Not all sensible ideas succeed

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 500 gms. 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.


Chennai’s like a wet dog now

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 rainwater 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 gauge 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


Kindle Fire – Tablet or Shopping Cart?

Amazon has a lot of information about your buying habits. It knows your interests, the books and items you store on your wish lists so that it captures intent. If it can lock a larger percentage of your leisure time, its billion-dollar business will multiply several times over.

The reviews of the new tablet from Amazon, the Kindle Fire are in – and one of the features that every reviewer has played up is that it makes shopping on Amazon much easier. With the Kindle Fire, Amazon puts its shopping cart in your hands – and actually makes you pay for it! You can buy any item from the store as long as you have wifi. That’s why Amazon has not bothered to put in a camera or provide 3G access. At less than $200, it is just 40% of the iPad’s cost.

The benefits from Amazon Prime – the $79 per year for free shipping has been extended to provide an e-book that you can ‘borrow’ and return. For ebooks, there is no distribution or storage cost. They reside on Amazon’s mighty cloud and you pay real money for the copies of the bits. You can only borrow one book a time and it means that you pay about $7 a month for the privilege. Then you get movies streamed for free. Plus, you subscribe to magazines, place orders for books or browse the catalog of products.

Apple led the way to define the online store experience where the tablet became the vehicle for consuming content and paying for apps or games. It’s just packaged so skilfully, that you don’t even realise that you are paying for the privilege. Apple stores – online and retail earned $108 billion last year and the online store contributed massively to that total. What Apple has perfected is the insights into buying behaviour in small doses of less than a dollar. Dollar stores in a virtual form that can be accessed on just about any device connected to the internet.

Very early on, Apple realised that a ‘frictionless’ buying experience made hordes of people part with their money for everything from music tracks to apps – and the key was the 99 cent pricing. Apple or Amazon do not have to invest in the production of this content. They simply act as gatekeepers and pocket a tidy amount every time a customer makes a purchase. While Apple has real world stores, Amazon does not. But they can put up a huge amount of merchandise online and not spend much on logistics and distribution. So, they can sell at an extremely attractive price and lock you into the store as well. Tracks bought on the Apple Istore do not play on any other MP3 players. ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle format cannot be opened in other ebook readers, for example. There is still no accepted e-book standard because the agreements between publishers, stores and authors have not been sealed as yet.

So, if you think you’re getting the latest and the greatest tablets, consider this – they’re fabulously designed shopping carts and the biggest companies in the universe have a direct route to your wallet, one dollar at a time!


Mumbai Aura

I remember an ad from the ‘Black Book’, the one that used to be the reference for all advertising agencies in the 80s and 90s before the internet made all stock searches a lot easier. A photographer had a shot of the Grand Canyon bathed in natural early morning and late evening light. The headline said – ‘I use such old equipment, it works only twice a day’ or words to that effect. Somehow, that line sprang to mind flying into Mumbai yesterday morning.

It was a little after seven and the plane was coasting in to land. I glanced out of the window and it was as if the city of gold was lit up by an advertising photographer. All the searing, tumultuous urgency was masked in the glow. Warm yellow light washed over every single building and the lattice of roads, running like veins through the length and breadth of the city, making them come alive in a dreamlike state. The high rises lumped together had shafts that played out in geometric patterns, with bright shadows racing for the ground. Even the slums of Dharavi, perched precariously on the edge of the hills and covered in a thick film of dust and grime, looked like a page out of a fairytale. A few minutes later, I knew that the view would be completely different. Realty would intrude and bring the actual hues into stark prominence. The eyes could be momentarily deceived but the nose would not be. But for a few glorious seconds, the city of dreams lived up to its promise.

Another time Mumbai was just as breathtaking was a night memory. Again, it was an aerial view. The aircraft had taken off and after heading deep into the sea, banking to fly south. And the whole city, lit by millions of lights was awesome to behold. The Marine Drive may have been christened the ‘Queen’s Necklace’ but this necklace of lights stretched as long as the coastline on all sides. lighting up the whole city, the buildings, the slums, the swimming pools and the arterial roads and crevices. The map of Mumbai, said to have risen out of the integration of seven fishing villages was laid open in expanded detail – coming right out of the geography books and into majestic view. Millions of points of light played out on the panorama. Then, I noticed that there was a huge concentration of light at a central point. The finals of the 2010 IPL were on at the DY Patil stadium and it was packed. I must have got about 10 seconds of the match from a 20000 ft vantage point, but it is burned into memory. The green patch in the middle, the spectators looking like pinheads from that height and the massive floodlights looking like little matchsticks. As the plane pulled away, I strained to hold on to that view for as along as I could.

On the ground, however, the aura vanishes. I suspect if you were to come across an angel in close up, the illusion would not be sustained. But it’s good to catch glimpses of that brilliance, fleeting though it may have seemed from an aircraft window.


Sachin – Stuck on 99

I’m hardly a cricket fanatic – or an expert for that matter. No deep insights on whether Dhoni should have persisted with spin in the 44th over instead of taking a chance with pace. None of those nirvana-soaked discussions on why the yorker is better than the over-pitched delivery. I’d quietly slink out of any conversations that were threatening to get too detailed for my taste – or patience. Following the game on and off depending on whether India is losing or winning – that’s more like it. When India struck a losing streak in their recent tour of England, the TV wasn’t turned on very much at home. IPL is fun – football masquerading as cricket. It’s when the gentlemen of the game get down to being rowdies. Bend the rules so far back that the Englishmen wonder if the genteel game they played at 10 miles per hour has got a riotous subcontinental accent they do not recognise at all. A little like Saurav Ganguly appearing half- naked in the stands at Lord’s in the middle of all the ‘propahly’ dressed Englishmen, swirling his shirt in the air, giving the whole opposition the metaphorical finger. Half naked Indians have always been the English nation’s Waterloo – Gandhi or Saurav.

But what strikes me as strange is the national obsession with Sachin Tendulkar’s hundredth hundred. He’s got 99 of the damn things and come perilously close several times to crossing the line for the hundredth time. But he’s paused, hemmed and hawed, fallen out of form, got out on the verge of crossing it so many times, it’s a national pastime – Will he? Won’t he? TV Channels get themselves into a bind – panel after panels of experts are constituted and they hold forth on why Sachin has failed to make it until now and when he is most likely to. Each one ends up with egg on the face. The simple fact is no one is sure when and how it is going to happen. When it happens, we’ll all get drunk and commend the nation on having produced the world’s greatest batsman since Don Bradman. But can we move on and not worry about it so much?

At the end of the day, it’s another statistic. Fine, this is an important one – the batsman with the highest number of centuries in the world has a nice ring to it. A Hundred Hundreds. But it’s just another number. I remember the ‘millennial frenzy’ the world got into about Dec 31st, 1999. As if we were going to feel more civilized, more alive, more modern. We worried about how we were going to write ’00 on the cheques the next morning. There was this thing that a lot of Indian Information Technology companies made mountains of money out of – the millennial bug that would freeze out our computers, our weapon systems and the world in general. But on Jan 1st, nothing happened. The world looked pretty much the same, at least the world we knew. Nothing crashed, nothing burned. Sure Sachin will hit that mark. Now can we let his bat do the talking instead of our mouths?


Charlie Chaplin Lives

In Modern Times, a film made in 1936 in the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin created an iconic image. The industrial worker on the assembly line with two spanners in his hand. Through the day, he did the mind-numbingly monotonous job of tightening bolts on the line that stretched to infinity. 75 years later, with all the progress that has been made in manufacturing, you would think that a lot has changed. Sure, we have very impressive robots doing the heavy lifting, but for the intricate job of fitting small bolts into inaccessible areas and threading wires or locking unevenly shaped parts into a complex jigsaw, it still requires humans to perform at insanely high-efficiency levels. This article from ‘The Hindu’ reveals that a complete car rolls off the assembly line at Maruti Suzuki’s plant at Manesar every 50 seconds and to improve efficiency, they proposed a trimming to 48 seconds – 2 seconds means hundreds of more cars every day. To keep up the speed, workers get two 7.5 minute breaks for tea and a 30-minute break for lunch. The pressure is unrelenting.

“When I first began working for Maruti, assembly lines used to run right through my dreams,” said a worker with a laugh, “These days I suppose I’m so tired that I don’t get dreams anymore.”

The assembly line is a marvel of planning and execution. When we hear figures of over 1000 cars per day, we aren’t overly impressed. But to fit thousands of parts in the course of every single minute and then have the car perform flawlessly on the roads for years is a testament to our ability to mass produce complex machines. Our mechanical systems have come a long way. But our human resource monitoring systems are still tragically behind. They cannot combine efficiency with compassion.

No one wants to go back to the days of the Ambassador and Premier Padmini. Badly built and badly finished but with waiting periods that stretched for years. Even in 1995, you still had to wrap a plastic bag around the condenser of the Padmini to ensure that the car would not stop every time you drove through a puddle in the rains!

So, here’s the cycle. Everyone would like weekend trips with the family to scenic places. They want cars that deliver incredible fuel efficiency and style. And they want this at an affordable cost. Car manufacturing companies have no option but to trim wherever possible without affecting quality. They go over their complex spreadsheets and logistics reports, looking for the tiniest amount of flab. The point is, every company manufacturing a part that goes into the car wants to turn in a profit. No one is in business for charity. The only way out is to keep increasing production and sales to reduce the overall cost per car. But for the worker on the line, these are irrelevant facts. They only know that the management is now asking for an unreasonable 48 seconds per car. And that is intolerable.

We know the breaking points for machines far better than the ones for humans. And there lies the problem – humans cannot be calibrated and programmed to deliver the way machines do.


A 2 minute window

That’s all the mental time you spend on the soap you use every day, isn’t it? You don’t spend hours decoding the promises in the shopping aisle. Take any other product purchase. How long do you linger over the powder? Or the detergent? Or even the shampoo? What is it that triggers purchase in the store? Is it the ad you saw on TV last night? A friend who told you that ‘X’ shampoo made her feel good about her hair? Or the attractive merchandising that caught your eye as you walked past? Was it the familiarity of the brand name that got you? Or was it simply that it said the right things subliminally? Is there a single shampoo that does not promise dazzling hair that glistens and cascades in endless ripples? Is there a soap that does not make your skin glow? Or a cream that does not reach deep into the pores of your skin and rejuvenate it?

Is there a real difference between Oil of Olay and Pond’s Age Miracle? Maybe there is a distinctive formulation when you get down to examining the ingredients, but they both aim for the same objective. The preservation of ‘growing old’ skin and delaying age-related wrinkles. So, how do two women in the same age bracket decide that one of the brands works better? Can they even assess the difference after a few weeks? Both creams smell pretty good right out of the bottle. They are both applied in a light layer at night. And both women emerging in the morning do not look at themselves in the mirror and fantasise that they are looking a year younger. Not in the real world. But in the advertising world, yes. So, the only rational explanation for this is that advertising is your fondest fantasies played out in 10, 20 or 30-second instalments and you buy into them, one product at a time. Once in a while people do come up and say ” Come on, no one has hair like the one they show in commercials”. That’s true. But no one will buy the product if you show how hair looks in real life. People want the fantasy, not the truth when they buy a brand

While we can discuss the finer points of positioning, the age group targeted and the benefit statements, try asking people to explain why they like some brands more and others less. There isn’t an explanation, just conjecture. They play back the promises made in the ads . The family togetherness of Hamam is just not for the ones who prefer the starry airs of Lux. The ones who sip on Mountain Dew would not be caught dead with a Maazaa. Brands are as much about exclusion as they are about belonging. And the more sharply the brand image draws those invisible lines, the more the attachment. Millions of people buy a Nike, yet each of them thinks they are in a special zone, an invisible club that does not admit everyone who aspires to it. We’d like to believe that we are unique. And we consume mass produced products to prove it. The irony is delicious.


The Overnight Millionaire

From earning Rs.6000 a month (roughly $120) as a computer operator in a government program, Sushil Kumar became a millionaire in just over an hour. The stage, of course, was the game show – Kaun Banega Crorepati. All he had to do was answer 13 questions. And with a combination of pluck, bravura, and insane risk taking, he had vaulted into a space that most people wait a lifetime for. When he arrived in Mumbai to participate with his wife and two brothers in tow, they traveled by train. Now, he can charter a plane back.

Everything had changed. With most participants, the small talk is all cut out and Amitabh Bachchan gets down to the business of quizzing and handing people their mini fortunes at the drop of a hat. With dizzying speed, people go from zero to a few lakhs. That’s the norm. Then they arrive at a question which stumps them and they bow out, rather than risk what they won so easily. The classic behavior that defines humans across the world. But this was different. It could be argued that the questions were in subjects he was familiar with. He was not asked who won the Nobel prize for mathematics in 1979, for example. But to get to the lifeline and then take the plunge at a time when the difference was between getting to Rs 5 Crores ( That’s 8333 months of earnings at his current salary level or approx 694 years) and dropping to Rs 1.6 lakhs if he was wrong took a lot of guts. Sushil Kumar claimed that he always lacked the confidence to do anything – that it was his brothers who egged him on. But once he was in a position to take the risk, he found the courage.

He will need a lot of it going forward. There are already reports about extortion threats and a retinue of investment advisors and charlatans who will make a beeline to carve out their slice of his pie. From being someone whom nobody gave a second look, he will become the object of intense envy and jealousy. He has just pole vaulted into the world he knows nothing about. Most lottery winners end up losing their bounty in a few short years. They have no way of figuring out how to invest and make their money grow. But lottery winners have the cloak of anonymity. This was a ‘millionaire moment’ in the full glare of the arc lights. The new millionaire will discover that money brings just as many problems as it solves. He has nowhere to hide and his simple dreams can become astronomical nightmares as well.

The final moments of winning were riveting. No director could have coaxed those hundreds of emotions that flicked across his face when he was forced to decide on the final step. The sweaty hands were not in the studio alone. And even though the outcome had been splashed across newspapers several days before it was telecast, there was no let up in the tension. Enter stage as a pauper and exit as a prince. For a few short moments, millions of viewers felt their pulses race in unison.