Co-author: Suharsh Dikshit
On a hot, sunny afternoon in June, a plain looking bourgeoisie taxi lumbered through the busy roads of Delhi. While the driver was busy exchanging chosen expletives with the fellow drivers on the road, Suharsh and I sat impassively, engaged in our respective avocations. We had just arrived in Delhi and were heading towards Panipat to attend a consumer session. While we love to disagree with each other on most things, we share a common passion for branding and the Indian consumer.
“Looks like every second ad is trying to sell either homes or education”, I said, referring to the constant stream of college and property ad-jingles blurting out on the radio. Driver, who had by now broken out of the traffic, added his own view in Delhi style- “Makaan ke gaane toh aise sunate hain ji jaise makaan muft main bant rahein hon” shutting down his laptop and placing it back into the bag, Suharsh quipped- “Makaan muft main mile na mile her college naukri dena ka wadaa zaroor karta hai”. Driver concluded the discussion with a dismissive statement- “yeh sab brand walon ke natak hote hain”. Suharsh and I exchanged an amused look; evidently we were not too impressed by general opinion of our profession.
Coming back to the topic, I said- “higher education is a unique category. You know, from many FGDs I have attended with small town consumers, I realise that the both parents and the kids see education as a sure shot ticket to a better life, like a sort of insurance for better future”
Suharsh added to my line of thought “For today’s youth, it is not only important to be successful, but it is as much important to be ‘seen as’ successful. They are extremely exhibitionist in nature”
I took it up from there “and probably that explains the success of the Facebooks and the Orkuts of the world. The social networking sites give them an opportunity to- show off. The uploaded images on most profiles can be classified as- my foreign trips, my happening parties, my hot girlfriends/ boyfriends, my gadgets, etc. Everyone wants to put up their best face on the web- kind of carefully craft an image for themselves”
“You got to agree; sometimes movies provide amazing insights on the Indian youth. I am sure if life was a bumper sticker, it would read ‘main apni/apna favourite hoon’ for majority of youth today. I love that dialogue from ‘Jab we met’- it defines the youth of today so well” none of my discussion can go without a reference to bollywood.
Suharsh smiled and took out a copy of the matrimonial page from The Sunday Times - “you are right and there is more to it….education is not only a passport to better future, it’s also the new caste system...here have a look”. I glanced at the circled matrimonial ad, it read- “….match invited for a slim, fair girl….and went onto mention- “elder sister married to IIM graduate, settled in US” I chuckled and read the ones around it- “Match invited for an IIT graduate…”, “….BTech, Software engineer, settled in New York…”
I was with Suharsh on this one- “Yes, education is the new caste system and come to think of it- caste is nothing but a social stratification and education and occupation provide easy handles to stratify. Education- particularly your degree or the college you pass out from is certainly a part of your identity”
Suharsh was thinking like a brand manager now- “if education is given so much importance, then it is natural that education category will have a very complicated, lets put it this way, purchase decision process”
I nodded in agreement pulling out a cigarette, indicating that I was already getting involved in the discussion- “you are right; after all it has all the characteristics of high involvement- huge investment, infrequent purchase and more importantly its irreversible. The other category which is as complex that comes to mind is buying a home, but in case you are not happy with the investment, you can sell the property and exit but what would you do if you are stuck in a course that is dissatisfactory and takes away few important years of your life?” I sighed.
As I gestured driver to roll down the windows and lighted my smoke, Suharsh spoke “branding in education is a very tricky issue. If you are too vocal, you are seen as too commercial and selling education like soap or a moisturizer and if you don’t speak at all- you remain anonymous. Of course, barring the top institutions like IITs, IIMs and other few which have already established themselves as formidable brands in the category, this is a problem that most emerging institutions face”
I got his point and elaborated it further “very true, what adds to the problem is that majority of private institutions consider brand building to be all about organizing high profile events, developing slick ads, getting a good-looking logo and a flashy website…what they forget is that each brand should stand for certain values and unless those values are credible, relevant and distinct and unless each stakeholder understands, imbibes and demonstrates these values in a consistent way, they are really not building brands or delivering on any brand promise. It’s all about getting the basics right”
Suharsh added an interesting dimension to the argument “Hmmm…now that you have brought it up, I think there are more stakeholders involved in this category than in any other category that I know of- students, faculty, parents, recruiters, alumni, aspirants and even government. Any exercise in brand building should involve and factor in the needs of all the stakeholders and the brand promise should appeal to all. The brand building process has to be inside out and not vice versa”
I chipped in with my bit “come to think of it, all ads in this category look, feel and sound the same. Every institution talks about the same 3 or 4 things- 100% placements, best in class infrastructure, reputed faculty, industry exposure and in some cases even foreign associations and collaborations. Mostly making exaggerated claims, they are- as in your face as they can get. I mean how is size of the campus, guaranteed laptop and air-conditioned classroom even remotely correlated with the quality of education”
Suharsh had another piece of data ready- “…and I recently read that education sector was one of the highest spenders on advertising last year, the sector spent a sum upwards of 900 crores in advertising”. My face reflected genuine surprise and anguish- “900 Cr spent on communicating generic attributes, that are either undifferentiated or irrelevant…come on, these colleges have some very intelligent academicians and businessmen at the helm, I wonder why they can’t understand this basic flaw in their brand building endeavors?”
Suharsh requested our over enthusiastic driver to desist racing with other cars on highway and went on with his explanation- “Consider the example of a private management institute that dares the aspirants to think beyond IIMs. It has an exaggerated, albeit unique communication and they spend generously in promoting themselves. I am sure they have right media weights. Though this particular institution might be fairly well known (speaking strictly in terms of share of media voice) when you compare it with IIMs (only because it wants us to think beyond IIMs), the two institutes conjure up completely different imagery. While one stands for the best management education in the country the other…well, lesser said, the better”
Digging into the sandwich we packed from airport, I complemented his thoughts “probably that’s where IITs, IIMs, XLRI or NITs stand as formidable brands…they communicate certain values and conjure an imagery that’s not based on generics like placements or infrastructure”
Drawing form his own MBA experience, Suharsh added- “you’ve hit the nail on the head. In fact the campus size of XLRI might be smaller than what some of these private colleges claim in their ads, but that’s absolutely irrelevant…what matters is the values that XLRI stands for and the promise of ‘socially responsible managers’ it delivers on. IIMs take pride in claiming ‘we don’t guarantee placements!’ because they deliver on a much bigger promise of grooming and creating the leaders of tomorrow, the placements in such scenario is a given”
I retorted- “but we cannot ignore the fact that even then the private colleges are packed to capacity, right?” checking his mails, Suharsh replied- “Agreed, there is always a queue even outside the private colleges. But don’t forget that this queue is no measure of a good brand. We all know that demand supply equation in Indian higher education sector is skewed with huge population and too few colleges. So there is no surprise that a seat in any college never goes vacant, and that gives an opportunity for lot of these colleges to charge huge premium on admissions. But it’s a mistake to confuse this premium with Brand Equity. This premium is simply the result of yawning demand-supply gap”
I had an example to illustrate the point “my cousin appeared for the engineering entrance examination this year but couldn’t get a seat in any of the top, reputed colleges. He didn’t want to take a break, so started evaluating the available options. He was utterly confused, he referred to rankings by various magazines and websites to make a decision but they only added to his confusion- each source had their own rankings which was different from all other rankings. It came to a point when all the available options started looking the same and he finally chose a college on the basis of convenience and proximity to his home. I am sure lot of aspirants face this dilemma and this is nothing but an indication that the sector is getting commoditized”
I guess we were bored of discussing on the same topic for so long. As the car cruised on the highway, Suharsh and I curiously looked at the landscape dotted with private engineering and MBA colleges at every few kilometers. Another private university ad jingle played on radio followed by a property ad when I quipped- “I want to be the guy who is selling land to these private universities”