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 na├»ve 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.”