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Original Cliches

Can you imagine a McDonald burger being promoted as an antidote to a hangover? The advertising requirement was to get more people to walk in in the early morning and late hours. The communication solution showed a burger dropping into a glass leaving a trail of sesame seeds. The image is striking, not because it is inherently original. In fact, it takes imagery that is a cliche in another category altogether – antacids and makes it an original in fast food. Fast acting antacids have demonstrated their product story with a rapidly dissolving tablet in a trail of bubbles.  The cliche is transformed into an original, simply by altering the context in which it is published. One would assume that fast food itself causes a lot of those heartburn cases, but here is an example of using the imagery and turning it on its head to underline a product benefit.

As design guru from Germany Oti Achler says “Our world is a world of signs, and if we can understand anything at all in it, it’s the signs”. He was highly aware of the effect and concise nature that symbols, images and signs possess. We perceive them faster and memorise them easier than written information because they appeal to our memory on an emotional level – in contrast to text, which works on a cognitive level. Advertising is consuming itself – taking imagery well established in one area and moving it into another, altering our perceptions and drawing attention at the same time. The other example that won the Red Dot ‘Best of the Best award distictively cues Michael Jackson. Created by MTV immediately after Jackson’s demise, it takes a cliche of mourning – the black ribbon and transforms it into something fresh altogether with the addition of a couple of elements – dancing shoes. With the simple twist, it captures the essence of Jackson’s style and substance.

Lamborghini presented a completely fresh way to say hand-made by using another cliche – landscapes and cityscapes. The shift here was to take every element of the city and make it automobile-centric. At first glance, it seems like a normal city scene. Only on closer inspection does it become apparent that this is a city or a street designed by auto enthusiasts. The pillars, the silhouettes of the buildings, the bridges are all car parts, facades modified to look like ‘normal’ city scenes. Then, the tendency is to linger, to discover how much you can decipher from the picture. All this without a single image of the drool-inducing car.

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Saving populations, making millions

Conventional wisdom dictates that the world’s problems – safe drinking water, disease prevention and shelter can only be solved by governments and charities. Very few companies see them as market opportunities that need unconventional thinking. Consider this – 90% of the world’s investment in health benefits cover just 10% of the world’s population – mainly in the developed world. So just 10% is spent on eradicating problems in the rest. Entrepreneurs who have technologies to solve those problems can reap rich dividends by helping governments, United Nations and voluntary organisations. But it isn’t as simple as making a product, distributing it in the market and waiting for the sale to happen. Because the people who desperately need it cannot afford to pay for it. The solution is in figuring out who will.

Vestergaard Frandsen a Danish company that started out by making and selling uniforms for factories forty years ago now practices the doctrine of Humanitarian Entrepreneurship. Their products include Life Straw – a remarkable water-filtration tool, the size of a fat carrot, which produces drinkable water simply by sucking on it, Perma Net – a mosquito net that kills the insects on contact and Zero Fly – insecticide treated plastic sheeting for complex emergencies where shelters have to be put up for refugees at short notice. Over 3000 children die every day from malaria infections and 6000 every day from bad water. It is a huge humanitarian problem but it pays rich dividends to the companies that help to overcome them.

So how does Vestergaard Frandsen make money from Life Straw? They won’t, not directly. The product costs $25 and not a single one of their customers can afford them. So, they are giving them away for free. In just 5 weeks 90,000 households will get it through a volunteer force of 4000. So here’s the ingenious solution – to make the water drinkable, it needs to be boiled using wood fires. Now that leads to carbon emissions. The wood and the carbon saved is credited to the company – over 2 million carbon credits (One carbon credit currently trades at anywhere between $6-$12), which they can sell in turn to companies in developed countries looking to offset their carbon footprint. They recover their investment of $30 million, several times over in the course of the ten-year program. Saving the world, saving lives and making money. What could be a sweeter business formula? The next frontier – eradicate guinea worm that is endemic to the area and wipes it out in the next 40-50 years. If successful it will be only the second disease to be wiped out in the world after smallpox. In the eradication of disease and providing shelter, they see not problems but opportunities. If only more companies in the world adopted this kind of thinking.

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Magic GIFs

GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format), those animated, flashing monstrosities have been a bane since the early days of the web. They creep, crawl and make web pages dotted with them an exercise in tolerance if the content is worth staying with. Try reading a book with the margins full of flashing lights and jiggly worms – it’s precisely what the numerous Flash and GIF banners on a page do. Extensions like ‘Readability‘ were created exclusively to ensure that all the ‘attention grabbers’ on the page were screened out and the content could be read in peace. All those icons, smileys and neon crawls served to distract rather than focus attention on what they were peddling. They converted web properties into virtual Times Squares, a mass of seething signposts driving visitors to hit the ‘back’ button almost instantly. But with the increasing sophistication of designers, even those previously unusable sites have now morphed into well-mannered catalogs. The wild west has been ‘tamed’

GIFs became popular because they could be used to create animated web banners in extremely small sizes – an essential quality when every kilobyte added to the page loading time. And that’s precisely what they were overused for. Like the street signs in India dotted all over buildings, they managed to stay on precisely because there was no other alternative. Every advertiser wanted their banners to flash and attract attention – so all the development work went into making them as intrusive as possible. A lot like the ‘mouse rollovers‘ that are currently fashionable. Expanding to take up the entire screen when the pointer is moved over the targeted area.

But GIFs as an art form? That’s a first. But by animating just portions of the image and doing it unobtrusively, a design team has come up with what is possibly the best use of combining animation and still photography. The woman is static but her hair flies in the wind. A man reads a newspaper in a crowded street and only the newspaper flips. A quiet restaurant scene is interrupted by a taxi plying in the background every few seconds. A never-ending stream of chocolate pours deliciously into a tray. The effect is artistic, not kitschy. And one tends to linger with these shots. There is something mesmeric about them because they are not video and not completely static either. It looks like this transformation will be worth watching out for – to see where designers can take it.

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The Ganges in America

Even when the Ganga is a continent away, Indians who have immigrated to the US have managed to find an alternative – Jamaica Bay in Queens. Proving that while you can take an Indian out of India, the rituals and customs will emigrate as well. The park rangers in the US were mystified to find coconuts, bits of cloth, saris and coins float to the surface and on investigation, discovered that Indians were treating the Bay as an alternative to their sacred Ganga. It probably explains why the Ganga Cleanup project, announced with such fervour over a couple of decades ago has not managed to progress on several fronts. What we consider holy, we deface with impunity. Take a look at the Haridwar and Sabarimala shrines where millions of pilgrims make their annual trip. The ecosystems there have been put to tremendous strain with the collective ablutions and defecation of the hordes, all of whom are doing it for nirvana. It’s a strange phenomenon. We worship God on one hand and at the same time, defile the area that surrounds the holiest of holies.

We’ve all heard stories of how Indians cling to their roots but for me, the defining experience was in London. I was travelling to Bristol with a doctor, an old friend from Bangalore. Since he had come to London for a conference, he offered to pick me up and drive me to back to Bristol, a couple of hours away. I was surprised to hear the strains of the ‘Gurbani’ – the holy chant of the Sikhs, playing on the radio in his car. Amritsar is in North India and a long, long way from Bangalore. It was like hearing Gregorian chants in a discotheque. My friend was not even religious, so when I asked him when he had discovered Sikhism, his explanation surprised me – he said there were very few ‘Indian’ channels that he could tune in to at Bristol and so, he wanted to catch whatever he could when he was in London. To me that was astounding – how can one be nostalgic about an experience that you have never had in the home country? I still haven’t been able to figure it out.

So does a sense of nation and country get amplified when you are far away from it? Do you long for things that you took for granted when you were in the home country and do you shape the land you emigrated to in your own image? I suspect nostalgia triggers a huge loss in an unfamiliar environment. Indians in the US teach their children classical music, follow festivals with far more fervour than their relatives back home and try and recreate ‘home’ wherever they are. Even if it means immersing ashes in the glacial waters of Jamaica Bay.

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Condoms in a recession

Condoms sell very well during a recession, apparently. And so do guns and burglar alarms. When ruled by fear, our buying habits go back to our primal instincts – food, sex and shelter. But the same doesn’t hold true for the housing market, battered by 3 years of a dismal performance. In India, the rise of interest rates and skyrocketing real estate prices have dampened the demand for housing. While the theory is that markets are ruled by facts and figures, the truth is that it takes very little to spook the hordes. Medicine and education are two markets supposed to be immune to a recession but a few companies have managed to beat the odds. In 2008, while Ford and GM had their lots full of unsold cars in spite of the government sops, Hyundai did the inconceivable – they inverted their entire marketing strategy and harvested some of the biggest profits in their history.

Hyundai offered to buy back new cars for up to one year if customers lost their jobs. They locked in fuel prices at $1.49 per gallon for a year and promised to pay the difference if prices rose – attacking two of the biggest fears prevalent at the time – financial insecurity and the possibility of higher running costs. This helped to expand their US market share by over 1% point at a time when the auto majors were actually losing market share in double digits and the entire market was collapsing. The program is just winding up – about 350 cars were returned since 2009. But the goodwill and the enhanced appreciation for Hyundai’s cars have more than made up for the losses.

It takes a lot of courage to go against the tide. When the 5-star hotels in India were badly hit on occupancy during the recession, they quietly renewed yearly contracts with their biggest customers at much lower rates – obviously, this was never publicised. It was business as usual but with the demand back, the shoe is on the other foot now. But in the case of condoms, it would be interesting to figure out if the demand drops during the boom periods. That is crazy – unless people are throwing caution to the winds and having unprotected sex when markets are on the rise. Maybe Freud has an explanation.

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The 10,000 hour advantage

It’s easy to notch up 10,000 hours of watching TV – which is why the whole world is very good at doing it. In his book,’The Outliers‘ Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for experience over talent. The premise is simple. Spend 10,000 hours of your life doing something worthwhile and you will get pretty good at it. Good enough to earn a living. If you were to spend the same amount of time gaming, there are hardly any games that you cannot crack. Bill Gates is reputed to have logged over 10,000 hours of programming experience by the time he dropped out of Harvard, giving him a huge lead over the rest of the programming world at the time – the late 60s and early 70s. Gates compiled BASIC in less than 4K – an astounding feat, given today’s bloated software programs, including the Windows OS. Some of the world’s best violinists had already practiced for 10,000 hours by the time they were 21. There may have been others more talented but the simple act of doing something for a definitive length of time confers a big advantage.

Take writing. PG Wodehouse, rated one the world’s best humour writers, wrote all through the evening and late into the night for decades. The humour did not flow easily even if that’s the impression created when they are read. In one of his letters to a friend, Wodehouse recalls how he wrote about 2000 words a day and slashed it down to 200. Sachin Tendulkar did not get to be the best batsman in the world without putting in those 10,000 hours before he was 16. In endless practice sessions at Shivaji Park, he would go on for hours day after day, even after it was established that he was one of the best of his generation and the world. At 37, he still has the drive that many others much younger than him cannot sustain. And now, he probably has a 30-40,000 hour advantage. He has the talent all right but it’s backed up by superhuman effort even today.

So you can spend those 10,000 hours sending out text messages. Or watching movies. Or gossiping and you will get very good at it. See the cribbers in every office who whine at how life has dealt them a terrible hand. They get to be great whiners because they have devoted so much of their life to perfecting it. Or the beggar at the traffic signal. They know the ones who are soft touches. They learn to read sympathetic expressions and figure out who will give them money and those who won’t. So, if you spend the next 10,000 hours getting better than everyone else at something that seems worthwhile to you, the world will sit up and take notice. Luck is a factor. But too few persist with the magic of perseverance. Because it’s a damn sight harder.

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Can you build a better mousetrap?

It’s the category with the highest number of awarded patent applications – mousetraps. From the time the US Patent Office opened it’s doors in 1838 upto 1996, over 4400 patents have been granted for new and innovative ways to capture the rat. It does not indicate the number of patents that have been rejected or passed over, though that would be significant as well. So, why do a lot of people think they can build a better version? Is it because they believe that the best has not been invented yet? The one that has the biggest market share called the ‘Little Nipper’ was invented by James Henry Atkinson in 1897. It slams shut in 8/10ths of a second – so ten of them could go off by the time you blink once. Even a rat with Bruce Lee’s legendary reflexes could not hope to escape that one. If it did, the rat deserves a standing ovation and a place in the neurological Hall of Fame. The article in ‘The Atlantic’ explores a far more interesting premise – whether mousetraps represent the height of innovation. It’s as if we cannot help ourselves – even if a problem is solved brilliantly – paper clips are an excellent example, we continue to try and make them better.

A better solution does not necessarily mean a bigger market either. 95% of the mousetrap patent holders have made losses or no money at all on their invention. The leading model has about 60% of the international market. There are 10-30 million mousetraps sold every year and getting the actual figure is difficult, since there are still a number of cottage industry variations. But the price in the US has risen from 5 cents in 1900 to just about 7 cents several decades later. When an invention gets to be ubiquitous, it also becomes a commodity where price is the only differentiator and margins are wafer thin.

What’s amazing, however, is the number of ways that have been imagined to trap the rodent. Some of the traps were savage, hacking off limbs or impaling them. But there was also a curious set of ‘toy traps’ used to lure the animals and then, the mechanism would move forcing the frightened animal to turn, roll or spin –  and entertain onlookers in the process – like the hampster trap where the rat is doomed to keep running. Today’s city slickers have almost no contact with the animal – unless they see it strolling around in a restaurant or scarpering in the night. It’s still the cliche to end all cliches – scared damsel runs into the strong hero’s arms for protection, as well as the cliche for innovation. Ralph Waldo Emerson is reputed to have said – ‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’. Unfortunately, building the best product is no guarantee of success – as some of the world’s well-known brands will ruefully tell you

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Today, I voted

I’ve always looked at voting in the elections with disdain. Who’s going to take the trouble of standing in a long slow-moving queue just to press a button at the end of it? But there has been enough noise created in the last couple of years to make me feel guilty about this standoffish stance. So today, I hauled myself across to the college nearby where the voting booth had been set up. There were about 30 people in the queue ahead. I glanced around at the rest of the people waiting. The middle-class was present in fairly good numbers. I overheard some whispered conversations – “Why are these people voting this time?” It’s as if they were afraid the politicians would not pay them too much heed if the middle class turned out to be a significant vote bank. The arithmetic of the elections can be very different if the middle class just made the effort once in 5 years to spend half an hour standing in a queue. We don’t even try to know who the candidates are or what they stand for.

There was a long list of candidates and symbols in the constituency – all unfamiliar except for one prominent name who has been on the national scene. The unknown symbols ranged from ‘loaf of bread’ to ‘postbox’ to ‘cake slice’ to ‘whistle’ to ‘gas cylinder’ (quite apt, considering that politicians are usually associated with hot air) to ‘tea glass’, ‘slate’ and ‘table’. Considering the number of candidates, it’s quite a job for the election commission to figure out a symbol that has not already been used. There was a contest some years ago asking for people to suggest new symbol options. For those who can’t read, there’s no other way to figure out if they have voted for the right party.

Which brings up the problems of communication into sharp focus. How does the electorate get to know more about candidates if they are interested? I did a search and while I got the names of the candidates from the major parties, there was little else to go on. What had these people done? What were their election promises – it’s quite a job trying to figure out what the independents stood for or why they were standing at all. Unless you tune into TV where every candidate makes the same kind of general speech there was precious little to help in making the decision to vote. But I doubt if anyone’s going to bother. Maybe that’s why no entrepreneur has stepped in. But the actual process of voting was extremely simple. One long beep – and my contribution to India’s democratic process was registered.

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Countering Corruption

In India, no one bats an eyelid at forking up money to get a job done. Need a license? Pay the tout and escape the line. Need your passport fast tracked? There are rates and systems in place. It works far more efficiently than the official one. One of the reasons that corruption has taken such a strong hold in the country is the perception of privilege. If you can bypass the hordes, you create the illusion of power. And everyone wants to exercise that whenever they can. No executive worth his salt will stand in a queue to get a ticket – his flunkey will. Even to check into the flight, there was a standby, until the security restrictions kicked in and allowed only the actual passenger in. The actor at a film shoot has a man standing by to hold his umbrella, his packet of cigarettes, even his mobile phone as the first filter. In India, if you do everything yourself, you are seen as a chump, or a person too poor to pay a bribe. This must be the only country in the world where ‘unreserved’ train compartments arrive with touts guarding all the seats and giving them up for a price. The system is so ingrained that by the time you grow into an adult, you have either learned to wait patiently in queues or bypass them altogether.

So, while the whole nation celebrates Anna Hazare’s victory over the government in drafting a stiff anti-corruption bill, I suspect that changing behaviour on the ground will be next to impossible to crack. Menial jobs are highly in demand owing to our staggering population numbers and all forms of automation are frowned upon since they directly impact jobs at the basic level. Ward boys are paid to get admission to government hospitals. Coolies at railway stations ensure that trolleys are not available for regular passengers. It’s curious – trolleys are available at all airports but you won’t see a single one at railway or bus stations.And the less said about several education institutions, the better. They have evolved a byzantine system that accepts only the regular government mandated fees through cheques. The rest has to be paid in cold, hard cash. For a lot of parents whose children never make it to the merit lists, this is the easy alternative.

So, while the Jan Lok Pal bill will be passed under pressure and everyone celebrates, India’s journey to a corruption free society still has to take place in the mind. When we decide to stand in a queue instead of breaking it, when we refuse to pay the cop to escape a traffic fine, when we study to get the marks we deserve, when we register our land at the correct value, when we stop believing that money can buy everything in this country.

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Smart Water

A whole village can starve without water and nothing will be done for decades. In Peepli Live, a politician gifts a family a worthless water pump, that occupies pride of place in the house and is merely a way to deflect attention. But when a business needs it to survive, you can be a hundred percent sure that the water problem will be tackled on a war footing. Till 2002, Coca Cola never mentioned water on its balance sheet. But with the adverse publicity it garnered from Kerala due to the amount of groundwater extracted for its plant, there has been a sea change, globally. Today Coke keeps an eagle eye on its water consumption across the world. There’s even a nifty term to describe it – ‘water neutral’.  Meaning they will balance out the water they extract and the amount they sell. Just like a closed cycle. The realisation came from the fact that water was the single most important ingredient in their product line-up and finding fresh water sources were getting increasingly difficult – politically, morally, even at a higher price.

IBM needs superclean water to manufacture its microchips – water so clean, it isn’t safe to drink. Stripped of all minerals that can corrode the inside of machines, they are not recommended for humans – because our bodies need those minerals. IBM measured the amount of energy it takes to get water clean and by understanding the metrics involved in the process, they were able to save a phenomenal amount of water, and money. So much in fact, that IBM believes that the market for smart water, where an intricate system measures water usage and intervenes to provide the exact kind of water right along a system is already worth $15- $20 billion a year. And this is only going to grow in the years to come. So, a company that made its first billions with massive computers now believes that the market of the future is in providing something even more basic – fresh, clean water.

But once big business discovers that a freely available resource can become profitable, the easy days of water are at an end. Oil was worthless until automobiles came along and transformed the countries that had it in abundance. Then, megacities grew from endless deserts. And wars were fought in the name of liberation and the promise of democracy. Water markets will be more subtle. Because water can be recycled, desalinated and returned to its original form, we are going to see new models evolve for its exploitation. If you thought the mineral water market was huge, you ain’t seen nothing yet.