Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Complete Man Returns

Raymond's advertising is a good example of a brand proposition kept alive and intact down the years..

Brands constantly try to remain in the public memory and advertising is an important way of making it happen. Raymond's advertising in particular has managed to engage consumers with the brand.

We goofed. Pure and simple. Before you attempt to say “so what's new” or “I told you so” let me try and explain. We have a simple ritual in our office of recognising employees on their birthdays. It is nothing elaborate, actually. We give the lucky person a cake and all sing “Happy Birthday” at the top of our voices. We have the leader of the local church choir leading our efforts though he is hard-pressed to get the willing but completely hapless group into some semblance of melody as there are two sets of voices competing for attention.

One set slightly gruffer than M.R. Radha, an actor of my time, and another set just slightly shriller than Sachin Tendulkar, an icon of your time. But we have a great time, which usually culminates in the lucky (!) person having to make a speech which is often as predictable as post-match press conferences in T20 games.

So where did we goof? We missed the birthday of one of our employees. Which is perhaps not earth-shattering given the chaotic way in which most organisations function. But what was particularly galling was the fact that the person we had forgotten to recognise was one of our nicest employees and someone whom most people went to when they had a problem.

And someone who, despite the enormous pressure she was exposed to at work, always sported a smile. I found her very subdued and not her normal cheerful self the next day which was a bit odd. We soon discovered what we had done, or more precisely, not done. Agencies are pretty good at coming out smelling like roses from the worst of disasters so the young people in the office rallied around, organised an impromptu party and found a nice way of saying ‘Sorry we are like that only'.

Of course, being the nice soul that she is, she forgave me for forgetting. After all, working closely with me, she knew that I was close to senility and was even having difficulty remembering the names of my children. But what hurt her most was that her family had forgotten as, of course, had her second family, the agency that she was spending so much time at. Oh, the malady of forgetfulness, how much better we would be without it!

Another birthday, another place

Over the weekend even as I kept thinking about it and was trying hard to forget our goof, I saw a commercial. Now that is hardly shocking given the amount of time I spend watching TV. I think it was 3 Idiots (or so I hope) that was being shown on one of the channels and there was the young Raymond model smartly turned out as always, entering a retirement community. Ever since I read a research report many years ago which spoke about Indian youth not worrying unduly about sending their parents to such places, I have been fairly interested in them. After all, one should be interested in places one is likely to end up in, right?

But back to the commercial where the Raymond man waves cheerily to a number of old people before spotting his old teacher standing alone and aloof in a corner. It's his birthday and I think the familiar emotion of not being cared for or wished on his birthday is evident on his face. The young man quietly tells the other residents that it is his birthday and they get ready to surprise him. Meanwhile, he opens his laptop and through the webcam shows his old teacher images of his grandchildren who cheerily wish him happy birthday as do his children. The scene is complete with the other residents of the old age home who have quickly mustered up a cake and the entire gang of silver citizens wishes the retired teacher and makes his day. The teacher hugs his old student who, as always, is wearing a Raymond suit that feels like heaven. An interesting commercial that highlights the loneliness of growing old and how technology can reduce the gap, linked by familiar models and a strong brand presence that has been a feature of Raymond's work over the years.

If it's a wedding it has to be Raymond

Like most Indians the first suit I bought and wore was at my wedding reception and, of course, it had to be Raymond's. Twenty-eight years later I have the same wife, a tribute to her indulgence and patience more than anything else, but the suit too fits after minor (!) alterations. I remember my father's words “have scope for expansion” when I was getting the suit made. Strange but true, for although he never put on a single inch, all of us dutifully did, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places! I came into contact with the Raymond brand again and fully realised its enormous success in my days at Mudra where the brand often featured in discussions and reviews. Vimal was Mudra's flagship brand and the agency was passionate about it. Frank Simoes was the agency that was producing sophisticated and classy advertising for the brand. For those interested in advertising trivia, Frank Simoes used to handle Vimal's advertising in the pre-Mudra days and the tagline “Only Vimal” was his. Mudra had a grudging respect for Raymond's advertising and its clear message of “understated elegance”. This sophistication has been carried on over the years first by Frank Simoes, then by Nexus and now by R K Swamy BBDO. Sometimes when brands change agencies, they change stances and end up losing brand properties in the quest for change. Often the baby is thrown out with the bath water! Thankfully not the case here!

Retired teacher wins hearts

One of the earlier commercials for Raymond, arguably the best, features the above mentioned teacher retiring from school to the complete desolation of his doting students. They have placards saying “please do not go” even as he drives off in his trusted Morris Minor after one last look at the school to which he has given so much and which loves him so much. The fabric is woven deftly into the commercial, for after all, the problem with so many of these commercials is that they can apply equally across most categories. This generally happens when scriptwriters get carried away by the power of their idea and forget that the purpose of advertising is not merely to entertain but sell! The sequel to this commercial is the teacher attending a wedding reception of one of his students who was most distraught at his leaving school. The teacher goes in diffidently into a grand wedding wondering what his own reception might be. He need not have worried; the groom quickly disengages from the crowd around him and rushes to meet his old teacher and seeks his blessings, wife in tow. The commercial ends with all the old students getting into a group picture with the teacher. The current commercial is the third in the series featuring Bomi Dotivala whose role in Munnabhai MBBS too was written about.

Brands are all about properties

Brands constantly try to remain in public memory and advertising is an important way of making it happen. Clever, consistent advertising strategically executed over the years creates a property that customers recall and associate with the brand. For years the cute girl that eyeballed the camera and said, “I love you Rasna” was a property of the brand. The models in Raymond commercials, particularly the teacher, seem to not only entertain and hold our attention, but also further the engagement with the brand. I am intrigued by the concept of sequels to commercials. As long as it does not make the agency self-obsessive, it is a great opportunity to cue earlier memories and associations and cement relationships with the brand. And yet I see a lot of advertising that leaves me really cold and make as much impact as “ships that pass us by at night”. So here are a few questions worth thinking about:

How distinctive is your advertising?

Does it have a clear and consistent tone of voice over the years?

What have you taken from the past? Remember, the past, unless it is a baggage, can be used to advantage.

Do you have a brand property that customers actually recount in brand research studies?

And finally, are you using technology to keep track of birthdays?

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sponsors in a spot

Match-fixing allegations enervate audiences, and marketers would do well to have alternative strategies in place..

There used to be a fairly banal script idea in the Tamil films that I used to see several years ago. See if this sounds familiar: There is a doting husband and a pretty wife with dubious morals. The husband reluctantly leaves his wife to go on a foreign trip and barely has he reached the airport before the wife gets her paramour into the house. The flight is cancelled for technical reasons (long live Air India) and the husband returns home, only to find his wife in a stranger's arms in his own bed. The poor man is devastated, loses reason, sees red and kills his wife. He goes to jail, becomes a misogynist and goes around wearing a shawl in the salubrious Tamil Nadu weather singing sad songs!

Sounds familiar, even ludicrous and only serves to confirm our already poor opinion about Tamil films, right? But there is nothing ludicrous about what happened in cricket recently with the Pakistani cricket team and with all the evidence of spot fixing that has been aired on every television channel and spewed forth on every Web site and newspaper. I am sure thousands of cricket lovers, me included, would empathise with the husband in the Tamil movie and feel he was not as weird as they thought he was initially, as now I can understand what people can do when they are let down badly by the people they love. I don't blame some of the Pakistani supporters for taking to the streets as they have been let down again by their beloved cricketers and even more by their administrators who still talk about “conspiracy theories”, even if they have been pushed to reluctantly suspending the three tainted players.

Spare a thought for me

I felt particularly aggrieved as, when match after match of boring cricket was happening in the sub-continent featuring some of our own stars, I chose to watch Pakistan take on Australia and England under the cloudy skies of the English summer and revelled at the way the Pakistanis made the ball talk, not knowing that a lot of the conversation was happening with shady characters from the betting world as well. Poor, unsuspecting me! It was singularly gratifying to watch the talented 18-year-old make batsmen such as Ricky Ponting, Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen look like schoolboys on their first outing. Sadly, though, it is not the image of the swinging ball beating the bat, but the repeated sight of Aamer's extended front foot well over the crease, shown time and time again on every TV channel in the country, which is going to haunt not only me but the sponsors who have put in hundreds of crores in India.

Suddenly many of the Australians too are talking about being approached while they were playing earlier against Pakistan, in London and during the Champions Trophy. Atul Wassan, who has been involved with the IPL too, spoke as though players being approached by bookies was as common as being propositioned by a sex worker in the shadier parts of any city!

What was all hunky dory suddenly seems to be as murky as hell, and the entire future of the game is being threatened. If this will not give sponsors sleepless nights, one wonders what else will. For once faith is lost and then everything comes into the realm of doubt and uncertainty. Was Mike Hussey's unforgettable innings in the World Cup semi-final against Pakistan (arguably the greatest innings ever played in the T20 big stage) for real? Was Australia's victory at Sydney truly a jail break and as dramatic as it seemed to me when I watched it first on Star Cricket? Is any cricket match involving Pakistan real at all? If a five-day test match in an alien land can be influenced, what about the shorter versions such as the Champions League, the IPL and, horror of horrors, the 50-over World Cup, which is to be held in the sub-continent early next year?

How safe are any of these? Will I watch any of these? And what about millions of others who may be sharing the same doubt as me and may not be articulating them? What is going to be our reaction when the bowler, albeit genuinely, bowls a “no-ball”? Will we exult at the ensuing “free hit” or wonder about the bowler's integrity? What happens when a fielder drops a catch? While we do know that even the best of fielders can drop a catch, will our thoughts go to the sitters dropped by Younis Khan and Kamran Akmal, who continues to be a darling of the Pakistani selectors even if he has given a new dimension to terms such as “butterfingers” and “iron gloves”? Will the ardent cricket fan continue to watch the game? I am not so sure.

It is money and more of the same

I would be the last to grudge players what is due to them, for they are the ones who bring in the crowds. I used to travel to different parts of the world to watch Gilchrist bat and Warne bowl. Similarly, I am sure that spectators from all parts of the world would come to watch Sehwag and Sachin take on the best of the world.

But it does seem horribly inequitable that the best talent that the world has seen in recent times — Mohammed Aamer (whatever his current ills) — gets paid less for bowling 60 overs in a five-day test match than Ishant Sharma got paid for bowling one ball in the IPL, never mind the fact that the ball was bowled at a ferocious 125 km per hour as that poor lad seems to have lost his pace and his rhythm!

Still, inequity does not excuse the diabolical acts of the captain and his two champion bowlers. Nor do I know if you can entirely blame the political system and the total chaos that seems to prevail in that country that dooms everything including the cricket team. But the issue of wide disparities in incomes of players certainly seems to be an issue. The larger issue is the fact that the governing body – and that means the ICC – is toothless as evidenced by the fact that the tour is still on despite widespread criticism. For the ICC and the PCB it seems to be business as usual no-ball or not.

Where is the Plan B?

A few years ago, I heard an interesting comment on the brand strategies of Indian companies. The speaker said with the straightest of faces “Most companies have a Plan B, which comes into operation when the original plan fails. In India though most companies have a ‘Plan Big B'. When all else fails use Amitabh as your brand endorser.” Well, not an exaggeration, as Amitabh, if my memory serves me right, did 67 commercials in 2004! I wonder if companies have a similar attitude to cricket as they seem to be bitten by the cricket bug despite all the chaos that one can patently see.

I wonder how the IPL will be run without the high-profile founder and as for the Champions League, despite all the hype, I still believe it is likely to be a damp squib, maybe competing with the Commonwealth Games in appeal. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating but the game of cricket is under serious threat and seems to lurch from one crisis to the other. There is a complete and total lack of leadership with most boards, and the leader of the pack is the ICC, which seems to be focused on everything except the long-term interest of the game.

I am sure the sponsors are familiar with the term caveat emptor. They must look out for themselves as the administrators do not have the will to get their house in order. The malaise is too deep-rooted and the spot fixing episode is not the first problem, nor is it likely to be the last. If I were putting my money in cricket, I would seriously have an alternative strategy in place.

Software companies did this. It is called “de-risking”. They looked at markets such as Europe and Japan when the US tanked and at least came out alive. What efforts have the companies who are wedded to cricket made to look for alternatives? I am sure the next few big events that India has interests in – the Champions League, the World Cup and the IPL – have to be watched carefully as a mess in any of these can deal the game a body blow. Indian companies should seriously look at neutral games such as the Ashes, where at least the shadow of fixing does not arise, and move on to safer pastures over a period in time. I am reasonably sure that our sponsors have a different view from my gloomy one. For once, I hope I am wrong for I love the game and what I have got from it but worry for its future.

PS: While still on the subject of Amitabh Bachchan, I have a doubt. Is it true that only cricketers should retire? What about actors? At 68, hasn't he had too long a run? I just cannot bear to watch the Champions League commercials. I only hope the games are better than the ads!

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