Brand Modi and BJP: Which is Bigger?

I was invited to write by the Business Today to write how Modi became bigger brand than BJP.

I wrote the following:

It is not uncommon in the world of marketing for a brand to become not only bigger than its creator but also to revitalize and rejuvenate it back. What iMac and iPod did to Apple Inc is what Modi has done to the BJP.  


Prior to Modi, the BJP brand was on the brink of irrelevance for what it stood for. Its Hindutva identity resonated deeply with the partition generation but its effect had weakened for the successive generations. Demographically, India is one of the youngest nations with more than 65 per cent of people below 35 years. Modi’s ability to become bigger than the BJP lies in his ability to listen to murmurs and whispers of this India, tapping into their simmering anger and hopelessness.

FULL COVERAGE: Lok Sabha Elections 2014

Modi created an identity that resonated with far more people and deeper than that of the BJP. Like brands make sense at surface and deeper levels, Modi’s discourse on economic development and prosperity intersected at the surface level of consciousness. The Gujarat model threw in words like governance, roads, electricity, women’s safety, peace, industry and education, supported by statistics. This satisfied the questioning mind that hankers for reason.

But reason is often the alibi for non-reason. Modi’s ability to become taller than his party lies in his symbolism. He tapped into despair, hopelessness and sinking feelings and arrived on the scene taking on the symbolism of the outlaw and the ruler combined. He is perceived as an icon of disruption and rebellion against the way things are done. It is this counter cultural streak that appeals to youth who desire change. And his traits like being organised, proactive, and confident, and in command of things, subtly connect with the ruler archetype.

Modi’s becoming bigger than the BJP is also attributable to his subtle push from parliamentary to presidential-style campaigning. By directly engaging with the top Congress leadership he acted as a warrior who could take on the establishment head on. Modi’s direct confrontational approach made politics a game close to the WWF in which the camera focuses on the fighter, not the sponsors.


Customer role, Innovation and Value Creation

Things are changing.  And change is often so subtle that it shows up without any warning signs. Managers often discover its arrival when their performance metrics show deterioration. A late discovery can potentially erode customer and competitive superiority.

One of the important sides of marketing equation is market or customer. And no marketer can afford to ignore to check how developments are affecting customer. A change is both an opportunity and threat. It all depends upon how it is reacted to- whether it is seized and converted into customer value creating initiatives or it is allowed to depreciate value delivery. Consider how internet technology altered the value equation by enabling firms to deliver content (e.g. movies) directly to customers doing away with the need to buy or rent DVDs. Blockbuster lost to Netflix due to this. The web seems to be recasting the concept of market that can be targeted. The term ‘market’ now needs to be separated from the concept of location. The current campaign by eBay attempts to establish that shopping can be done sitting at home with an ease, economy, and convenience.

The customer side in a marketing exchange hides three roles. A transaction involves an act of buying, paying and using a product or service. This gives rise to three different sets of considerations. For the buyer ease (location, physical availability) of buying is important whereas payer role involves exchange of financial consideration like cash or card. The product or service is use or consumed and at this intersection point and benefits are delivered or extracted (user considerations involves what the product does and what benefits it delivers). Consider a simple case of Maggi noodles. The user often is a child (benefit-taste), the buyer may be the servant (ease or convenience) and the product is paid (price considerations) for by the parents.

In the old thinking, goods are produced by the firm to be exchanged with customer who ‘uses’ them to extract performance. This required for achieving satisfaction. Long time back Levitt proposed that people are not interested in drills rather their performance (holes). The user role can be complex which can deter people to buy drills. Recasting user role (simplifying) a drill marketer boost sales by creating do it yourself drills.  Earlier glucose monitoring systems made diabetes patients dependent upon doctors for reading blood sugar levels. New glucose monitoring machines have recast the space by transferring the user role to patients. Now they can monitor sugar level on their own, the skill required to do the job has been reduced. Washing machines intimidated many potential users for their usage required some kind of ‘expertise’ to press right buttons for right jobs. But now many marketers have launched smart models which on their own ‘read the wash requirement’ (fuzzy logic) create value by de-skilling the customer role as a user.

Apple’s current campaign (why wait?’) spells out how the brand can be bought and paid for in interest free installment plans. The company has adopted an open distribution model (not through mobile companies) and tied up with its distributors Redington and Ingram. This scheme tweaks the high upfront financial burden and places the brand within the reach of many who otherwise could not buy unlocking a hidden market potential. The new cab services launched by companies like Meru in metro like Delhi are based on altering the payer role. Now the cab service can be taken by distance travelled or time You pay for time you want to use a cab for or the distance travelled). This payment scheme allows firms to tap a new segment of customers. Earlier newspapers were expensive because they sought revenue from readers. But now newspapers make money not out of readers but from advertisers.  The ‘cash on delivery’ innovation has opened a huge internet based market in India.

There was a time when magazines could only be bought from newsstands or vendors. This subjected reader to ‘sold out’ situations and procurement inconveniences.  The shift to subscription based model by most of the magazines like India Today and Business Today creates value by changing buyer role. The inconveniences associated with buying things from markets and malls are throwing opportunities to new web based sellers like Jabong and India Times. Domino challenged the notion that warm restaurant food can only be ad in ‘dine in’ format by creating home delivery model.  Domino creates value by saving its customers from travel, parking, waiting, and weathering.



Brands, Consumption, Identity and Fluidity

Consumption is a social phenomenon. It occurs within contextual frame involving a complex interplay between individual and society. Fundamental to the existence and perpetuation of a society is presence of some kind of relationship governing mechanisms. One such mechanism is segregations of people based on some principles. It is common find categorization based on age, income, gender, religion, and caste. Inherent to these categories is power and role structure. Groups exert pressure on their members to conform to a universalized conduct which also include consumption norms. Brands that deviate from the cultural impositions are met with resistance (consider women dress code and choice in Arab nations).  The beliefs, values, attitudes, ideas, roles are culturally determined which in a way prescribe ‘right way’ of being and doing.

Who you are is defined by the group you belong to. This imposes a perimeter within which your consumption/ behavior can move about (e.g. women must adhere to a dress code, officers must wear dipped in starch clothes, young should avoid ‘hot’ food, marry within community). Consumption in such situations takes place within an overall framework imposed upon an individual by the group.  Groups attain stability by regimenting individual behavior. Identity is an imposition rather than a choice. The choice of an individual to experiment with alternative selves depends upon power and cohesion of the group. But with the emergence of new networked and interconnected world a cultural assimilation seem to be taking place. Isolation is a thing of past. Many people criticize this development as cultural imperialism. Physical movement and exposure to alternative ways of existence have empowering effect. Who you are is becoming a matter of choice rather than imposition. It is not only about psychological choice; even the biological self can be bought (gender choice). One of the important questions here is whether consumption is identity determined or vice versa.

What is the role of brands and branding in such a fluid situation? How does this psycho-social experimentation influence branding practice? One such effect has been transformation of physical products into inhabitants of psychological space. As people move beyond their physiology to fashioning their psychological construction in identity search process, consumption is systematically distanced from its primary utility centricity. Brands are now new tools of identity creation and signification. Products are now more about what they mean than what they do. The identity creation project of target customers dictates their mandate. Consider how Lacto calamine ad is more about the user rather than the product, (a girl who forces the driver to reverse the bus so that old waiting couple who could not run could board in). Brands are identity creating tools. Who you are can be played around with by plugging in the symbolic capital that they embody and make available.

Who you are implies who you are similar to and who you are different from.  With the identity becoming fluid tensions seem to be simmering between established and the emergent structure. New groups and coalitions are beginning to challenge the power and legitimacy of old groups. The ideas and ideologies have come under greater scrutiny, the wisdom of which stands challenged.   A friction is  between  traditional-liberal is palpable; women are rebelling against the prevalent mould and seeking greater gender equality; people with alternate sexual orientation want  recognition; youth ‘you only live once’ orientation is militating against the age old mindset. All this is symptomatic of cracks in the established identity structures and new ones are knocking to make an appearance.

Differentiation/distancing: Brands is such a situation accord opportunities to identity creation (you are what you have- brand transfers a meaning to its user). Brands achieve this by a process of differentiation/ distancing and affiliating. At the centre of Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption sat drives with a certain class of people differentiate/ distance themselves from others. And this distancing was achieved on the basis of consumption. Certain products and practices are employed to ‘mark’ a class different from others. Is classical music or opera or art appreciation are new devices of distinction? In a city like Delhi when Jaguar ownership ceases accord differentiation, people move to a different category of prestige signifiers- e.g.  What you listen to while driving. Your choice of albums is indicator of exclusivity.  With the emergence of new economically entitled category of distinction marker is shifting. Theme restaurants, clubs, holiday, music, sport and education are used to achieve exclusion. Some of the iconic structure challenging and identity defining products has been bikini, rap music, contraceptives, and jeans.

Affiliating/ belonging: Unlike building identity based on rejection, often people are motivated to maintain their allegiance to an identity group. People with socialistic leanings wear Che Guevara hair style and Lenin beard to communicate affiliation to their political ideology. Consider people wanting to maintain and perpetuate relationship in Apple or Harley Davidson owners group. Here adherence to consumption codes, rites and rituals is essential to acquire identity from the group. In the world of crime Yakuza syndicate expect their members to strictly follow group’s code, rite and rituals. This is also true for tantra/ occult groups. Brands/commodities sometimes develop such strong linkages that they become symbolic icons of a particular group (guitar, tattoo, hair style, and hat). They appropriate some ideology and thereby become reservoir of cultural capital open to be tapped by anyone seeking identity transformation. For instance leather jackets signify Harley culture and body tattooing is about human transformation in to a yakuza.

It is worth pondering how people continually engage in brand acquisition and abandonment in their bid to weave a narrative about themselves.   

Bal Thackeray, Power Brand and the Power of ‘Against’

Branding space is not limited to the world of commerce and business. Branding possibilities exist in virtually every sphere of activity involving exchange of value between two or more parties. In socio-political space, brands are created at a point where ideas intersect. Political brands like the BJP or Congress stand for a combination social, religious and business ideologies which they seek exchange with voting public. In the similar vein Barack Obama brand was meticulously created in the US at the centre of which sat the proposition of hope ignition (“Yes We Can”) and change (“Vote for Change”; “A New Beginning”).  Congress managed to dislodged NDA by appropriating an idea of common (‘aam admi’) which range bell with ordinary people, a silent majority left out and marginalized.

Branding begins with the search of a meaningful idea. There is no dearth of ideas; but the ones floating around tend to be less valuable. Surface ideas offer shallow platforms and create superficial relationships and hence fail to create deeper commitment. Real brands are created by a search and appropriation of ideas which lay buried in the depths of human consciousness. Their location below the threshold of awareness makes them  harder to reach. Only a few with a vision can access them. But these offer pristine branding opportunities. Hitler was bestowed with extraordinary powers visualize what Germans dreamt in their sleep and whispered in the quiet of themselves. He understood these well and subsumed in his ‘Nazi’ brand.  The longing for a change and feeling anomie that Americans suffered became the foundation stone of Obama brand.

Brands derive power from resonating and unique idea.  Brands resonate when the idea on which they are built connects deeply and intimately. The idea or insight must be built by a careful study of life condition of people (the idea of ‘beauty’ (Lux) or ‘iconoclasm’ (Apple). It is the power of idea that a brand manages to extract customer commitment, attachment, love and engagement and ultimately create a community. The critical condition defining a strong brand is that its idea should un- shared.

Whether one likes or not, the out pouring of lakhs of people on the streets of Mumbai to mourn the death of Bal Thackeray certainly provides testimony to the fact that he was a powerful brand.

  • Brands seek loyalty; on this measure he commanded unflinching loyalty of his followers.
  • Brands forge emotional connection to create following; his followers held deep emotional bonds.
  • True brands command unwavering allegiance.
  • Their customers can ‘go out of their way’ (bear discomfort or assThis was equally true for Thackeray.  Shiv Sainiks willingly take both physical and legal risk to carry the will of their brand. But the essential question remains, what idea did this brand appropriate?ume risk) for them.

Many brands forge connection based on the power of negative emotion. So brand strategy is built on the not what it is or who it is for rather what it is not and who it is not for. Bourdieu explains that preference formation may not a positive emotional response rather a negative one.  It implies choice is not based on what people most like but reject what is most disliked. It is choice based on rejection (‘refusal of the taste of others’/ ‘visceral intolerance of the tastes of others’). Class distinctions are often based the rejection of the style of others (lifestyle, tastes and preference).  The choice for a brand like Apple may be based on the rejection Nokia being the common choice of others. Bal Thackeray’s ideas were often based on opposition like support the emergency (when most people disliked it); admiration of Adolf Hitler (people hate him for what he did to Jews); against socialist trade unions (when socialism was cherished dream); and a movement called ‘Marathi Manoos’, anti- Bihari (against the idea of one nation one citizen).  

We may disagree with his ideas and ideology. But given the fierce loyalty that his brand commands it certainly stands for an idea highly differentiated and highly resonating for a select group of people.

Brand, intentions and change

Brand is a connecting devise. It links up marketer’s intentions with that of consumers. First, marketer conceives, articulates and then expresses the brand into a concrete reality. The reality so created later is sensed, perceived and decoded by consumers. A brand succeeds or fails depending upon the extent to which it stands for what its potential customers want it to.
Brands seek constancy amidst change. Change and constancy are the two sides branding coin. Marketers wish to create perpetual brands but it is not easy to achieve. The environmental dynamism work to disturb brand’s equilibrium. Check beneath a long term floating brand, a lot of devil like paddling happens. Nothing remains constant behind the scene. Marketing elements are orchestrated to both adapt and innovate with moving times. Brands are like boats not on still water of a pond rather water of rivers of different currents. When the water flows beneath the boat, it must adjust and adapt to maintain its position.
Often brand names undergo a change often subtle and sometimes radical. Consider the following cases:
• International Business Machines became IBM
• Anderson Consulting became Accenture
• Lucky Goldstar become LG
• Delhi Cloth Mills became DCM
• Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC
• Telco became Tata Motors
• Levis Signature became Denizen (with Levis mentioned next in small letters)
• Hero Honda has become Hero
• Initially Bajaj forayed into motorcycle market with Kawasaki Bajaj which later moved on to use Bajaj name with all bike sub brands (like Bajaj Pulsar) now even Bajaj name is dropped and sub brands are the brands
• Maruti Zen after a long stint emerged as Zen Estilo and now it is Estilo more than Zen
• Anchor brand of electrical switches is now ‘Anchor by Panasonic’
• Apple Computers became Apple Inc

All these changes are symptomatic of the efforts by brand managers to keep their brands on course. Change is sometimes a compulsion thrust upon by external forces. And often it is a result of voluntary proactive strategizing aimed to seize an emerging business opportunity.

Consider the cases like Arthur Anderson and Kentucky Fried Chicken. These companies were forced to adopt new identity for their past had become a burden (Anderson’s accounting scandal) or irrelevant (Kentucky’s association with ‘fried’ -unhealthy and ‘chicken’ -controversial processing practices). Recently Hero Honda has been rechristened as Hero MotoCorp. This change was necessitated because of the joint venture between the two companies coming to an end in 2010. When Aditya Bira Group acquired cement business of L&T the company was given nod to use L&T name only for a year. L&T sold off its cement business because it wanted to focus on high value businesses and cement did not fit with its vision of the future. Birla had to create a new brand name which subtly leveraged the strengths of L&T brand without making any explicit reference to L&T. Accordingly ‘Ultra Tec’ brand was born which was positioned as ‘ The engineer’s choice’.

International Business Machines evolved into shorter abbreviated form ‘IBM’ with twin objectives: first to leverage the existing equity and secondly get the brand out of business machines closet. Here the brand redefined its scope beyond computing machines to embrace much wider mission of providing ‘solutions’. Tata’s Tata Locomotive Company changed into ‘Tata Motors’ because Telco enjoyed equity in commercial vehicles market which could be both a strength and weakness. On a higher plane all trucks also belong to vehicle category but trucks related associations could be dissonant for a car buying customer who sees car as an extension of his self. With a vision to become a total automotive player, the company combined ‘Tata’ (constant- equity leverage) with ‘Motors’ (umbrella term for all kinds of vehicles and suppression of truck related associations). Apple Computers also changed its identity to ‘Apple Inc’ to make the brand free from the narrow confines to computers as a product category. The company intended to participate in a wider space of electronics. Delhi Cloth Mills was India’s one of the top business houses during the pre liberalization era. The company changed its identity to ‘DCM’ to deemphasize ‘cloth’ associations and simultaneously leverage its equity develop business in new business areas.

Two extreme ends of branding are individual and umbrella branding. Companies (e.g. Unilever and P&G) in the western markets follow individual branding strategy for a variety of reasons. The product brands are often does not share any link with company behind it. The brand singularly drives consumer buying. This is when a product brand can stand on its own (value) in the market. Tata Motors also seem to be going GM (Ford adopted different model) way in terms of branding. Its first launch ‘Indica’ became a success primarily because of the equity it leveraged from ‘Tata’ brand (it was called Tata Indica). ‘Indica’ evolved into ‘Indica Vista’ (Vista suffix was used to suggest new refinements that brand incorporated) and now it is pushed as ‘Vista’ (sedan class). Now the brand is taking a new direction and relegating the old utility or functionality centric associations that ‘Indica’ had appropriated in the background. The car market has been evolving both at the supply and demand ends. There is distinct shift in favor of aesthetics and experience beyond functionality which is now taken for granted. ‘Indica’ has become endorser for ‘Vista’ which is being promoted as an aesthetically pleasing feature rich offering.
‘Sumo’ was initially endorsed by ‘Tata’ directly which later evolved into ‘Sumo Grande’ (suffix added to suggest more contemporized image). Now the brand in its new variant has dropped ‘Sumo’ to acquire new identity as ‘Grande MK II’. Dropping of ‘Sumo’ is done to drop utility vehicle associations and give the new variant and new contemporary sporty identity. ‘Sumo Grande’ now has become ‘Grande Dicor’, the addition of suffix ‘Dicor’ attempts to get a rub off from ‘Safari’ (sports utility vehicle). Here the brand also is making a move away from rational-utilitarian concept in favor of lifestyle and sporty orientation.