Culture Engineering

Culture engineering as a concept has been practiced forever. In ancient times, it was the invaders who did that. In modern times it is the people who move from one geographical location to another, do that. Brands do it too. And engineering happens in very different ways for people than it does for brands.

Take the case of people who move to another country. Culture engineering happens in two ways – Either they engineer themselves to fit in with the environment… or they have such a huge influence on the environment that the environment changes…

If Deepak Chopra had decided to remain in India… would he have been as successful as he is? He has gained success because he moved to a society which was looking for salvation and he engineered their thought process with his philosophy. Of course moving on from there, the world followed what is successful in US and he became a Guru even in India. Steven Covey does that too… so does a Paul Coello or a Robin Sharma. Engineering people’s thoughts towards their philosophy… The reverse is of course the immigrant population. You move to another country and make changes so that you can belong… adapt to the existing culture. Or probably transform themselves. The difference is adapting means you dont let go of your culture but imbibe the values of the environment. Transformation leads to shunning of everything that you were… Somewhere its the need to belong that leads to the engineering.

For brands too it is the need to belong in newer markets (and also at a very subtle level the countries attached to the brand too propogate this culture engineering)

Second World War and then subsequent interventions by US in Asian trouble spots carried the symbols of american culture to these spots and at a very subliminal level led to a cultural imperialism. And of course dollar being the universal currency meant that the american domination was complete.

Communism tried very hard too but failed in the face of glitz and glamor of all the ‘virtues’ of american culture.

But in Modern times, war is not a positive reinforcement of a culture so brands and marketing have taken over. Nobody wants a war but people are happy to accept brands and letting the brands evolve and transform their cultures…

Let us take the Indian example.

In the 70’s all foreign brands were asked to leave the country because they stood for the so called decadent West. Under the garb of protecting our economy we asked brands to leave.

In the 90’s when a global economy became a reality one cannot avoid, the markets were opened and the brands were back with a vengence… Huge population of India had most brands drooling and wanting the share of a huge market… And given the shifts in political scenario, American brands entered in droves.

Satellite TV was the first to invade our homes with images that were so american and yet welcome because we were hungry… hungry to catch up with the world and to mention the cliche – what is banned is always lot more desirable and exciting… The Bold and the Beautiful became staple diet for many (soap operas that were prime time in India!)

And all these shows were also advertisements for brands…

Coke was back and Pepsi too.. so were Macdonalds and KFC and Pizza Hut and Dominoes… and Nike and Adidas and Levi’s… The list can go on across product categories… from apparels to automobiles to banking to everything that was open…

But what is important here while most brands expected that we would accept the lifestyles too attached with the brand… it did not happen… at least not on a large scale as was expected… The large middle class wanted these brands… but on their own terms… we bought into the philosophy but not the cultural cues… And it was a very strong sentiment… And brands that were in for long haul figured it out… MJ and Bobby Brown gave way to Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan and cricketers for Pepsi…

Macdonald had veg offerings… Pizza Hut had veg pizzas and very Indian recipes… Automobiles tranformed their communication to be in tune with Indian Culture… Samsung and LG had strategies that connected with Indian sentiments… And more importantly it was like double culture engineering strategy… The brands adapted to the Indian culture and propogated the values of their own cultures… without being overt about it…

Indians used to eat healthy but now they binge on american junk food and obesity (just like in US) is on the rise. Credit culture which used to be a complete taboo for us is the prevalent practice now…

And the thing is that not all influences are bad… Engineering has a way of bringing in negatives as well as positives… We are lot more professional in our working environment.. as compared to maybe couple of decades back… We have forced our governments to give us infrastructure that is on par with the world (it is a slow process but it is happening)

We are moving from our initial years of vice of the internet to the virtues and using technology in a constructive manner… And of course we have used IT as our own way to extend our culture to the other parts of the world… There are more Indians travelling abroad and the popular hot spots are ensuring that they cater to the travelling Indian population. Bollywood has also done it’s bit… cases of Indian movies topping the top 10 charts are very frequent…

In a world where boundaries are disappearing (physical ones remains and cause constant grief) every culture is now in a very subtle war to take over… Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Indians…. the hegemony of US and West is on the decline and who wins the war would not be decided by arms and ammunition but by brands… Brands which handle the culture engineering the best are the brands that will win the war for their countries…

Target Audience a mystery for this Audi Ad

Audi full ad Pune TOI The copy of the ad:

“It’s what happens once the deal is inked, the board meetings are over, the sales team applauded, the client content, the appraisals completed, the boss gently reminded of increments, the tax returns filed, the colleagues treated, the homework completed, the wife dropped, the gym membership renewed and the new phone bought. Your time. The Audi Q5.”

All that done and left wondering the reason for this ad. More importantly who is the target audience…

The lowest price Audi in India is for 29 lacs Ex showroom Mumbai. Q7 is for 52 lacs. I assume Q5 could be either somewhere in between or higher!

With these facts, go through the copy of the ad again and go figure!

Even more amazing is a small write up about Audi cars on which reads something like this:

Audi cars are starting to fire the fancy of the rich Indian consumer and the upper middle class with their current range of  Audi A4,  Audi A6,  Audi A8 and Audi Q7 sedan cars…

Audi A4, by the way, is the lowest price at 29 lacs (source

Now looking at the first line of copy and the first few words of the write up, I can understand that Audi is for the rich… The Stratospheric People (SP as defined in my earlier post “Recession Proof People”)… but upper middle class??

I have downgraded myself below the poverty line (BPL). I used to think I belonged to the upper middle class and had all the worries about appraisals and reminder to boss for increment or kid’s homework or renewing gym membership… Obviously I have been barking up the wrong tree because the client and the agency obviously believe that the upper middle class can afford even a Q5… forget A4!

I would so love to know the brief that went out from the client to the agency… and the creative brief from strategy planner (would love to actually meet him/her… for the insight) to the creative which translated into this ad.

Few days back Seth Godin had written a post about luxury and premium products and how many brands are confused about which segment they are addressing… and this ad is a classic example.

I believe an Audi buyer would not need to be told the occasion for buying the car… or the cues in the communication about his status in life… He probably has an Audi, a BMW and other such brands already in his consideration set. He surely wont be worrying about the increment… His worry probably would be how to get this purchase not noticed by the Income Tax people…

More importantly, he is not going to read this full page ad and reach for his Blackberry or iPhone either… I believe that communication channels would have to be very different for this person. All the stuff that I had learnt in my earlier days in advertising about media spillover and CPT… I surely must have dozed off when the part about luxury products advertising in Mass Media was discussed.

I am probably being harsh and am sure there must have been an objective behind this communication (all communication has an objective … right?) but I am not able to sense it…. though given the 2/3 of the copy, I am the target audience.. or maybe not… I forgot I am a BPL person…

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.

Expectations raised… *Terms and Conditions apply

Sometimes I really wonder who is a bigger fool. Brands that promote thousand things with  a “* T&C apply” or consumers who are falling for this… if they are falling at all!

I believe that consumer is far wiser than what the brands think he is. Does any one really believe that they can get a Delhi-Mumbai ticket for One Rupee? Or the fact that they can win a Hyundai Tucson by buying a product? Of course what I am talking is old hat. This whole topic has been done to death. Yet promotions just go on and on…

I think somewhere the brands have realized that we are eternal optimists and we believe that some day our luck will change and we will get the mega prize! and we will keep buying stuff we dont need or rather something that we need but would choose the brand which is offering better promo deal. 

Long ago, in its hey days, Pepsi had done a promotion  – “Mera number kub ayega”. One of the most insightful lines I have ever come across… other being “reclaim your life” (but thats not promotion). The pepsi line sure was about we forever hoping that our chance will come some day. And being part of the promo is like legitimate lottery. Imagine if a guy were to tell his wife that he intends to buy lottery ticket. Not a good idea at all! But if he were to say “lets buy brand x washing machine, we might get a brand new apartment!” Absolute consent and they will buy and wait forever to get that apartment. Of course if they dont (and nobody does) they will curse their luck.

I wish the government makes it mandatory for all companies that at the end of the promotion, they have to publish the list of winners along with addresses and photographs and there is an audit.

The reason for this post is that few days back my daughter saw this commercial on disney where one had to send an sms and buy a Hannah Montana CD and get two free movie tickets. So we sent the text message and got a response that their customer representative will call within 72 hours. Its been close to 200 hours now and no calls. And the tough time I have had telling my daughter that we must not have made the list because the commercial also had a fine print probably with *T&C applies. My daughter is disappointed and I am writing this post.

Wish the brands would stop playing havoc with consumer’s expectations? Some day there might be a consumer backlash against this where the consumer will turnaround and say “We will buy you but terms and conditions apply”

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…