Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who will win the battle of the ballot?

As politicians get down to branding, what does this mean for the average Indian voter?

Of symbols, signs and slogans: Political advertising and branding is nothing new, but what will really catch the voter’s eye?

India is a country divided by differences of language, race, caste, colour of skin, religion, sub-sects, dialects and just about anything, And yet this divided country has common interests that strangely end up creating further differences.
Indians as a race are interested in politics, cricket, films and music, not necessarily in that order, and that applies through the length and breadth of the country. And yet these interests too continue to divide. Shah Rukh vs Aamir, Tendulkar vs Dravid and now Rajasthan Royals vs Chennai Super Kings … you get the picture.

Now, in the middle of the summer, two of India’s major passions will captivate the imagination of a poverty-stricken nation starved of entertainment. Yes, Sir! The controversial second version of the IPL and the general elections will simultaneously jostle each other for eyeballs and action.

Even as we get ready for the midsummer days and ‘nights’ madness that will be upon us almost immediately, I need to confess (with considerable regret, though) that a cricket fanatic like me is not going to talk about IPL, but stay with the elections. One aspect of it that I am perhaps in a position to talk about is the political advertising that is likely to come on air, print or be plastered on every piece of available space in this vast country. I will also talk about how political parties have used branding over the years and what one might well expect in the forthcoming elections.

We smart, politicians smarter

Many of us have an exaggerated sense of our own importance and intelligence. We simultaneously have a poor opinion of politicians promptly classifying them as ‘dumbos’ who do not deserve the level of success that they seem to enjoy. After all, we have been to IIT and IIM, hold majors in marketing and can tell the world a thing or two about strategy, or so we think, even as we chafe about the quality of people who are governing us. And yet, I think we are making the mistake of slotting them, wrongly.

Let me explain. I grew up in Tamil Nadu, which is a State that understands politics. In a sense that is a misleading euphemism and a statement similar to other obvious ones like ‘Australia plays cricket’ and ‘Chennai is hot in April’. While today’s political leaders seem quite unimpressive, to us at least, they actually have a greater understanding of strategy than we realise. I am now able to see the value of what I observed as a child, several years later, so much for my intelligence and my management education!

The political leaders of my time knew the value of branding long before I knew what the term meant. Branding is about symbols, and political parties like the DMK knew this long before people like you and I did. The DMK, for instance, has the symbol of the ‘rising sun’ which it kept repeating visually and orally and kept reiterating to the politically aware State.

Similarly, branding is about colours and this is something that politicians knew then and realise the value of now, perhaps more than ever. The DMK’s strong colour sense manifested itself in the usage of red and black which extended to the designs of the dhotis and even the towels those politicians and party members wore. I also used to smile at MGR’s dress sense. He would invariably wear a black shirt and lie down on a red carpet as he sang and I would wince. But the people behind this knew something that I did not know at that time. They were not bothered too much about aesthetics or dress sense but were subtly and overtly reinstating the brands, read the party’s colours.

Yes, political parties have always realised the value of branding and continue to invest in symbols, colours and slogans. The AIADMK has its twin leaves, the BJP its lotus, and the Congress a hand and so on. Symbols become even more critical in a country that has a high level of illiteracy and we need to remember that people cast their votes on these very symbols that are there on the ballot papers.

Still on the subject of branding, I would as a child fret about why MGR’s films scripts used to be so predictable. He would not smoke or drink in films, would not chase women (women chased him), he was a friend of the poor, he would give donations to the poor both in his films and in real life, he would do every film with the same story-line. But he had an agenda. He was subtly but surely telling his voting populace that this was the real MGR. He probably was, but there is no doubting the precision of his strategy or the methodical manner in which it was executed. Tamil Nadu loved him, voted for him and still continues to vote for his party.

Political advertising in the past

Traditionally, other countries have had greater reliance on advertising and one remembers Saatchi and Saatchi’s powerful campaign for the Conservatives with the line ‘Labour isn’t working’, taking a direct swipe at the increasing unemployment under Labour rule. Even more recently, Obama, in his high-profile election campaign, ran a 30-minute infomercial on major television networks. Speak of media muscle! India too has had its share of political advertising that has been high-decibel, if a bit low on creativity, as specialised agencies have worked on them generally, who probably knew the ropes and had access to the political leadership. In a sense all that changed when Rajiv Gandhi entrusted the task of the campaign to his Doon school friends who were running Rediffusion, the advertising agency. The campaign was a standout and a clearly different one from what the average Indian voter had been exposed to. Maybe the only hint of criticism that I can offer now, several years later, is that it perhaps came with an urban bias.

The other campaign which was quite visible was BJP’s ‘India Shining’ campaign which too had its fair share of visibility and did get some acclaim when it was launched. However, everything took on a different hue once the elections were lost and the campaign was unfairly (in my opinion, at least) made the scapegoat for the party’s fiasco in the elections.

This time around, the advertising budgets for the elections are slated to be Rs 500 crore; another estimate puts it at Rs 1, 000 crore making sure the troubled advertising industry least has something to look forward to.

The power of the slogan

Advertising is often reduced to slogans or tag lines and their recall. This is perhaps most true for political advertising. Perhaps a few we can recall are Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan and Garibi Hatao. Given the vast and diverse nature of the country and the fact that many of the people who vote are below the poverty line, the value of a slogan that is memorable need hardly be emphasised. The Congress probably said “why reinvent the wheel?” and just took over the Oscar winning Jai Ho.

I think there is a basic principle in advertising and that is great advertising is just not the ‘lowest common denominator’. You just cannot afford to talk down to the consumer. The greatest ideas are simple and powerful and make a profound impact on the target audience, however limited their education might be and that is the challenge that has to be addressed in this election. Throw in also the challenges of a metropolitan audience that is Net-savvy – then we have an indication of the complexity of the task that awaits the advertising agency.

What about the voter?

While we talk about all this, we just cannot afford to forget one important reality. The urban voter seems to live in a different world, particularly the educated one. He is generally apathetic to politics, politicians and his own responsibilities when it comes to choosing the right people. So, advertising is likely to be even lower in his priorities. It matters nothing to the voter that the people who are governing him and in effect leading his destiny are criminals. It is in this context that initiatives like ‘No criminals in politics’, which is just gathering momentum, are indications that the number of people who care about the future of the country and are actually putting their money where their mouth is.

As an advertising professional, I would like to see some great advertising for the next election. But as a citizen of India, I can only hope and pray that the Indian voter will have the sense to get the right people in and that will be the greatest news that India can get amidst all the doom and gloom that seems to be surrounding us just now.

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

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Go on, surprise me!

Empathy with the consumer should be the guiding principle of service..

HDFC, the pioneer of the housing finance industry in the country, has raised the bar over the years on both technology and service ability.

On February 1, in the middle of the night, a shock awaited me. I got a frantic call around midnight that my mother was unwell. We rushed there, only to find that she was seriously ill. Her pulse was failing and one of us had the presence of mind to call the emergency care of Wockhardt hospital on Bannerghatta road in Bangalore, close to where we stay. Even as my mother continued to struggle over the next half hour we sat around hoping against hope that she would be okay. The emergency unit arrived from the hospital in time with all the paraphernalia - ambulance, stretcher, life-support equipment, a team of five including the duty doctor. They tried to revive her, even as we kept watching and praying. Sadly, it was too late. They left saying that there was very little they could do and it was all over.

Amidst all the grief I still realised that they were providing a necessary service and had to be paid for it. I asked them how much I should pay and at first one of them said that I had to pay for the injection. Then he called the hospital and said there would be no charge for the emergency visit of the entire team. While my mother was a patient of the hospital and used its services regularly this was still something that any hospital would have been justified in charging for. Today, a month later, I am able to talk about this and with effort even write about it. But clearly there was an element of surprise in their handling of the situation. Given the reputation that some hospitals have of being more commercial than they ought to be, this sensitive handling of a tragic incident came like a breath of fresh air to someone who was in a state of shock.

Outstanding service

My friend and service expert Ramesh Venkateswaran and I run a service programme called ‘Honeymoon for Life’ in which he asks participants to recount experiences where the service provider has gone beyond the call of duty and surprised the consumers and a range of examples are recounted by the participants from small establishments like pharmacies to credit card companies to banks. It rarely ever has been a hospital but then I have my own true-to-life example. So what happened here? Marketing and service is all about empathy, that all-elusive quality that great salespeople possess. Are you able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes? Are you able to go through the pain she goes through and offer a solution or relief? Are you able to surprise her? Usually hospitals shock us with their bills and service charges, but here was a pleasant surprise. However, one must quickly clarify that this is not about money and at that time money was the last thing I was thinking about. It was the gesture that completely caught me and my family unprepared, so much so that it made an impact on me. I am certain that I am going to be the hospital’s goodwill ambassador unless and until the hospital does something that tarnishes the great impression that it has made on me.

Developing with the times

Here is another example that is perhaps not as dramatic but still surprising that pertains to the old reliable HDFC. My association with Housing Development Finance Corporation as it was called goes back three decades as one of my best friends joined the company when it was founded in 1977. Over the years I have watched it grow in stature, size and reputation as India’s premier housing finance institution. I am sharing a surprising experience with the home loan company that happened more than a month ago.

But let me start with my association as a customer a small matter of 20 years ago when I took my first housing loan for the princely sum of Rs 3 lakh. Difficult though it may be to believe today, one could actually buy a decent two-bedroom apartment in the city of Bangalore for a little over this money in the late Eighties!

Don’t worry, I will not wax eloquent about how my starting salary in the bank in 1973 was Rs 372 or how a bottle of beer cost all of Rs 5 in Bangalore. I shall stay with HDFC and my experiences as a customer over the last two decades and how the institution has evolved in my own experience as a customer. When we talk about a brand, I think it is important to consider its guiding principles when it was started, however dominant the brand may turn out to be years later as HDFC most certainly is today.

More so in the light of our experiences with the Satyams of the world! HDFC has been the pioneer of the housing finance industry in the country and has from day one been a conservative financial institution, conceptualised as it has been on the lines of the more staid State Bank of India than the more adventurous Citibank. It is perhaps worthwhile to recall that other financial institutions that have come later in the home loan space and lent recklessly (at least a few of them) are now struggling with a higher percentage of NPAs than required or necessary. It seems there is a price to “risk” that they are now discovering, to their chagrin!Cut to the present

I have had many opportunities to interact and deal with HDFC over the years and have found them to be friendly, efficient and courteous, definitely in Chennai.
Sometimes we tend to forget the principle that financial institutions have to be less and less about money and more and more about people and service. Also we tend to confuse technology with service and forget that it is just an aid and not a substitute for service. And technology when harnessed effectively can actually delight and surprise the customer as I was able to experience just recently with HDFC.

Just last month I took a housing loan from the Chennai office of the company. The procedure was quick, friendly and I was handed over a cheque for the loan amount in a matter of ten minutes. Even as I got ready to leave with the cheque and shook hands with the person handling my case my mobile phone buzzed.

I picked it up to see a text message welcoming me to HDFC and giving me the password for me to check the position of my loan account on the net. I was floored because clearly HDFC had transformed itself over the years from being a conservative, stable financial services company to an organisation that had upped its service delivery to the next level without losing out on any of its basic functioning skills and competencies. It also made me quickly revisit my own perceptions about the institution being staid.

Clearly HDFC had raised the bar over the years on both technology and service ability.
So here are a few, possibly uncomfortable questions that are easier to pose than to answer:
How good is the service level across different teams in your company?
When was the last truly outstanding example of customer service?
How frequently does it keep happening?
Does your company make this part of the company’s folklore?
How often are there reaffirmations of commitment to service from senior management?A time to take stock

All of us have customers that we have to take care of. We have the option of providing a minimum of acceptable service as most of us manage to do (often with great difficulty), but rarely ever do we raise the bar and if we do it is done by one outstanding, committed, empowered individual but rarely does it extend through the length and breadth of the company. In troubled times like these with customers on edge, outstanding service can and will be the differentiator. The truth is staring us in the face but many of us just seem to be looking the other way.

So let’s start surprising our customers, lest we experience shocks!

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