Relationship, Brands, Personification and A Tale of Two Brands

Recently I came across two buying episodes which throw light on how brands interact with customer:

In the first instance one of my students shared her wrist watch buying experience. She went to buy a watch in a store and asked the sales person to show some timepieces for her. She wanted to be shown some good quality decent to wear watch. Form a large display of watches the sales person pulled out one and handed her to check it out.  No sooner than he passed on the watch to her to try she rejected the watch even putting it on her wrist.  The thought that echoed her mind was ‘a round, golden watch, it’s my mom’s watch not for me’. Then she moved on to Fastrack counter and picked one from their collection, a watch that had an ‘odd’ shape for a watch and  did not conform to the stereotypical image of a time keeping device.

The second instance involves one of my known lady friends. She wanted to change her phone not because her current mobile instrument was giving her troubles rather she wanted to try something new. Her prime consideration was a ‘decent’ phone not ‘very expensive’. To her a mobile for is for primarily for calling and SMSing purposes and ‘applications’ scare her for she has no technology attitude or aptitude. Upon glancing through various options and brands we chanced upon a device that looked good, pleasing to hold, easy to use and bore a trusted name. But learning that it was a ‘Asha’ variant from Nokia was like a bomb destroying her choice for the phone in a spur of a moment. Suddenly all evaluations and deliberations lost relevance and her reluctance seemed like an impregnable wall. No amount of reasoning and cajoling would make her yield to this brand name. She eventually went on to buy ‘Lumia’ but without any understanding of what a Windows phone is what purpose it serves.

In both of these cases the thinking mind finds it baffling as to why a time keeping device is rejected on a ground that it was round (one of the most popular shapes) in shape and how on earth mobile phone selected after due deliberation (features and functionality) suddenly become unacceptable simply because of its name? There is something more at work than that meets eyes. An act of buying involves much more than surface utility centric considerations. Here in the first case the ‘keeping of time accurately’ and ‘being able to talk and send messages’ in the second case. Here the rejection seemed to be stemming out not from ‘what the product does’ rather ‘what the product/brand means’. The shape and name symbolism probably has subversive effect on relationship creation.

Customer – brand exchange transcends the narrow confines of economic utility considerations. Marketing is a two way street. Customers also invest in their relationship with brands. In above two cases, the customer’s rejection is based not product functionality rather unwillingness to have a relationship with the brands in question for reasons extraneous to product. Relationship is a humanistic construct. Either by deliberate design or unintended default brands develops human character which determines their relationship potential. In the cases mentioned above brands fall into ‘dissociation’ set for they embody meaning discordant with customers’ life project. It is probably brand’s failure in making of meaning that a customer wants to make in a specific context. The dissonance stems from friction that customer is likely to experience on psycho-social plane.

Why does a round dial golden watch does not deserve to be a companion of a young girl? The round dial is symptomatic of conformance and tradition. Conceptually the idea that this kind of watch stands for does not gel with the ideas and ideals of the current generation. Watch shape signifies tradition, conformity, power asymmetry and subordination with which a young girl does not identify. You don’t want to be friends with a person who is like your father or mother. Every new generation reinterprets culture and modifies it. The Fastrack brand’s signs offs- ‘move on’ allows free flowing interpretation of symbols and relationships. At the form level Fastrack watches are formless or shapeless which symbolize a break away from past. This also implies cracking of old structures (ideas and ideals) which held our society. A watch in this case becomes a narrative of new generation in search of its own story. The unconventional shape that breaks away shape is like a piece of modern art which shifts the locus of meaning from the communicator to the interpreter. A watch on the wrist is not about objective time that its pointers signify rather about its shape, the container of time. Time is an objective reality encased in a subjective container, whose progression in measured units remains constant but it is its constancy in progression makes every arriving unit different.

In the second case is about subversion by the subconscious of the conscious. The brand name ‘Asha’ upsets the value equilibrium and throws the brand out of consideration into disinclination. The reason is stymied by the invisible effect of the brand name. Brand name not simple signifiers of a person or object. Names plug on to the collective consciousness and fill meaning. Naming is identity giving process, without a name a person will have no self identity. Here brand rejection stems not from what the product is rather the identity connotations that brand bestows upon it. Names can revels cultural values and cherished ideals. Brand name ‘Asha’ translates into ‘hope’ which is not a dissonant idea. But name draws it symbolism from people (e.g.Asha Parekh), movies (Asha movie starring Jeendera), and role (homemaker, dependent). The brand develops a disconnection with the buyer not for reasons of ‘what it does’ rather ‘what it means’ in his or her imagination. It for this reasons some brands become aspirational and desirable.

Consider why typical English or Italian names are considered desirable in ready to wear apparels like Van Heusen, Allen Solly, Louis Philippe, and Armani. A perfume is unlikely to a ring bell with customers with a mature sense of smell if its name is not French sounding. A heavy sounding name in German language certainly adds substance to an engineered object. Naming is one of the processes by which an object can be given distinct human characteristics and mythologies. Imagine the mythologies names like Apollo or Venus or Rama or Arjuna would bring to an inanimate object. This is where customer’s visualization begins whether a brand is worthy of having a relationship with or not.


Levi Strauss, Growth, Brands and Architecture

Every marketer must walk through market to reach profit goal. Revenue is essential for profit, the surplus left after deducting costs. The revenue goals and profit targets necessitate participation in market or markets. The growth imperative manifests in targets related to market share, sale and profits. Firms pursue their growth differently, a choice involving considerations of horizontal and vertical participation in the market. Branding and brands are important in this context.
Levi Strauss & Co has come a long way since 1873 which invented riveted tough denim wear (‘waist overalls’). The leather patch with an image of two horses pulling the jeans apart was used to demonstrate the pant’s strength. Within the rough jeans wear the company went on to increase its market participation by launching products meant for different segments like ‘Koveralls’ (one piece play wear for children), 501 (made exclusively from 10 oz. red selvage denim), jeans for the ladies by the name of Lady Levi’s, Lighter Blue line (sportswear), Preshrunk and STA-PREST (wrinkle free), wear in corduroy and polyester (to keep up with style changes). This way the brand went on to expand its reach to many jeans consumer segments. In 1996 LVC was introduced based on the reproductions of clothing from the Levi’s Archives. Then came super low waist jeans for women.

In early eighties the Company in an attempt to expand its footprint in upscale dressier clothing market created Levi’s Tailored Classics (LTC) line. The purpose was to tap ready to wear formal wear segment. But the brand failed to appeal to the sense and sensibilities of the target customers. The obvious question was what credibility a hard core denim wear brand has got to offer a classic range of suits which can be picked off the racks. Second if these were tailored then how these are available pre-fabricated off the rack? Levi name did not make sense to this segment and the line was discontinued.

With the progression of time, the concept of dress further fragmented from the binary classes of formal and informal wear. The dress besides operating at the functional level also functions at the symbolic level. A lot about a wearer is expressed by what he or she wears in terms of class, affiliation, personality, attitude and life style. The highly formal dipped in the starch formal clothing was pushed aside by a new generation of entrepreneurs and professionals (25-45 years baby boomers) who were free spirited white collar workers and wanted clothing to reflect their orientation (relaxed not tensed). Dockers brand was introduced in 1986 making company’s foray into what is called Khaki (non denim) market. This sub brand was created to take a plunge into emergent business casual clothing which young people wanted. It was a segment in sandwiched in between highly formal and highly casual jeans wear segments. This brand saw innovation such as StainDefender, Never Iron and Thermal Adapt. The brand was later extended into sunglasses, bed linens, & bath categories.
The Company’s portfolio was further expanded in 2003 with the launch of ‘Signature by Levi’ brand. The idea was to reach out to men, women and children with a product denim and non denim casual range of clothing. In terms of price this was an attempt to capture value conscious customer who aspired to own a Levi. The brand ‘Signature’ sought to appropriate style, quality and fashion and affordability and the words ‘by Levi Strauss’ directly supported it by making an explicit endorsement. Signature promised ‘Superior Fit, Comfort and Style’ to its customers. This move of the certainly allows the company to expand its presence by going out of its top end niche (minimum price 2200 rupees) which contributes to top end metrics like sales and share. But this strategy has its own risks. This kind of reaching out to the lower price points (between Rs. 799 and Rs. 1,499) can harm the mother brand by diluting its equity (exclusivity and class connotations). Titan reached out to economy segment by ‘Sonata’ brand with endorsement coming from ‘Tata’.
Later in 2006, the Company made a course correction by changing the Signature brand into ‘dENiZEN’ this was probably done to protect the Levi brand from potential image dilution harm. The dENiZEN brand was also a response driven by a strategy to fight local brands like Killer and Flying Machine. This brand was slightly differently positioned as a younger brand. In the visual communication ‘dENiZEN’ name stands dominantly out signifying something independent and different which supported by words ‘from Levi’s’. Unlike in its previous avatar as which used the expression either ‘Levi Strauss Signature’ or ‘Signature by Levi Strauss’ the identity of two brands were merged which signified a ‘different kind of Levi’ . But dENiZEN’s branding seeks to reconcile two opposing ends of belongingness and un-belongingness. When one sees the signage of dENiZEN, it signifies there is somebody new and different (denim and non-denim, trendier, young, economy and gender neutral) on the block but it comes from the house of Levis (credibility and trust).
In a new brand consolidation exercise, Levi Strauss & Co is in the process of phasing out its dENiZEN brand from markets other than North America. The Company will instead focus on its core Levi’s brand.

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.