Rahul Gandhi, Congress, Marketing Myopia and Politics of Spokespersons

The April 1960 issue of Harvard Business Review carried probably the most influential article in the area of marketing titled ‘Marketing Myopia’ by Ted Levitt. Its first sentence went as:

‘Every major industry was once a growth industry. But some that are now riding a wave of growth enthusiasm are very much in the shadow of decline…’. It goes on to say that ‘the failure is at the top’

Now what’s marketing myopia got to do with RG, Congress and spokespersons? In TV debates it’s quite surprising to see how Congress spokespersons refuse to either  listen or show openness to ‘introspect’ or attribute the party’s decline to top leadership. On the contrary they blame it on opposition or competitors and also find faults with voters for not being able to see sinister design of their main rival, BJP.  Upon being quizzed about developments in Bihar and switching over of Nitish to BJP, they try to find faults him.

Levitt says, ‘The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew’.Image result for congress

 

Has the need for democratically elected government declined? Do people not look at government for governance and progress?   In fact the need grew with the arrival of new informed youth at the political landscape.  Why did Congress which once stood as the only party in India with footprints everywhere come under shadow of decline? It assumed invisibility of its product and believed there can never be a substitute product to replace it. Levitt explains why the once booming dry cleaning industry was stifled. It did not go in trouble because of better way of cleaning (direct linear competition) but because of unexpected source of synthetic fibers and chemical additives (unexpected indirect competition) that reduced the need for dry-cleaning. Congress could never fathom that competition could arrive from unexpected quarters in the form of Mulayam, Banerjee, Lalu and others. For it believed in superiority of its product.Image result for congress spokesperson

 

Companies get caught in self deceiving cycle which is caused by assumptions that there are no substitutes, faith in mass production and preoccupation with product. There is no guarantee against product getting obsolete. If you don’t make it obsolete by your own effort the others definitely will. Congress’s faith in its formula was so strong that it failed to see the movement in market and emergence of new alternatives.

The cracks in the voter base of Congress were signals of latent misfit between voter expectation and what it promised. Yet it believed in the power of selling. Selling focuses on the needs of the seller whereas marketing focuses on needs of buyer. Its strategy has been persuasive which sought a change on the voters’ end instead of changing its own political product (old narrative). It attempted to fit a square peg in a round hole. The key is what a company offers  is not determined by its managers but rather by the takers. Congress has been so obsessive about its narrative, its win-ability that its perception couldn’t go beyond it. The emerging voters are not extensions of people who were enamored with the role Congress and its leaders played in freedom struggle.  The new generation is rational, clinical in approach, seeks gratification, wants good life and wants it immediately and they are believers of achievement not inheritance.

Congress must note that any industry including politics is a customer satisfying process and not merely  a  goods producing one. Therefore, political agenda begins with voter expectations not with what you have. This is the starting point and process should be worked out backwards. So don’t push RG and the old narrative. Shrinking voter base and loss of states is testimony to that.

Image result for marketing myopia theodore levitt

Spokes persons of Congress please don’t look into mirror to create your appearance. It’s better to look out of window and find out what others want you to look like. In defending current leadership and agenda you damage your party more than strengthen it. The writing on the wall is clear: voters don’t want Congress in its current form so get to drawing board and do some visioning sessions.

SP-Congress Alliance and Lessons in Branding

Indians do an elaborate consulatations with pandits and astrologers before selecting marriage partners. Similarly companies do elaborate exercise before mergers and acquistions. This is also true in branding. The decision to merge two brands may be taken by top managers but it has everything to do with non-managers, i.e. consumers. What may ring excellent in rational calcuations may not make much sense from consumers’ perspective.

Strong brands derive their strenght from dedicated often fanatic like consumer following. Brand is another synonym of bond. And this bonding is based on multiple layers of mutually satisfying intersections. Further, what sits at the heart of strong brands is uniquness or distinction based on functional or psychological value delivery. Consider: Volvo for long stood for safety,BMW defines itself as ultimate driving machine and pleasure, Mercedes is stately and engineering excellence, Coke is ‘real’ and Pepsi is for new generation. It is brand’s distinction which connects it with a specific consumer group.

Now consider the rationality of brand merger: two strong brands if merged would bring two consumer franchises together under one mega identity. So if Coke and Pepsi come together in one idenity it would create one huge cola brand and Nescafe and Bru would create a big coffee entity. So CokePepsi would seamlessly merge two consumer segments and transfer their allegiance to combo brand. The reason from one side is often non-reason from the other side.

Consumers develop allegiance, affinity and loyalty based on the principle of singularity. That is, a brand appropriates singularly one proposition relevant and meaningful to a segment. The consumers of  Closeup want ‘freshness’ and Pespodent’s consumers want ‘germi-check’.  And there is little un-substantial number of consumers who want both. The segmentation and market slicing is essence of strategy that aims to ‘carve out’ a niche out of an existing market. The consumer heterogeniety manifests in segments and ultimately creation of multiple brands.

What effects would a combo brand would have on their previously committed consumers? They are likley to disenchanted, disgusted and raged depending upon their level of involvement. The core consumers are likley to feel abandoned, betrayed and violated.  The combo brand assumes that consumer differences are superficial and open to merger. Which is far from truth especially in high involvement emotional situations? However, for the indifference fence sitters nothing matters.

Now consider what happened to SP, a strong brand whose franchise was cultivated on certain principles that made sence to a select group. The votes polled in favor of SP came down from 2.20 crores in 2012 to 1.89 crores in 2017. Now consider Congress, it votes came down from 28 lakhs to 7 lakhs in 2017.

So one plus one is not always a good strategy in marketing and branding. Never try to make a brand which creates it value proposition by borrowing elements of available strong brands.

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.

Modi, Kejriwal, Delhi Elections and Brand Positioning

Most common understanding about positioning is distilled in the phrase, ‘it is about creating an image’. But critical to positioning is also an equally powerful consideration that involves deciding who do we want our brand to compete against.  Positioning is about defining your competition. Inherent in this process is the concept of categories or categorization.

Consider a situation. Suppose a severe earthquake has rattled a house.  As result the contents of its refrigerator have fallen on the floor, littered all over and mixed up.  The challenge you face is to place them back. Are you going to place them one by one next to each other depending upon which you are able to grab first? So first comes a tomato followed by egg, fish, honey, eye drops, cauliflower, water bottle, chicken, sauce, milk and so on. Or your placement would follow a classification or categorization scheme? Things are likely to be placed in categories and you will put them in different places or compartments like bottles, vegetables, meats, and drugs. The concept of category is based on perceived similarity. Similar items are placed within a category. Hence they belong to a space.

Like items stored in a refrigerator, the mind also stores a pattern in storing available brands. A brand is likely to be placed in a category if it is perceived similar (POP) to important or prototypical category dimensions (like different vegetables are similar in their character). Depending upon where a brand gets placed determines its competition. So cauliflower competes with cabbage, beans, potato, turnip and lady finger.

In the political space, the mind has its own categorization scheme of politicians. These categories include honest and dishonest, BJP and Congress, Lok Sabha and Rajya  Sabha, UP and  Bihar, men and women. Another important way  of  classification is Member of Parliament, state legislature, municipal level. Each category has its inhabitants and thus competition. Modi has been a state CM but his ability to cross over to national level into the category of PM lay in a careful strategy of relating and comparing himself with  PM (Manmohan Singh instead of with other CMs. Recall his direct attack on Congress’s possible PM candidates like Rahul, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. He even directly addressed the nation on August 15. What did this result in? It amounted to a category jump from CM to PM.

Kejriwal’s rise to a higher position/category as a competing brand with Modi is partly caused by BJP’s strategy to running a campaign with Modi and his development agenda as a ‘core proposition’ and down playing its leaders at the state level. Further, a negative campaign on which BJP spent a lot of money and time in pulling down Kejriwal on issues such as bhagoda, bungalow and collaborator with Congress contributed indirectly to his publicity. When PM  Modi makes a direct attack on Kejriwal  they automatically get paired in a competitive situation. It is something like a big brand like Apple attacking a small newcomer phone brand like Intex. This is likely to benefit the attacked brand. Remember how Micromax and ‘ i can’ campaign  resulted in linking it with iPhone. In Delhi, BJP is responsible for pitching Modi against Kejriwal. Last time it was between Harsh Vardhan and Kejriwal. The catapulting of Kejriwal to a direct head on engagement with  PM Modi  is an exact replay  of what Modi did prior to the national elections.

Notwithstanding how many claims are made by the BJP that it is not a fight between Modi and Kejriwal, the bracketing of the two in the same category sends signals to the contrary. Positioning is a game of perceptions not reality and perceptions tend to be stubbornly averse to change.

Kejriwal, AAP, Intellectual disconnect, Emotional commitment, Brand resonance and Cognitive dissonance

In a recent interview, Arvind Kejriwal in response to a question said; ‘people have emotional tie with us but there may be intellectual disconnect’, Times of India, Feb 18, 2014, p. 4

Is there any connection between this simplistic observation and power brands? Brands become powerful when they exert influence over their consumers. Power refers to the capacity or ability of somebody to influence the behavior of others. The competitive forces act to reduce power of the players by ensuring abundance and parity through the process of free entry and dissemination of know how. High competition makes players price takers not makers.
Marketing strategy is often directed as reversing this powerlessness by brand building. Brands seek to acquire power by building positive discrimination by forging connections with consumers based on utility and imagery. Brands gain strength by developing identities that enjoy strong resonance which translate into high price, commitment and insulation from competition. The brand resonance pyramid model depicts routes to resonance going through two paths- performance and imagery. At the bottom sits the brand salience. Salience implies whether the brand is thought about by consumers at the right place and right time. Coke would want to be remembered any time and any place when one feels thirsty. How easily a brand is evoked which is principally is governed by awareness (recall and recognition). On top of salience is identity which answers the question what are you: in terms of brand performance and imagery.
Brand performance refers to the product aspect of brand which embodies functionality. How does a brand satisfy functional/economic needs? These stem from intrinsic product properties like a car’s reliability, durability, and efficiency. The other corresponding side to performance is imagery which refers to the extrinsic/ abstract/ intangible aspect of brand. Imagery is route to social and psychological satisfaction. Imagery includes user image in demographic and psychographic terms (BMW-achiever, Marlboro- masculine, independent, Pepsi-young, rebel), use situation or occasion (Tiffany- gift) and history (Rolex/Burberry-heritage).
Further up on the third layer is referred to as brand response- how consumers judge the brand. Brands can be judged with heads or/and hearts. Brand performance is a matter of head (rational and evaluative thinking)-quality, credibility and superiority (how does Samsung Galaxy compare with Apple in terms of operating ease, battery life, ease of operation- POP and POD). Brand imagery, on the other hand evokes feelings. These comprise emotional response of consumer-feeling of joy and cheer (Coke, Pepsi), warmth, security (LIC), excitement (Nescafe- come alive with Nescafe), social approval or appreciation (Fair n Lovely, Louis Vuitton), self respect (HDFC Life) and pride (Prius).
On the peak of the pyramid sits brand resonance– what kind of relationship doe the brand creates with its consumers. Consumers may exhibit deeper sense of engagement (willingness to spend time, money and energy into brand- this was seen in AAP’s case) or at a little lesser level consumers may be emotionally attached (mothers love J&J products or Apple user love their brand). Brand resonance at the minimum level shows in repeat buying (minus attachment) by consumers who can shift to other brands easily.
What does Arvind Kejriwal’s statement hold in terms of AAP brand? Intellectual disagreement corresponds with performance dimension and emotional commitment is about the feeling aspect of brand. Consider a customer’s response to Rolex. He identifies with its prestige and achievement symbolism but does not like its high price. This is a situation when the mind is in fight with heart or left brain wages a war against right brain. Who is likely to prevail? Leon Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance. It arises when two cognitions held by a person do not fit well, that is one is in friction with other. For instance, a person may have voted for AAP (+liking) but feels against (-) Kejriwal’s dharrna or resignation. This produces tension and one looks for ways to get out this state.
But what is likely to happen when emotions clash with reason? Strong brands often take emotional route to gaining strength. They take a jump over consumer’s reason or cognition to develop emotional connections. ‘Emotions matter because if we did not have them nothing else would matter’ (Elster). Emotions are tied to values or something that matters to somebody. Strong brands manage to create inelastic demand by restricting the role of thinking mind. This is the reason why some brands manage to charge premium and their consumers go out of their way to buy them. Zajonc suggests that emotion is a separate processing system and also the primary influence in development of preference. It often precedes cognition.
Kejriwal’s statement is profound. People who feel strongly about AAP are unlikely to be affected by what happened in AAP government’s time. The heart is likely to prevail upon head. The intellectual differences would fade away but emotional connection is likely to stay.

Jan Lokpal, Resignation, Middleclass, Enchantment or Disenchantment

Arvind Kejriwal ‘s resignation over his not being able to table the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill in the state legislature has sparked speculation about erosion of his support base. Both the BJP and the Congress legislatures were very visible on media in their vociferous attempts to block AAP’s efforts to get the Bill approved. All the three parties played out their strategies guided by their intentions to create right effect on electorate.  The Congress and the BJP defended their actions on the grounds of constitutional violation of the Bill’s direct introduction but expressed support to the idea of establishing  anti-corruption ombudsman. AAP accused both the national parties of collusion to thwart their attempts to get the Bill approved.

 

After 49 days of AAP’s rule in the capital and Kejriwal’s resignation, two extreme kinds of opinions seem to be circulating. Some believe that AAP’s support base would increase and they are likely to perform better in Delhi and it will establish firmly in forthcoming Lok Sabha elections by leveraging the anti-corruption sentiment.  However there are also people who believe that the Kejriwal’s 49 days of power has damaged his support base, especially the middle class voters (thinking voters) for his dharna, populist moves and now resignation.

How would these unfolding of event affect voter behavior? These events are unlikely to have any significant effect on hard core supporters of both the national parties (brand loyal). It is because their perception of reality is filtered through commitment to the ideas and ideals of the parties of their choice.  Hence the core constituencies of the Congress and the BJP will see CM’s resignation going in their favor, a bias created by perceptual mechanism (perceptual defense, distortion and filtration). They would end up picking that portion of reality which supports and reinforces their initial attitude/ liking for their political brand.  That is the reason why, the argument is raised so vociferously against AAP for violating constitutional procedure. The point of constitutional invalidity is likely to resonate well with loyalist of both the Congress and the BJP for its congruence with their initial attitude (you see what you want to see).

AAP has carved out its voters from support base of both the national parties.  How is the CM’s resignation likely to influence them? Heider’s  Balance theory can provide some insights here.  He distinguished between two types of relations between separate entities (e.g. attribute-high calories, brand-Pepsi and consumer): unit and sentiment relations.  Separate entities become a cognitive unit when they are perceived as belonging together like Abhishek and Amitabh or Suffola and heart and now AAP and anticorruption. Sentiment connection or relation indicates feeling or valuation that someone gives to an entity (positive or negative feelings towards Amitabh and Abhishek).  

A balance state for a person is when relations among the entities fit harmoniously fit together.  For instance, if I like (+) Amitabh and I don’t like (-) Abhishek and both are perceived as a unit (+), this is an imbalanced state.  Imbalanced states are stressful and cause friction. Therefore it will push me for moving towards balanced state by some mental (further thinking) and physical effort.  Thus Kejriwal’s resignation over Jan Lokpal Bill is unlikely to create erosion for people who see anti-corruption and Kejriwal or AAP as one unit (+) for they will have positive sentiment towards the both Kejriwal (+) and Jan Lokpal (+).  But if these event have altered the unity between Kejriwal and anti-corruption (-), he may be seen as wanting to become PM or escapist or populist or regressive (new unity between Kejriwal and escapist/populist etc, it would subtly produce tensions and people would move towards achieving a balanced state by revising their attitude towards AAP. This is likely to result in erosion of AAP’s voter base.

The strategy therefor for Kejriwal is to not this unity not get diluted. This is the reason why he has resigned as Delhi’s CM. Secondly do not let the issue of corruption move out of the center of the national debate in coming elections.

What should BJP camp do in this situation? Mounting attacks on Kejriwal is likely to make his brand stronger for he has preempted and appropriated the issue of anti-corruption singularly. The issue of corruption can only be decentered by not attacking AAP (it will create negative sentiment against the attacker).Rather place a bigger issue next to anti-corruption in voters’ perception which will create dwarfing effect.  BJP is right in focusing on growth and governance but it must avoid attacks on AAP for it path to majority in Parliament goes though AAP’s voter base.

Rahul Gandhi, Branding, Confusion, Complexity and Connection with People

Brands have become relevant in modern society for a variety of reason.  Urban life is very complicated compared to rural life and life and the past was simpler than what it is now.  What does complication mean in contrast to simple? It means tangled, difficult to unravel or understand, intricate, arduous, convoluted, knotty, and abstruse. Confucius said that ‘life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated’.  Let us just focus on complication from marketing perspective.  The markets are flooded with endless product and brands. Does explosion in choices add to pleasure? Answer is that beyond a point excess of anything becomes a burden.  The product, brand, and feature explosion make choice difficult instead of simplifying it.

Can an average customer actually make a choice of a LCD or mobile phone or even toothpaste in rational manner? Probably not, brands in this context assume significance because they have become short cuts to negotiate complicated and confusing choice terrain. Brand acts like an ‘information chunk’ or ‘short cut’ or ‘short hand’ or ‘engram’ or ‘trust mark’ or ‘love mark’ or ‘signature’ which simplify choices.  Two of the important facets of a brand are visual and verbal. Brand name and visual symbols become signifiers of what a brand truly stands for. For instance ‘Apple’ word verbally and the ‘apple’ fruit visually communicate the essence of what Apple brand stands for.  In this sense every brands appropriates or assumes or envelops a meaning in its fold. A brand name in the absence of a meaning is nothing more than a hollow symbol.  It must be understood that a brand name is nothing but a signifier; it conveys what a brand stands for. It is carrier of a meaning. Meaning is far more important than the name.   

Name per se is likely to assume important when all available option are devoid of any meaningful difference. Therefore in commodities, name may alone be a differentiator and can potentially attract customers.  For instance if eggs produced in farm are similar but are given different brand names the customer are unlikely to be evenly distributed among different brands. The reason, name causes differentiation and creates liking which depends upon how a name is elaborated. For instance a name may be closer to your name or son’s name or linked with pleasurable event in your life. I remember my grandmother liking Congress just because it had a symbol of ‘cow and calf’ just because it reminded her of her own cow or lamp symbol of Jan Sang. 

Political parties in India have long relied upon peripherals to attract voters like cast, religion and other symbols (wearing a skull cap) name (Shiv Sena,  Samajvadi Party).  Peripherals assume significance when customer/voters are immature or incapable of making choices based on thinking. All these provide short cuts to voting. But as customers become mature, discerning and discriminating the peripherals are pushed to background and substance take the front seat. Names like Haldiram and  Hazoorilal may not be acceptable to many but they are good brands because name is ultimately a signifier, signified is what people want.

Rahul is a good name. If you add ‘Gandhi’ it becomes better for it leverages equity of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. But unlike the past when people (people who remembered INC and its role in freedom struggle) voted for the name or symbol, the new generation which constitutes a significant portion of voting population is unlikely to be impressed. For the youth of this country now the word ‘Gandhi’ is only a sir name like any other name- this does not add any equity. Rahul is a good looking relatively young person. This may ring bell with some naïve (who get moved by looks in politics too) but young generation is far more educated, discerning and discriminating. They know good looks are a qualification in media or movies not in politics (now even not so good looking actors by conventional yardstick are successful).

 In this background, what is needed is for Rahul Gandhi  is convey what he stands for besides a good looking young politician who is a Gandhi.  Political choices like any other product category are complicated because there are many political brands which make competing and often confusing claims. Gone are the days when political parties could succeed simply by miscommunication or over communication. Now people what to make informed choices. Political campaigning is not as much about image making as communicating the substance.  Thus the essential important question is what Rahul Gandhi stands for and electorates want to know that.

One of the cardinal rules of branding is that brand must stand for a concrete idea- like Moov stands for back pain relief; Pepsi stands for the young, Head and Shoulders for dandruff.  What does RG stands for? Not many of us have a clear idea. In the absence of clarity of what he stands for, it is very unfavorable situation for him as people do not buy brands which either stand for many things or do not stand for anything. Confusion is antithesis of branding, especially when people live complicated lives which leaves very little time and energy with them to resolve it.  When confused, it is much easier to move on to the next clearly defined alternative or to avoid the situation.