Social Engineering in real world

Social engineering as defined on Wikipedia – Social engineering is an act of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging information. While similar to a confidence trick or a simple fraud, the term typically applies to trickery or deception for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or computer system access; in most cases the attacker never comes face to face with the victim…

What a concept! Recently I was reading a book (fiction of course) and this social engineering which largely is a hacker domain or restricted to the anonymity of the web to the real life… The book was awesome but this social engineering got me thinking…

While there are enough examples in popular culture (read movies) of use of social engineering, they have all been crime related… But when I look at the environment around… or what happens in marketing and communication or consumer behaviour… we are constanly social engineering… the context is not criminal… nor is the intent.. but the fact is all the time we are trying to be someone we are not… trying to be someone who will be acceptable to the person we are trying to connect… by modifying our behaviour, by what we speak… what brands we use… what network we access (social network)… all social engineering.

And we use brands and products to socially engineer ourselves…

Brands do it by addressing the deep seated desires in us… Whether is Axe or a TAG. while Axe appeals to a masculine desire to be popular with females (engineering into the group through the olfactory organ!) TAG on a wrist is a display of a certain social class (money worth spend if it lets the person get into or be part of a select group)

Going to a gym for instance. sure there are some serious gymmers (health and fitness being a primary concern), there are many others who infiltrate the gym culture to network. I have seen deals being fixed, meetings being fixed in the locker rooms!

The point here is that through this kind of social engineering, one is not seeking information with a criminal intent, but it is an intent for information… for getting noticed as the ‘right person” and taking the network forward.

And of course the most obvious representation is on web social networks… dipping into your contact’s contact or buddy list to see how helpful they can be. Creating a profile with a purpose in mind (or even having multiple profiles). Being active members of groups and communities and using twitter and facebook to project our personalities (not the real ones). I really want to know how many people really want to put on page as to what they are doing.. or not doing (or how many really put on the face book what they are really doing!!) Same goes for twitter too. I know for a fact that everytime I have put something on facebook as a status message, I wanted reaction from people so it was well thought out ( i could be a misfit)

The line between real world and web world is blurring… and the behavioural aspects from real world are getting into the web world and vice versa… But more and more we are getting distanced from the real world and social engineering is gaining importance… Its easier to do many things hiding behind the keyboard… after all the person you are communicating with is miles away… hiding behind another keyboard. Pretension is a big buzz word and it fuels social engineering constantly

There are lessons for marketers and advertisers too if they can connect with this concept (some already do but very superficially) but there is some really serious stuff that can be done with this… Imagine using a complete brand surround for any personality you want to be… scary.. but hell exciting from a marketing and communication perspective…

I have kept this post at a very basic level… insights can be gained by observing and embedding oneself in the relevant environment…

Recession proof people

Yes there definitely exists a breed which is not impacted by recession… at least overtly. And this breed straddles the two extremes of the society. Either below the poverty line or way up there in South Bombay or South Delhi… 

Those below the poverty line, it does not really matter as to which industry sector is down in the dumps or which one is showing growth… Subsistence level, the focus is on very basic needs and are supposedly dependent on government aid. By the way, a must read in this regard is an interesting article by Mr Vivek Debroy in Indian Express today. And as is the case with these people in our society, not too many words need to be devoted to them.

But the other set of people – the stratospheric people (SP)… the ones who have helped Louis Vuitton grow 11% in a supposedly recessionary global economy… lets talk about them. They are the biggest consumers of luxury products. Mind you.. luxury.. and not premium! As Seth Godin defines luxury products – “Luxury goods are needlessly expensive. By needlessly, I mean that the price is not related to performance. The price is related to scarcity, brand and storytelling. Luxury goods are organized waste. ” Luxury products are like signals… they tell something about the person.. beyond the fact that it is such a waste. And brands that understand these people… create that exclusivity in their communication.

Being on page 3 or to be seen as stratospheric people… brand surround is important. An observation – I see more high ticket brands of cars on the road today than I did 9 months back. Maybe I have started noticing them now or there actually has been growth in sales. Laura relaunch at 17 lacs + (Pune pricing) is an indication that there exists a market for these cars. But then Audi or a BMW or a Porsche… now those are real badges. and I see enough of them now on narrow Pune roads. The other day I even saw a Hummer! 

Cultivating these people is an art. Jimmy Choo would not be Jimmy Choo if they had an outlet in one of the malls isntead of a 5 * shopping center. Emporio, when they had the 80% off sale in delhi… I bet none of the SP even ventured close to the sale venue.

But here is an insight… SPs are not really recession proof. After all if the money disappears from the economy and there is a downturn, even the wealth (which is never accounted for in IT returns) also takes a hit. But to show they have been hit by the economy, would lead to immediate outcaste status (some interesting bits about this in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 i think). So brand hunger will not go away. But notice the subtle differences… within a brand, it may not be a top of the line purchase. Its all about appearances… a Louis Vuitton is a Louis Vuitton.

Of course a mention also for the people suffering because of recession. As would be very clear, they are the ones who earn their salaries… have loans to pay and are the ones who pay taxes and are the ones who buy the premium products. (premium product is an expensive variant of commodity goods). And as is obvious… thats where the sectors which cater to this segment are taking a hit in terms of sales. Also taking a hit are brands that are confused about who they are…. Luxury or premium… Mark’s & Spencer is a case in point.

Reality shows – Escapism for all… profits for all

Much has been written about the reality shows and my word wont be the last on them. But love them or hate them, they will be around for some time and will pander to every emotion or desire we have.

Singing, dancing, bitching, splitting, Big Boss voyeurism or even cricket! IPL to me was one of the biggest reality shows. The only thing missing in IPL was the sms or text message voting. Though the 6up was probably an attempt.

F1 is yet another reality show. When Schumi was around, everybody knew who will win and it started getting boring. So the organisers devised various ways to make it interesting. This year Lewis Hamilton is languishing, Ferrari is still trying to come to grip with the whole diffuser bit and Brawn… a team out of nowhere is rocking!

The reason this post has come about… read the other day in the paper of how people in Bhaichung Bhutia’s town are buying cash cards to send their votes so that he can win!

What a money spinner “jhalak dikhla ja” is turning out to be. Par for the course when it comes to reality shows. Increased eyeballs translate into more ad revenues for the channels. Revives in some cases or starts a whole new career for many. Viewers get loads of vicarious thrills by all the exhibitionism on display (we just love to see the dirty laundry washed in public) And of course the whole text messaging… adding to the revenues for the service operators. Every one gains!

Now imagine a scenario where the favorite were to actually win everytime and there was no text messaging to vote. Viewership will drop. revenues will drop and the program would be off air in a flash. Who wants the favorite to win… its not a great story. Every underdog who wins is actually all the people living their lives in his/her win. Enough has been said about Susan Boyle so I wont say anything but since its UK… would recommend people to read this book (supposedly fiction but holds true for every reality show) titled CHART THROB! worth a few laughs and of course quite an eye opener.

Lets take Cricket World Cup. Three World Cups in a row, there was a sense of inevitability about them, Australia was going to win and that lead to a certain amount of boredom for me. Only excitement was teams like Ireland or Bangladesh creating a few upsets (how… please read Chart Throb).

Take IPL for instance… Rajasthan Royals last year and Deccan Chargers this year… kept the excitement going and of course left people with lot of conversation on why the favorites lost.

So for all those who still believe that reality shows are real… they are as unreal as they can get. Favorites never win. The judges are there with well scripted lines and everything is an act. Only the person who comes from distant place will win.

Everything around the show is a well crafted marketing and PR strategy.

But the fact is… we want these reality shows because it help us escape the mudanity of our lives… make for great water cooler conversation and also in parties (some can show how well informed they are and some can act snooty about the whole thing although they also probably watch every episode) so three cheers for the reality!

Youth marketing – Congress the best practitioner – Election 2009

Congress cracked the code and it reaped the rewards. Rahul Gandhi became the face of youth and helped net in 100 million first time voters.

The definition of youth in politics is not under 25 or under 30. It is to be seen in the relative context. And while most parties missed the bus, Congress really had the right strategy to market itself. And this strategy also helped them gain the metro vote. The face of BJP was an old man and then there was no fallback if he were to cop it the next day.

Congress on the other hand, while proclaiming that Dr Manmohan Singh will be the Prime Minister, most utterances were from Rahul Gandhi. There was also enough buzz projecting him as the next PM too. What came across was that Congress had an alternative. An alternative which would provide stability for years to come. Rahul literally became a spokesperson for the winds of change in Congress. I do not know how the analysis would pan out, but if some PR agency were to do the analysis of finding out how much column centimeters and sound bytes were for Rahul vs other congress leaders, it would make for very interesting numbers.

And here are some interesting statistics:

Of the 266 MPs under 50 elected for parliament this year, 77 are from congress. Thats a very healthy 30%

Out of the chosen 10 youth congress leaders to fight the elections, 8 have won – 80%.

In fact I have heard somewhere that all the candidates who were under 40 in this election… irrespective of the party they represented… all have won.

Rahul Gandhi probably started a movement which spread across the country and started a youth frenzy (maybe frenzy is an exaggeration) and it echoes in newpapers now. While the young MPs may not get very significant portfolios this year, but the stage is set for the next parliament. We will see more and more young and first time faces in the future elections. 

Congress as a brand is investing long term in its strategy. And they have been doing it for a long time now. It started with 2004 when Rahul got active in politics and over a period of time became stronger. Learnt the ropes and unleashed the youth power in this election. With sister Priyanka also campaigning actively, its the youth brigade of Congress that has won the election for them.

And let me put myself out on the limb and say that Dr Manmohan Singh is a stop gap. He was projected as a Prime Minister because the country was looking for stability and continuity. Anti-incumbancy was only in the minds of the opposition. The population was tired of the horse trading and old fossils deciding where the country should go in a modern world.

Congress latched on to this sentiment (shows that they had researched the consumer well) and amplified it in their campaigns. And unless other parties change their stance , next election would see Brand Congress gaining further market share for sure.

How many brands in this country, who claim to target youth, can honestly say that they have such a strong strategy? More importantly, how many can say that they have such a long term perspective for their brands? 

Youngistan is not looking for a cola anymore. They want to invest their time in a transformation. For themselves and their country.

I mean, lets look at it. There is no instant gratification in voting. Gratification would come through not now, not next year… it will come gradually. But they have probably figured out the brand that represents their aspirations because the brand itself has a young face and speaks their language.

Its strange, I had always believed that politics is far removed from the realities, but here Congress has learnt a few marketing and communication lessons from Corporate India and been successful.

I think its time that Corporate India learnt lessons from this election and moved away from their traditional marketing and advertising strategies. Its one thing to say that we know that youth is going to be the biggest market… quite another to invest time, effort and money into a long term strategy to understand and make the market work for them.

I am fresh out of ideas

Lack of ideas leads to Zoozoos… Lack of ideas leads to celebrity endorsements… Lack of ideas leads to high decibel and completely useless advertising. All of this works though! Research would show very high recall – TOM, unaided awareness, aided awareness. Brand tracks would show respondents recalling elements of advertising. So from that aspect, I really have to be a moron to say ‘useless advertising’

Tagged commercials of zoozoos on facebook… making of zoozoos… articles in newspapers. I bet Vodaphone is delighted… and so is the agency and hey I am happy too… pug was getting kind of boring. 

But then, honestly… how many can remember what the commercials were communicating? Or how many have made a beeline to the nearest Vodaphone outlet… or called the customer service number to activate at least one of the services mentioned in the commercial? There has been lot of buzz around Zoozoos but Vodaphone has strangely been silent about adding new subscribers or jump in number of people subscribing to all the value adds. At least I have not read newsreports. I wonder if telecom advertising has also become like FMCG or soft drink advertising – TOM driven.

Then there is celebrity endorsements – And in the past I have also been guilty of this… but what are the celebrities adding to the brand… other than awareness? I wonder how many women buy L’oreal because it is endorsed by Eva whatever and Ash. Will Deepika Padukone make BSNL’s numbers go through the roof? The advertising is not even credible.

Or lets take the case of some of the Bajaj Auto commercials. There was this one about two women fighting for that one pillion seat or the one where motorbikes turn into robots! or the one a while back where these bikes are taken through a cliched stunts routine. What have they all done for the brand?? I been tracking and since November Bajaj Auto has been showing a dip in numbers every month. Wonder if they have put the account up for review. Compare this with the latest from Bajaj Auto. Pure joy of watching a guy enamored by his bike!(true consumer insight) and visual treat which is complemented by the track . The girl in the ad is by the way incidental.

Bereft of a big idea, we are just creating a communication clutter where the message is lost (if there is a message at all) and by the way Vodafone is creating a clutter all by itself ( so many creative units!!)

The only insightful advertising I have seen in last couple of months is the Airtel Broadband –  “Impatience is the new life”. If anyone is following youth trends and insights, the communication was bang on! It almost seemed that creative actually followed the brief from the strategy planner right down to the last word. Sadly though Airtel is still continuing with rather sad communication featuring Madhvan and Vidya Balan.

This post is not to trash everything but to help the brands and the agencies revisit what they are doing and what really is objective for communication. If the product or service is really good and if you have identified a need gap, simple communication would do the trick.

Brand Intolerence

Brand intolerance works both ways. A brand that thinks it knows everything that is to be known about its consumers backed by data. Data that is collected by rather outdated techniques. These brands also know what the consumers want (its like men who think they know what women want). Many cases it works too. Either the brand is so powerful in its category (sales and volume… not the brand equity) or the category itself is so low involvement for the consumer that they dont much care and buy whatever is TOM (salt for instance or toothpaste or any such category).

However it works only till there is no serious threat or evolution of the category. Indian airlines dominated the skies till new airlines came along. Service supriority and value add ons worked for these airlines. They also were ruling the skies and taking the consumer for granted. And then low costcarriers changed the rules yet again. Brands that were intolerant to their consumers have suffered.

Brand intolerence from the consumer of course is very dangerous. Took a long while for Coke to recover from their disaster. Maggi Noodles in India in 1998/99. Hindustan Motors.

Brand intolerence from the consumer happens when, either they had enough of being taken for granted or when someone new comes along and offers choices that are in line with what they want. Nokia in 2000 was using the same outer shell with very little visible differentiation across different price bands. Samsung came along and every model had something different to offer… specially the form factor. Credit to Nokia though… they realized what was happening in the market and in the consumer’s mind very quickly and unleashed new forms and applications.

Indian manufacturers of consumer electronics and white goods didnt keep pace with the changing market and were wiped out. Samsung and LG just took over because the consumer was getting tired of sub standard choices.

Public sector banks suffered too but then the private banks messed up and brands like SBI and many others are back in the reckoning. They are the ones who realized the that there is a change in the economic status of the consumer brought about by the economc situation. ICICI on the other hand is operating from the swanky building in BKC with the assumption that they are so good that they dont have to do anything for the consumer… of course they are in trouble (the moment a brand or an organization starts with a PR as to how sound and safe they are… everyone knows there is trouble brewing)

Ultimately it boils down to the relationship a brand has with its consumer. Intolerence creeps in because the brand takes the consumer for granted and consumer just waits for the right time to slap the brand with a divorce…

There is nothing new that I have said here… its common sense but it seems lot of brands are taking leave of this common sense…

Why some businesses are “recession” proof?

I wont stop buying a toothpaste.

I wont stop buying groceries.

I wont stop communicating.

I wont stop commuting.

Businesses that cater to certain needs in the market place would never see drastic drops in their volumes. Yes there would be a drop but only marginal. In most cases though, growth pattern is maintained.

Indian Telecom is a good example where service operators are constantly adding new numbers. And falling ARPU is not because people have stopped using or reduced their usage.

Read yesterday that Automobile market grew in India. So obviously people are still buying cars and bikes.

And contrary to what airlines might say, spend some time at the airport and you will notice that crowds have not gone down.

Neighborhood grocery store still does good business.

However, there are always some organizations or brands that seemingly dont do well even in the recession proof sectors

Hero Honda is doing well… Bajaj is not.

Maruti is still leading the pack.

Retail formats are suffering, grocery stores are not.

Jet is supposedly in trouble and low cost are doing well.

A scan on Travelguru indicates that average room rates have not come down.

Is there a mantra that some know and others dont?

Its pretty simple actually. In times like these, an average consumer will not take risk and strong brands will continue to do well. Times like these, the buying decision is driven by the principle of minimising risk. Of course in some of the categories even that doesnt matter.

The sectors where recession impacts the most is where speculation prevails. And that of course led to the economic melt down. Real Estate, Finance and Investing and the entire eco-system that got bloated around these sectors.

And then businesses which thought they knew it all and were not much in tune with what the consumer was really looking for. Glowing optimistic reports are taken at face value and reading between the lines is kept for the period when things go wrong. Hindsight…

Business is not about here and now. Business is about modelling around the upside and downside. In an upbeat economy… no one wants to talk about downside and of course in a meltdown… even the media wont talk about any upside (and there would always be upsides)

A simplistic view this… minus any jargon and profound thinking.

And every company that is cutting down investment on their biggest assets – Brand and people… they will lose out in the long run..