Harish Bhat

Marketing lessons from Ganesha

HARISH BHAT | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 27, 2015

Ganesha idols being transported to various locations in the town.-T. Vijaya Kumar

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His idols can teach us a few things about Indian consumers

The festival of Ganesha Chaturthi is still a couple of weeks away, but the celebrations have alread begun. Looking out of our window last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I watched the first Ganesha idol of the season being taken out in a grand procession, in the Parel area of Mumbai. There was joyous music, with lots of trumpets and drums. There were orange flags fluttering. Men and women were dancing beautifully in a neat circle. And behind all of them, in towering majesty, came a huge idol of Lord Ganesha, mounted on top of a truck. The idol was much larger than life, I estimate it must have been at least 14 feet tall.

It showed Ganesha standing in an impressive pose, surveying the lands around him. As we watched the procession, we could sense sheer and exuberant joy.

I thought to myself, this is what a community festival does, to most of us in India. It liberates us, and helps us express our happiness in so many wonderful and spontaneous ways. Perhaps the best place to observe this is in the Lal Baug area of Mumbai, where the largest and most famous Ganesha of them all is installed and worshipped in a huge pandal. This is the Lal Baugcha Raja (the King of Lal Baug), who has been an annual feature here for the past 80 years. Established by local fishermen and traders, an amazing two million people visit this particular Ganesha Pandal during just ten days of the Ganesha Chaturthi festival. All around, entire roads burst into unending music and dance.

Near the Lal Baug area is the well known Parel workshop, where idols of Lord Ganesha are created. I visited this workshop, and found it a fascinating experience. It was exciting to see how craftsmen were putting together idols of our beloved elephant-headed god. But equally interestingly, the Ganesha idols in this workshop taught me a few simple lessons in marketing.

Riot of bright colours

First and foremost, the idols of Ganesha we saw at the workshop were in every colour you can imagine. There was orange, red, yellow, green, blue, pink and even purple. The only binding pattern across these hues was that every colour was bright, and often very bright. There were no pastel or dull shades here. Watching these idols, it struck me that joyous celebrations and happy occasions in our country are always best enveloped in bright colours. There is no space here for muted tones. I asked a local visitor which colour of Ganesha idol he likes best.

“Yellow, of course”, he replied without hesitation, “we wear bright yellow garments during Ganesha Chaturthi because we want to feel happy and young. So our Ganesha must also be yellow.” Marketers may wish to consider this distinct Indian preference for bright colours, when they create packaging or advertising for any product that is consumed on happy, spontaneous occasions. This may be quite different from some European countries where restrained colours are often in vogue, yet somewhat similar, I think, to Latino or gypsy cultures where vivid and sparkling colours are always the first choice. Chocolates, ice-creams, appetising foods and beverages, garments – in India, bright is the way to go.

Imagination, innovation

As I looked around in this wonderful workshop, I saw surprising Ganesha idols that I had never expected to see. There was, of course, the normal pot-bellied Ganesha, sitting in calm and happy repose. But next to him, there was also a slim Ganesha, toned and with six-pack abs on display.

This was clearly a Ganesha who believed in regular workouts at the gym. There was a Ganesha sheltered under the hood of serpents, and next to him was one who was riding a huge big bull. I was delighted to see a Ganesha who carried an Apple iPad, rather than his traditional book.

Here was imagination and product innovation in full sway. This is, of course, not a new development. I have read that during the years which followed Indian Independence in 1947, there were Ganesha idols in Mumbai which resembled Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi.

This is because the large majority of Indians generally have a flexible mindset, one that readily accepts variations within a broad boundary – we mould even our Gods in our contemporary positive images, leaving only their core intact. So while every Ganesha idol carries the elephant head that is the core hallmark of this deity, everything else can change, based on context and imagination.

All this is tribute to our imaginative craftsmen who make these wonderful idols, and to our people who encourage and welcome such innovation. In contrast, I wonder if our marketers and brands are too static, and thus falling far behind. Do we need to re-imagine our products, our packaging, our advertising in many more ways than we are doing today, if we have to excite our consumers and keep our brands as contemporary and vibrant as these new-age idols of Lord Ganesha? As a small start, can some of our brands consider very imaginative limited-edition packs for Ganesha Chaturthi, Dusshera and Christmas? In addition, can marketers think of products in far more innovative shapes and sizes from time to time, or amazingly imaginative point of sale publicity material at retail outlets?

We want to know

The workshop I visited was full of people, young and old. They were talking to craftsmen about each idol. I watched an elderly woman enquiring about the material used in making a specific idol (“Plaster of Paris”, she was told), and the weight of this idol (three tonnes, the man answered her with a flourish).

At another location, a craftsman was passionately explaining to a large family the story behind Lord Ganesha sitting under the hood of serpents. At a third location, two people were in animated conversation about why an idol of Lord Ganesha was mounted on a huge fish. A visitor I spoke to told me: “Each of these idols tells a story, that’s why we come here. It is so informative, and it is an excellent cultural education for our children and for ourselves. We want to know.”

“We want to know”. That is an excellent phrase which stayed on in my mind, even after I left the Ganesha workshop. As human beings and consumers, we want to know more about the products we consume and the brands we buy. We want to know how these products are made, the story of their origins, the people who make them, the legends that are part of their lore. Just like this workshop tells the story of each Ganesha idol and how it is made, marketers should also respond to this fundamental consumer need by narrating the stories of our brands with passion and with flair.

We should think about where our storytelling workshops can reside. Perhaps they can be in digital space, or on packaging, or within retail stores. Or in some cases, even in our manufacturing units, that can be thrown open to consumer visits.

Lord Ganesha is a great teacher. Even as I eagerly look forward to celebrating the festival of Ganesha Chaturthi very soon, I will not forget these simple marketing lessons I learnt in His own workshop.

The author is Member, Excutive Group Council, Tata Sons

Published on August 27, 2015
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