Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reflectology


There is something common between Bandra Kurla complex in suburban Mumbai, Rajarhat in Kolkata, the Rave Multiplex in Swaroop Nagar, Kanpur and Vikas Sweets at Center Point in Aligarh. Something that -
1. creates an illusion of space & modernity where none exists..
2. is testimony to the fact that what matters more is what is outside than what is inside..
3. reminds us to refresh our the notions of beauty..

India’s urban landscape is acquiring reflective surfaces like never before. From shopping malls, education institutions, commercial plazas, all the way to satsang bhavans & even mithaai-wallahs. Suddenly our collective consciousness of the contemporary architecture is impressed by nothing less than what is reflective. Be it Glass in its different avatars - Dark glass, Mirrored glass, Coloured glass, Strong glass. Or the new breed Metal finish panels. These panels also come in different colours - starting with shades of gray, bright reds, yellows, blue and many more.

Remember the last time you stepped into a shop selling apparel or mobile phones. The shop would not have been more than double your shoulder spread in width, but it sure must have seemed much bigger than that, just because one of the walls was all Glass!
Or, better still, the swank new look at the neighbourhood mithaai-wallah (sweetmeat shop), who had been operating only from one corner of his shop for the past one month because of this ‘renovation work’ that was underway.
The shop with the mirror wall made you feel space and the new improved reflective façade at your regular mithaai wallah makes you feel good about buying sweets. Today it is as much ‘refined’ a place as the refined cooking material that it uses. The mithaaiwallahs are beginning to get more careful about their image in times of the doughnut, and the sizzling chocolate brownie, onslaught!

These reflective surfaces are accomplishing that which even the best of town planning has failed to.
The super-cooled liquid along-with the, matte-effect, metal finish surfaces are creating illusions of extra space which do not exist. They create perceptions of sanitized cleanliness, limited to the confines of the structure that one is in. They help us forget the failure of infrastructure elsewhere in the city. These reflective surfaces are the new age signifiers of modernity that is driven by the newness of the structures that bear these surfaces.
Beyond the general feeling of space & modernity, the predominance of glass in urban landscapes, is making people look at themselves much more than what they ever did.
Remember when you saw Mrs. ‘Afternoon Shopping’ (“shop till the maid drops!”) mending her hair in the one-way glass of the mall façade & and the, barely 21, Mr. ‘Relationship Turnover’ (”My girlfriend I have to be on my network & tariff plan, SMS is cheaper that way!”) looking at his Fossil watch in the mirrored interiors of a shopping arcade.

Narcissism in contemporary urban India is gender neutral & reflection nourished! The notion of beauty/look needs to be refreshed constantly. Sometimes even more than what we do while surfing web pages!

As a society we have never loved to look at ourselves more than this or may be we never got to. Remember how standing in front of the mirror, at home, longer than the 2-3 minutes allotted to boys for combing (which was almost all that grooming stood for) was considered not normal!
There is more to these reflective surfaces than this. They also have a bearing on the way we carry ourselves in impersonal zones.
Look at the way people begin to behave as they move into the vicinity/ inside of a structure defined by its brightly lit and beautifully reflective space. Be it a Mall, Multiplex or even a mercantile bank. Observe the way people instantly suspend conversations that require them to talk in a language other than English. They begin discussing other, more English language compliant topics! They talk and inquire about products and services and the medium is the English language.
Even gait turns into a careful and calculated one. As they attempt to display poise to go with the people and products that they see around.
People seem to turn into pawns on a chessboard that uses vitrified tiles for its surface. A surface glistening in the warmth of the spotlight staring from the top and in the chill of the air-conditioned, dust-free virtual weather!

Many a times there is a young boy or girl who accompanys his/her parent while they shop. This is not just to carry the shopping bags. More often than not these ‘young boys and girls act as the bridge between money earned the old economy way – Parents and the money spent on new age products and services – Products and the sanitized retail space.’

One wonders how many times these parents, and many more like them, who are a generation too old to gear up to the new ‘reflective reality’ end up not coming to ‘the modern reflective spaces’ out of the fear of looking unprepared for the products & services being offered there. Out of the fear of not coming across as the perfect consumers for the perfectly laid out these modern spaces.

Research has shown that most of the times they end up feeling under-dressed and under-groomed for these new spaces. Many of them have begun to dress up for a visit to these Malls and Mercantile banks. This is in contrast to the much ‘simpler’ putting on of a bathroom slipper and holding of a, homemade, bag of cloth to buy the monthly grocery or walking in sandals to the nearby bank branch.
On one hand reflective spaces create islands of virtual perfection, right in the middle of grave infrastructure inconsistencies. This in turn aids in suspending disbelief, as people are tempted to buy more.
On the other hand these reflective spaces also run the risk of blocking out a large chunk of prospective consumers.

Interestingly, while the new reflective spaces & structures face the possibility of having blocked out a section of consumers, the traditional shopkeepers are doing well for themselves as they successfully reinvent their retail spaces by deploying the power of reflectology alongside their age-old relationship skills - their personal touch.

Thus when Verma ji goes to buy mithaai (sweets) or the monthly grocery, he feels rewarded because the new Jain Caorner (as it is called now) wears a an imposing reflective look, yet it extends the same old personal service that Verma ji has known for the past over 10 years.

Notions of modernity, created by reflective surfaces, in urban India, are working as much for the marketers as they are against. While the marketers try and render an ever-improving experience to their consumers, they must constantly put their offering to the critical test of consumer’s psychological comfort with the degree of perfection in the retail space. They must know that the new look need not be new at the cost of isolating the larger group of consumers.
Smart marketers are always ahead of their consumer, but only as much ahead that they can see him in their rearview mirror…

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Rural Remixed




A sight caught my attention when I was traveling by train between Mumbai & Kota (in south Rajasthan). The number of miniature dish antennas that I saw on many rooftops amazed me. This was even more as we passed through smaller stations (where the train did not stop). Many of these dish antennas carried the Dish TV logo..
Upon checking I realized what could be happening. Companies like Dish TV and I am sure some other direct to home (DTH) satellite entertainment service providers as well, are focusing on smaller towns and semi urban markets. These markets have poor Cable & satellite (C&S) connectivity and thus ready targets for DTH services.

With DTH for entertainment and VSATs for communication rural & semi urban India is set to evolve into well a communicated and equally entertained population cluster.

It is not just media reach, but the cumulative impact of this clubbed with growing incidence of organized retail (Chaupal Sagar etc.) that would make rural remixed!

Rural remixed would directly impact marketing communication targeted at them. Life would become more exciting & complicated than the classic ground promotions, haats, van activity etc.

Imagine a young boy of 16 in a village near Mehsana getting exposed to the same fashion and entertainment as his counterpart in Mumbai.
Or a homemaker in close to Lakhimpur Khiri getting to see the same Slimming Tea promotion on TV as her sister in Ludhiana.
Visualize a rich farmer’s daughter |in Baitalpur, near Gorakhpur, watching the Fraknfinn Airhostess Academy TV Commercial on prime time just like a girl of her age sitting in Andheri in Mumbai.

Would this turn the rural consumer into another urban consumer? I do not know.
Would this lead to more homogeneity of markets? Likely, but not certain.
But one this is certain, as Nicholas Negroponte mentioned over ten years back, that social and cultural divide created by the rise of information rich and information poor societies is only in our minds.
The only divide that would remain is the generational and perceptual.
Increasingly entertainment is not just about recreation; it is also empowerment, for a viewer can be the next Indian Idol.
Similarly computing is not just about computers; it is about living, for a farmer can get the best price for his produce.
In future, the line separating the urban from the rural would be perceptual, not real.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Cocooned control freaks!




When was it last that your housing complex allowed entry to the kabadi wala (remember the signature sounds they made as they announced their arrival!)? Or the steel ke bartan wala that your mother used to haggle with while exchanging old clothes for stainless steel utensils?
What strings together the jamun wala, a regular to our Railway Colony and the sone-pappdi seller outside the rusted school gate, during lunch hour?

What connects the shakarkandi wala, at the bus stop under the overcast December sky in Delhi and the chholey kulche wala of Sarojini Nagar market?


Images like these represent a certain environment, an urban context that many of us have grown up with. Many of these images are so very Indian that you may not even find them in the Lonely Planet!

I do not know if nostalgia is making me say so, but I certainly feel that as urban sprawls become more organized; as lonely vertical dwelling units take over the horizontal social ground; as Hamilton Courts and Whispering Meadows replace the High Court Colony or the Shiv Mandir Market, these images of street and neighbourhood vendors would fade away from our collective memory.
Big cities are riding high on the wave of residential & commercial expansion. The plaza has all but replaced the paan wallah & the park has made way for the parking.


The rise of organized urban landscapes is giving a new meaning to living, and loving.
We live in residential complexes that boast of the state of the art security systems, 24 hr power back-up, Olympic sized swimming pool, fully equipped gymnasium, lush community centers, parks and even temples!
These residential complexes have names that could bring Manhattan condos to shame - Galleria, Hamilton Court, Malibu Town, Acropolis, Riviera and many more.
These are the new townships within the city. Townships that are Islands of infrastructural brilliance in the middle of an ocean of crumbling public administration - bad roads, poor street-lighting, lack of hygiene!


The growing urban infrastructures buffer us from the external inconsistencies. So much so that the price of a housing structure is a function of its ability to turn-off the larger city that lies outside its huge security gates.
We turn-off the city all the time. For example with a driver, an air-conditioned car cabin, power windows and a good stereo system, we are turning off the city.

This holds true for or offices too. They are increasingly disjoint from the city outside. Be it climatically, language wise or even basis things that we use while in the office. There are people working on cutting edge car design projects at work and commuting in the rickety trains and buses that cannot even be classified as outdated. In many ways our work zone is becoming independent of the conditions on the street- the common area.

Consciously and subconsciously we are turning off the common area and tuning in to a different, and more comfortable personal zone.
As people live, work and commute in ‘temperature-controlled cocoons’ that are dust free & sound proof they are turning into cocooned control freaks!

These cocoons create a feeling of order while simultaneously feeding on and stoking our instincts to control our living conditions. Our desire to regulate our surroundings - be it temperature, dust, number of people, noise, hygiene or anything else possible.

As the city landscape evolves, it is slowly morphing into a bipolar world. This world has two broad groups – those living in the area outside the temperature controlled cocoons and those living inside it.

The first group is growing up and thriving in the city that we have always known. A city with its bunch of street sellers, neighbourhood ‘uncle’s’ shop; meeting friends without appointment and spending time together.

The second group is living in vertical organized townships typified by power dressing, power lunches & power windows! They live in townships and towers that are guarded by the best private security guards and monitored by state of the art CCTVs. These are townships where aththi devo bhava has been replaced by a board announcing ‘No Parking for Visitors’!

This notwithstanding many of us would agree that a large part of our ingenious creativity stems from the ‘less structured’ environment that we as Indians grow up in. Be it the uncertainty of guests appearing at the front door or the unexpected power failure; be it our trek to the school, which happened in a cycle rickshaw or perhaps on foot; or having street food and drinking water from running taps; plucking flowers and even stealing fruits from vendors!
Many of these are still a norm for the people in the first group that we identified earlier. They continue to live in an environment that is not patterned; an environment soaked in multiplicity of forms, shapes, colours, sounds etc.

These kids still see street vendors making different sounds as they came in selling different things from ber and falsey (fruits), fullle (popcors), bhutte (corn) to ganderi (pieces of cane sugar) & gubbare (balloons), list is endless.

It might not be that obvious, but together all these street vendors and many of the street inconsistencies of the urban landscape have taught us a lot. Because ‘street’ is the essential ingredient that goes into street smartness!

But temperature controlled cocoons block out most, if not the whole set of these experiences. We run the risk of forgetting them all, some kids perhaps would never even get to see them. I wonder this knowledge and these experiences can be passed on to the next generation.

As we scale the heights of urbanization, we run the risk of losing the soul of our cities. I hope that noise of the Caterpillar Drilling Machines does not out-shout the warmth of a beating heart - something that our culture derives her identity from.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Screen is the new window




When I asked Kartik (9) about his favourite cartoon character he talked about Tom & Jerry for not more than two minutes. From there on he started telling me about his new love - Master Chief of Halo. I was confused, this Halo thing was new to me, but seeing the kind of passion with which he started narrating the story of Halo made me sit back and listen. Kartik even said that if I looked at it once, I would get hooked!

At the end of that, thirty minute long, exchange, where I barely had anything to say, Kartik whisked me to his mom. As we stood at the Kitchen door he told his mother (and my cousin) that ‘I’ wanted to see his new game. She smiled and nodded. Next I knew I was being all but dragged towards the bedroom where stood the family computer.
He switched it on and put the Game CD in. His uncle had bought this CD for him from Delhi.
As the computer warmed up into some graphic activity I was amazed by Kartik’s involvement with the game. What hit me next was the sheer refinement of what I saw on the screen.

Here was a graphics-rich battle filed with background score that reminded me of Star War movies. It almost seemed that Kartik and I were entering a movie where he was an intergalactic warrior, saving the earthlings from the Covenant scum (Covenants are the bad guys in Halo!).
I wanted to see more of this but soon my parents called for me, as we were to leave. Kartik could not come out to see me off for he was too busy kicking some Covenant Asses with his plasma pistol. He just waived me bye and asked me to bring my laptop next time, for we could then play together. He even suggested that I SMS him my mail ID & IM on his dad’s cell so that we could know if we got online together. He said if I got the CD we could even play together.
Outside I met my cousin who did not look as surprised as I sounded while telling her about what I had just witnessed. She went on telling us how this was Kartik’s usual way of getting to play his games on the days that he is not allowed to. Get the guests as the shield and get on with the game!

As we drove off I was left wondering about that incredible world of Halo, a world that Kartik was a part of. To me Halo almost looked like a Cray in front of an Abacus, when I compared it to the Atari console that I had bought for myself in 1991.

This exchange was in Kota (Rajasthan) while I was holidaying at my parent’s place. The holidays got over and I was back in Mumbai but the thoughts did not leave me. As Kartik would have said ‘I was hooked’! But my thoughts did not stop at Halo. What interested me even more was Kartik’s effortless interface with Internet, Mobile phones & Games. I began thinking about these three. As I dug deeper trying to talk to some young boys in Mumbai & Delhi and checking if Kartik was an exception I was amazed by what I found. Not only was Kartik a part of a ‘emerging convention’ but there was a whole new world that was taking shape in the form of the ‘new electronic media’.

About 49 million Indians were SMSing in 2004 but & this is only about 60% of what it was in 2005 (75 million!).
Great growth I would say.
I have another number - 0.84 million.
This is the Broadband subscriber base in India in 2005. But as this figure also bloats, it would, like mobile phones, contribute to the creation of what I see as the new India.

This new India is worthy of about seven A4 pages of description that follows because among other things it would dramatically impact the nature of work of people in the content creation & content communication industry.

As the big three bloat (Mobile Phone Ownership, PC Penetration & Household Broadband Connectivity) we would start to see the impact of the biggest transformation in the creation & consumption of information & entertainment since the advent of Television.

The first wave of this adoption of new media has been lead by time-poor busy executives, also, businesspersons, professionals etc.
A still bigger wave of disruptive & discontinuous change would hit our personal & professional life when we begin to interact with an entire crop of young boys & girls who have grown up with multiple media at home.
I like to call them the DownLads (and this is unisex please!).

DownLads would have been groomed & grown to expect at least three kinds of media sources viz. the classical TV (Broadcast), Mobile Phones & Webspace (My-cast: Content created by me).
Webspace would also offer content beyond My-cast viz. ‘Community-cast’ – content created by my community & ‘Crowd-cast’ – content created by other communities that I do not belong to.
How new is the world of DownLads to us, is evident in the sheer absence of terms to define many things that I am writing here. For want of vocabulary I am attempting to create one!

DownLads are the future representatives of the time-poor busy executives, professionals etc that we discussed earlier. Their world would be, as I recently read in Newsweek, a never-ending cocktail party where they would always be looking over their virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner.
The important word here is conversation. The future of content has a lot to do with this. Today content is predominantly storylines & mostly the content creators control these storylines. But the world of DownLads would see content that is a result of these storylines blending with an ever-increasing spiral of conversations about & around these storylines.

Conversations represent technology’s gift to media, or should I say technology’s gift to the end user. This gift is Control & Freedom. User is able to control the content & is free to express & share his own viewpoint. I usually refer to these two as ‘the paradoxical twins’. Together they are new media’s singular point of departure & advantage over the traditional broadcast format.

In the world of new media, DownLads would look at the screen and the life, that they lead, as interchangeable. Everything on the screen would be downloadable & uploadable – totally modifiable.

The DownLad would want to co-create. And the present day content creators would at best turn into Content Facilitators or plain Digital Pimps!

As content ‘creators’, I do not know if we are ready to accept this ‘fate’ yet.
Why we might not be ready could, perhaps, be explained partly by the fact that pace of change of technology has far exceeded the pace of change of content that runs on this technology.
Look at the way we market or advertise on a mobile phone. We just send an unsolicited & intrusive text message. Or worst still call people as per our convenience. Our intrusive marketing mindset, which is a legacy of our broadcast past, propels us to continue to behave in the same fashion in a new context, which tolerates anything but intrusion.

The future would not be about “Did you watch this last night?” Instead it would be more about “What did you make of your third date’s video, over the weekend?”
It would increasingly be a world of consumer-generated content where the ‘expert content creators’ would just help from sidelines. And creation would be perhaps measured in Giga Bytes (GBs) of memory space that one has consumed on one’s personal processing device.

DownLads would not just seek control over the content, but the freedom to consume it free of barriers erected by Time & Space. Thus media & content that would surround them, almost organically, would qualify as the preferred choice.

Interestingly the rise & rise of Radio in recent times perhaps owes its success to this among other factors.
Radio is the ultimate ‘attention deficit compliant’ content medium. It frees us to ‘think’ of other things and yet it makes us ‘feel’ while it plays almost like a background score to our heavily multitasked lives.

This brings us to a critical assumption. Does this mean that content and/or media that demands fewer of our senses, at a time, would gain valuable share in the future?
I think yes.
This rule though, like any rule, has an exception.
The above would not hold true only in cases where the user is actually inside the content. Now this could be anything – from a basic reality show to real role-playing video game.

As electronic media would expand from TV to Webspace & Mobile Space it would create more complexity. For example it would be both important and yet very difficult to explain as to which of the above mentioned three electronic media channels would be the primary address of the DownLads.
Which media would be their base station?
Would it be the Web or the Mobile or TV?
This question might cease to exist if convergence becomes so pure that for all of us end up having just one physical device that does it all.
Even in that one device, I am curious, which ‘media-band’ would DownLads spend more time with?
At this stage we might witness a fragmentation within DownLads. There might be multiple or at least two to three varieties that might emerge, basis their usage habits.

The other interesting shift that new media would bring is Agelessness. The reality of a 10 year old behaving like a 15 year old, a 15 year old behaving like a 25 year old a 45 year old behaving like a 25 year old would see itself manifest in its purest form.
While there could be multiple segments of DownLads basis their usage habits, there would be fewer segments basis their age.

We might finally have just two kinds of DownLads - the teens & the young adults! Everyone would continue to grow up, but no one would grow old!

While content creators have their own challenges, advertisers would get a bigger share of this challenge. Advertisers effectively, create content that nobody wants to consume! As advertisers would move into the era DownLads they would have two key challenges facing them –
Where to say the ‘ad thing’? &
How to say the ‘ad thing’?
(I am assuming that they would know what they want to say..)

Answers to these lie in our fundamental behaviour towards entertainment from our ‘caveman days’.

There have always been three basic human entertainment experiences viz.
1. Gaming
2. Music
3. Story Telling

At a basic level advertisers & marketers could start with these.
How can I turn my brand story into an interesting gaming experience, an experience rich in storyline & layered with music that moves! Something that the user is prompted to engage in, at a very personal level. Any brand experience that would hybridize two or more of these three key entertainment experiences would have a rising stock in the DownLad perceptual index.

It is important to note that a by gaming experience definitely does not mean ‘I need my brand’s Tetris!’ Instead is about building games with intricate plotlines that engage the user, just like a good insight or idea used to engage the DownLad, in a TV Commercial.
In other words insights & ideas would now need a new output, other than just a TVC.

All this and many related ‘social plate shifts’, that surpass any expert’s speculative brilliance, are imminent.
By when would all this happen? I feel that they are just as far into the future as, a mobile phone in the hands of an auto rickshaw driver was, five years ago.
Mobile phone, PC & Broadband penetration are the three primary variables that would take this change to its logical next phase.
As far as I can see into the future this wave would travel from large & concentrated population clusters to smaller and spread out population clusters.
The only challenge left is literacy. New media relies (and at least for now) on an assumption – the user is a literate. Thus illiterate population would be new-media dark. This is where traditional electronic media viz. TV & Radio would hold fort, and this only for as long as literacy is a bottleneck.
There also exists a positive correlation between literacy and prosperity. Given this I see the traditional electronic media addressing the bottom of the pyramid and this for long enough for some of us to not worry about the lack of a social security mechanism in India.
New media shall definitely take away the communication of premium products (i.e. if it has not, already begun to – How many super premium brands do we see on TV anymore?).

Again, this hypothesis would become irrelevant if technology surprises again. This could happen with the development of an intuitive interface that rids the new electronic media from the ‘have to be literate to use it’ precondition. In that event the challenge for the traditional broadcast would be still more severe.

And yes, there are different kinds of people, unsurprisingly engaged in traditional media, who have their own way of reacting to this.
Here go some of the types that I have come across:

I respect the knowledge kinds:
“Nice article.”

I do not believe in science fiction kinds:
“It would take another 50 years for this to come to India.”

Boss is impressed kinds
“This is true. Let’s sleep over it.”

Clueless kinds:
“Can we go home now?”

Preparing for DownLads kinds:

“I know, here’s what we are already doing on this..”

No matter what kind you are, let us not waste any more time in measuring the possibility of the virtual world affecting the real world. Let’s prepare for it. There is a whole army of Kartiks that is growing up in different parts of this country. We at best are under prepared for them; we fail to realize that the wave of DownLads is real.

Let’s confess that virtual is the new real & screen is the new window!

















Points not covered in this piece but would anyway make good counterpoints!

1. Traditional Broadcast is already reinventing itself – reality TV & shorter content are two examples of how this is happening

2. Need for virtual world, if we still want to refer to the web and mobile space thus, is relatively more in individualistic western societies. In Eastern societies, typified by collectivism, adoption of a parallel virtual life could be less prevalent

3. Like TV coexists with press today, all new & old media, electronic or otherwise would coexist

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Go slow? Get physical?





Go slow? Get physical?

Really, I mean it. I am saying this because almost everything (I mean every technology) around us seems to be trying hard to go as fast as it can, save as much time as it can and trying desperately to free mankind from the physical space.. the best and ‘quickest’ explanation that I want to give for this is the printer. All the technology is printing is looking forward to that one day when it could rid the device of the reality that the physical imprinting of ink on a piece of paper is necessary for the printing to be complete. Till that day printing will continue to be ‘physical’ and hence ‘slow’ and expensive. To understand this more please watch Matrix-1 and see how science fiction of 2001 had (and perhaps science of 2021 would) separate human existence from the ‘physical’ space. Our existence would be released into a virtual space because only that would be the most efficient way of living left..

Communicating in flesh and blood was replaced by telephone; telephone in many ways has been challenged by communication via the net..
There was a time when year was more on seasons than a calendar..
There was a time when the movement of sun or extent of light recorded the time of the day. Today it is the movement of the clock or just the blinking of the second’s dots in a digital watch or worst still, just a record of hours that guides us what we should be doing, at that hour!

Even the ‘game’ is moving out of the neighbouring playground and into screen in front of the joystick controlled ‘gaming’ console..

Last example for this post – even the photograph has disappeared from the shelf above the TV trolley and have gone into the computer or the ‘cee pee you’ as a 12 year old kid would call it.

I do not say that was good I cannot say this is bad but I definitely observe the change and I am actively trying to put together implications..

Every morning when I drive to work I see these flashes all around me. May be I am thinking too much but the mere act of rolling up my car’s windows (and blocking pollution of air and sound!) seems to be an early indicator of how in the time to come we’d be making our physical space unworthy as a habitat and we’d be so hard pressed on energy sources thanks to all the power hungry devices that we need to make our life faster and more convenient.
The under ground oil and gas would be gone, the winds would perhaps not blow the way windmills want them to and other renewable sources of energy would at best be in adequate. And we’d be forced to retract into what I referred to earlier as (and you saw in Matrix-1) the virtual space..

Think. What could be the implications if physical space is gone, energy is out, physical goes virtual & and all that we are left with is speed..?

The rise of the ‘prosumer’





Today’s consumers cannot just be propositioned; they need in a brand a promise of sustained tenure of togetherness
There is a new breed out there called the prosumers. They are jostling in the malls, arcades and stores, large and small — foraging for the bargains, the discounts and the promotional offers. These hunters are today’s value brigade.
Beyond this value equation based on price there is the bigger picture, which is the realm of intangibles. A brand must be good to cohabit with; it must create that space where brand and prosumers can keep each other’s company.
As producers and marketers develop new and improved products, services and hybrids they are not only competing with their peers, but also with their ever demanding prosumer group — a group characterized by needs that are dynamic and evolving.
Today’s marketer is not competing in the market. The modern-day marketer is competing with the market while seeking to address the array of basic needs, modified needs, and emergent needs of this new prosumer group.
From absolute needs to relative wants
The single concept that’s the starting point of all marketing is the “need”. Needs might still not be very different from what they used to be but it is their manifestation in the form of desires and wants and the ways of addressing and satisfying them that has been changing continuously.
This fragmentation of individual desires and wants has made us look at an interesting aspect of this seemingly simple evolution —evolution advertising has a close relationship with.
Advertising, to a large extent, has also played an important role in desires and wants reaching their present state. For instance, in cosmetics (personal care/grooming product group) there has been a distinct evolution of the offerings. The solution started from a point where the product was as simple as nail enamel or lipstick or skin cream or hair colour. But today, Pond’s as a brand is not just a solution that we can apply to one or the other specific need; instead it is a complete programme/institution in itself (Pond’s Institute). Thus Pond’s is not a “point-product” (a skin cream or moisturiser) for a basic need; it is a “process-brand” (integrated product/service solutions) called by that name (Pond’s).
So if it were a bottle of shampoo, what is inside would alone not be the brand. The brand would be the sum total of the bottle, the liquid, the things it does, the beauty tips, skin care guidelines, the empathy, the expert endorser, the way it makes one feel etc. It is like a Beauty Fairy coming out of something inanimate. This completes the picture with the brand aura around the product, which carries as much weightage as the product’s attributes.
Redressing Mick Jagger’s complaint — “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”
It would therefore appear that obtaining a faith; a reassurance and a guide through life are crucial to gaining satisfaction.
Typically, products or services aim at this at three levels:
Functional:
It’s a question of whether more air-throw (PSPO style!) promises greater impact than, say, a fan with blades shaped like blade of the cricket bat, and a picture of Sachin at the centre with the slogan, “I’m a Sachin fan”!
No doubt there are still product/service categories where the core focus on functionality still prevails, but the fact is that we have moved on to the next level in the consumer need ladder. With increasing product parity and technological equality, consumers are looking beyond a straightforward solution. Communication for more and more products/services utilizes functional benefits more as a support rather than as a driver. As rightly said by someone “All purchase decision are taken from the heart, it’s only that sometimes it’s more than evident while rest of the times it is hidden by the consumer.
Emotional:
In this stage two of evolution, the use of emotions as a plank has been hugely successful across diverse products/services. But a brand’s equity that is built over intangible parameters also takes a longer time and effort for a competitor to be able to neutralize.
Self-expression:
The concept of self-expression through a brand (product/service) is that of the consumer psyche starting to use brands to communicate or project certain values, beliefs, thoughts, principles or attitudes.
The birth of many a great brand owes much to it, and some of them happen to be the most premium — for instance, Marlboro Country where the flavour is the outdoors, the ruggedness, the self-sufficiency, and the solitude.
The concept of self-expression has the following key components:
(1) Expression of actual self
(2) Expression of desired/aspired self
(3) Expression of ideal
The above can help us in illustrating different roles that a brand can play, which correspond to different components of an individual’s self. These are:
What you are Optimist/kind/ambitious/extrovert

What you feel Emotion/ nostalgia/ tenderness/ rebellious/ satiated/ discomfort

What you think Savvy/ efficiency/ durability/ patriotism/ perfection

What you do Fitness/ cooking/ leisure activities like camping

The brand plays the role of a vehicle that either helps the prospect display his/her actual self or ferries the prospect to the aspired state.
The easier brand communication makes it for the consumer to readily relate with a thought or feeling or ego state, the faster it builds its own mind-slot. The caring Nivea male, the Johnson & Johnson mom, the Six Sigma of Motorola, the Nike jogger are among the readiest examples of the respective types of role that brand undertakes to play. The types of role that brand undertakes to play. The brands attempt an ideal of what you are, feel, think, and do.

A brand positioned to deliver the self-expressive benefit will not deliver this for everyone. It will be able to deliver this only to those prospects who’s actual or aspired/desired/ ideal self is reflected in the brand’s proposition/personality/positioning/image. The consumers, who use the brand to derive self-expressive benefit, might still remain at a different plane from the plane that the brand represents. The individual usually wants to move in the direction indicated/offered by the brand, not necessarily attain the projected ideal state.
The prospect first develops emotional inclination towards a brand that matches benefit equation they already have in mind. The identification with the brand gets completed when the prospect feels closer to the brand through experience of usage. He/she has to be aided in deriving both the functional as well as symbolic/intangible benefits during use.
Consumer - Brand Integration of Sorts - The final Destination
A compelling task for a brand manager or a marketer is to take his or her brand to a stage in consumer connect where the consumer moves as far ahead as to start thinking what the brand might be thinking of him/her.
Consumers are down-to-earth. Marketers are from Mars?
Speaking of intangible satisfiers, where ought we to draw the line for what a brand can promise? What should be the extent and nature of the brand promise? All through his being, an individual (consumer) moves along a continuum, always directed at reaching a level ahead or more desirable than the current state. Insofar as this seems a reality, the lesson for brands is to act like a ladder rather than a point.
UDV’s Gilbey’s Green Label is a case in point here. The brand made no bones about being where it is and communicated it to the target too. It’s about climbers rather than those who have already arrived. Hence, all the positives (hard work, success, celebration, friends, warmth) overpowered the fundamental apathy people may show towards just another new entrant in the category. A realist positioning has been chosen in preference to surreal fantasies, as the audience comprises social drinkers who are actually no escapists seeking refuge!
The overall feel was all about being in the process of making it to the top and the stages in the joy of achievement. The campaign thus created a connect with the target.
More and more people have less and less in common in the way they think. More and more people think/believe in a way only they do. This might be the great social churn in making. We are reminded of something that we read a couple of years ago about the fragmentation of the markets. With diversity being the essence of consumer groups in tomorrow’s world individual consumer would be the ultimate niche.





A New Reality and Our Tomorrow
This reality makes the applicability of the new marketing/branding paradigm possible at two levels:
LEVEL I
Present profit: Explore, identify, analyze and describe the existing ideological framework and build marketing/brand propositions from here.
LEVEL II
Future gain: Sense, track, observe, analyze, follow, describe and leverage the ideologies in making. Develop strategy to derive enhanced benefits.
The first approach is more present-oriented where the marketer might just be operating in a pre-determined frame. The second approach is that of a visionary marketer who by the virtue of his foresight will not only leverage, but also play a role in espousing/promoting a certain new ideology through his brand.
Consumers finally join the marketer’s side
This is a situation where a brand (from a marketer with a strong social angle) participates in creating of new values and fresh agenda in a society, and also in promoting and achieving it — for example, battery-run passenger cars, ethnic apparel and footwear or multi-level marketing networks.
Evidently, the appeal will be first for participation/co-operation from the consumer; that will, in turn, pave the way for consumption. The endeavour will not be to have an influence upon consumer segments; it will be to get them to act along with the marketer.
It’s a new equation in the making. In the time to come, the prospect will not do back seat driving, millions will not just ride as pillions, they will actively shape the market — and rightfully so.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Vande Matheran

It was Jan 26, 2006 when I had a brush with the new meaning of independence. An independence that is more about personal freedom than national freedom. An independence that is free of nationalistic feelings and more about personal enjoyment.

The realization of this new independence dawned upon me as I set out to do study. As a part of this study I had to speak to a wide section of corporates. The holiday on January 26 seemed to be just the right time to speak to people at leisure. But the nuclear ball of reality hit me when I realized that I could not get appointments from anyone around these dates.

Why? Everyone was traveling.

Where to?
Kashid, Alibaugh, Matheran, Mahabaleshwar, Chokkhi Dhaani (some of the weekend getaways from some of the big cities in India) - anywhere that one could get bookings!
Why suddenly?
Well, we had a national holiday or festival around the weekend, and if we added a day’s leave to it, and sometimes even without it, one could easily get 2-3 days as off. Two-three days away from the work schedules and an ideal opportunity to ‘take off’, as most of us like to call it!

The research that I was gunning for around these holidays, looked impossible becuase the strained temple nerve of the urbanite needed a much-deserved break!

As I sat thinking about this I realized how a set of working people looked at national holidays and even some of the festivals. They saw these as opportunities to break free from the routine; an opportunity to move away from people and look for some solace.
This is a departure from what we have traditionally looked at festivals and national days to be. These occasions have stood for an opportunity to get together, meet friends and people from the community, a time to remember the significance of our hard-earned independence and the citizenship of a secular & democratic republic.
All this seems to be fading away from our collective memories as we embark on our professional journey. For the urban working species, patriotism is more about taking off to Palanpur (a scenic and historical town in West India) rather than remembering Pandit Nehru. It is about cooling off, recharging and forgetting things rather than remembering the past.


This change could be a result of two factors –

1. Pressures on time, which makes us, prioritize patriotism. For a working executive there is limited room for relationships and religion, leave aside Rabindranath Tagore’s national anthem!

2.It could also have to do with our generation - a generation born much after independence. It was way too young around the Chinese aggression and the multiple wars with Pakistan.
We have been groomed in ‘English medium’ schools with a focus on performance rather than patriotism. There also is limited exposure to nationalistic values as parents engage in preparing kids for the competitive world.
It is no surprise when the memories of standing in the queue for the laddus, that one used to get in school on Independence and the Republic day, are fading in the mist of time. And August 15 or January 26 shrink in their significance to National ‘Holidays’ declared by the central government rather than National Festivals to be celebrated with patriotic fervor and joy.
The meaning of patriotism has shrunk further, from watching the republic day parade on TV or hoisting of the tricolor in the neighbourhoood, to having a paper flag on the car dash.

Perhaps the only other moment when one gets to see our ‘patriotic potential’ other than these occasions is when we play cricket with Pakistan!

Personalization of public occasions is not limited only to the national events. Even religious festivals and family events are moving in that direction. More and more these are turning into opportunities for people to indulge themselves. ‘Parties & purchases’ are emerging the new rituals around the old religious or festival occasions.

If we step back and see there is almost a slow but steady drift from rituals and religion and towards revelry. The emergent mindset is more about enjoying the moment than cherishing memories.
The meaning of patriotism is changing. The significance of different religious and family festivals/ events is taking a new shape. We as marketers and a part of this social and cultural group called India could do well by finding a way of ensuring a patriotic continuity for the generations to come. Finding ways of rekindling the ritualistic roots of all our family and religious events & festivals. Imagine a brand talking the language of doing Diwali pooja the way we saw our parents doing it when we were 8. This would make tremendous sense for the migrant nuclear families living away from their town/village of origin. Those whose understanding of rituals and roots is either determined by the faint memory of the past or what they see being television.
Or a brand that stands for the new meaning of patriotism as we move into the borderless business world.
A lot of primetime soaps parade traditionalism. This traditionalism is centered on events as marriage, engagement etc. There is an opportunity to deploy some of the learnings from here by looking at occasions beyond marriage.

Changing lifestyles impact culture. As marketers we could do well by understanding the new needs, or should I say wants, created by this ‘culture on the move’. There could be product and service propositions waiting to be explored.
As observers of culture we could consciously work towards ‘planned patriotism’ that can further the feeling of nationalism beyond its present scope which is limited to schools, armed forces and some other government contexts.

And perhaps even I need to take a break on the next republic day – a break to reconnect with the Indian inside of me, a break to rekindle my patriotic preferences.

Vande Mataram!