Thursday, July 29, 2010

M. S. Dhoni, 200 not out!

Captain Cool will now surely be marketed left, right and centre, more so because the World Cup is going to be held in India next year..

Two hundred not out! What a fantastic number to see against his name on the scoreboard! I am sure that would gladden the heart of any Indian cricket fan. I am not sure how glad the Indian cricket fan is about a different 200 that will be near M. S. Dhoni's name and that is a not insignificant sum of Rs 200 crore that the charismatic Indian captain has signed for a sponsorship deal, which even surpasses the master blaster's earlier deal of Rs 180 crore.

Clearly, Indian cricket and sponsorship have come a long way and it is only fair that players who bring in the crowds and the eyeballs should reap the benefit of the tremendous passion that engulfs the game in this country. Unfortunately, I cannot but think of the “good old days” when cricketers played the game for the love of the game, and of people such as B. S. Chandrasekhar who was as great as they come, who used to go from place to place to play the Ranji Trophy by second-class train and who, incidentally, used to carry his shoes in a small cloth bag! How times have changed and thankfully, for the better! While I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the shrewd Indian captain, I would like to talk about what it means for advertisers and whether this is manna from heaven at all, as some of us would like to believe.

Come to celebrity country

Several years ago Marlboro ran a powerful campaign with the line “Come to Marlboro country”. I do not know if such a place exists like that, but there certainly exists a country for celebrities and that is our own motherland. A country that is starved of success seems to lap up celebrities the way Australians guzzle beer! But surely, it has to make sense for the advertiser and the savvy advertiser must strive hard not to get caught up in the magic of the moment and the heady feeling of signing on the Indian captain.

Let's get back to basics. Why do people sign on celebrities? They can instantly create awareness for your product, particularly a new one. Micromax, the new kid on the block, has suddenly surged in the awareness stakes by signing on Akshay Kumar. It is my personal view that the commercial featuring him as a chef is as bad as some of the actor's recent movies, but it seems to work for the brand, so who am I to complain?

Not very long ago, in 2003 to be precise, TVS Victor had launched its motorcycle with the endorsement of Sachin Tendulkar who had a dream World Cup till the final. Though Sachin was endorsing several brands at that time, he was most strongly associated with the Victor and victors we were till Saurav Ganguly elected to field and till Sachin skied McGrath in the final on that fateful day at Johannesburg! The competition's whisper campaign that it was odd that Sachin the brand ambassador cannot ride a motorcycle largely fell on deaf ears, for Sachin was the Rajinikanth of Indian cricket. He could do anything! What about Lux, the film star's soap from a Sridevi of my time to a Priyanka Chopra of your time? And what about Pepsi, Nike and a whole host of brands that have used and continued to use celebrities with amazing success? All of this is true, but it is perhaps easy to forget that all these are long-term strategies that brands have followed, not just a shot in the dark, hoping that things will somehow work.

Small town boy making it big time

No one can grudge Dhoni the small town boy's amazing success over the years. He has a cool head, even if he seems to have lost his famed locks. He has won India a T20 world cup which none of the fab four have been part of. He has been refused to be intimidated by the Ricky Pontings of the world and handled his opponents a lot more subtly than Saurav Ganguly. He had a lot of women swooning over him, which prompted his in-laws to hasten the wedding and seems to be out of major controversy till date at least. Shane Warne and Tiger Woods do not, thankfully, seem to be his role models. So the sponsor, when he signs on Dhoni, signs on a good, clean celebrity with no baggage. Clearly it is a no-brainer, right? Well, yes and no, and thereby hangs the tale!

The right to choose

Film stars or so the story goes, pick and choose the scripts they wish to work with when it comes to films. It's another story that despite all this choosing, the films they end up making are disasters. Celebrities, particularly those who have been signed on in record deals, may not have this luxury. I am sure Dhoni is going to be marketed left, right and centre over the next few months, especially given the fact that the World Cup is going to be held in India next year. So Dhoni may have a very limited say in the sort of brands he is going to endorse.

So what is likely to happen? Dhoni is currently endorsing 22 brands. Quick! Tell me, how many of these brands do you recall? And imagine the plight of poor consumers if he were to endorse another 18 more! How many of these will consumers remember and how many of these will they actually go out and buy? And in how many will there be a brand fit? One of the greatest challenges that brands face is the dilution of the celebrity's equity and the confusion in the consumer's mind when he/she endorses multiple brands. There was a time when Amitabh Bachchan was in every second commercial. I remember the joke which I heard in a seminar where a speaker said, “Companies usually have a Plan A and a Plan B. A Plan B is an alternative course of action that we are all familiar with.” But in India, companies have a Plan Big B that means when you have no other course of action you sign on Amitabh Bachchan!” I hope we do not get into a similar situation with M. S. Dhoni!

It's all in the strategy, silly!

One of the biggest successes in the Indian context has been the launch of Santro, the strange-looking car from Hyundai. I can say it with confidence as I used to have a Santro and used to heave a sigh of relief when I saw another Santro on the road, leading me to believe that I was not the only one who made the mistake! But Hyundai was an unknown company in India and their long-term use of Shah Rukh Khan has made a big difference to the company's and the brand's dominance over the years. No better way to connect with the Indian audience than by using a local celebrity, particularly a film star.

The initial commercials of a bemused Shah Rukh Khan being wooed by a Korean gentleman with the theme line “will he, won't he” made a big difference to the brand. The actor's love affair with the brand has continued over the years, he has roped in Priety Zinta and is now in love with the i10. Clearly, the celebrity has made a difference to the brand.

A crucial factor in having an actor is the ability of the actor to bring alive even mediocre scripts. The original Coke commercials with Aamir and the Parker pen commercials with Amitabh had good scripts, but the actors took them to a different level with their ability to emote. Dhoni may be a passable actor, but he cannot live the character, which will pose another challenge to our script writers. How many commercials are we going to have in which Dhoni plays himself?

It's World Cup time, folks!

The World Cup will be here in India even if the benign assassin Murali will not be there. As always, it will be preceded by enormous hype and a lot of pressure to market Dhoni. The brands which have signed him on already may have to continue, if it still makes sense to them. What about the whole host of new brands that will be targeted aggressively? My advice is simple. India has never won the World Cup at home. In fact, no home team ever has, not even Australia which had its worst record in 1992 when the Cup was held there. There will be too much pressure on the Indian team and Dhoni. Carrying the hopes of a billion people in what will be Sachin's final World Cup will not be easy. So what is my two-bit on the subject?

Let Dhoni play cricket, do not burden him with additional endorsements till the World Cup. Let him win the World Cup and sign on the world!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Changing the rules of the game, in seconds

Rapid innovation had Indians taking to mobile services, originally seen as imprudent. Players old and new continue to woo customers with smart deals and offers..

Innovation is the name of the game: A customer checks out a touchscreen information kiosk at the Docomo Dive-In store in Vijayawada. _ CH. VIJAYA BHASKAR

Even the most diehard admirer of India knows, deep down in his heart, that as a nation we have not too much to celebrate, despite the self-congratulatory messages that we keep giving ourselves in the media, which seem to be for the consumption of FIIs. But no one can deny the phenomenal success of the telecom and the mobile market over the last decade or so. The numbers are there for all to see and exult. The Indian mobile market has done a Sachin Tendulkar on us, leaving the rest far behind. In January 2010 the number of telecom connections crossed the mind-boggling number of 545 million with a tele-density of over 49.5 per cent even as landlines accounted for a mere 36.75 million. Older Indians would probably recall the waiting, heartburn and stress in their attempts to get a landline, and the consequent euphoria on getting it after a waiting period of seven years!

I remember when I started the Bangalore office of Mudra Communications, getting the landline connection after moving heaven and earth, meant that we were finally in business! I wonder if our first account gave us as much satisfaction. After all, that was 1987 and mobiles came into the country much later, so one had no option but to wait. But it is not as though India took to mobiles as a duck takes to water. The operators struggled to sell the concept, people worried about paying for incoming calls (usually wrong numbers from lazy or short-sighted callers), the prohibitive costs of outgoing calls (Rs 17 per minute, I think it was) along with statements of “my privacy matters to me”. Now all of these have become things of the past thanks to the innovation of the mobile operators.

Who would want prepaid?

They made “prepaid” a phenomenal success. Prepaid is probably 90 per cent of the market today and even if “post-paid” users such as me crib that we are being robbed to pay them, the mobile operators do not seem to be unduly bothered. The western world scoffed saying “why would anyone want to pre-pay, unless he is a drug dealer?” Well, Indians are like that only and constantly confound other Indians and the rest of the world. Credit must be given to companies such as Airtel who quickly realised they were in the business of selling minutes. And boy, did some of us buy!

Innovations continue

Indian mobile services companies and companies such as Nokia opened up the market with handsets that were created specifically for value-conscious Indians. It is not uncommon to find sweepers in J. P. Nagar catching up with their counterparts in Malleswaram and as a result both those areas of Bangalore are less than spick and span. But who cares, certainly not the mobile companies who have provided the high points of a normally monotonous day through their connectivity! Today many of the earlier pain points have been addressed - incoming is free, which soon became “lifetime incoming free” which means that a person could receive calls on the same mobile number for life , so someone who had not paid the mobile operator for months on end could still receive calls. What a boon for the electrician, the plumber and other small traders!

Your life can change in seconds

While companies obsess about market share, it is common knowledge that market expansion is a function of more than one player not only competing with each other but also promoting consumption of the category. Take the cola market, for instance – its growth has largely been because Coke and Pepsi have gone at each other hammer and tongs, even as they have expanded the overall market. The cola wars, however bitter, helped grow the overall market.

I remember in the late Eighties and early Nineties Rasna being a dominant player with over 80 per cent share of the soft drink concentrate market. Remember that cute girl eyeballing the camera with her “I love you Rasna”? Well, the biggest advantage and yet largest threat was that they were the largest player, and were equivalent to the category. So when the cola market took on the concentrate market, youngsters moved to the more interesting, increasingly aspirational category, and Rasna had to fight single-handedly against a category with deep pockets that was willing to wait for returns.

Thankfully, the mobile services category has many players with a few others coming in or waiting in the wings. One of the later ones has been Tata Docomo which seems to have shaken up the market and made the biggies sit up and take notice with its “per second billing”. Competitors who had underestimated the game changing nature of this offering had to grudgingly follow. What bigger tributes for a newer entrant to have larger, more established players follow it?

What's in a name?

The brand name is the single, most important element in a brand's success. Enough theories exist about how it should be two syllables, sound well, be easy to pronounce … You have heard all of that and more. I am not sure the name Docomo would score on every count, but who the hell cares about theory, the proof of the pudding is in how often the cash register rings or is it how often your ringtone is downloaded? Be that as it may Docomo (which is perhaps less of a mouthful than alpenliebe) has been accepted, recalled and bought. A lot of the success has to be attributed to the advertising. The early advertising was merely intent on getting the brand name across, making it familiar to millions of Indians challenged by names foreign. The Tata name which means so much to the average Indian was underplayed, in my view at least. But the brand name was sung, the letters formed themselves into a recognisable logo and the first task of awareness was achieved with a high-profile integrated campaign that hit you whether you switched on the TV, looked up at a hoarding or opened the newspaper.

Young and aspirational

I am not sure who the Docomo user is. I am sure the user is young , technologically-savvy, can handle two SIM cards and is constantly looking for value that the brand seems to provide readily. The advertising is young. My favourite is that of the guy in the airline who, being like me, is unable to say no to leave a seat next to a pretty young girl for an older man, only to find that he has been allotted a seat where two gorgeous babes flank him on either side, and soon has one of the sleepy travellers nuzzling even closer to him even as I wonder why such happy results never follow my inability to say no! There are more commercials on the same lines - a triumphant kid emulating some of his more demonstrative football idols, hitting himself against the goal post, which he had crossed just a few seconds earlier.

My eternal favourite will be that of the traditional looking South Indian girl with a vivid tattoo which her mother approves reluctantly, or so I think; I am a parent too! It brought back memories of my son's tattoo in Tamil of the name ‘Sevilimedu' - the village we all hail from. I am not sure if we were shocked, happy he went back to his roots or sad that we had forgotten our roots till this reminder! While parents may not love this ad, I am sure the young consumer would love it. The signature tune has been a strong factor in holding all the communication together. India loves music and the “friendship express” too, I am sure has its admirers.

The power of an idea

I think the mobile market is the most exciting market to be in and people who relish a fight can learn a lot from the heady, competitive marketplace where you have to be on your toes all the time. Brands such as Airtel, Vodafone and Idea all have done their own share of innovation and have produced, and continue to produce outstanding advertising. Visible advertising seems to be par for the course, even for brands such as Virgin that have interesting advertising. Yet, I believe the value and power of advertising can be overstated. The key differentiator is the offering, as Tata Docomo has demonstrated. It changed the rules of the game. It certainly helps to have visible advertising beaming at you from every channel, particularly if the advertising is interesting.

The future will belong to brands that continually innovate and one hopes that all innovations will not be built on price cuts or offers alone. As a consumer I am really delighted that mobile service operators are falling over themselves to offer something or the other new. I only hope that they will spare a thought for a poor postpaid user like me too. And is it too much to ask for less call drops and better coverage?

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

The young lady from Boribunder

I grew up in the sixties in Madras (as it used to be called in those days) and I like everyone else in the city grew up on “The Hindu”. It was said half jokingly and half seriously that the easiest way to create chaos in the lives of Tamils like me, was to replace our morning cup of coffee (that we drank in steel tumblers] with a mug of tea, and replace our morning paper with something else! Our whole day would go for a six, or so we believed. I am certain too that Bengalis were similarly attached to ‘The Statesman’, people from Delhi to ‘The Hindustan Times’ and people from Bombay were avid readers of the ‘Times of India’. While all these newspapers continue to attract readers and be important in their lives, the Times of India has moved to a completely new orbit. It has become a brand that has become the envy of not only the rest of India, but the world as well. What makes the old lady from Boribunder” as the paper used to be referred to the dominant force that it has become? Let me try to analyze its success as someone who is passionate about brands and branding.

150 years young

The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce as it was originally called, was renamed the Times of India in 1861. Even as brands struggle to remain young and contemporary. The newspaper, like Coke and Pepsi has managed to remain relevant to generation of readers, and perhaps its greatest strength has been its ability to attract young readers. Of course, at the risk of boring you to death, I can tell you that India is a young country and the brands that crack the youth market will rake in the big bucks as the newspaper has done with desperate ease, year after year. The Times of India is a brand for the young and if one may add, for the young at heart. And let me tell you, that it is not easy to achieve this as many brands have stumbled in their endeavours to remain young, and later generations have ruthlessly rejected brands that they feel are dated or old with comments like “fuddy duddy” and “my father’s brand”. The simple test of the brand’s success would be to just observe how the family reaches out to a choice of papers. My sons who are in their twenties normally reach out to grab the Times of India first amongst the five newspapers that we subscribe to. I am sure too that this is a phenomenon that operates in many households through the length and breadth of this country. And what about the corporate world, how do they view the Times of India? A few days ago we organized a press conference for a large client at Delhi. There were no less than 67 personnel from the media for the Press Conference. While we were delighted at the attendance, the client still had a problem, for the representative from the Times of India was not present for the conference (as he was taken ill). I have heard enough clients focus only on the Times of India to the exclusion of all other newspapers. Clearly the paper has value.

Engaging the local reader

The Times of India might be the largest national newspaper in India but to me it is a truly regional newspaper with a national masthead. Let me explain .The paper might have its strongest presence and origin in Mumbai but it has managed to make waves in every part of India and is being seen as a local paper in that market as it has involved itself totally and actively with local, regional issues. Take the case of Chennai, the latest market where it has made its foray - it encouraged a lively debate on “jallikattu” a controversial subject in Tamil Nadu in a manner in which even local newspapers too might not have been able to conceptualize.

Product or newspaper?

There is a human side to the paper as well and some of its initiatives like teach India and Lead India have resonated strongly with its readers as its recent initiative to bring the people of India and Pakistan together. Clearly the brand has done things that have made it a thought leader and an opinion leader. Yet I must end with a slight sense of regret. The brand is a newspaper after all and to me a newspaper is not just a product to be marketed, but a product that has to be guided by editorial policy. It is here that I have a reservation with ideas like Private treaties and Media net. I am sure the paper has its reasons for what it is doing and after all “who is perfect”?

Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brand-comm and the author of “Googly-branding on Indian turf.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Your employee is your brand

Do companies spend even a fraction of training budgets on employees who are the face of the organisation?.

Branding is not a magical destination but is about people. And employees are an integral partfuelling the people process. _ K. RAMESH BABU

Do you remember our conversation last fortnight when we spoke about the human side of the brand and the need to look at things beyond advertising, media coverage, identity and colours in building brands? We spoke about how critical the first impression for a brand can be, how companies, under the guise of outsourcing, outsource their very brand to people who do not realise its value – such as security guards, for instance. We also spoke about how the telephone and the manner in which it is answered (or not) actually has the potential to take the brand's image downhill, how companies (CEOs included) fail to respond to people who get in touch with them and about how companies can hurt their own image badly by handling interviews and the process of interviewing poorly.

As one of the respondents to my blog said, “It is easier to preach than to practise!”While I will respond to that comment a little later in my piece, I will continue to talk about what companies can do right and what they often do wrong without perhaps realising or even caring about the consequences of their sins of omission and commission.

A small gesture

While it is perhaps easy to get disillusioned with the way companies are acting or not acting and get pessimistic and cynical, I shall strive to be balanced, however difficult that may seem to be in the light of what I had written earlier. Several years ago, I used to teach brand management at IIM, Kozhikode in its early days. It was term VI and the students were understandably a bit nervous, as it was placement time after all. I asked the class what their favourite company was and while the class reeled out the list of India's biggest and best, one of the students said, “MindTree”.

I was surprised as it was a very new company then. The reason was not difficult to see: The company had come to campus, made an offer to one of my students and as a gesture given him a company T-shirt on his acceptance of the offer. A simple gesture, you say. Absolutely! But to a student about to join a company on his first job, with all the anxieties that placement time bestows so easily, it had scored disproportionately with a young impressionable mind which he probably carried for the rest of his life. Here was a first impression of a different kind!

Mind you, I am willing to accept that things might have changed over the last decade or so and that today's management graduates may be more cynical about such gestures. I have also heard people speak with great pride about getting a prompt response from N.R. Narayana Murthy to some letter or mail and so the story goes on … Like individuals, companies too do things right and on occasions also do some things that are wrong for the brand. All of these have some impact on the brand, which leads me to the obvious question: How does your brand's ledger look in terms of debits and credits?

Money, money, money

Let's move on to things that are perhaps not so pleasant. Both you and I know that the subject of money need not be pleasant, especially when you don't get it and particularly when it is overdue. Let me start with my true life experience with a once prominent company that has now become completely obscure. It had this dubious reputation with advertising agencies when it came to payment. I remember the early days, when the company had the money, but used to set aside agency payments, as the attitude of the senior management of the company was, “Well, they need our business, they can wait.”

I know that we went through hell as did the other agencies servicing this client. Later, the client grew in business and in billings, but became so highly leveraged and so strapped for cash that the company soon became a “has been” and a credit risk. I am not referring to companies going through an occasional cash crunch, for several do at some point or the other, but of how accountants can be poor ambassadors of the brand, and often are. How often have we heard these: “Signatories not available” (usually for days on end); “We have misplaced your bills”; “Your bills have not been approved by marketing” and some more ingenious ones as well.

I know that many companies went through a tough time in the recession, but their track record of the past stood them in good stead. They took pains to explain to the affected parties and what stood them in good stead was their credibility. Actually, branding is less about words and more about actions and the sooner companies realise this, the better it will be for them.

Your employees are your brand

Traditionally companies have looked at their consumer and consciously attempted to improve her experiences and engagement with the brand. In the early Eighties, brands were hurt by dealers who had a limited concept and appreciation of customer service. Customers often blamed the company for their poor service, without realising that it was the dealer. Companies have become savvier over the years and invested in service and training of personnel and today brands such as Maruti have built a substantial franchise primarily on their service quality.

Yet, do companies, which spend so much time, effort and money on dealers and their development, spend even a fraction of their training budgets on employees who are constantly dealing with the world at large, whether it is their accountants, clerical staff or even employees from different functional areas such as human relations and finance? Traditional wisdom focuses on the revenue generator as someone who has to be trained as he brings in the moolah. This was perhaps understandable and acceptable in the days gone by, but today's world has new problems, thrown up by the Net and the increasing activism of consumers and the world at large. Yesterday's strategies may not work today in an increasingly dynamic and complex work place.

What does the future hold?

Sometimes the answers to the future may lie in the past. Let's analyse successful companies. What have they been doing? They have done things first and done them differently. Tomorrow's successful companies are going to be led by CEOs who will show the way in responsiveness. They will show the way by ensuring that their employees are taught the value of empathy. It is common knowledge that the people who are successful in sales have put themselves in their consumer's shoes. This is that rare quality called empathy. Now, there is a need for any employee who has any sort of interface with the world at large to be empathetic – to vendors and their problems, the general public who may come into contact with the company. Consider the insensitive statement by the CEO of British Petroleum who wanted his “life back” after 11 people were dead and the impact and ripples that it created through the world. If that is the case with CEOs who are trained, coached and mentored, imagine the plight of the poor employee and the ripple effect that thoughtless or insensitive behaviour can cause.

Branding a process, not a destination

While branding is often seen as a magical destination or a sort of Holy Grail, it rarely ever is. It is a process, with unremitting, often boring, attention to detail in everything that the company says or does. It needs direction from the top and the commitment of the CEO or the brand custodian. It needs constant monitoring and investment in training. It needs the humility to listen to criticism that is often harsh, at times unfair and now in the public domain. I realised this as I got an angry response from one of my readers about my ‘tepid' response to his query and my organisation's inability to respond to his need in a manner that was acceptable or satisfactory.

We keep getting knocks. The trick, though, is to learn and move on. The solution is not so much focus, but attention to detail on every single thing that the company is doing. It is about processes. It is about people. It is about passion to do the things that we set out to do. And most importantly, it is about everyone in the organisation and not only marketing as we have traditionally believe.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)