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A question of brands

Ramanujam Sridhar

Brand managers, make a new beginning this year by asking yourself some questions and finding the answers, and embark on a journey of learning and discovery.

REMEMBER the Tamil film Thiruvilayadal? If it was before your time, let me quickly jog your memory and draw your attention to an oft shown, oft talked about scene between the renowned comedian Nagesh and Sivaji Ganesan where Nagesh decides to test the thespian, by questioning him. Yes, like Nagesh, I realise that it is easier to ask questions than to find answers to problems in branding. And I have read too that "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers".

Here I have attempted to look at a variety of brands both international and national. They belong to widely different categories, consumers and countries. And yet I believe they have an important lesson for us in India, faced as we are with a host of complex issues that are threatening our brands. I have always been a great admirer of the management guru Gary Hamel and perhaps it is time to recall once again what he said: " If a company is interested in finding the future, most of what it needs to learn it must learn outside its own industry." As a brand new year comes our way let us look forward with anticipation and also think outside of the box like some of these brands have done.

Mind or heart?

A brand is a blend of rational and emotional benefits. One wonders though whether we as marketers are being too obsessed with the rational and the functional. Yes, positioning as per Al Ries and Jack Trout is the `battle for the mind'. Agreed. But what about the consumer's heart?

Let's take a quick look at a brand that has captured just that. Yes, it's Harley Davidson, the original cult brand. Aimed at individuals who love the freedom on two wheels. And in a sense Harley's `weekend fun' positioning is extremely interesting and inclusive. Whilst the typical Harley user might be a blue-collar worker with limited resources, the inclusive positioning makes it aspirational and hence Harley customers include engineers, lawyers and doctors. Yes, Harley has widened its customer base. And Harley has captured and fired its customer's imagination. Take Apple. Another cult brand which appeals to the heart.

Yes, a lot of us lead buttoned-down and regimented lives. Can your brand provide a breath of fresh air? A break from the monotony? Appeal to the heart?

Customer? Or lover? Or both?

Everyone wants their customer to love their brands. They want to delight their customers too. And yet, there is the example of Ferrari which is interesting and intriguing. There are millions of Ferrari lovers across the world, and yet many of them could never realistically become customers of the brand. And yet this love and admiration which the brand inspires is simultaneously a challenge because the more people admire you the more they will expect and demand. Well, just ask Sachin Tendulkar what this means as millions of people have linked their dreams and hopes to this diminutive genius. Boy, is he under pressure! And yet the love and affection that people hold for a brand can mean line extensions and expansion of your customer base. Who is your brand's consumer? Can you widen the base and make more people love your brand?

What's business without philosophy?

Businesses are built around brands. And yet at times we tend to forget that what holds a company together is a strong guiding philosophy. A philosophy anchored in a strong, consumer benefit proposition. Britannia's tagline of `Eat Healthy. Think Better' represents an attempt to inform consumers about the importance of the brand and its relevance to customers. The philosophy anchors a vast and diverse product line. LG, another multi-product company, has anchored its philosophy to health, which extends to Ravi Shastri exhorting the captains of the competing World Cup cricket teams to indulge in healthy competition.

One is reminded of the successful GE campaigns that `bring good things to life'. It was generic almost and a much wider canvas. It permitted the company to hang its multi-product peg on this customer benefit statement. Is your philosophy reflected in your communication?

Time for excitement?

Titan is a solid successful Indian brand. It has been a brand that has been innovative in more ways than one. Remember gifting. Well, Titan not only changed the way the Indian consumer looked at time but changed the way we looked at gifting. I can tell you from experience. For my fifth wedding anniversary I got a Titan watch as a gift. And for my 10th wedding anniversary, yes another Titan. And for the 15th, hold your breath, yet another Titan. Hardly surprising that gifting accounts for over 50 per cent of Titan's sales.

And yet the last few years have seen a slowdown in the market. Titan too saw sluggish sales, a function of the fact that the multiple ownership of watches didn't happen at the pace that Titan wanted and the value-conscious watch buyer was buying Sonata. Yes, things were slow at India's premier watchmaker. It is in this context that the launch of Titan Edge and Titan steel become relevant. They were electrifying. Yes, the slimmest watch in the world caused more than a ripple. I think it's a technologically inspired wave that will not only benefit the brand but the company as well. Yes, brands and companies need excitement, particularly when the economy is slow and the mood is downbeat. Now, tell me, what is the new exciting thing that has happened to your brand or company in recent times? The answer to that question might well determine your brand's future.

Can personal branding give you an edge?

From a brand that changed the face of time, let's move on to a face that is a brand. And we are not talking of Aishwarya Rai here. In a recent study conducted by brand-comm, students across leading management institutes overwhelmingly chose N. R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys as the business leader they admired most. For the second year in a row. And guess why? No surprises here: "Leadership style, vision, entrepreneurial spirit and ethics". Yes, the other corporate leaders in India have some catching up to do in image terms, at least. Branding is all about consistency, coherence and long-term thinking. Yes, corporate leaders can and will become brands in their own right. There have been people before Narayana Murthy like Jack Welch, Richard Branson and Anita Roddick who have been the faces of the organisations they headed, making their organisations the `Company of choice' to customers, employees and investors. Who is the `face' of your organisation to the external world? Or is it a well-kept secret?

Speed. The name of the game?

Earlier brand building was slow and steady. Brands took time, a long time to be built. Take Dalda, Colgate, Coke or Lux. All these brands are great brands. Built carefully, consistently over a period of time. A long period of time. And yet consider some of the technology brands that have been built in recent times - Amazon, Yahoo!, America Online. They didn't take too long did they? And that throws up an interesting question. At what speed is your own brand cruising? Why not pitch your speed of growth or visibility higher? And speaking of speed, I would be very anxious to see how Reliance Infocomm stirs up the market. Will the company that believes that growth is a way of life show that WLL is the way to go? The only thing that I am sure of is that whatever Reliance will do, it will do it fast. It will not aim low. It won't be satisfied too easily and will keep raising the bar even as it keeps lowering the prices. Yes, better, bigger and quicker may just happen. Can it happen for your brand too?

So here's that pesky list of questions again:

  • Does your brand appeal to the heart?

  • Do you have mere customers or do you have brand lovers?

  • Is your philosophy reflected in your communication?

  • What exciting thing has happened to your brand in recent times?

  • Who is the face of your company to the external world?

  • How fast is your brand cruising?

    And as a final thought, let me quote the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: "Live your questions now and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers."

    May you live long! And may you have a wonderful year!

    (Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, a Bangalore-based consultancy. Feedback can be sent to [email protected])

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