Monday, September 26, 2016

How to mess up a perfectly good brand

Bengaluru’s administrators are killing the golden goose that got them global recognition 
and money

I came to Bangalore (as it was called then) on the July 2, 1980 to study at IIM Bangalore. I have lived on here since, often singing its praises. I guess what most Bangaloreans, including myself, are proud of is the weather — and some of us speak as though we invented it!

In those days, Bangalore was the “garden city”, as the visionaries who conceptualised it had the sense not to fall prey to the real estate sharks and created lung spaces right in the heart of the city — Cubbon Park, Lal Bagh, Race Course and Golf Course. 

Bangalore was also a pensioner’s paradise, as the parks were filled with people in their Balaclavas, speaking in Kannada and preparing to have their masala dosa as soon as the walk finished!

Then came the public sector wave, as the BELs, BHELs and HALs made the city their home. The august institution of IISC was followed by an IIM and much later, the National Law School. All these made me believe that Bangalore could be the knowledge capital of India.

But the real brand, if you can call it that, was created by software giants like Infosys and Wipro, which led to a phenomenal association with software and spawned words like “Bangalored”, thanks to books like The World is Flat.

Of course, Bangalore did not know how to manage its growth and the infrastructure started to deteriorate, leading to jokes like these: “In the UK, people drive on the left of the road; in the US on the right of the road. And in Bangalore, on what is left of the road!”

Arguably, it was still the only Indian city that was globally recognised.
Beginning of troubles
The boom in the IT and ITeS sectors in Bangalore led to reckless, unplanned expansion of the city without a corresponding rise in the infrastructure. This lead to the unsavoury association between Bangalore and traffic jams.

In the middle of all this expansion, some politician decided to call the city ‘Bengaluru’ (Oh God!), raising many a foreigners’ eyebrows. Politicians, after all, believe that brands belong to them and they can do what they to want with them. Little do they realise that brands belong to consumers — even Coke realised this after a big fall.

However, without any help from the administrators and despite the government, Bangalore managed to become the start-up capital of India, as the Myntras, Flipkarts and Quikrs set up their headquarters here.

Of course, the city had no governance and we watched in horror as it soon became the “garbage capital of India” — Bangalore not only sucked but actually stank.
The new deteriorated Bengal
There was a time when Kerala and Bengal were famous for strikes, and entrepreneurs avoided these States like the plague. Companies like Britannia, which were headquartered in Kolkata, moved to Bangalore and ITC started its foods division here.

But there is a distressing trend today, thanks to the numerous bandhs happening in Bangalore with ever increasing causes, not least of all the Cauvery.

The solution? Bandhs, riots, arson, even as the government watches on, perhaps in tacit support, and the rest of the world watches in horror the tanking of brand Bangalore. Let’s not forget that the Accentures and the IBMs have a huge presence in the city.
Crying out for a champion
Watching Bangalore reminds one of a person who won a lottery worth several crores, but has no idea how valuable it is. He dips into it as though there is no tomorrow. This is precisely how politicians are dealing with the equity of brand Bangalore — carelessly, casually.

Thanks also to the presence of several million immigrants, the city does not have passionate residents like Chennai or Mumbai. No one knows who the city belongs to and the politicians could actually sell the Vidhana Soudha if the price is right!

So what do we have here? A brand that was built without anyone’s real effort or planning, and is still surviving on decades-old infrastructure that is creaking at the seams. If you look at successful brands, they all have a champion who lives, thinks, sleeps and dreams the brand. They ensure that the brand stays within its reason for being without straying from the chosen path.

Sadly, Bangalore does not know what leadership means. The administrators are killing the golden goose that got them global recognition, fame, money — just about everything.
Is there a way out?
Major cities like New York and London have a mayor who is the CEO of the city. Who is the CEO of Bangalore? And more importantly, who wants to be CEO of the city? That is the only way a brand that is rushing speedily downhill can be saved.

But something tells me that it’s going to be a long struggle. Will the brand be equal to it? Only time will tell…

Monday, September 19, 2016

Will Reliance Jio change the rules of the game?

Advertising is the easy part. It is the back end and customer service that will be difficult

A few days ago, I was so miffed with my Airtel service that I seriously contemplated burning my SIM card or gift wrapping and sending it to Sunil Mittal with a sarcastic note. And then switching to Reliance Jio.

But before doing something so impulsive, I went to Facebook to ask my friends about Reliance Jio. I got several long posts cautioning me and a solicitous friend, whom I have not spoken to for some time, frantically called me and gave me invaluable advice. Having been bitten by the Reliance Jio bug and hurting, he advised me not to “Make the mistake of making this your primary number” because I won’t be able to make calls.

Even as I realised the increasing importance of word-of-mouth marketing in the digital age, my mind went to one of the biggest launches in recent times: a diversification of staggering proportions and a start-up (as described by Mukesh Ambani) of ₹2.5 lakh crore without a single rupee of revenue as we speak.

In the words of the greatest writer of all times (PG Wodehouse, in case you were wondering), “Imagination boggles”! But Mukesh Ambani clearly knows his onions and if anyone has the capability of taking on some well-entrenched Indian and global giants, it is him.

Should one stick to one’s knitting?
Reliance Industries is an Indian giant that has consistently delivered year on year by thinking big, thinking global and managing the environment with surprising ease.

Clearly, their strength has been in business to business. Their ability to make a success of business to consumer is yet to be seen.

But I have a contrarian view. Many management theories we idolise and follow blindly have been conceptualised in Western markets, which are stagnant, if not declining. In markets like those, conservation of resources is laudable. But India is a growing economy.

Let me explain. Consider one of the most successful diversifications of Titan Industries Ltd, Tanishq. Imagine a watch company diversifying into jewellery and making a success of it! That’s the opportunity India provides and the risk taking ability it rewards.
Who knows what the future might hold for Reliance Jio?

Surrogate brand ambassador?
Reliance Jio’s launch had its own share of drama, as its ad in major newspapers had the dominant visual of Narendra Modi speaking about his vision of a digital India. Here’s the ad that literally launched a Twitter war, as people went to town saying Modi had joined the Reliance bandwagon, among a lot of other uncomplimentary things. 

I am not for one moment saying that the ad was creative or, worse still, unethical. It could well have been a tribute to Modi’s vision for India, which tied in with Reliance’s own plans and could have even been their inspiration.

But the ad certainly subscribed to one point of view that the advertising industry holds sacred — “Love me or hate me but for God’s sake don’t ignore me”. Well, you could not ignore the ad nor could one ignore the free offers of unlimited calls within India and the abolition of roaming charges it claimed to give.

There were a number of blogs explaining the offers and clearly, the demand was not being met as hordes of customers waited for days for their connection and activation of their SIM cards. This reminded me of the great Flipkart fiasco as millions of customers logged on to a website that soon crashed.

Remember, advertising is the easy part. It is the back end and customer service that will be the difficult part and if early days are any indication, Reliance will have its hands full.

So what must I do?
I am an unhappy, dissatisfied mobile services customer. Like million others I am sure. I have been wooed and cheated by service providers before, but I am still searching for the Holy Grail of customer service and coverage. I am willing to take a chance with Reliance, but will not put all my eggs in that one basket. (I have horror stories of my brief engagement with the earlier Reliance).

I will hang on to Airtel and keep fighting with them every day and look at Jio as my second line. Who knows? They might even get their act together. Because it is time for them to get off the newspapers and television sets and focus on things that matter — like speed of response, coverage and customer service which has foxed the Airtels and Vodafones of this world. Yes, Dhirubhai Ambani’s dream was “roti, kapda, makaan aur mobile.” Will this be a mere pipe dream?
Oh yes, I have decided. I will ask my wife!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Who’s sabotaging your brand?

The greatest danger that threatens a brand comes from within the company. Read on to know how
A brand is a living entity — and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures — Michael Eisner, CEO Disney.

I spent six years of my life learning (?) economics and at the end of this ordeal, I could remember only two statements. The first was JM Keynes’ often quoted line: “In the long run, we are all dead”. The second, more exotic one, is: “There is no such thing as a free lunch”.
I was reminded of Keynes a few weeks ago when I was talking to a friend’s son, who I am going to call Rahul for the purpose of this narrative (after all, Rahul is the name of all Hindi film heroes, not to forget those smart kids you see in TV commercials). This Rahul too is a smart young man, an engineer from a good school who was working in the software industry for a few years before going on to one of the top ten business schools in India.

After doing his MBA there, he worked for two years in another software company and was looking for a change, primarily because the company had crazy hours. After all, Indian software has an enormous predilection for the US time.

A headhunter put him on to one of the top three software companies in India, which is truly global (though they are not my clients, I am not going to name them as I don’t believe in sabotaging brands. Who knows what might happen tomorrow!). After a couple of interview rounds, Rahul met the vice president, the decision maker whom he would report to, if selected.

What are your long term goals?
Rahul’s interview was as smooth as the current English one day team’s batting against innocuous Pakistan bowling on a benign pitch. In his own opinion, he was doing famously till the final question, that turned out to be a Mitchell Starc Yorker — only, he didn’t pick it.

“What are your long term plans?” asked the VP, and to which Rahul replied honestly that his long term plan was to get into consulting. Sadly, Rahul is one of those rare interviewees who speaks the truth in interviews. It concluded soon after.

When Rahul didn’t hear from the company for some time, he called the headhunter to check on the status. Imagine his consternation when she told him that he had been rejected because the VP didn’t want to recruit a team leader who wanted to get into consulting!

Understandably, Rahul was livid. “Doesn’t he know what long term is?”, “I could have so easily lied”, “Who wants to work for a VP who doesn’t want to know the truth?” were some of his valid, immediate, angry reactions. I empathise with Rahul and only feel sorry that this hugely successful company has such a poor brand ambassador in an insecure VP, who is probably great at delivering to his clients.

Brands under threat
When we think of brands that are threatened, we conjure up images of competitors who have a “dirty tricks” department. But there is a greater danger from within — the danger is from anyone who is a decision maker, a performer even, but is sending out a strong, negative signal about the company.

Rahul, of course, is too well behaved to go to town about this individual and the company, but not everyone is Rahul. And most are on Facebook and Twitter! While I admire the VP’s tunnel vision in only thinking of his short-term needs, I wish he would think of the ramifications of his slightly immature action.

I am not, for a moment, suggesting that companies recruit everyone they interview, but they could be a little less open ended in their questions, as there are clearly different interpretations of the word ‘long-term’.

Would further probing have yielded greater clarity and understanding of what each of the people meant by the same term? Would this have resulted in a better decision and, more importantly, less ill-will for the brand?

Branding is everything a company does
Branding is often seen as a sexy website, striking colours and a provocative tag line. But there is a lot more to it and often, companies don’t realise it before it is too late. An insensitive manager could be a very poor advertisement for a brand, as you just saw.

So what’s the answer? The answer is a realisation that branding is doing the small things right, day in and day out. It could be boring, but the results will be dramatic. And when you don’t get it right, the damages can be disastrous.

So is someone sabotaging your brand?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Is speed your brand’s differentiator?

Quikr’s success can be attributed to its ability to sense changes and adapt itself accordingly

Taking off from last week's article, let us continue the discussion on Quikr. Over the last few years, the brand has moved into the big league, while staying true to its basic philosophy of being flexible and capitalising on opportunities with the consumer in focus.
When Quikr realised that consumers often don’t get the price they deserve when they sell their goods on the portal, it pioneered the concept of Maximum Selling Price (MSP). Here’s a commercial that demonstrates the idea. 

The company was changing with times and focused on the mobile app. And it had the Kevin Pietersens of the world telling us “Photo Khench, Quikr Pe Bech!”

Then, realising that consumers who posted on the site were being inundated with calls, they came up with the idea of instant messaging system. Consumers could merely select the “private” option, which hid their phone numbers and email IDs, while keeping track of all chats and making photo sharing easier — an important feature. 

Time to change
As brands continually keep reinventing themselves, one of the things they refurbish is their identity, as it reflects new dynamism, growth and ambitions of the company along with a tagline that mirrors what the company stands for. This was an important phase in the company’s evolution, as it moved into the big league focussing on emerging opportunity areas which would provide consumers, traction and revenue. The verticals were cars, homes, jobs, services and Quikr doorstep.

Let’s focus on cars, which are such an important part of people’s lives. It was a big revenue stream for Quikr as consumers could sell cars in as little time as eight hours once they advertised on the portal!
Using the fascination Indian audiences and consumers have with celebrities, the brand signed up Suriya to woo southern audiences and Ranvir Singh for national audiences. 

Do celebrities help brands?
This is a question consultants and journalists are fond of asking — “Do brands benefit from the using celebrities?”
Most marketers in India would vehemently say “yes” and Quikr is no exception. Someone like Suriya certainly did make a difference to the brand, especially for homes, and it probably points to a significant change in the brand’s personality.
It moved from its earlier brash, cheeky and irreverent image to one that still catered to impatient consumers but who have value and to whom it it has to deliver consistently. Suriya certainly embodied the qualities of trustworthiness and maturity that the brand wanted to make its own. 

Along with cars, the company also realised that many young Indians needed jobs and, hence, Quikr jobs was launched. Other commercials followed for repairs of flooring as a struggling dancer tried to dance on a shaky floor that needed retiling, and so on and so forth. As the offerings continued to broaden, its appeal broadened as well. 

Along with cars, the company also realised that many young Indians needed jobs and, hence, Quikr jobs was launched. Other commercials followed for repairs of flooring as a struggling dancer tried to dance on a shaky floor that needed retiling, and so on and so forth. As the offerings continued to broaden, its appeal broadened as well.  

A success that continues
Today, Quikr is present in more than 1,000 cities, with nearly 30 million unique visitors and a page view of 1 billion, with a revenue stream that many companies would yearn for. So what has Quikr done differently?
For one, they have been smart in using media — not extravagantly, but sensibly, a combination of mainline, outdoor and social media, including localised media.
While mass media built awareness on a larger scale, they leveraged social media and events to engage the youth. Online advertising was used to reinforce and influence behaviour. They also extensively used localised media to create widespread awareness in a concentrated market. I guess this is one of the many smart things that the brand has done.
But to my mind, I would be attribute its success not only to media and technology but to its ability to sense changes in the environment and quickly adapt itself to the opportunity. And believe you me, that is not easy. 

Speed is success
As companies grow, they lose their speed, become ponderous and slow moving, finding themselves very tardy in responding to changes or (worse) opportunities. Quikr has demonstrated its ability to be fast, flexible and build on the equity that the brand garnered in the eight years of its existence.
It demonstrated that all start-ups don’t have to get into trouble as long as they have some clear differentiators and think smart, consistently. Most significantly, it is important for companies to not sit back on their achievements but keep evolving, quickly, even as they spot trends and capitalise on them.

So is speed your brand’s differentiator?