuing his dream. Alyque Padamsee's name comes readily to mind. He was and continues to be a doyen of the advertising world while being a celebrated theatre personality for years. In fact, the advertising industry has had its fair share of people who contributed to theatre - people such as Gerson and Sylvester DaCunha, Kersy and Usha Katrak, Homi Daruvalla, Dolly Thakore … and the list goes on. Today we have people such as Prasoon Joshi who writes phenomenal lyrics in addition to leading a large multinational agency and I may have missed several others.

On to Paa

Another film by Balki. Another premiere, this one, last Thursday night at Bangalore. The music director? Need you ask? Ilayaraja, of course. The cinematographer was P. C. Sriram, no prizes for guessing that one. And while the film had Amitabh, it was in many ways introducing Amitabh as Jaya Bachchan coyly announces in the titles. I am no film critic, just a guy who likes films and I loved the film and Amitabh in the film. I am not alone in my views, clearly. But I'll wax eloquent on that at another time, another place. To get to what I am trying to say. What is your own special dream? One that only you and your spouse or a special friend knows about? Do you have one? If not, why not?

A fine balance

Today none of us have the luxury of goofing off in our jobs. Our supervisors, clients, and sometimes even our subordinates, keep appraising us so intensely and observe us so closely that we have very limited scope to give anything but our best. We spend endless and often pointless time in never-ending meetings. We carry our troubles, our laptops and Blackberries home. We send out mails at unearthly hours, not so much because we wish to make a point, but because we will be overwhelmed by mail if we don't and the inbox overpowers us. So where is the time to even think of our interest, even if we had one? What is the point of dreaming of replacing Harsha Bhogle if you cannot even watch the highlights?

Be prepared to work your guts out

I am sure Balki must have been on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown, spending time in recording, re-recording, post production, editing and so many other things that go into making a film, of which I have the haziest idea. Then throw in the agency, its people, its clients and the brands that still needed outstanding advertising and you can get the picture and the pressure that straddling both these disciplines must have meant for Balki. Phenomenal.
But what are the learnings for you and me.? Look within yourself and see if there is a latent desire that you have forgotten, overlooked or are refusing to look at. An interest can certainly keep you away from needless distractions, such as booze. I just need to look around at the advertising industry to see the potency of this particular distraction.

Imagine the end result. Often we see the thorns on the way which prevent us from looking at the accolades and the attention that successful realisation of the destination might yield. Of course, success that is hard earned is far more enjoyable and if it is not too much of a struggle then it's not even worth it in the first place.

Are you setting your sights too low?

Many of us suffer from a common ailment. We defence-mechanise, we rationalise and give ourselves and the rest of the world reasons why we are already stretched and how we don't have a minute of spare time to think, much less do anything else. But is that really true? No one knows the answer to that question as well as us.

Remember too that this is not in any way to suggest that you will have less intensity or less time at work. Today's world demands a total commitment from all those who are involved. So it is not either or as some of us would like to believe. It is all this and more. The operative word is “more”. Are you ready mentally, physically and emotionally to give more? Is your family empathetic to your hidden desire to excel? Is it willing to understand and put up with your long periods of hibernation from an active family life?
All of these are questions that anyone who leads a ‘double life' needs to think about and perhaps answer.

Who knows, you might be the next big person in cricket, entertainment, music or the theatre! Get ready to work for your success.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

Image Source: Susanhenschen

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bending the global brand

Successful brands, and global ones in particular, have a core they carry across continents..

Smiles all around: Tata Docomo with its revolutionary billing per second stirred the mobileservices market. _ ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

“There is no such thing as universal rationality… what is rational or irrational to a person depends on that person's value systems, which in turn is part of the culture that person has acquired in her or his lifetime. What people around the world value varies enormously.”

- Geert Hofstede

I heard this quote and a host of other interesting statements at a marketing seminar on global brands when I was speaking at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. This particular statement was quoted by Shripad Nadkarni, Director of Marketgate, who was part of the eminent panel that also included K.V. Sridhar (National Creative Director of Leo Burnett) or ‘Pops' as he is affectionately referred to, Radha Chadha, Managing Director of Chadha Strategy Consulting, N. V. Subbarao, Hub Head - South-East of Tata Teleservices, not to mention yours truly who had the dubious distinction of being the ‘oldest member', a designation that fans of PG Wodehouse would recognise! The discussions followed by a barrage of questions from the intelligent and interested students of the ISB for the best period of a pleasant November afternoon are what form the sum and substance of this piece.

Cheapest and best!

Pops spoke about an essentially Indian context and said that the Indian consumer from the days of his father has been looking for products that are ‘cheapest and best'. Well, even if that does not pass the acid test of a bespectacled and erudite English grammar teacher, that expression classifies and describes an ideal state that brands, whether Indian or multinational, should reach or leastways strive to reach if they are to crack the Indian middle-class and the Indian market. “McDonald's the global brand has run several commercials in different parts of the world,” said Pops as he showed a number of global commercials that were low-cost productions, with the tag line “Cheap for us, cheap for you.” The commercials had one actor doing multiple roles to save money, plastic actors, just about anything that would save production costs and ultimately bring down the costs for the consumer and more customers under those ‘global arches.' In India too, McDonald's, he said, ran a series of commercials featuring lookalikes of actors of my time such as Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Sanjeev Kumar talking about how old-world prices are being charged in McDonald's, all of Rs 20! Yes, the Indian consumer is a price-conscious value seeker and we know the truth of this dictum across categories and regions in India.

The essence of successful brands

Successful brands, particularly global ones, have an essence that they carry across regions. Shripad Nadkarni in his interesting presentation analysed a number of global brands and made interesting observations about their strategies. Brands, he said, must remain true to their very essence. Lux, which is the film star's soap to ordinary mortals like you and me, stands for glamour, he said.

Nokia is all about connecting people as the tag line very effectively portrays. Pepsi, the brand for the young and young at heart, is about youthful irreverence while De Beers is about romance and relationships. He did mention that some of the Indian brands that have global aspirations, such as MTR and Parachute, are not truly global unlike the examples mentioned earlier.

So what strategies do successful global brands have? The typical one is that of the global brand essence that is executed globally and perhaps only released in the various markets such as India - L'Oreal is a case in point. Many brands are comfortable doing this. After all, one of the major reasons why clients have global agency networks that create global ad campaigns is because the agency lives, sleeps and dreams the brand, and is able to create advertising that not only works in the country of origin but in other parts of the world as well, and you can well imagine the savings in the cost of production. Global brand managers know and recognise the value of this.

The second strategy which global brands follow is executing the global brand essence locally. Shripad shared examples of what brands such as Johnson & Johnson do, by executing the global thought and essence in different regional markets, India included. Lux, he said, was another case in point, using a top-flight actor such as Priyanka Chopra in India to execute a global concept across regions, races and if one may add, religions, with local film stars depicting the global essence of glamour.

Be Indian, interpret for India

Yet marketers are realising the value and importance of India even as they recognised the differences that this country has, even if it did not advertise them often enough. Brands such as De Beers have accepted the unique nature of the country, even as they realise its potential and reap the benefits. McDonald's too was smart enough to cater to India, not only in its value pricing, but also in the menu dictating the Indian preferences and the pricing certainly understanding the slimness of our wallets, whatever the shapes of our waists! He shared the example of Coke in India, pointing to the ‘ Thanda Matlab Coca Cola' campaigns featuring the histrionic ability of Aamir Khan. Clearly the celebrity, his histrionics and the local content made a difference to the brand though Shripad was characteristically modest about his own contribution to its success in India when he led the marketing in the company.

India and luxury. Are you kidding?

So much has been said about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid in India that not much attention has been paid to luxury brands in this country. After all, we are still obsessed with ‘ roti, kapda aur makaan' and ‘ garibi hatao' still seems an idealistic slogan than an actual reality!

But Radha Chadha, who is an acknowledged expert on luxury brands, gave a whole new perspective of an India that we all knew existed looking at the BMWs that we see in the streets of Delhi and if one may add, Chandigarh! She said that while China has taken the luxury market by storm with its huge potential, India could well be the next stop for the Louis Vuittons of the world. The opening of the Louis Vuitton store in Beijing demonstrated the pent-up demand for luxury brands in this part of the world.

Global brands, particularly luxury brands, were bending, she said, to conquer. The global brands were reaching out to their consumers by local events, such as models walking the ramp at the Great Wall to a phenomenal response.

The presentation was an eye-opener in the sense that we tend to cling to our pet theories about the India we think we know. But then India is a stunning bundle of variety if not inconsistency as Subbarao revealed when he spoke about Tata Docomo with its revolutionary billing per second that completely stirred and shook the mobile services market, leading even market leader Airtel to follow suit, reluctantly perhaps! Well, I am not complaining, because competition invariably benefits the consumer and that is me!

Don't talk down to India

Speaking for myself , perhaps the first thing that struck me over the years has been that the brands that talked down to India, like Kelloggs, perhaps, in its early days, with its claim of ‘eat the way the world does' usually run into rough weather.

The more successful ones have taken a global position and Indianised it brilliantly whether it is ‘ Daag achche hain' or ‘There are some things that money can't buy. …' Mind you, the quality of execution has been leapfrogging as too the ability of Indian creative minds to spot local insights that are tapped with global positioning ideas.

And yet, I think those multinational companies and people who refuse to listen to the people who know this country and its people tend to lose out. I remember years ago there was this gentleman from Manila who was an acknowledged expert on chewing gum. He chewed, ate, slept and dreamt chewing gum. He knew more about chewing gum than perhaps the entire local marketing team of the company and the advertising agency together. He said there was a lot in common between consumers in India and the Philippines. The Philippines was using a concept of “Exercise your face with chewing gum”.

I resisted vehemently saying Indians do not even exercise their bodies much less their faces, so this concept would not work. In any case another network agency did the commercial, which, I must gleefully tell you, bombed. So some global positions will not work in our vast and complex country. But some other brands have thrown their heart and soul into India as they realise the vast potential of this market, like Nokia whose 1100 series mobile phone was made for India. Given the reluctance of the smaller-town Indian to splurge on a mobile phone given his needs, Nokia appealed to his rational instinct saying he was not only getting a phone but an alarm and a torch too !

Yes, India is a vast, complex market with enormous potential. Some multinational marketers have found this to be a minefield whilst a few others who have got their strategies right have found this to be a goldmine of opportunity. Minefield or gold mine? Take your pick!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Brand revolution or evolution

Defining brands: D. Shivakumar, Vice-President and Managing Director, Nokia India, defines a brand as a time-saving device. The job of those managing brands and communication is to make the consumer's choice-making simple and less traumatic.

Last week I was at Hyderabad at the prestigious Indian School of Business to chair a session at a seminar on branding, interestingly titled ‘Brand{r}evolution' and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the who's who of the marketing fraternity in India and also to interact with some of India's brightest minds who are studying at the institute. Whilst some of the deliberations of those sessions could well form the basis of future columns, I thought I should share with you the learnings from the keynote address delivered by D. Shivakumar, Vice-President and Managing Director, Nokia India. His presentation gave an overview of the entire branding process, what it means, its importance, the value of brand experience, the evolution of brands, the importance of design and a whole host of interesting and thought-provoking ideas that made me think and more critically, write this piece.

So what exactly is a brand?

There are multiple definitions of what a brand is, starting from the traditional one by the American Marketing Association to more esoteric ones by a host of consultants. Shiv's definition was insightful; he defined a brand as a time-saving device. Yes, in all fairness, all our efforts as people who manage brands and communication is merely to make the consumer's choice-making simple and less traumatic. Why do most FMCG majors release their advertising between the 25 {+t} {+h} of a month and the 7 {+t} {+h} of the following month? The reason for that is simple and reinforces the definition of branding made earlier. This is the time that middle-class India makes its monthly shopping list and sends it either to the kirana at the corner of the street or to the Big Bazaar in your neighbourhood. As marketers we do not want our home ministers to write ‘detergent' but write ‘Surf Excel', not put in agarbathi but ‘Cycle', not ‘dishwashing liquid' but Pril, and so on.

Yes, brands are constantly trying to be recalled at the appropriate time by consumers who save time and effort in the bargain. Shiv went on to talk about the importance of brands not only to consumers but to companies. In fact, he stated, there is increasing awareness amongst companies that the brand is the most stable corporate asset that they have in their control.
Celebrated singer Asha Bhonsle stayed contemporary by adapting to the demands of modern times.

Where do brands derive their power from? From defining the brand experience and delivering on it consistently with boring repetition, day after day, year after year, for as long as the consumer so desires. Another significant development has been the increasing importance of brand goodwill to the top 100 companies in the UK growing from 40 per cent not long ago to as high as 70 per cent today. Yes, it is certainly a brand new world and the smarter companies are cashing in on this reality.

The evolution of brands

One of the greatest challenges facing brands is that the consumer is changing dramatically in front of our very eyes, while technology is metamorphosing and the competition is renewing itself every day. So how must brands evolve? Brands must maintain consistency and yet evolve to stay fresh. While there are a multiplicity of ways in which the brand can reinvent itself, the most palpable and visible way is the logo.

The logo has been the point of entry to the brand and perhaps the most visible part of the brand, something that consumers recall. Car major Ford has tweaked its logo several times over, since its inception in 1903, as has Nokia, which was founded in 1865, and so too has Pepsi which commenced refreshing America in 1898. Another manner in which brands have tried to remain contemporary is by taking advantage of the sweeping changes that are occurring in the arena of design and packaging. Nowhere else is it more apparent than in the arena of colour televisions.

My mind goes back to 1984, which, if my memory serves me right, was the Olympics year, and my first colour television set, a Konark TV. I am not even sure if the brand exists today, though it delivered excellent picture quality. It probably weighed a tonne and took pride of place in my living room, occupying as much space as it did. Contrast this with the wall-mounted, sleek LED TV of today and we can understand the magnitude of the design revolution. Consider too the Premier Padmini of those days, a car that you had to wait four years to get, to the aerodynamically designed mouthwatering beauties of today (lest you get the wrong picture I am talking about cars). And let's not forget running shoes that boast of so much technology and have so many dreams built into them that middle-aged couch potatoes imagine themselves pounding miles even as they sink deeper into their bean bags. Brand evolution, then, is about meeting current consumer needs. Innovation takes brands from a stage of evolution to one of revolution.

“An indicator of the strength of a brand is its ability to stretch,” said Shiv. My mind went to Virgin and the ability of the maverick brand to take on larger, lazier leaders in markets where people were waiting to be served. “Sometimes brands can get into trouble with stretch,” said Shiv, and spoke about the 72 variants of Pantene and asked “Are there 72 variants of hair?” I studiously chose to ignore that question!

Interestingly, strong brands also have a price stretch and he gave the example of Nokia which has mobile phones priced at a little over Rs 1,000 to a few priced over Rs 40,000. He did speak about brands at times getting carried away by the power of their own rhetoric and their misguided belief in themselves, and gave the example of Ponds, which was a leader in talc, making a disastrous foray into making toothpaste. He spoke about the valuable insights that the Mylapore mami provided in the focus group and my own mind wandered (as it usually does) to another Mylapore mami who told me in her own blunt way: “Who would put what you put under your armpits into your mouth?” Oh, if only we had the courage to listen to our customers!

Market leadership and thought leadership

“Successful brands evolve with the times and respond quicker to challenges,” Shiv said. He gave the example of Toyota which had left the ‘big three' behind by the speed at which it had gone hybrid and is going green. He gave the interesting example of how brands and people respond to change in the Mangeshkar sisters and how Asha had morphed into today's singer and cut discs with Brett Lee while Lata had remained a legend of the past. Icons such as SRK and the Big B are now capitalising on their brand strength to move into areas such as cricket and entertainment.
On to the moments of truth that companies realise, talk about, but rarely win. Advertising, he said, is the first moment of truth, but there are several more, and the successful brands win more moments of truth than they lose.

Every brand, he said, must keep asking itself the question ‘What are the moments of truth I can win?' And what of the future? Brands have to be concerned about issues such as the climate crisis and identify with some key cause. Brands have to determine their own cause for advocacy, he said, and for a brand to be revolutionary it needs to set the agenda rather than merely follow it. Shiv made an interesting differentiation between market leadership and thought leadership and emphasised the value of the latter. “While a brand like Maruti could be the market leader, the mantle of thought leadership has moved to other brands such as Hyundai and Toyota recently,” he said. He spoke about the airlines sector and how the thought leadership in India moved from Indian Airlines, which had the monopoly, to Jet, to the erstwhile Air Deccan the price leader, and to Kingfisher which is doing a number of small but significant service revolutions that are making it the thought leader of the Indian skies.

Brands are constantly evolving as they try to keep changing with the fast changing consumer and a competition that is often cut-throat in nature. Throw in the environmental challenges and the pressure of activists, not to mention the crisis in the financial markets and it is simple to conclude that there is never a dull moment in the lives of marketers. Market leadership is important and brands will cheerfully give an arm and a leg to attain that. But the future can and will belong to brands that are thought leaders.

Is your brand getting there?

Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brand-comm, and the author of 'Googly. Branding on Indian turf'.

Friday, November 13, 2009

brandware by brand-comm on Nov 21

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tribute to print advertising

Our columnist makes a case for a return to the medium which, he says, allows marketers to “sell rationally”.

Vintage brand, vintage advertising.

When was the last time you saw a great print ad? I know I must scratch my head to get the answer, but given my failing memory and disappearing hairline, I may be excused. But what about you? One of my favourite pastimes is to ask people which adverti sing campaigns they remember. The answers vary from Cadbury’s (these are usually older people with diabetes who are not allowed to have chocolates), Fevicol (perhaps guys who have never fixed anything in their lives), Vodafone (definitely dog lovers married to people who cannot stand dogs), Idea Cellular (obviously guys who have never had a single idea in their lives), Tata Tea (guys who slept through election day) and Titan (perhaps because they have been gifted with so many watches in their lives).

These are seriously good television campaigns. But honestly, does anyone talk about press advertising today, much less remember it? And it is not as though we spend every waking moment in front of the idiot box. We surf the Net, spend half our working day sending forwards that no one reads, continue to read the newspaper in the loo (widely accepted as the best antidote to constipation) and browse through magazines (after all, we want to know who Salman is going around with). Yet, where are the ads that stop us? Ads with arresting headlines, visuals that paint a thousand words, body copy that is as easy to read as the topmost line in the optometrist’s chart and a tagline that is as easy to recall as the six times table (having a name like Ramanujam gives me some inherent numerical ability that sadly stops at this level of multiplication.)

Oh, the disadvantages of remembering the past!

I always wanted to be a copywriter. Maybe the advertising industry had earned some good karma, because I was never allowed anywhere near a typewriter. I returned with a vengeance and became a column writer, but that still does not explain my passion for copywriting. I was completely hooked on to ads. I lived, dreamt, ate and slept ads. And those ads were press ads. Who owned a television set in the Seventies?

I could visualise the pleasure of driving around in a Rolls Royce thanks to David Ogilvy’s much publicised lines “At sixty miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” I still visualise the ride, as my books don’t sell a hundred million copies and I have only seen a Rolls Royce from the outside, most recently on the Bandra-Worli sea link. I was madly in love with the Volkswagen thanks to the “Think small” and the “Lemon” and the hundred other ads for the brand. Maybe one day I will buy a Volkswagen, who knows!
Who can forget the Avis “We try harder … ” ads? I was not a drinker when I saw the Cutty Sark ads that exhorted me to ‘never give up the ship’. If and when the brand is readily available in India I will follow that advice. I remember the Chivas Regal ad for Father’s Day and it still brings tears to my eyes when I read it: “Because I don’t say thank you as often as I should. Because it’s Father’s Day. Because if you don’t deserve Chivas Regal, who does?” says the ad. Clearly my children have not read the ad. In any case they studiously ignore the one day that poor, uncared-for fathers are recognised and blatantly ignore the most overt of reminders from their mother! They too will be fathers one day!

And what about the Absolut ads, arguably the greatest print campaign of all time! I can never forget the ‘Absolut DC’ ad with the bottle draped in oodles of red tape. Pity, the tape in New Delhi would have made that of Washington DC look a weak shade of pink without a shadow of doubt! Yes, those were romantic, heady days. We had some great press ads in India too with people such as Frank Simoes, Kersy Katrak, Kiran Nagarkar, Mohamed Khan, Elsie Nanji and Alok Nanda, to name just a few, who were doing great press work. Agencies such as Trikaya, Rediffusion, Enterprise, Ambience and Nexus produced print work that was comparable with the best in the world. But what happened after that?

Only TV, only TV, it’s only TV!

Even as Delhi struggles to get ready for the Commonwealth Games, it is worthwhile to remember that it was the Asiad in the same city that spawned the growth of colour televisions in the country and, therefore, TV advertising. Agencies realised the potency of this medium and geared themselves to meet the challenge. Many of the Levers brands such as Liril and Surf latched on to the medium. Other agencies, particularly Mudra (as I was familiar with its operations at that time), geared themselves to build competencies in this medium. Brands such as Vimal and Rasna walked into millions of living rooms with their creativity.

There was a point of view that talented film producers were bailing out agencies still trying to create for this medium as a lot of the early TV work was actually attributable to talented film producers who were improving the creative product enormously with their ideas and even their scripts. Be that as it may, agencies started to create for this medium and a new breed of copywriters emerged who understood and thrived in this medium. India has got enormous talent in Bollywood and Kollywood and every other ‘wood’.

The best names in films realised this was a different challenge – final products with a duration of 30 seconds as against three hours, needing its own brand of skills. This did not deter the best music composers, film and art directors from making their mark. It is pertinent to remember that A.R. Rahman started out as a jingle composer. Others such as P. C. Sreeram and Rajiv Menon from the South did outstanding work both in commercial cinema and in TV commercials. Consequently, our skills in this medium are finely-honed and over the years some outstanding work has taken place. When I visit the US and watch the TV commercials there, I am inclined to believe that the average TV commercial in India is much better conceptualised, produced and is a lot more rewarding for the viewer and there are billions. Yes, India has tremendous challenges of language, religion, customs, even dialects, but the advertising industry has conquered these in the medium of TV. But what about print?

So what is the problem?

As always, it is easier to describe the problem than to offer a solution, but problem definition is a good first step to finding a solution. The problem partly lies with the advertising agencies which have recruited, trained and rewarded a whole breed of copywriters who think, breathe and live TV scripts … and it shows. Success is built around the 30-second commercial and “integration” usually means one outstanding piece of work that is created for television and multiple adaptations of the same thought. The print version is usually a poor second cousin. Rarely is print the lead medium. Of course, the numbers justify the importance of the TV medium but print delivers brilliant numbers too, if only we recognise its value and functionality.

Print allows us to sell rationally. But do we have the skills? The old school of copywriters that I worked with was reared on Wren and Martin. (I can almost hear you asking who they are?) If they gave you a piece of writing, you could bet your bottom dollar that while you could argue about the creative approach, you could not utter a word about its correctness. They read The Hindu and The Statesman, did the crossword and could engage you intellectually. Of course, in those days ads were originally conceptualised, written and released in English and then translations followed. Today, the conceptualisation for most brands is created in Hindi. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if that too is affecting the quality of the creative product as perhaps it is easier to create for TV in Hindi than to write ads in that language.

I think the time is right for the advertising agency to realise that it’s missing a trick. Television has been and perhaps will continue to be the low-hanging fruit. But there needs to be a long-term solution. The increasing literacy levels of the country and the potency of print as a medium cannot be ignored forever. I do know that agency folk listen more to their clients than to their spouses so maybe clients should put their foot down and ask for better print advertising.

Advertising too should highlight the value of print in its awards, forums and discussions. Maybe the newspaper industry should lead the way in this initiative. The industry has its own share of veterans who understand this medium and its nuances. Maybe now is the time to ensure that their talent is recognised. It is time for people like me who have been in the industry for ages to give back to the industry that has given us so much and what better way than to train the talented and yet raw youngsters who are in this industry and have no clue of what they should be doing?
Yes, the time is right to ‘Think Print’.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Keep smiling, things can’t get worse!

The advertising industry is going through tough times. But it’s important to take the mind off the gloom..

Yes, the time is ripe for some cheer. Today I am able to talk about some of my experiences and actually laugh about them. It is time perhaps to recall what my first boss in advertising said: “Keep your sense of humour, otherwise you will go mad in this industry.”

Times are bad! How often have we heard this in recent times? Throw in the media adding their two bit, talk of layoffs, salary cuts, increasing client cribs and reduced retainers, and it seems advertising’s cup of woe is brimming over. I know that other industries too have their own horror stories but let me stay with the advertising industry as I spend so much of my time in this industry and am confronted by so many gloomy faces around me, I thought that I need to try to entertain them and you too, dear reader, for your patience over the years, with a few of the things that have happened to me in my long (there I go again) life in advertising.

It seems now that it is not only the industry that is going through doom and gloom but the whole country! The Indian cricket fan too has joined the depressed bandwagon, for as I write Australia has just scraped past a rampaging Pakistan to throw India out of the champion’s trophy and the TV media is going hammer and tongs at yesterday’s darling, M. S. Dhoni. Yes, the time is ripe for some cheer. Today I am able to talk about some of my experiences and actually laugh about them; as time, they say, heals everything. It is time perhaps to recall what my first boss in advertising said: “Keep your sense of humour, otherwise you will go mad in this industry.” Though lots of people might consider me a bit potty, to put it mildly, I have, I believe, managed to retain my sanity, if not my hair. Today many of the people I am writing about are no longer my clients, which probably explains their prosperity and my penury, but I remember them fondly and thank them for bringing laughter into my life and also teaching me a few lessons in life.

Bring on the music!

When I started the Bangalore office of Mudra in 1987, I used to go around on my TVS Suzuki motorcycle, thereby bringing disrepute to the advertising profession as I must have been the only branch manager of a large agency who was zipping around on a motorcycle, or so I believed. Of course, I need to slip in the reason why I was using it. The reason was simple. I could not afford a car; but more critically I used to handle the account of TVS Suzuki in my earlier agency and to me what David Ogilvy said was gospel truth: “You’d better use your client’s products!” he would thunder. On the lighter side I used to wonder if the agency which handles the client does not use the product then who else will! But less of me and my asides and more of what happened.
The two client service personnel in the agency at that time, my account supervisor and I, would go spinning around on my motorcycle with our bag full of layouts and our hearts full of hope. Business was scarce and we spent a lot of time knocking on doors with scant success. But we did get the odd, small assignment. One such was being asked to do a radio spot for one of our clients — a local cement manufacturer in Bangalore, who belonged to one of the largest business families in India.

The greatest claim to fame of the managing director of the company was that he had married into the illustrious family and I must confess that it was difficult for me and my colleague to keep a straight face as the client briefed us about the project on hand. “The mugic must be good,” he gushed. “People like mugic,” he pronounced “Do you have someone who will compose the mugic?” he asked. Both my colleague (who is today the COO of a large marketing company) and I were IIM products, and we were probably a bit vain about our management qualifications not to mention our English accents. We went down the lift laughing at the poor man’s accent and even as we were getting ready to start our trusted steed our client came down, entourage et al, with two people ready to open the lift door, and the car door of the latest Mercedes Benz of that time! Yes, we learnt an important lesson that day: “It is not your accent that matters as much as the family you marry into!” I would have cheerfully traded my accent for a Benz if anyone wanted it, but life is not always as simple as it seems, is it?

Just play the commercial!

My clients came in all sizes, shapes and hues. Some spoke with clipped British accents to the utterly desi ones whose lack of knowledge of English was more than compensated by their earthy wisdom and unerring knowledge of the consumer and the market. We were to produce a commercial for this client and came out with what I thought was a pretty good commercial.
I was to present the commercial and like all good client service people of that time I got my trusted slide projector out. I need to quickly tell you that in those days we used to rely on the 35 mm slide projector for support (just like the drunkard who leans against the lamppost more for support than illumination). Today, of course, we rely on the PowerPoint for precisely the same reasons, but back to the presentation. I got ready to play my regulation 40 slides with the background, the target audience, the creative strategy ... Sounds familiar? I launched into my pitch with all the eloquence of a passionate account executive who is not allowed to speak at home.

Barely was I on to slide three when the client got up ... “Mr Shiridhar, please stop,” he said. I stopped, confused and bewildered and looked at him, waiting for direction like all good client servicing people do. “Tell me, Mr Shiridhar,” he said, “are you going to stand in front of every television set in the country and make this presentation before our commercial comes on air? Nahi na, so just play the commercial.” He was absolutely right as clients usually are and I saw the wisdom of what he was saying. How often do we get carried away by the power of our own rhetoric and the colour of our slides and forget that it is all about the commercial that the consumer gets to see eventually. Yes, “show and tell’ is the name of the game. Your commercial must entertain and sell without all the bells and whistles that precede it when you are presenting to the client.

Presentation for dessert!

The late Eighties were the days of the great Indian IPO. Everyone and his brother-in-law were going public. The big cons were granite and aquaculture and the hotbed was Hyderabad where rumour had it that the moment the company went public the first capital investment the company would make would be buying a Mercedes for the MD! But back to our own travails! We were chasing one such IPO and the company did not even have an office. So we were asked to present at the client’s house.

Shamelessly we went and the joint family was having dinner. My favourite image of the ad agency is like that of my retriever with its tongue hanging out longingly, so much does new business mean to us agency people! There were only 50 people, children running around, and mayhem, a bit like the Fortune cooking oil commercial that one sees on TV.

Before the dessert we set up our projectors for the entertainment! I got ready to present, only to realise that I was the odd man out as my client probably spoke only a few words of English. The daughter-in-law was the smartest one and she was quietly managing the show and the company. So my colleague, who is the president of one of India’s top three agencies today, bailed me out by presenting our great advertising strategy and the creative in chaste Hindi (or so I presumed as I did not understand a word of what he said). I personally believe the presentation was too good for the client as we did not get the business and boy, was I glad about that as the company went under a little later! Sometimes we do get some things right, even by accident!

I am not sure if you are feeling as good as I am after reading this, but at least I am sure I have gotten your mind off the gloom, and never mind, we will beat Australia 7-0 when they come here!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sleeping with the enemy?

Telecom brands are trying to outsmart each other to get noticed, but are they missing the bigger picture?

Post-independence, pre-liberalised India was a period characterised by paucity of choice. There were a few brands that dominated the Indian market. HMT watches, India’s only watch manufacturer, ruled the roost. One waited seven years for the allotment of a Bajaj scooter. Those who received the allotment of the scooter were fortunate (their horoscopes were good). The fortunate ones sold the same scooter seven years later for the same price that they bought it, to their less fortunate brethren. The two major car brands were Fiat and Ambassador which have become taxis since. The noted management consultant Sharu Rangnekar used to say that Indians became closer to God once they got into their Ambassador cars as their first expression invariably was ‘Oh, God!’

How things have changed in modern India! Today the country has 721 models of cars that an Indian consumer can choose from, 250 brands of pressure cookers, 152 brands of namkeens (savoury snacks), 336 brands of chips, 165 brands of washing machines, 637 brands of mixer grinders … yes, we have become a surplus society amidst all the poverty that stares us in the face. As Kjell Nordstrom & Jonas Ridderstrale, authors of the international bestseller Funky Business – Talent Makes Capital Dance, said, “The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar products, with similar prices and similar quality.” While this quote was made for a different country and a different economy, it has many similarities to the India of today. Yes, these are challenging times for branding and more importantly for advertising as very often the only thing different about brands is their advertising, not much else has changed over the years.

The power of advertising

Advertising can build brands, create imagery, build associations and help brands create properties that differentiate these brands from their competition. Advertising agencies have zealously guarded their brand’s distinctive characteristics and assiduously built on them.
Pepsi over the years has a tone of voice that is cheeky, irreverent, aggressive, competitive … all characteristics that young people can relate to, and it is hardly surprising that Pepsi continues to be a brand for the young and ‘young at heart’. Pepsi owns the colour blue and Coke the colour red (Remember the Coke commercial made for the 1996 cricket world cup that was held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka?) In fact, you just have to whisper the word ‘red’ to a Pepsi salesman and I am sure he would go blue in the face while a mere suggestion of the word ‘blue’ to a Coke salesman would make him see red.

As a consequence of all the efforts of brand owners and agencies, customers tend to make associations with the brands they consume and any others that they may recall. They respond to questions like ‘What comes to your mind when I say Pepsi’ by saying ‘blue’, recall the signature track of Titan and Britannia’s tin tin da din, and so on when asked about those brands.

In the crowded and cluttered world that we live in, brand associations that are recalled are extremely important as they ensure that brands stay within the frame of reference of the consumer and in her consideration set. Some of these associations that are particularly strong become brand properties over time.

From fizzy drinks to cuddly things

There was a time when cola advertising was one of the few categories that people remembered, recalled and watched out for, in India at least. Today there are other categories that are jostling for the consumers’ attention, eyeballs and wallet. Many of these brands are no slouches when it comes to creativity. Notable is the category of mobile services. India is a young country that has taken to mobile phones like ducks to water. All the service providers, whether Airtel, BSNL, Vodafone, Virgin, Idea or Aircel, are outdoing each other in seeking attention and spending money. Idea’s ‘What an idea, Sirjee’ and Virgin’s ‘Think zara hatke’ immediately come to mind. Airtel too has used a host of celebrities and has entertained even as it leads the pack in market share and spending (perhaps). The less we talk about BSNL’s advertising the better as the brand strives hard to battle perceptions and tries to be something that it is clearly not. But the belle of the advertising ball has been Vodafone, earlier Hutch, with its little girl and pug and the Zoozoo campaign for value-added services. And it is about Vodafone that we will talk for some time now.

Of curly locks and helpful dogs

The Vodafone campaign has arguably been one of the most creative campaigns of recent times. Invariably, it brings a smile on to people’s faces as I guess everyone of us likes cute children, and when you throw in a cuter pug into the fray, then you have a sure winner. There are a series of commercials that have been on air for some time. The girl and her companion dog are in a variety of situations and the dog is always helping his mistress, who is in strife on occasion. In the morning she has difficulty in finding her socks which the helpful dog finds, rushes to school and boards the bus without her school tie, and we have the visual of the dog running faithfully after the school bus hanging on to the tie for dear life.

Other commercials feature the same duo - one where the little girl nonchalantly uses the dog’s tongue to seal envelopes, another where the dog keeps following the child around the pool with the towel in his mouth and one more in which he dutifully digs up the sand for her to plant her shrubs. All cute, all widely shown and all well recalled. If you were to do an association test and ask people what comes to their mind when you say Vodafone and the responses could vary from ‘cute girl’ to ‘girl with curly hair’ to ‘dog’ to ‘helpful’. Most certainly, the two emphatic and widely recalled elements or associations would be ‘girl’ and ‘dog’. These are what consumers are saying are clear associations with Vodafone. So if I was their competition, I would steer clear of these associations. But then what happens?

Airtel’s special five

Airtel immediately came up with a commercial that seems to be shot in a street in London. A little girl comes out of a house with a tiny boat made of paper in her hands. She places it in a small puddle and follows the path of the boat down the street even as the London weather stays true to form and the skies open up causing strife to the boat. A bunch of five hands help the troubled girl by putting their hands protectively over the boat.

The ad is for Airtel’s scheme introducing a ‘special five’ numbers that enable you to choose certain numbers that you can speak with, at a concession if not free.

As advertising goes, it is pretty noticeable, well shot in excellent settings and has a fairly simple story idea.

The message too comes across fairly clearly. And yet, I have a major disconnect with it. Why, oh why, would Airtel chose another young girl with curly hair presumably around the same age? There must be other ways of communicating friendship and the gang of five.

Why choose a character that cues your strongest competitor and someone who is directly associated with that brand? Maybe I am overreacting and Airtel’s research is showing this commercial as effective, though I have my doubts.

A word of caution

Too often clients and agencies are so close to their brands and their problems that they tend to miss obvious things. Otherwise, even a preliminary examination would have suggested that the brand is treading too closely on its competitor’s toes. Is ‘cuteness’ something that Airtel wishes to attain or is it something that Vodafone already has? Agencies spend a lot of time on the script, the locale, the music track, the feel of the commercial … all of these are extremely critical. But it is important to remember that every advertisement is just one more addition in the edifice that is the brand’s image. All the commercials together must build some clear, recognisable associations that the brand can own even as they steer carefully and widely away from the competition.

Airtel is not alone in this and many brands, one believes, are equally remiss in this regard. Take Taj Mahal tea, for instance. They have historically used celebrities and I really loved their use of the renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain.
For some reason best known to themselves, they moved to Saif Ali Khan who is one of the most abused celebrities endorsing a host of brands. Meanwhile, liquor brand Royal Stag too used Saif Ali Khan and he had a recognisable image with his guitar, bandanna and black shirt. I recently saw a mailer of Taj Mahal tea with Saif in about the same get-up as the well recognised Royal Stag look. I know that tea and whiskey do not compete – whiskey is consumed in the night and tea the morning after – but it certainly confuses and befuddles the consumer when it is the same celebrity, in the same outfit as well.

We live in challenging times and to classify what we are being exposed to as clutter is a horrible euphemism. It is time more than ever for agencies to watch not only their competition, but also the environment and what is happening around us, to ensure that we stay with our original brand promise and build our own set of associations instead of being confused by the competition and ending up imitating them.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why is my favourite brand going downhill?

Jet Airways, which stood for smart and courteous service, now seems to have hit an air-pocket

Jet: Not sitting easy these days..

I have always been a great admirer of Jet Airways. I have had nothing but praise for this company that to me and several others epitomises world-class service. I have featured the brand in my writings and talked about it in seminars. When journalists ask me plaintively whether any Indian brand can be a force globally I speak with conviction about Infosys and Jet. Nor have I been alone or unique in this, as anyone who has travelled by the airline usually compares it favourably with other international airlines that they have travelled by. Jet stands for smart service delivered courteously time after time without being in-your-face.

I continue to be a frequent flier of the airline and remember fondly their mailer “Now we see you, now we don’t” sent to my friend who had stopped travelling by that airline temporarily. I am an admirer too of the way the airline has trained its staff to constantly address me by name and get my complex and maybe even long-winded South Indian name right. In startling contrast to what a retail outlet did for several years - it sent me over 70 mailers each and every one of which was addressed to ‘Sridhar Raitanujam’ perhaps quietly addressing my great preference for curd or raita, a form it frequently takes in India. But to return to Jet, I must confess that I am getting increasingly disenchanted with the brand, particularly in recent times.

Tough times call for tough actions. Do they?

In my opinion, Jet’s troubles began when it took over Sahara, which later became Jetlite. Historically airlines that take over low-cost airlines find the ride bumpy.
We have global examples that bear testimony to this theory. The attitude of the ‘no-frills airline’ to customers and services is very different from the regular airline’s own stated philosophy of service. It could be argued that the customer too knows what she is getting into when she ventures to travel by a no-frills airline.

In the heyday of Air Deccan, the customer braced herself for the 20-meter dash from the bus to the plane if she wanted a decent seat. She also hoped that she would not get thirsty as she knew she had to pay for the water and several of her savvier co-passengers came into the plane armed with packets of greasy food, leaving a healthy aroma in the plane which continued on to the next flight. But the regular airlines were different.

They plied the passenger with food at least, if not with drink, unlike the Damania of old, where guys would make a beeline for the bar at 6.30 a.m.! Those were the days and naively we thought they would never end, but unfortunately they did.

The problem with Jet now is that I do not know what to expect. The biggest problem seems to be that there are hardly any Jet Airways flights to travel by today or maybe I am not travelling at the times and to the places they want me to. I used to have a convenient flight out of Bangalore leaving at 7 a.m. which would enable me to do a full day’s work at Mumbai and return by a flight which left Mumbai at 8.10 p.m.

I would land at Bengaluru International Airport (what a grandiose name for such a teeny-weeny thing) at 9.30 p. m. Of course, I would reach home after 11.30 p.m. but then those are the advantages of having an airport that is closer to Hyderabad than Bangalore! I have realised to my chagrin that this 7 a.m. flight has become a Jet Konnect flight which used to be Jetlite or Sahara (how confusing can it get).

Nor does the confusion stop there. I get a message even earlier saying that I have to buy breakfast and will not be allowed to use the lounge at the airport. In contrast when I do travel by Kingfisher Red (which is Air Deccan), I get to use the lounge where I normally stuff myself and also get complimentary snacks (this will almost certainly take that brand further into the red but that is another story).

I am not for one instant suggesting that the way to the consumer’s heart is through his stomach, but it seems to help. But more seriously, I do know that brands have to economise in tough times such as these and given the fact that most airline brands are in the red, they must cut corners.
But whilst they are looking at ways of economising are they losing out on the very essence of the brand?

When they have two airlines trying to address differing market needs are they sending out conflicting signals to the market? In short what is the Jet brand today and how is the Jet Konnect brand different other than the fact that you have to buy your food? I am sure the company knows the difference between these two and I do hope they know what they are doing. It did not seem like a cheap airline and it did not seem vastly different from Jet, other than the food bit.

Company policy and all that jazz

I am a very poor planner of my time, so I usually end up rescheduling flights, taking earlier flights out of cities or taking later flights out. Of course, aiding and abetting my confusion is the fact that my clients run my life and a lot of their confusion rubs off on me. (I am safe because my clients do not read what I write.)

Today thanks to the tough times that we live in, Jet Airways has started to charge for advancement as well. I always remember that one used to be penalised only for postponements.
Recently the same thing happened when I was trying to return earlier from Chennai. I wanted to take the earlier flight as usual. As the earlier flight was a Jet konnect flight I was informed that I would be charged both for cancellation and booking by the company, the net result being I had to pay Rs 1,500 more in addition to the Rs 3,300 that I was paying for the ticket.

I thought it was ridiculous and was surprised to note that a cancellation would amount to Rs 250 only. So what did I do? I cancelled my Jet Airways ticket and returned by Kingfisher. So much for customer loyalty and customer retention programmes! I kept arguing with the people on the phone and they kept saying ‘company policy’.

When will brands realise that the enemy of customer service is the term ‘company policy’? And outsourcing means the entire problem of the service provider comes back to the brand.
I know that a sample size of one is not serious enough to warrant a hue and cry. But it is also better for a service provider to overreact to a problem rather than brush it under the carpet. It is true that times are tough. It is also true that airlines have probably been hit harder by the current situation than certain other categories.

But Jet is no ordinary brand, in my view, at least. It has the capability of holding aloft the banner of service brands in this country and across the world. It needs to do some serious soul-searching and quickly understand from its consumers as to what they think of the brand now. Are they still using it? Are they quietly suffering? For there are many others who may quietly walk away into the sunset and that could hurt the brand even more.

I am not sure if these problems are too serious or I am overreacting to them. But then I am a consumer who is demanding, always comparing, creating problems and looking for their solution.
I also know that when the company responds to my problems and retrieves the situation I will be happy. Sadly I am promiscuous too and the step from being an ardent fan to a harsh critic could be a swift one, in my case, at least. My overriding regret, though, is for the brand which is letting the times get to it and runs the risk of losing its very essence. Did you have a similar experience? Then tell me about it.

P.S: I just received a call from Jet Airways saying that my flight has been rescheduled and I have to leave 90 minutes earlier!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Changing world of ads and entertainment

The emergence of regional markets and consumers has led to the evolution of regional brands and advertising. Entertainment formats are evolving too, with reality shows capturing eyeballs and TV ratings..

The changes in advertising continue just like the changes in this column or the uncertainty as to whether the Ashes will change hands (at least at the time of writing) as the teams have just left Edgbaston.

A quick recap, more for my benefit, dear reader, than yours, of what we discussed in the previous column. We spoke about some of the legends who led the advertising industry with great distinction (not only their own advertising agencies).

Another significant shift that we mentioned has been of the trend of creative people leading agencies today, which too is an important point of difference from the past. Media too has transformed from five mainline newspapers and one Government-controlled TV channel to a bewildering array of choice for both the media planner and, more importantly, the consumer.

The increasing literacy in India has been a source of optimism for advertisers and advertising agencies, unlike in other countries, as India is one of the few markets where readership is growing and, consequently, advertising revenue and rates. And while 80 per cent of the world is under the grip of recession, India seems to be one of the few exceptions bucking the trend, a bit like England which seems to be the only country where even the fifth day of a test match is a sell-out!

But there are a few more changes that one has observed in between the rain interruptions at Edgbaston and the shifting of the battle to the possibly weepy skies of Headingley.

English to Hinglish to Hindi to regional

When I first came into advertising (Oh God! here I go again), the industry suffered from the Madison Avenue hang-up. Agency types looked westward for inspiration, quoted Ogilvy and Bernbach and admired George Lois. The generation was proud of saying ‘we don’t see Hindi movies or Tamil movies ...’. They were from St. Xavier’s or Stella Maris and spoke the Queen’s English. They presented scripts, concepts and ads in English. Then the ads were translated and, usually, badly.

It was in the mid-eighties that Asian Paints recognised the importance of regions and languages with the commercial ‘Pongal’ that was conceptualised, filmed and released in Tamil Nadu with great success. Then, as India became younger, it started to loosen its collar (I am not speaking of ‘Friday dressing’ only) and if one may add, its tongue.

It first started speaking in a mix of English and a regional language as it no longer needed to speak in English to either express or impress. This led to lines like ‘Hamko Binnies mangta.’ Soon the wheel turned a full circle, just a bit like the Australian cricket team’s fortunes — more and more scripts were conceptualised, filmed and released with ideas that were essentially Hindi, and to confound people like me, many of them had a clever turn of phrase as well that are as perplexing as Abdul Qadir’s googly. Slogans like ‘Daag achha hai’ and ‘Dimag ki batti jala do’ to recall just two simple ones (you must make an allowance for my ignorance of the noble language) led the way.

However, much as I might crib about it, I do know that this trend is here to stay and a new breed of writers has emerged whose creative ability extends beyond scripting mere 30-second commercials selling soaps and shampoos to tear-jerking commercial cinema as well.
Hindi movies, and if one may add, TV scripts, conceptualised in Hindi for brands that are part of our everyday lives, are now on our television screens, often for 24 hours at a stretch. The emergence of regional markets and consumers is a trend that promises to stay as more and more brands are creating specifically in Tamil, Bengali or Malayalam for their customers so that they can engage with them.

The other trend is the emergence of regional brands that are making their presence felt and growing their market share with the aid of cable and satellite television. ‘Think regional beat multinational’ could well be the slogan of 2009.

Programmes, commercials or both?

I remember reading an interesting study many years ago which said that consumers in India found the TV commercials that preceded a programme to be more interesting than the programmes that were being aired. Soon things changed and serials such as Humlog and Buniyaad, not to forget ‘Ramayan’, ushered in the context of long running serials.

Aradhana, the movie with Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, ran for a mere 100 weeks in Madras of all cities but this was nothing compared to some of the television serials that followed.

Ramayan was followed by Mahabharat and now by Jai Sri Krishna, not to forget the K series and the Chithis, the Arasis and the Kolangals on Sun TV. One of the biggest challenges that advertising agencies seem to face (and it is not a new challenge) is the answer to the question, ‘when do consumers get tired of our ads?’ I wonder if the makers of TV serials worry about such unnecessary trivia as the serials seem to go on and on ad infinitum (pun intended).

But other formats have emerged, not the least of which has been the reality show. Whilst one may agonise about the reality in the Rakhi Sawant wedding, the ratings are real. The TVR for the final episode on August 2 was as high as 6.3 and the audience an estimated 15.8 million. Of course, a few mad Indians were watching Australia salvage a draw, but many more savvy Indians were watching the ‘real thing.’ Consider, too, the tremendous build-up to the grand climax, the publicity, the cynicism from the elite (!), all of which points to a new, more confident India.

Yes, even as India is changing in front of our very eyes, so too must the means of communication to its people.

You’ve come a long way, baby!

Advertising, television and movies can at best represent the times we live in and symbolise the current generation of Indians. The new India is confident of itself, though, at times, it is possible for some to view this as arrogance. But honestly, today’s India does not care. It has found acceptance from the rest of the world and is not afraid of reiterating and reinforcing its importance to the rest of the world.

The BCCI can tell the whole world a thing or two about being successful and reminding the world about its success. India has its fair share of successes from the smaller towns. It has cricketing greats who will stare at taller, stronger and more reputed guys in the eye or sledge them to kingdom come.

This attitude reflects India more and more and you just have to switch on your TV sets to watch this on display not only in the cricketing field but in advertising and in the films that are re-run Sunday after Sunday.

The woman is no longer content to keep quiet but actually raves and rants in front of the camera as to why the person at the other end of the line could have sex without protection. A small bit in a commercial but a giant shift in outlook and thinking.

Celebrities rule the roost as every third brand uses celebrities with varying degrees of popularity inflicting varying degrees of damage to the advertiser’s wallet. India and its advertising have come a long way like ‘Virginia Slims’ — a far cry from the days of using Leela Chitnis for Lux in 1941.

Unbundle, consolidate or perish

As for the agency business itself, the days of 15 per cent commission and 85 per cent confusion have gone. More and more agencies work on reduced commissions and some on retainers. The full service agency is a thing of the past, a bit like full houses in test matches in the sub-continent. The agency share of the pie is shrinking as clients use identity experts, event companies, media agencies, PR companies, creative shops, packaging consultants and brand advisors on a regular basis. The agency is being seen as a provider of ‘creative services’ and often enough not a partner. The reduced earnings make it difficult to get the talent that clients want and yet refuse to pay for, which is adding to the stress. The core competency of the agency is still the ability to produce great TV commercials that make a difference.

The agency business has changed and will continue to change in front of our very eyes. The agency business needs to take a closer look at itself and maybe find answers to some questions that are perhaps easier to ask than to answer, but here goes:

Are agencies truly partnering their clients, or are they living in hope?
Does the agency understand new media such as digital and mobile or is it merely looking the other way?
How much time and money are agencies investing in training their people to serve clients better?
How well does the agency understand and apply the other allied communication services?
What is the strategy to get better people into the business?

These are not great times to be in business. But this is, perhaps, the time for serious introspection. It generally needs a good crisis to get people thinking about important stuff that can make a difference to their future. Let’s not waste this opportunity to worry about the future now. That way we will, at least, have a future.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Brand India needs a champion

It is common for products, services and even organizations to brand themselves. Very often these branding exercises are done after extensive research to understand what consumers want, followed by carefully crafted positioning and slick communication, all adding up to a coherent promotion for the brand. This coupled with a number of value propositions which the brand owners provide along with the service experience creates an image for brands in the minds and hearts of consumers. There is also another important aspect to successful brands. Brands have custodians who guide their destiny and constantly worry about the image of the brand and they keep pushing their teams to come up with activities that add to the image of the brand. Associations are carefully nurtured and those that might dilute the brand’s equity are quickly eliminated. Nothing is left to chance and the environment is carefully monitored for things that are unexpected. There is almost paranoia about what the competition does or even contemplates doing. Smart brand managers too know that branding is not only about identity and advertising, though they are important too, but about the whole customer experience connected with the brand. Experts on branding claim that any thing can and will become a brand - whether it is a product, a company, a service, a person or even a place. Right now all of us are in India, a country which has developed significantly over the six odd decades of its independence and yet
even the most ardent of its fans must confess that despite our progress there are “miles to go before India sleeps” when we evaluate India as a brand.

A brand called India

India might not have consciously attempted to brand itself, but it is still evoking reactions both within the country and in other parts of the world ever since its inception. In fact they do say that “perception is reality”, and in my view at least, the perceptions about India have probably harmed it more than they have helped it. Very simply put there are a few major stages in India’s brand history after independence which happened in 1947 as all of us know. In the early stages, India was a country of elephants and snake charmers, at least to the rest of the world, and one did not have to visit the country to subscribe to this point of view. Thankfully visitors to
India experienced different facets of the young nation’s diversity and beauty in each visit. They realized that there was more to India than the things that they already knew about like the Taj Mahal and yoga. They came back, again and again, their horizons widened and slowly their impressions about the country changed and the change was usually for the better. This was primarily the tourist, whose expectations were different and usually met on most counts, barring the infrastructure, the lack of which continues to fox everyone including the people who are responsible for creating the infrastructure. India ambled along placidly, dragged back by a large population below the poverty line while the rest of the world was galloping in economic terms. The business and financial world did not take too much interest in India and who could blame them? India’s liberalization changed many things not least of all, the world’s view of our country. Suddenly a new interest group emerged and that was the foreign institutional investor who immediately looked at India and the tremendous opportunity it provided. Things changed dramatically as investors came, if not in hordes but in reasonably large numbers, as the “vast
Indian middle class” which was only rivaled by China beckoned the rest of the world. More and more MNC brands entered the country. To evaluate their success or failure is not the purpose of this piece.

The world gets Bangalored

The next major facet of brand India has actually been a city which has almost overshadowed the country that it is part of, when it comes to the brand stakes. Let me start with a small anecdote. In September 2003 I went to South Africa to watch the cricket world cup. (India has its fair share of cricket crazy people like me who keep traveling around the world in the hope that their team wins!). I bumped into someone at the mall quite literally and instantly apologized, only to
be asked “Indian?” I said “yes”. (We Indians have a give away complexion even before one gets to hear us speak.) He then went on to ask “Which city?” I said “Bangalore” and his instant reaction was “Oh, software?” Mind you, he was just an ordinary citizen, not even someone from business. It’s amazing the way IT and IT enabled services have captured the image high ground in a manner in which no other industry has been able to do for India over the years and almost hijacked the India brand, so strong is the association with software and technology. In fact it has spawned new words in the lexicon like “Bangalored” and even today Barack Obama seems to have his sights on jobs in Bangalore and how there would be a different structure of
taxation to protect jobs in the US. Well we seem to have progressed rather dramatically from being seen as a nation of snake charmers to a nation of techies, and even people like me, who are probably best described as technophobes, are acquiring a degree of respectability.

Do people understand what branding means?

Yet even the greatest optimist must recognize that things do not happen the way it ought to in affairs which involve a city, a state or a nation even. Let me explain. I have already spoken about how Bangalore, thanks to its association with software and technology, has pole-vaulted to instant recognition across the world. And yet what do the people who run the state and the city do? They change the successful city’s name to Bengaluru. They were hardly the first as even earlier Madras had become Chennai, Calcutta had become Kolkata and even Bombay had become Mumbai. Clearly the people who run these cities have no clue about the sanctity of the brand name or how a brand name is forever, and are merely pursuing their own personal,
shortsighted agenda . Nor do they ask people like you and me to whom the city matters as to what we think of the proposed change. In fact most of these cities suffer from a lack of ownership for the brand, as people with a different agenda and with a very limited view of branding and its long term implications tamper with the brand.

On to India

Today India has a few people who realize what branding can do. {Thank God for small mercies!}. In fact in 2007 a major exercise was undertaken in New York when the UN was in session showcasing India’s achievements since the six decades of independence across a variety of verticals and dispelling the notion that India is more than a destination for tourists. It has the capability to be the destination for foreign capital and a provider of cheap, intelligent and efficient
manpower, the creator of films that the world watches, the manufacturer of the lowest priced car in the world … in short a brand with multi-faceted skills and achievements. All too often branding is seen as an exercise to build a brand for tourists and tourism. Malaysia did a highly visible campaign showcasing the country’s inherent beauty and the fact that it had so many sights worth seeing. India too has had its “discover India’ campaign. But branding a nation is far more complex. It needs to address several audiences many of whom are looking for different things and this nation offers it. Most critically India needs to position itself to the external world consciously and not leave it to accidents of chance or fate and that is the challenge we must face.
Mind you we have made a start. We are being noticed. Now all we need to do is ensure that we are being noticed for the right things and some of the earlier misconceptions are corrected.

But who will manage it?

The recent elections in India have thankfully thrown up results that indicate reasonable stability. Unless the current lot of elected people do something that is very dumb (which is not beyond them) they should stay in power for five years. Five years is a reasonable time frame in the context of a nation and almost “long term’ in the context of a brand. Traditionally government has a cabinet of ministers drawn from the length and breadth of this country who are allotted portfolios like health, education, home, defence to name just a few of the hordes of ministries that we have. But whose responsibility will be brand India? Who will agonize about the perceptions that continue to hurt it? What revisions in India’s image will be contemplated? What will be the desired personality? What are the recognition symbols of India? One of the things that we have realized over the years is that successful brands have senior people managing and guiding their destinies. CEOs of companies constantly worry about their brands and it is not only valuation that guides their thinking .In the case of a nation, particularly a developing nation like ours, which has aspirations that are sky high, the task of brand management becomes even more critical. It cannot be done piece meal as it is currently being done - with someone looking after tourism and someone else looking after Information and broadcasting. A brand cannot be fragmented. It needs to be looked at holistically. India more than ever needs a champion, both internally and externally. A champion who can win over the cynics and the disbelievers, both within the country and without. A champion who can communicate the brand’s achievements in a manner that is credible. It is not about spin, as much as it is about building and sustaining credibility. The time is now. India is ready for branding, but who is ready to don the mantle?

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of brand-comm and the author of”Googly –
branding on Indian turf”.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

India will rise as brand owners rather than as brand creators

Dr Jagadish Sheth talks to BrandLine on the human factor in business, the Easternisation of the world and the recession..

Dr Jagadish N. Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing, Goizueta Business School, Emory University

Dr Jagadish N. Sheth, the Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing from Goizueta Business School at Emory University in the US was recently at Mysore as keynote speaker on the conference of ‘service strategies for global leadership’ organised by the Custommerce Centre for Service Excellence at SDMIMD. He spoke to Ramanujam Sridhar exclusively for BrandLine on a variety of subjects such as technology and service, China and India, changes in people and behaviour and branding. Talking to Jagadish Sheth is simultaneously interesting and inspiring. He is one who could be described as a pocket-sized dynamo of information and insights, all dished out with a disarming sense of humour and without the slightest trace of arrogance which might be understandable and excusable given his phenomenal achievements. The refugee from Burma, who grew up in Chennai and graduated from Loyola College, has certainly come a long way to being awarded as ‘Outstanding Marketing Educator Award’ by the Academy of Marketing Science. He is a prolific author, having co-authored hundreds of articles and books — some like ‘The Rule of Three’ have made waves globally. He hardly looks 71 and has boundless energy and enthusiasm and more hair on his head than people half his age. His sense of humour is infectious and conversation with him enriching.

Here is an excerpt of the interview with him:

Today there is a lot of talk about technology and customer service. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

Yes, there is an interesting trend that is happening in the US. Probably as a consequence of the desire for cost reduction, human contact is reducing. This has created an enormously negative reaction from consumers. I would personally place a premium on the value of human contact. Human intervention can actually turn out to be much more cost-effective in the long run. Human intervention can be a very effective means of retrieving a service problem or situation with customers. People want other people to resolve their problems.

You obviously feel strongly about the importance of the human factor in business.

I am passionate about human beings and the value addition they bring. When a grain of wheat is transformed into a loaf of bread the value addition can be a mere five times. An uncut diamond to a finished diamond is perhaps 10-12 times. But when a human being is moulded the value addition can be several times over. There is no asset which is as mouldable or as malleable as the human being. Successful companies will have to discover the capability of making ordinary people extraordinary. They would be well advised to look at how NGOs operate as they seem to transform ordinary people into extraordinary people. India, for instance, has enormous untapped talent. Let me give you my own example. I was a refugee from Burma who made his way to Kutch. Today if I had been earning Rs 4,000 or 5,000 a month I should have been happy. But someone spotted the talent, and you can see the difference. India, to repeat, has enormous talent just waiting to be tapped.

In your recent book you talked about India and China rising …

Yes, the rise of India and China will make an enormous impact on the world. The rise of these two nations represents the changing economic and geopolitical alignment of the world. These two markets will be contested heavily as the rest of the world realises it needs to make its presence felt in these markets to be global players. Haier, the Chinese company, is probably the largest appliances company. Other brands such as Lenovo, Dell and HP too are making their presence felt. India does not seem to have a serious domestic player in the appliances market as Indian companies do not seem to have scale. Both India and China will have strong rural markets. While both India and China will go global, they will probably use different routes. China could use the route of manufacturing and exports, India could use the acquisition route. While this may have been temporarily stalled because of the current globalisation scenario, India could still get back on track.

You had spoken about China competing with India in the services sector.

I suppose China understands that India has a head start in certain sectors of outsourcing and technology. It is gearing itself up by training its children to speak English without a Chinese accent as it does realise that India has a head start in English which is a competitive advantage. The market will be big enough for both the players and India might cater to the higher end while China will perhaps cater to the lower end of the market. But the reality is that the world is comfortable dealing with India and selling to India. India is assuming leadership of the world as more and more Indian managers rise to positions of eminence in the US and Europe. Clearly the perceptions of India being a country of snake charmers is changing, and fast. India is emerging as a thought leader in academics and education, and people such as C. K. Prahalad are recognised globally.

Do you believe that the East is becoming more important in the world scheme of things?

Most definitely. I have a concept called the ‘Easternisation of the world’. Westerners, traditionally, are open to change, unlike Easterners who do have a tendency to resist change, being more traditional. Westerners have taken to Yoga, spirituality, Ayurveda, literature. Look at Slumdog Millionaire! I believe there is a fusion of cultures, what I call as ‘Christian Yoga’ as we have a situation where churches teach Yoga. Rudyard Kipling said “East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet”. He was dead wrong. Incidentally he was wrong and is now dead (chuckles). There are other changes as well. The generation gap could be as low as eight years today unlike the 20 years or so that there was earlier.

Today we live in recessionary times, so what are the implications for customer service?

What do companies normally do in recessionary times? They normally cut back on items of expenditure, at times with disastrous results. They cut back on travel, training and education and on customer support. Traditionally technology has been the means of increasing productivity. The human race has traditionally embraced technology from the days of the fulcrum to the most advanced means of technology that is being used today. The solution to recessionary times is machine-enabled customer support.

We need to remember that people like machines. Today, thanks to the emergence of Web technology and broadband more customers shop online, particularly youngsters. Companies must encourage end consumers to do it themselves. People are also more comfortable dealing with machines as there is a consistency to them and humans vary in the quality of interaction with consumers.

Let’s move from service to brands. There is a lot of talk of branding in India, do you see any Indian brands making it big globally?

When you talk of brands you normally refer to product brands or service brands. Yet, there are brands that are business-to-business and corporate brands. Tata is a globally recognised and respected brand. Infosys is a well-respected brand and Wipro is not far behind. Indian corporate brands are making themselves felt globally. Yet, I believe India will make it to the top on a different route. India will rise as the country of brand owners than as the country of brand creators. You have a brand such as Tata Tea taking over Tetley. You also have other examples such as Jaguar which have been taken over by Tata. When it comes to the product space Indian brands are making their presence felt slowly. We have a brand like Patak’s Pickles moving from the ethnic space to the mainstream. Take Kingfisher beer, for instance; it is common for foreigners to ask for this beer in the pubs of London. So Indian brands are making their presence felt globally.

Finally, since you spend so much time with youngsters, especially students, what is your advice to them?

My advice to them is simple: “Never forget the purpose of your being here”. Management education is not only about getting a high-paying job. Students could ask themselves the question “How do I make money even as I do good for society?” You need to gain skills as well as knowledge. You need to remember you are embarking on a lifelong journey.

It is perhaps unlikely that you will start in a company and end in the same company as the earlier generation did. Be prepared too for mid-career crisis and remember that it could happen earlier to you.

Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brand-comm and the author of “Googly - Branding on Indian Turf”.