31 May 2006

Ready For The Rain

[Artist: Foreigner; Album: Unusual Heat]

Early in the morning, before the daylight
I hear the sound of thunder, comin’ through in the night
I lie awake and I wonder, where my life is goin’
Am I on a road leadin’ nowhere, there’s no way of knowin’
’Cause I’ve seen the lightning
And I’m ready for the rain to fall.

Now I'm standin’ on a mountain, lookin’ into the sky
I see the clouds come rollin’ in, water fills my eyes
I don’t know what’s in the future, no one can say
Don’t wanna think about the past, I’ve gotta live for today
’Cause I’ve seen the lightnin’ now
I need to find my own way, while I’ve still got time.

And I’m ready for the rain to fall
’Cause I’ve heard the thunder
And I’m ready for the rain to fall
I’m ready, ready for the rain
I’ve got to rise above it all
And get ready for the rain to fall.

Did you ever know someone, who had lost their way
Built their own little kingdom, and just blew it all away
I’m not ashamed to admit it, that someone was me
I’m gonna look to the future now, ’cause I’ve set myself free
And I’ve seen the lightnin’
I’m gonna set myself free, while I’ve still got time.

Get ready for the rain to fall
’Cause I’ve heard the thunder
And I’m ready for the rain to fall
I’m ready, ready for the rain
I’ve got to rise above it all
And get ready for the rain to fall, while I’ve still got time...

20 May 2006

Google: simply genius

Many marketers, advertising agencies (as the greatest advocates of brand-building) and brand strategists will espouse the concept of owning and building a brand, but few will practise what they preach – and make it simple for everyone to understand. That’s what I like most about Google, my favourite brand and one of the greatest brands on this planet.

What’s so special about Google is its simplicity – from its home page to its corporate philosophy. It’s this philosophy which drives Google’s genius as a brand, as stated on their ‘Our Philosophy’ page simply as a list of ‘Ten things Google has found to be true’. Here are the first two:
1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

These are humble confessions; confessions that have led Google’s phenomenal growth from September 1998 to date: revenues of over $6 billion, profits of $1.5 billion, market capitalisation of over $117 billion. Google is the world’s most popular (touted as ‘the best’) Internet search engine today; ahead of Yahoo!, MSN and Ask. According to industry reports, Google handles half the searches in the world.

What belies this simplicity is the enormous amount of mathematics and sophisticated algorithm that Google uses in its search technology – and to convert the search results into money through its unique ‘pay-per-click’ advertising model. Google places little text advertisements on search pages selected by its advertisers. But these advertisers pay only once an Internet user clicks on these links, thereby expressing an interest in buying.

Can it get any simpler than this?

19 May 2006

The burden of being a brand

It’s not easy being a brand. A brand carries a lot of responsibility. Since so much of branding is about creating emotions in the hearts and minds of consumers, being a brand can really become a burden. Particularly so, if the brand happens to be a person.

That’s right, brands are not always goods or services. Or even ideas. Brands can be people too. Like, for instance, a Madonna or a Britney Spears. Whereas Madonna had to create and re-create herself over the years to remain the brand she is – a pop icon and a diva, in spite of being a 47-year-old material-girl mom – to steal the hearts of teenagers as well as adults, Britney Spears seems to be having trouble managing her brand. Sales of her albums have fallen drastically and her songs are no longer on the top of the charts.

But it has not always been like this for Britney. Her debut album ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ went straight to number one position in 1998 and sold 27 million copies worldwide. Her next album ‘Oops!... I Did It Again’, released in 2000, did just as well, selling another 20 million. She has many music awards to her name, and nominations galore. She has written many of her songs, co-written two books along with her mother, starred in movies, become a restaurateur. In 2003, Forbes magazine called her ‘the most powerful celebrity in the world’. VH1 named her ‘Woman of the Century’.

In 2002, Britney’s name was the most-searched-for of all the entertainers on the Internet. And on 19 February 2001, Encyclopaedia Britannica was forced to shut down its website when more than 17 million people logged on to see the first picture of Britney Spears’ pierced bellybutton which Britiannica.com had published. I had received a news commentary on this the next day, and have reproduced it here as it makes interesting reading. Sorry I can’t remember the source of the article now, but I used to be a subscriber of Britannica.com, so perhaps...

A navel idea

The naked midriff of pop princess Britney Spears managed to cause a major web jam for a whole month after record numbers of users attempted to download an image of the singer’s pierced belly button.

In a bid to make itself more attractive to the young and trendy generation, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online ran a feature on “the semiotics of Britney Spears’s belly button” which was meant to “explore how the cultural significance of belly buttons has changed over time by focusing on Britney as a cultural icon.”

But once news got round that the article was accompanied by a picture of the star’s navel, more than 17 million people attempted to log on to the site over the last month to download a copy of the photo, eventually locking up the site’s web servers.

The Britannica article described Britney’s belly button as “not strictly sexual, but, like Spears herself, not that innocent either.” It added later that the pierced navel is “a heated boundary between baby and babe.”

Duh? And you thought…..

Britney Spears had a fair amount of success thereafter with the release of several albums, tours and performances, brand sponsorships and endorsements (Tommy Hilfiger, Pepsi, Mattel and AOL to name a few), launch of fragrances (‘Curious’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘In Control’ from Elizabeth Arden), affairs, engagements, marriages and motherhood. And, of course, through her official website
www.britneyspears.com. But nothing topped the charts like it did before. She no longer sold millions of copies of music.

Once a teen pop idol (according to MTV, Britney Spears was the driving force behind the return of teen pop music), a sex symbol (a unique combination of teen, sex and virginity), and a media star (regardless of what she was or wasn’t doing), Britney Spears is now suspended in her career at the age of 25 – around the same age that Madonna achieved her fame in the early eighties. Can she re-create herself as Madonna did?

17 May 2006

The brand idea

A couple of days ago, I presented a narrow perspective of marketing history in India (see ‘A narrow version’). The highlights of the post were rather startling: The brands I grew up with 25-30 years ago no longer exist today. And the most-talked-about brands today didn’t exist 25-30 years ago in India. Yet, when I researched this aspect of marketing history – and the brands individually – I came up with a big zero. There was no worthwhile data documenting marketing history in India. And the global brands? Well, that story unfolds here.

As you know, brands evolve over the years and represent an important aspect of our marketing history and our culture. A brand’s evolution is a reflection and representation of our cultural evolution – perhaps, not at a macroeconomic level, but definitely for specific consumer segments and subcultures. The impact brands have on consumers and cultures, or how they evolve to keep pace with behavioral and cultural changes, in an iterative process, are complex subjects. But, what makes these subjects refreshing is advertising.

Advertising connects brands with people. It communicates brand messages to its intended consumers and evolves with consumer responses to these messages as well as the brand’s performance in its ability to deliver on its promise. A record of brand advertising, therefore, should be a fairly accurate documentation of the brand in its evolution. However, when I researched this aspect of marketing history, not just with Indian brands but also with those which are internationally acclaimed, I came up with very little evidence of well-documented brand advertising.

As far as the brand’s ability to present its evolution from its corporate website went, its performance was appalling. Where was the brand idea leading with all this?

Some of the biggest brands didn’t even bother documenting their brand history or heritage or evolution. In most cases, companies documented the evolution of their brands as milestones in chronological lists. Many actually used the terms ‘milestones’ or ‘timeline’ – with little or no imagination in displaying their brand advertising. And, I’m talking about leading global brands like Cadbury’s, Nokia, Nike, Pepsi, MTV, FedEx and AT&T. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Cadbury Schweppes, FedEx and AT&T.

Only on rare occasions did I experience a refreshing change from this prosaic banter. And, was glad of it. So, without ado, let me present FCUK, Levi’s [you need to choose About LS&Co, History from the main menu and a new window will pop up], Absolut Vodka, Coca-Cola [also at Library of Congress here and here], and JELL-O.

15 May 2006

What's a poor Indian teen to do?

Marketing to Indian teens mustn’t be easy. Neither do we have skate-boarding youths, nor those who’re crazy for hip-hop music... the two most-prominent icons of the US teen market. Indian teen icons rest on Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Sachin Tendulkar and a few other film and cricket stars. It’s a person, not a culture. Even then, female icons are hard to come by.

If you consider Indian urban teen culture, in terms of habits, you’ll come up with hanging out in coffeehouses, video gaming (for the boys) and chatting on the Internet (for the girls). As far as appearances go, jeans, tees and tote bags are what you’ll see. Some branded sneakers too. A Nokia mobilephone, perhaps. Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell what the teen segment is all about.

Then, teenagers, as a category, lack loyalty. One day they’ll swear by Nike; the next, they’ve switched to Reebok or adidas. They may be on the Internet a lot longer than the average adult, but they don’t respond to online advertising messages. They watch a lot of TV as well, but they find it boring. One of their common complaints is that Indian TV channels don’t have enough programming to engage them. Some teenagers have even confessed to me that Indian media doesn’t even understand them.

At least, on cable TV, teenagers can find some release thanks to foreign programming. The print medium is worse. What’s disheartening is that there are hardly any teen magazines in India. Mumbai has its own JAM – Just Another Magazine – which sells some 30,000 copies, indeed covering a small portion of the huge teen audience. So, the rest turn to tabloids like Mid-day and Mumbai Mirror eagerly. My guess is that 30% of Mid-day’s readership is teen. For Mumbai Mirror, it’s likely to be double that. Other cities in India draw a complete blank.

Online teen communities, like MySpace.com in the US, are also non-existent in India. Somehow, India has just not been able to engage its teenagers – either through traditional channels of media or the new. In such circumstances, what’s a poor Indian teen to do?

13 May 2006

Three of the obvious

The urban teen segment is attractive to brands and marketers for several reasons. Here are three of the obvious:

The first, of course, is the fact that this segment possesses huge disposable income. No Indian figures are available here, but according to a CSM article from February this year, the US urban teen market is supposed to be worth $170 billion a year. Globally this should be... well, you figure it out.

Second, teens set trends which others follow. This segment (defined as 13-19 years of age) can actually influence the behaviour of the entire youth consumer group, ostensibly the 10-29 years of age bracket. That’s approximately one-third of the total world population of 6.6 billion. A huge consumer market indeed!

Third, all marketing and communication efforts and spends to attract this consumer segment lasts much longer. Teen consumers come into the brand’s fold earlier in their lives and, therefore, grow with the brand for years and years. Smart marketers can take advantage of this and offer products and services, and variants, to the same consumers at various stages in their lives. It’s a perfect recipe for building long-term relationships and CRM.

Shouldn’t you be doing something about this instead of reading this blog?

12 May 2006

A narrow version

While trying to understand the teen consumer market, I couldn’t help but make a trip down memory lane. Questions swam inside my head; and, since I wasn’t quite sure about the answers, I decided to write this post as a kind of record of my version of marketing history in India. A narrow version perhaps, just a sliver, but definitely an account to put on record.

What was it like to be a teenage consumer 25-30 years ago? Which brands were our favourites? How did we behave as teenage consumers – choosing one brand over another?

Before all that, let me come back to the present. A quick survey of brands from urban teenagers brought up names like Nokia, Reebok, Nike, adidas, Pepsi, Café Coffee Day, Sony, Microsoft, Levi’s, MTV, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal, Shoppers’ Stop and McDonald’s. I sighed sadly. Two of my favourites were missing: Google and Yahoo! But what I found most fascinating was that this top-of-mind list of 14 brands featured only two Indian names: Café Coffee Day and Shoppers’ Stop. Hats off to you! The rest, as you know, are top-of-the-line multinational brands.

When I go back 25-30 years, the startling discovery is that none of these 16 brands (14 + 2 of mine) existed then in India. Barring Coca-Cola perhaps, which was rooted out of the country, along with IBM, in 1977 by the Morarji Desai government. There were no mobilephones then, no personal computers, no Internet, no sneakers, no branded apparel, no branded retail chain stores, and hardly any TV to speak of.

TV transmission was in B&W, only for a few hours a day, from the Government-owned Doordarshan. TV sets were all local brands like Weston, Crown and Televista. Instead of sneakers, we had white canvas shoes called Keds, from Bata, which we had to wash with soap and water and colour it with white chalk. Pond’s led the show for personal care products for women – a queen among hundreds of small local brands. Soft drinks included nationally-distributed brands like ThumsUp, Campa-Cola, Limca, Gold Spot and Campa Orange. And, fast food typically meant idlis and dosas, bhel puris and pani puris, or kathi rolls and vada pavs – with a lot of regional preferences for taste.

Sounds funny, doesn’t it? I doubt if any teenagers will believe this today. But that apart, we may not have been too different from the teenagers of today in terms of consumer behaviour. That is, of course, speaking at a broad level. From my point of view, the way a teenager thinks today is quite similar to the way we teens did 25-30 years ago. It’s just that we didn’t have the pressure of too many consumer brands influencing our decisions. However, advertising and sales promotions were great motivators.

To make a small comparison, I picked up a few statements at random from marketing articles and papers describing the contemporary teen – going back a year and a half at the most – and reviewed them from my 25-30-year-old perspective. For simplicity, I’ve put these statements into a single paragraph as follows:

“Teenagers are very fickle and very averse to being marketed to… They see brands more as a means of defining themselves… They believe brands should allow people to make their own decisions… They buy into brands they can appreciate, a value system they have in common, an authenticity… Reaching today’s teens means meandering through more individual tastes and preferences… Homogeneity and old group stereotypes are out, individualism and authenticity are in…”

We, too, were individualistic in our choices. We, too, believed in authenticity – perhaps a lot more than the teenagers today. We, too, used whatever we possessed to define ourselves. This included our immediate environment and, therefore, we were less cosmopolitan than the teens today. Anybody trying to sell us anything had to automatically cater to individual tastes and preferences. We, too, disliked being marketed to and believed we were intelligent enough to make our own decisions. We, too, abhorred stereotypes and generalisations.

So, what has changed for teenagers today? What is new today which was not there 25-30 years ago?

Many things have changed, as they are bound to, including perspectives to teen life and marketing to teenagers. Here’s a list of four:

The omnipresence of the brand. Brands are everywhere today, increasing the number of options for teen consumers. They are in every product and service category, competing amongst themselves to capture a share of the teenager’s mind. Brands have even created new teen social castes with unique cultural differences.

The omnipresence of technology. There is some aspect of technology in every aspect of a teen’s life. First and foremost, technology has speeded up life for the teenager. It has given birth to many new products and services. It has created many new methods of product and service delivery. It has shaped news methods of information dissemination and evaluation. It has made many products, services and applications obsolescent.

The teen lifestyle. A lifestyle which is totally dependent on ownership of gadgets and tools, with accompanying software, is what the teen thrives on. A lifestyle, of an insatiable need for content to explore the world which these gadgets and tools allow. A lifestyle, dependent on the virtual world rather than the physical one we oldies lived in.

The emergence of barefaced marketing greed. A huge appetite that marketers and brands have today – to prey upon and feed off the needs of the growing teen consumer segment.

11 May 2006

The 'third place'

Teens today no longer think of brands as a sign of quality. Rather, they take quality for granted, something that is built into the product. If the brand fails in quality, or underperforms in any way, don’t even expect that brand to survive in the teen domain. The bad news will spread like wildfire through the peer-to-peer channels and kill the brand instantly.

That’s because teens thrive on interpersonal communications. It’s what they trust. Much of their information gathering and dissemination is done through interpersonal communications. They are on the phone (an hour a day, some researchers say more); they are on the Internet (e-mailing, messaging, chatting, blogging); they are hanging out at cybercafes, coffeehouses and malls. Networking all the time. Their information flows back and forth – and gets enriched in the process.

I find this ‘syndrome’ quite fascinating. For teenagers today, the information space has changed radically. They no longer rely on the traditional media for news and information, thereby killing all opportunities for newspapers, magazines, TV and radio to reach them. They congregate and thrive on this ‘third place’ – a virtual world of information and friendships – exchanging information, images, music, video clips... and opinion.

In a way, the social behaviour of teenagers today is not all that different from what we – the oldies – used to do, say, 25 years ago. We also looked for the ‘third place’ – a place other than home or college – to kill time. It’s just that we had no options then as teens do today. So, we used to hang around in our colleges – perhaps in the college canteens – till it was time to go home. Of course, we’d catch a film now and then, but so do teens today.

The universal fact is, teenagers have free time – lots of free time – and they look for appealing options to hangout in to spend this time. The Internet does offer a virtual place to do this, but there’s no taking away the need for a physical place. Hence, the obvious options of coffeehouses and malls. What teens typically look for are people of their own age, music, films, fast food, video games, and clothing and fashion accessories stores. But most important of all, they look for a place where they can sit and relax for a while.

When we were teens, didn’t we oldies want exactly that?

10 May 2006

Marketing to teens

I actually believe ‘Rang De Basanti’ has done an excellent job of reaching out to Indian teens. Yes, the ending is a bit controversial, but the film has been able to connect with teens in India – some of whom have seen the film several times and have memorised the dialogues. Sadly, Indian advertising is way behind when it comes to understanding the Indian teen and creating communication that reaches out to these teens and delivering messages the way ‘Rang De Basanti’ has done.

How do Indian teenagers perceive themselves? Do they see themselves as smart, good-looking, well-groomed, fair-complexioned winners who are instantly found attractive by their opposite sex? Or, do they take stock of their actual lives and, perhaps sigh and say, “That’s not me in that ad. But, I’d like to be?” Or, do they ignore the advertising altogether in preference for the company of their friends and their opinions when it comes to choosing brands they should buy?

Maybe there’s something to learn from what’s happening around the world. After all, advertising is a reflection of contemporary culture and, internationally, advertisers are paying heavily to create images that today’s teen will identify with and help sell their brands.

Why is marketing to teens so important today? Simply because teens have become heavy consumers. Not only are they buying things with their own money, they are influencing purchases made by their parents – some of which are, again, for teen consumption. And, if they have younger siblings who are emulating teen behaviour, then it’s an even bigger market than what advertisers have experienced before.

What’s more, because teens are becoming consumers at an early age, they are also going to remain consumers for a longer time. So, if brand marketers can win them over and get them to spend money on their brands now, it’s likely that teens – as they grow up and provided the brand experience is outstanding – will remain loyal to those brands longer.

So, is there a formula for marketing to teens that works across all brands? Perhaps there is, but I don’t know it yet. I’m a great believer of the philosophy recommended by Josh Shipp (see my 3 May post) – entertain, inspire, empower – which I believe works across nations, languages, lifestyles and ethnic backgrounds. I believe it works just as well in advertising and media as much as in education and counselling. And, it doesn’t have to be confined to teens – whether as people or consumers.

The essence of this philosophy is ‘freedom’ – free speech, allowing freedom to the consumer – which really isn’t a new discovery. It’s just that advertisers have always sidestepped this concept to beat their own chests and shout about how great their brands are over other brands. Today’s teen doesn’t want to be told which brand is great for him or her and, therefore, has very little confidence in brand advertising. They tend to meet advertising with cynicism.

Teens have more confidence in each other and value the opinions of their peer groups. To them, their social networks carry more trust than brand advertising, and they actively seek information and participate in peer-to-peer dialogue. Teens are constantly connecting with their friends (thanks to mobilephones, emails and internet messengers) and hanging out together. Believe me, a lot of brand decisions are taken during those dialogues.

Those brands which have understood this philosophy and have applied it to their brand marketing are the ones who are getting along well with teenagers today. Sony, Nokia, Apple, Pepsi, Nike and adidas are the best examples of this kind of marketing. Teen online communities such as MySpace, Friendster, Tremor (P&G’s teen site) and, of course, blogging have made it all possible.

05 May 2006

Did 'Rang De Basanti' fail us?

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty, and truth, and compassion against injustice, and lying, and greed. If people all over the world, in thousands of rooms like this one would do this, it would change the Earth.”
[William Faulkner, 1951, commencement speech when his daughter Jill graduated from high school in Oxford, Mississippi]

Our parents, teachers and elders are a bag of mixed messages. They tell us to be honest, but not hurt anyone’s feelings. They tell us to speak frankly, but be polite at the same time. They tell us to help others in trouble, but not get into trouble ourselves while helping them. They tell us to fight for justice, but not at the cost of damaging our (and their) reputation.

So, which one is it going to be? Which precept should we follow? Which standard should we adopt for ourselves in order to be good human beings?

We know we should applaud positive thoughts, images and actions. We know we should protest those that are damaging. We know we should get involved and change what’s corrupting our society. We know we should live freely and not be swayed by fear or anger or oppression. But sometimes, in doing so, we lose sight of the laws that govern us and break the codes of normal social conduct. Just as our group of heroes – and one heroine – did in the film ‘Rang De Basanti’. They were swayed by anger and oppression (not fear, mind you). They took the path of the lawless and murdered people.

What kind of an example is this film setting for our teenagers? Is this how we respond to oppression today?

Over the past few months, I’ve been speaking to teenagers, some youths in their mid-twenties and some adults too, about ‘Rang De Basanti’. Curiously, I’ve received a very passive response from most people. They all found the film fascinating – except the end. They all said that that’s not what happens in real life. That, we are non-violent people. That, we are not freedom fighters any longer, rising up against British oppression. That, murder is not in our DNA.

Curiously, again, when I asked them, “In that case, what would you do? How would you script the ending to ‘Rang De Basanti’?,” these teenagers didn’t have a concrete answer. After some ho-hum they said that they would petition, start an agitation, etc. When I reminded them that these steps were already taken in ‘Rang De Basanti’ and the actions of our heroes were crushed by the establishment, the teenagers seemed to lose interest in the topic and sauntered off.

What does this say about Indian teenagers today? Did ‘Rang De Basanti’ fail us altogether?

03 May 2006

What if we empowered teenagers?

We all have our own reasons for doing what we do.

We live in an ever-changing world. For us, the world adopts new principles every day and this enables us to grow. Things evolve and branch out from what they once were to take on new meanings. Whether these meanings describe socio-cultural or religious traditions, or self-image enhancements, is another story. It is likely that, in the hustle and bustle of a world that stresses the importance of self-image and expression (and that it does!), many traditional meanings and behaviour will be lost.

In this milieu, we have our teenagers – shaping their world, making sense of it all – bravely facing the options we present to them.

Teenagers are not too different from the rest of us. They also want to connect with people – interact with others. They want to be recognised for who they are and what they do. They want to be entertained like we do. Be inspired like we do. We just have to invest the time to meet them where they are. Teenagers, or anyone for that matter, are empowered by knowing that they are valued, that they contribute.

These words are not entirely mine; they are borrowed from Josh Shipp’s philosophy of entertaining, inspiring and empowering teenagers.

Josh Shipp, no longer a teenager, is a motivational speaker for the youth. He writes books on teen development, and has recently started an inspirational film company called Empower Films™ whose mission is to create relevant short films that entertain, inspire, and empower teenagers. Josh’s personal story of triumph over tragedy (abandoned, neglected and abused as a child) inspires youth to overcome life’s struggles and live life to the fullest.