Monday, October 26, 2015

The Holy Grail of Brand Management – Got an Idea?

I often run into conversations like this:

“I have explored all branding tools namely PR, Creatives, Blogs, Newsletters, Social Media, but somehow my brand is not taking off.  Can you give me an idea/ a strategy which can make my brand skyrocket?”

Well….. Yes, of course, we can. But hold your horses…..

We would like to treat the malady rather than the symptoms, as the famous Dr. House often repeated to his brilliant bunch of physicians.

The malady lies deeper.

You are obviously misreading your objectives to trend with the current times. It’s like painting zebra stripes to appear cool, but you end up losing your identity.

You are not a Zebra, you are a Horse, so why pose like a Zebra? Blaze your own trail folks!

Go back to your objectives- What are you offering? Why? To Whom? How will it make their lives better? Why should they care? Do they care? Do you know who you are speaking to? Really know them? Are you tying in your objectives with what appears to be trending nowadays?

If you don’t, you risk getting your customers falling off your saddle.

The most important thing you need is ‘Positioning’. Are you positioning yourself right? Have you positioned yourself in a manner which is clear, concise, creative and impactful?

Is your ‘right’ positioning being communicated through the so-called tools?

Positioning looks deceptively simple, it is anything but. You may think that if you can run a company, you can very well position it too. You cannot be more wrong. Even your mentors cannot tell you how to position yourself.

Positioning needs a careful analysis of a huge number of occurrences across your entire eco-system. It answers a lot of questions and solves brand challenges. Deducing the right positioning is not everyone’s cup of tea. It needs to be done well.

And it needs to be implemented well. You need to revisit your positioning at least once in six months, to keep yourself relevant. Rinse and Repeat.

You don’t need an idea or a strategy, instead you need to revisit your entire spectrum of brand communication.

One of my pet peeves is that most people are confused between ‘advertising’ and ‘branding’.
An Idea is what an advertiser will give you, maybe an ad, maybe a campaign, which will run and get over. Good for you if it sticks, but that happens rarely. Advertising happens in a microcosm. They are usually advertising a product or service. They are not advertising your company or its long term objectives or what you are essentially in the market for.

Ideas or ad-lines or jingles do not make a brand. A brand gets made over many years, through many efforts. Branding will help you find your inner strengths and leverage them. It is way less cool or glamorous than advertising. It is backbreaking work at a snail’s pace. But it hits the home run, every time.

However if you are in a hurry, the Gurus of advertising are very capable of offering you the Holy Grail, and take it with them when they leave. They will paint stripes on you. Hell, you will even start feeling and strutting around like a Zebra.

And then one day the truth will trot home. Hopefully, it will not be too late by then.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Are Not These, With Thousands Moe; Than the Courts of Kings do Know

A colleague, who I once had the good fortune to work with, had a peculiar decision-making quirk.

Any and every decision was taken in the context of ‘what the competition is doing’! Be that crafting a strategy, participation in a show, a new advertisement, presentations, new brochures etc. Competitors were the benchmark of his professional life.

Now these benchmarks can be beneficial to a degree, but are extremely restricting and non-creative at many levels. The yarn you knit should not tie you up in knots!

Another colleague I know, leaves his decisions to the last minute, thinking that the deadline will let him arrive at the most intuitive conclusion! He is probably unaware that ordinary intuition and strategic intuition sit on two opposite poles and expert intuition sits somewhere in between.

Moreover, as per Columbia Business School professor William Duggan, expert intuition can be the enemy of strategic intuition.

Now, why does decision making has to be so illogical and restricting?

Gretchen Rubin sums up the difference between two types of decision-makers in a post at the Happiness Project.

‘Satisficers’ are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.

‘Maximizers’, on the other hand, want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice.

In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they are often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice. 

You’d think maximizers would at least feel content with their decision after all that work, but no! As anyone who’s ever researched a possible illness on the Internet knows, more information does not necessarily lead to peace of mind or better decision-making.

So, when you are in the land of a thousand communication agencies, how do you choose one?

Some people let the budget (or the absence of it) make a decision for them. Nothing could be worse for your brand.

Here are some broad parameters;

The agency knows about your subject matter and has sufficient knowledge about the same. They understand your Target Audience and have worked with them in the past.
Now, this can work both ways. The experience they bring to the table can be offset by the fresh perspective someone else can offer. The main yardstick should be that they understand you and the parameters you operate within & are innovative. In that case, look no further.

They understand branding and communication as a field and have a certain expertise in the area.
This can be ratified via myriad ways in the exposed society that we live in today.

They are willing to work with you in the long term and invest quality time to build up your brand. They feel your (brand) pain.
This is essential, as the empathy one feels for a brand translates into an enormous motivator for them to make a phenomenal difference. They (and not you) own the brand and will bleed for it. 

Brands are not built in days or months, but years; and once they are established they need to be nurtured to last over many decades.

How the paradox of choice will unravel for your brand, that choice is yours!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Engage or Disengage?

I do not know what your definition of marketing is, but for me, it is ‘building a community through continuous engagement’.

The big question that all of us need to ask ourselves, probably as a derivative of month-end financial reporting is -> “Are we doing enough to engage with our Target Audience?”

Do a snap profiling of your Target Audience (TG), and ask:

“Do enough of these people know me?”
“What can I do to keep myself in their mental space?”
“How often should I get in front of them?”
“If I do nothing, will they still recognize my company name or me?”
“How can I get their mindshare without spamming them or being intrusive?”
“Am I engaging with them enough?”
“Do I come across as a knowledgeable entity to them?”
“How can I not hard-sell?”
“Can I add value to their lives, processes, world in any manner?”

Can you?

Marketing should not be about ‘Buy my product, I make the best one’.
It should be about ‘How can I help you take the best decision and add value’.

I recently saw a TV ad in which a logistics company was extolling its clientele to go in for their services because ‘B’ stands for ‘Best’! Moreover, because their name starts with ‘B’!
Really? Is Alphabet advertising in vogue nowadays?

They are spending all those hard earned dollars making and rolling out a TV ad, and this is what they have to say? It is incredibly tragi-comic!

Whatever business you may be in, you can add value to your clientele. Do think from their perspective.

The different marketing tools and formats are just the carriers of your message.

If your marketing tools are 360 degrees complete with all the Ads, Videos, PR, blogs, mailers, newsletters and case studies in place; and yet you are unable to engage your TG, then you are eating an ice cream cone without the ice cream in it!

The structure is there; the substance is not. There is no flavor!

It is infinitely more important to understand and formulate what message you need to showcase before your audience. Distribution is secondary.

A few pertinent examples of companies engaging with their TG effectively are,
Vodafone with the following puppy, Fevicol ads, Idea Internet, Dove Real Beauty campaign, Five Star Ramesh Suresh ads, TBZ Wedding, Some Coke and Pepsi ads, Airtel with ‘Har Friend Zaroori Hai’ and their latest 4G Campaign, Hamara Bajaj, the opinionated Amul Girl, Chlor-mint, Centre Fresh, Mentos etc. spring to mind.

Unfortunately many organizations, even while doling out big bucks to hi-profile agencies and Gurus, are unable to make an impact because the engagement is off!

To create and sustain high engagement, you need to connect emotionally with your TG and convey a message that touches a chord or answers an unmet need imaginatively. Look at the big picture your industry brings onboard.

Please do not blow your own trumpet incessantly. Otherwise, your TG will become tone-deaf! 

Disengage from the non-value add approach. Engage with adding value. Today.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

What Drives You? Really?

If you ask any professional today as to what drives him/ her, you will get rhetorical answers like – money, fame, luxury, satisfaction, growth, etc.

However ask yourself this – when you are sending an e-mail or speaking in a meeting or making a campaign or picking a phone to call – which one of the above drivers is working in that instant?

Are you thinking about Money, Fame or Growth at that moment?


Are you thinking >

I hope this campaign is successful otherwise….
I hope my boss can appreciate when he hears me speak at this meeting……
I wish I get sole credit for the slogging I am doing on this project….
I hope my seniors buy the numbers I am projecting in my presentation/ report/ accounts statement….
What if Investors are not crazy about my idea? What if my Idea is not as good as I think? What if…..

-        Do you hear the palpable ‘Fear’ beneath the above statements?

There are only two drivers in life essentially, which drive your actions in each moment >

FEAR                     or                          PASSION

If your Operating System (OS) is functioning on ‘Fear’, then every action that you undertake professionally (or even personally) will be driven by insecurity.

This will further spiral you into negativities like controlling information flows, wresting credit from your team, backbiting, whining, blame games, arrogance, projecting yourself into a victim, etc.

If you were to, however, consciously shift your OS into ‘Passion’ mode, you would be driven by the conviction of your vision rather than fear of failure and other insecurities. No matter whether you are making strategies, numbers, presentations, campaigns or getting up on the stage to deliver a speech.

Passion will instantly make you feel more secure, confident and assured of every step you take in your professional life. You will be a team player, and a natural leader for everyone to look up to. 

You will play an inclusive game rather than an exclusive one.

You will not be fearful of failure or making mistakes. You will just pick yourself up, dust off and get into the game again. The ground that we fall on, is the one that helps us get back up again, probably a Tagore quote, rings true here.

Ramifications of shifting your Operating System from ‘Fear’ to ‘Passion’ can be enormous.

However, the calibration has to be done manually every time you feel yourself slipping into fear, till you get into an ‘auto’ mode.

So, what drives you today?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How Often Do You Rock Your Boat?

A friend on LinkedIn recently asked me clarification on a question that one of his clients had posed to him:
How frequently should a company call agencies for a pitch for annual Brand & Communication strategy?
Is it safer and better to continue to deal with the same agency by renewing the contract annually for a few years? (So that there is consistency in thinking and strategizing)
Alternatively, should one call pitches every year to get fresh perspectives?
Now, there are quite a few posers in this query. First of all there are not many agencies dealing with an overall Brand and Communications strategy, only a few.
The rest are focused on their niche business strategies, whether it is an ad agency or a digital marketing agency or a PR agency, they all operate in silos. To expect them to contribute to your business’ brand and communications strategy is probably not fair to them.
Secondly, the strategy has to flow from your business objectives which means, as an inside communication head, 'you' are at the core of the strategy and not the agency. The ‘business’ objectives, challenges, vision, ecosystem, peer performance, analysis – all of these lead to a set of ‘brand’ objectives and key messages.
These in turn lie at the heart of formulating your brand positioning strategy, and then of course the tactics flow from there. At this stage, an agency can be involved.
Now, coming back to the query – irrespective of whether you are changing the agency or not, you NEED to revisit your brand strategy every new financial year. The reason being that you, your business, your environment are all dynamic in nature, so do not expect a static strategy to support you effectively over the years.
In fact, in an ideal situation, the strategy is tweaked with every new marketing lesson learned.
So refresh your strategies periodically, and if your agency is performing well, in tune with your objectives, then get them on board with the new strategy every time.
Do not change an agency for the sake of it, when you change the strategy. Change an agency if they are not performing as per your objectives, and not bringing a fresh perspective in the strategy brainstorming sessions you have with them.
I hope that answers the question :-)

Why Do You Need to Keep Talking?

You are an established brand, and may well lull yourself into believing that your ‘name’ is the key to opening many client locks.  After all, so many years have gone by while you invested in all those expensive ATL and rigorous BTL activities, attending exhibitions, forging channel relationships, creating connections. You cannot be faulted for thinking that this ‘paradise state of mind’ will continue forever.

However, ‘forever’ is an illusory term and has led many up the deceptive path.

You see, brands, like relationships, require work. Someone once said ‘Marriage is a verb, not a noun.’ If and when you start taking your partner for granted and treat marriage as a noun, ‘forever’ will take on a different connotation for you!

Let us extend this simile to your brand's relationship with your consumers, vendors, channels, influencers, investors and shareholders. To sustain your business relationship with your stakeholders, you need to ‘act’ on it. You cannot take it for granted that they will always hold you in high regard, and not leave your side for some extra margin or tangible benefits.

When you defend your turf on tangibles, it can deteriorate pretty fast into a slugfest of commoditization.

However, if you have the intangibles on your side, even if your stakeholders are getting lesser margins or dividends, if they feel enough about your relationship with them, they will stay put and give you second chances.

Why? Because they have invested in your ‘brand goodwill’, which is the feeling ‘branding’ builds - your brand essence.

Yes, you are a great brand, but so were Goldman Sachs, Enron, and Arthur Andersen.

The global business environment today, and always has been, volatile, and nobody’s mistress.

Here are a few things that hopefully won’t but can happen….
  • Your USP can be copied once you are successful
  • You shift your USP and soon find yourself plonked in the middle of a cluttered segment
  • The differentiated customer experience that you offer is expensive and/or is overtaken by your peers
  • A new, better, faster variant of your product or service comes up
  • You have only one big egg (client) in your basket
  • Backward / Forward Integration by your ecosystem
  • Change in technology platforms that may seriously threaten your position
  • Regulatory/ Financial/ Environmental volatility
  • Your core raw ingredient gets scarce / too expensive/ unviable
  • Your delivery methods/ packaging are no longer relevant
  • You are no longer ‘cool’ to your TG!

Complacency can be disastrous. So keep your branding efforts always ongoing, in step with times, and keep communicating consistently.

This is the key to good personal relationships as well, by the way :-)

How a 2-minute Crisis Should not Derail your Entire Brand

Much has been said and is going to be said by many people on the unfortunate challenge being faced by Nestle.

The vital point, however, is how the company needs to handle the situation. 

Without getting into any more whys and wherefores, they can consider the following way forward for managing this crisis.


Contain the crisis. Recall the products on your initiative. Do not wait for government/s to ban it. State that you need to check your products and your processes. Put customer safety foremost and take the first step towards accountability.


Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. In times of crisis especially.

In times of crisis especially.

Nothing ever gets resolved by silence. In fact, silence can ruin all the efforts put into corporate branding so far. The other products are already feeling the heat.

The immediate need for containing this challenge is to issue a Press statement and Advertisement widely. Use all platforms that you can.

The communique should state very sincerely as to how you ‘care’ for your customers – kids, moms, dads, students, everybody – and why you would willfully never do anything to harm them.

Tender an apology, and state that you are looking into your processes, and how you intend to respond to the situation speedily.

Spend considerable time drafting the communication, and then spread it out wide.

Remember an apology is not an admission of guilt always. It is needed to soothe all the ruffled feathers, and there are many feathers being ruffled in the markets nowadays.

If you are in the wrong, admit it and enumerate how you are going to correct those wrongs. Owning up to a mistake is the first step towards rebuilding trust.

If you are not in the wrong, spread awareness of your safety norms and processes. Be straightforward. Don’t buffer the top leadership line. They should come out and talk, on all possible forums while maintaining the consistency of communication.

Manage your processes

Find out what went wrong, where and how, and fast. Check procedures for other products as well. Outsource to a credible third party if possible, whose findings can be considered non-biased by all stakeholders.

Keep Communicating

At every stage, take the public with you. Inform them. Take them into confidence. They took your products into their houses, fed them to their kids. Now it is your turn to reciprocate, as a responsible company. The public ultimately deserves your feedback.

Checks and Balances

Ensure they are in place. If a new department is needed, so be it. Regular self-audits and third- party audits should be implemented, and communicated.

More than ever, in a PR crisis, speed is of utmost essence.

Trust can be strong enough to sustain challenges over a lifetime, and yet fragile enough to snap in a second.

Customer relationships are entirely built on trust.

Trust is built on communication and commitment.

Preserve this trust carefully, cherish it and respect it.

How ‘Some’ Publicity Can Waylay Your Branding Roadmap

Many firms, especially where CEOs are directly handling media and branding strategies, can easily get waylaid in achieving their branding objectives.

This usually happens in SMEs, where any publicity is regarded as good publicity, which is right to a point.

However, if you keep focusing on your limited PR activity as a way to achieve your branding goals, think again.

Let’s take the example of an IT software firm, supplying software and implementation to organizations across verticals.

Ideally this company, like any other, should be communicating with its target customers consistently, apprising them of different initiatives it is taking to improve THEIR performance.

This can be done in various forms and forums where your TG is present.

However, since they do not have any dedicated person or an agency doing this job, the CEO de facto ends up doing ad-hoc PR activity instead.

It becomes a passive scenario when all you are doing is receiving calls from media and answering them, rather than proactively reaching out to them.

This reactive PR turns into a trap when the channel media start awarding you and making you feel great, which is good, BUT channels are not your target audience, are they?

The companies are your target audience.

Moreover, if you limit your media activity to just the channel media, then probably you will be famous amongst channels, but this has minimal impact on your branding amongst your TG.

So think strategically about brand goals, and whether what you are doing is relevant to your strategies.

It is good to feel great about winning channel awards, but leverage and integrate them into your branding roadmap.

Do you have one?

Why You Should Never Piggyback on Someone Else for Your Branding

In branding, as in everything else, it pays to have your own house in order first.
Invest in your story, your brand, your logo, your identity.
Once it has reached a consistent traction, it should be augmented with reaching the market via various tools/ vehicles.
Never for a moment think that if you tie up with a reputed brand, your branding will take care of itself. This sets you up on a collision course.
A reputed brand has enough muscle to pull the plug on you when they fancy.
And when they do that, your brand may not be able to take the knocks coming to you because you have not invested in it.
Depending on another company’s brand to sail your boat leaves you at their mercy. Not a very happy place to be in!
So do tie-ups, invest in alliances, but never make the mistake of leaving your company’s brand in anyone else’s hands except yours.

Why You need a B-R-A-ND-I-N-G strategy before a F-U-N-D-I-N-G strategy

When you are seeding a company, a bankable idea gets paramount importance.
Even afterwards, an early stage entrepreneur is mainly focused on how to get the idea running from grounds up.
SO when does he think about branding? The problem is - he does not!
When investors ask him, the branding paragraph is hurriedly made, and embedded in the footnote.
Folks, what do you think is branding strategy? It is not the tools you think it is – PR, Social Media, and Digital Marketing, etc.
They are just the tools, the vehicles, the platforms - enabling the Brand Strategy.
On the other hand, Brand Strategy positions you, in a manner that forges an emotional connect with your audience.
Even if there are low entry barriers in your market, this strategy ensures brand loyalty IF you have strategized early enough.
For example, had Flipkart formulated a brand strategy early on, they would not be struggling today with ‘look-alikes’ and ‘me-too’ brands and end up becoming a ‘deal of the day’ portal.
Where is the emotional connect? What stops a customer from going to Snapdeal / eBay / Amazon?
Everyone is claiming to give a happy, convenient and fast shopping experience, than what are you doing which stands you apart and makes the customers identify with you and be loyal to you? Commoditization is a huge business challenge for Indian firms.
Flipkart can still get it right. However, time is of the essence. 
Slogans come from a brand strategy and positioning, and brand positioning comes from the heart, especially in a B2C scenario, in India, and in an industry where ‘me-too’ brands flourish.
This is just one example. There are many more, where the brand strategy and positioning has gone haywire.
Here a notable exception is ‘Airtel’ which always goes for great connect with the audience, percolating from their brand strategy and positioning.
Case in point – ‘Har friend zaroori Hai’ campaign, and nowadays the ‘Family Plan’. They have a way of drawing you within their fold and making you feel cherished.
THAT is the panacea all B2C brands should look for, to be adopted as a family member by its consumers. Can your brand promise that?
Think hard and long, deliberate, consult, and strategize - BEFORE you put your brand in the market, not afterwards.
Note: In my posts, ‘He’ and ‘She’ are both represented by ‘He’ - Just Saying :-)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Just because you are a Startup, it is no reason to behave badly

With the age of CEOs going south by the day, start-ups are increasingly coming into focus for their professional conduct or lack of it.
Suddenly a 26 or a 28-year-old finds himself, sometimes even without a year of work experience, founding a company. He is not only an ideator, but also has to write a business plan, look for a co-founder, invest in a team, and pitch to investors. The journey beyond funding is more rigorous, with scaling up becoming a major challenge.
Within all this, it is easy to get overwhelmed and lose track of business ethics and professionalism if you are focusing only on wins and losses, hits and misses.
What an entrepreneur has to realize is that despite the fact he is working for himself and does not have anyone to answer to, he cannot abdicate responsible behavior.
Ethics of professionalism were not made in a vacuum. They have stood the test of time.
You still have to care for your employees, paying their salaries on time, giving them leave according to the law of the land. Do not crib if someone has taken a leave at a dire juncture. Deal with it empathetically in a performance evaluation. Hiring and firing at will is an American concept, not Indian, and can cost you future recruitment qualitatively.
If your star employees get poached by competitors, start by treating them well, forge an emotional connect, and keep your checks and balances in place. Do not fly off the handle and start badmouthing anyone. It shows bad taste and reflects on how immature one is. Your team members respect you not because you pay them, but because they look up to you. Be worthy of that.
Restraint dignifies and distinguishes you, always.
If you have made a commitment to a vendor or an agency, whether verbal or written, honor it. Do not go back on your word just because you found another one for 3k less or your co-founder’s pal started an agency you want to try out. Not stepping up to your commitment is dishonorable conduct. 
Keeping one’s word is still considered being a gentleman and a lady, and it never goes out of fashion. In fact, you risk losing out on much goodwill in the market because you come across as a disreputable businessperson.
Your ecosystem abounds with vendors and agencies who spend considerable time in researching and presenting you with their ideas and strategies. Respect their time and effort. To not acknowledge their proposals and revert, either positively or negatively, is a prime example of unprofessional work ethic.
Good behaviour has never been at a greater premium in India Inc. 
When you commit to a project, adhere to your deadlines or keep the client posted otherwise. Never offer lame excuses. 
Always pay your vendors fully and on time. Ensure you have enough balance to not give out cheques that bounce. It is an important way to ensure your credit rating and credibility in the market. Today’s ecosystem is very connected. If you misbehave, do not think that it will not reach your client’s ears.
Wisdom is a severely undervalued currency. It does not come only with age and experience. You can be wise whatever age you are if you understand that everyone deserves respect, not only the ones whom you depend on, but also the ones who depend on you.
Be polite and kind. Be patient above all. Treat as you would like to be treated, with respect and appreciation.
Understand that life can be sometimes unfair, but that gives you no right to treat others unfairly.
Moreover, when in doubt always remember ‘what you sow so shall you reap’ is not just an adage, but a powerful karmic law.
~ Anju T Makin