Our inspiration comes from life around us, the people we work with, the schools our children go to, the movies we see, the malls we shop at, the blogs we read and the friends we know. Then of course, there are books that provide a completely fresh point of view. Ideas are everywhere if you know where to look and more importantly, never stop looking.
We think the biggest asset is keeping an open mind and not being judgmental about anything. And across cultures, what drives people is ambition and deriving meaning for what they do. People don't just buy into products or services - they buy into extended dreams about their own existence

The Gold Plated Dosa

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gold plated dosa in Bangalore
In a bid to differentiate its menu, a restaurant in Bangalore offers the 'Gold Plated Dosa' at a pricey Rs. 1011/- (There's some numerology at work here!). That's about fifteen to twenty times the price of a regular dosa at any decent vegetarian restaurant. So what's the difference? A little olive oil and a sliver of gold foil placed reverentially over the crisp face of the dosa. It has succeeded in creating a flutter in the market and getting some gullible customers to fork out an insane amount to eat some gold foil, in addition to the spiced potatoes and chutney.

What does this tell you about brand differentiation? Apart from the obvious 'There's a sucker born every minute', we know excess is celebrated and coveted, not necessarily real value. Ever since Kaun Banega Crorepati trivialised the winning of Rs.5 Crores in a series of 15 questions, we marvel at the ease at which huge quantities of money are made and spent in hours and minutes, rather than years. Hard work to build companies and earn legitimate profits get a few lines in business dailies and magazines. But what grips the public imagination is overnight success and lottery or gaming riches. Instant transformations from rags to riches or the other way around.

So, in a restaurant where people at the next table are ordering the regular items on the menu, it offers an opportunity to show off. Sure, you can walk into a jewelry showroom and spend a major fortune. But the salesmen behind the desk sees that everyday. The rest of the customers are in the same bracket in their ability to spend, so your purchase is unlikely to get any wide-eyed looks of astonishment. Most likely, they would sneer if you asked for something at a lower price than they were expecting. You know that film stars are mobbed in public but completely ignored when they walk into airports or 5 star hotels. The people who frequent these places are far less likely to be smitten by the image of the star and the so-called glamour, since they know what goes into the making of the image. It's a façade and the façade only holds in certain situations.

But in a middle class restaurant when you order the gold plated dosa, or the $1000 pizza, or the $750 ice cream sundae you can command a lot of attention. You can catch people giving you little looks of envy. Luxury has no value, if you can't make others feel a little small. Its hardly a price to pay if you have the money and seek the attention. If you really wanted gold plated dosas, all you have to do is get a few sheets of gold foil and make them at home. But that wouldn't get you any snob value, would it? Nobody would know.

So, the smart hotel entrepreneur has got himself quite a bit of media attention and free advertising by charging some rich airheads a lot of money for a simple pleasure. Mark Twain's story of the boy who got all his friends to pay for the privilege of painting a fence comes to mind. And so does the fable of 'The Emperor's New Clothes.


( 2 Votes )

Tags: advertising | branding | dosa | gold plated | hotel

 

McRennetts - Baked in Chennai

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mcrennett.logo
Its origin is local. The owner, Maanikkam Pillai started out a small bakery in the early part of the 1900s and decided that a 'foreign' name would bring more patronage. It worked. Much like the Iyengar bakeries that made a virtue of being vegetarian by not using eggs, McRennetts grew by having the 'non-vegetarian' range as a significant part of their portfolio. The vegetarian puffs are triangular, the egg puffs have four little pointy corners, the mutton puffs are squares and the chicken puffs, rectangular. This simple differentiation ensured that the sensibilities of the customers would not be affected and a vegetarian customer would not mistakenly be served with a non-vegetarian filling.

The bakery has grown steadily over the decades with more than 60 outlets around the city and while it still remains a predominant 'local' brand, it fits into a clearly defined niche - that of the affordable bakery. The busiest time at the outlets is from around 4 o clock in the evening, going up to 8 pm. Office goers in need of a quick snack, hungry students with very little to spend and passengers waiting at bus stops constitute their largest segment. They have the regular cakes, bread and buns, but not the fancy stuff. Fresh cream pastries are limited because they need refrigeration. There are just a couple of chairs and no tables at the outlets.They want their customers to enter and leave rapidly and there is no attempt to hide the obvious.

And they don't need the internet or any advertising. A half-baked attempt has been made to try and bring the business into the digital age, but it ticks along merrily with no need for any fancy branding or customer focused attempts. The counter staff aren't courteous or welcoming. They aren't surly either. They are nondescript and a uniform is now mandatory. But almost a hundred years of baking has cultivated a certain atmosphere that comforts their regular customers.

So, in spite of a big revolution in the bakery business in Chennai with the entry of a brand called 'Hot Breads', Mc Rennett has continued to hold its own. Price is a major differentiator, since even a puff is twice as expensive at Hot Breads. Mc Rennetts has another competitor in the same space. Adyar Bakery started off a few decades ago and now has the same range and the same profile of customers. But there is room for at least a couple more brands in the same segment. In a city with a population of close to 10 million, there is enough room to expand and grow. Adyar Bakery does not even have a website but it has put up a Facebook page - and then abandoned it after getting over a hundred likes. May be some enthusiastic digital marketer waxed eloquently about the wonders of social media and the brand decided that it was high time they got 'current' as well. But when 95% of their customers have no access to the internet, let alone a Facebook account, it does not make any sense to be there.

These are small businesses that have defined their boundaries very clearly. Branding isn't difficult if you know who you are. Or who you want to be.


( 1 Vote )
 

When customers crack the whip

black_eye customers are giving companies
In the last one year, there have been several high profile instances of the power that customers have come to command. The Arab Spring was not just the rising of the citizen against the state. It also signals the rise of the customer class and the ability to force companies to rethink their one way relationship. When customers are angry, they do not fume in forums alone. They mobilise, launch strident campaigns and give companies a financial 'black eye'

Netflix, the darling of the video rental business, believed they were helping their customers when they announced different price packages for streaming and actual delivery. Since profitability was taking a hit on physical deliveries, they forced their customers to choose between a lower 'streaming only' or 'DVD only' plan and a higher priced plan for customers who wanted both. Bad move. It set off a storm of protests and a loss of over 800,000 subscribers in a quarter. Their share price took a hit of over $11 billion. For business reasons, the company stayed with the plan. But the painful lessons will not be easily forgotten.

Bank of America notified its customers that a monthly $5 'service fee' would be applicable on debit card transactions. A 22 year old, Molly Katchpole set up an online petition as a response and it was signed by over 300,000 people in a matter of days. The bank backed down, thought it maintains that the charge may be introduced sometime during the next year. Verizon is the latest casualty, after having announced a $2 convenience fee for payments made on the phone. It withdrew the notification in the face of strident customer protest.

What we are seeing here are not isolated instances. The very foundations of the customer- company relationship are being redefined. Advertising and PR used to be one way streets, with companies able to control messages and contain dissent. But that is no longer possible. Customers are nailing companies to the wall and forcing them to act even when profitability takes a hit. Even small increases of $2- $5 are not forgiven when customers sense that the motive is profitability alone.

The entry of the customer into the pricing paradigm is likely to be very discomfiting. Companies cannot predict what the reaction to a price rise will be. There will be instances when a legitimate price increase will have to be deferred when companies want to retain market share. There was a time when companies could hope that their customers would stay as 'silent partners'. They would leave individually when they were unhappy with the pricing or any other company policy. But the ability to influence a huge section of the customer base and create gaping holes in the cash flow is a sobering thought.

In India, where internet penetration is not anywhere as high as the US, customers have a different weapon - PIL ( Public Interest Litigation). A few months ago, telecom companies saw that the spike in text messages on festive days could be a huge money spinner. So, they simply doubled the cost for sending the messages for that day alone, netting a few hundred crores without any additional investment. Now, the High Court has stepped in and banned the practice. Either way, its the customers who are now having the last word.


( 0 Votes )

Tags: backlash | BOFA | consumer power | consumers | convenience fee | Customers | Netflix | online petitions | Verizon

   

The man who wrote Ramanujan

ramanujan bigraphy  by Robert Kanigel
Biographers aren't supposed to have histories. They illuminate the life of people they write about, much like translators making sense in world assemblies where world leaders hold forth in different tongues. Staying silently in the shadows, not hogging the limelight.

So when Robert Kanigel, the biographer of 'The man who knew infinity' stepped up to the lectern in Chennai, it was as if the shadow had moved to centre stage. A century after Ramanujan was born in 1887, Kanigel made his own journey to Chennai to research Ramanujan's life. He described the sense of bewilderment he felt having walked out of the railway station and being surrounded by a group of aggressive auto rickshaw drivers. The one he finally chose led him to an auto where a passenger was already in the seat. Kanigel, a naturally shy man, found his tongue loosened by the trip and the strange experience of the unfamiliar. He babbled to his co-passenger about arriving in India to research a book on Ramanujan and the trips he planned to make to places he could not even pronounce. It turned out that the passenger was the grandson of Vishwanatha Iyer -  who was instrumental in getting Ramanujan a job at the Port Trust! The statistical possibility of such an event happening would be so low as to be impossible. And Kanigel, an avowed septic admitted that there was more to it than he could explain

This set the tone for a trip through Ramanujan's early life in India where he got a much closer look, thanks to the happenstance at the station. When the book was published in 1991, it went on to become a bestseller, and translations in German, Spanish and Greek followed. But the Tamil translation, into Ramanujan's native tongue is still in progress. There were a flurry of questions at the end of the oration where the small but vocal audience asked Kanigel questions like 'Was Ramanujan a sad man at the time of his death?" And Kanigel's response was that he did not think that Ramanujan was a particularly introspective man. Even through his last days, he did as much work as his health would permit. He drew out the 'Everyman' trait of his genius where he spoke of Ramanujan's hunger to be recognised among his peers, even to be considered a notch above them. In expanding on whether Hardy, the person who discovered the depth of his work was a good friend, he emphasised that Hardy's role as a taskmaster may have actually helped in getting Ramanujan to work harder rather than the warm glow of friendship.

But this was a night of coincidences. This talk was the prelude to the 125th anniversary of the mathematical wizard. Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister of India had declared 2012 as the National Mathematical Year and Dec 22nd, Ramanujan's birthday as National Mathematics Day. But the strangest coincidence of all was that the venue, Lady Andal auditorium was directly opposite the house - 'Gometra' where Ramanujan breathed his last in Chennai at the age of 32. In a way, the circle of life was complete. It was as if the man who knew infinity had managed to start exactly at the point where his life ended.


( 0 Votes )

Tags: 125th Anniversary | coincidence | genius | infinity | Mathematics | Ramanujan | Robert Kanigel

 

Doing good isn't easy

Spreading the light- doing good
Today is Christmas, a day where we are supposed to access our 'giving' side. It's a little scary, considering the way in which our 'giving' and 'taking' sides are so lopsided! But such conjectures aside, in a conversation a few days ago with a restaurant entrepreneur, the difficulty of being good in the conventional sense was driven home with some telling lessons.

When he started his operations a couple of years ago, he had no previous experience. So apart from finding the right people, deciding on the menu and the prices, he had to learn literally by trial and error, since he could not pay for professional help - being a lean start-up. The idea was to keep costs as low as possible and work the rest from the day to day hiccups and insights that every customer brought in.

One significant learning was in managing the amount of food to be cooked everyday - and there were days on which they went completely wrong. They thought that old age homes would be more than happy to take the extras. Sure they were and he sent the food off only to be assailed by complaints that the food was bad and causing problems for the inmates. On investigation, they found that the old age home was getting food from about seven-eight sources and all the food would be mixed up. So, it became really difficult to say which restaurant food was the culprit.

So, it was decided that orphanages could be an alternative. Sure enough, orphanages were grateful for the food and then, the complaints began again. This time, they found that the orphanage did not have storage facilities and they were unable to handle the load of food on certain days. The children were being served food that had not been properly preserved and obviously, it had gone bad.

A little desperate, they decided that the slum close by would be more than happy to get food for free. It worked, for a few days and then, as the restaurant got better at managing inventory, there were days on which they had nothing to give away. This brought about a completely unexpected turn of events. Belligerent slum dwellers lined up late in the night and demanded to be fed - turning what was an act of kindness into a privilege they took for granted!

Fed up, they began to give the leftovers to the neighbourhood stray dogs and this proved to be the only viable solution. As the restaurant owner sagely explained - "Dogs do not complain, and ever since, we've had no problems. Food is not wasted anymore" Well, animal activists would probably not be too happy!

We are quick to judge people by their actions - assuming that they have not considered options. Since I don't run a restaurant, I would have suggested the exact alternatives they tried and believed it would solve the problem. We have a set of quick fixes in our mind based on our reading or on conventions - and that is what we operate with. The ground realities are completely different. As an aside, have you seen the scorn with which beggars now look at one and 2 rupee coins?


( 0 Votes )

Tags: Christmas | conventional wisdom | doing good | experience | food | restaurant

   

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