Leap of faith

The phrase as described by wikipedia:

A leap of faith, in its most commonly used meaning, is the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence.[1] It is an act commonly associated with religious belief as many religions consider faith to be an essential element of piety, as well as scientists who take a great leap of faith when a new Idea is thought of, as well as the believing in the unprovable and the theoretical.

Why this post? While talking to someone this morning, the person mentioned this phrase. It’s not like I have heard it for the first time, but it kind of stuck in my head and got me wondering.

The phrase has its origin in religion.. there is even a movie by that title starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger… but that’s not what got me thinking… very unlikely that an atheist would think about faith…

The phrase today is about venturing into the unknown.. to run with an idea… to buy a new product… to buy a new brand… to hire a person. In arranged marriages it is perhaps most pertinent – Two people who hardly know each other decide to get into a relationship of a lifetime because they decide to take the leap (there is another phrase which is used here generally… they decide to take the plunge :P). Somewhere a point comes in that whole process where everything else is kept aside and they just do it.

Strangely enough… when we go ahead and decide to bind our lives “till death do us apart”… why do we spend endless hours on deciding many other things. The research that goes into buying a LCD TV… or rather LED TV… which handset to buy… (though in this case any brand other than Nokia is supposedly a leap of faith… I have a friend and have been telling her to consider  Sony Ericsson Xperia but she is hung up on Nokia!).

Which car to buy… nowadays all cars are pretty much the same if you remove the wrapping that is built around by advertising and paid PR but nope… I have seen the amount of dithering that people do before buying the car. I for one always bought the car I wanted… never thought twice.. never checked through all the auto magazines… never asked people. Maruti 800 to Wagon R to Accent Viva to Xylo… have never regretted the decision.

There are films after films that talk about the toothpaste to buy… the detergent… toilet cleaner… and we have the herd mentality religiously buying the brands and spouting the logic given by advertising… We don’t give a new brand a chance… after all the millions spent by Unilever, P&G and Colgates of the world have to account for something. Is their serious an impact.. using Colgate vs Pepsodent (nope don’t want paid testimonials from Indian Dental Association)

Of course the argument that would be doled out to counter my point would be – “But Samir… we have to spend money to buy these products so it has to be the a well researched decision… buying a car is like lakhs of rupees!” hmm right… for a person who decided on hitching with another person (an investment for a lifetime) is teaching about the value of money which as the saying goes is ‘easy come easy go’…

I think the problem is we get too stuck in the tangibles… black and white… cut and dry… our risk averse nature conditions our mind so much that unless there are enough statistics and more backing a product or a brand… we would not venture forth…

It’s the same when recruiting a person… he should have the right industry experience… he should come for the price I am willing to pay… I don’t want to know about the varied experience he can bring to my industry. I can’t believe what he is promising to deliver… to much of a risk.. what if he fails…

Relationships have a price today.. be it with a brand.. with spouse or a person being hired… and leap of faith is missing… Would Google do another Google? Would Apple to another Apple? Would Nike “Just Do It” now? Nope… because now they all are answerable to the their shareholders.. the bean counters… who are always wary that the leap might turn into a plunge…

Inception – Plant an Idea

So I will not talk much about the movie. Those who have seen Inception would know that the movie cannot be captured in words… it needs to be felt and needs to be internalized. Those who have not see it yet…  you know what to do.

With every movie that Christopher Nolan makes, he will be raising the bar and in times to come would be known as probably the best director Hollywood ever had. Mr Nolan take a bow. I hope you sweep away all the possible Oscars. Absolutely loved The Dark Knight and have to lay my hands on Prestige and Memento.

But this blog is not about Inception the movie or Christopher Nolan.

This blog is about planting an idea in our brains as consumers.

In 1957, Mr Vance Packard wrote a seminal book “The Hidden Persuaders”. To quote Wikipedia –  Packard explores the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including depth psychology and subliminal tactics, by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products. It also explores the manipulative techniques of promoting politicians to the electorate. The book questions the morality of using these techniques.

Sounds familiar? It probably is the foundation of Inception. Of course Inception is about dreams but Mr Packard talked about planting ideas deep in the sub conscious of people who are wide awake.

Look around and you would realize that every piece of advertising is attempting to do that. Of course nowadays the subtlety is out of the window. Backed by huge media spends, the brands want to drum an idea into our heads. Case in point is the new Saif Ali Khan commercial for Airtel Digital TV. The day it was launched and couple of days after that… I must have seen that commercial at least 50 times in couple of days. It got to a point where I felt like throwing up everytime the commercial came on air. Media Planners wake up!

Anyways, the point is that what we buy today… what we consume and what we recommend, very little is actually what we believe ourselves. Everything is what the brand has taught us to say. Quick.. tell me why do you use Colgate… or Pepsodent or Close Up?? Or to move away from mundane… why Gucci, Prada, Tommy Hilfiger? Why an iPhone, iPad, Nokia… Why facebook? Why wordpress?

There are many people who would sit up and say “but Samir it is about the experienential aspect of the brand!” Right! Did you ever stop to think that the experience that you seeked and the experience that the brand fulfilled… were driven by the brand!

Politicians do it all the time. Media does it all the time. Read this morning that there are 89,000 vacancies to be filled up in Indian Railways. Media prompted by politicians is highlighting this fact as if it is Mamta Banerjee’s fault that the vacancies are not filled up. 89,000 vacancies!!! Surely there were other Ministers before her who could have ensured that they were filled up. Now I am no fan of Mamta Banerjee but give me a break!

Wonder how many of you would have seen this movie “New Delhi Times” starring Shashi Kapoor as the editor of the newspaper and how he gets manipulated by Manohar Singh as the politician. Same premise… the world would believe when they read it in newspaper (why also all the B2B businesses believe that PR is the way to go for building a brand).

In Swordfish – John Travolta tells Hugh Jackman that we believe what our eyes see and then towards the climax of the movie, he manipulates what Hugh Jackman sees. That’s another must watch movie by the way.

Brands over a period of time have learnt the art of manipulating us by constantly working on our herd mentality. I have always wondered about what is the difference in the detergent for top loading washing machine vs front loading!! But everytime I faithfully buy top loading detergent because I have a top loading washing machine. Now when I am writing this blog.. I am ready to burst out with laughter for getting conned like this.

Then of course there are subliminal ways to entice. Wonder how many of you would have noticed that when you walk into a movie hall… its only when there is a fair crowd waiting, the pop corn machine is started and the fragrance of pop corn permeates through the lobby and attacks our senses. And the urge to buy pop corn grows.

53 years down the line (after The Hidden Persuaders) Mr Nolan has again planted an idea in our brain and I am just wondering how many marketeers are thinking of ways to make the brand stronger by using such techniques. Fret not.. you would have read the book in college and thrown it away. If you still got it in your collection, dust the cover and start reading it again. Or go buy it.

As for me… It is Inception time again… have to watch it few times more….

Brand Building is so easy!

Dunno what the fuss is all about. Building brands is so easy.

Everybody in the organization is an expert when it comes to brand, marketing and communication. Anyone can  do it even Geoffrey Boycott’s grandmother (as he so often mentions during live commentary)!

All who are in advertising would have gone through the scenarios mentioned below… felt the frustration and the worthlessness…

Pick a brand name… anything would do.. and if you don’t want to spend too much time.. shorten the owner’s name. Get his sign off on the font to use (never say typeface). Brand colors are of course to be finalised by his daughter… or the son… Of course some strange brands names or names that don’t really mean anything work too.. and there would be enough examples you can think of…

Having done that, either get a large agency (depending on how much it adds to the decision maker’s social currency) or get a small one who is ready to bend over backwards for any business. (this day and age, even big agencies are ready to bend over)

Spend a week on figuring out how the visiting card should look. Actually visiting card is a good starting point to discuss the larger business strategy – putting the names of the business verticals alongwith the corporate idenitity on the card would sharpen the business strategy.

That done, tell MarCom to spend a few thousand rupees to make the website (hell.. how much can it cost to make a website!)

Then comes communication.. If you are a B2B brand… get some brochures made… couple of canned presentations and you are ready to go around telling anyone who is interested, on how your brand is going to be as big as IBM or Google or whichever brand is being mentioned in the media currently.

In case of consumer brand, its even simpler.. All you need is  humor, no matter how nonsensical it is (it helps break the clutter and people like watching funny ads) and there are quite a few around who can pass off PJ’s as great humor that would make the brand big. And if you don’t believe me, you have not been watching enough of commercial breaks.

If not humor, then the age old crutch of communication… sex sells and nowadays it is getting better… baring a guy in a commercial works too and also would keep the ad under the radar of moral police who dont bother about naked guys.. but sure as hell come out in force if it is a woman…

And all of this can happen real cheap, if somebody in the organization claims to be good at writing scripts (and anyone can write an ad!… all those hours spent in front of TV)

All this done, the brand is up and running and some crafty work (patli gali) would ensure it gets award too… and trust me… even advertising effectiveness award is easy to get (numbers can be interpreted any which way you can)

Of course if there is someone with some knowledge about social media in the organization, then you will be getting someone to develop SEOs and tags and groups and communities on social media and go tweet tweet or is it twit twit?

Wonder why the hooplah about brand experts or strategy guys… We would soon be going out of fashion!

And by the way… all of the above holds true even for the so called professional MNC brands… its just that in their case everything is backed by hours and hours of consumer reasearch.

But at the end of it all… if only it were so easy…and the way the environment is changing, this whole mindset is going to change too because surviving in a market where consumer is more aware than ever before and seeks significant value delivery from every purchase… just brand stories will not be enough. Enough susbtantiation would need to back every story else the consumer will be telling the brands – “doobara mat puchhana”..(Don’t ask me again)

DISCLAIMER – The author of this post does not subscribe to the generally held belief that anything related to brand starts and ends with advertising

So What List Would You Want To Be On?

The question would probably sound rhetorical once you read through the whole post.

I don’t know about others but I always have couple of lists in my mind… One is short and the other runs into couple of mental pages… And these lists are not about things to do or grocery list.

One list I call “payback list”… and am sure all appearing on that list wont be flattered… This list has all the people, products and brands that I want to get back at… Right now it is growing by the day (the world is against me syndrome) Banking services figure high on the list… except for HDFC who I believe is the only brand which lives up to what it promises as a brand. It is of course my personal experience but I believe that it would be the case with many who have interacted with HDFC… polite, caring and ready to help… But I am digressing…

Wonder what shrinks would make of this but this payback list always is on the left when I check it in my mind… The good one is always on the right…

These lists happen with everyone… Experiences help in building this list… And while first impressions count, they also color all subsequent interactions… And they tend to pile up the negatives against person, product, brand and organization.

And with information explosion… knowledge is making it easier than before to differentiate and mentally put someone or something on one list or the other… When choices proliferate, so does selection.

While the world would tell you otherwise, it is not enough to “communicate brand promise” or have an SEO strategy and be expert at Google Ad words… Need to spend more time on figuring out what list are you on. If it is left, you might as well give up on that person and move on. But if you are on the right… do more…

There is no such thing as “new consumer” anymore. Most first timers into a category know enough about the category and the brands that operate over there. In this day and age, communication is about retention… not just in terms of usage but about mindset…

And you can move from one list to another… all it requires is a huge effort or a big social event (good or bad)…

Take Michael Jackson the brand – 80’s and 90’s the brand was huge… nothing could go wrong. But then the brand took a hit… few actions made the social relevance dip… and made it move from right to left with news hungry media and we were lapping up everything that media was dishing out… the death and it has swung again back to right and would now remain there. Because media and people have realized that being associated with the brand is going to give returns (cyncial view but I bet there would be many right now who were part of the inner circle who would be wondering how to monetize the association). Look at me… in my own sneaky way, I am using MJ as an example… knowing the currency would get me hits on the post and many have done it before me… The crash of Twitter or Google was great news for Twitter and Google… more for Twitter… showing the kind of traffic Twitter gets… Definitely going to stay on the ‘right’ list for a while…

But as a person, brand or organization… won’t you want to be on the right side from day one and continue to stay there? It would require an understanding… and investment in that understanding to ensure that…

The Mating Ritual

Universally I think there is an SOP for the mating ritual and it cuts across human beings and animals and birds and bees…

And I don’t think it is something that needs to be taught… comes naturally… But enough about this lest this post gets censored or is it censured? or both maybe.

But simple observation… we play the game of mating rituals almost everyday and not necessarily in the manner that most dirty minds are thinking of!

Marketing, selling, giving interview, taking interview, politician asking for vote and eh.. public obliging… that big contract… agencies pitching for clients… everything is about mating ritual

We succeed, we fail and we try again… and again.. till a strong relationship is formed… hopefully a permanent one.

But in this day and age, we are getting flirtatious. While relationship between two individuals still have seeming permanency, its in the other areas that we are constantly seeking a change… the only relationship probably that becomes lifelong is the relationship of a smoker to his brand of nicotine stick or to a brand of tipple… rest everything is up for grabs…

Brands are wooing consumers like never before… Brands are thinking new ways of seduction to keep the existing relationships alive…

Ever wondered why the perfume andcosmetic counters are right up front when you enter a departmental store?

Some are subtle and some are very overt… just like mating between two individuals… The signals that you transmit…

But the problem is that, like in life, more often than not the signals get mixed… Subtlety is completely missed out because the consumer doesn’t decode the signal and sometimes those all powerful cliches used in aggressive “sell sell sell” communication actually put people off…

To take the analogy further… or is it a metaphor (I keep getting confused)… overt aggressive behaviour of a brand is symbolic of wanting quick result (you know what i mean 😉 ) … but subtle brands are smooth operators and more likely to form long lasting relationships… They work their way deep into the mind of the consumer… The objective for these brands  is life time value and not just one sale… Apple to me is perhaps one brand which has constantly found the ‘erogenous zones’ for their target audience.

Many product categories or rather most of them work on the principle that only the selling-buying process is all about selling… period… There will be only certain time periods when they communicate (the mating season) and then they disappear… to come back again in the season. Educational Institutions typical do this, grab the low hanging fruit of students who have not got admission in the desired institute… They are the ones who are desperate… they are the ones who are gullible… Its all about getting those 60 or 120 students.. or for that matter all the soft drinks that get advertised during summers… how many consumers got seduced by those thirst quenching qualities or that really chilled bottle coming out of the freezer (lot of post production)

And then there some brands who are in your face 24X7…. telecom to be more specific… I had wondered about their communication in earlier post too.. I just don’t get it… Seduction for new users surely has a limit..

Shouting from roof top “hey look… am so good!” would attract only a few because like someone had told me long ago… a comedian cannot make people laugh by just saying he is a comedian… The right stimulus (overture) is required for the right response.

Also organizations and their employees… Why is retention such a problem? or for that matter why cant employees stick around longer… Organizations believe that fat pay cheques and bonuses would keep the employee happy forgetting that money talks and everyone walks and we  have perpetuate this tendency. How about some seriously effective HR practices which keep the relationship alive… Knowing the strengths of the people and either sharpening them further or giving them experience in cross functional areas… An employee doesn’t stop performing… the reasons are much deeper and nobody has time to find them out. Interviewing potential employees too is about the employer and employee getting it all wrong most of the time… because everything is dicated by structured formats… Buying awards for best HR practices doesnt mean anything if employees don’t believe that themselves.

However, all said and done, I believe all of us need introspection… to understand how to make relationships work… for a longer time… a marriage has its ups and downs but relationships survive… same should hold true for relationship between brand and consumer… between employee and employer… between seller and buyer… Its never ever about the next big thing or the next big consumer segment… It is about holding on to what you have and make it more meaningful..

But ultimately it boils down to who you wanna be… the brash flirtatious person or the strong and silent types…

This is the end of innocence

The school started for the kids today. The bags were light, it being the first day… no books but they were heavy too… heavy with expectations – of the parents… of the teachers and their own… Envy, disappointment or just a wee bit of “why cant you buy me this” in their eyes…. Hanna Montana school bags… Barbie school bags… Ben Ten school bags… and all the parapharnelia that goes with the bags…

Reminded me of my school days. The excitement of school opening back then used to be all new books and notebooks and the pride of being at the next level (self pride). We never had these fancy bags and the hope and despair in our eyes about what others have and I don’t. No TV so no characters from TV programs. No characters so obviously no merchandizing.

What are we turning our children into… and what future are we giving them? And this question is not as a parent but as a marketing and communication professional. We are creating future consumerist who would be driven completely by materialistic instincts…

Horlicks and Complan fight over which has more nutrients and there is research data thrown around to substantiate the claim! And the advertising that catches the fancy of the kids, is the brand that is bought. Kids have a say in that because parents give in… after all the notion that kids would be healthy is paramount and at least the kids would have the milk!

The other end of the spectrum of course is Happy Meal toys – complete junk but made exciting by the toys and here too parents give in to the demands as a treat.

And the freebies that come with so many products targeted at the kids, get my goat! All of that is advertised over the the kids channels – Pogo, CN, Disney… It’s tough to get around that. Most of the stuff is completely useless – the suppliers of this junk having a good time selling it to brands who are under pressure to increase sales.

My son tells me other day that I should not stop him from having chewing gum because it is good for teeth! Some brand of chewing gum advertising on TV that Indian Dental Association has certified it as being healthy for teeth!! I was left aghast because my son is only 5!

My daughter wanted Hanna Montana guitar which is not really a guitar. I told her I will buy her the real guitar and she can learn to strum… but nope didn’t work…

Where is our sense of social responsibility as a brand? We are using youth power for very narrow gains… not looking beyond our nose in terms of sales and revenues. Instead of harnessing this power…and the power of crowdsourcing for a better world… we want to sell, sell, sell…

I wonder if there is a research which says that constructive and useful freebies won’t help sell a brand? Maybe they won’t because we have conditioned the kids minds towards useless stuff…

Wonder if the brands realise that these children would grow up and expect freebies with every purchase they make… Brand loyalty would be non existent and we would be in an era, where to fuel their materialistic need, they would be become more and more individualistic and selfish.

Its not so much about wanting, desiring and demanding various products or brands… I think the innocence is lost by the exposure to the influences around them… Already there is a struggle to ‘fit in’ to a certain personality mode… into a certain environment and depressive tendencies are being exhibited by many kids around the world…

Technology also had a role to play in all this…

We feel proud when our 4 year old taps on the keyboard of the laptop or knows some of the icons on the desktop… We talk endlessly about how our kids are so comfortable with mobile phones or with technology… But isn’t there something that is lost out? Our kids are not social… they are turning into loners as they grow… their world is the screen more and more –  monitor or the mobile phone. And they are learning things way ahead of their age.. Some of the conversation I have heard between boys… turned my face red! Does Hanna Montana or such other progs (now there are Indian clones too of these progs) have any rating? I surely don’t think that these serials are for under 10 or even under 14… but how easy is it to stop the kids from viewing them?? not easy at all…

Somewhere there has to be a movement of sorts… From parents to say no to many such brands… at the risk of disappointing their kids (give up on your guilt trip) and also from the brands which would use their strong equity with the kids for doing something sensible… After all it’s these kids who are going to be the future of this world…

Life in The Blue Nowhere

“Real friends are the one who survive the transitions between the address books… Phone diary to Yahoo to Gmail to Orkut to Live & Facebook… so all those who are here on FB in my friends list… You are the REAL one’s :)”

I need to give credits to two people before I go ahead with the post.

First is Mr Jeffrey Deaver for his novel – The Blue Nowhere. I read it couple of days back and I think its one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Second is my very close friend.. “REAL friend” actually Anshul Punhani.. for the quote at the beginning of the post. It was his status message yesterday on FB and it truly is an insight as to how social relationships are evolving today.

We all know the world is changing or rather it’s moving… from real world to the Blue Nowhere…. Blue Nowhere is a term coined by Mr Deaver for cyberspace. Juxtapose that with Anhsul’s comment and you will know what I am talking about.

We dont live in the real world anymore. We are the connected generation (generation here is not about an age group but about people who spend more time over the mobile phone or a lap top or PC than in the real physical world).

Back in the old days (no mobile phones or net connectivity) we had few friends because there were only so many people one could meet physically. The first few mins of the conversation used to be spent on checking up what the other person has been up to (no constant checks on the status up dates on FB or Twitter) and then spending time together. Of course lives were also much more laid back in those days. Socializing was the biggest form of entertainment. Nothing much on TV, cinema was down in the dumps and there is only so much you could do with the family.

But today, we live a life that does not have time. Time for family… time for friends (physical life)… Time to watch TV or time to socialize.

Our lives are spent in the Blue Nowhere. We are constantly wired and connected. We have over a hundred friends on an average and we dont have to meet them to know what they are up to. Just check the status message. And of course the lil chat pop windows help in knowing more personal stuff (e-mail too)

It’s the real world for us… the lines are really blurred. Anything and everything is available online… Virtual of course but our communication skills have improved and we can paint virtal pictures that are real. And as Anshul said it unknowingly… thats the real life. People are not known by names… but by their e-mail ids or by the nics… and pictures… and where they feature on the contact list (google chat feature which lists most commonly contacted people up on the list).

Second life is a prime example of how we are creating our own world… Being what we never would be in a physical world… If it was not true, we would not see proliferation of brands being part of the Second Life.

I bet in many cases, a couple probably has more conversation online or over the phone than actual life… given the amount of quality time that is actually spent together…

Many schools have also wisened up to this fact. I may not be home to check what homework my kids have for the day so I can log into the school site and figure out the homework… call up the kids and ensure they finish that by the time I reach home…

Brands are going to lose out if they think that the only way to connect with this reality is just to be present online. There is a huge opportunity which presents itself to the brands which believe that the only way to make the brand be the integral part of their consumer’s life is to involve the consumer in the process of creation – co-create. And The Blue Nowhere is the best way to reach out the specific audience and make them part of the brand.

All of the above sounds exciting… and so cutting edge and modern… but sometime I wonder… is it really meaningful? a hug emoticon can never ever replace the emotions attached to a real hug… the joy or the pleasure that a real smile can give, can never be replaced by an emoticon… Can it? 

Our attention spans are getting Twitterized… we are losing connect with our human side (we believe that we are still connected but hell! we are not)

Every single day we get more and more engulfed by the Nowhere. We post pictures of our vacation… post pictures of the new born… its great when the distances can be collapsed online… but tell me… can anything ever replace the joy of holding that new born in our own hands and congratulating the parents?

There is opportunity here too for the brands. Give me that connect… give me the emotions that I dont feel anymore… genuine emotion not depicted by an emoticon. Do not get confused in the chase of SEOs and lose touch with reality.

Embrace the change but do not lose yourself in the change… in the Blue Nowhere…