Monday, January 30, 2017

Don't judge a brand by its ad

Utopian scenarios shown in advertisements are far removed from reality
What’s the easiest way to break the ice in a room full of strangers? Just ask them what they think of Reliance Jio service and lo and behold! you’re in a room full of friends! I am sure a lot of people will be eager to share, criticise and give you feedback.
Today, people have a strong view and increasingly high expectations from their service providers. And here is another interesting insight about customer service. Many of us who are customers and also work in the service industry, have different standards for ourselves when we are service providers, and when we are customers.
Let me try and explain that from my perspective. While I tend to be extremely demanding as a customer (just ask my wife) at a restaurant or at a retail outlet, I am not so understanding of my own customers when they ask me for something. I end up classifying them as ‘too demanding’! Whether we like it or not, when it comes to customer service, we are a bunch of hypocrites! But why this sudden interest in customer service which is a concept as old as the hills? Well, because I saw this new commercial for a Samsung service.
As far as commercials go, it’s pretty interesting, even if it is long winded. The service executive takes a long drive through winding roads, falling trees, overflowing rivers, and sheep to fix a TV that is broken. The customer, a young girl, places several calls, anxiously asking him to reach before 7 pm. Imagine his surprise when he reaches the place only to find it a home for blind children.
He repairs the TV, even as the blind girl keeps worrying about the time. As the TV set gets repaired, she rings a bell and a whole bunch of children, come down a flight of stairs to experience a singing reality show on TV (at 7 pm), in which once of their own is participating. The girl who called the executive, tells him, “She is from our hostel and is my best friend.” Our service engineer goes back, thinking about the relationships that are so important.
This commercial is for the launch of Samsung’s service, and is meant to portray how it reaches out to even the most remote place in India.
Interesting and memorable advertising
I am sure the ad will be well-liked and probably win some awards as well. Which reminds me of a couple of other ads from the past that were interesting.
Let me start with Vodafone, a brand with very poor service (and I can personally vouch for this), but great advertising. Remember the Vodafone pug dog and the little girl? All commercials featuring the duo are cute, as the girl is adorable and the dog even more so. The canine is extremely loyal and follows the girl wherever she goes, going so far as to carry her tie to school that she forgets to wear! In an extremely creative fashion, the commercial tells us how extensive Vodafone’s service is and how it follows you, wherever you go and is always ready to help.
The next commercial is for a completely different category — a nationalised bank. It shows a conscientious bank employee, who is very worried that his elderly regular customer has not come to the bank branch on the first of the month to collect his pension cheque. He comes frantically searching for him and reaches the house, only to find him playing with children.
After he hands over the pension, the customer sheepishly tells him that he had got the date wrong. The two laugh and proceed to share a cup of tea
Far from the truth
We are supposed to be impressed at the personalised service that Bank of India provides. Which leads me to the important question — is this for real?
I have worked in a nationalised bank for four years, and bank extensively with another. While I do believe that nationalised banks provide more personalised service than their private counterparts, they are nowhere close to the giving service the way it is projected in this commercial.
Service is difficult
Having spent all my life in advertising, I know that the creative types are good at making great advertising for inferior products and services. I am certain that the agency which handles Bank of India does not hold accounts with the said bank, and hence has no idea of how the actual service is. Or they are keen on glorifying one isolated instance of great service.
They are like celebrities endorsing products they don’t use. How often do banks return cheques of customers wrongly credited, or credit wrong amounts to accounts, or make customers wait inordinately without apologising for the inconvenience? But if you look at the advertising, you will think the banking experience to be utopian, with great customer service. But it is sadly far removed from reality.
I wish companies spent less money on advertising, which is the easy part, and really focus on service delivery, which is the difficult part — it involves training, hours of practice, and people with an enormous attitude to serve, who value their customers and are willing to put up with long hours and pain.
More significantly, customer service is all about delivering expectations. So why on earth would anyone wish to hype the expectation so much? I don’t have an answer. Do you?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Amazon on the mat in India for wrong welcome rug

Today, managing brands is about controlling everything the company does; that includes sourcing

Have you ever played a game called ‘Snakes and Ladders’? If you have you will probably empathise with the way Amazon is feeling at this particular point in time. Till recently, Amazon had been making waves in India with its 8 crore products, high-decibel advertising with an essentially Indian appeal and insights, and its numerous offers. In fact, Flipkart kept looking over its shoulder as the global major kept sniping at it and went on acquiring market share.
But all that is changing, at least in terms of perception, with large sections of the country expressing their anger at Amazon for selling doormats with an Indian tricolour motif. The External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to whose notice this had been brought, lost her cool and rightfully demanded that the product be withdrawn and the company tender an unconditional apology. She also said that if Amazon did not comply, its executives would not get visas to India and even those who had them might lose them!
So Amazon knew precisely what it was to be on top of the world and very soon at the bottom of the ladder, all in a matter of a few seconds!
Global brand
I can empathise with Amazon, which operates in multiple centres and has products from a variety of sources that are sold in different countries. This particular product was offered for sale in Canada and, in defence of the seller, flags of some countries including the UK are already being sold as doormats.
Of course, Indians tend to be a little different from people in other parts of the world and are already up in arms, if WhatsApp is to be believed! I have received several messages from different groups exhorting me to boycott Amazon’s products as they have insulted our country. Messages of support and congratulations are being sent to the foreign minister on her taking a strong stance.
“How did Amazon even dare to make this offer? I’d choose to boycott them till such time they tender an apology. Let’s all post on Twitter and all other social media platforms.”
Emotions tend to run high in our country and passion can be easily lit if we provide the right spark. Indians also tend to be fairly jingoistic and have a very limited (!) sense of humour. So reactions can be swift, violent and often wrong. I am not, for one instant, suggesting that they are going overboard in this case, but the reaction is certainly strong and bordering on violent. Soon it could become a nationalist issue if local brands step in, making the right appeal.
Managing the environment
While no one is denying the value or the size of the Indian market, we have instances of brands failing to understand or, more critically, managing the environment. We are all familiar with what happened with Maggi. What started as a simple deviation turned into a major disaster for the global brand as the regulatory environment turned extremely hostile. The product ultimately had to be pulled off the shelves and Nestle ended up making phenomenal losses, even as local players gleefully tried to capitalise on the brand’s misfortunes. It is important for Amazon to realise that things could become worse for it in India if the situation is not handled quickly and satisfactorily.
Empathy is key
Every marketer worth his salt will tell you how important an ingredient empathy is for success. In this very column, I have lauded Amazon for its understanding of Indian consumer insights, and its ability to look at opportunities that are essentially Indian. Take a look at this new advertisement done in Tamil for Pongal.
Here’s a global brand that is more Indian than Indian brands, if this ad is any indication. But I have always maintained that advertising is the easy part. Today, managing brands is more and more about managing everything that your brand does, and that includes sourcing.
Clearly, Indian consumers are different from their English counterparts. While the English might not make a big deal of the Union Jack as a doormat, I am not sure Indians will be as sanguine about such an offering.
Strength in numbers
But we buy products and services, often much more than many other countries. This is why every multinational brand is making a beeline for this country. Companies like Uber have chosen India over China, and I am certain that Amazon too realises the importance of India and Indians. It is time for Amazon to take a look at its entire product portfolio and see if there are any other dicey products that could provoke Indian ire, and quickly withdraw them.
More importantly, it is time for the company to reiterate its good intentions and demonstrate to India and Indians how important they are. If it is a time to eat humble pie, so be it.
Remember, ego is great but will always be a poor second to national pride!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Brand-building is a two-way street

Clients, too often, don’t like to be advised by PR firms, despite mouthing platitudes that they are partners | Sentavio/Shutterstock

It is important for PR companies to lead the relationship rather than merely follow a client’s orders

How often do we (PR companies) feel frustrated when we are unable to convince our clients to take some action we know they must take for their own good, but they don’t do it? Very, I’m assuming!

Let me share with you a recent experience I had with one of our clients, a large, profitable firm that is rated very highly by its peers and competitors. The head of communications said, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that they could spare a couple of hours for the MD for media interviews — for the whole year!

Which brings me to a conclusion — that companies have time for discussions on revenue, costs, collections, operations, people, appraisals… basically just about everything except their brand image!

Why are discussions on brand image relegated to the backburner? And even if they do take place but the marketing communications head is unable to convince senior management about it, then isn’t the onus on the PR company to educate the client? And when we do get the opportunity, how ready are we to take on the leadership mantle?

Three kinds of companies 

In my experience, there are three types of companies.

The understated kind
The first, perhaps more popular in the south, is of large, successful companies who are understated and low key. Their attitude is “our achievements must speak for themselves”. While this is noble, it leads to even their genuine achievements not getting the recognition they so richly deserve.

The frustrating thing, however, is that their competitors, who are probably half their size and nowhere in their league of achievements, get disproportionate share of voice, thanks to their desire to be in the news and eager beaver PR companies.

Forward-looking kind
The second type of companies is that which makes forward looking statements — many of which are wishful. “We will open 1,000 stores!” they say without batting an eyelid. And what happens when they complete the year? They have a mere 80 stores!
In the early days, before the internet became a way of life, we had a number of companies which would casually talk in this manner, and without too many after effects. Today, however, companies would be well advised to be more reticent, as their statements are being recorded for posterity on the internet. And no journalist will meet a client without doing his homework first.

Role model kind
The third type of company is akin to Infosys. Now here’s a company that has been a role model of how to handle one’s image and public relations. Whilst they have had fantastic achievements - like being the first Indian company to be listed on Nasdaq - they also ensured that they got the maximum mileage for these achievements.

This leads me to an important observation. While companies should be careful about making forward looking statements, they should not hold back on their genuine achievements and ensure maximum visibility for it whenever and wherever possible.

While a lot of new generation companies seem to understand the value of being in the news, the older, better established brick-and-mortar companies particularly, still suffer from what I call the stiff upper lip syndrome.

So what should PR companies do?

Running a PR company myself, I must confess that too often, we are comfortable in merely taking orders. We don’t rock the boat or assume the mantle of consultants who advise their clients on the desired course of action. We often rationalise and console ourselves by saying, “Every client gets what he deserves”.

What you should do
I need to also tell you that clients, too often, don’t like to be advised despite mouthing platitudes that they have an open mind and that we are partners. But someone must bite the bullet or the PR Company will be left holding the baby. Of course, there is a time and place for everything. Clearly the PR Company must find an opportune moment to share their recommendations.

In my experience, the beginning of the relationship is a good time. Ideally, if we could start the relationship with a media workshop, where senior management could be present, that would make a good beginning.

The reality is that many CEOs need to be told how Public Relations helps their company’s stock price, get better employees and improves the company’s pricing. They simply aren’t aware of these things. I think it is important for PR companies to lead the relationship rather than merely follow the client’s orders.

Which leads me to another difficult question: How many of us are truly ready to be consultants? Do we possess the knowledge and the confidence so that clients can look to us for advice? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it certainly is something that should occupy our attention and energies, if we are to get the importance we deserve.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A twist to the gifting tale

Gifting has spawned interesting concepts and ideas by marketers and branding students

Gifting is as old as the hills. Even when I was a kid, Amul ran a campaign for chocolates with the tagline “A gift for someone you love”. But the pioneer in the Indian market when it comes to gifting has, arguably, been Titan. The brand’s gifting campaigns have set the tone for its advertising over the years.
People had been gifting items of their choice — jewellery, watches, et al — when Titan decided to make gifting its own with its “Joy of Giving” campaign. This was way back in 1999. Here’s the first gifting commercial that the brand executed, featuring a daughter who surprises her parents on their anniversary. 

Titan’s pair watch continues to be a star in the company’s portfolio, and the brand has stayed steadfast with its gifting strategy. The brand’s evolution has seen gifting moving away from birthdays and anniversaries to anytime gifting.
Here’s another commercial about a retiring teacher. (It’s a matter of considerable intrigue to me that in my last 25 years as a teacher, I have never received a gift. But then, I am not retired yet!) 

The saga continues
While there have been many commercials riding the gifting bandwagon, the ones that stand out are those which have a creative twist or those with consumer insights.
Like Nazraana Jewellery’s commercial, for instance, which has an interesting turn and features a husband (a bit like me) who seems to have forgotten his wife’s birthday. Thankfully, his mother comes to his ‘rescue’. 

The commercials that have made a greater impact on me, however, are the ones done for Amazon. One of the positive features of the brand’s advertising, as far as I am concerned, has been its ability to truly Indianise its advertisements. Not merely being satisfied with the fact that it can offer enormous choice to its consumers, it has constantly been searching for consumer insights about India and Indians. Here’s an insight I could relate to with the two commercials shown below. 

There’s that yellow sari again
There are a few of us who constantly get great satisfaction in giving. We are happier gifting to others than buying things for ourselves. After all, the smile on their faces when they receive carefully selected gifts is our ultimate reward — or so we would like to believe. Yet mothers do know their children and are able to see through some of their idiosyncrasies, as this commercial demonstrates. 

Then there’s another commercial where a young husband gets an increment and dedicates it to his wife, saying “What’s the difference, whether you earn it or I?” The delighted wife asks the husband if she can use the amount to get herself a necklace, and he says, “Order whatever you feel like on Amazon”.
When the parcel comes, she asks her husband to open it. Imagine his delight when the gift turns out to be a camera that he always wanted! Yes it is certainly gifting with a twist and it struck a chord with me.

A gift to remember
Another brand that has recently gained traction and market share with consumers has been the deodorant Fogg. It has become a force to reckon with in the fragrances market.
The brand recently diversified into a related category — scents — which, one can say, is a relatively nascent category in India. Most people who use it, usually go for international brands. Having said that, let’s take a look at this commercial, where a bunch of friends are talking about gifts they are carrying for their friend, Rahul’s wedding. While one gets him a bouquet, another talks about giving him Fogg scent, a gift that will keep reminding Rahul about the person who gave him the gift, every time he uses it. Interesting, though I am still wedded to my international brand! 

Yes, gifting is spawning interesting concepts and ideas by marketers and branding students. So what’s the next step? Gifting experiences! Why stop with gifting products when you can gift the people you love an outstanding experience that he/she can remember, recall, share and talk about?
Coming soon in this very column!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Action heroes turn drivers

  Collin Furtado  Wed, 4 Jan 2017-07:20am , Mumbai , DNA

From roping in sports stars to big Bollywood celebrities, auto makers are now driven to change the face of their commercial vehicle campaigns 

Tata Motors recently announced the signing of Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar as its brand ambassador for its commercial vehicles (CV).
While Tata Motors’s passenger vehicles has Lionel Messi as the global brand ambassador, this is a first for the CV business of the company to appoint a brand ambassador. It is usually very uncommon to see commercial vehicle manufacturers appointing brand ambassadors, let alone big Bollywood actors.

Many of them would instead go in for sports stars, like India’s cricket team ODI captain MS Dhoni who was the brand ambassador for Ashok Leyland from 2012 to 2015. Eicher Motors too had taken Olympic medal winning wrestler Sushil Kumar as their brand ambassador in 2012.
However, Tata Motors is not the only commercial vehicle company to sign on a big Bollywood star. Mahindra in March 2016 signed actor Ajay Devgan as their brand ambassador to promote their trucks and buses. The brand released its first campaign with the star promoting its heavy commerical trucks ‘Blazo’.

While it is not uncommon to see Bollywood stars promoting passenger cars such as Shahrukh Khan being the brand ambassador of Hyundai, Varun Dhawan promoting Mahindra’s KUV100, and Ranveer Singh as Maruti Suzuki’s ambassador. It is definitely new for commercial vehicles to take these Bollywood stars to endorse their products.

As passenger vehicles are more consumer centric, it makes sense for them to use film stars to promote their sales. However, with CVs targetting small enterprises or farmers, there was little need to communicate through such high profile celebrities. Like industrial based advertising, CV firms decided to concentrate on the technical attributes of the vehicle in their communication. Even the previous Mahindra and Tata Motors CV ads used the approach to communicate to industries the reliability of their vehicles.

Very few industrial-based brands use Bollywood star to promote their products: One of them being Binani Cement signing Amitabh Bachchan as their brand ambassador.
According to Sridhar Ramanujam, founder & CEO of Integrated Brand-Comm, these CV companies have now recognised the emergence of entrepreneurs buying such vehicles as they need it for their small business, and well financed by banks and financial institutions.
Another reason that CV companies rope in Bollywood stars is to drive their sales at a time when it has been sluggish due to several road blocks.

While the government’s push for implementation of BS IV emission norms has been a concern for many CV makers, the recent demonetization drive has impacted sales even more. From Ashok Leyland to Tata Motors, Mahindra and others have seen double-digit decline in December sales as a large portion of its sales used to be made using cash transactions. In addition, rural sales contribute a large portion, where majority is in cash.

For Mahindra, signining on Devgan led its May 2016 sales to overtake Tata Motors’, with a 52% market share cargo carrying truck segment. However, Tata Motors managing to do the same with Akshay Kumar at the wheel remains to be seen.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Is Paytm better poised to leverage the digitisation push?

Paytm seems to be a company that is bold, innovative and unafraid to take risks
Marketing has often been described as being in the right place at the right time. One company that might appreciate the wisdom of that statement might well be Paytm. The Paytm wallet was launched as recently as 2014. So we are essentially talking about a brand that is less than three years old!
And yet, the fact that this company has spent over ₹600 crore last year probably explains why it is at the top of people’s minds not just in mobile wallets but across categories. Apart from running huge ads in the daily newspaper, viewers are also subjected to Paytm ads as a constant reminder during cricket matches, as Paytm was the sponsor of the India-England test series that India won so easily. The brand’s good fortune continued in this sponsorship deal as well. In my view, test cricket is a format that relatively fewer young Indians follow, but India’s superior performance, and the fact that the sponsorship coincided with India’s highest test success record all helped superior recall of the brand.
But let’s step back for just a second and examine the advertising strategy in greater detail as advertising has been an important constituent of the brand’s success.
How much should you spend on advertising?
There’s always been a debate on what is the right amount to be spent on advertising for a brand. While there is divided opinion on this, the important thing to remember is that advertising is an investment and not a cost. Brands need this, much like vehicles need fuel to move ahead. I remember an interesting strategy that BPL, the leading consumer electronics brand of the 1980s and 1990s that I used to work on, followed.
BPL would consciously and strategically outspend its competition and at that time I didn’t see the value of this. “Why are they doing this?” I would ask myself, even though no one at the agency was complaining! But it did help them get disproportionate share of the voice, which eventually led them to be the market leader. In fact, they kept spending even in recessionary times, to the bewilderment of industry and competition; and the results were there for all of us to see as the brand became the #1 brand in colour televisions. This is precisely what Paytm has done. Its first ads seemed more about Narendra Modi than the offering.
I personally feel that some level of controversy can actually help a brand in the early stages of its success. 

Spotting trends
One of the greatest challenges brands and companies face is their ability to spot trends that are likely to impact business. I am not sure how many people spotted the dramatic and sudden moves to demonetisation, but a brand that definitely benefited from this move that has caused a major impact in other sectors has certainly been Paytm.
If you look at some of the brands that have achieved phenomenal success over the years have been brands like FedEx and Google. “Can you FedEx it to me” asks the consumer. “Have you tried Googling it?” asks the professor of a student. Who can forget “Xerox” and its generic rise?
Paytm too has been consciously trying to make Paytm a way of life and its slogan of “Paytm Karo” is slowly but surely getting increasing traction. It is not uncommon to find small juice vendors or bakeries with the Paytm signage. The brand claims to have more than a million merchants, with 12,000 individuals selling the service and the company says that five million transactions are being facilitated every day.

The road ahead
Paytm strikes me as a company that is bold and innovative, with risk-taking built into its DNA. I am quite sure the cynics can talk about the mounting losses and the fact that all this visibility is built on VC money, which can often be initially cheap. It is also likely that some of its competitors, such as FreeCharge and Jio Money too could capitalise on the tremendous interest in the category.
While the brand has succeeded in reaching out to more establishments than the competition, we must also remember the depth and width of this country, and all these brands are merely scratching the surface. As more and more people start using Paytm and credit cards, I am sure the stretched networks of India might further struggle, and the honeymoon period of subsidies and discounts too might not last.
But let’s not forget that India is one of the few economies that is actually growing. Whatever the predictors of doomsday might be saying, brands like Paytm with their funding, investment in advertising and visibility might reap the benefits — most by virtue of being “top of mind”.
Yes, advertising works! Use it sensibly and reap the benefits!