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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