How dare you.
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.Greta Thunberg
How dare we?
Even as ecosystems collapse, climate change exacerbates refugee crisis and our survival becomes more and more precarious, we continue to go on with our business as usual. We tell ourselves that it’s someone else’s job. We tell ourselves that market will correct itself. But will it really? Do brands & brand-creators really have no role to play in the fast approaching tragedy of climate change?
Brands alleviated the pain of the Sisyphean tragedy of modern capitalism. Brands taught the world how to want. Brands gave the notion of free will and choices when it comes to consumption. It made the powerless feel powerful – that their choices, their consumption mattered. The consumptive soma that advertising created, filled the world with euphoria, making people forget about the differences that divided them, for a while. The promise of abundance, growth, prosperity united the world in a beautiful hope.
Essentially, brands created the over-consumptive world that is now hurtling down towards climate catastrophe. If brands, collectively, had a role to play in getting us to where we are, we surely can find ourselves a role in the new world. We can be one of the guardians of humanity in the new epoch of reckoning with the abundance-without-consequence era. We must.
Gradually and then suddenly
We humans are reasonably capable of imagining future worlds, of estimating the possible shape of things to come. Climate change won’t come as a surprise to many. However, what we positively suck at, is estimating the speed with which we rush headlong into the future. No matter how well we might estimate the future, we always arrive there surprised.
Most Brands too would find themselves unprepared to cater to a world that has suddenly shifted on its consumptive axis. Climate change awareness is increasing rapidly. Corporates and brands need to catch with the rest of the global population.
To ensure that brands don’t fall through the cracks when the chasm of climate-change-consciousness opens, we need to start charting a course for our brands for that future, right now. Like a stock exchange, where it is nearly impossible to gauge when a stock’s price will bottom out/ max out, it is just as impossible to predict when the cultural tipping point regarding climate change would pass.
Climate change will become an all-encompassing social reality sooner than later and there’s no time better than now to start working towards it.
Brands in Good faith
The problem with fighting an amorphous, all-encompassing situation is its overwhelming nature. There are no ready answers. There isn’t even a complete appreciation of the problem. At the first instant when humanity confronts reality of climate change, our faces are painted with shades of bafflement and our spirits shrink rapidly with the recognition of what we have collectively done.
Our instinct tells us to deny, to dust the awesome, under the carpet.
But the time has come for each one of us to be bigger than that: To muster the courage to see the situation as it is, to feel helpless along with others and to seek out help and help each other out.
Time has come for brands too, to examine the world it created, in good faith and be prepared to change RADICALLY: By seeking help, by collaborating with other organisations.
Climate change poses an existential risk. And as such, every organisation, every individual must be a soldier in the fight against our own extinction. It is not a fight that one can opt out of.
The primary ‘purpose’ of every organisation in 21st century must be to help humanity survive and thrive as climate change’s impacts become more and more apparent.
A comprehensive awareness of our brand’s impact on the world is critically needed, the assessment of which, must be done in good faith.
4 Principles of Building Brands in the Climate Change Epoch
Prof. Jem Bendell’s paper, ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ has been deeply inspirational to me. I have used his Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration framework to inform the four principles of brand building in climate change epoch.
We, the brand-builders and brand owners, must ask ourselves,
- Does our brand’s existence harm anyone in anyway? If yes, how can we change?
- How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?
- How much are we willing to give up in the interest of humanity’s survival? How do we plan to relinquish things that might make matters worse?
- What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?
1. Does our existence harm anyone?
A brand might be fighting against patriarchal standards of beauty, but if its packaging ends up clogging world’s oceans, the net impact is negative, isn’t it?
The time where brands could externalise environmental costs is over. As climate change consciousness takes hold, a brand would be forced to reckon with every decision it takes, every act it perpetrates. ‘Eternal vigilance’ will be the price of humanity’s survival.
2. How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?
A consumer’s need is a market opportunity. With climate change, there will be newer opportunities for brands to cater to. However, unlike 20th century, where profit motive and shareholder returns were the Raison D’être of corporate (and hence brands) existence; 21st century brands cannot afford to be sociopathic. Profit must be balanced against ensuring equitable access. As economic inequality increases, brands that profiteer are bound to tip the world towards violence and anarchy.
3. How much are we willing to give up in the interest of humanity’s survival? How do we plan to relinquish things that might make matters worse?
Going forward, relinquishment would be an integral part of our way of life. We can’t have it all. Science tells us that there are limits to resource exploitation and their rate of renewal.
This impacts the fundamental aspect of capitalist economies: competition. Competition can’t externalise its cost anymore. Competition can’t run unchecked.
Industries and brands would need to compete in a new scenario where the most aggressive player gets kicked out. Sportsmanship, if not exhibited, will be enforced soon enough with regulations.
In this scenario, brands must be willing to relinquish things that might give them an advantage but are detrimental to people. Can brands relinquish profit margins that affect access to critical medicines for climate affected refugees? Can a fast food brand relinquish its star of the menu – beef burgers – to reduce methane emissions? Can an electric motor company relinquish its IP and help accelerate adoption of green tech?
Some brands are already doing the right thing. Consider Tesla and its open sourcing of IP for its electric car designs and Neuralink.
4. What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?
Would you want your children to grow up in a world where lakes don’t exist, where urban birds are extinct, where traditional dances and festivals have been confined to documentaries?
Over the last few centuries, we have been losing much of humanity’s treasure trove of indigenous knowledge systems and cultural practices. Embedded in these knowledge systems are secrets to ways of living in harmony with the world, ways of appreciating beauty, methods to survive with natural world.
Brands can find purpose in helping restore some of these. Restore a lake, restore a cultural practice, restore a community’s way of life.
The world is too beautiful and wondrous to give up on. It’s time for brands to engage in good faith with the world. It’s time for brands to help humanity thrive as climate change accelerates.
I would be happy to work with brands in this journey.
WPP is now a ”creative transformation” company.
I am cautiously optimistic about this facelift. I hope there is more to come. And that WPP will go beyond the facelift and the simplification. fingers crossed.
After Ogilvy‘s ‘refounding’ and Publicis’ marcel attempt and now WPP’s structural simplification & brand identity ‘reveal’, it feels as if the creative industry is in serious short supply of imagination & ambition.
I guess, it will be worthwhile to understand WHY these agencies feel the need to change.
Tumbling down the priority list
Firstly, mass communications’ relevance to fuel business growth is in decline. Digital has opened up newer ways of creating products and reaching, engaging and servicing consumers. So businesses now have far more levers to crank growth, whereas in past it had just a few – mass communications being the most ‘scalable’. Now distribution, service and even products are scalable.
So the obvious implication for advertising agencies is to –
a. Accept the reality that brand building remains important, but it is one among many things that a company needs to do. So premiumise our services, increase the value of creative offerings. After all, branding might not be essential to everyone, but it still remains essential to many. But we are not doing that.
b. Or accept the elevation of other service partners at the table. Consequently accept the declining share of client’s growth spends. And go find ways to ‘scale‘, reach more clients.
c. Or, grow capabilities to service newer needs of business growth.
The key thing here is to commit to a path – either of these three. If we try to straggle two paths, we are bound to falter. WPP, Publicis and the rest seem to be trying to straddle.
In this light, the ‘creative transformation’ doesn’t signal a strategy at all. It simply feels like an articulation to assuage fears of irrelevance. It is not committing to any one path. It is more of the same old. It is simply reducing silos, but still functioning with silos. It doesn’t understand true integration of capabilities. They seem to operate with the logic that to gain a capability, we need to simply add a department. But they have no point of view on enabling people with different capabilities to work together, learn together. This remains a crucial problem to solve.
The incremental evolution perhaps is in the right direction, but not big enough, not fast enough. WPP, Publicis and most other creative agencies are bound to be turned into second tier vendors in the new economy, unless they fundamentally change the way they work.
Theater of precision
Secondly, digital tools create the theater of precision. Data gets sliced, diced, bundled, anonymized, aggregated, dimensionalised, granulated, distilled, contextualised… and so on. Much of it is useful, much of it isn’t. For now though, data enjoys the hype among CxOs that advertising enjoyed in the last century. Advertising relished in the indeterminate and chaotic nature of human creativity, while data gives a false sense of certainty and precision. In absence of scientific temperament, a theater of rationality is stealing the show. Advertising industry’s reluctance to engage with scientific processes meaningfully has given rise to a generation of clients who feel that the industry is opportunist at best, incapable-of-reason at worst.
The advertising industry needs to rationally dismantle both, the theater of precision and the theater of mystic creativity. It needs to stop acting as an opportunist salesman that uses complexity and mysticism to its advantage. The time is up for that. Scientific temperament can help gain confidence & value.
So my question is, how exactly does ‘creative transformation’ take place? what is the thesis? what is the scalable process here to deliver this transformation? Is there a precedent to this approach? How do we know that this strategy is superior to others in helping clients grow?
Instead of starting with a brand identity & design exercise, I believe WPP should have started with a rational approach to define a new way of working together, a new way of being more consistent with driving results.
Start: The industry needs to focus on their ability to create real value for businesses seeking growth.
Stop: Focusing on justifying our existence, articulating our way into relevance, feeding the parasites.
1. Rise of the walls
21st century weather report
The world is reeling under the hate wave of right wing xenophobia, binaries of ‘Us vs. Them‘. The hate wave is projected to continue and expand as people turn their back on ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which had yielded unequal fruits for the globalised citizens of the 20th Century. While the globalisation opened up the barriers for free-flow of money across the world, the flow of people has been artificially impeded creating great pressures at the arbitrary borders. The potential energy arising from the stalled flow is bound to turn into kinetic energy, overpowering the borders – eventually. That possibility of bursting of dam obviously scares people on either side.
Uncertain times, uncertain times.
In times of uncertainty, people seek certainty –the privileged seek Certainty of ‘walls’ to save their way of life. The underprivileged ‘others’ seek certainty of the better life on the other side of the wall. Hence, we have Trump’s wall, refugee crisis across the globe and right-wingers gaining political power.
Netherlands, India, Australia, Nigeria, Philippines… xenophobic demagogues are gaining political power everywhere. Are we collectively getting more selfish? Or is there something else beneath our collective psyches that needs recognition?
The new Modernism: From globalist to Nativist
For the purpose of this essay, understand ‘Modernism’ as essentially blinkered optimism and ‘Post modernism’ as the recognition of futility of Modernism’s idealism. So most –isms (Capitalism, Socialisms, Casteism, Communism or even Taliban’s vision of Islam or even art movements such as Dadaism, Constructivism) that imagine a simplistic utopia, that propagate a simplistic worldview are essentially modernist imaginations. Modernism is about believing that utopia is within reach and that ‘only if these things change, the world will be perfect and harmonious’. Those who want walls are also modernists in that sense – they believe that closing their worlds to others would solve their problems.
Post-modernism is about recognizing the tragedy of modernism – that the world is simply way too complicated for any utopias to come to fruition. Dissolution of Soviet Union, Quantum Physics, LGBTQ pride parades, Crypto-currencies, Tech Billionaires eschewing suits, memes… Events like these puncture worldviews of modernists. ‘Sacrilege’/ ‘Blasphemy’/ ‘Traitor’ they yell. The edifice of certainty comes crumbling down. Nothing hurts as much as disavowal of a dearly held worldview – the source of one’s identity, the coordinate of one’s perceived reality.
When the pace of change becomes unbearable and humanity needs a carpet to dust away its confusions and dissonance under, modernist rail against the symbols of authority, symbols of status-quo in an attempt to ‘reset’. They hope to start over to ‘do it right this time’. Hence, Americans want to make America great ‘again’ and Chinese & Indians want to ‘regain’ old glory.
What does this have to do with brands?
The cultural role of brands is now fundamentally changed. It is an important shift that marketers must understand. In the last century, global brands were at the forefront of propagating western values of individualism, freedom to enjoy & dreams of building personal wealth, accessing evermore-exclusive lifestyles. The globalist philosophy of brands marginalised national, cultural, tribal identities & associations. There was one ideal lifestyle, one ‘-ism’ shaping the global culture most stridently– that of individualistic consumption over everything else. Slavoj Zizek qualifies this cultural force engineered by brands as the ‘obligation to enjoy’.
However, people are reacting to that imposition now. Some by questioning their consumptive choices, some by questioning the globalist legacy of brands and some by outsourcing their consumptive choices to search engines/ suggestion engines/ Alexa.
Let me illustrate this with two recent historical events.
From the Berlin wall to Trump’s wall
November 1989 – The Berlin wall was brought down by the will of people.
November 2016 – Americans elected a real estate developer as their president for his promise to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.
What had changed between November 1989 and November 2016?
In the 80s, East Berliners craved for the choices that the West Berliners had – to own stuff, to travel, to listen to music, to use deodorants, to smoke cigarettes. A thirst for freedom to choose one’s own destiny brought down the Berlin wall in November 1989. Eventually, the freedom to choose destinies was conflated with the freedom to choose brands. Bbrands used that confusion to their advantage.
27 years since, the realisation is setting in – choosing brands of your choice is not the same as choosing your destiny. A recession and a few maxed out credit cards later, a typical consumer is beginning to realise that the very act of consumption is ensnaring him/her in a vicious cycle of debt, instead of setting him/ her free.
It was implied with overwhelming branding, that the consumer would succeed, would be happier due to his brand choices. Instead, it only helped him project his success and happiness at the cost of actually gaining success & happiness. Without actual success, the credit card loans caught up with him. Without actual happiness accruing from individualist brands, he was left in want of social relationships, a cultural identity. He was left feeling powerless – he had to suffer in the recession and then the bad economy, even as he was doing what was expected of him. That resentment was amplified by accelerating inequality.
Since we cannot accept our own powerlessness, we direct our blame at ‘others’ – South Americans, Africans, Muslims… It is psychologically easier to find a scapegoat, rather than confront our own powerlessness against the real tyrants. Hence, people elected a real estate developer promising to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.
Implications for brands
- The role of brands in our culture is changed. Brands are not beacons of progressive ideals of individualistic freedom and fraternity anymore.
In a walled-in world wanting out, brands were symbols of freedom, of free globalist identities.
In a wall-less world wanting in, brands are addictive identity crutches that must be pared down, in favour of collectivist identities.
This is the reason for meteoric rise of brands like Patanjali in India (which is positioned on Indian heritage and traditional know-how) or rise of agitations against global brands (such as these ones in China).
- There is no single ideal that can be universally understood as ‘progressive’. Is wearing a burkha patriarchal or is it a will-full choice? Are revolutions always desirable or not? Is science always progressive or should we be worried about its advances? (For instance with GM foods). Does individual’s rights matter more than nation state’s priorities? The right answer is – it depends! There are no absolutes. Contexts matter. Hence, brands need to be cautious about their stances.
- Local relevance: In the pre-liberalised world, accessing an ‘imported’ Dove moisturiser in South Asian countries was in itself an adventure, an occasion to celebrate and talk about. Never mind the product was not made for the skin type or the weather. One was happy to be able to access an international quality brand. That is not true anymore.
The profusion of brand choices means that people are used to accessing brands that are more sharply relevant to them. There is no incentive now to go for a global brand that does not answer the local, contextual need.
- Cultural currency: The internet was supposed to open the world. Instead, it has created ‘filter bubbles’ – echo chambers for people who exchange local cultural memes at warp speeds. In such a world, language, ideas, cultural heroes, stories mutate and gain layers of meaning on an hourly basis. To be relevant to different cultures, different ‘bubbles’, one must be immersed in it. You cannot skim it; you must devote a part of you to it. That necessitates a fundamentally decentralised and spontaneous way of working.
- Rise of the need for ‘Authenticity’:
A wall-less world is a free-fall world where there is no concrete identity, no concrete reality. For example, ‘If you are defined by your profession alone, how are you different from the hundreds doing the same job across the globe?’ ‘If you are a global citizen, where do you exactly vote?’
Hence, in an uncertain world, we need the buoys of brands to shore up our identities. For example – ‘I might be a replaceable software engineer, but I am an irreplaceable Indian who likes classical music’. It is easier to build a seemingly authentic identity by wearing a FabIndia kurta (a traditional shirt from South Asia) and to ‘like’ a local artist on Facebook.
A walled world is concrete world, not just of concrete walls but also of supposedly ‘real’ culture – with predefined customs, biases, beliefs, rituals and heroes. It is a more comforting world with lesser cognitive tax of building identities by simply subscribing to an existing one, instead of building identities independently.
2. Rise of platforms
Brands in a world of mediated choices
1989: From freedom to choose
2017: Unlimited scroll of choices accessed through few platforms
Prof. Byron’s influential book ‘How Brands Grow’ suggests that advertising should build and reinforce associated memory structures. But the nature of these very memory structures is changing now. A Columbia University study found that Google and other search engines are literally changing the way our brains process and retain information.
We forget things that we are confident we can find on internet.
Brands are on internet.
Ergo… Google, Amazon, TripAdvisor become the primary portals of brand discovery. Now you do not need to remember brands, the search engine and the suggestion engines would do that for you.
This dependence on internet to remember things is an illustration of a concept called transactive memories, where one depends on others to recall a memory. This is in contrast to independent memories, which rely on one person providing complete recall. The interdependence to remember, to consider, to prioritise has accelerated with platforms. We are dependent on others’ reviews, others’ opinions and platforms’ ability to serve these to us. For instance, you will not straight away go to Dove’s website to buy its moisturiser. Most probably, you would search for the best moisturiser for your skin type for your local weather on Google or Amazon.com. Based on consumer reviews and suggesting engine, you would choose a brand to buy.
This has profound implications for brands as more and more people shift their memories & decision making online.
The strategic perspective towards building brands must change accordingly. The goal of branding then is not necessarily to build ‘memory structures’ of individuals, but rather to make it easy for the brand to be recalled by the transactive memory of the hive-mind of platform-users combine.
There is an important nuance to understand here. Brands can still build ‘memory structures’, but that is not ‘essential’ anymore to grow. What is essential is to be ‘available’ for the hive mind to find you and like you. The profound shift is that of addressing the ‘memory structure’ of a collective instead of the ‘memory structure’ of an individual. This perspective, if understood well, can give tremendous competitive edge to marketers. For instance, imagine the savings on ‘not doing commercials for Superbowl and instead putting that money in improving product access, product experience, encouraging consumer to review it or instigating a cultural conversation in the platform-users hive.
Platform brands & brands sold on Platforms
There are essentially two kinds of brands – platform brands and brands that are sold through these platforms. In the new economic ordering, there can exist a limited number of platforms, but almost an unlimited number of ‘long tail’ brands (precarious, unless governments regulate online platforms). Understand what you want to be and adapt accordingly.
Becoming the next platform is very different from winning in the long tail.
To succeed as a platform,
- One must understand that it is a race for monopoly. It might be a specialised platform, but for that particular purpose/ consumer set/ needs targeted, there can exist only one platform in the long term.
- The growth strategy is about building a network of users and leveraging the ‘network effect’. Network effect is the phenomenon of some services to become more valuable as the number of its users increases. For platform, this is universally true. With each new user, the platform gets better data, improves its service and enhances its relevance. Therefore, to succeed, it is imperative to recruit the biggest segment of users and to incentivise them to stay in that platform.
- Platform brands succeed when they create egalitarian access to valuable exchanges that were not possible earlier. Hence, the focus of the brand has to be on making such exchanges possible and communicating the value of it.
To win in the long tail,
- People key in their queries, as against asking an attendant to help or seeking a brand directly. This is true even in some retail shops these days as the attendant key in keywords on consumer’s behalf). This behaviour shapes the nature of brands that would come on top. It is in the nature of keywords to be linear and additive – People get more and more specific until their needs are met. To acquire a consumer before he has to get specific, brands need to build ‘memory structures for the hive of platform-users’ for the specific need it uniquely fulfils.
- This incentivises brands to be specialists – the sour tasting chips, the scented toilet papers etc. Be a specialist.
- There is a limit to growth for ‘a’ brand. The flip side of this level of segmenting and specialisation is the limit to the size of addressable segments. The brands would necessarily be not large or global.
- The key branding considerations for a brand are how to become easier for the consumer to find it, use it, and recommend it?
The essential mutation
There is no escaping change. In a world of resurgent nativist identities, global brands need native mutations. Brands must audit their local relevance and the authenticity of their engagement with culture. Secondly, technology is changing the nature of exchanges between consumers and brands. To succeed in this new reality, they have to appreciate and leverage the fundamentally different market dynamics of platforms.
I am taking a marketing refresher course these days. In that course, marketing is defined as an exchange of values.
Seller gives products/ services/ experience in exchange of buyer’s money/ attention/ time/ trust.
The thing that struck me is that that in real life this exchange is not equal at all. The professor’s talk made it sound like marketing was a noble cause of increasing, providing value to a people in exchange of money, attention, trust given to it by free will of people. Yes, markets have enriched our lives tremendously. The exchange is bedrock of human civilization. But the 21st century exchange is a tad bit murkier. The globalised exchange is far too skewed in the balance of power between seller and buyer.
Marketers steal my attention, time and trust to make me think that parting with my money is completely my choice. But the exchange is rigged. The options are false. Where is the option of me to slam the door on marketer’s face? “I am not interested, please go ahead.” You can’t do that anymore. The marketing virus is as ubiquitous as air. Advertising industry, after all, is employed solely to hack the minds and hearts of consumers – to ‘incept’ brand ideas, as their own.
In absence of free will, can it really be called an ‘exchange’? its not between equals.
In that sense a better metaphor would be a colonised ground. Our minds are colonised by brands. They are fighting for our mind’s share. and there is no way for us to shoo them away. We can only chose between such and such consumptive lifestyle. You can’t escape brands completely in the 21st century.
Your minds are completely colonised. And marketing is the effort needed to expand their colony.
An opt-out option
In India, we can opt out of telemarketing sms/ calls facilitated by nation’s telephone regulatory authority. How about an opt-out option for consumers from all kinds of marketing?
“Perhaps the loudest alarm is that despite spending $600bn (£454bn) a year on marketing, our collective industries still aren’t growing enough, holding stubbornly on to low single digital market growth,” Marc Pritchard said. “You might say that never have so many done so much for so little.”
Marc Pritchard makes some very important points in this talk about transparency, brand’s voice and partnering with platforms (in effect marginalising agencies). He talks about brands being a ‘force for good’. And I am glad that someone as powerful as him is pushing for more advertising that is good. So many of us in advertising do sexist, classist advertising and then we feign ignorance about advertising’s social impact. So someone pushing for being more conscientious with brand messages is a fellow soldier I want to hi5 with.
But when he said about being a ‘force for good’, initially I didn’t take it as simply the brand stance being progressive. I had a more radical idea in my mind. The problem he talked about was of low growth and what is the most common-sensical thing to do for an FMCG player to grow? Sell to more people!
Who could these ‘more’ people be?
Millions of refugees are braving death and worse to reach safer shores. Surely, if they find safer havens and are given the opportunity, they will stand on their feet soon enough and very well could become loyal consumers of brands that helped them.
So here’s the radical idea in a nutshell –
Grow by Doing good – Helping refugees find save haven and become self-reliant economically.
Western markets are saturated, real growth is practically the sole preserve of developing economies of Asia and Africa. Whatever growth you see in US/ UK is speculation based – lottery bets on who gets to dominate the world in the future by monopolizing some commons or the other – amazon, apple, FB, google.
Helping refugees seems like the obvious answer to brand’s growth woes. By helping people grow, brands would in effect create a new and growing base of customers.
It would be cheaper than global campaigns – $600 Bn is spent on marketing by brands, he said, for declining growth. “…You might say that never have so many done so much for so little.”
Imagine what could be achieved with even a fraction of those funds if employed in service of humanity.
Imagine being a refugee. Imagine a P&G volunteer helping you with supplies when you reach safer shores. Imagine being helped by brands to set up your home. Would you be more likely to buy P&G products or Unilever products, there after?
Brand contributing to the cause would not be simply creating customers, they would be building possibly lifelong loyal relationships.
So here’s a radical idea Mr. Pritchard, How about companies like P&G and Volkswagen and all the rest of them… how about doing a concerted effort, perhaps by setting up a shared fund among all the global conglomerates to help refugees. A fund to help the refugees find a home and in turn, create a new middle class that could consume your wares? You have the power to do good and you have lead with example with the empowering messaging. Here’s a stronger way to grow and to lead.
After all, inequality is market growth’s nemesis. No matter how much efficiencies you increase and smarter algorithms you create, if more people get poorer they simply are not going to buy enough for you to sustain your growth.
Helping refugees is the only way to sustainably grow over the long term.
<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
- It is not our literary aspirations
- It is not a category level benefit
- It is not a consumer definition
- It is not an ‘insight’
- It is not descriptor of the business model
- 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…
- 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.
- 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‘.
- 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.