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

Why did 'Kolaveri' go viral?

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kolaveri soup song
In a few days, the laid back rendition of nonsensical lyrics set to an easy to remember tune has grabbed eyeballs, been parodied, mashed and stormed the entire country. A lot of people are singing it without knowing why it stays in the mind. One of the most perceptive things the producers did before the release was to put in the lyrics as sub-titles making it an easy sing along to follow. That meant that the song gained familiarity even if the accent was unfamiliar - in fact , lyrical flourishes like 'moon-u' and 'distance- la' added crucial bits of novelty and allowed comprehension. The way these words are pronounced is very Tamilian - and it gives the song a unique identity. 

The singer - actor Dhanush has just scored the biggest hit of his life and he made it on his terms, singing a 'Tanglish' (mixture of Tamil and English) song that resonated far beyond the local market. It just reinforces something that I have always believed in - that the more local a song, a flavour, an attitude is, the more global it becomes when the other factors are right.

The problem arises when clients want virals like this one. Here, there was an agenda - the promotion of the film. But when a product plug has to be put in, people catch on in a flash. We've become extremely good at separating honest content from advertising gloss. There's a very thin line that divides the two. No one wants to send an obvious product promotion - no matter how good the production values are to friends. People share what they genuinely believe their friends will like and enjoy. In a sense, they are putting their taste in music, emotions or drama on the line and they expect to get favourable reactions and comments.

The companies promoting virals will tell you that certain attributes are given.

  • It has to be a light-hearted approach. Nothing that looks like a college lecture has ever gone viral
  • Kids are a big draw
  • Death defying stunts and magic tricks work
  • Embarrassment,. especially people looking stupid or dorky or both works as well
  • Animals, especially cats and dogs doing repetitive stuff gets attention.
  • Rebellious behaviour, especially against big authoritarian figures gets applause in terms of eyeballs
  • Irreverence and self-deprecation are other triggers that get passed around
  • Celebs doing mundane things gets attention - but then its not the endorsement ads that get shared

Now try putting in a product proposition and matching a client brief into creating a viral and we see the problem. Unless a product benefit is part of the viral, why should the client spend money? The only ones that have managed this well enough are Samsung or Evian. Just take a look at the so-called virals on You Tube and the number of views. Pepsi's 'Refresh' campaign apparently did very little for the sales of the product - but Coke's Open Happiness did better, probably bacause there was no camouflage. Pepsi tried to be associated with a social cause. Coke made no effort of hide the fact that this was simply a sales promotion activity.

If there's a lesson, it's this. Pretense does not get shared, reality does. People don't like sales messages masquerading as honest fun.

( 4 Votes )

Tags: Dhanush | Evian | Kolaveri | Samsung | Tamilian | viral


Hotels like homes

just another hotel room
For a long time, it was just another advertising line - a hotel that makes you feel completely at home. It was used so often ( and still is) in advertising campaigns, no one ever pauses to ponder what it means. Do you feel as comfortable in the plush hotel room as the sagging TV couch at home? Does it tickle your ego when the stranger at the reception calls you by name only because she has the history of your visits to the hotel and you are a returning 'valuable customer'? Do you turn cartwheels in the corridor just because you are ecstatic to be back? Or wait with bated breath for the waiter presenting a reheated dish and cracking a smile as wide as the tip he expects you to cough up? Do you like waking up groggily in the morning with an antiseptic voice on the phone saying 'Good Morning Sir, this is your wake up call' as opposed to your wife prodding you in the ribs and shaking you awake?

Apart from the fact that you pay an insane amount of money everyday for all the privileges, hotel rooms across the world are painfully similar. A bed, some invisible art, a TV on the wall, a couple of bottles of water, a fridge with overpriced liquor, snacks and chocolate bars, a toilet and shower with little knick knacks like a comb, a toothbrush, shampoo, soap and soft towels if you are lucky, a desk with hotel stationery, a stratospherically priced room service menu and a 'hotel smell' - a combination of air-conditioning, food, perfume and cleaning chemicals. It hits you the moment you enter hotel lobbies and even the timed spraying of distinctive air fresheners does not mask the inevitable cloud that returns. The buffet is another point where the spread is lavish, but by the end of day three, you would be perfectly happy to have a simple 'dal chawal' at home instead of all the exotic stuff in the gleaming stainless steel serving vessels.

And yet, the quest to provide the home away from home continues. Apparently, hotels in the US have been jumping in to fill the gaps left in airline services, since they perceive quite correctly, that if people cut back on travel they cut back on hotel stays as well. So, they are now doing everything from special lounges for their repeat customers to getting them good seats on airlines, apart from taking care of baggage hassles.

They are lending them sneakers and workout apparel, to reduce the bulk that people carry on trips. They pack sandwiches so that guests do not have to endure airline food. And they are storing entire wardrobes for regular guests, so that they can walk in with a minimal amount of baggage and slip into fresh clothes on arrival.

It beats the cost of maintaining vacation homes at various locations. But these are high end travelers who are used to getting more anyway. Don't expect this in a growing market economy where the number of rooms available is a lot less than the demand. It's only when the shoes bite and the occupancy rates fall that the generosity will begin to show.

( 0 Votes )

The Masala Dosa Index

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The Big Mac index is the easy way to understand complicated economics. Since Big Macs are available in several countries, they offer an easy way to measure what the local currency buys in global terms - rather than comparing currencies alone and arriving at answers. In the latest one - July 2011 for example, $4.07 buys you the Big Mac in USA and the equivalent Maharaja Mac is just $1.89 in India. In purchasing power parity that means a dollar buys Rs. 23 worth of goods and not the Rs. 50 suggested by the official exchange rate.

The Big Mac index does a great job of helping us understand comparative value by standardisation. But can we have an Indian perspective because the number of Indians who eat a Big Mac is still minuscule. Its time to take a fat bun sandwich with a slice of minced and fried meat in the middle and let an Indian favourite stand tall alongside and be counted.

It's slimmer, tastier, and healthier. It has a crisp exterior wrapped around a wholesome combination of melt in the mouth potatoes and onions, delicately spiced. It's one of the few things South and North Indians agree is delectable, apart from South Indian heroines. Its the comfort food that can begin your day or wrap it up. Don't be fooled by its outward appearance as a thin pancake. The Western version is bland, limp and needs oodles of syrup to be palatable. The Masala Dosa does double duty as a baton and you can tear off thin crusts, dip them in several versions of chutney, from coconut to garlic to tomato and savour every little spicy morsel. Best of all, it cannot be eaten with a fork and spoon. You have to use your hands.

Its origins are ancient. The earliest reference to the Dosai from whence the Masala Dosa sprung is in the sixth century AD. It was a phenomenon when the Big Mac was yet to be invented. And the world would be far better off eating Masala Dosas by the dozen. It should become India's most prolific export, apart from the armies of programming professionals. May be we can send some of our best Udipi cooks to create the magic. Imagine street corners in the Big Apple with sweaty cooks liberally spreading the batter and a whole lot of New Yorkers lining up for a taste of Indian paradise. It could beat the queues for the Ipad or pod hands down.

So here's the thing. We need to get the Masala Dosa Index going. Starting from Indians in far flung corners of the globe chipping in and letting us know what the Masala Dosa costs locally. How much is one in Helsinki versus the one in Myladuthurai, for instance? We're trying to see the price variation of the Masala Dosa across India and the world in comparable restaurants. Our goal is to see what a Masala Dosa costs in a Saravana Bhavan type of middle class restaurant in the world and across India. We all know that companies price products differently in different markets. We're trying to find out by how much using the Masala Dosa as a benchmark!

( 3 Votes )

Tags: Big Mac | Dosai | Index | Masala Dosa Index | Purchasing Power


Not all sensible ideas succeed

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saravana bhavan
One of the best known vegetarian restaurant chains in Chennai is Saravana Bhavan. Serving a wide range of South Indian favourites, they have mastered the art of fast food along with a formidable range of dishes available throughout the day. They could give McDonald's a run for their money with the sheer numbers and the diversity of the menu.

The other thing they manage is to put completely different serving styles of restaurants within the same premises and charge differential rates. Go to Mylapore and eat the 'Special Thali' in the general area and you can get away by paying just Rs.80. Go upstairs in air-conditioned comfort and the price rises to Rs.180, with a few extras thrown in. I'm not sure the air-conditioning and the cushions are enough to pay a 120% premium but it seems to work. The kitchens for both the restaurants are common. Upstairs, the waiter takes your order on a wireless device and communicates it to the kitchen.

It upsets a whole lot of branding rules that tell you a brand should be consistent and clearly demarcate between the segments it serves - not mixing one with the other. The Taj does not have a budget and a premium hotel in the same premises. In fact, Saravana Bhavan takes this to an extreme. They have one set of restaurants at Peter's Road that has a 'quickie' format, where people stand and eat. Right next door is a fine dining restaurant where you are served the same dishes on silver plates at a big premium, where you take your boss or impress your girlfriend. Above that is a buffet, which has everything from vegetarian continental to vegetarian Chinese to good old South Indian fare. We Indians really like to mix things up.

Which brings me to the way the buffet evolved. Saravana Bhavan introduced the buffet determined by weight. The logic could not be argued with - those who ate more would pay more. The poor eaters could enjoy the buffet by paying a low cost and still get all the variety in small doses. For those who wanted to pig out - the price would have to be paid. The rule was - up to 500 gms of food, pay the minimum amount. Anything over that, pay according to the weight. It was discomfiting for people to pile up plates and discover that that had reached the 500gms mark with just one helping! Just like when people hate others being around when they step up on weighing machine and want the results hidden, this brought the whole unpleasant aspect of 'how much' into plain view.

There was a little notebook that the waiter would keep tabs on and though the light eaters loved it, the others were mortified. They would never come up with the real reason they hated the idea of the buffet - they didn't want to know that they had just eaten 1 kilogram of food! They would protest that the whole idea was stupid, that it was inconvenient and that the weighing scales were wrong, etc,. Just because an idea is sensible does not make it successful. The weight angle was dropped in just about six months.

( 1 Vote )

Tags: buffet | Fast Food | mixing brands | Saravan Bhavan | vegetarian restaurant


Chennai's like a wet dog now

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rains in Chennai
Dogs aren't very fond of baths. They have to be marched to the bathroom and held down by force , so that they don't end up stinking up the whole house. And the moment they finish, they shake themselves up so vigorously, it's as if they can't wait to be dry again.

That's exactly how Chennai labours through its monsoon. It desperately needs the water but it hates the process. It behaves much like a grounded and petulant teenager. Long forgotten umbrellas and raincoats get pulled out from deep within drawers. All it requires is a passing shower for holidays to be declared even as the sky darkens and threatens to pour. Mumbai needs suburban train lines to be clogged before people call it a day and stay away. But here, the roads get submerged within minutes. Water flows into everything except the storm water drains! Roads develop into craters overnight as the thin topping peels like blisters under the persistent assault of rain and traffic.

Then manholes are opened, so that the rain water flows into the sewers. And just so that no unsuspecting vehicle will follow, small bushes are uprooted and 'planted' right in the middle of the road. So, don't be surprised to see a 'green line' of bushes sprouting overnight right along busy avenues. Miraculously, it works. Another example of how jugaad or the ability to adjust and find a short term, cheap solution trumps the long term approach every time.

This short phase is also the only time when the fans and air-conditioners are switched off in homes. The time to eat those 'molaga' bajjis, fiery chillies dipped in gram batter and deep fried. Accompanied by steaming coffee and the pitter patter of the raindrops bouncing off the roof and the floors. People start wearing sweaters, with the temperature still in the low 20s. A new kind of ear muff made its appearance in Chennai last year. They look a lot like headphones, except that they are meant to keep the cold out, rather than let the sound in. Given the way the city swelters right through the year, it has made regular Chennai residents a lot less tolerant of the cold than their North Indian counterparts.They cough, sneeze and catch a cold when the temperature drops to anything below the normal frying temperature for the out of towners. Come back in March and see them shine while the North Indians cower in fear at the prospect of facing another blazing Chennai summer

Which makes a lot of the susceptible Chennaites the butt of jokes for being such softies when it comes to cold weather. Give them heat and they flourish. But lower the guage even a little bit and they react as if the weather gods just put some ice under their 'veshtis'. This column describes the perfect hilarity that ensues when you deposit a true blue Chennaiite into the icy embrace of Canada

Reminds me of the time a friend got off the bus in Bangalore and stuttered so badly because of the cold, the auto driver took pity on him and took him straight to a tea stall to unlock his tongue

( 1 Vote )

Tags: chennai | cold | jugaad | rain | summer | weather


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