Burhan Wani, Protests, Brand Identification and Battle of Ideas

Some of the headlines in the news media reported the situation of Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani as the following:

  • ‘Kashmir on edge as Wani buried’ (The Hindustan times)
  • ‘Kashmir on boil after face of new militancy, Burhan Wani, is shot dead’ (The Indian Express)
  • ‘15 Dead, 200 injured In Clashes After Terrorist Burhan Wani’s Killing In Kashmir’ (NDTV)
  • ‘Kashmir tense after Hizbul leader Burhan Wani’s killing, Amarnath yatra suspended’ (The Times of India)
  • ‘12 dead, scores injured as Kashmir boils over killing of militant Burhan’ (Deccan Chronical)

This piece I write purely from the marketing and branding perspective without any intention to glorify terrorism or judge military action.

The reported outcry over the killing of Burhan Wani purely from branding angle shows that he was outward concrete manifestation of an idea brand which was very strong brand within his constituency or target market.  The must have enjoyed phenomenal resonance and relationship.  His elimination has sparked off unrest and violent protests in Kashmir. These protests imply some of kind of breach or violation within his constituency.  In the literature on branding one example that comes very close to this is that of withdrawal of Coke in mid eighties. This action of the Company was met with violent protests and outburst of public anger.

Most of us easily relate with brand of goods (Lux or Luxor) or service (Visa or City). But then there are brands which operate as idea or ideological level. For instance, PM Modi became the face of an idea brand at the core of which sat the proposition of ‘development’ extended with strands like ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and ‘subka saath sab ka vikas’.  Donald Trump is contesting his election of the idea of ‘Make America great again’. The human existence is not merely about physical survival. It extends beyond the realm of physics into imagination. Often the quest for meaning is much stronger and powerful than the quest for things.  Donald Trump’s campaign lowers an idea deep into multilayered consciousness of Americans to activate desire for a mythical greatness. After all we all are creatures of body and mind.

We have all been through the childhood stage and cried over a lost toy.  It is the nature of post loss reaction which shows nature of bond or connection.  It is violation of this bond that evokes reaction.  When a loss can be perfectly matched with a new replacement, the outcry is lesser. However when a loss does not have perfect replacement it is likely to create violent protest. The physical objects have perfect replacements but when something physical is extends into becoming an idea, the replacement is harder to find. A doll can be replaced because they are mass produced but if a child has made emotional investment in a doll, it becomes unique.  Now it extends to become a friend, companion, mother, teacher or sibling.

Brands often forge links connections become attractive by the process of identification.  The consumer identifies or links with what the brand stands for and willingly creates a relationship.  It is the sense of oneness or unity with the brand idea which plays out in this regard.  So Burhan Wani may have enjoyed liking based on his appearance. But it is superficial basis of connection. At the heart of the protests lay the deeper connection with the idea that he symbolized.  Like physical products can be eliminated but idea can sustain longer. Like Lifebuoy or Lux’s products keep evolving but the resonating idea remained constant. Similarly new physical symbols would keep emerging in Kashmir’s context if the idea continues to find resonance with its people.  In the battle of ideas, it is only the ideas that can win. Its time that a double tiered strategy is adopted.

A Curious Case of Tata Motors & Messi, Congress & Priyanka

Brands are not born great, they are made great. As the adage goes ‘Behind every successful man there is a woman’ likewise there is a wise man/woman behind every successful brand. What differentiates this person is his ability to use eyes not to see the manifest but to go visualize the unseen. This is evident in stories of brands like McDonalds, FedEx, Southwest and IBM. Most brand stewards fall into trap of choosing easy wrong over difficult right. Consider the case of Tata Motor’s employment of Lionel Messi, probably world’s top most paid celebrity and the push by Congress to have Priyanka Gandhi on board. Both brands face a common challenge: how to turn around the sagging performance.

Let us start with understanding the meaning of poor performing brand. The inability of a brand to get a consumer to lift it up at the showroom may be symptomatic of peripheral or core malaise. To put it simply, brands do not get sold because they don’t make sense to their target consumers. It is therefore important to understand how core is defined in a market. For instance, for a symbolic brand like Armani or Bulgari, it is invisible yet vividly crafted image creates the pull. These brands act as conduit for consumers to buy into their imagery for achieving self and social transformation. But for a car brand, the core ‘non-negotiable’ considerations relate to performance, reliability, quality and service. Germans car makers achieved glory by pushing excellence in performance to extraordinary levels, beyond necessary. Japanese makers like Toyota and Honda created their niche through reliability and dependability. The question that arises is what first comes to your mind when you think of Tata cars? Are you reminded of rickety trucks? Noisy taxis? Stalled cars on roads? Poor service? Frequent breakdowns?

The ‘made of great’ campaign featuring Messi is done to make the brand attractive to young buyers and shed its legacy. Celebrity in marketing can play actor in supplementary role not actor in leading role. They can supplement but not supplant the core, especially in categories where functionality sits at the center. Celebrities persuade through their attractiveness (similarity and likeability), credibility (expertise, knowledge), and power (reward/punishment).  What route does Messi’s campaign adopt in persuasion? He is likeable but he is not expert in cars. Tata cars need credibility and trust in performance, that’s the basic minimum. While buying a car, it is always seen through performance angle and bells and whistles come later. Would a hard hitting campaign by car experts would do a better job in winning buyer confidence? Check out how Mercedes even now focuses on innovations/ performance (heart of car) in its campaigns. Toyota meticulously crafted image of its luxury car brand Lexus using almost similar route. Logic and reason come first than emotions in this category.

The Congress has performed miserably in recent elections and to reverse its misfortune, many Congressmen want Priyanka to assume center stage. The question is: has Congress been performing poorly for the want of Priyanka?  She can play a supplementary role and give boost on the basis of mere appearance and name like a celebrity endorser who works through the process of attractiveness and likeability. People may get drawn to Congress by the process of identification based her appearance but her ideas/ideology are unclear. Indian population has undergone a drastic demographic shift- the young constituency (65%)- is connected, informed and critical in their ways. That is the reason why ‘governance and development’ made sense.

BJP, Modi, Criticism and Refutational Communication

  • ‘India’s democracy was under assault”
  • ‘Govt talking big on economy, but nothing happening on ground
  • ‘Intolerant India’
  • “When it came to making speeches, Modi government got into the T-20 mode, when it was about announcing policies, it became a one-day match, and when it came to implementing promises, the government behaved as if a Test match has been abandoned,”
  • “Chhe Mahine Paar, U Turn Sarkar”

These  are some of the slogans that have surfaced at different points in time criticizing Modi government. Politics is a competitive game. It is same as when two or three dominant brands attack each other to gain supremacy. Consider, how Amaze directly or indirectly hits out at Desire and the battle between Coke and Pepsi gets direct and dirty. Marketing is also an attitude building, sustaining and changing game. Leadership implies that a brand enjoys positive consumer attitude and behavior. In the last general elections, BJP was voted into power which also implied that it enjoyed an attitudinal and behavior advantage over its rival Congress. The challenge for the leader brand is to defend and sustain its market by maintaining attitude. The challenger brand, on the other hand, can thrive by shifting and changing consumer attitude in its favor.  So consider the following:

·         “We are Number 2 but we try harder” (Avis Rent a car)

  • Volkswagen’s ‘Lemon’, ‘Think Small ‘ and ‘Lemon’ campaigns

This campaign by Avis allowed the company to gain significant market gains by the power of what in communication is called ‘refutational’ appeal or advertising. The communicator first raises a negative matter and then demolishes it. Volkswagen, after the Second World War launched Beetle car in the US with campaigns including the one in which it boldly claimed its car to be ‘Lemon’  followed by text refuting the claim that the car in the ad is plucked from the assembly line (lemon) by the engineers due to scratch on the glove compartment so that ‘you get plums’.  In a similar vein, Listerine which creates burning sensation in the mouth first admitted its burning sensation (negative belief, possible attack opportunity for the rival) followed by a refutation that this sensation is sign of its effectiveness. This strategy is also used by expensive brands. They first admit that their brand is expensive (therefore target of attack by lesser price brands) and then refute this claim by focusing on their long lasting quality. Why do firms adopt this strategy?

The idea behind refutational communication is to ‘inoculate’ the consumer/audience against competitor’s counter claims and destroy them. So what implications follow for the BJP government? The need is to study these attacks that the opposition is making or is likely to make in future and then use them to inoculate the audience and then refute them by showcasing what has already been done. It is better to erect perceptual defences before the enemy mounts attack.

Brand Endorsement, Influence, Amrapali, Dhoni and Misrepresentation

The Amrapali Sapphire and Indian cricket team captain MS Dhoni’s role as its brand ambassador has brought to the fore the issue of brand endorser and consumer attitude manipulation. In India use of celebrities is very common.  All kinds of celebrities are used by brands. If there  Alok Nath  who endorses Link locks on the one hand there is SRK who promotes Fair and Handsome.  For instance, Aamir Khan stood for brands including Titan, Coke, Snapdeal and Tata Sky, Amitabh’s kitty included brands such as Cadbury, Pepsi, Parker, Reid and Taylor, Dabur Honey and Navratana Oil; Katrina Kaif’s portfolio includes Slice, Veet, Pentene, Panasonic and L’Oreal.  One of the current high profile campaigns is that of Tata Motors in which football icon Lionel Messy is employed as global brand ambassador.

Technically, celebrities are only one of the various types of people who could be present in ads like created characters which may be humanized like Amul girl/ ZooZoos Vodafone or real people representative of a particular group like Surf’s Lalitaji and Nirma’s Jaya and Shushma (commoner)   or outdoorsy in Woodland or fashion inclined in Mango or shape conscious in K Special or expert in Lux shampoo ad or doctor in Colgate.

On theoretical note celebrities and brand ambassadors are different in terms of their expected role and contribution to the brand. The celebrity contributes to a brand by simply appearing in its ads (physical presence). For instance, Thums up used different celebrities including Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan and same was done by Pepsi which included SRK, Saif, Amitabh, Ranbir , Virat Kohli and Dhoni. The brand ambassador on the other hand plays a much serious role by becoming animated face of the brand in all its communication. Brand ambassador tangibilizes the invisible values and culture. He or she is expected to make deeper transformation in the way brand is perceived and felt by the audience. The value congruence between what an endorser epitomizes and company / brand values are essential.  For instance, Tag Heuer’s core value ‘don’t crack under pressure’ went well with SRK. The current intent of Tata Motors to portray itself as makers of great cars is done by Lionel Messy.

The question arises why companies pay hefty fees to get these celebrities or presenters to be present in their brand communications. Their value stems from the contribution that they make. Imagine the consumer effects that an ad would have with or without a presenter. To put simply, a known presenter can contribute to a brand’s success by lending awareness at the base level (imagine awareness of Navratna oil shot through the roof due to presence of Amitabh Bachchan in its ads).  Much deeper impact is made when the attitude toward the endorser is transferred to the advertised brand. The presenters in ads can predispose or prompt audience to view, think and feel a brand in a particular way. They may create a bias by influencing the consumer attitude, especially by creating a subtle jump over critical thinking to feelings. Presence of a liked source in ads may have retarding effect on thinking. So ads that make use of liked and loved characters activate emotional side of brain and thereby hasten judgments.

Attention effect:  the customers these days are bombarded with messages causing them to experience information overload. One common strategy for them is to screen out a large number of incoming messages. In this regard, celebrities provide an easy route to brands to capture customer attention. It is based on the understanding that consumers pay attention to what they like or interested in.

Awareness effect: typically celebrities enjoy high recognition and recall because of their popularity in their domain of work.  An ad typically ties together to independent stimuli (brand and celebrity like Pavlov’s bone and bell) and with repetition ceases their independence. As a result the awareness is transferred to the brand. It is an easy way to make an initial cut into an otherwise resistant mind.

Amplification effect: consider an ad which simply announces ‘Amrapali Sapphire 2/3/4 BHK flats Sector -45 Noida’ and its effect on consumer and when the same information is provided along with the presence of MS Doni. The two stimuli would not separately get processed in different hemispheres independently in isolation. Rather both will amalgamate into message which may have multiplicative or exponential effect. Now the address is not simply is an address rather it is multiplied with everything MS Dhoni stands for.  The cricket captain brings his traits like achievement, sincerity, dedication, leadership, endurance, success and commitment gets them to multiply with simple matter of fact ‘address’. This may have predisposing effect on attitude of even high involvement customers (due to risk associated).  In similar way when an ad proclaims ‘pure honey’ in the presence of Amitabh Bachchan, a huge difference is accomplished between what is said and what is actually received by customers. Here combining one with one creates eleven not two.

The message amplification also is achieved when a brand uses real or lookalike experts. For instance Castrol ads use a mechanic lookalike to promote lube superiority. Colgate for long used man in doctor’s uniform to amplify the brand’s superiority.

Differentiation effect: commodities suffer from lack of differentiation due product similarity. For instance, salt and battery cells may be identical in their construction. In such cases, the presenter or celebrity used in brand’s communication may become the only differentiating attribute. For instance, in honey market, both Dabur and Patanjali claim their honey to be pure and natural. In such a situation, the differentiating attribute between two brands is Amitabh and Baba Ramdev.

Why do endorsers command high prices? What sits at the core of their price is their ability to influence awareness, attitude and behavior. Their power relies on a complex and subtle process by which inference is drawn by consumers themselves. Advertisers ensure that facts are not misrepresented by knowing or unknowingly. It is this behavior of drawing conclusions (we didn’t say that you concluded yourself) insulates brands from being legally charged. Consider, all the surrogate ads like Carlsberg (glasses) or Bacardi (music) technically do not promote liquor but liquor gets promoted, glamorized and desired. In this context, the communication industry cannot be regulated by law entirely. The only option is conscience. But conscience often gets defeated by wealth.

Brand architecture, Endorsement, Shadow and Sanjay Dutt, Kumar Gaurav and SRK

Lets run a brief check: how do you view Sanjay Dutt, Kumar Gaurav and SRK from brand architecture perspective?

Well, it is not difficult for anybody to know that Sanjay is son of great actor Sunil Dutt. It takes a little digging to find out that Kumar Gaurav is son of legendary actor Rajendra Kumar. But SRK does not enjoy benefit of belonging to an established Bollywood family. How branding strategy affect consumer/audience response? Success at the market end requires credibility, knowledge, consistency, heritage and above all trust. And if someone can stand behind and backup, the job is greatly facilitated. In Sanjay’s case, Dutt name endorses him directly. SRK did not have any endorser/supporter/advocate in  Bollywood. However, in case of Kumar Gaurav, the support become indirect/shadow (his name was new yet people eventually discovered his lineage which came in handy to drive audience behavior.

Consider the following cases and discover the branding strategy:

  • Anchor by Panasonic or Reveal by Calvin Klein or Courtyard by Marriott
  • Kinley / Cheverolet/K-Special/ Maggi/ Cinthol/ Sunfeast
  • Pulsar watch
  • Tudor

In all of the above cases there are two brands (endorser/supporter and endorsed/supported) but as we move down the endorser brand becomes increasingly invisible. The decision about the degree of visibility or connection that an endorsed brand would have is a critical decision. It involves a trade- off between differentiation/independence on the one hand and dependence/linkage on the other. The issue that must be sorted out is how well the new brand is equipped to stand on its own without the support of the master/established brand. And how different or unrelated is the category of the new brand.

  1. In the first case category (Anchor, Reveal, Courtyard) the organization or established by directly endorses the new brand. When a consumer is confronted with these brands alone the response is likely to be uncertainty and doubt. But the moment ‘by’ is coupled with an established name is added the attitude is transformed in a big way. The established brand facilitates the new brand in driving consumer behavior. Simultaneously it also avoids confusion for the consumers of main brand by telling them that if you are Marriott customers the new brand is not Marriott (in terms of service/price/luxury level) but something other than Marriott. The usage of new (rather than one name) is necessitated by the need to convey difference in product or market domain of the new offering (but proximate).

2. In the second group of cases (Kinley, K-Special, Chevrolet), the connection between the new brand and corporate/established brand is made less prominent. This is done when a marketer wants the new brand to convey its own identity for a customer (segmentation) and competitive reasons (positioning). This is often the case when a firm begins to operate in multiple product categories and segments. We have discovered on our own that Kinley is Coca Cola’s product, K-Special is Kellogg’s and Chevrolet is GM’s line & Sunfeast is ITC) by looking at their communication or product packages. By making its link or connection less obvious, the endorsement is make but in a token manner.

3. In the last two cases, Pulsar and Tudor the connection with the endorser brand is made even more indirect and less evident. Can you name the companies linked with these watches? Probably not, it is because company intentionally does not want you to know. But the customers who own these watches do they know of the brand behind these brands? Answer would be yes. Pulsar is a brand of Seiko (a web search of website would reveal that) and Tudor is a brand of Rolex. But in this case Tudor website does not create any link with Rolex but in a strange fashion the pop up Rolex appears on alongside the listed websites.

The connection here is even more indirect and in shadows. Lexus brand was created by using this strategy (Toyota endorsed Lexus in an invisible ghostly manner). When do you resort to this strategy? Here the brand is made is assigned its own individuality/identity and linking it with the established name is likely to be counterproductive. Imagine the prestige damage Rolex would suffer its brand participates in lower price point or similarly the rub off Toyota brand would have on Lexus’s luxury customers. Discovery of endorser in these cases creates eureka feelings. The idea is not to let the endorsed brand to contaminate the established brand.

So SRK in the absence of endorser had to prove his mettle but in other cases the mettle was assumed. People laid their faith on Abhishek again and again for the endorsement advantage he enjoyed for a long time.

Brand Dilution, Indian Whisky Drinker and Loss to Brand

Most Indians dilute their whiskey. They even do the same to single malts. By adding water the whiskey’s potency is watered down.  Sixty ml is often raised to 200 ml.  This watering down comes in different versions like water and ice, water and soda, only ice, only soda. Cheers.

Contrary to whiskey, brand mangers fear and even dread dilution. High performing brands thrive on strength of unique and favorable associations. Brand is encoded in memory as a pattern of relationship between nodes or concepts.  The brand aspect/nodes such as fizzy drink, cola, youth and rebel identity are both interconnected and linked to Pepsi. Brand tends to get diluted when it is branched into an incompatible category (Pepsi Shoes) or a new player tries to infringe by copying the brand with an inconsistent category product (Fair & Lovely toothpaste).

Why is brand dilution feared? It is because the dilution can have disastrous effects on brand’s sales performance. How does it happen? Brands are inhabitants of memory city and they dwellings come in the form of associative networks.  By wrong extensions or infringements, their associative network suffers when new undesirable associations are attached to them. For instance, the category, user, use, attribute and benefit nodes/concept are unambiguously and strongly linked to Pepsi brand (brand meaning) which are both unique and favored by its target consumers. By linking Pepsi name to shoe category, the name is likely to evoke an amalgam of associations comprising of shoe category and Pepsi.

How do brands operate through memory? There are two processes. First is brand name accessibility (BNA) is ease with which brand name is recalled from memory when a brand aspect is presented as a cue (e.g. how likely is that word  ‘cola’ or seeing ‘blue color’ is going to retrieval of Pepsi brand). The dilution occurs when BNA is reduced. Second, is aspect accessibility (AA), which implies the likelihood of a brand aspect coming to mind when a brand is presented as a cue (the likelihood of freshness coming to mind one thinks about Close Up).  Brand dilution occurs when brand name accessibility and aspect accessibility decreases.

How does dilution manifest? (a) When brand access is decreased. It takes longer time for consumers to access the brand response to getting a cue. The recall suffers. (b) Reduced speed in recognizing and accessing brand associations. Lack of certainty what brand stands for. (c) Both reduced speed of brand name recall and delay in recall and recognition of associations is likely to cause the brand to get out of consumer consideration and brand choice.

How does dilution happen? At the heart of dilution is linking of two associative networks in memory by either an external party (brand infringement) or extension created internally and its effect. Two associative networks (the original brand and extension/infringed brand) are linked by brand elements (name, color, logo, slogan etc.) which cause confluence of associations flowing from one to the other. For instance, when Ponds brand was extended into toothpaste category the new networks Ponds (dream flower talc and cold cream) were linked with toothpaste (hygiene, bathroom, odor, cavity and Colgate brand) it caused sharing of associative networks. What effect does it have on brand name accessibility (BNA) and aspect accessibility (AA)?

The expanded network is likely to have adverse effect on accessibilities. How would the brand knowledge be retrieved in new situation? A brand cue (like fragrant talc) is likely to fire up not only associative network of Ponds (master brand) but also extension (toothpaste). This spread would activate nodes spread across two categories. This firing is likely to cause these nodes (stored information) to get to mind (information retrieval) in a competitive way slowing down the brand recall. How about aspect accessibility? So when Ponds brand is given as a cue it is likely fire not only its earlier network but also new one. The brand’s newly forged linkage with toothpaste is likely to fire nodes such as dream flower, talc, attraction, oral hygiene, bad breath, prevention, etc. This evocation would have effect of slowing the recall of key proposition/aspect of the master brand. Thus the brand is likely to suffer on account of late recall, recall of association and diverse in coherent association leading to adverse effects on brand’s sales performance.

Moral: the dilution of whiskey is delectable only when it is mixed with right stuff. Brands also need to be mixed with right stuff otherwise the effects are disastrous.

Unreal attributes, Irrelevant attributes, Brand Uniqueness, and Real differentiation

Consumer’s mind is a space where brands with their attributes/benefits intersect with consumer buying criteria. Winning in this space depends upon how a brand sets itself apart from competing brands on a relevant (appropriate/ pertinent to a context), meaningful (opposite of meaningless, inconsequential) and valued (desirable/of worth) attribute. Consider the following:
When a shampoo brand like H&S communicates that it contains Zinc Pyrithione (ZPTO), this attribute is relevant, meaningful because it helps fighting dandruff and is of worth for people seeking solution to their dandruff problem. But this attribute is not differentiating if other brands are also perceived to have ZPTO.
In an old study, Carpenter, Glazer and Nakamoto explored how meaningful brands can be created out of meaningless differentiation. They started with two examples: Folger’s coffee differentiated itself on the ground that it has ‘flaked coffee crystals’ and Alberto Natural Silk shampoo set itself apart with the proposition,’ ‘we put silk in a bottle’. Are these attributes flaked coffee and silk in a shampoo bottle meaningful? The flaked form of coffee does not improve taste in instant category and silk does not do anything to hair. In both cases these claimed attributes imply benefits but in reality do not create any. These attributes, however, do create differentiation which is meaningless. The question arises does meaningless differentiation create meaningful brand by creating positive impact on consumer response?
Meaningless attribute creates meaningful value: shape of coffee granules does not improve coffee taste yet it may be perceived to create value. Consumer may still infer benefit of an attribute which is meaningless (e.g. coal in a toothpaste technically may not have any effect on gums or teeth yet this attribute can be differentiating and imply benefit to customer). This may happen because some consumers may not be aware of its irrelevance and some may be unable to judge attributes true value (no difference in taste between flaked or non-flake coffee) or some consumers may simply just not care.
Value due to mere information : Consider again the example of ‘coal’ in toothpaste, consumer may not be able to experience the difference that coal causes to brushing yet consumers have a tendency to confirm advertised claims in their experience. The objectively uninformed consumers exhibit this tendency. Second, the mere communication of an irrelevant attribute may cause customers to value it (message in ads). For instance, a hotel may display a sign stating ‘we honor our guests’ (no hotel would dishonor its guest- meaningless/ semantically uninformative). This would automatically cause customers to think why they are telling us. The statement is valuable just because it is communicated. Why would some toothpaste brand contain coal, it must be valuable. Third, this value attachment to an irrelevant attribute works more when it is distinctive (not shared by others) rather than common (there is only one toothpaste brand with coal). Further, novelty factor (newness) of the irrelevant attribute also causes it to be viewed favorably. When brands are compared, the brand with irrelevant unique attribute is likely to enjoy greater salience.
What effect do these factors of attribute uniqueness (uncommon), novelty (newness) and salience (prominence) have on consumer behavior? Consumers are short on cognitive resources and want to simplify buying decisions. In this regard, the irrelevant attribute may offer an easy short cut to deal with complexity of multi attribute decisions making by shift o a single attribute decision.