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”.