Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Patanjali, Parents & Principles of Marketing

In the midst of a brand workshop that I was conducting recently one of the participants asked me smirkingly “So, as a brand professional. What’s your opinion on Patanjali?”

Now that’s a loaded question and I knew that any answer would solicit a debate. So, I answered rather sternly “I have huge respect for that brand. But lets save that discussion for later. We are already running behind schedule”

The smirk on his face gave way to an expression of surprise. This was not the first time when my admiration for brand Patanjali got me that look.

But here is the thing about Patanjali. It might not fit into the conventional notion of FMCG ‘brand building’ but it’s a brand that’s giving some of the biggest FMCG companies a run for their money.

It’s not a brand built by an array of brand managers and agencies well attuned with Kotler’s principles of marketing. In fact, it’s a brand that challenges the traditional norms of marketing, and hence, makes a lot of us from the marketing fraternity with our b-school elitism,  a bit uncomfortable.

We can not begin the discussion on ‘Brand Patanjali’ without talking about its biggest ‘brand ambassador’ – Baba Ramdev. So, let me clarify upfront. I don’t have any affinity for the ‘spiritual’ leader Baba Ramdev, but I have (developed over a period of time) a considerable regard for ‘brand builder’ Baba Ramdev

My tryst with Patanjali products started with a feeling of doubt and disregard. Last year, I had gone home to visit my parents in Agra and to my disdain found that they had replaced their regular toiletries brands with Patanjali. For a brand snob like me this was blasphemy-that my parents were trading the legacy of global brands (from the house of Levers and P&G) with a brand from Haridwar. How could they?

Like a good ‘brand abiding’ citizen, I tried persuading them to move back to the ‘trusted’ brands built over years of scientific research (and marketing). But they didn’t budge. To be honest, my parent’s steadfastness and loyalty to Pantajali was the reason I gave it a try, albeit, with bare minimum expectations and a firm belief that the product will fail at the real moment of truth, i.e. trial.

But surprise, surprise! No matter how much I was determined to ‘not like’ it, the Patanjali product (shampoo in this case) didn’t give me a reason to complain. Like most consumers, I am not an expert to comment scientifically on the efficacy of the product- but to put it simply – it didn’t feel any inferior to the brand I otherwise used. Unlike the pungent smell of most ayurvedic products that I had used before, this one even smelled nice. While still in the shower, washing shampoo off my eyes- I looked for the price. It was cheaper than most of the ‘reputed’ brands on the shelf. 

Suddenly, memories of that old Nirma ad flooded my over imaginative mind where the conversation between a shopkeeper and the customer goes like this-

Shopkeeper: Par aap to woh, purana wala sabun...

Customer: Leti thi, par wahi safedi mujhe kam damo mein mile to koi woh kyun le, ye (nirma) na le!

I could almost imagine my self as the shopkeeper and my mother as the customer who discovered the merits of converting to Patanjali.

Now, how do you beat an argument like that? The brand manager in me would retort with “but where is the aspiration in this brand? Brand should stand for something- look at Lux, Pantene, Dove – apart from the functional benefits, they provide carefully crafted emotional benefits as well.” 

I am embarrassed to confess that I actually tried having a conversation like this with my mom and to my utter surprise she succinctly articulated the ‘brand promise’ of Patanjali in her own words “All these multinational brands are full of chemicals, but Patanjali products are made of natural ingredients and age old ayurvedic recipes. Its marketers like you, who make glamorous ads to sell us that expensive ‘branded’ junk”.

Like questioning my professional dignity wasn’t enough, she added “Actually it is brands like Patanjali that need marketing. More people should be aware of the goodness of these products and should benefit from them.” Such adorably naïve understanding of my profession she has!

This was not the first time, my parents argued in favour of Baba Ramdev. I remember (few years before ‘brand’ Patanjali happened), my father virtuously following Baba Ramdev step by step, every time his yoga session was telecasted on ‘Aastha’ channel.

Mockingly, I once said, “So, you have also fallen into the trap of Baba?” Like a true yogi, calm and composed, my dad replied, “He’s not preaching any religion. He’s preaching yoga and its benefits. From yoga being a lifestyle statement of rich and famous, he’s made it a household thing; he has made yoga accessible for everyone. So, what’s wrong in it? Even you should try Pranayam”

I still remember that wave of mass adoption of yoga, popularized by Baba Ramdev and embraced by the Indian middle class. To borrow a term from ‘start-up’ language, the ‘scaling up’ of yoga by Baba Ramdev was both unprecedented and phenomenal. Using the media of TV and mass camps, he made yoga an everyday ritual for millions of Indians.

A bit of analysis and you realize that Baba Ramdev has used the same master skills in scaling up Patanjali as a brand with turnover of around Rs 5000 crores in the previous financial year. What is more interesting and rather impressive is that he did it in his own way. Almost, defying every principle of marketing as taught to us in our b-schools.

Unlike the big brands, which are very measured in everything they do (including their communication), brand Patanjali has been consistently provocative and rough around the edges. May be, it is this rawness, these little imperfections, that far fetched war cry to ‘end the dominance of multinationals’ that makes this brand endearing to a certain set of people who root for it like its an underdog that deserves to win.

Interestingly Patanjali is one of those rare exceptions where the brand adoption travelled from a small town to a metro and the recommendation travelled from old to young, parents to children than the reverse, which is generally the norm.

Let me ask you another question? How many brands can you think of beyond Patanjali- that under the same name successfully sell everything from staples, to shampoos to pickles, and may be even apparel in near future

Till the recent media blitzkrieg (again a great scaling- up tactic), the brand mostly existed in a hole in wall kind of set ups /distribution centers across the country. A basic and often un-standardized set up – made the frugality of the brand quiet evident.

But no matter how many marketing rules Patanjali has broken, it has always adhered to one- the trade off between price vs. quality. For its consumers, the perceived value of a Patanjali product is always greater than the price they pay.

Out of curiosity and out of my zeal to prove my parents wrong- I ‘tried’ most of Patanjali’s products- ghee, soap, shampoo, atta, achar, biscuits (and the list goes on) and none of the products disappointed me. From a naysayer, I have lately become an active advocate of Patanjali products, especially to the folks from my marketing community.

Some of my marketing friends argue that Patanjali products might not be bad, but the marketing of this brand is very unsophisticated and rudimentary. Yes, if you compare it with the global players that the brand is competing with- Patanjali’s communication might come across as unsophisticated or rather unglamorous. But that’s exactly what the brand needs. Shouldn’t a brand that’s positioned as an antithesis of its competition, have communication that’s sets it apart and contrasts the category narrative?

In the end, Patanjali the brand is unashamedly earthy and stubborn (on its anti MNC stance) and in being so, it comes across as unwittingly consistent.

Now lets get back to the guy, yes the same guy who asked my opinion about Patanjali. He caught up with me after the session. I definitely owed him an explanation, so this is what I told him “Patanjali is probably the only brand that I loved to hate and now I hate to love. Hence, Respect.”

Monday, September 12, 2016

Snapdeal re-branding: My take

So, Sanpdeal got itself a new logo. It took me a bit to figure out that it’s a (delivery) box. Actually, the press release had to demystify it for me.

Aesthetically speaking (purely my personal opinion), the new logo makes the brand look more like a technology brand (with those sharp edges and a geometric shape) than an endearing consumer brand.

What caught my imagination is this news around the brand planning to invest 200 crores in rebranding. For me, this brought back memories of the ‘infamous’ re-branding initiative by At least, in case of Housing, an anonymous brand suddenly painting the town got the brand a few eyeballs. I am sure the awareness scores went up (Was it the right way to do it or did it benefit the brand is a different question all together)

Coming back to Snapdeal, I don’t think awareness is such a problem for this brand. The brand has been around for some time now (since 2010) and they have also spent some serious marketing bucks (you might remember the ‘Dil Ki Deal’ campaign with Aamir). Yes, trials might be an issue and brand reappraisal by lapsers can be another one.

So, a big campaign telling that we have now changed our logo (to a red box) is enough to drive these business objectives? Why should the consumer care? Yes, like most brands even Snapdeal wants to play the emotional card (‘dil ki deal’ now ‘unbox zindagi’) but have you given your consumer a strong functional benefit – that gives them a hook to believe in (and even propagate) your emotional pitch.

Unfortunately, ecommerce advertising today is all about who can outshout who. The discussion is not on the messaging, but on the hundreds of crores that these brands are spending. The messaging is either a checklist of category benefits (COD, easy returns, wide collection, discounts and more discounts – read festive sales/ big billion day sale, etc) or an emotional uproar without a solid reason to believe (Dil ki deal, Har wish hogi poori).

As a marketer, when I see these campaigns, there’s only one consistent take away for me- i.e. these brands have lot of money to waste.

What is even more disheartening is that though Flipkart and Snapdeal are the evangelists that got Indian consumers online, with its clever advertising Amazon is fast taking up that space of India’s favourite online destination (their latest campaign refers to Amazon as ‘Apni Dukaan’).

What they have done successfully is to mine deep-rooted insights about Indian consumer and play back a narrative that appeals at both functional and emotional level (‘Aur Dikhao’). Of course, the customer centricity of Amazon not only ends at communication, it spans across each touch point- the interface, ease of navigation, check out, customer service, almost everything. Here I am talking from a perspective of being an avid online consumer. I was a massive cheerleader for Flipkart, but by the sheer seamlessness of Amzon’s service (including Kindle, which is one of the best recommendation engines I have experienced) I became a convert to Amazon.

I am completely aware that this space is getting fiercely competitive and amidst this raging war between Amazon and Flipkart, Snapdeal needs attention too. But was rebranding the only solution. What was wrong with the old logo? It was neat and clean with a good recall of brand colors (red and blue). Why fix something that’s not broken? (By the way, the shade of red in the new Snapdeal logo is called Vermello. Fancy!)

A logo is not a piece of art with subjective interpretations. It doesn’t attain meaning because you get fancy copy guys to write some gyan about new India and new Indian consumer on your site. A logo attains a meaning when brands consistently deliver on their values and promises. Nike, Starbucks, Apple are not great brands because they have great logos. They are great brands because they consistently deliver on what they promise and that’s why their logos today are recognizable across the globe and consumers assign same meaning to a swoosh or golden arches (McDonalds) no matter which part of the world they are from.

You might be wondering, why I am being so judgmental. I haven’t even seen the entire roll out yet. May be I am. As a brand marketer who has always worked within constraints of budget, I feel jealous of the marketing budgets some of these ecommerce brands seem to have. At the same time I also feel angry and frustrated at their naivety in just blowing the money away.

They say that a new logo is often an announcement of ‘beginning of change’ and I hope Snapdeal has lot of good things in store for us this festive season. I will closely watch this space and I will be happy to be proven wrong.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Consultant’s dilemma: Asking questions or serving answers?

Twenty months since I started on my own and what an incredible journey it has been. I still remember the last week of my job. Mind clouded with anticipation, anxiety and varying advice from friends, family and well wishers. One set telling me that it was a good move, while the other cautioning me about leaving the comforts of a safe job.

In my exit interview, a well wishing HR manager wondered “aren’t you too young to start a consulting outfit. You are good at what you do, but you know how it works. Clients choose experience and grey hair. Why don’t you do this after few more years”. Unconvincingly, I tried to explain her “you know times are changing. There are so many young people who are venturing out, trying to build their own start ups. I want to work with them. I am sure unlike the traditional clients, they will give someone like me – who doesn’t fit the conventional notion of a consultant, a chance.” She smirked and left it at that.

The most important piece of advice came from my one of my previous bosses, someone who I really looked up to as mentor and a guide (yes, such a thing exists). He said, in his usual nonchalant fashion “I think one of your biggest strengths is that you are young. You will be teaching while you are learning yourself, unlike the know-it-all attitude of most consultants. Don’t let the learning spirit die and you will be good”

Making a mental note, I repeated to myself “Teach while you learn”

This has become a guiding principle for us, since the day we started. This is what we keep reminding ourselves, like a mantra that keeps our moral compass in check. 

Always embark on a project with a curious mind. Just because you use that product, brand or category – don’t believe that you know everything about it. In fact, challenge whatever you know about it. You are just among the thousands or millions of consumers using it, so don’t be arrogant to think that you are the definitive target group for the brand and hence, you know everything about the consumer.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – basic, silly or even the hypothetical ones. Question that challenge status quo.  Questions are good. Questions lead to discovery, questions lead to answers and eventually its questions that lead to solutions.

Don’t over burden yourself that because you are a consultant, you should know it all. Nurture that child like spirit of curiosity, that wide eyed enthusiasm to learn something new.  Believe me, not all clients are looking for that ‘Mr. knows It All’ who has all answers.  Few are also looking for someone who is willing to work with them to unravel the answers to the questions that are troubling them, and these are the clients you should work with.

Because working with them is like a jamming session more than an assignment and I don’t have to tell you which one is more fun.

Probably that’s what Peter Drucker meant, when he said “my greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

Monday, May 16, 2016

Optimizing Media before Message- is startup marketing missing the hidden pot of gold?*

It’s closer to campaign time and the launch countdown has started:
Product Availability: Check

Distribution Set-up: Check 

Product Inventory: Check
Creative: Check 
Ad-test: Check
In the campaign war-room marketers are frantically talking to media spin doctors, terms like CTR, GRP, CPC are being bandied around, competitive quotes are being taken and even audits are being conducted to ensure that media monies are spent spent wisely and deliver bang for the buck. The plan rates are compared with benchmarks- going into highly quantitative and rather nuanced analysis of how much is the team spending in reaching people (or brand’s TG) and if it’s all meeting the industry benchmarks. Digital has taken this to another level of sophistication- the media is now optimized by month of year, week of month, day of week, time of day, number of characters and is sharply targeted towards right segment to instigate a particular behaviour.
A week into the campaign- after outdoor is up or front page ad has been published or 20% of Digital budget is spent, the same team is again running from pillar to post trying to understand why the campaign has yielded zilch response….mails are floating thick and fast and all options from terminating the campaign to sacking creative agency are mooted.  
Sounds familiar? We can understand.
How we wish that in the (very rightful) melee of making the marketing dollars work harder by optimizing the media, someone had asked a pertinent question- have we optimized the message?
Media is not the message
The biggest mistake that startups (and often even traditional firms) do is in confusing media with message. Push Notifications, Facebook, YouTube, Google, TV, Radio, Print- they are just media. Brands are not built by media blasts alone- it’s built by consistent and coherent messaging that adds on and delayers the broader brand story. In this sense, message is the core DNA of the brand, it determines its long term success. Media is just a vehicle to deliver that message. Unless dedicated efforts have gone into optimizing the message, media can only give a short term blip in top-of-mind awareness- and as any marketer will tell, this is absolutely no indicator of a successful brand. Isn’t it ironic then that majority of efforts are spent in optimizing the media rather than the message?
A good media plan is no substitute for non-optimal message
A good well-optimized media plan with a suboptimal or me-too message is a sure shot recipe for disaster. The brand will end up resting on media props- and will need constant investment, more funds and bigger discounts. It triggers a vicious cycle leading to a highly non-differentiated brand that stands for nothing in particular. While the mantra of “Jo Dhikhta Hai Who Bikta Hai” could work very well on sales and trade marketing side- it fails miserably when it comes to media.
Consider this- the big-3 in Indian e-commerce space cumulatively spend millions of dollars in advertising, but can a consumer really differentiate between Flipkart, Amazon or Snapdeal ? I.e., Other than telling who is bigger or whose founder is cheekier. (Amazon atleast seems to be trying to communicate that they understand the indian consumer better with ads like ‘Aur Dikhao’. Flipkart built the category with an amazingly simple yet convincing campaign using ‘Kids’ , but now the brand mostly does tactical stuff).
Is there a consumer loyalty factor that helps one brand over the other? The game of outshouting on media without paying attention to basic product truths and unique brand story may gratify personal ego of the founders / brand custodians but is of little help beyond that. It’s mostly going to be a game of one-upmanship where the winner is decided basis the flavour of the season or by a new round of funding- definitely not a very favourable situation for a brand to be in.
Message optimization delivers both short and long term returns
Commonly startups as well as traditional firms feel that stuff underlying message optimization like “Positioning” or “Brand Purpose” is meant for another day- when brand has acquired certain size and stature. The truth is, unless a brand optimizes its message it can acquire neither size (organic and sustainable consumer pull) nor stature (strong consumer loyalty and affinity).
A common refrain we hear during our discussion with founders and CEOs for not optimizing the message is- “It’s a tactical campaign- the purpose is to get immediate results”- hidden somewhere in this statement is an admission & an assumption. Admission is that not every messaging needs to be or can be consistent with a broader purpose or positioning. And a (very wrong) assumption that a messaging in sync with brand purpose is purely “thematic” and does little by way of driving immediate business. Let’s answer these one by one.
First- there is a way to link each and every piece of brand communication to a broader brand purpose and there are many brands (like RedBull, Apple, closer to home brands like Indigo, Paper Boat) that have demonstrated it time and again. Saying that it can’t be done, to put it mildly, is a lazy way out and is an absolute injustice to the product or service that brand is supposed to deliver. We cannot deliver suboptimal message in the garb of a “tactical” campaign. After all when a brand is spending millions of marketing dollars on a full page newspaper ad, an outdoor campaign, a television campaign and is monitoring every penny on the basis of reach, media cost etc. why it shouldn’t ensure that the message creates an advantageous long term perception or reinforces an existing belief?
Research has shown that brands having a sense of purpose and those that optimize on their message deliver a better long term return to their shareholders than those without one. Also, a well-optimized message in sync with broader brand purpose can deliver better business results with lesser media money.
Barking up the wrong tree
It’s common for marketers to pin the blame of failure of a highly visible media campaign on creative agency. However we completely forget that a creative is as good as the brief- it runs on GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). In the absence of a clear brand proposition, the creative agency is handicapped and will invariably resort to either of the 2 routes- tried and tested category generic stuff (remember Deodorant ads?) or completely provocative- both do little to help the brand business. A well-defined brand story and purpose whereas acts almost like a “master brief” for all agencies- and ensures that every single piece of communication is well-optimized
Another big fallacy is to assume that an ad that performs well in ad-testing will help in long term brand building. Ad-testing just checks the communication “route”, it cannot say if messaging is right or wrong. It’s naïve to think that just because ad is performing in ad-test, the message is optimal. With our marketing experience we can say with reasonable confidence that clichéd or safe routes are the best ones to make ads successful in testing- so a successful ad is no measure of an optimized message. However a brand communication that’s based on a well optimized message has high probablility to perform successfully in ad-testing. It’s pertinent to remember that purpose of communication is not to make an “ad-test certified” ad.
So who will bell the cat and how?
An optimized message rests on the bedrock of a credible story and brand purpose. Building this brand story and purpose isn’t the job of “strategic wing” or planning function of creative or media agency. In fact giving this job to any of the regular agencies is a big pitfall because a brand story & purpose isn’t debatable, it cannot have “exceptions” on Digital, once done it cannot be “tweaked” to suit a media opportunity and it cannot be “modified” to suit a more clutter breaking creative. Rather it is the definitive master brief for all the agencies and it clearly defines brand guardrails for all of them.
It also cannot be done through “brainstorming” in a room, coining catchy taglines, conducting 1-day market dipsticks or leveraging secondary knowledge. It has to come from within- from founders or top management. It requires a patient understanding of target consumer- his motivations, beliefs and anxieties, of the founder’s purpose- his core reason for starting the product/service, of category- the existing truths, beliefs & norms and of competition- it’s pros and cons. It requires making trade-offs- it’s as much about understanding what brand is not as it’s about defining what brand is?
To conclude
Optimizing message by building a brand purpose and story is a painstaking process and it takes time but it isn’t impossible- regardless of the stage business is in. A well-researched brand story, purpose and positioning spans across media, time and campaigns. The process of building it yields rich insights into business, category, competition, and consumer and hence has a lot of strategic implications as well. Net, its money and time well-spent.
Hence there is absolutely no reason to defer message optimization. In fact, it’s like marketing insurance- a little time and effort (probably about 1% of media money) spent on message optimization ensures that remaining 99% of the marketing spends communicate the right message that has higher chance to deliver business results.
*A BusyBeeBrands perspective

Monday, April 4, 2016

From use-cases to users: Do B2C tech companies need a fundamental shift in consumer thinking?

A typical discussion on product enhancement with a founder or CEO of a B2C tech company begins with the ubiquitous question- “what’s the use case here?” Many product innovations, app features and improvements are designed after answering this question. Not just product but entire organization is focused on solving the “use-case”- afterall the focus on “use case” ensures that every new investment in product innovation or tech solves a legitimate consumer problem and delivers incremental business.

While this is a fair yardstick, there is a small problem with this approach- it doesn’t consider the user experience beyond product- tech is assumed to be an all-encompassing umbrella that would solve every problem of the intended target consumer or rather user to whom the use-case is supposed to deliver.

Some typical consumer manifestations of this thinking (and we all have experienced it sometime or the other) are- a shared cab service constantly taking new pickups and drops during journey even as the first passenger on board is still waiting for drop, an online travel agent suggesting 15 hour flights between Delhi and Lucknow, a home service provider sending a plumber who has little knowledge of plumbing, a food tech company delivering half-cooked cold food because it has to meet the 20 min deadline for “express service”, a Real Estate portal with lots of cool tools and data science but little listings, a room aggregator that has 20 options in 2 KM vicinity but each one is equally bad- in all these instances companies considered product use-case without paying any heed to “user”, they considered UX on app/site but didn’t pay attention to “User Experience” as a whole.

It’s a little disconcerting as it manifests classic product myopia- the jazz and novelty of tech is supposed to paper over “minor” blips in experience. However we forget that while tech and product have progressed by leaps and bounds, the consumer or the user- his fundamental believes, anxieties, motivations and behaviours haven’t progressed at same pace. That’s a process of evolution and takes generations to change (more on this another time). If at all, the “instant gratification” generation of today is more demanding, more impulsive and ready to throw a fit at multiple grievance platforms or worse, switch to another brand.

Consumers care little about a company solving problem of his urban commute with an app- they still want a clean cab with a decent driver, they don’t care about thousands of service agents available at doorstep- they are only concerned if the plumber who comes home is capable of solving their problem, they don’t bother about “drone view” & “locality rating” if they find only 5-6 listings in the area of their choice in a property portal. They also don’t care about funding, fancy investors or jazzy offices of the company. Yes it’s a harsh consumer world out there but then satisfying expectations of these consumers is what that’s going get any organization a sustainable business- one that doesn’t buy but build loyalty.

Building a sustainable B2C tech business entails acquiring consumers through merits of “overall product experience” rather than mere discount backed tech experience. And that’s unfortunately the hard part of the deal- it involves understanding drivers of trials, of repeats and of stickiness. In other words, it entails building an understanding of vital consumer led business drivers, the quintessential “moments of truth” that the service should deliver on. And this will help to control and shape organic recommendations- the most desirable and sustainable form of virality. Without having a hold on these, a lot of companies might build momentum that’s just propped up by discounts, curiosity or media money- and is therefore artificial or unsustainable.

Doing this involves a fundamental shift in thinking- of understanding consumers beyond “use-case”- considering them as flesh and blood entities with their own idiosyncrasies rather than bits of digital data that interact with product in a predictable way. Many tech firms that delegate this thinking to a “later date” discover that they are trapped in a vicious whirlpool of scaling-acquisition-resolution-scaling, in other words, the loop of feeding consumers in a leaky bucket that needs more and more repair (read funds) to sustain the growth.

Net, building a sustainable business in B2C tech isn’t just about heavy media blitz or catchy taglines. Rather it’s about building a solid product story rooted in a thorough understanding or at least appreciation of all moments of truth. Balancing unit level economics with consistent consumer acquisition is the essence of a true brand. Therefore tech based start-ups would do good to invest from their inception in brand “thinking”, if not brand “building”- more so in today’s chaotic environment when investors are getting choosy and picking businesses that show natural rather than artificial growth. And this definitely calls for a thinking that goes beyond “Use Cases”

*(A BusyBeeBrands Perspective)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai: My true story!

26th November 2008: I returned home late at night after a cozy dinner with my wife at our favorite Italian restaurant. Everything was perfect- the food, the ambience and the Bangalore weather. It was my birthday and I was mostly reflecting on the year gone by. 2008 was an eventful year for me- I got married in Feb, joined a new company in June and lost someone very special to me in October. I was in no mood to celebrate but my wife insisted that we should at least go out for a dinner and I was glad we went out.

Just out of habit, I switched on the TV to catch the headlines as soon as I entered the home. There was breaking news flashing on every news channel. There was a terrorist attack in Mumbai and the live coverage of the entire operation was being aired. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. If the enemy can attack hotels and hospitals of this country, then probably no place is safe. It almost felt like an invasion into our personal space. I was hooked to the coverage and kept watching the new channels whole night. Didn’t realize that I slept off on the sofa, with the TV on.

I woke up with a mild headache and a strange feeling of guilt. I kept thinking that what was a special day for me turned out to be such a bad day for many who were stuck in the attack. In a strange way it all felt very personal. Like every Indian I kept following the news through out the next few days, praying for the victims to be safe. Never before was I so agitated by an event.

Few days after this event, I was slated to travel to Mumbai for work. I loved traveling and was glad that my profession gave me that opportunity to explore so much. In fact, I took huge pride in the fact that I was a platinum member of a loyalty program of a popular airline of those times.

But this one time- I didn’t feel like going. One, this was the first time I was going to the city after the attack and two, I was going there for some work that was completely alien to me.

It was an early morning flight on a weekday and contrary to the usual rush on the morning flights, they were very few passengers on this flight. I was happy that the other two seats in my row were vacant. I wanted to sleep as soon as the boarding was done. Everything was normal for the first one hour of my flight. Then suddenly, out of the blue- some random negative thoughts started to occur. It was nothing like I had felt before. The thoughts were absolutely nonsensical, but immensely scary.

I started feeling overwhelmed and scared. It was a peculiar feeling of helplessness, of losing control over my self, I felt like I was going crazy and it almost paralyzed me. The news images of terrorist attack kept playing like a reel in my mind. I was feeling like I was in grave danger. I was gasping for breath, my palms were sweating, and I felt like I would pass out. The feeling that you are going mad, losing control over your own self is the most terrible feeling I ever felt and it was happening for the first time to me. I felt claustrophobic, I wanted to run but felt stuck in that aircraft. This state lasted for a good twenty minutes and believe me those twenty minutes felt like a lifetime.

As the pilot announced the cabin crew to prepare for landing, I started to calm down. Breathing deep and praying hard, I just waited for the flight to land.

As soon as I landed, I called up my wife and explained what had happened to me. My voice was choked and I was crying. I kept repeating the same question “I am going mad? Am I going Mad?” and she kept reassuring me that its just some stupid thoughts and that my mind was playing games with me. She reasoned out that I was hesitant to travel this time and was also stressed about the work, hence such negative thoughts. It’s all stress and nothing else.

I had a return flight the next morning and I was paranoid of how I will be able to take another flight. I wanted to Google and read about this condition, but was worried that I might discover something fatal and things will deteriorate further. That one-day in Mumbai was the most horrifying day of my life. I felt overwhelmed by everything- the city, the traffic, the people, the hotel room- as if everything was coming on to me. The anticipation that I will again feel like what I felt in the morning was freaking me out. It took me a dozen calls to my wife and parents, to muster up the courage to fly again. I think the strong urge to reach home and figure out what I was suffering from was a strong motivator that helped me fly back.

I kept praying through the flight. Tried talking to fellow passengers, listen to music, read something, did many things that helped me distract my mind for ninety minutes of that flight time. I was full of self-pity, for feeling so vulnerable and lonely. As soon as I landed at Bangalore airport, I immediately started googling on my phone. Honestly, I didn’t even know what to search for. After typing and searching for couple of key words, I was finally able to frame my problem. I googled “Fear of losing control” and the search took me to a page on Anxiety disorders and for the first time I read the scientific definition of a “Panic Attack”.

As I kept reading the symptoms of a “Panic Attack” I realized that what I felt on the plane was exactly that. I had my first Panic Attack. But those twenty minutes of panic crippled me for life. Flying became a nightmare and hence started my struggle with anxiety and panic.

Why am I writing this? Because I have been fighting this condition for last seven years. Unfortunately till last November, I was fighting the battle alone, all by myself – a kind of grueling internal battle. I finally reached out for professional help in December and that has helped me quite a bit. My only regret is that I didn’t seek this help before and kept struggling like an idiot. I believe, there are many like me who are suffering quietly.

I have decided to come out in open and help those who are going through a situation like me. To start with, I am going to share my journey so far- my struggle with anxiety and how I have been trying to cope with it- sometimes scientifically and often naively. If through my story I can inspire someone to reach out for help- I will consider this effort and public confession absolutely worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Growing up is not about giving up!

Had a bad day at work today and as a consequence I returned home visibly stressed.

Vedaant, my three year old opened the door for me and greeted me with his characteristic big smile and a glee in his eyes. I tried concealing my feelings and hugged him tight. Watching this from a distance, my wife enquired “why are you looking so stressed?” Now, my son has picked up this habit, where he sometimes repeats whatever we say. So, he repeated Tanu’s question to me, without looking curious for an answer though.

Even before I could answer, he muttered to me “chill papa, chill” of course without understanding what that meant. He probably picked this up from me or Tanu as we tend to say this to each other quite often.

On any other day, I would have shown my displeasure and asked him to be careful with the language. But today, it sounded to me as the best piece of advice I ever got. What was worrying me was completely out of my control and there was actually nothing I could do than just chill and let things take their own course.

Now I am distracted, I am no more thinking about the office stuff. What I am thinking now, is how in all their naivety- kids sometimes teach us some of the most valuable lessons of life. There have been times, when suddenly out of the blue, I have felt touched, inspired and surprised with something that Vedaant either said or did.

Sometimes, without any obvious reason he just hugs me tight, kisses me and announces that I am his best friend or the times he frowns to expresses his displeasure in an extremely cute manner when I do something he doesn’t like, say changing his favorite channel or polishing off his candy. These are the moments when I can feel my heart melt. It also makes me realize how much joy unbridled emotions can convey. Not saying that we adults should act like kids and express ourselves explicitly.

Most of us are not good at communicating to people, the things we don’t like about them. What is more concerning is that we are growing shyer even in communicating the things we like about them. A genuine compliment, a word of appreciation, heartfelt thanks, even a tight hug, telling someone the good things you genuinely feel about them is also becoming rare these days. This everyday business of shaking hands, customary hugs; high fives are all becoming so ritualistic, superficial and mechanical. Why can’t we adults just be open about our feelings, why do we like to complicate stuff? Why can’t things be simple like how it was when we were kids?

While I try to answer some of the most random questions posed by my son or when I am trying to gauge the flight of his imagination. I sometimes wonder- since when did growing up meant giving up? Giving up on our imagination, on inquisitiveness, on our ability to ask questions, on challenging the so called norms and most importantly on the belief that anything is possible

While we plan for our life on weekends and vacations, wait for those special moments to celebrate life, kids live in the moment. Be it at a doctor’s clinic or an ATM joint. Be it in a five star in Goa or a super market where you buy groceries from, if they have decided to have fun they will have fun. Simple! They can make friends, discoveries and memories anywhere. Not like us, waiting for the perfect occasion, perfect company or perfect place and eventually ending up being disappointed because there is actually nothing called perfect or at least that what we cynics think so.

My son is obsessed about cars. Toy cars, real cars, car show rooms, car movies, car ads, cars in any form. He is so passionate about them that he insists I buy car magazines for him. He snatches the newspaper from me every morning just as to see which car ads have appeared in the paper. I am worried that he is so much into them but I am also happy that he is so passionate about them. Passions make us, define us and makes our lives worth living. I am sure at some stage or the other all of us were passionate about something- food, movies, travel, fashion, whatever. But eventually we get into the rat race and mistake it for life. Our passions take a back seat. We make a compromise with self that once we arrive in life, we will have ample time and resources to pursue all our passions, without realizing that life’s never a destination. It’s actually a journey, and the only way to live it is to enjoy it.

In two weeks from now, I turn thirty two. It’s that time of the year when I wrote a note to self, reflecting upon the year that went by and thinking about things I should do next year. This post is my note to self this year. I only want to do two things this year. I want to live like my son and I want to chill. Rest will take care of itself.