When marketers write novels

Harish Bhat | Updated on November 15, 2019

Storytelling meets consumer insights over a cup of coffee

Some time last year, I decided to write my first novel. It has just been published, and the book is titled An extreme love of coffee. I have written it as a blend of coffee and magic, with adventure and travel thrown in. The story features a streak of romance and a friendly coffee ghost. Early reviews indicate that readers are loving the story, but only time will tell whether I have spun a really good tale.

Parity and difference

Most of my writings, including my earlier books and this column, have been in the space of business, marketing and consumer behaviour. I had never before attempted fiction. So what happens when a marketer like me decides to write a novel? Here is the inside story.

I knew from my three decades of marketing experience that every winning product needs two things — points of parity, and points of difference.

For instance, if you consider any food product, say, Subway sandwiches, the point of parity is superb taste, because no consumer will ever want to buy food that is not tasty. However, Subway’s point of difference, that appeals to so many of us, is that it is also fresh and healthy, and you can indulge in your own customised fillings. I had to apply this important marketing principle to my novel.

India’s first coffee novel

Let me deal with the point of difference, first. Very quickly, I chose to write a novel themed on Indian coffee. Why? Very simply because I have not come across any novel yet, on this subject. So, I was convinced that being the first Indian coffee novel is a unique point of difference.

My instinct also told me that lots of Indians love coffee, and are in the process of discovering this wonderful beverage. Therefore, a novel themed on coffee would appeal to them greatly, because it would help them in this process of discovery. My story, therefore, explores the joys of various types of Indian coffee.

There are two other aspects of this point of difference that are equally important.

As the creator of the novel, I had to write the story with genuine passion. And here, it helps greatly that I am very engaged with my coffee. I select my coffee beans, get them powdered at a nearby store and then brew my own filter coffee each morning. I have visited coffee plantations and observed with great interest the cultivation and processing of coffee.

So, writing India’s first coffee novel was not merely about creating a unique point of difference, but also about traversing an area that I love and have some knowledge of.

That’s something all marketers should have — passion and deep knowledge about your product.

The other aspect is, of course, an understanding of the market size.

If a product has to be ambitious about sales volumes and market share, its point of difference should address a consumer segment that is large enough. Here, the growing popularity of coffee in India convinced me that a large enough segment of readers would love this space. Everywhere, so many people today want to meet over coffee, date their partners over coffee, or even watch the chat show Koffee with Karan on television. Undoubtedly, “coffee lovers” is a large enough segment.

Building in some magic

Having decided on the point of difference, I now had to deal with the points of parity that my book would deliver — these are the essential needs that consumers seek in any category.

One point of parity that a novel has to necessarily deliver on is that the story has to be gripping. So, I made my story interesting by building many intriguing things into the plot.

To begin with, lots of travel and adventure, because I had read a recent survey that said 38 per cent of all Indians now prefer to spend their money on travel, above all other pursuits, including shopping and food.

My novel therefore travels all the way from the lush green coffee plantations of Coorg to strange graveyards in coffee-loving Japan, and to many other places which I will not name here, because that will amount to spilling the beans. Then, I made the story more interesting by building in some magic.

This was not based on any formal consumer survey, but on conversations with friends, which convinced me that all of us seek a little bit of magic in our lives. That’s why JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have become such cult stories. So, my novel pivots around moments of magic, including a friendly coffee ghost.

I also thought there is a great deal of magic in romance, so why not build in some romance too? Many of us constantly seek the magic of romance, don’t we? That’s why romantic movies and mushy books do so well.

Therefore, in this novel, you will also enjoy a nice tale of romance. And, finally, my roles as a marketer and novelist fused together when I decided to integrate Starbucks into the novel. This magical adventure evolves in a Starbucks café and the fit is perfect.

I hope you will decide to read this novel and enjoy the story. After you read it, please do let me know what you think — should marketers write novels ?

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons.

Published on November 15, 2019

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