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Making cool look stupid

How do you assault a brand image that is the very essence of cool? Where the brand only has to get an unfavourable review for its acolytes to jump to its defence and flame the reviewer. I am speaking of course of Apple. For decades now, it has stayed at the pinnacle of cool, scorning all attempts to dethrone it. Even though they have sold millions of the same assembly line products, they have managed, through clever design and communication to make their features seem individually unique and desirable. Their army of followers have camped outside stores, waited with bated breath on blogs and rumor sites for the next unveiling or the next unboxing. Now, that’s another peculiarity – the act of taking a product out of the package and switching it on seems to drive frenzied viewership for those lusting after it. It’s like a product striptease and it gets the same kind of salivating response

So, a brand that has for long been seen as a pale imitation and a wannabe scored a deep hit with its commercials‘The Next Big Thing’. Samsung’s Galaxy S II, seen as a worthy foil to the mighty Apple 4S chose not to attack the specs of its competitor, even though that would have been a perfectly viable strategy. Instead, they made fun of its core consumers – the ones who would wait in a queue for days. And suddenly. the passionate followers of Apple seemed like a bunch of idiots. Which was reflected in a poll in a few weeks after the commercials started airing. Now, Samsung has gone in for the kill expanding a single idea into a series of commercials that make Apple look downright dowdy and out of touch – by attacking their fanboys. Apple now has the tough job of making not its products but its consumers look cool again – They might choose not to respond at all, but this can cool fan mania pretty quickly. No one likes being portrayed as a loser.

Another instance of attacking the consumers, instead of the product is playing out in India between two of the country’s leading newspapers, Times Of India (TOI) and The Hindu. A few months ago, TOI launched a blistering campaign against the staid image of its competitor, implying that it was so boring that its readers needed to wake up – to TOI. It showed a bored young man sleeping even in exciting situations. The implication was that news needed to be peppy and young – and that was what TOI delivered. The Hindu is not known to be aggressive but its latest commercials taking on TOI indicate that it is just as game for a fight. The ads show a set of young people who are not able to answer even the simplest questions, except of course film trivia. When asked which newspaper they read, they all mouth TOI, which is bleeped out. The final tag line – Stay ahead of the Times.

Ouch. That must have stung. Of course, young people these days no longer read newspapers, so the fight may seem irrelevant. But it’s an interesting turn in communication strategy. Make your competitors’ consumers look silly and their choices seem ridiculous as well.

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Which side do you part your hair?

Take this simple test. Keep a recent photograph of yourself in one hand while you take a look at your reflection in the mirror. There’s a difference and though it’s a very small one, the person in the mirror may be a little more appealing than the photograph in your hand. Or the other way around. And it all goes down to this – the way you part your hair!

The way we perceive our public self is actually the inverse version of how others see us in real life. If that seems crazy, listen to this fascinating episode from Radiolab. On the page, there is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln – the way he appeared in public. Click on the photograph and it flips to its inverse version – and somehow, it looks much less inspiring – or trustworthy. That’s the way Lincoln saw himself in the mirror all through his life and it is a sobering thought. So, did Lincoln maintain this consciously – knowing fully well that the less attractive version in the mirror was not what people were seeing, but the more attractive one. There were no spin doctors those days, or public relations masters, so it must have been more instinctive – or just plain coincidence.

In these highly televised and image conscious political times, what matters is not just what you say. Every gesture, every pause, every little colour coding and prop in the frame is carefully placed in order to stay on message. The laws of branding and advertising are far more demanding than the laws of the land – especially when you are in the public eye and every single word you pronounce is analysed, discussed, debated and deconstructed by an army of political analysts on prime time television.

The more we learn about how to build a brand and influence public opinion, the more we restrict spontaneity and reality. Actors in movies speak very differently from the way we converse. They speak perfectly, every word formed and delivered at a perfect pitch and tone. The actual shooting, recording and editing of these sequences may require several ‘takes’ or repeats to be perfect, but that is not something that the general public sees. They see a final product made by professionals with no flaws or hesitation – unless it is intentional and part of the script. Record a session with friends and you will see how most normal conversations are rambling, incoherent and take place in fits and starts depending on the interest in the topic and the participants. There is no seamless sense of flow, unless some speakers are particularly gifted.

One of the prime requirements of being a brand is to never deviate from a message unless it is part of the overall strategy to change. Brands get ‘relaunched’ and the new, improved versions appear because the sales graph of the old one has begun to stagnate and requires an infusion of freshness. That could mean a change in the packaging and the graphics and the tone of advertising. Sounds familiar? It’s what happens when the world of advertising and branding converges with something far more explosive – politics. Even something as trivial as the parting of the hair has an effect – and once we have the knowledge, there is no stopping its use.

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Election Campaign or Product Launch

With each successive election campaign, the difference between selling a product and a President is getting a little blurrier. Democracy used to be about policies and ideologies. But it now looks like just another mega launch. Listen to what people want. Then craft the product to deliver. Sit back and count the money. Or in this case, the votes.

At Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, there is a group of highly gifted coders working to mine the information being gathered about ‘swing voters’ The ones who will decide which candidate gets elected and which one gets left behind. And with every campaign, the jargon mounts. This time, its ‘micro listening’. Getting to decipher not just what people are saying about the President or the opposition, but trying to understand how they will act on election night. The army of people assigned to do this include mathematicians, statisticians, software developers, organisers and of course, analysts.

Their grounding for this all-important effort comes not from political history but from consumer buying habits. How choices are made for shopping lists. Why grape juice is preferred over orange juice. How do you get to change the minds of consumers – by offering them a better deal, or fortifying it with vitamins, or by changing the way it is compared with other brands in the same category? What combination of qualities works best at moving the brand off the shelf faster? The analysts who crafted and implemented these strategies are now tasked with packaging the Presidential campaign and making sense of what people mean when they respond to polls.

So that’s what it has all come down to. Listen closely to what people are saying about the government on Facebook, on Twitter, in conversations on the ground and by inviting them to ‘Tell their stories’ on why they want to be involved in the Presidential campaign. Tease out nuggets from the stories and derive the patterns of behavior. Figure out what antagonizes and alienates them. Understand the hierarchy of priorities. And deliver a campaign that addresses these needs.

I don’t know whether I should be amazed or horrified with the way things are going. On one hand, the inference is that consumer behaviour is driving Presidential aspirations and motivations. On the other, it means that the whole process has been reduced to a set of cynical parameters that can be assessed and controlled. So the public is told and sold what it wants. But what happens after it’s all over is beyond their control.

Are you electing a person or the image of the person who leads you? Does the candidate believe in the promises they make to you or are they simply telling you what you want to hear? There is no answer. It’s the most extensive smoke and mirrors campaign on the planet, that reveals everything and nothing at the same time.

In comparison, the brute money power of Indian politics seems paleolithic. And the profusion of languages and castes mean that it may never be reducible to a set of equations that can be predicted. But you never know.This is a high stakes game and the levers of power are just to alluring to be left to the whims and fancies of the voters. The medium isn’t just the message, it shapes the messages now.

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What exactly is the news?

We’ve seen it 24 hours a day on our TV screens for the past two decades. It slips under our door in the mornings. It is updated by the minute or the second in social media. When we say ‘news’ each of us has a certain image in our minds. But to a generation brought up on access to information in a hundred spheres as it happens, the newspaper and the television are poor substitutes and relics belonging to another era altogether.

The news is one of those words everyone knows but no one can accurately explain. Is it about politics, development, disasters, entertainment, culture, sport, business or crime? What constitutes a news story depends on what you are interested in. On a daily basis, we only wish to know what we care about. So if you are interested in what goes on in your college and your social circle, that is all you would read about. In Clay Shirky’s wonderful analysis of the state of news gathering and publishing, there’s a big insight – So long as newspapers faced little competition for advertisers or readers, this was a distinction without a difference, but as papers are being sundered by the internet, we can see how tangled the system always was. Outside of a relative handful of financial publications, there is no such thing as the news business. There is only the advertising business.

Such a telling statement. Advertising is the only glue that held newspapers together for over a century. We came to believe that the system would be able to withstand any intrusion or fragmentation. The moment the internet unbundled whole sections and created separate interest groups around them, the validity and the very premise that newspapers were built upon has begun to disintegrate. The existence of newspapers in a form that the earlier generation was accustomed to is in doubt, at least in the West.

In India, however, the march of the internet has not been as sweeping or as inclusive. Move out of the major metros and broadband access is patchy at best. So the press, especially the vernacular is thriving, not just surviving. It will be interesting to see if the same pattern plays out as the rate of internet penetration increases in the country, given the speed at which mobiles have cut through to every single social sector in the country. Right now, it is just used for calls and texting, but give it a few years and we will see the newspaper competing with the mobile – and no prizes for guessing who is in for a bruising

Our consumption patterns are skewed. We spend tons of money on things that make us feel good, like beauty creams and lavish dinners, but for the majority, books are reluctant purchases and happen usually when mandated by colleges or airport delays. The news comes very low down on our list of the things we want to pay for. It doesn’t make it feel very good on most days, with major coverage about scams and disasters. And the small section of the aware and informed public that wants to know has several sources from which to choose from now. What’s your take on where the news is going?

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Do Opposites Attract? No!

Its ‘accepted’ wisdom, right? However, it does not stand up to close scrutiny, even though It is the chief selling proposition in the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry which generates revenue of over $150 billion a year, The promise – meet with people from allied industries, make use of networking opportunities and develop contacts outside your areas of business.

The observed behavior is very different. People tend to mix with people they already know or are acquainted with and rarely with those outside or unrelated to their business. The researchers who conducted the study invited 100 industry heads across various businesses and hosted a party where the only agenda was to eat, drink and get to know others better. Each of the attendees wore a tag that traced their movement within the group.

Apparently, individuals at the ‘mixer’ were willing to encounter and engage with others of a different race than them but as individuals. If a certain group was composed of people from one particular race, no one from a different race joined in. When the groups were observed further, previous association or friendship was the strongest reason for engagement. People were more likely to meet a new person if they were introduced by an intermediary. They would rarely try and connect on their own.

This is familiar territory for all of us who have attended ‘networking’ events. Walk into a room full of strangers and the first move is to scan the crowd to look for familiar faces – then make a beeline for them. Wait for some of the other people in the group to facilitate introductions and if the conversations work out fine, great. Otherwise, just head for the bar, down a few quick ones, check out the buffet, wolf down something and then make a quiet exit. There are several singles, small tightly knit groups that never separate and if there is a celebrity, a crowd around them asks the usual questions or poses for photographs. The singles are the most tragic ones, floating and hovering around groups but never charging in. If they do, there is a polite conversation, but a few sentences later, the strain begins to show on everyone and the single slinks away.

An article in Wired makes another interesting point. In a highly diverse social environment like a university where students from different nationalities study in the same class, the opportunity to mix and make friends is available to everyone. Yet, students choose to hang out with their own. The surprising finding – When people have a choice, they choose relationships with people who are similar to them. Now, that flies completely in the face of the wisdom we have been fed, both in the form of proverbs and social truths.

Husbands and wives emphasise how they are complete ‘opposites’. With great relish, they dish out stories of how they complement each other because they have diverse interests. One likes books, the other likes movies. One needs food to be spicy but the other likes it bland. One of them talks for hours on end but the other is like the Sphinx. But the ‘opposite’ factor here is only in terms of traits, not social backgrounds. It would be interesting to know what you think

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Should your advertising be memorable? Or persuasive?

Dumb question? After all, who tries to create boring advertising? Well, a lot of agencies try creating memorable advertising and end up with boring. Memorable is defined as what customers can remember. Something that will stay in the customer’s overloaded mind. The effort is to think of words and visuals that will ‘break through’ the clutter and inject a series of memory triggers that will hopefully lead to purchase. The logical line of thinking is – First, customers need to remember your brand before they prefer it.

Can you see where this is going? We don’t necessarily buy what we remember from ads. Colgate is known as a brand by 90% of the consuming public but it has a 57% market share (or thereabout). So, the rest don’t really care or have not been persuaded to use the brand. I am using Colgate as an example merely because it has a market potential of 100% since all of us need to use toothpaste at least once a day. I am assuming that bad breath is as much as a problem today as it has been for centuries! And 57% have been persuaded by the message that Colgate sends out with all its expensive advertising. They have been reached, informed but they haven’t bought into the promise of Colgate.

That’s a good thing because it means the small guys have a chance. So, if you don’t have the media bazooka that Colgate can unleash, but a little water gun you can aim at a much smaller segment, then you first have to decide who you are talking to. And craft a message that persuades them. This is the part that every little company stumbles on. They hate limiting the market they are aiming for. After all, a larger market segment does mean higher potential, right? Wrong, 100 percent of the time

What has all this got to do with persuasion? Everything. Once you have defined who you are aiming for, the messaging becomes a lot simpler. And the people it is meant to reach get it, every time. Even in the middle of 100 commercials on prime time or on the crowded pages of a newspaper, your ad speaks to them in a tone and manner that they relate to. It may be invisible to 95% of the other viewers and readers, but they file it away, even without being aware of it. And the moment they visit a store where your product is available, boom. From the shelf, straight into the shopping cart.

Do you remember thinking ‘I must try this product sometime’ when you see an ad? Those are the persuasive ones. They don’t look very different from all the other ads in the category, but for you, it has a special significance. Or take the case of students in a class. When you scanned the sea of faces for the first time, did a few look interesting? And when someone cracked a joke or made an insightful comment, did you make a mental note – I must get to know this person better? That’s the difference between memorable and persuasive. The kid who picked his nose in class is memorable. But the one you like being with is persuasive.

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The funny thing about change

We change our clothes twice a day. We change more channels than we watch. We change our mind about what to order on the menu in a restaurant about 10 times in a minute. We change our hairstyle and we expect the whole world has noticed. Or is about to. We change the ring tones on our phone and the wallpaper on our computers. We change our opinions about our cricket team depending on whether they are winning or losing. And our politicians if there are potholes on the road and power cuts in the middle of the day.

The surprising thing is how little we change on several other counts. We watch our televisions from the same chairs in the same room. Eating the same snacks day after day. Driving to work along the same route every single time. Ordering the same dishes time after time after going to the same old restaurants. Waking up at the same time every day. Reading the same newspaper. Meeting the same people. Saying the same things in the same gatherings. Going to the same parties. Watching the same kind of movies depending on whether we like comedies or action or drama.

There’s a metronomic rhythm about life that we like. We want surprises only on our birthday or our anniversary – the same kind of surprises. We don’t want a sudden change of plan or routine that upsets the schedule unless it is all planned and paid for. Like vacations where we have arranged everything even before we take our first step out of the house. From home to the airport. From the airport into a strange city with strange signs. Then into a room with all its familiar trappings. It’s the scenery that changes. But we even want the same food that we have back home. We now think that trying food that we have never eaten before is an adventure. Adventure tourism has reduced the risks to zero. Its only the momentary loss of control that we enjoy. But we want to be back where we belong if the trip drags on a little more than we are comfortable with.

Even when we go to conferences, we look for a place to sit only the first time. Then, we hold on to that place right through the sessions. Resenting it if someone occupies ‘our’ chairs after a tea or lunch break. We pretend to be comfortable with change, but it’s hard to deal with. Only a few of us like meeting new people every day. Or trying out a whole new profession after complaining about the one we’ve been in for decades.

We don’t change our brand of soap easily. Or our brand of cigarettes if we smoke. We stay with the same shop if we can help it. It’s only a few among us who try out new things and then tell friends how good or how bad it was. And we take their word for it. We like having our mind made up for us rather than having to do it on our own. That’s why is it so phenomenally difficult to launch a new product. Or change a point of view. It’s much easier to stay with the status quo.

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Creating Brands Vs. Phenomena

Coke is a brand. Justin Bieber is a phenomenon. Nike is a brand. Mystery Guitar Man is a phenomenon. Do you see a difference? It is a pretty big one. A brand is built deliberately over several years and a huge amount of thought and money is invested in every single aspect of its creation. From the brand name to the way it presents itself, there is a calculated sum of efforts and media that go towards building a brand in the minds of its potential customers.

You can throw this reasoning back at me and say that Windows is a brand. Apple is a phenomenon. Right. The same rules apply. Apple is the only phenomenon that has had a mixture of these two. So what’s the difference?

Coke was invented in 1886 by John Pemberton, but world domination would not happen until almost 50 years later. Even Nike was a relatively slow burn, taking almost a couple of decades to grow into the powerhouse it is today. Justin Bieber won second place in an online competition and uploaded the video to YouTube to share it with friends and family who couldn’t attend. It went on to attract millions of viewers who then turned Justin’s act into a phenomenon and made him a global star even before he was 14. Joe Penna is Mystery Guitar Man. Having uploaded videos on YouTube from 2006, he now gets over 80 million views on his channel. In less than 4 years he went from becoming a medical student to the music icon.

Phenomena result from lucky hits that strike home into people’s tastes and desires. They can’t be created by deliberation because it is impossible to predict how they will play out. YouTube does not have a ‘least watched’ ranking but 95% of the videos would figure there – the pile-up of the wannabe Justins’ and Mystery Guitar Men. The millions of hopefuls who never make it past their adoring families and friends – with videos stuck in views below 50. It’s not that they haven’t made the effort. In fact, you will find lots of well-produced duds that go nowhere. A classic “fail’ moment was Jennifer Chapton who labelled herself ‘The Hotness’ but was colder than last year’s soup

Brands, on the other hand, are products of professional communication and design. They need to be built and nurtured carefully because they are inanimate – with emotional anchors built by communication. Apple’s iconic ad appeared in 1984 – with the launch of the iMac. But then the brand, which acquired cult status lagged Microsoft Windows in terms of turnover all through the 90s and until the launch of the iPod in 2001, Apple played a poor second fiddle in terms of market share to Windows. But then Apple redefined the music, phone and the pc markets in a series of inspired products that helped it attain the status of a phenomenon.

The fundamental change was the internet. It democratised creation and distribution of music, apps and software. And that’s what helps the ‘discovery’ of a Bieber. If movie and music making wasn’t cheap, there’s no chance that anyone out there could have had a stab at stardom. And phenomena built on fickle taste, have a much harder job sustaining them.

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The Riddle in Retail

Salesmen, like waiters, should materialise only when they are needed, not hover in the background like persistent dark clouds. Somehow, the salesman (or woman) who ‘tags’ along wherever you go is almost like the shop owner letting you know you’re being watched and you can’t make away with any merchandise. There’s no real sense of being helped or guided.

The net result? Most people walk out without buying. The other reason is that most sales people in the fancy stores in India come from underprivileged backgrounds. They have limited social skills and while the street smart ones learn and adapt, most are uncomfortable just making ordinary conversation with affluent customers and figuring out their preferences. Much like policemen who will stop all the two wheeler riders who don’t wear helmets, but let the big cars run the red lights without flagging them down.

Even with India’s so-called retail boom and the huge number of jobs that have been created in this sector, the training and conduct of the sales people is woefully inadequate. The only difference is that they wear fancy uniforms and are turned out better. Ask them to locate an unfamiliar brand name and they will blink. In fact, a lot of them cannot pronounce the names of several brands stocked in the store, especially the ones of recent origin.

So when advertising does draw an interested customer, its quite likely that the store sales person won’t have a clue. Which brings me to the question of whether companies need to spend more time training sales people in the store rather than having fancy launches in 5 star hotels. If they got together all the sales people from a retail chain, gave them a good product demonstration, told them why the product was better and rounded the evening off with some great food and entertainment, chances are, the odds of success could improve dramatically. Right now, that task is left to the company sales person or the distributor – who rarely interacts with the actual end customer. But the retail sales person does that all the time, so the chances of a sale improve if they can be involved with the promotion.

To return to where we started, sales people can be most effective when they anticipate a need and help a customer make up their mind without trying to hard sell. Its a fine line and customers are very perceptive about the sales person who tries to force a sale.

Which brings me to a retail experience that made me return to a store called Cotton World. When I picked a shirt I liked, the sales person removed it from the cover, opened up all the buttons and offered it to me with a smile. They had been instructed that they should provide the shirt ready to be tried, without having the customer fumble with the buttons inside the trial room. Quite a refreshing change from the showroom where ‘trial shirts’ are marked and placed separately. From a store point of view, the trial shirt is a good way to ensure that they keep their inventory fresh. But for the customer, it could be a deal breaker – and an excuse to go to a store offering a more personal experience.

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The Gold Plated Dosa

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 every day. 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.