“Relatability”

“Relatability”

The context

So recently we shared two creative options for a campaign. I wish we hadn’t. But we did.

Imagine the product is a soap targeted to housewives. The product is better because it smells of pleasant cuttle fish, instead of the generic smell of sardines that all the competitor soaps have. (For the sake of argument, imagine a world where being clean, has so far, always meant smelling of sardines. So in this world, people do not take a bath if they have to engage in social functions.)

So the first film was a humorous take on a working woman’s dilemma of using that soap before going to the clothes retail outlet where she works. She hasn’t taken a bath in a long time and really is in pains to do so. But then the sardine smell will scare away the customers. But then she gets to know about the new cuttle fish soap and the world is alright again. (please read these scripts with a huge dollop and then a pinch of salt. I am exaggerating for benefit of no one but my kicks. Oh yes, and to not let out the brand or the category.)

The other film was a generic category film – housewives working at home scratching their backs and in need of a bath. They go get a bath with the new soap. Mother-in-law approves of the bathed daughter-in-law who surprisingly doesn’t smell as bad. End of story.

When we narrated the two scripts – clients laughed at the right time for the first film. The second film elicited familiar nods – ticked all the check boxes.

The first was potentially memorable – simple, apt yet disruptive setting; clear role of brand and need incidence. More importantly, there was a strong emotional payoff – removal of a real social anxiety. Strategically it was very sound. The client however, was concerned that in their culture, women don’t work at retail garment shops. And they don’t wear saris as much here.

And that brings us to the order of the day.

Suspension of Disbelief and Relatability

In Barjatiya films, we relate to the mansion owning, ferrari driving ‘good boy’ who follows “Indian traditions” and agonizes over minor cultural infractions. We relate to Prem, Rahul and all the other misunderstood millionaires, even though we have never stepped into mansions and ferraris. We don’t own billion dollar businesses. Yet, we not only relate to their heartaches, but we wish we could have the problems they are having.

If you could choose the problems you have to face in life, which one would you chose?

  1. Your biggest concerns are eviction, loss of livelihood, hunger, respect etc when you are poor, frail and low on self confidence.
  2. Your biggest concern is earning a ‘yes’ from the girl you love when she can see already that you are wealthy, stable, handsome and from a royal lineage.

Obviously, you will choose no.2. People who watch movies, want the problems that the hero in the film is having. When watching the film, they are playing the role of the hero in their minds. For once, life doesn’t seem as hopeless. For once, they would win a battle. For once, they will get what they want.

Here, relatability is not a problem. People, from their innermost core of being, want to relate to the heroes. There is a ‘suspension of disbelief’ because people want to believe in the story, want to live vicariously the rich life that is forever out of reach for them in real life.

So the question is, if humans have the capacity to entertain a sufficiently large gap in reality with their ‘suspension of disbelief’, what kinds of instances will break that suspension, which ones will succeed in maintaining the mirage?

The Decision

With the first script, was the setting really alien? It was not. Women do work in shops here, this is no Saudi Arabia. If you stroll through a market here, you can see at-least 30% of the shops being run by women. Secondly, though most women wear skirts, the traditional dress is the sari here too. Even if they don’t (for the sake of argument), any person (man or woman) can relate to peculiarities of choosing a shirt/ skirt/ pant/ saree to buy. The dilemmas and role of fashion is almost universal. The fabric, form and designs may differ, but the drive to appear desirable is universal.

Secondly, reality does not inspire actions – utopia (what reality can be) does.

People want to relate to people they think they can be, not people who are like themselves. That is why ads will always depict lifestyles one or two steps removed from that of the real TG. That is why, the first film also could have worked better – because for women who often work on fields and in hard labour, work in air-conditioned showrooms is aspirational. The younger ones do leave villages to work happily in fashion showrooms, don’t they?

Instead, the second script was chosen eventually by the client – because they felt it was more relatable. Death by committee. Committee goes with the safest choice -the MIL and DIL interaction, done to death by a million categories in almost all countries. The easiest way to get lost in clutter.

The way to break the clutter is to stay true to the emotional need but change the context enough to be new yet within the limits of the suspension of disbelief. But not many clients can suspend their disbelief in power of human emotions, their empathy. They resort to hackneyed concepts of “SEC” divisions and other catch phrases that mean absolutely nothing to save themselves from taking a decision to change.

The importance of knowing the unsaid objective

The importance of knowing the unsaid objective

The situation – Death by committee

So imagine an impulse purchase soap brand. (Because all brands are soap brands for the purpose of this blog.) Client wanted to do an ad because ‘it has not been advertised for a while now.’ We push. We ask, how exactly will advertising help the brand now? Some confusing slides that perhaps were rehashed from another presentation find their way into our inboxes. We ask what it means – contradictory briefs in one brief. So they try to rationalise. We don’t get a satisfactory answer. We do our own thinking. Figure out that there is a bigger potential for growth if we target certain occasions. So we need to increase occasion based TOM for brand. Client agrees – exactly what they meant apparently. So we give them beautiful ideas to solve the problem.

But the brand has made a problem solution commercial in another country. Someone somewhere in the client hierarchy likes that work. He wants to do something like that. But we argue that the category is impulse, problem solution will narrow its relevance down. But client persists. So we do a second round of even better and potentially very memorable problem solution ads.

But someone somewhere in the client world has woken up. Says how can we do problem solution. Says we need to just ‘tweak’ the scripts. Just focus on the solution. Not the problem. #facepalm

The reading of the situation

For any given project, no matter how effectively you suggest a strategy that is sound and reasonable, the solution will be shaped by the power dynamics at the marketer’s office. (BU wants this, boss wants that, APAC/ Global head wants something else, research team wants to save its ass by pasting these things etc).

The truth is – Power dynamics define what the brand says, not the strategy.

So, if you can ‘align’ the ‘story’ of the idea with the power-that-be’s perspective, the chance of it actually happening is higher. Hence, must always get the big guy in the conversation at the earliest stage. What exactly does the CEO/marketing director want with this campaign? What is his interest? What is his angle. Not knowing this can lead to futile waste of time, efforts and most importantly, will affect creative team’s morale when they think that the creative idea is at fault, but the reality is about the unsaid objective that they never knew of.

A junior marketing executive, no matter how ambitious and bright, will seldom have the perspective of the APAC head/ country head. From close to the ground, there are many problems that a brand faces and that the executive wants us to solve. But a 30,000 ft perspective of the leader is more illuminating Рhis perspective will be about existential threats to the brand  and the long term interest of the brand. This is the perspective we need to know before we begin work.

Beyond the perspective, there is power play too. There are local heads, national heads, global heads – too many heads to deal with one thing. The multiple power centers in the client company might have competing interests. They might want different things from the campaign? Now these machinations are beyond our control and view. But, it helps if we know these unsaid objectives. What is the leadership’s perspective? what do they stand to gain/ lose?¬† If it doesn’t concern them immediately, great! But if it does, what are their concerns?

If the agency doesn’t know the many invisible hands at play, they are rendered dumb, groping in the dark for some validation, wasting time and efforts on pitches they were never going to win, doing hard work for campaigns that will never see the light of day.

Must know what the multiple interests are, who are the players. Must know the bird’s eye’s perspective of the business as well as the perspective from the ground. Once we know these things, simple common sense will do.

There’s an idea in the soap sud

There’s an idea in the soap sud

Grooming is magical.
I am not talking about hygiene here. I am talking about the fantastic ability of our minds to groom its thoughts while we groom our bodies. It is as if there are switches on our bodies – on the scalp, on tooth, on the skin. As water falls/ razor shears/ tooth brushes on these switches, the mind wakes up an army of little switchboard operators in our heads. These little people get busy connecting all the ideas that lay flaying unconnected, unrecognised so far. And while we stare at ourselves stupidly in mirrors/ at soap suds/ at the objective zero (our own personal abyss our thoughts sometimes gets lost in), a fresh new thought bubbles out of that stupor, like a ray of sun piercing a dark cloud. And it is these thoughts that truly wake you up. They wake you up to a new reality, a new perspective, an obvious truth, a solution to problem that was grinding down our lives and we didn’t even know that it was.
Eureka!
And now you can walk confident in the day, unafraid of all the invisible hands, of invisible interests, of deceitful exchanges, of useless greetings and inane content. For every morning, the grime of the world will wash away as ideas will slowly illuminate the truth of all that was unseen so far.