AdStand: When brands break walls

We live in strange times. The times where the leader of the free world wants to build walls and the brands from the same free world break the walls down. The war between the political brinkmanship and brand statesmanship has never been so stark as it has been now.

Whoever thought that there would be a time when the leader of men will become jingoistic, small minded and tight fisted, and purveyors of transactions will become global, large hearted and celebrate the human diversity.

The chaos started with Donald Trump banning refugees from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering US, in a clear act of religious discrimination. The backlash against the executive order was massive from the public and from the establishment too. The courts stepped in and within 24 hours, the travel ban was put in limbo. The massive backlash from ordinary Americans and from citizens of almost every country gave brands the fuel needed to create messages of unity and celebrating diversity.


AirBnB released its ad on Superbowl to make a simple point: The world is more beautiful the more you accept. The entire copy of the ad — “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept” — is a powerful statement against what the political powers to be have made the country out to be. The #WeAccept campaign is an evolution from the film they released last November.

Coke dipped back into its archives to pull out an ad from 2014. America the Beautiful spot starts in English and then the verses keep flowing into multiple languages, including Hindi and Arabic and various others.

The ad from Coke was very polarising when it was aired last. The reactions this time too has been sharply divided for both the commercials. While many hated the commercials, many more loved not only the message but also the bravery of the brand to take sides and be more than just a brand, being politically correct with the timely message.

This is where both Coke and AirBnB score very big, they refuse to tow the middle of the road line and are aggressive in displaying their progressive (and some may even say correct) side in the current scenario.

Leo Burnett’s #ReverseForKindness is the most insightful piece that I have seen recently on the culture gap and human diversity. The simple act of writing English like Arabic, not left to right but right to left, creates a strong impact. The underlying message that the directional way of writing language does not change the way of expressing thoughts is very powerful. In these times where the leaders of nations are busy dividing people, this is a powerful message of unity.

These brand messages are the real positives in these troubled political times. In India, brands rarely display their political belief. They stick to the middle of the road acceptable protocol of messaging and almost never live on the edge. I am not expecting brands to jump into the fray and start to display their political leanings immediately, but being culturally sensitive and having a contra point of view is not always a bad thing for brands.

With a small dosage of hate come a large dollop of admiration and a long lasting memorability.

Add some admiration to it too.

Original published here:

Will IPL5 save Indian Cricket?

Life has come full circle for the brand IPL. It was created on the back of India’ unexpected win of the inaugural T20 championship. The win generated enormous excitement about the newest format of cricket and the viewer friendly length of game added to the whole appeal. There was ICL in those days, and if you treat ICL as the test marketing case, the indications were that the league will be a success.

IPL created a new lingo of cricket. It brought showmanship, glamour and fun to an otherwise intense game. It seemed to work fine till last year when IPL 4 faced diminishing viewer interest. Ratings dipped, stadium seats were unsold and generally lacked the buzz that IPL had generated for three full years.

Admittedly it came on back of India’s famous T 50 world cup victory. May be people were emotionally so high that IPL didn’t matter. A deeper analysis pointed towards issues with the quality of game itself. Somehow the cricket did not seem to be appealing enough, fans did not connect with teams and the tournament itself was long and often the matches did not have tight nerve wrecking finishes.

The slide has continued for Indian team since then. The English tour was a tour to hell. India lost every match. The English came here and India won, but the viewer remained lukewarm. The West Indians came and went without generating much heat. Though they almost managed an upset and came close to beating India many times. The subsequent tour to Australia and the imaginative branding of the tour by broadcasters came to haunt India. Viewers switched off in large numbers. India went to Bangladesh, beat Pakistan but came back empty handed without managing to reach the finals.

Cricket in India is facing a crisis and surprise surprise is looking at IPL to revive the interest.

In five years the sporting arena has changed dramatically in India. Once upon a time, the only game that generated any eyeballs was cricket. This is no longer true. The Olympic Hockey Qualifiers and the just concluded WSH has seen near packed stadiums. This is when India does not have one star Hockey player who can generate viewer interest. India now has its own F1 racing track, the inaugural race was viewed by a packed house paying more money than they normally pay for watching cricket. Add Badminton, Squash, Boxing, and Tennis to this mix and cricket has serious competition to grab viewers’ attention. To top it, this is the year of Olympics, with India sending its strongest ever contingent.

In five years the viewer fatigue with T20 also has increased tremendously. T20 was cricket’s silver bullet to attract new viewers, expand its appeal and fill up the coffers of the Board. It did this for a short while, extremely efficiently. Movie halls turned into IPL screens, Youtube beamed the matches live, and there were multitudes of fantasy cricket games that rode the wave.

The tables have turned completely. For brand IPL to reconnect, the focus has to be on performance. Over the next 45 days it is the quality of cricket that will have a major say in how well the brand performs. More than ever, it’s now that how Indian players perform will have an impact on the future of the brand.

IPL is at the cross roads and so is Indian cricket. Indian cricket will survive, but for IPL the quality of cricket will matter the most this time round

Branding New Avenues

Brands and branding are much debated and written about terms. The book stores are full of books on branding; Google search will throw up more pages on branding than one can read in a lifetime. A whole enterprise has been built on one word: brand. It is not my intention to discuss what a brand is or what it stands for. It is my intention to discuss where we can take the process of branding and what new challenges we face in the future. Just for the sake of argument, let us assume that in simplest terms branding is about stimulus and response. A brand is a stimulus designed to impact behavior. It changes, reinforces, and maintains the behavior in such a way that brands become desirable. And in the process become a sort of pattern, which the consumers keep repeating, as a response to the stimulus. There are three new challenges that the world of branding needs to tackle:


Branding has traversed the world of product and services. However, one area where it has barely scratched the surface is in how to brand a country. Creating a country mark can actually be a fairly complicated and challenging task. From “Proudly South African” to “Cool Britannica” to “Incredible India,” nations are trying to create country marks. But have they really captured the entire reality of the country. Can the country as a brand be reduced to one or two or three facets? And should these efforts not traverse from the world of tourism to encompass a wider arena? Nation as a brand is far more complicated. National brand is a sum total a country’s history, culture, its products and services, its people, its customers, its financials, its operations, and its leadership. Maybe it’s time for nations to define their values, beliefs, and even appoint a minister of branding.


Technology is changing the world rapidly, and the world of branding is not able to keep pace. Internet, cell phones, gaming devices, software, and the like are change agents. And the changes they drive are not a progression of current realities but a brand new reality. They create new categories that challenge the old ones. In the process, they kill the old categories. ’Net telephony challenges the long distance telephone companies; text messaging creates a new behavior that kills writing letters. Brands have to be ready to face the challenge of category. And unlike in the past where the rise of digital photography was slow and staggered, the new technologies are far more democratic. They seep into the world much faster and give very little time to react.


The world of branding needs to go beyond the world of profit and that too fairly quickly. Brands have the ability to create mass movements. They have the ability to foster a new social behavior and in a fairly positive way. Almost like a bloodless revolution. Most of the efforts in the world of branding have been only towards creating a brand that generated profits. Time may have come to generate brands that generate a positive feeling. Many of the modern world’s worries need the attention of branding: controlling pollution, eradicating inequality, protecting the world’s climate, and controlling new diseases. Not through coercion but through willing participation. These three new challenges can expand the world of branding, its expertise, and its ability and make it relevant to today’s world.

It may even get itself an appreciative pat on its back in these days of “No Logo.” •

Appeared in Internationalist Magazine, published from New York in March 2005

There’s nothing Rajini Kant!

There is this incredible joke going around on Raijnikanth: Ladies and Gentlemen the most coveted Rajnikanth Award goes to….
Ever since Enthiran/Robot has been released there has been an incredible amount of Rajini jokes that have been going around. On the web, on social networking sites, on sms, everywhere the current reigning topic is the latest Rajini joke. Rajini jokes are today the best conversation starters.
There is something very interesting about this whole Rajnikanth saga. Every single joke that is going around is complimentary towards Rajinikanth. They are funny, yes, they also eulogize him. It adds to the overall brand appeal of Rajinikanth. People take immense pride in sharing the latest Rajini jokes with each other. So every Rajini joke also adds to cool quotient of the narrator. In a society where jokes often tend to slip either into bathroom humor kind of category or into crassness, the positivity in the jokes is a remarkable phenomenon.
Possibly Rajnikanth today is a truly crowd sourced brand. Made by fans. To make more fans. If there was any way of quantifying than I am sure, Rajnikanth has more fans in 4 months, than any time ever before.
One of the reasons, why the tone of Rajinikanth jokes is complimentary towards him is because his fans truly idolize him. And they idolize not just his screen persona, but his real self. He is not mere Rajinikanth for them, he is Rajini Saar. Possibly this is because the real Rajinikanth is far more real and relatable than the on screen Rajnikanth and that immensely adds to the persona. The respect than gets translated into unabashed admiration for the man, that we are seeing across all the jokes that are going around.
There is a lot that Rajini Saar in his inimitable style can teach all of us in marketing and communication. Here are 5 possible reasons.
One: Crowd sourcing works, and how. Crowd sourcing does not destroy brand value, it does not diminish the brand equity. If you truly let the crowd control your brand, and if the crowd loves your brand they will make sure that the story of the brand is told well
Two: Like it or not, crowd sourcing will happen. It cannot be controlled; it currently is on its way to become mainstream culture. We as owners of brand will be better off acting as catalysts and not as inhibitors.
Three: crowd sourcing can actually improve your brand in ways you cannot imagine. There is a variety of inputs that comes from crowd, and if you as brand owners are willing to accept, filter and broadcast what is right for the brand, it will make the brand better.
Four: Crowd sourcing can revitalize your brand and fill it with new vitality. What crowd sourcing has done for Rajini brand can be done for any brand. It has made the brand Rajini one of the buzziest brand of our times. Agreed that the Rajini brand has enough in it to spark off the buzz, but than most brands do have enough in them to start a buzz.
Five: To make the entire crowd sourcing effort work, nurture the crowd. There would be times when the brand will not like what the crowd does. Chime in, have a dialogue and together fix the issue. Rajini brand managers could have killed the entire wave of jokes, or they could have curated them. Curating the crowd’s opinion always works better
So if Rajini can, why can’t we?

The New Middle Class in India

It is now official. First time in the history of modern India, high income households will outnumber lower income households. According to latest NCAER estimates India will have 46.7 Million households in high income category and 41 Million households in lower income category.

Households earning up to Rs 45000 per annum are dubbed as lower income households, and those earning over Rs 1.8L per annum are classified as high income households. But the real story lies in the number of households that are between Rs 45000 to 1.8 L per annum. This number has now reached estimated 141Mn households, out of a total of 228Mn households in the country. This is what is called the middle class in India. This middle class now is over 60% of the entire country. This is a stupendous turnaround that we are seeing happen to our country.

We often assume that the entire middle class is ‘one class’ and we can try and paint them in one go. The truth is that the middle class in India is a constantly evolving mix of audience. The current decade has seen a very strong growth in middle class. The economic growth, the rising prosperity, more and more people moving up ladder has created a new class of customers. These are the new members of middle class of India.

What is fuelling this new middle class? What are the trends that they will trigger? After all they are a very potent group of consumers

The new middle class has been powered by women. Just look at the long term literacy data of India and the impact women are having will be clear. The female literacy rate has risen from 8.6% in 1951 to 54% in 2001 census. The 2011 census I am sure will show that the number may have crossed 60%. Interestingly the growth of female literacy rate was 15% between 91 and 2001, as against just 11% of male literacy growth. Clearly the women are catching up with males, and this too is triggering a set of new trends.

Here’s a look at some of the new truths about the new middle class

The growth of the new middle class is powered by women. With better education they are joining the work force in a greater number. With this they are taking control of their future, having a greater say in their wedding, deciding on when to have kids and how many. Apart from the demographic impact they are also driving their partners with a greater zeal to improve their future. They are making the most of change in their demographic and social status.

The new middle class will impact the travel choices in a big way. The new found economic freedom will translate into a greater desire to explore the world. They will pack their bags and take vacations at a greater frequency than ever before. And they will not always be looking at visiting their relatives only when they do so.

The new middle class is very serious about securing their future. One of the first serious buying decision they will take will involve buying a house. They will look at buying their own house even before they decide to buy a car. There is no better way to announce the transition than by buying a house. This means that the small home segment will boom in a much bigger way in coming decade

The new middle class is truly driven by dynamism of its own members. They are literally writing their own destiny and crafting their future. They are hardworking, optimist, smart and not driven by the rules of past. They will impact the world of marketing and branding in a big way.

The new emerging reality will be very exciting

Future of IPL

When I did my last article about IPL, it looked like everyone wanted to be a part of the IPL gravy train. Then the controversy broke over the Kochi bid and a string of bad news about the administration that ran the event, and even more damaging reports of financial improprietary. To top it, there are even rumors that the matches were fixed and nothing seemed right about IPL. Expectedly media went to town debating the future of IPL. If media owned IPL, it would have been shut down, and the entire cricketing fraternity made to disown the game.
The real inkling of what the future of IPL may hold was answered on the evening when the final was being played. The stadium was packed to the gills, the noise was deafening, the players had the intensity and cricket being played was top class.
So in midst of the entire circus that seemed to say that IPL is over, and there may not be IPL4, the average cricket viewers have given a very clear indicator that IPL is here to stay.
Are there lessons for us to draw from the mess? What is it that is keeping the event alive? What is it that will keep the brand IPL going from strength to strength? This mess of IPL may give us clear answers in managing a brand in crisis
Continue to build credibility: the real reason why IPL is able to draw the crowd into stadiums is the belief that cricket on display is fair and is played with the right passion. It is clear in this moment of crisis that the game is not owned by the administrators or team owners or even the board, the game is owned by the players. It is the credibility of superstars of cricket that is keeping the game alive. So when the game’s biggest icon says, the game will recover the whole cricket loving public agrees
Be authentic: Any brand to create a long term following needs to be honest and open about self. The consumers constantly search for experiences that are real and authentic. The real reason why the brand IPL took off was because it promised an authentic experience. There is no doubt that the current spate of bad news will affect the following of the game in the long run. It definitely will survive this crisis, but recovery from another round of bad news may not be swift and painless
Create high standards around the brand: while credibility and authenticity are the tactics to build a successful brand strategy, there is no going away from offering extremely high standard quality and service. The more the consumers feel that the brand takes itself seriously, the more they would trust and follow a brand. High standard of service and quality is the best way to generate a buzz. It’s not the fan pages on Facebook, or the blog on website that creates the buzz, the brand generates it by offering high quality
Involve the followers: IPL is a unique brand where the users interact with the brand for just 45 days in a year. For the rest of the year, it is a dormant brand. This is a very challenging situation for the brand, especially when it is bogged down by scandals of all kinds. This becomes critical for the brand to constantly ‘hear’ from its followers and make a virtue of it. There is no better way to fight bad news than to generate good news of your own.
Well may be the league will have to put its plan to get 300 brands in its fold for a hold. May be just for a while.
Published at

Integrated Communications: the new reality

Change may the only constant, but change is most hated by everyone.

Look at every new idea, and the people refused to accept the innovation.

Video didn’t kill radio, calculator didn’t make a whole generation dumb, computers didn’t make us lazy, remotes didn’t turn viewers into constantly surfing junkies

They actually did exactly the opposite. Video made radio smarter. Calculators opened up new possibilities. Computers made a whole generation smarter. Remotes forced the TV programmes to become more entertaining and less preachy

What’s my point?

We may as well see this happening with this entire theory of integrated marketing and communication.

The whole practice of Integrated Marketing is based on the belief that consumers are fragmented, and no single medium can reach them with optimum efficiency. Hence we need to surround them with as many mediums and make them see our brand in the right light. In the morning when they wake up, they must see us on newspapers, thought he day they must see us from billboards and radio. In the evening we must blast them with constant ads on TV. These days’ consumers also watch TV in morning, and hear news on TV throughout the day, so our message must be there too. Rise of mobile and internet means new mediums to should be added to the mix. So not just conventional mediums, but also new mediums. Surround the consumer with as much noise as we can, make sure that that the brand is always around them.

And we do it very simply by taking the TV idea and taking it across every medium. So one visual, one colour or one music note and the brand can communicate with its audience consistently, constantly. We can also measure not only the intensity of our message, but also the effectiveness of our message.

There is a big issue with this approach though. This approach believes that consumers are individual islands and the brands can control the interaction. Almost like what Simon and Garfunkel said in their super hit song “words of prophet are written on the subway wall, and people bowed to their Neon God”

The consumers are no longer fragmented; they have started to become collective, become one and are finding their voice. And not through the old world of unions and forums, but through the new age world of online forums, blogs, communities, Facebooks and Mouthshuts.

And the consumers are shunning authority. We no longer live in a world where people instinctively trust authority. As much social research shows, we’d rather trust our own instincts and the information we learn from our friends. For the brands, it’s better to be talked about by consumers than to try to out-shout the crowd.

These are fundamental changes that will make every theory of Integrated marketing stand on its head

The new world than is not about dominating, but is about engagement. It can sound chaotic and scary, but it needn’t be either

So what is it that the brands need to do to engage consumers?

Make the consumers look good: its not about giving the shine to brand, but to the consumer. The Coke Mentos videos on youtube made the consumers into heros for the brand

Give the consumers a platform: learn from them, see how they interact with the brand and make them central to your brand. This is radically different from the existing thought of being idea central. The idea has to take a back seat.

Let them have fun with the brand: let them customize it, use it the way they want to use it, and allow them to tell the world that they have found their own way of using it.

Speak to them in their language: for a very long time, brands have spoken to consumers in their own vocabulary. In the decontrolled world brands will need to speak with consumers in consumers’ own language

What it means is that the old rules of Integrated Marketing have to undergo a change. The centrality of TV is no longer enough. The consumer is finding a voice, and their own voice, and the brands will have to put them in centre. It is no longer about surrounding the consumer, it is about engaging the consumer

May be there are no rules in the new reality

Published in 4Ps of Marketing, January 15, 2010 issue