In the real world, local can mean a locality or a single street. And there are several businesses that operate with a customer base spread within a radius of a couple of kilometers. The salon. The gymnasium. The flower seller. The photocopy store. The stationery shop.The sweet shop. The music teacher.The bakery. The vegetable shop.The 2 wheeler mechanic. The pharmacy. The coffee store with fresh ground coffee. The neighborhood grocery store, which functions as an extension of the storeroom in the house. Especially in India.
Some of them are just a set of implements on a footpath. Others have little more wiggle room. But they seem to go on for years and you may never see a crowd at any of these places. But they’ve kept themselves going through a stubborn will or because they have acquired a clientele that keeps them nourished, if not healthy. In the context of a brand, where do these businesses stand? They have a character hard to define, apart from their presence. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember their name apart from saying ‘The vegetable shop near the temple’
Does a brand need to be singular?
For all the businesses listed above, it’s hard to tease out a single feature that captures their essence perfectly. They exist because they are required on a regular basis. And enough customers spend to sustain them. The mechanic may not be the most efficient at repairs. He doesn’t greet you with a smile. And if you don’t see him for a few months, you may not remember what he looks like, even if you tried.
By the brand book, however, they fit the bill. They have a loyal clientele. They deliver a level of consistent service. They are known locally for what they do. And they’ve been around long enough to become a part of your life and play some bit roles from time to time. It’s one of those relationships hard to classify because they fall in the ‘fuzzy’ category. You are not ignorant about them and not solidly bonded either. Kind of Post-it brands. Sticks easily. Comes off easily.
Building up a local gym
A local gym in the city dreamed of becoming a national network over time. They had the same set of treadmills, weights, trainers, and a clientele that comprised fitness seeking patrons. The ones who wake up one morning and notice with a start that they’ve added a few additional chins and some tyres around the midriff.
Now, this isn’t the six-pack and starring for the next heroine role fitness segment. They just want to ensure that they don’t look as if they’re hiding a football under their t-shirt. They’ll post selfies on the treadmill, and gulp a milkshake with a pastry immediately after a session. 600 calories off and 1800 on. 2 mornings a week tops. The gym’s favorite customers. Pay up for a whole year but work out twice a week. In the first month.
There was nothing to differentiate from the other gyms in the locality unless you counted the muscled trainers. Nobody was looking to be the next Mr. Universe.
The promise of freshness
Locker rooms and gyms have sweat flowing in bucketfuls. And if the air-conditioning doesn’t work, you better have a stuffed nose. So that’s what we worked with. A gym that emphasized freshness. And delivered by having the air circulation designed to keep mustiness from creeping in. Not daisies and daffodils but the smell of ‘clean’. The way freshly washed clothes smell. Or the weather on a dewy morning. It seemed to work because registrations went up. And 10 years later, it’s still around. Not a national network, or even more across the city. But it’s still there at its original location.
Bridging the North-South divide.
Chennai is not the kind of place that experiments with food. Vegetarian and South Indian vegetarian food at that is preferred. So, selling a restaurant that specialized in North Indian food was a stretch. It helped that the client had a sweet shop attached to the restaurant. So people coming in would at least consider the options.
Instead of distributing cheap flyers with the menu, young students in traditional attire went personally to over 2000 homes and apartments in the vicinity and delivered invitations, asking people to come over to the shop. The quality of dishes on offer was enhanced with some mouth-watering food photography. On day 1 after opening, they hit the jackpot. The restaurant is now open at 7-8 other locations across the city.
Life as a local brand
It is not a bad way to make a living. A recent article talked of a kachori seller in Aligarh which had no signboard or even a menu making around Rs. 60 lakhs a year (about $90,000) The reason they were featured was that they never paid taxes and a diligent government official calculated the amount of money the shop made by counting the number of customers served during the day.
Small beauty salons make solid revenues every year, especially when generations of women develop an affinity with the staff and it becomes a place to catch up on local gossip and pass the time. It’s mostly a cash business with lots of repeats. And there’s no fear that an online version will appear anytime soon.
Local brands are launched by smart, sharp business people. And some of them gradually acquire a reputation over time that helps attract people from various parts of the city. And that’s where the brand building actually begins. With one dish that finds favor and is actively sought. A haircut that stands out in a crowd. Or a service ethic which competition is not able to keep up with. Not with strategy and communication but a spark.
A restaurant in the city started making vegetarian dishes with forgotten rural recipes. Making millets fashionable again. That kindled a wave of nostalgia. The hotel itself is not one of those swanky places. It’s just a small house up a flight of stairs. And on weekends, people line up on the steps, waiting for their turn. The seeds of a long-term brand relationship are being sown. When customers seek a brand instead of the other way round.
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