Brand positioning should be directed by strategy, and not left to a lucky streak of publicity.

I have been married for a small matter of 29 years and I guess one of the expressions that I have heard most often is “I told you so!” I know that some of you at least may share some similarity in experiences, right? But the purpose of this piece is not so much to compare the relative states of our marital bliss (?) but to take a look at brands with a similar lofty philosophy. Often I have felt that it is wonderful to be a critic, sitting on judgement on brands and their foibles, but here I am more interested in the learnings for other brands from some of these acts of omission or commission that brand owners and marketers have done at different points in time.

Public relations can be a double-edged sword

I am a great believer in public relations and there is enough evidence to suggest that it can build corporate image, launch products, get a whole lot of visibility at a fraction of the cost of mass media advertising even while remembering that the source credibility for public relations is far, far more than advertising that you pay for (often through your nose). And yet it need not be an unmixed blessing. And why do I say that? I think I would be better served to explain this with a recent example and that is the Tata Nano. Is the Nano a success or a flop? I don't want to get into this debate right now, but let me just say that the brand is certainly not a Sholay. I am definitely not referring to the unfortunate accidents that the car had. I am trying to say in a convoluted way that it was not a hit when it was initially launched. What happened? Ratan Tata in one of the early press interviews spoke about the Tatas coming up with a “ Rs 1 lakh car”.

The response from the media was swift, electric even. The media loved the statement, lapped it up and went to town with their own version of the news. The people's car was coming. Soon the people's car became a “cheap car”. After all, media needs a hook or a story peg and what better peg than a cheap car for a poor country? There was reams and reams of publicity and I am sure the PR company and the client were very happy with the media value of the free publicity that was given.

As a result of that the client too decided that the brand had got so much publicity that there was a very limited role or need for advertising. Consequently there was no clear attempt to position the product and the market cheerfully and conveniently branded it as a “cheap” car. What is great news-making opportunity need not necessarily be a great position for the prospective buyer! The response was lukewarm, to say the least, and then the company belatedly swung into action with a lot of advertising, offers and freebies. Right now it has launched a scheme of cash discounts and reduced down payments. Has all this worked? I am not so sure, but even as the brand tries to retrieve lost ground my instinct tells me that the horse might already have bolted. What a fantastic opportunity squandered! Why would you not position a new product the way you want to rather than let it be positioned by the market? Let me quickly clarify that I am not knocking public relations. It can play a phenomenally positive role. But it needs to be planned. Mere coverage or thousands of column centimetres is not the answer. So carefully think through your public relations strategy and its implication on the launch of the brand. Is your media coverage more corporate when your need of the hour is product coverage?

Another car starts out on the wrong foot

I remember going to pick up my wife's Honda City from the Honda outlet a couple of years ago. There was a lot of excitement in the media and in the outlet at that time as Honda had just launched its Jazz with a lot of fanfare. The car, truth be told, looked absolutely stunning and the test drive too was more than satisfactory. Of course, any thoughts I had of buying it were quickly quelled when I checked the price of the new car. It was close to Rs 9 lakh, if my memory serves me right. I thought it was at least Rs 1.5 lakh more than the car deserved and I went away regretfully, wondering why car manufacturers can't get their pricing right.

All these reports about India growing in affluence and aspiration, whilst not unfounded, must be tempered, in my view at least, with the overwhelming obsession that middle-class India seems to have with ‘value for money' however, you wish to define that. I recall the commercials with the tag line “Kitna deti hai” which is as good a representation of the Indian middle-class mentality as anything else. Today a new version of the Jazz has been launched at a price that is Rs 1.5 lakh less and when I saw the new price announcement I felt like saying “I told you so”.

Mind you, the Jazz is just one example - I feel many car manufacturers have either an exaggerated view of the popularity of their products or an inflated view of the customer's ability to pay. Having been brought up on a diet of brilliant Volkswagen advertising over the years, I yearn for the Volkswagen Beetle, but however sexy, I am not going to pay Rs 23 lakh or thereabouts for it. Maybe I have got the final price wrong by a few hundred thousand but then I don't know any numbers above 15 lakh when it comes to buying cars! Pricing is critical everywhere, perhaps even more so in the Indian sub-continent. I do hope that someone sitting somewhere in the world making strategic decisions realises that there is a poor, middle-class Indian writing this column and several others like him can buy the Beetle, but will someone do something about the pricing?

Are airlines trying to tell us something?

Why are most airlines in a financial mess? I wish I knew! But I certainly know that some of them are confusing their consumers no end and end up hurting their top lines and bottom lines. Now why do I say that? I think both Jet and Kingfisher prove the point I am trying to make. In its early stages, I was a great admirer of Jet Airways and used to talk and write about it, whenever an opportunity presented itself. The brand, to me at least, seemed like one with the potential to make its presence felt globally. Then Jet did something that I wished it hadn't. It probably believed the future was in low-cost airlines and took over Sahara. It called the acquired brand JetLite and launched another low-cost airline too under its wing as Jet Konnect and ended up confusing the consumer. Some served meals, some did not and some of the best routes that I patronised suddenly became Jet Konnect flights, and I ended up hungry and angry. The service levels too varied and the brand, which had been consistent earlier, ended up sending conflicting signals.

It's hardly surprising that the brand has now decided to rationalise its brand structure and drop the Jet Konnect altogether, something I might have told them on day one. Take its competitor Kingfisher. I really liked that airline too and then it too decided it needed to enter the low-cost segment. Net result? It took over the Air Deccan brand and its primarily ATR aircraft. I too travelled by the acquired airline. It was a low-cost airline with a difference - I could use the lounge to have a wonderful breakfast free and take a cheap airline where too they served some snacks! I was wondering where the brand would make money from? Hardly worth wondering as the airline has gone seriously into the red and has now decided to drop the low-cost airline from its fleet, in its attempt to salvage itself. The learning? The simpler the architecture of the brand, the better. Brands should stay focused on their true offering is, instead of trying to send out conflicting signals to consumers. Brands that try to be all things to all people will have a problem. Maybe the rules for the beleaguered airline business are different but as a general guideline, long-term success happens to brands that are cogent and consistent. Associations are built over time and can be easily lost.

To cut a long story short …

Don't let the consumer position the product herself. Customers must be guided in the direction we need them to travel.

Public relations must be planned. Corporate PR, while great for the organisation, may not immediately do anything for the brand. If not led by proper strategy, it could be counterproductive.

Pricing is key. Not every brand is an Apple that can command a super-premium.

Brands must clearly stand for something and not confuse the consumer.

And as a general rule companies can learn by looking outside of their industry. That is when the real learning happens.

So are you ready to learn?

(Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brand-comm and a Director of Custommerce, an organisation committed to promoting customer service in the country. His blog Third Umpire on Branding is at http://www.ramanujamsridhar.blogspot.com.)

(This article was published on October 19, 2011)
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