Thursday, February 26, 2009

Brand sceptics?

Ramanujam Sridhar

India is still romancing with brands but the end of the honeymoon period is near..
The task of marketing to this multi-tasking, multi-asking generation is simultaneously a challenge and an opportunity.

A few weeks ago I was invited to Mumbai to be one of the panellists in a seminar on customer loyalty. Between you and me, a “loyal customer” is something of an oxymoron, just as the descriptions “faithful husband” or “well-behaved teenager” can be! Instead of waxing eloquent on the frailties of the human race, let me move on to the topic of discussion of our particular panel, which was on “defining the customer of the future”. I shared the panel with a few people who were wiser if not older than me — Kinjal Medh, Chief Operating Officer, Cogito Consulting; Arvind Sharma, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, Leo Burnett; Rajiv Lal, Chief Executive Officer Perspectrum; and Satish Sathyanarayana, Chief Executive Officer, Wunderman India Pvt Ltd. Here is a smattering of predictions on the future customer made by this eminent group. Needless to mention that the original and pathbreaking predictions were made by the other esteemed panel members, whilst I attempted to provide comic relief to a post-lunch seminar audience that had been fed on an overdose of dessert and a numbing mix of matrices and statistical mumbo jumbo earlier in the day.Worry, worry, worry

As a starting point it might be worthwhile to remember what Mike Clasper, the former President of Procter and Gamble, said, “I would label the consumer of 2025 in three ways: more demanding, wiser and more worried.” Well, I guess, we don’t have to wait another 16 years to check the validity of this prediction because it seems to have already come true today. Aren’t we more demanding today than we were five years ago? I can speak for myself and say that I have certainly become a lot more demanding as a customer. Just ask Airtel or Standard Chartered Bank. And if the doorman at the Taj does not come springing to open my car door, I am frowning at his lethargy and waxing eloquent about the poor service of the five-star hotel to the total disinterest of my family!

Of course, if you ask my wife she would go a step further and say I have graduated from merely being demanding to becoming more of a pain. But then spouses, they say, cannot be objective about their partners, so much do they love them! I guess consumers are certainly becoming more knowledgeable, if not wiser, though the increasing speed of the decreasing hair line of today’s generation is definitely to be viewed as a sign of wisdom! They have certainly become more worried as this generation has been through more crises than any other and even the strongest of minds would be worried after what happened in Mumbai.

So, what it does it mean for marketers? There is a crying need to go back to the old fashioned and yet-still-relevant quality of ‘empathy’ that salespeople needed then and need more than ever now, and will need in the future too. I need empathy from service providers, harried as I am now by the uncertainty in the global environment, crashing value of investments, plummeting real estate prices and the general mood of depression that has engulfed the world, Obama notwithstanding.Why can’t you be like her?

Human beings love to compare. We all know that and customers, after all, are human beings. The reality, however, is that too few service providers (in India at least) are providing exceptional service. Speaking of airlines, I have some familiarity with, if not affinity for, Jet and Kingfisher in the premium category and recently Indigo in the budget category that are providing superior service. I have always been a great admirer of Jet Airways and speak passionately for them at every forum. And yet, I have a distressing habit as well. When I go to the nationalised bank, which holds my savings bank account (with a modest balance if I may add) I expect the person in the counter to be smart, friendly and vivacious, just like the stewardess who ushers me into the Jet Airways flight. Sadly for me, though, she is grumpy, harassed and probably sees shades of her spouse in me, so severely does she scowl at me! I know that I am being unreasonable in expecting her to be like the Jet Airways stewardess but then “I am like that only”. I can safely predict that trends like these are here to stay, and if anything is likely to intensify tomorrow as more and more of tomorrow’s customers will make odious comparisons across categories and find their service providers wanting.

There is another distressing trend with service providers and that includes me as well. It is that we have one set of benchmarks for ourselves when we are customers and a different set when we provide services to customers. No prizes for guessing which is lower! Marketers need to completely change their outlook on service and the consumer today, if they want to survive tomorrow.Multi-tasking, multi-asking.

My marketing teacher at IIM Bangalore proffesor P.N. Thirunarayana, who instilled and fuelled my desire to be in marketing, called India’s young generation as the MTV generation, whom he defined as multi-tasking, time-compressed and value-seekers. Yes, India is a young country with an overwhelming proportion of youngsters who are in their twenties. The reality, however, is that while Indian consumers are in their twenties, heads of marketing are in their forties and managing directors are in their fifties. Needless to say, the politicians who run this country are in their eighties! How do we cope with this techno-savvy young customer who is simultaneously watching TV on mute, listening to music on her iPod, even as she is frantically punching the keys of her mobile phone to send numerous text messages by the minute to scores of her friends? I am told that today’s youth can exhaust the quota of 750 free SMS messages per day by 9 a.m! We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg as India’s youth brigade explodes not only in size but in affluence. The task of marketing to this multi-tasking, multi-asking generation is simultaneously a challenge and an opportunity. How many marketers are going to be equal to the challenge? Only time will tell!

There is another new dimension to the Indian economy that the future might unfold and that is the ‘baby boomers’ who are currently in their fifties and they represent another potent market segment. They are the “in between generation” — caught between tipples of scotch and snatches of Bhagavad Gita. They have hefty wallets (and matching waistlines) and yet are largely ignored by marketers despite their high net worth. To give you an example, whilst I got so many birthday wishes from the Shoppers Stops and the Stancharts of this world, no one sends me specific offers considering my age or lifestyle! So marketers are clearly not using the information that they have optimally. So we have two strong and yet diverse target segments that can and must co-exist for the benefit of the marketer, however diverse they may be in terms of demographics and psychographics. But then who said marketing is easy?

Now let’s go back to the generation that is going to rule India. How do we get and hold the attention of today’s and tomorrow’s customer who has the attention span of a nano second? How do we engage her, despite the multitude of distractions that seem such an inherent part of modern, urban life? Don’t lecture to this audience. They do not need one more teacher. Surprise them at a time when they least expect it. Have a tone of voice that is engaging. What made KBC such a big hit when it was first launched? There was Amitabh, whom the young audience could rely on, who was friendly, helpful and empathetic. Let’s not forget that many youngsters who were hooked on to it were the latchkey generation that lived in nuclear homes, where both parents were working. Brands will have to become friendlier even as their consumers get flightier. Brands will need to win the battle for share of mind, a far cry from the days when brands were obsessed with share of shelf.Romantic or sceptic

Today, India is still romancing with brands. We are still in our honeymoon period, so to speak. And yet one can see that customers like me are getting disenchanted with our wooers, who call us at odd times of the day, like 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon! We are annoyed and irritated with marketers who ignore the fact that our number is a “do not call number”. Our patience is currently running thin, but I am not sure if the people who are wooing us are aware of that just yet. It will not be long before we become brand sceptics though and that is something that marketers should be well aware of. Brand romantic or brand sceptic? Only time will tell.

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