Monday, December 26, 2016

In praise of the Big Baskets, Olas and Ubers of the world

Successful companies observe consumer behaviour to keep them
constantly satisfied

I am a consultant who admires and analyses brands. Brands are my livelihood and passion. One of the most important things I have learnt is that there are no brands without consumers. Consumers make brands and when they desert them, the brands no longer exist. Remember Kodak, Nokia and Sony Walkman? Where are these names today?
It is this appreciation of the value of the consumer and their good sense that prompted me to write this piece in their defence. But why now? Yesterday I read an article on how Ola and Uber have got their business models completely wrong. Basically, the piece argues that their model is flawed, built around giving incentives to consumers and drivers who are paid out of cheap capital that is being badly used. I am not going into the economics of their business but let me share my experiences with Uber, as I am a diehard fan of the company, which to my mind is one of the most disruptive brands of today.
Customer comfort is the key
People who live in Bengaluru and take flights generally return late at night to avoid traffic. I usually land at 10 pm and take an Uber to my house, which is a mere 45 kms from the airport! Most recently, I was assigned a new car; Uber seems to upgrade me to a bigger one every time. The driver was respectful and loaded my baggage into the car. But most importantly, he let me sleep! He did not wake me up at the tollgate or ask me for directions as he had an updated GPS. He woke me up respectfully only when we reached my doorstep at 11.15 pm. He deposited my bag and wished me a good night, subtly reminding me to give him a good rating.
But the pièce de résistance for me was that it cost all of ₹649 to travel in the comfort of a Nissan Sunny. I must also mention that earlier, I had travelled the same journey in a rickety Mahindra Logan for ₹1100!
But I’m not complaining. I don’t complain when Ola rides cost ₹6 per km, making commutes in air-conditioned cars cheaper than autos. Nor do I complain when the Big Basket representative comes to my kitchen and loads well-packed vegetables into my refrigerator.
Doomsday is around
However, if you were to believe financial pundits this is the end of such companies and their heady days. Experts have begun asking how long their funds will last while the VCs get jittery.
As a branding person, I know that the pricing is predatory, that they are trying to lock me in. Uber, for instance, makes me many offers as I frequently use their services. My question to the financial experts is simple: Why should I mind? If their business model is flawed, shouldn’t they be more worried than me? I will continue to look out for myself and am fully capable of moving on if I don’t get the value I deserve.
What of the future?
History has shown that consumers are smarter than they are credited with. They know what they want. Remember how consumers rejected the “new Coke” or closer home, Ponds toothpaste? Sadly, marketers and analysts tend to underestimate our capability. As a consumer, don’t you think we know that Uber is pampering us with its predatory pricing? We know that the party may not last. Yes, prices will go up eventually and there is evidence of this worldwide.
I also know that the cars will age and the drivers might get complacent and rude even. What will I do then? I will shop around actively and look at other options. Look at the popularity of UberPool for instance in cities like ours. Regular consumers tend to compare UberPool with Ola Pool and take the one that offers better value.
Yes, consumers are smart and constantly seek value. Today I get value out of these offers but what about tomorrow? Well, who knows? I may even ride a cycle! And what should marketers do then? Observe my actions and scan the environment for new opportunities to keep me constantly satisfied. And I will reward them with my loyalty.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The legend of Amma

The story of the iron lady who built, sustained and proliferated her personal brand
On December 5, 2016, J Jayalalithaa passed away, ending an era even as millions of adoring Tamilians lost their Amma. Let me quickly clarify that I am no political analyst, and my only relationship with the departed leader is that I too passed the same Matriculation examination that she did in Presentation convent, albeit four years later, at Don Bosco.

Yet, I have always admired her intelligence, and her understanding and execution of the complex and confusing subject of branding without ever going to business school. Let’s take a look at the evolution of the Amma brand and see what we can learn from it. 

Politics, films and branding
Tamilians, as a race, seem obsessed with films and people connected with filmdom. Which probably explains the success of people like Annadurai and Karunanidhi, who were scriptwriters before they made it big in politics. The DMK too realised that the easiest way to get crowds and votes was to rope in an actual film star into their fold. And who better than MG Ramachandran, or MGR, as he is better known?

Anna was the universal leader who held the party together, and after he passed away things soured. MGR then formed the AIADMK, and Jayalalithaa, who was one of his more popular co-stars, joined him in politics.

She inherited the party leadership (with some difficulty) and made it her own with no second-in-line anywhere in sight — something which may come to haunt the party. Jayalalithaa had been groomed in Dravidian politics as an observer (thanks to her proximity to MGR) and one of the many things she must have learnt from the DMK was its understanding of branding, symbols, colours and slogans, which were extensively used and repeated, lest we forget.

You just need to watch MGR’s Enga Veetu Pillai to understand what colour coordination and subtle branding is all about. This is something even established brands tend to forget. Jayalalithaa obviously applied all this to great effect in her use of the ‘two leaves’ logo of AIADMK, which often reminds one of the victory sign that we are all familiar with.
The brand matures with age
One of the challenges brands constantly face is that of ageing. Younger customers come into the market, find existing brands fuddy-duddy and move on to hipper, younger brands. Examples of McDowells No. 1, VIP and possibly even Titan come to mind.

Jayalalithaa, however, handled it brilliantly. The “Kanavu Kanni” or dream girl of the silver screen became Puratchi Thalaivi or revolutionary leader a la the departed MGR (who was known as Puratchi Thalaivar) and later, only Selvi Jayalalithaa.

It was here that the leader’s marketing acumen came to the fore as she realised she wasn’t getting younger and was plagued by ill health, not to forget the cumbersome protection she was rumoured to be wearing.

She actually deglamourised herself even as her channel kept propagating her former youthful films! She was conservatively dressed and referred to herself as Amma, for she was, after all, a person without a family and the entire Tamil race was hers to claim!

Let’s not forget too that Tamilians love handles, and easier ways of remembering people — Anna, Kalaignar, MGR, et al. What better title than Amma, which is ubiquitous, universally recognisable and automatically loved?
While film stars never age and remain 18 forever, brands may or may not have that luxury.
The personal brand extends
The strategic masterstroke, however, was to prefix everything with brand Amma, be it eateries, water, salt or cement. The opponents were napping as the brand proliferated and some of the offerings (like the eateries), even if they lost money, were appreciated by the freebie-loving populace. Everything pointed back to her personal brand.

Even if the State was paying for it, Amma was doing it. Everything added back to her popularity and generosity. The logic might have been flawed, but it was one more reason to love the generous leader who was helping her forever needy children. And everything had political mileage, since she was the party, the government and just about everything, as far as the AIADMK was concerned.

Carrying a personal brand to the consumer is not exactly new but her unique feature was that she carried her equity to a host of subsidised products and services, all of which just furthered her personal brand. This translated into votes as recently as the bye-elections that happened while she was in hospital.

Her personality too shifted. While political analysts called her “the iron lady”, she was benevolence personified to her people.
What of the future?
The Amma brand had been inextricably woven into everything the government did during her tenure. While the future seems uncertain at this moment, I am sure the AIADMK, if it has any sense, will live on the legacy left behind by her.

Whilst it may seem a subjugation of their personal identities, it makes sense to live off the equity of a carefully cultivated, consistent brand. Whether they have the wisdom to understand or even appreciate the strategy and the thought that went behind it, is a completely different discussion.

But I, for one, will never have anything but admiration for the leader and the clarity of her thoughts. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Build a strong employer brand

While promoting a brand, employers rarely focus on employees
How often have we heard platitudes like “Our employees are our most important assets”; “We are only as good as our latest team” and “Every day when our employees go down the elevator our brand value goes down with them”? 

Many companies realise the value of the brand, but when they talk of branding, their attention and energies seem to be directed solely towards customers and investors. Very rarely, if ever, does it veer towards employees. So let’s spend a little time understanding this concept of employer branding and see what companies should do to build a strong employer brand. The starting point is the realisation that employees are just as important a target as investors and customers.
Who’s the champion?
Every brand needs a champion. While it is difficult to deny the value of the HR director and her importance, I have some reservations when it comes to her ability to champion the employer brand.

She certainly furthers the name and does what needs to be done, but in an ideal world, propagating the brand and its values to the world at large should be done by someone higher up in the hierarchy. And who better than the CEO?
What’s the vision?
In talking about and building an employer brand, a factor that is often underestimated is the importance of the brand’s vision. It is important to remember the idea of a brand like Starbucks — which is about creating rewarding everyday moments, all centred on coffee.

This is what drives the company and every one of its employees all over the world. Does your brand have a clear vision? What efforts have you made to communicate it internally so that your employees first know the vision and then internalise it?
What’s your position?
Positioning is extremely critical in brand building, where a brand differentiates itself from its competitors. While most discussions around positioning seem to feature in the realm of marketing, it is equally relevant for employees and HR as well.

How differentiated is your brand in the eyes of current and prospective employees? Is it relevant to them? How? And if the brand has a distinctive position, is it being communicated to its employees clearly and consistently?
Internal communication
Employees fully involved with the brand are the ones who are extensively communicated with. In my experience, you can never reach a position where you believe you have communicated enough with your employees. A company must think of innovative ways and means by which it can reach out to its employees.

Are they operating in silos? How much do they know about your company, its customers, its values and principles? You may be surprised at how little aware they are. I remember, at one of our multinational clients, its dynamic CEO had made a habit of walking down the office and stopping by employees’ cubicles, quizzing them on the company’s stated values. People who gave the right answers would get instant gifts!
Research is key
Very often, managers have misguided notions about their own brands. Employees, on the other hand, tend to be detached about the same, and often disinterested in its exploits. So how do we understand the extent of their apathy or interest?

Research done by an external agency with focus groups can throw up interesting findings. You will also notice interesting differences in attitude and approach among those employees who are from different time bands. For instance, freshers tend to view a company differently from those who have spent, say, five years in an institution.

This analysis becomes useful when you are trying to identify a set of brand champions who can initiate bonding activities and propagate vision and values in interesting ways. This method might have a greater impact than a top-down method that seems thrust down the throat of employees. 

Relentless execution
Let’s remember that building an employer brand is all about attention to detail and careful execution. It helps if the CEO is a champion of the cause and the brand. It is important to invest in external research which can be objective. Keep an open mind to problems that you may have to face.

Have a clear strategy and ongoing internal communication with employees. And engagement goes beyond TGIF parties, by innovatively opening up channels of communication. Keep checking employee morale at frequent intervals.

It’s not easy but, when done smartly, the efforts bear disproportionate results. Are you ready to think about your employer brand?