Thursday, August 26, 2010

Crisis? Stay cool!

We live in difficult times and the survivors need to have a strategy in place and, more importantly, keep their cool..

Everything is ‘breaking news' even if it does not qualify as news - forget the fact that the only thing it breaks is poor victims' hearts.

In the eye of the storm: Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag.
In the Sixties when I was a young kid, I had the onerous responsibility of reading the newspaper to my grandmother or telling her the highlights of the day as depicted in the Tamil newspaper of that day and age.

The headlines were graphic and everyday there were delightful headlines (to me, at least) with sound effects and gory details of how a person was stabbed or how another man's wife was abducted. I must confess that because of my lack of interest in politics, I would never read out the stuff to her. In fact, if I was to believe the newspaper, there was never a dull moment in a Madrasi's life!

My imagination would go bonkers at all the stuff that I was reading out to her and I would look anxiously at my grandmother, wondering what her reaction might be to all the “sax and violins” that was the order of the day. She would look at me calmly and say, “All this is bound to happen. We live in Kalyug.” Of course, this sounded quite dramatic and ominous when it was spoken in Tamil. I have neither the earthy wisdom of my grandmother nor her stoicism, yet, when I see some of the news from the world of business, politics and sports that is making the headlines today, I am reminded of her prophetic words.

Here is a sample of the news that is rocking the world. BP, a once revered company, has suddenly found its reputation rocked by the oil spill and its image completely tarnished by its harried CEO telling journalists that he “just wanted his life back”. He got it back alright as he lost his job. The charismatic and successful CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Mark Hurd, had to resign over a sexual harassment investigation.

Closer home in Karnataka, an Infosys employee was accused of murdering his wife and promptly invited suspension from the company. The State's Labour Minister beat up a common man who overtook him on the road and obstinately refused to apologise, even as the hapless Chief Minister intervened and did so.

The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah
Up North, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, had a finely polished shoe thrown at him. As the Commonwealth Games continues to break new records in corruption every day, it has moved from the front pages, replaced by more exciting stuff that is happening every day all around the country and the world. In cricket, Virender Sehwag was denied his century in a one-day match against Sri Lanka thanks to an overzealous bowler bowling a huge no ball (he almost tread on the batsman's toes). The bowler was given a one-match ban with everyone and his mother-in-law getting into the act and offering sanctimonious statements about the ‘spirit of the game'. The only spirit that one can associate with modern day cricket is being provided by the sponsors, but that is a different story.

Is public memory short?
When I see all the mayhem and chaos that seems to follow our lives so easily, I am reminded of that comedian of old who used to jump up and down and ask “ Yeh kya ho raha hai?”, though I wonder if there is anything even vaguely comical about all that is happening around us and is assaulting us from every possible media vehicle. It must be conceded though that life of yesteryear was hardly as complex as it has become in today's day and age.

People doing the darkest deeds were still secure in the knowledge that they would quickly get a ‘second life', which would begin soon enough as public memory continued to be short, and sooner rather than later one of their contemporaries would outdo them in villainy and, thankfully, make their current misdemeanour pale in comparison. Not today, as thanks to the Internet, everything, if not carved in stone, is at least preserved for posterity, coming back to haunt the poor perpetrator (if one can be described that way) at the unlikeliest of times.

If I needed to find out what happened to the CEO of BP in 2010 in the year 2060, I would not have to visit the dusty archives of a newspaper office but just surf the Net. Yes, today's crisis will not go away easily but, perhaps, return to haunt companies and individuals long after their deeds are done and dusted.

Picnic with the tiger
In my cub years in communication, I read with interest what the renowned columnist Maureen Dowd said: “Wooing the press is an exercise roughly akin to picnicking with a tiger. You might enjoy the meal but the tiger always eats last.” I thought that India was different and in any case the tiger was an animal that was facing extinction, so why worry about the media that was out to get you. But the rules have changed with so many newspapers, magazines and television channels vying for attention. Everything is ‘breaking news', even if it does not qualify as news, forget the fact that the only thing it breaks is poor victims' hearts.

So what do some of today's editors do? They twist news around, put words into people's mouths, sentence the accused even before the slow arm of the law has a single hearing, attribute motives where none exist and either glorify or deify people. Liberalisation has reared its ugly head as far as reporting is concerned as most people will do anything for rating points and readership (this newspaper excluded) and journalistic ethics is banked with the same ease as politicians bank their ill-gotten gains in Swiss banks.

So it is hardly surprising that crises happen readily, multiply like the Indian population of old and stay permanently in the public memory thanks to the Net. So what should individuals and corporations do? Can they escape the noose they have created for themselves and that the media has so carefully and painstakingly tightened?

Preparedness the key
Tylenol, the over-the-counter drug that Johnson & Johnson had to recall several years ago.
Even today, when people discuss crises that hits companies, there is a reference to Tylenol and to Johnson & Johnson, the company once under siege, which actually turned the crisis around, if not to come out smelling like roses, at least with its image intact as a concerned corporate citizen willing to accept the problem, face it head-on and climb the slow, arduous way to the top. I wonder how many more case studies we could talk of with regard to companies that have ridden crises with a comparable degree of success and most certainly not in the Internet age. Is there a method to this madness? What must companies do? Can they do anything at all? Yes, I strongly believe they can. Here's how.

More and more CEOs are going to be in the firing line of media and activists. They need to be prepared and, more crucially, prepare for crisis. I often think CEOs are so full of themselves that they frequently shoot their mouths off and themselves in the foot in the bargain. The CEO of BP is a case in point.

In my opinion PR agencies have a role to play and must get into the CEO chambers more often than they are in the cubicles of corporate communication managers. The question remains, however, whether PR companies are ready for this challenge. If they are not, then they must get ready to assert themselves with clients, who need to be led in crisis, but often enough are not. I do know that companies prepare for crises too and the better-run companies have programmes in place for eventualities of all sizes and shapes.

So how prepared is your company? How open is your CEO to listen and how ready is your PR company to handle the crisis? How good are their relations with the media? Can they bank their goodwill to defuse the crisis? Can companies that are at fault own up when they are wrong? Can the PR companies advise their clients to come clean? It helps to be honest. BP might have learnt a thing or two from Johnson & Johnson.

My vote goes to Abdullah
It is easy to clutch at straws but I did feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel amidst this entire crisis and some learning for us. I admired Abdullah for saying he was glad that it was not a stone that was thrown and just a shoe. He had the good sense and if I may add, patience, to call the shoe thrower for a private meeting, spent an hour with him and sent him back to his native village in his private aircraft or was it helicopter. Clearly, he had won over the aggrieved man with his charm. Now how many CEOs would have done that?

Yes, we live in difficult times and the media will ensure that the difficulties continue. The survivors will have a strategy in place and more importantly keep their cool.

So how cool are you?

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

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Which shampoo has won the mystery stakes?

What's in it for the consumer really? Now, that's the real mystery!

Hindustan Unilever and Procter & Gamble are at it again. They remind me of the protagonists in that infamous test series that India played with Australia Down Under. They seem to be as feisty as Harbhajan Singh or as sullen and morose as Andrew Symonds was a few years ago, as they kept going at each other and the media often got into the contest to complicate things and muddy the waters even more. This seems to be happening all too often with these two companies as well. Some time ago Rin and Tide Naturals had fought the detergent war with a comparative commercial and even went to court on which cleaned whiter. I often wonder what happens to people in these two companies when they get promoted. How does their job description change? Well, my guess is from washing clothes, they graduate to washing hair! That is precisely what has happened as now it is the shampoo brands that are scrapping. Let's take a look at the latest provocation.

The mystery unfolds

It all started with a teaser campaign with the line ‘A Mystery Shampoo. 80% women say is better than anything else'. It was a high-profile multimedia effort using hoardings, TV and today's darling - the social network. Actors Katrina Kaif, Neha Dhupia and Shilpa Shetty were crowing on social network sites about how good the shampoo is, and posted their transformed looks on various sites, and how happy they were to sign on this brand as endorsers, and how soon the mystery would be out.

I am sure the client and the agency must have preened and patted themselves on the back for these “honest testimonials' from these celebrities. After all, we know how truthful actors are about everything including age and relationships! The competition (read HUL) did not seem unduly impressed or fazed. Of course, a basic research on Google (where would we be without it) would reveal that a similar mystery campaign was launched in 2008 in the US for Pantene and also the competitive action and strategies. In any case what happened was swift, dramatic and unfortunate for P&G. Before the big reveal of the Pantene announcement, presumably slated for August 1, HUL took over hoardings, newspapers and TV with its messaging: “There's no mystery Dove is the no.1 shampoo”.

The thunder of the mystery seems to have been stolen and there was no mystery as to on whose face the egg was. After all, shampoo and eggs do have an affinity and a connect!

The trouble with competition

One of the sad realities of business is that there are always competitors. The days of HMT are sadly gone and seem destined never to return as today, competition presents itself from the unlikeliest of nooks and corners and continues to perplex. One of the earliest manifestations of action like this that tickled watchers of advertising was the conflict between Hertz and Avis, the car rental companies in the US. Hertz being the market leader by far was bursting at the seams with customers (lucky them) and often could not even afford to clean the cars before handing it over to a waiting, often irate customer. Avis, the No.2 company that had made a virtue of being No.2 (with its campaign “because we try harder”), wished to capitalise on this and ran a campaign that said “our ash-trays are cleaner”.

It did seem a marketing coup of sorts till Hertz got into the act by asking, “What would you say in your advertising if you had half the number of cars, half the number of people to handle them and half the locations? Right, your ash-trays are cleaner! And then they had an endearing question at the end of the ad asking “Who's perfect?”

Certainly no one is perfect, not the no. 1 car rental company then, and certainly not half the competitors in business whether it was in the past, today in the present, or tomorrow in the future. Remember Pepsi's campaign during the 1996 cricket World Cup in India? After losing the sponsorship bid in India to Coke its arch rival, Pepsi used celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar, Dominic Cork, Courtney Walsh and the umpire Dicky Bird in saying ‘Nothing official about it' and in the process making the sponsor sound officious, stuffy and old in the bargain. Of course, it is hardly relevant that it was the sponsor for the 1999 cricket World Cup in England. And despite my memory being a bit dodgy, I certainly do remember what happened in my early days in advertising in the computer category. Zenith Computers (or so I think) ran a campaign listing its features in a full page ad, leaving half a page ad free for any of the competitors who could match them. It was asking for trouble as HCL (again writing from memory), as aggressive a company as one is likely to find, came up with an ad and features that were far superior, or so it claimed. In any case I had certainly no way of discriminating between bits and bytes then and certainly not even now but certainly there was no doubt as to which of the two ads had the sharper bite.

A frame of reference

It does make sense for smaller players to have a frame of reference. Even if your office is a hole in the wall, it might help to say you are “opposite the Empire State Building”. And the same strategy has worked for smaller brands such as Apple and Pepsi that have eyeballed their larger, more influential and better established rivals, and taken them on without fear of the consequences and actually benefited. Apple with its “Welcome IBM” ad when the giant had entered the personal computing space had given the impression that here was a leader welcoming healthy competition for the benefit of the human race! Hardly! Pepsi has taken potshots at Coke regularly whether it is the MC Hammer ad or the now redone ad of Coke and Pepsi salesmen. So there is no denying the fact that having a competitive frame of reference and comparing themselves to larger, well-established players can help smaller brands if helped by smart execution and nimble on-the-ground action. But does it help all brands, across categories and where customers are not necessarily young and on the ball?

Learning from the mystery

So what happened in the case of the mystery shampoo? HUL and its agency can certainly pat themselves on the back for capitalising on some obvious Zenith-like gaps that P&G had provided for them, by having too long a gestation period for the teaser campaign and replicating something that they had done globally. I think multinational companies need to rethink their strategies of replicating and borrowing from other markets in today's Internet age. Despite all this talk about social media, I often wonder if we are missing an important point. Social media is all about engaging the customer in dialogue. What is the great opportunity for engagement in paid celebrities saying they have tested the product and find it good? They better find it good. It is like Shah Rukh Khan saying it is safe for him to drink Pepsi when he is the brand ambassador. Well, if they paid me several crores, I might even drink castor oil and quickly wash it down with whisky off camera!

What about the consumer?

When Symonds and Harbhajan behaved in their self-indulgent, insensitive way, they spared little thought for lovers of the game the world over, and, of course, we had a largely biased and interested media on both sides adding fuel to the fire. This perhaps is not as bizarre, but I think often companies miss the point. Building market share and loyalty with the customer is not only about taking potshots at the competition, scoring brownie points and getting reams of editorial in social media sites. It is about something much more lasting. It might make sense where the audience is young and discerning like Apple's customers and fan club may be. But do shampoo users care a fig? Of course, given the abundance of my hair I am not the target customer, but it would make sense for these companies that spend so much time having a go at each other, in testing whether all this really makes an impact on the market place. Do customers really care which the mystery shampoo is? This campaign reminds me of a lot of advertising that is aimed for the benefit of the creative director in the other agency, for him to notice and compliment in the pub when the rivals do bump into each other. But does it do anything for the consumer? A mystery, if you ask me!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm. He blogs at

Friday, August 6, 2010

Should Advertisements For Children Be Monitored? Experts Share their views.

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