A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

As a strategic planner, I try to make choices clear for a marketer: for example, whether a campaign needs to talk about ‘new ingredients’, ‘benefit of new ingredients’, ‘advantage of the product’, emotional pitch for the brand and so on. Now, for a reasonable person, making that choice, though not easy, is possible. All it needs is to do is to consider the data at hand, understand the objective well and review lessons learnt in past.

The point is, for a communication to be strong, marketers must choose ‘one’ direction. Mostly, I propose a choice to them with a rationale why. Most of the times those suggestions are accepted. But then comes a certain breed of clients that can’t make up its minds.

It treats communications as an act of piloting an airplane. a lever dialed down here, a button pushed there. They recognise the various variables at play. But instead of choosing the one variable to push for this one campaign, they try to pilot their brand through the inundated sea of medias with a single commercial that talks of five different things – ofcouse – some ‘dialled up’ and some ‘dialled down’.

These commercials always ‘pass like a ship in the night.’ Then it becomes a challenge in avoiding the inevitable when the  client has made up its mind about the whole business of dialing up and down.

The trick is to understand that, while the marketing plan and budgeting might be similar to piloting an airplane with various dials to turn up and down. When it comes to a campaign, it is more like rowing a boat. Build on previous strength and pedal forward in a defined direction. No room of pedaling other boats or pedaling in multiple directions at the same time.

Choose one direction, choose wisely, push hard.

The theater of freedom

The theater of freedom

In the sense that security guards at an airport are part of the ‘security theater‘ – for e.g., the guard mechanically moving a beeping baton across your crotch for explosives might not actually reduce the risk of  a terrorist attack as much it makes people feel secure that someone is doing something to reduce the threat of terrorism.

Advertising plays a similar role. It creates a ‘freedom theater’ for the creatively inclined within the system. In the straight jacketed world of corporate hypocrisy, the capitalist system has advertising in its midst to let go of steam of the most dangerous lot of people; the people with imagination. Imagine if all the creative folks who could be thinking of utopias, who could write dangerous ideas of alternatives to ‘status-quo’ were let to do that. Instead, they get hired in corporate jobs. ‘Hey. I get to think of ideas and get paid for it too!’. In an anarchist, communist society, ideas would be freely shared without any premium. In a capitalist world, ideas and even half-baked perspectives are worth millions in speculative dollars.

Entering offices wearing T-shirt of our choice creates that false sense of freedom. There’s that sense of being not a machine yet. It is superficial, but we at least have that.

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

The amoral tounge

In my earlier years of advertising, I was fairly uneasy with the thought of working in advertising on moral grounds. There is a sense of lack of control over the truth about what we are talking about on behalf of the brand. In a sense, advertising is just a rented tongue for an organisation. The tongue doesn’t control the hands and legs or even the mind of the organisation. The disembodied nature of corporate makes it easy for morality to escape its being. Advertising says sweet things, it serenades consumers with beautiful tag lines and jingles, it says sorry on behalf of insincere suitors when shit hits the fan. It would all have been fine if advertising industry had the ‘agency’ to direct and compel organisations to ‘walk the talk’. But it can’t. and there in lies a problem.

The agency-less agencies

For example I worked on Volkswagen’s campaign for ‘blue planet’ early in my career, talking about their ecological innovations. And then it turns out that it is a fucking decepticon of a brand that innovated a lying machine to save itself from it’s ecological responsibility. What a douche brand.

Then came Nestle’s asshole MD talking about privatising all water of the earth. And then came the lead laced maggi. How fucking irresponsible. And I was working in Publicis then, it’s Agency On Record, globally. I managed to not work on that brand for most of the time. But I was not comfortable working in the company that worked for Nestle, and I quit soon after.

I jumped the ship the first chance I got with Junxion strategy, an agency working in the social sector (NGOs, CSR etc). The opportunity to do something good with my narrow skill set was tremendously exciting. But it couldn’t sustain.

I returned to advertising with a clarity there after. I joined Dentsu a tad bit mature from the earlier angry phase of working in advertising. I accepted the role with the realistic appraisal of its limitations and morality.

Advertising industry is a symptom, the disease is Capitalism

Systemically, advertising is morally problematic. But once you accept that you are within the system, then you can try to work with good people and better brands from within the system. That choice is liberating: If you can’t cure the disease, then it your duty to at-least alleviate the symptoms. There is always a choice to be made, to rebel and to strengthen an alternative system (to cure the disease)  or to work with the system (to alleviate the symptoms until you can cure the disease). But until you have the wherewithal and clarity of rebelling constructively, work within the system, as constructively as possible within the small domain of your existence.

I know that systemically, I am contributing to the capitalist engine of pollution – polluting minds, polluting ecology, polluting communities. But there’s a large distance between the immediate ‘good’ that I am doing and long distance ‘bad’ I am contributing to. It’s a trade-off with which I have made my peace for now.

Fight for your tomorrow

Fight for your tomorrow

A generation working against its own interest

It’s been 7 years since I entered the world of advertising. It’s been longer than that with the attempt to understand world and power – by reading Chomsky, Ambedkar, Amartya Sen and so on. As you can imagine (if you have read these people that is), there was a certain heaviness of heart with which I worked in my early years in advertising. How to reconcile with the utopia of a non-consumerist worldview where humanity is undivided and equal, with the reality of consumerist culture that not only perpetuates but glorifies inequality? Working in advertising meant perpetuating this reality, against  the utopia that I must work for. I am working against my interest!

And I see around and see so many people doing the same. They can’t articulate it, but they know it deep down. That unease, that momentary recklessness.. We all feel that discomfort but we can’t name it. Here’s you name for it – its the pain of severing ties with the world that nurtures you – your family, your community, your ecology. It’s the pain of severance for an imposed injunction to enjoy. We are working against our future to make our present a little more comfortable.

How did the ‘powers that be’ convinced us to live and work against our own interest?

We rationalise it in the interest of certainty of today’s livelihood. We rationalise it in the face of apparent overwhelming global consensus – ‘YOLO’, spend your way to happiness; “only today matters, for tomorrow may never come”. This philosophy  is convenient for the global capitalist power. Since this philosophy has no conception for tomorrow.

It is the commercialized version of ‘American dream’. It is ‘Id’s dream, imposed on the ‘superego’. It is an empty dream of excess. It is a childish dream of narcissistic joys, now! It has no conception of a realistic tomorrow – of where we are going and where we should be going. That is what the capitalist ‘system‘ (not particular people, but particular interests of power webs) wants us to believe. “Fuck the planet, fuck your family, fuck your community, fuck everyone else. enjoy NOW. for those empty pursuits fund our ego massages.”

The globalised world  creates a sense of an opportunity, an opportunity to escape from the mess one creates. Global mobility is your passport to the dream of remorseless enjoyment… of an eternal escape to ‘better places’ with impunity. Hence the profusion of travel pics on facebook. It creates a distance between one’s acts and its effect. Oops! I did it again. and i hope it will be taken care of by the time I come back. Or not. We have nostalgia in its place anyways. which is even better. it is like reality, but better.

How did I get here?

By not fighting against the flow. You just go with the flow – school, college, MBA, corporate ladder, increments, cars, loans etc. and if you have no clear conception of an alternative, you just go with the flow. The media and education system doesn’t exactly prepare us to ask the right questions, to work together in formulating and working towards a utopia. You just do what is seemingly working for others.

So what now?

Like every good plan, mine looks ahead with a sound (i hope) appreciation of reality of today; a realistic vision of utopia you want to work towards while earning honestly in service of the future. This blog and this one is an attempt to articulate that utopia, to plant / support that meme of the utopia we need. I plan to do more in ways of content and engagements in service of a tomorrow built with cognizance of reality seen from a compassionate perspective.

The second part is about survival today. I hope to do that by honestly helping businesses grow through my skills in strategic choice making, in the present tense. There is a time to fight the system and a time to work with the system. Earn within the system to fight the system, essentially.

What is “Positioning”? Separating faff from fact.

What is “Positioning”? Separating faff from fact.

<Cryptic high brow summation>
Knowing simply what something is,
is not enough.
One must know what is it for,
to know it well.
</Cryptic high brow summation>

1. Positioning as a consumer’s idea of your brand

Recently, I was left scratching my head after an hour of brainstorming session with my colleagues for re-positioning a brand that we work for. The reason for my confusion was the confidence with which people suggested ideas that were not useful – they were imaginative and quite amazing at times, but not useful for the purpose of brand positioning. I can’t share the ideas that we actually discussed, but here’s an exaggerated lists of ideas that I made up now for the sake of illustration –
‘purposeful hunger’, ‘pragmatic daredevil’, ‘Cocooning warmth’, ‘ethical driving’, ‘nature inspired’, ‘bath-living room’, ‘Live the dream’… and so on.

So here I am, clearing out the confusion and trying to make sense of what a ‘positioning’ is and what it is not.

What positioning is not

  1. It is not our literary aspirations
  2. It is not a category level benefit
  3. It is not a consumer definition
  4. It is not an ‘insight’
  5. It is not descriptor of the business model
  6. It isn’t just a descriptor of the brand

What positioning is.

Imagine a consumer who wants a brand of deo but has forgotten the brand name. Then,

Positioning is specifically what the consumer asks for at the shop (or the keywords he/she uses to search online) when she means to buy your brand, to the exclusion of any other brand, when she doesn’t recall the brand name to ask for.

So it is the adjective, verb or the idea that she uses to describe your brand uniquely.

That is my understanding of it anyways. So any articulation of positioning that is not likely to be uttered by a consumer is not a positioning, it is just an impression of their needs at best. (which is useful, but not the solution yet.)

So when we craft a positioning statement, or articulate it sharply, it must be articulated in the spirit of role playing, in a sense. It must be written from the consumer perspective. It is sort of an articulation of desire of the brand owners – what the brand should mean to a consumer in consumer’s voice.

So if a consumer who is standing at the counter of a retail shop asks, “Bhaiya, ek accha deodrant dena” (Brother, give me a good Deodrant), he is simply asking for ‘any’ deodrant. This guy doesn’t give a shit about brands. ‘good’ is not a positioning. But if he says, “Boss, woh bina gas waala deo do.” (Boss, Give me the deo that has no gas), he knows what he wants even if he doesn’t remember the brand name. In his head and under his armpits, now there is a space occupied by a brand for its unique proposition. That is a positioning. But that is not adequate, too. Competitors might soon come up with gas less deos. In this case if the consumers say “Bhai, woh original bina gas ka deo do’ (Give me the original gas-less deo.) then the brand is positioned as the original, the pioneer of the category. But even that is risky. How long will hipsters keep bankrolling authenticity if competitors bring new brands with better propositions? The penultimate desire is for the brand to own the category proposition, to rename the category proposition by the brand name. So the brand would be happy if the consumer says”Give me Fogg.” end of story.

But like it happened with Maggi (“Bhaiyya, woh Ramdev walla maggi do”), even this positioning is not fool proof. Even worse, if you are disingenuous dipshit of a brand, you could end up as doubtful and harmful brand. (“Bhaiyya, woh Maggi waala maggi nahi dena. usme zeher hai.”) (Don’t give me that Maggi maggi. It has poison.)

The ultimate desire of a brand is to become the arbiter of identity through class and lifestyles. So when a desperate human in need of identity says that he is an ‘iphone guy’ or a ‘Bullet guy‘, the brands have done fucking swimmingly well for themselves. But there can only be so many brands that could become identity markers. Don’t try to do it if you are not prepared for it. Especially if you are ‘impressed identity’ brand. More about that later.

 2. Taglines and positioning

From my perspective, taglines are best leveraged when they articulate the positioning well. They sort of serve the function of encouraging a nod from the consumer, “yes this is what I want/feel”. They reinforce the brand’s role in the user’s life. So I get confused with brands that, in an effort to become lifestyle identity markers, use flowery meaningless english words as taglines.

Sample these actual tag lines at random –

‘We touch lives’
‘Innovation that excites’
‘Way of life!’ (with a fucking exclamation mark no less)

What positioning can you divine from these words? What possible purpose do they serve?  The first possibly is a gambit at retaining employees (“We really do matter, don’t leave”). The second is trying too hard to look exciting and innovative. The third is complete faff. The brand is a leader. It can live very well without those three words hanging below the giant brand name.
None of them ‘position’ the brand in any useful manner – the need being met is not communicated, the unique quality of the brand is not articulated.

Instead a more honest reflection could have resulted in better taglines. I will make an attempt for it now. I am not working on any of these three brands now, so I might not get the strategic thought right, but anyways…

  1. HCL is a conglomerate with varied interests – Computing hardware, BPOs, healthcare, etc. Their only differentiator is their origin – Indian. (But nationalism will matter little to their global clients) Their services and products are at parity if at slightly better value.(assumption) The leaders in their category typically  are more innovative, are bigger or are well established. The company has global aspirations.
    So essentially, An Indian David versus global Goliaths fighting with gumption. Why not have a positioning similar to what Avis did. Who doesn’t like underdogs? Perhaps the suits in the corner offices don’t, who often are their primary consumers. But the company has made a choice to target employees and prospective employees for brand communications.So proposition has to talk to both suits and employees about hardware, service and healthcare too! Too tall an order. Perhaps the brand architecture needs a bit of pruning. But for the sake of this exercise… Suits do like aggressive go-getters who get the job done and employees like to work at a place that is driven and patients like commited staff to take care of them. So how about, “Committed.” Which will need specific acts and rituals to be instituted by the brand for it to reflect reality.
    Hmm… not as good, but I guess I will leave it at that for now.
  2. Nissan has sexy cars! India can do with some sexy cars. Why can’t it’s tag line simply be, ‘We make sexy cars’. Well, I checked and they haven’t brought their sexy cars to India. shame. Well, I don’t really know what they bring to the table apart from another ‘option’ for Indian consumers. There can’t be a positioning in a vacuum. So it will automatically be positioned as simply another option. Certainly not innovative or exciting. Where’s the ‘reason to believe’. Assuming they are at parity, i will take up one of the product qualities that no other brand owns and that appeals to their TG – maybe the ride experience. And suggest the brand to build their value proposition around this promise. perhaps, ‘Have a good ride‘.
  3. Maruti Suzuki is a juggernaut. It put Indians in four wheels. It continues to grow beyond the wildest dreams of its competitors. Why not simply ‘India’s pride’. Well its workers might not agree to that – more like India’s shame. However it does have a strong legacy and a role for making Indians mobile. But must say so without making it look like a mass brand, at the cost of losing out in premium categories. So perhaps,
    “Dream cars for all Indians”

Essentially, what I have tried to do is prune the faff out of positioning and arrive at positioning that articulate what the brand might want the consumers to think of them, in words that consumers might understand and use themselves.

3. Positioning is relative

The ‘Position’ of a brand is relative – to competitors, to the society, to other categories. And as these variables change with time, so should the positioning.

There’s no strategic advantage in being the 37th health insurer who ‘really cares for you’. #CynicismForTheWin
There might be a strategic advantage in being the 1st health insurer to insure against all eventuality (fat chance) or redressal/ disbursement in ’30 minutes or less’ (fat chance)
There’s no strategic advantage in being the best messaging app on Blackberry in the age of Android and iPhones. There might be a strategic advantage in being the most secure messaging app in the world.
In the age of crooked car companies who fool regulators (Volkswagen), there is a strategic advantage in being the honest car maker who recalls cars for the slightest glitches.