Monday, May 28, 2007

My brand.. my brand.. my brand

Get a life. The 'consumer' is a human being for whom your brand is one of N million life choices. And unless you are something iconic, like the ipod, little more than that.

But professionals who spend all their waking hours - and perhaps their sleeptime as well - thinking of how to 'touch their consumers lives' don't quite get it.

A large multinational once sponsored a section of JAM magazine called 'Campus Buzz'. One of the regular columns in these pages was 'Hangouts'. Way back when Barista was a cool place where people played scrabble and strummed the guitar instead of holding quickie job interviews over coffee, we featured it.

Large Multinational Client (LMC) threw a fit. You see, this company also sells coffee. He felt we had violated cardinal principles and promoted a 'rival brand'.

We did not see it that way at all. And neither, I think, did the all important consumer. The choice is not: should I drink coffee at home, or should I go out and drink it at a coffee shop. If you like coffee, you do both.

In fact the boom in coffee shops would have made made coffee more popular in a tea drinking nation, IMHO. But, no sir. LMC cancelled his contract and maintained a cold war with us... For years.

I recalled this incident while reading Santosh Desai's column today on agencyfaqs. Santosh talks about why brands are unable to harness the power of the digital media. He writes:

I think the real problem is not that the internet in India is not ready for us, but that we don’t know how to use it. And this gap is not a technical one, but one involving a mindset...We want to control the narrative; we see ourselves as the creative prophets whose word the listeners must follow.

The very notion of creation undergoes a change when the user is involved; everyone becomes an artist. Creation becomes a function of collaboration over time. The idea that all work is unfinished, that eventually we, the owners of brands have no way of guaranteeing an outcome is too radical for most conventional marketers to be comfortable with.

Which is why we are quick to adopt that part of the digital world that fits into our existing frame of advertising. We have trouble with the part where we have to let go, where we surrender to the consumer. This is extremely uncomfortable since we have always believed that we, the emitters of message, are the owners of brands and they, the consumers, are part of some strange phylum of an even stranger genus that needs to be observed under the microscope called a focus group.

Look at the websites of the leading corporations of the world; they still speak in the crypto-corporate speak that signals their absolute terror of having a real conversation with the consumer.

Line of Control
Suppose a consumer gives a bad review of your product and it gets printed in a newspaper or magazine, what do you do? You assume they must have an ulterior motive (doosre brand ki PR agency ne unko paise diye honge). If you happen to be an advertiser with said publication, you threaten to withdraw your support.

Most journalists know which side their bread is buttered and will somehow cook up a product review which is moderately critical at best. The safest thing is to just list down the product specifications or print the press release verbatim.

A lot of advertising is linked to this press release garbage being printed verbatim as a 'value add'.

But then came the internet. You can't control what's said here, your advertising clout is irrelevant. If someone thinks your product tastes bad, well that's that. You can dismiss him as a crank or think to yourself, "Here is a voice that's not coming through to me on focus groups".

Let's face it - most of those groups are attended by 'professionals'. I was once part of a FGD on cooking oil (don't ask - favour for a friend!) and later found that all the housewives present did this on a regular basis. Kind of like a kitty party where you go home with a Shoppers' Stop voucher.

They know what clients want to hear. And that's further packaged by the MR agency into a document full of gobbledygook. "Cover Your Ass" research, it's called. If the product fails you have the report to wave around and say 'but we tested the concept extensively'!

The only industry which has learnt the art of letting go is entertainment. Movie companies invite journalists and other audiences for previews and special shows, without expectating a positive review. Music companies also know that opinions have a life of their own - they can't be controlled.

Of course these companies have the advantage of producing new 'products' on a regular basis. If one film bombs, there's always another release around the corner.

And, there's no accounting for public taste. Often the films with poor reviews get sizable audiences.

In sum, brands need to be less obsessive. Perhaps even less 'innovative'. The new trend is to start a site to 'engage' the customers around some kind of broad theme related to the brand. Most of these sites also use the brand name in the url.

By this logic, when satellite TV took off in India, large brands should've set up their own TV channels!

A website is relatively cheap to set up, so sure, brands are able and willing to experiment. But as long as the Creators see the end user as a 'consumer' it will never really work. When someone 'targets' you - there is an uneasy feeling.

Whether it's in the literal or metaphoric sense.


  1. no comments till now!! phew!!

  2. Well I think it depends all on the branding intention. The idea behind branding would define the mode to be used for it.

  3. The point which you were trying to make was not clear until the last paragraph. A lot remains to be said about the power of internet in altering brand perception and consumer interaction.

    A brand is developed by spending a lot of money on PR and everything else. On the internet, since everybody can create their own content and pit it against the 'brands', the importance of creating and maintaining brands in the internet age is more than ever.

  4. The internet has tremendous potential. And i think we havent completely understood how to harness it.

    The entertainment industry per se is open to comments, i suspect because of the lineage to theatre / creative arts and critique

  5. Everyone shd read Santosh's article on agencyfaqs! It was really a hugely insightful one.

    My sympathies with the LMC experience, though I must add, there is an element of largeness creeping into those small hearts now. media and entertainment probably leads the show there. On the same site, viz, agencyfaqs, all radio stories land in a section that seems to be sponsored by radio city. Radio City as a brand is quite happy to be there it seems, irresepctive of whom the story is on, as loing as it is Radio.

    Similarly, Cartoon Network has tried to occupy the kids space by dominating all kids stories similarly, on e4m, agencyfaqs and Indiantelevision.

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