Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Great Indian Family

Zamana beet gaya

There is a scene in 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' where Nia Vardalos is shocked when her American boyfriend says he has no cousins. OK, technically he has a couple but hasn't met them in years.

Vardalos splutters," How can that be? No cousins! I have 28 first cousins!!"

It was an isn't-that-so-funny moment except ... Suddenly I realised I probably have that many first cousins. A quick calculation reveals -- tan tan na -- I have 44 first cousins. 21 on my dad's side and 23 on my mom's.

Shocking? Well, not really. My dad is one of 9 siblings, and my mom one of 7. And in a way my family is a mirror reflecting the social and demographic changes of India as a nation.

What once was...
Pre-Independence, every family was a large family. Except for a few, very few educated and elite parivaars like the Nehrus.

The older aunts in the family who were married in the 1940s and 1950s had 4-5 kids each - and that was considered a progressive thing to do. Those who married in the mids 60s, 70s and 80s have had an average of 2 kids - in the rare case there are 3.

The next generation - my cousin sister and I who married in the mid 90s - have one kid each (so far). Both are girls.

My cousin is a housewife, yet not keen on having a second baby. I am what the magazines call 'career woman' and I too am ambivalent about having a second child. But one thing's for sure - neither of us is going to have another baby simply in the hope of producing a male heir.

But what happens when my daughter Nivedita grows up and happens to watch 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' on cable? She's going to find the thought of having 28 first cousins extremely funny. She currently has one first cousin - and can expect 1, or 2 more. For all you know - she may never even have a real sibling.

How India has changed!
This is a pattern you can see all across urban India. And I think it has huge social implications. I can't say I am 'close' to all 44 of my first cousins. Some are more dear than others - simply because we are on similar wavelength. But at the end of the day, when there is a wedding, you do feel a sense of 'family'.

My daughter may never have that. There will be extremely few rishtas (relationships) she will be able to take for granted.

Now at a younger age I would have called this a wonderful thing. Throughout my childhood I found the constant presence of the extended family quite painful. Summer vacation? Six cousins would come to stay for a month or more. It was fun - in hindsight - but also a source of acute embarassment at the time.

Being from what can politely be termed as 'hicktowns' my cousins were rather different from me - the city kid. They didn't speak English, they wore strange clothes. They put 4 spoons of sugar in milk and put excess oil in their hair.

My birthday - bang in the middle of summer - was always 'spoilt' because my cousins and my friend were like oil and water. The two never mixed.

Today - things are different. The same hicktown cousins have become a lot smarter and sophisticated, thanks to the general sophistication of India itself. Satellite TV, internet, the consumer boom in smaller towns - thanks to increased purchasing power.

Some still don't speak English too well but it doesn't matter. Because I've lost my 'English-is-cool' complex.

They wear branded shirts - not safaris, use Brylcreem - not oil. And we all laugh when we recall the days when ek kapde ke thaan mein se teeno bhaiyon ki shirt banti thi.

Their wives don't wear jeans like me, but they are fashionable in their own way. And as keen to live life and experiment as me. They like trying out new recipes - and at weddings where the traditional daal-baati used to be the highlight, south Indian or Chinese stalls are a must.

Their kids will be even more similar to city kids like Nivedita in attitude and aspiration.

We do need an education...
For my brother and I, growing up in Bombay, education was of prime importance. But not so much for my cousins - it was understood the boys would do B Com and join the family business, and girls would get married.

That's changed.

Even those cousins whose parents are in business now want a professional education for their children. One such cousin is busy preparing for IIT entrance at the famous Bansal classes in Kota. His younger sister will also join him after completing class 10 this year.

When my brother applied to study abroad it was understood he would have to secure a full scholarship. Now, parents pay - or students take loans. And that's just what a young cousin of mine has done recently.

After completing 3 years of his engineering course in India, he's gone to Purdue university to do the 4th year (it'a part of a tie up the univ has with his college). He's paying his way but determined to pay back his parents by working abroad for a few years before ultimately coming back.

Even the girls are a lot more ambitious. A couple have done MBAs - not from the very best institutes but good enough to get them decent jobs. One cousin entered the BPO industry 2 years ago and is today a Team Leader earning close to 25 k a month.

She was just a small town girl - and a plain graduate - when she came to Gurgaon in search of a job, when her dad's business collapsed. Now her parents and siblings have in fact shifted to Gurgaon and started life afresh - thanks to the success she's been able to make of herself.

That's a changing India for you!

Conclusion: Large families are neither practical nor desirable in today's day or age. But there is something really nice about having buas and mamas and mausis - which is not the same as having aunties and uncles.

For my generation, some friends are almost like family. For the young people of tomorrow they will be family - because 'family' as we know it really won't exist.

Hmm. Maybe I really should have another baby.
Then again....

Friday, February 25, 2005

Amit vs Abhijeet

A quick recap of last nite's Indian Idol finale
- Amit Sana sings better
- Abhijeet sings well but looks better and smiles better.

My vote goes to Amit. Maybe, for the first time I will actually bother to send an SMS :)

A few other observations:
* Judge Farah Khan was clearly rooting for Amit Sana - she could have been a little more gracious to the other fella.

* Thank God the final episode did not have BLATANT product promotion eg Mini and Aman Varma eating potato chips. For Godssake!! Product placement works only when it makes 'sense' and not when it's intrusive.

OK, The fact that you can send Hindi SMS via Nokia was plugged but it didn't sound out of context. That's the difference between good and bad product placement!

* I noticed during the breaks some pretty interesting youth oriented advertising. Since I've cribbed a lit about the lack of it just a couple of posts ago I think I should specifically mention the ones that stood out:

- The Kit-Kat spot which shows how you can eat the bar Hollywood style or Bollywood style. Quite cool.

- The Pepsi spot for their new promotion - with Saif playing the bumbling detective. It has at least some of the spark of earlier days though it's not as memorable as 'mera number kab aayega'?

Lastly, this keeping of the suspense for a whole week is a bit of overkill. But I guess it will get the channel the desired ratings.. And that's what finally matters!

Thursday, February 24, 2005

'Rig' Veda?

'Rig' Veda
The Indian Idol finale airs tonight and although I do think the show is pathbreaking in many ways, the SMS voting is beginning to resemble the Great Indian Political Tamasha more than a talent hunt.

Yesterday, Midday frontpaged a report on how the BMC worker's unions have pledged their support to Abhijeet Sawant - the contestant whose dad works with the corporation.

100,000 workers X average of 5 family members = 5 lakh possible votes. OK - so maybe all will actually vote but some may send in several entries and it all still adds up.

Meanwhile ads are apparently appearing in Chhatisgarh papers urging people there to vote for Amit Sana...

The point is: Talent Hunts are based on the 'may the best man wins' concept. So if I honestly believe X or Y is 'better' - sure, I should share this opinion with the world and even urge you to vote for him.

But simply asking for votes because I am from your city/ caste/ school - this is no different from what Indian politicians do. And the results are clear for all to see - the 'best man' usually doesn't even get nominated! The likes of Manmohan Singh are too educated and too unpopulist to get voted to office - but the like of Laloo can keep getting elected.

Coming back to Idol, Indians appear to be rating 'humility' more seriously than whether the singer has star quality. No doubt both Abhijeet and Amit are good singers - but personally, I don't think they possess the 'X factor' which is mentioned by the judges in every episode.

The odds appear to be stacked against Amit Sana - he is singing under medication, and also the fact that Abhijeet is from Mumbai is likely to influence votes in his direction.

Yet, I would urge junta to vote for whoever they think is 'better' - whatever your definition of better may be. As long as it's related to talent and not something vague like 'at least he's Maharashtrian'.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The last 'obscene' day of school

This is Mumbai - not Bihar!
Std X prelims are over. It's the last day of school - an emotional moment in the life of a 15 year old. As per tradition, kids are inking farewell messages on each other's uniforms. They are doing this outside the school - in a student's building compound.

But the fact that boys and girls 'embraced' each other and wrote messages like 'I love you' and 'I will miss you' apparently irked members of the society where this was happening. They complained to the school authorities, who came rushing and took the kids to the principal's office in a rickshaw.

Principal Ajit Kaul, to punish this 'obscene' behaviour, slapped teenager Bilquis Chhapra. This he admits to - and find nothing wrong with. The girl, on the other hand claims she was dragged by the hair and slapped several times more.

This incident took place last week in suburuban Mumbai - not rural Bihar. It is strange and disturbing to see such a medeival definition of 'obscenity' in a co-ed institution!

Even stranger is the fact that the other parents are siding with the principal and justifying his action! They are demanding Bilquis and her family should apologise. Probably under pressure from the school management.

Thank God the girl's parents appear to be standing by her , at least.

Aapko takleef kya hai?
Honestly I don't see that any offence was committed.
a) The activity took place outside school
b) If the kids had something shady in mind they would have gone to some deserted/ dark corner. Why would they risk being 'caught' hugging in broad daylight in a building compound where some of them lived?

Had girls been writing 'I love you' to each other - no one would have cared. But the fact that boys and girls did so is being made out to be obscene. Hello! 'I love you' does not always mean 'I lust for you' !!

The principal later said he was upset because the students showed 'disrespect to the school uniform'. Well, I remember writing on friends uniforms when we passed out of school - what's the big deal? You're not going to wear it anymore so you write messages and make it something to preserve forever. A sweet memory of your school days.

Lastly, whatever the offence - and I do not even consider this to be one - a school principal is out of bounds when he SLAPS a 15 year old girl.

It is extremely traumatic - and demeaning - for a teenager who has probably never even been slapped by her own parents.

Perhaps he was feeling 'helpless' because school being technically over for the girl he no longer had power over her. The correct thing to do would be to express displeasure and simply summon her parents.

If he really had the students 'best interests' at heart as he claims - at least the man should have spared a thought for the impending board exams. What state of mind will Bilquis be in now? Will she really be able to concentrate on her studies??

Were principals born middle-aged?
I am drawing conclusions based on news reports - perhaps there is more to things than meets the eye.

But one thing's for sure, teachers and principals have completely forgotten what it was like to be young. Many of our educators have serious issues - arising from frustration with their low-paid jobs. They are unable to manage their own low self esteem and resultant anger.

They harbour extremely negative perceptions of everyone and everything around them. Especially yeh aajkal ke bachche (kids these days)

Educators prefer to see students at a superficial level and find them 'oversmart' and 'disrespectful'. And instead of winning their hearts and minds by inspiring and stimulating them, they decide it's time to show 'who's the boss'.

All that does is make young people somewhat fear - and mostly jeer. And the disinterest-defiance cycle continues.

P.S. The biggest irony is that the school where the incident occured is called 'Children Welfare Centre School'. Some welfare!

Friday, February 18, 2005

Gen Next politician Haazir ho!

"Narain Karthikeyan has become the first Indian to compete in Formula One. Sania Mirza has become the first Indian woman to reach the third round of an international Grand Slam. All very thrilling. But hang on, folks. Before we get carried away overhow youth is shattering the old world, a word about how the old world is still demolishing the young."

In a hard hitting piece in the Indian Express dt Feb 7 Sagarika Ghose asks: Why haven't all those young politicians we elected last year (dubbed by the media as GenNext MPs) made an impact?

Alas, she says: "None of those young MPs have either distinguished themselves as charismatic or powerful leaders of people or as heartful orators. They have not been able to announce original ideas. Nor have they been able (or allowed) to significantly challenge geriatric party leaderships by sheer force of personalityand achievement.

They haven't been allowed to succeed precisely by the same politics to which they owe their existence: namely the politics of family. Family has brought them political success, but paradoxically family has trapped them in political stagnation."

Ironically the "Minister for Youth Affairs and Sport" is the 75 year old Sunil Dutt who is neither youthful or sporty!

The average age of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet is definitely 70 plus. The opposition BJP is also populated with oldies. A B Vajpayee could have gracefully retired after the election. But no, the old guard continues and by the time they actually 'let go' the young fellows (like Arun Jaitley) will have white hair themselves.

Some things, evidently, won't change that easily. Maybe, just maybe, when Mme Priyanka Gandhi becomes PM. Don't snigger - it's going to happen sooner or later. So one may as well focus on the possible silver lining.

Given facts if political life such as corruption will remain - whether the young or old are in power - I for one would still plump for youth. Because young politicans - thanks in part to their fancy overseas education - have a greater stake in seeing the country progress than politicians well past the prime of their lives.

Give them a chance to take risks and turn some of their 'foolish dreams' into reality. Before the little idealism they possess gives way to cold, hard cynicism...

Advertising works but...

The Bad, the Ugly, the Good

The most popular way of building a brand - including youth brands - is conventional advertising. Does it work? Yes and no.

Yes - because although people in general (and young people in particular) believe that they are not 'really influenced' by advertising - which isn't true. Sure, we don't run out and buy stuff right away because we see it advertised and yes, we do consciously tune out a lot of it. But at an unconscious level every ad we see - in every medium we see it - leaves its mark.

There are broadly three kinds of advertising:
a) "I exist" advertising: This is the simplest form - a piece of communication which tells you x or y product is in the market and demonstrates what it can do for you. ie make your teeth whiter, hair shinier etc.

This is on the face of it 'boring' but it does work in the sense that it often induces trial within established product categories. For example, if I am a 'Pantene' user, and I am exposed to attractive ads for 'Garnier Fructis' I will most likely be willing to try the new brand.

But at the end of the day, 'I exist' advertising only appeals at a rational level. The use of brand colours, situations, models (and sometimes celebrities) can add a bit of differentiation.

But repeated hammering in of product benefits and pack shots rarely allows the communication to make a lasting and emotional impact.

b) "Irrelevant" advertising: Here, the agency tries hard to be entertaining, witty (the accepted formula to 'connect' with the youth) - but there is no connection whatsoever with the product.

There is a long, long list of such ads currently running on TV. It appears as if the copywriter had a series of humorous situations or 'skits' in his or head and when the need to make an ad comes up, these come in handy. A tenuous connection is established between the skit and the product and voila! Ad taiyyar hai.

Remember Chlormint? The only impact it made on young people was canteen conversation around the question -"Are those two guys in the ad gay?"

Another sad trend is how every Indian ad somehow wants to associate itself with the Great Indian Institution of Shaadi (marriage).

Nescafe's latest prospective bride meets prospective groom ad is a case in point. The agency needs to take note of the scathing feedback it's getting from the traditional Nescafe audience (the young and upwardly mobile).

A recent tagline which caught my attention was Sunsilk: "Life is what happens while you're making other plans". As I haven't actually seen the ad I shall refrain from comment except to say that phrase is definitely inspired by a stale internet forward!

c) Truly creative advertising: This is the kind which is relevant, memorable and at some level produces a warm, fuzzy feeling - a kind of unconscious alignment with the brand. These ads are creative - but never take the focus away from the product or message. Yet, they do not keep harping on functional benefits or keep flashing the brand logo.

The best recent example is the Hutch 'boy and dog' commercial. I think Pepsi's 'Dil maange more' (the heart wants more) campaign which ran for several years was also path breaking. The sentiment was something the youth of this country really identified with.

So much so that after a hard won battle to recapture a mountain peak during the 1999 Kargil war Captain Vikram Batra immortalised that phrase on national television.

Sadly, since then Pepsi has adopted a new catchphrase 'yeh pyaas hai badi' (this thirst is big) and although it means approximately the same thing, adding the product connected word 'thirst', in my opinion, destroys the magic.

Most of Nokia's advertising also leaps out of the clutter. It helps that they have a bunch of really innovative products to advertise :) Easier to be creative with a 7250 than a daily moisturiser.

But it's also a reflection of the company's clarity - every ad focuses on communicating just ONE message. Like, this is a colour phone, or this is a phone for fashionable people. The million other features be damned!

Every brand manager would like to see "truly creative' advertising for his brand but is usually unable to take the risk involved and hence settles for a) "I exist" or b) "Irrelevant advertising.

Between the two I'd say the straight forward "I exist" school of advertising at least accomplishes part of its job. That's any day preferable to the "irrelevant" school which in my opinion is simply money down the drain.

Clutching at straws
As a kind of desperate 'kuch to work karega' measure companies pin their hopes on celebrities. However, there is no succsessful example of an Indian celebrity whose endorsement has actually helped sell more of a product.

Reebok used rap stars in its advertising campaign and suddenly went from being a fuddy duddy brand to a cool one once again. Sania Mirza or Shahid Kapur or even the bigger stars can't produce that effect in India. And in any case, celebs invariably endorse several products at the same time and hence are not strongly associated with any one brand.

Conclusion: Great advertising does build youth brands but is rarely and inconsistently produced, especially in India. If you are clear that "youth" is the target segment think cutting edge, and not 'let me also appeal to mummy, daddy, munni, chunni and Ramu doodhwala" with the same ad.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Brands that tell a story

Piggybacking on a personality
One of the big youth fashion brands to spring up in recent times has been 'Von Dutch'. It's not well known in India, though you might occasionally see an MTV veejay sporting a Von Dutch t shirt. You really can't miss that distinctive, 'flaming' logo.

Chris Detert, the marketing director of Von Dutch Originals, says: "We have created a clothing line and lifestyle brand with an edgy, rebellious spirit - a brand that many people, from all walks of life, can relate to."

How did they do this? By piggybacking on the personality of a strange man named 'Von Dutch'. And then further embellishing and propogating the legend.

Who was Von Dutch?
Von Dutch is not Dutch at all. He was a mechanic called Kenny Howard who achieved pop cult status in America in the 1950s by painting and 'pinstriping' cars and bikes. Since he used the name 'Von Dutch' cars customised by him came to be known as 'dutched'. His most famour 'creation' was a logo - the 'flaming eyeball with wings'.

As an article by Bob Burns on the man notes
When a car owner came to him, he didn't tell Dutch what he wanted, he just told him how much 'time' he wanted to purchase. The designs were up to Dutch, and many of them were created way down deep in the recesses of his eccentric imagination.

He was subsequently imitated by many others such as Shakey Jake, The Barris Brothers, Tweetie, Slimbo, Big Daddy Ed Roth.

But essentially the guy was a very niche hero, somebody biker circles looked upto. How did he spawn a major mainstream fashion brand?

Well, the answer is - he didn't. The chap died in 1992 - paranoid, alcoholic and penniless. His daughters later sold the rights to reproduce their father's imagery to Michael Cassell, a maker of surfer clothing who established 'Von Dutch Originals' in 1999 with one single store.

Cassell had his eyes on the niche market of bikers (the "hot rod" set) but his partners (who'd worked with brands like Diesel and Fiorucci) believed they could appeal to a wider, fashion audience.

As an article titled the "Ad Nuseam Marketing of Von Dutch" notes
"It took insight, luck or both to see that Von Dutch could be, well, exploitable. Celebrities such as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher showed up wearing the logo caps....The whole appeal of course was explaining who Von Dutch was."

The story of Von Dutch - a man who was an individualist and rebel - gave a unique coolness and personality to the brand. Something that conventional advertising could never have achieved!

The Trucker Hat Phenomenon
The "killer" product was the trucker hat (so called because it was favoured by truckers and tractor drivers). It became so popular that the company had to limit its production to 'maintain' exclusivity and yet hope that the 'followers' would be willing to wait to buy the product even as the trendsetters moved on to the Next Cool Thing.

And the strategy seems to have worked. By 2003, the company was doing $33 million in sales and for 2004 revenues were in the $100 million region.

Of course, there has also been some backlash. Those who got into the trend early and shelled out $ 75 for a hat and felt good about it started resenting the logo being all over the place.

Companies producing 'Von Sucks' and 'Von Done' hats and clothing sprung up. Meanwhile some folks discovered that Von Dutch was, in addition to being a creative genius, also 'not such a nice man' (racist, alcoholic etc). And the members of the counterculture who had 'owned' Von Dutch also felt betrayed at the commercialisation of their hero.

Von Dutch will eventually start declining in popularity. Maybe the founders will have to find another original, another counter culture icon to tap into and commercialise.

The point simply is that a good 'story' can lend character and resonance to a brand.

Many brands take their names from their designers - who are living personalities. Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Pierre Cardin etc etc.

But a youth marketer with vision can also tap into the prevailing counter culture - something very niche - and commercialise it.

It can happen in India
The runaway success of the 'Osho' slipper (the chataai base chappal with the velvet straps) is a good example. The slippers were originally sold outside the Osho ashram in Pune's Koregaon Park.

A few young people discovered they were really comfortable to wear and the next thing you knew, everyone wanted to have a pair. I remember about 4 years ago, a guy who worked in my office and went home to Pune every weekend found himself flooded with requests for 'Osho slippers' - they cost about Rs 200 at the time.

Soon enough the chaps who're always looking for the next big trend - the ones who sell your stuff on Colaba Causeway and Janpath - realised there was a huge potential in this product. They started manufacturing it on a mass scale and you can now buy Oshos for just about Rs 70 a pair.

Meanwhile, they even introduced new designs, straps, embellishments like shells, sequins. There's a variation for men with square toes and an upturned front.

The 'Osho' - even two years after it went mainstream - continues to be one of the biggest fashion fads to have hit the Indian youth.

Oshos have worked at two levels:
a) The 'Osho' connection lends it personality and 'coolness'. I can bet the Osho slippers would NEVER have taken off in such a big way had they just been called 'bamboo chappals'.

b) At a practical level Oshos are comfortable and affordable. They fit in with the current attitude which is to 'dress down' to college as opposed to dressing up - which is something only for kids who've just joined college - completely wannabe!

Can Osho go the Von Dutch way?
I see no reason why some clever marketing can't turn 'Osho' slippers into a worldwide phenomenon like the trucker hat. And, like Von Dutch, metamorphose into a lifestyle brand. Of course, it would be something the Osho ashram itself would have to endorse (which it is unlikely to).

What the Osho brand would represent to young people is:
a) Indian spirituality, mysticism
The Appeal: the search for inner peace, tranquility is something universal - and a current worldwide obsession.
b) Individuality
The Appeal: Osho lived his life the way he wanted to, something most of us will probably never be able to do.
c) 'Free Sex'
The Appeal: Something uniquely Osho, and very aspirational. Again, we will never actually get to do it but we can buy into the philosophy by buying into the brand!

Conclusion: Tap into the 'counter culture' for ideas if you're a youth marketer. Then, walk the thin line between cool and crass while attempting to commercialise it. If you get it right, you will find the rewards simply amazing!

More on counter culture ideas from India that could go mainstream - in future posts.

Monday, February 14, 2005

What's in a Name

The Power of a Name
When a youth brand is launched, how much thought goes into its name? Not as much as it should!

Take a random sample of recently launched products in the hair category: Livon, Numis, Silk n Shine - all being advertised heavily on MTV.

Does any one them have resonance or character? The first two sound like stuff your doctor might prescribe and the third is absolutely unimaginative and literal!

A great name can set the tone for a brand. It leaps out from the clutter all around and says "Look at me! I'm made for you!!"

Let me illustrate what I mean. The magazine I run is called J.A.M. People always want to know what the full form of that is. The answer is "Just Another Magazine".

"Gosh, that's interesting!" is the usual reaction. This little piece of information communicates something about the magazine's character - that it's quirky, and different. So:
a) It evokes curiosity - that's an obvious effect
b) More subtly, it communicates attitude.

Which is what building a brand is all about.

Now this is of course only the first step - further the product itself should live upto the readers expectations in numerous ways. Like it should be widely available, well priced, contain interesting articles, have quality printing etc etc.

But this first impression which the name makes, I am convinced, has been crucial to JAM's success.

Every youth brand wants to have 'attitude' and if the name itself can communicate that - it's like "well begun, half done".

Examples of brand names which I think rock:
FCUK - the clothing brand reached iconic status, its clever choice of name contributed a good deal!

Nike - the company was originally called Blue Ribbon Sports. (Can u imagine Blue Ribbon shoes ever reaching teh status Nike has? I can't!)

It was only 8 years down the line that Phil Knight rechristened the shoes he sold as 'Nike' - from the Greek godess of victory.

Of course, more than Nike, the name, it was the 'swoosh' trademark which became iconic. So when I say 'brand name' I really mean the complete package - logo design included.

Like FRIENDS was a good name for a show about 6 young singles in New York. But even the way it was written, the font and the dots in between - that was interesting!

But remember the first Rule of Cool.
You never shout "I'm cool".
When people see, you they just know that you are.

It happens all the time. With their friends and peers, young people can instinctively tell who's really hip ie has a style of their own and who's a wannabe.

Similarly, a brand must communicate coolness in an authentic way and not come across as a wannabe.

So an Indian company (Madura) choosing a foreign sounding name (San Frisco) for its jeans is a bad idea. The product is good, but the consumer - at some level - may feel that it's not authentic. ie "If I want a foreign brand I'd rather go in for a real foreign brand eg Levi's, Lee, Wrangler..."

The name has been shortened to SF jeans but the point is - why not anticipate the problem and choose a name that's really unique in the first place?!

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Power of P2P

I saw 'Page 3' the day after it was released. Tickets were easily available for the late night show at Mumbai's Sterling theatre. The following weekend they weren't. The movie is now officially a "hit" - purely with multiplex audience support.

Similarly, the verdict on 'Black' from the Bollywood trade pundits is 'mixed response'. Judging by the crowd on a weeknight at a multiplex in Vashi - a middle class suburb of Mumbai - I think by next week 'Black' too will be classified a hit.

Both movies are living examples of the multiplier effect of word-of-mouth.

As I noted in a piece I wrote for Businessworld magazine on the popularity of Instant Messaging IMHO IM rulz :

The evolved young moviegoer no longer cares what the mainstream media decrees; there are other sources they know and trust more.

The opinion of their own peers.

That's what drives young people to the theatres today - not reviews, not promos. I guess that has always been the case to an extent but 'always on' technology plays a big role too.

My 20 year old cousin smsed me from Delhi to check if The Passion of Christ was worth watching. A quick 'no' from me decided his dilemma (the many stars TOI gave the film be damned!).

A friend who went for the premiere of Black smsed me right after the show - "it's mindblowing - a must watch". I didn't even bother to read the reviews on Sunday.

Catch the buzz!
Now of course recommendations like this arise mainly in high involvement categories like entertainment. You won't hear of young people smsing or IMing each other about the fab new toothpaste they're using these days.

But in categories like music, movies, gaming, cellphone model choice - peer opinion rules. It could be a friend - but it could also be a total stranger who you only meet on the IM or on internet forums. Someone who you feel shares the same tastes as you or is extremely knowledgable about a particular subject.

Another category where peer opinion makes a big difference is higher education, esp. professional courses like MBA.

The decision of which CAT coaching class to join is almost always based on recommendations from a senior. There are forums devoted exclusively to MBA entrance such as Pagalguy where junta exchanges notes on cut offs, interview calls, which institutes are worth joining etc.

So for example, an institute which advertises heavily and urges students to 'dare to think beyond the IIMs' has, despite its massive spending, never succeeded in courting the creme de la creme of the student population.

The word-of-mouth on the institute is so poor that despite occasionally managing to feature quite high in B school rankings, said B school is never in the consideration list.

Instead, B schools which only release admission notices - such as Goa Institute of Management, IMI Delhi, TAPMI, UBS Chandigarh etc are the preferred destinations for those who don't get into the IIMs or other top rung schools like SP Jain, FMS, Bajaj etc.

The Bottomline
The question youth marketers need to ask themselves is:

a) If I am in a high involvement category are my products the kind that will generate buzz and sell themselves?

b) If my product is not inherently high involvement can I still create a genuine buzz about it?

The answer to b) is yes, but it's not easy.
But then neither is a) which involves making great products which folks want to recommend to others.

More on this, in my next post.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Woh ladki hai kahaan Part 2

All men are born equal, it has been said - but some are more equal than others. On a similar note I would say that all women are born unequal, but some are more unequal than others.

I am looking chiefly at equality in terms of opportunity to pursue the education of one's choice and subsequently a career and lifestyle as per one's own free will.

The pecking order goes something like this.

a) Lowest rung
Girls from poor urban and rural households
If the family can afford to send just one of its kids to school, it will always choose the boy child. While most can now see the merit of studying at least upto class 4 or 5, beyond that the question is 'kya fayda'? (what's the additional gain?)

The girl is anyways expected to settle down and become a homemaker. Or, do menial jobs to supplement her income. So she is more usful to the parents as an extra hand to look after younger siblings, help the mother doing jhaadu-pocha in other people's homes, helping with family chores like cooking.

Lower middle class households
Here the girl will probably study upto class X or XII definitely. If she insists or has a parent who is progressive and family circumstances which allow, she may complete graduation. If lucky, she may even take up a low level clerical type job.

But at a fundamental level, this young woman does not believe she can aspire for or ask for more. She does not have the confidence, she has never been made to feel her own self worth.

She will marry in her early 20s and happily settle down to a domestic life - completing adjusting to the husband and family's needs even if she has a job. In many cases, she has little say in how what she earns is spent - it's all simply handed over.

In the worst case scenario, her education may prove to be an impediment. According to a recent newspaper report, young Muslim girls are pursuing education more keenly than boys who prefer to drop out after class 10 and become mechanics/ shopkeepers.

So Muslim women who complete college find they can't get a suitable match. One such young woman recently agreed to marry a rickshaw driver who is not even matriculate after her family failed to locate a boy who was a graduate.

b) Medium rung
Middle and upper class girls from small towns
These girls invariably complete college - in some cases even a professional education like medicine or engineering. But the parents never fail to remind the girls that 'marriage comes first'.

So, a young engineer I know from a reputed college in Punjab rejects an offer from a Delhi-based IT firm, instead doing a Master's. The ultimate aim is to become a college lecturer which her parents feel is a 'good job for girls even after marriage'.

Some young women will not acquiesce to their parents' wishes so easily and may go for the jobs. In which case they may also go on to become career-oriented, marry someone of their own choice or in the rare case not marry at all.

The only hope for this independence lies in escaping the small town where there are no opportunities for educated young people - men or women. That's why we are currently seeing an exodus of small townies to call centres (the most easily available job). And also to seek their fortunes in the media, glamour world.

Metro girls from conservative families
They do exist. These girls complete their education, then and get married as per parents' wishes. They may pursue a vocation as a hobby. A serious career is not forbidden per se but it is understood that it's not required because the husband earns enough is liye zaroorat kya hai (where is the need?).

Later in life, these women may work from home or do a part time job to 'keep busy'.

c) Higher Rung
Metro girls who choose marriage as a career
Yes, these girls could have gone for careers but they just did not have the ambition. So lack of career is a personal choice. They wish to marry a well settled (preferably rich!) guy and be his glamourous biwi.

Life as a memsaab is quite happy and comfortable, as long as the husband and in laws aren't dominating or stingy. Servant, car with driver, annual foreign trip keep these women happy. And they aren't behenji types either - these are in fact the young women who join gyms, get their hair coloured and shop at Phoenix mills in the daytime, splurge on designer clothing.

These young women do occassionally feel a pang of jealousy/ insecurity when they bump into a former classmate who has gone the career way. On the other hand, career oriented women sometimes feel the same pangs of jealousy when they note the aaram ki zindagi (easy life) these less ambitious women lead.

The solution: Memsaab joins a fashion designing/ interior design course so she can claim to be doing something other than being a housewife next time she meets Career Girl. Career Girl recalls her last 3 day weekend spent at home and thanks God she doesn't have to undergo such torture every day of the year!

Career oriented girls with middle class values
These are the girls for whom working is really important - they derive their sense of self worth from their careers. They also enjoy the independence an income brings.

Like boys, these metro girls from middle class families have had equal access to an education of their choice and believe it would be a waste to not make use of their qualifications. Their families have encouraged them to achieve, and also to take up demanding careers.

Yet, these girls are quite traditional at heart and wish to settle down 'at the right time'. And although they often marry for love (batchmates/ workmates) they are not averse to arranged marriages.

Career Girls believe in 'equality' of the sexes and find to their grief that in the real world it isn't always so. The first few years usually go fine. The husband is adjusting, accomodating, both work long and hard at their careers.

As time goes by (esp. once kids come into the picture) Career Girl finds it is she who has to make more compromises. In some cases, to an extent, maternal instincts take over and she willingly becomes a stay at home mom/memsaab . In others, practical considerations (lack of parents/ in laws/ maid to look after baby) mean she unwillingly quits the job.

Even if she continues working full time, her middle class value system and the her desire to excel at work are incompatible and create stress. The guilt of neglecting the child and the pressures of juggling both responsobilities takes its toll and these women feel unhappy despite having the 'best of both worlds'.

d) Highest rung
Girls who have REALLY chosen to live life their own way
If they don't want to do something - they don't. And then live with the consequences. This could mean having a great career but choosing to remain single because they never did find the right guy. Or they may marry but can walk out of the relationship if it doesn't go too well or interferes in their careers.

These girls don't care as much as their more conventional counterparts about 'log kya kahenge' (what will people say). They don't have kids because ab shaadi ko paanch saal ho gaya hain (now it's five years since we've been married) but when they feel ready to be mothers.

More than MBAs/ engineers I find these are usually girls in professions like media (journalism, advertising, TV) and glamour (acting, fashion, ). The poster girl for this species is Sushmita Sen, who after several well publicised romances chose to become a single mother by adopting a child.

Glamorous as it may sound, not all these women are necessarily happy. You have to be very strong to stick by an unconventional choice and as these women get older they do feel lonely or feel the need to marry/ have children. But while a man may find he can possibly marry at 35, or 40, women at that age rarely find a suitable partner.

So there is a broad spectrum of 'choices' for the naye zamaane ki ladki.

Conclusion: I think many more young women secretly desire option d) ie REALLY living life their own way but settle for being Memsaabs/ Career Girls. And I think that will continue to be the case.

So, parents, sit back and relax. We aren't going to tear apart the fabric of Indian society. Not just yet.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Woh ladki hai kahaan Part 1

Do young women in India enjoy the same freedom and opportunities as young men? Certainly we've come a long long way but have we come far enough? I don't think so.

Yes, education is a 'right' for girls born into middle and upper class families. But at various levels, there's still the implicit understanding that padhna-likhna sab theek hai (studying is a good thing) but acche ghar mein shaadi (marrying into a good family) is of prime importance.

So let's say a young woman completes her graduation and then an MBA - she is about 23 years old. She has just entered a first job. There is much to learn and adjust to. She would like to spend the next few years on building a career. WAIT A MINUTE!

Ladki chaubis ki ho gayi hai (the girl is 24...) Ab to shaadi ka sochna hi padega (Now we parents must think about marriage). Guys? They can safely wait till 28, even 30 and still be considered 'eligible'. And they would essentially be looking for girls 24-25 years old to marry.

Now there are exceptions. Some young women simply put their foot down and don't toe the line. But a majority agree to start 'seeing boys'. Progress is visible on two fronts:
a) The more liberal parents will at least ask 'Koi hai to nahin' (Is there someone you like?) And if the guy is from a decent (similar or better class family) and in well paying job, they are happy enough to agree to the marriage.

In many middle class families, qualification seems to be the most important criteria. Both studied MBA/ engineering together? Great. Punjabi marrying Bengali is OK. Kam se kam Hindu hai na (At least both are Hindus). Now to a non-Indian that might seem parochial but I think it is a LOT less rigid than in the past.

b) Many, many young people are meeting through the internet. While dating sites have a pretty sad ratio of girls: boys (about 1:10 seems to be accepted standard!), matrimonial sites boast a healthy number of girls (and many profiles appear to be registered by the girl herself and not the parents).

Unlike the traditional matrimonial classifieds the online version is much more egalitarian. And builds a certain comfort level. The girl and boy may exchange some emails or have chatted on messenger prior to meeting in person.

Great Expectations
Still the whole process of finding 'a suitable boy' is fraught with tensions and complications. Yes, guys go through it when looking for a girl but not to the same degree. The difference lies in the answer to the question: Will I really be able to pursue my career after marriage?

It's amazing how many families - and guys themselves - want highly qualified wives but see their careers mainly as 'hobbies'. My 25 year old cousin, an MBA and banking professional who is currently meeting prospective grooms has really interesting stories to share.

One guy she met was a software engineer in Gurgaon. His views on women and careers: "The girl can work after marriage but should be home by 5 pm". Uh huh. Like ANY job except school teacher would match that description.

The good thing, I assured her, was he was very honest in stating his expectations upfront. Unlike many others who may pretend to be very supportive before marriage and then make life difficult for you later.

Bottomline is, even my cousin is not a wildly ambitious career woman. But, she says, having slogged to get this far, "I want to be able to make my own choices."

Maybe she will give up her career at some stage and look after home and babies - as many professional women are wont to do the world over. But it should not be because the husband or in-laws decree that.

Double standards continue
As teenagers, girls face far more restrictions. Parents claim to 'trust' daughters yet constantly lay down rules for them that don't apply to their sons. Staying out late with friends, going to parties - these are still areas where double standards apply.

These double standards continue to apply throughout life. Young women should be educated (you see MBA boys want to marry MBA girls!) but they should be willing to compromise when and where necessary. So if your husband is transferred to the US you should not think twice give up your job and move with him.

Yeh sab karna padta hai... the elders remind us.

What young women want to know is: Kya taali donon haathon se nahin bajni chahiye?

Monday, February 07, 2005

What Google can teach Youth Marketers

Can one company be everything to all people? Such a positioning defies logic - and laws of marketing gravity - but that's exactly what Microsoft is attempting.

At a big PR-orchestrated do in Mumbai, the company announced its 'new and improved' MSN Search. Is it? Not as far as I can tell.

But the main point is why would a young person want to type the long and cumbersome when a simple does the trick?

Why Google rocks
Google entered the search engine game late but it quickly became a favourite because it offered something different. It was a "pure" search engine whereas others like yahoo were portals. And it got the job done faster and better (more, relevant results).

The other thing going in Google's favour is its brand name. It's got a strong and loyal user base because it not only claims to 'think different', it actually IS different. Visibly so!

Its coolness is reflected in little touches like its 'google artworks' which change from day to day on the site. And in its radical definition of what 'new and improved' means. 10 or 20% better is not good enough for google. When it really takes on the market - like it did with Gmail - it alters the rules of the game.

The tech savvy bit was to offer a better user experience with a HUGELY attractive carrot - 1 GB storage space. That made the effort of switching ids worthwhile.

But there was marketing savvy too. The fact that only Gmail users could invite others to open an account made the service cool and exclusive - and was also a factor in making the decision to shift one's loyalty.

It's this combination of superior offering/ technology + inherent coolness that makes Google, in my opinion, quite unbeatable.

Can Microsoft rule everything?
Practically every email provider upgraded its storage space post GMail . In the long run EVERYONE benefitted from the Google email launch.

So the trouble with MSN Search is, no one believes that Microsoft can actually come up with a product better than Google.

What we do know is that Microsoft is Master of the Art of Me Too. It jumps onto a new idea or territory created by someone else. And then, by sheer muscle and money power, succeeds in overwhelming the original innovator.

Microsoft reduced Apple to a tiny shadow of its original potential, by incorporating Apple's Graphical User Interface (GUI) in Windows.

Then, it ousted Netscape from the browser space with IE Explorer. Here, the master stroke was bundling it into the Windows OS.

Next, it got into the email game by buying out Hotmail. Big deal (pun intended).

Now (along with yahoo) it dominates the instant messenger space (originally created by the all-but-forgotten ICQ).

But I don't think the'Me Too' strategy will work anymore - not with Google. The company is really smart, really quick - and has enough cash, thanks to its IPO - to take on the challenge.

Why 'good' isn't good enough
What Microsoft needs to do in response is something it hasn't attempted for a long time. Produce a new and revolutionary product.

There's a lesson in this for every youth marketer, but especially so for companies in the 'non physical' (internet, media) space.

The consumer is a lot more discerning today and large corporations better realise that 'marketing' will fall flat unless you have a product that not only matches consumer expectations but exceeds them.

That's why TOI's Zoom TV has been rejected by the youth audience (it may claim anything, in the articles plugged into its own newspaper but that is the truth) while Star One is steadily gaining popularity.

Both channels advertised heavily - and projected a cool, youthful image. But only Star One's programming matched up. It took the risk of launching a range of new, different shows - such as the boarding school soap opera Remix, which has attracted a decent fan following. As have comedies like Instant Khichdi, Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and the Great Indian Comedy Show.

Charity begins at home...
So does a reality check. The sad fact is even TOI employees themselves do not watch Zoom - in fact, many shudder at the mention of the channel. When your product has no respect in house, can you expect to convince the world outside how good it is?

Microsoft's entry into the digital music market, similarly, looks destined to fail. It is estimated that Apple's iPod commands 65 % of the portable player market, and its iTunes Music Store 70 % of online music sales. Microsoft is trying hard to compete in this market with its Windows Media Audio (WMA) format which is supported by several online music stores (Napster, MusicMatch, Wal-Mart) and hardware (Creative etc)

But, as a recent Wired news report noted: Apple IPods are 'wildly popular' on Microsoft campuses (to the growing frustration and annoyance of the management).

"About 80 percent of Microsoft employees who have a portable music player have an iPod," said one source, a high-level manager who asked to remain anonymous. "It's pretty staggering."

So popular is the iPod, executives are increasingly sending out memos frowning on its use.

"These guys are really quite scared...It shows how their backs are against the wall.... Even though it's Microsoft, no one is interested in what we have to offer, even our own employees."

Apparently, several executives who dutifully bought Microsoft-powered players, tried them, failed to get them working, and returned them in favor of an iPod.

Now one can get paranoid about this - or accept this as feedback from the market - and act accordingly to make something even better than IPod (Don't tell me it's NOT possible. Just saying that should be challenge enough for the geeks at Redmond).

Maybe there's someone at Google already thinking about it :) In the interest of the consumer... I sure hope so.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Why Indian Idol works

Indian Idol is creating history as far as reality shows go in India. And it's certainly touched a chord with the youth - which is very good news for Sony Entertainment Television.

It's not the first talent hunt but it's clearly the most successful in terms of viewership numbers. The fact that Indian Idol is being aired on a mainstream channel as opposed to a music channel like [V] or MTV gives it a lot more reach. Plus, Sony has invested heavily in promoting the show.

However, it could have gone either way. When the show launched with Anu Mallik, Sonu Nigam and Farah Khan, I wasn't too impressed. But they're playing out their roles qute well. Although none of them is as biting or caustic as Simon on American Idol, the judges have established a chemistry / rapport with the audience.

But the reason Indian Idol outshines any other shows of the same kind can be summed up in one word: involvement. We, the viewers, have a say in contestants' futures through the SMS and phone votes we send in. This gives us a stake in their success and failure - an active and not just a passive interest.

The fact that the top 11 have to go through several rounds until only one remains means we get to see their talent on display week after week. Indian Idol also gives us a peek into contestants' homes and backgrounds, so we identify with them as people. We start caring about them, feeling for them. We even develop likes and dislikes - as if we know each one personally.

Of course, this is working in a strange way AGAINST merit. As Ravindra, the painter who can't really sing too well made it to the last 5 while the talented Rahul Saxena was voted out before him. Clearly, Ravindra seems to be getting votes just for being an underdog.

However, Rahul's exit sparked a lot of comment and even protest letters to newspapers. And what do you know, he's been asked by judge Farah Khan to sing for her next film project while another axed contestant - Amit Tandon is now acting in an Ekta Kapoor serial. So simply being on Indian Idol has led to some kind of break for contestants.

Earlier singing talent hunts have thrown up the likes of Sunidhi Chauhan, Shreya Ghoshal and Sanjeevani. But I think Indian Idol - in its first edition alone - will result in many more contracts and opportunities.

Perhaps it's just that the time is right now. The country - and the folks in the industry who make or break talents - are looking for freshness and newness. Once a Karan Johar or Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been on Indian Idol as guest judge and made positive comments about a contestant's 'star quality', others too sit up and take notice.

Bottomline: One hopes all this boils down to the eventual Indian Idol winner selling enough albums to be taken seriously as a singing sensation. The public voting by sms is great, but young people voting with their wallets is ultimately what will make the 'idol' a true star.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Aamir at 40 - still a 'youth'?

Youth vs youthfulness

Thank God Aamir Khan has abandoned the daaku Mangal Singh look. The man is competing with Jennifer Aniston in the 'even my haircuts make news' department but I'll give it to his hair stylist - she manages to come up with something that makes you take note every time.

So yes, Aamir is looking a lot cuter and younger with the soft n curly mop but let's get one thing clear - this is youthFUL. And that is not the same as actually being young.

Aamir became a youth icon with his very first Bollywood film - QSQT - in 1987. And with the Dil chahta hai role he came back full circle and consolidated the youth image. But I was hoping that would be his last stab at the 'youth' space.

Apparently not. Rakesh Mehra is casting Aamir in a pivotal role in his next movie Rang de Basanti. The director says the film 'celebrates the youth of India' and Aamir represents that youth.

Uh huh. Haircut or no haircut, Aamir is now almost 40. Like Shahrukh Khan - who has wisely decided to steer clear of candyfloss college boy roles - surely it IS time to move on?

Desperately seeking youth talent
The irony is that in a country where over half the population is under 25 - there are hardly any real youth idols. I hesitate to use the word 'icon' because what I mean is performers - whether in acting, singing, sports. Young people with the right mix of talent + personality + charisma that equals STAR quality and produces a dedicated fan following.

Yes, things are better as far as the 'hunt' of new talent goes. There are opportunities for new faces - be it in remix videos, through Miss & Mr India contests, Popstars, Cinestars ki Khoj and now Indian Idol.

But most of these talents enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and then fade away. At least that's what's happened so far to:
Viva: The first band to win Channel [V]'s Popstars contest. Just the first album did well. Now disbanded.
Aasma: The second Pospstars find. Not heard of them post their solitary hit 'Chandu ke Chacha'.
Shefali Zariwala: The girl who became a sensation with the Kaanta lagaa video. It remains the sole feather in her cap
Amar Upadhyaya: Adored as Mihir Virani in the popular soap opera Kyunki Saas, flopped majorly in films

And there are many more such examples.

"Well that' show business for you" is one explanation. But I think it goes a little bit deeper.
One factor is the overhyping of every new talent, which creates a sense of fatigue for the audience all too quickly. The sequence of events generally goes like this
a) Interviews on every TV channel and newspaper
b) More interviews, media exposure, hype.
c) Six months later there's no follow up album or other sign of activity which would make the audience feel there is something of substance in this person.

Now some might have been undertalented and overhyped - and hence did their natural deaths.
But with others I think the nasha of celebrity goes to their heads - and instead of concentrating on what more they can do with their talents - they are happy to vegetate and stagnate. And fade away instead of creating any lasting impact.

Hitching your star to the wrong wagon
Secondly, many of the people who really 'make or break' your career would rather rely on the big stars to ensure their own success.

Take Karan Johar. In his debut film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai he took a chance with Rani Mukherjee - a totally unknown face then. In K3G, Kal ho na ho he took no such risks.

Mostly, 'new talent' finds itself in the incompetent hands of people like Arindam Choudhary whose debut disaster Rok sako to rok lo was the perfect example of how NOT to make a film.

The 'curse' of success
The burden of becoming very successful very early in life is a difficult one. Time and again, really talented young people get crushed under it - and rarely manage to grab for themselves a second chance.

Take the case of Parthiv Patel. It would be great if he took his dismissal from the team as a challenge, fought back for his form and won his place in the team again. But will we let that happen?

And Sania Mirza. She seems to have a capable young head on her shoulders and yes, what she's done so far is creditable. But if you make the front page and the back page of the Sunday Times and the front page of the Bombay Times all in the SAME day (Sunday 30th Jan) - just for reaching round 3 of the Australian open... Can you be blamed for getting just a little bit distracted from your goal of actually winning a Grand Slam?

Kal ki baat purani kab hogi?
And finally, older stars - the ones who've actually become 'icons' - will need to make way for the new. A very simple example from the world of cricket. I remember this one young chap called Hrishikesh Kanitkar who won a couple of really close one day matches for India. One fine day he disappeared from the team, never to be heard of again.

Maybe he had a few bad innings, but so does Sachin. Yet Sachin remains a national hero while Kanitkar gets no second chance to prove himself. The Old Order needs to gracefully bow out and reinvent itself, even as it encourages a new one.

Only then will there be space for and spotlights on fresh talents, perfomers, faces .
Real youth idols, not just youthful ones.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Why IPod ain't God

The price not nice
The 512 mb Ipod Shuffle 512 mb retails for $99 (approx. Rs 4500). But in India, it's being launched at the ridiculous price of Rs 8500 (Rs 12,400 for the 1 gb version).

I'd be surprised if they sell more than a few hundred units. Every iPod desiring young person in India will ask his or her friend/ sister/ uncle to get it from the US or Malaysia or Dubai.

It's the principle of the thing. Maybe the company has to pay heavy imports duties but that's their problem. WHY should we as consumers pay double the global price?

As long as such price differentials continue, sales of tech toys will never really go mass. It's the same story with digital cameras bought from official Sony showrooms in India. There's more than a 50% mark up on the Singapore price.

So yes, one can go to Heera Panna or Lamington Rd in Mumbai and buy in the grey market a little cheaper but that's something for the hard core enthusiast. To create desire for a product among the aam junta (regular folks) - it has to be seen everywhere. At your neighbourhood electronics walla, the local shopping mall, at dedicated shopping centres.

First, create tech lust
My first experience of a First World electronics bazaar was Akihabara in Tokyo - shop after multi storeyed shops devoted to computers, peripherals, digital equipment of every shape and size. You could touch and feel and shop around for deals. I was blown away.

Singapore's Funan IT mall is another mindboggler. And recently I was in Bangkok's Pantip plaza - messier and more chaotic than Singapore - but equally well stocked and bursting with goodies and gizmos. You spend the first two hours just looking.

Optical mice overflow from wicker baskets, the way you see aloos and gobhis in India. There are a hundred brands of bluetooth connectors and RS MMC cards and some mind blowing (and really cheap) lifesize speakers you can attach to your PC for true 4 channel surround sound.

So you go there with one thing in mind (I was looking for a handycam) but end up buying two more. Like I also picked up an MP3 flash player. I'd only vaguely heard of the product and never thought I needed or wanted one. But seeing it in shop after shop piqued my curiosity. The demo was convincing, and the price a reasonable Rs 2500.

OK, so it wasn't a famous brand like Creative (those were abt Rs 4500) but I'm satisfied. The unsung Taiwanese brand works fine - and feels good for the price.

The point is, I'm not a hard core techie. And there are many many more potential customers like me. People who don't actively seek out new technology by reading reviews on cnet or subscribing to Chip/ Digit. But given enough exposure to tech toys and the opportunity to browse through them, to actually see what they can do - we too can start lusting.

Show us the goodies!
It's happened in this country with mobile phones - it can happen with other technologies. But companies and retailers have to invest in growing the market. In educating consumers - not just the geek population. And there must be a range of prices and brands available - for every kind of budget and in many, many locations.

Only then will tech buys rightfully be able to compete with clothing, entertainment and all the other staple purchase decisions in a young person's life.

The Walkman was a necessary accessory for students commuting to and fro from college. It was swept away by inexpensive FM 'stick' radios. But the sticks fell out of favour once every panwallah and chaiwallah bought one too and now cellphones with FM radio function rule.

The age of IPod? Not yet for India. And not ever, unless better marketing sense prevails.

The Call of the Call Centre Part 4

Mujhe mil jo jaaye thoda paisa...
The addition of a quarter of a million young and ready-to-spend-on-myself workers is being celebrated by youth lifestyle brands. The malls of Gurgaon and the likes of InOrbit in Mumbai are located bang in the call centre district - and they are flourishing with this 'new money'.

"We have tripled our sales in Bangalore city in the last three years," Shumone Chatterjee, marketing director, Levi Strauss India told me last year when I wrote on "The New Face of Youth Consumerism" for Businessworld magazine. And he believes this is largely due to the effect of disposable income coming into the hands of the 18-22 age group employed in BPO jobs

Call centre employees are what I term as a new breed of 'indies', financially independent young people. Most don't have to shoulder the burdens or 'behne ki shaadi' (responsibility of sister's marriage) or 'boode maa-baap' (aging parents). Sure, they like to spend on gifts for their moms, dads and kid sisters but not as a duty. It's completely voluntary.

Indies spend heavily on themselves, on branded clothing, eating out, cellphones and movies. It's not like thy didn't spend on these things when they didn't have an independent income but now they do so much more freely. Purely on impulse. They see it as a necessary self indulgence. Lifestyle is their life.

And that's fine. Take a car loan or home loan or even a holiday loan. Live for today - but, make sure that you are not in debt tomorrow. That is one aspect of consumerism we certainly don't want to emulate from the Americans.

Till debt do us part?
There are worrying stories of call centre employees who are clueless about managing their money. By the 15th of the month, they've spent their salaries and continue shopping on credit cards. Then, instead of paying off the monthly balance in full they pay the minimum amount. Not realising the horrendous 2.5-3% interest a month they're being charged. A few months down the line they are deeply in debt.

This is not the case with everyone, but there are enough such folks to make the issue a cause for concern. This is literally the first generation of young people freely using credit cards - without realising the consequences.

Those of us who hopped on to the credit card bandwagon in the late 90s were a much more cautious bunch. We'd been brought up with the 'live within your means' philosophy. And we were older and wiser by the time we went plastic.

So we're what the card companies call 'deadbeats' - we use the card for convenience not credit. What they want is 'revolvers' or those who use the cards to spend more than they can afford and hence don't pay off their bills in full. America has 115 million such revolvers who carry forward credit card debt every month. And THAT is the culture the card companies would like to see taking root in India.

Spending beyond one's means is also a form of addiction, like gambling or drinking. It usually has to do with self esteem issues. Call centres may want to consider some form of peer group monitoring (friends are the first to sniff a hint of such troubles) and interactive sessions on managing finances. Maybe even offer counselling.

It's in their best interest - because an employee with debts is going to look for a quick hop to the higher paying job next door.

I'll touch on more issues to do with call centres from time to time, but with this I end the promised call centre series.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Call of the Call Centre Part 3

Is it really a career?

There is a cloud hanging over the call centre industry and it's basically the question: "Is this more than a job I do for a while to get some quick money?"

The BPOS are of course trying to project the call centre as a 'career' option. They point out that you have every opportunity to move up and become a 'team leader' or trainer. To retain their staff call centres offer not only monetary and non monetary lifestyle perks but even the opportunity to complete an MBA side by side.

Yet, call centre employees are dropping like flies.
A batch of 30 which joined Daksh 2 months ago is already down to 25. It's the same scene in every BPO. Every 1st of the month (when salaries are credited) sees a few more employees quit without a single day's notice.

So what is going wrong? Let me first touch briefly on a couple of the unavoidable factors
a) Timing: Working at night - as the majority of call centres do - can wreak havoc, biologically. Certain people are affected more than others - their systems just do not adjust. There is a feeling of being out of sync with family and friends due to the unusualwork timings. And all this can be a reason to quit and look for a more 'normal' job, even if it means accepting lower pay.

However, in majority of cases - I think health reasons are a factor, not THE factor that precipitates the decision to quit.

b) Experimentation: The late teens and early 20s is the stage in life where one tries out many different kinds of things. Working at a call centre is one of them. You graduate, you're at a loose end. You take up a job, even as you are searching for something undefinable, something more. The easiest job you can take up is at a call centre.

'More' usually boils down to one of two standard options - MBA or going abroad for studies. So yes, the 'monotony' of a call centre job may have something to do with it but many others who work at far more interesting jobs also decide that this is the time to switch back to being a student for just a little longer. They're not quite ready to 'settle down' into a career.

Desperately seeking Susies and Sams...
Graduation used to be a minimum requirement. Now those who've passed class 12 will do. Some 18 year olds may be looking at working full time and studying by correspondence as a serious alternative. But the majority aren't.

Those who are still in regular college and working at BPOs - or those who join in April or October (just when summer/ Diwali vacations begin) ARE obviously in it only for a quick buck. If the call centre is desperate enough to hire them, it should be prepared for their sudden exit. They can at best be seen as a temporary workforce.

What the hell can HR do about it?

Despite these unavoidable factors, there are things call centres can focus on to stem attrition.

The most important being hire the RIGHT person. And by that I mean look at not just skills but temperament and background.

Generally, out of 100 applicants a call centre hires just 12-15 people. And given the pressures of "1000 to be hired this month", I think the goal is to hire as many 'ready-to-go' candidates they can.

The very people who are extremely confident and speak English very well are the ones who probably have access to better opportunities - and quit at the drop of a hat.

I am sure if a statistical analysis is done it will be found that young people from better colleges (say the top 10 in Mumbai and Delhi eg Xaviers, SRCC, etc) and higher academic achievements are the ones who will join with a very short term view. This profile will never view the call centre as a career option.

In fact, most would consider working at a call centre for too long quite infra dig. Leaving a call centre job is also relatively easier for them as generally, they would come from well to do backgrounds.

So, if I were the HR manager I would look at a slightly different academic and psychological profile. I would look for people who may not seem so attractive today but who could be 'groomed to bloom'. I am no psychology expert but this example from a very interesting book called Learned Optimism by Dr Martin Seligman might provide some food for thought.

The insurance company Met Life was plagued by a chronic shortage of agents. Agents were recruited from among a pool which passed a 'career profile' test (which indicated aptitude).
However, Seligman believed 3 characteristics were key for success:
1. aptitude
2. motivation
3. optimism

He had already found that successful insurance agents were a stunningly optimistic group. So in 1985 the company tried an experiment. In addition to the regular test they also added an ASQ (a psychological test which rated whether the candidate was an optimistic thinker or a pessimistic thinker).

An optimistic thinker was seen as someone who would explain away a bad event eg person called refusing to speak to them with external reasoning ("he must be busy"). A pessimistic person would think - I always get the phone slammed on me (ie take it personally).

Met Life found that hiring candidates who just failed to make the grade on the aptitude test but scored very well on ASQ were successful at their jobs. In fact, the company went a step further and decided not to hire those who did very well on the aptitude test but scored low on ASQ, as pessimists just didn't make great salesmen.

I think this is an insight call centres should definitely reflect on. Given training, positive strokes and the right atmosphere English speaking skills can be upgraded. But basic temperament and attitude can't - at least not that easily!

If call centres can take in average Anands and Aartis and transform them - they will be rewarded with employees who stick on - and value their jobs. A recent piece in the Sunday Times of India focussing on four such young people is a case in point.

Other profiles I'd be keen to hire:
- Small town folks with average marks
- Young people from lower middle class backgrounds who've somehow managedan education. They have a real financial need - and drive to succeed.

English - it's a skill, not just a language
In fact, the long term future of the call centre industry IS going to be people from such backgrounds. The teaching of English in government and vernacular schools has to be top priority. Like using a computer, English must be seen as a marketable skill - not 'cultural invasion'.

The less privileged instinctively know this and that's why even your bai will somehow scrimp and scrounge but prefer to send her child to an 'English medium' school.

In fact I think there is also a pressing need for a TV channel catering to kids which is purely in English. Children from non-English speaking homes never quite learn the finer nuances of the language because they are only exposed to it in the classroom. They need cultural exposure to English - regularly and in context and cartoons in English could provide some that. Certainly Sesame Street in English would!

Conclusion: A call centre can be more than a job - but not for everyone. Identify the right kind of young people and helping them reach their potential is the only solution to the 'attrition' problem. Everything else just buys you a little more time.

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