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.)