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.

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. 

BJP, Congress, AAP and their Brand Propositions in Delhi

Every brand makes proposition. But proposition making process is not simple as it may appear. For many strategists a proposition is equal to sloganeering and some take it as an opportunity to release their creative juices. Some marketing minds assume more is better/effective and hence end up linking their brands with many (too many) and conflicting propositions. Strategists also fail to appreciate the difference between their jobs as creator/designer which is essentially is high cognitive state and consumers’ state is usually passive or inactive. Brand propositions can touch chords which may range from lower to higher end.

Crucial to designing a proposition is that that it must end up motivating prospects/customers into desired behaviors. Proposition must clearly signify what a brand offers in terms of attribute, benefits and values. Most successful brands singularly stand for something which has high resonance value and it also stands the brand apart from others in the fray. People often equate brand proposition with unique selling proposition. Propositions differ in their extent of connection development. Consider the following:

  • AAP’s proposition is anticorruption or honest government (Swaraj)
  • Congress: development, basically infrastructure or material development
  • BJP: unclear message- vegetable prices, electricity prices, ‘sewak’, development.


Let us test the effectiveness of these propositions.

Clarity- clearly AAP and Congress score over BJP for it is not clear what their core proposition is to their voters. This has resulted from inconsistency of messages and their lack of convergence on to broad theme.

Level: how do these propositions stack up in their hierarchical ordering-lower level/tactical to higher order value? The value embedded in AAP’s proposition appeals to soul or high order existence. It allows you to be a part of a great national transformation. It taps into the need to achieve high order consciousness. Congress’s proposition appeals to material wellbeing. BJP’s discourse on price of vegetable and electricity does not go beyond daily mundane existence. Consider the brilliance of AAP’s proposition, it promises clean governance and once that happens the infrastructure and price rise will automatically get in line.

Connection: brands become powerful when they develop emotional connections with their audience. Explore how powerful is the promise of honest governance and what impact do white caps have when they announce, ‘mujhe swaraj chaheye’.  Symbolically they invite everyone who has been victim of corruption (probably everyone) to join the second battle for the country. You are reminded of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad, Shastri, and others who sacrificed not aggrandized. AAP seems to be giving ordinary people an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to nation building. It has positioned itself as a movement against the establishment. It is Pepsi in Delhi’s political scene, antiestablishment, rebel, and challenger.  

Congress’s development platform invites negative emotions for flyovers, cluster buses and roads are not the perfect substitute for high inflation in commodities of everyday consumption. The happy faces in ads do not resonate with sad faces of real people who are bitten by inflation. They invite strong counter arguments. In Delhi BJP’s campaign lacks focus and appeal and hence a diffused and suffers from ambiguity. Consequently it fails to hook up an emotional connection with people who are either fall into the category of ‘indifferent’ or ‘swingers’. It is these people who are likely to be the kingmakers this time.

Political strategists often fail to target their campaigns at people who matter- swingers and indifferent- instead create campaigns for those who are already their loyalists. It must be understood that campaigns are designed by loyalists but not for loyalists. 

Tea, Coffee, Beverage, Meaning and Starbucks

One of the reported items in the ET went by the title ‘Starbucks goes plush for India, give its stores s local flavor’. It reported that the company is positioning, its coffee chain as an aspirational brand. India is by and large is a tea drinking nation. The company spokesperson said that Starbucks coffee bars should be welcoming, inviting and familiar places for people to connect. The research indicated that coffee for Indian consumers is not the primary reason to visit café bars. Rather visitors use coffee bars to meet friends and relatives. A very small portion of sales is consists of take away orders. Starbucks wants to offer its customer a unique experience.

 The reason why I am writing this post is that recently I conducted a study titled ‘Coffee and tea: socio-cultural meaning, context and branding’. This study was motivated by a desire to explore the deeper meaning that these two common beverages hold in our minds.  It threw up interesting insights, which I called as’ beverages in opposition’.  Products or commodities not mere physical entities constructed out of their parts, components or ingredients rather they are also constellations of associations/meanings. They are transformed with conscious marketing efforts or often achieve transformations automatically into psycho-social constructions.  A product or brand is not merely a ‘manufactured or assembled’ entity it is ‘much more’. Branding to a major extent is about creating this ‘much more’. Consumer buying is about meaning construction and signification in a world that is less physical is more psycho-social. Let us look at what coffee and tea stand for.

 Though coffee and tea share a lot axiomatic similarity in terms of their preparation method and usage they differ radically in their hidden symbolism. Tea and coffee have different imprints. Coffee is celebratory and tea is ordinary. Coffee consumption is uncommon and its uncommonness imbues it with a unique mystique associated with a wealthy, refined and intellectually evolved class. Coffee is not a potion for sustenance. Tea is linked to ordinariness and ritualistic in home consumption. Tea is instrumental in bringing family together in close proximity and provides platform for sharing and caring. Symbolically tea brings the family together in close proximity where adults share ideas, joys and sorrows.  

 A certain mystique is associated with coffee. Coffee is predominantly outside drink, it derives its utility from social, aesthetic and emotional role. Coffee does not enjoy such time connections. Tea is routinely prepared but coffee is not. Coffee is celebratory and tea is ordinary. Its consumption is probably prompted by its signaling value which may stem from high price implying exclusion of masses; unique taste which only connoisseurs appreciate; and complex preparation process signifies  dexterity in culinary skills (beaten or filtered or brewed).

 A certain mystique is associated with coffee. Coffee consumption in uncommon and it is this uncommonness which imbues this beverage with a unique mystique associated with a wealthy, refined and intellectually evolved class Tea is functional but coffee is symbolic. Coffee houses differ in their spatial, sensory and social meaning. Some of the Coffee houses sell coffee as an alibi to engage in either intellectually evolved serious conversations (business meetings) or promotion of friendship, gossiping to spend time  and social bonding (one of the coffee chains makes a proposition that  ‘a lot can happen over coffee’ while the other are offers pure sensory indulgence in the aromatic world of coffee. 

Brands, Trade Deficit and Intellectual Property

In his latest speech, ITC chairman beautifully explained the role of brands and branding in a country’s economic development. The point he made is that India’s growth prospects are hindered by unsustainable current account deficit (CAD). This implies that Indian industry is not able to export as much as it should have. India’s trade basket is comprised of imports of high value added items whereas exports are made lower value added products. The Indian industry not competitive, our products and services are pulled by markets abroad whereas our markets pull variety of products from foreign manufactures. The only escape route out this difficulty lies in building competitiveness in higher value added goods and services.

Future belongs to economies and businesses which create intellectual property. Intellectual property is a better basis of creating and sustaining competitive advantage. Large CAD stems from imports of products (based on intellectual property of exporting firms for which we do not have substitutes) which lead to outflow of precious foreign currency. Many products are that made and consumed in within India also lead to outflows because Indian firms use intellectual property of foreign companies in the form of patents, copyrights, design and industrial processes. This over reliance on intangible property owned by foreign companies leads to CAD. The challenge for India is how to reduce foreign exchange outflows and increase inflows. It is in this background intellectual property assets is the key to achieving competitiveness in the international markets.

Indian companies pay to their foreign counterpart royalties for using their intellectual assets. This amount stood at 35000 crore rupees in FY12 (306 listed companies). Another analysis revealed that 75 of BSE 500 companies paid royalty equivalent to 32% of their net profits in FY12. It is legitimate right of a company to demand royalty for the use of their intellectual property but this it is also perfectly valid for a country to plot its own strategy to reduce these outflows and create stream of inflows. Every time a consumer picks up a foreign brand name, a part of the paid price ends up in some MNC’s coffers. The consumption basket of an ordinary citizen is now inhabitated by foreign brands. These categories do not belong to high end complex technology areas rather these include ice creams, soaps, shoes, confectionery, chocolates, batteries, cosmetics, burgers, pizzas, mobiles, refrigerators, and sanitary napkins.

So what is the way out? How can our companies increase their participation not only in domestic consumer’s consumption story rather make inroads into foreign consumer’s consumption basket? The way out that Mr Daveshwar suggests is that Indian need to create world class brands. Truly world class brands transform products and services by huge intangible value addition which allows them to charge premium and foster loyalty. The appeal of true brands cuts across cultural, geographical and physical boundaries of the countries.

The brand creation should not be limited to the boardrooms of a few companies. Rather it must become national agenda. The government must focus on creating an appropriate ecosystem for intellectual property development.


Brand name, generic name and ‘you can’t get papers xeroxed’

Consider the following statements:

‘Please have these papers xeroxed’
‘Give me good quality thermos’
‘Which brand of sunmica you intend putting on your furniture?’
‘My carpenter has asked me to get good quality fevicol.’
‘This is a new brand of tinopal’
‘Ask the pharmacy for a good quality band aid’
‘Get a bottle of non-burning dettol’
‘One type of vicks is available only at chemist shops’
‘It’s very dark here, you don’t have eveready’

All of the above statements appear perfectly correct. People do get their documents xeroxed, store liquids in thermos to maintain their temperature, carpenters do ask for fevicol to join pieces of wood, there is nothing wrong to ask for good quality band-aid and kid do ask for non-burning dettol and people in mountains always keep eveready when they go out.

Recently a new brand of laminates has begun to be promoted on television called sunmica and the question is how can a brand be sunmica because it is what people use on furniture surfaces. Can one have ‘Watch’ as a brand name for a time keeping device, ‘Egg’ for eggs, ‘Laptop’ for compact computers, ‘Pen’ for a writing instrument and ‘Nailpolish’ for nail enamel? In reality yes, why not? Managers enjoy liberty christen their products any which why they like. But naming a product is not an act in exercise of free will. Rather it is an act which can profoundly affect brand success at the point of sale.

Sunmica brand has come to AICA Group as a result of business transfer agreement between The Bombay Burmah Trading Corpn and Aica Laminates India. There is nothing wrong with the brand name except for the fact that pride which a marketer takes in claiming that its brand has become synonymous with a commodity actually may be a cause of serious concern. When a name ceases to stand for a brand rather begins to represent a commodity category, the entire purpose of branding is lost. The purpose of branding to get customers to ask for a company’s product by name. Core to achieving this involves creation of ‘valued differentiation’.

When a brand name begins to stand for a commodity, it is unlikely to be demanded by consumers. It becomes descriptor of a category. Its identity collapses into commodity identity. This phenomenon is common with pioneer brands which create categories. Imagine how tough it must have been for Colgate to establish toothpaste category when nothing existed like a paste for oral hygiene. Once established, the brand enjoys the category creator or ‘first mover perceptual advantage’. But the hidden danger for all pioneer brands comes in the form of dissolution of brand identity with the commodity identity. So who loses when people go on to buy Century, Duro or Greenlam sunmica?

The answer is Sunmica. The challenge for category creating brands is to somehow always maintain their brand identity different from commodity identity. One such easy approach is to keep brand name separate from the commodity in their identity signaling system. For instance ‘Colgate’ kept separate from ‘toothpaste’ in communication through intelligent orchestration of brand elements. In our case of ‘Sunmica’, ‘Sun’ should be separated from ‘mica’ which represents the commodity. In consumers’ minds ‘Sun’ should stand for a distinct brand name in the mica product category.

You can’t get papers xeroxed, you get them photocopied.

Cross badging, consumer segments and killing two birds with one arrow

Market segmentation sits at the heart of marketing strategy. Segmentation is essential because consumers are not homogeneous. That is, they respond differently to one market offering. Segmentation is in a way a compromise between effectiveness and efficiency. Mass marketing is efficient strategy because one product is offered to all consumers irrespective of their difference. However, customization is effective because product is designed as per unique needs and wants of each consumer. But constraints at the production end often obstruct firms in their path to customization. Flexible operations permit variations of a product in which common production platform is used. This a common practice in durable products like cars, computers, televisions, mobiles and air-conditioners. This way a firm manages to extend multiple responses to cater to different consumer groups. Consider HUL has four different detergents that cater to different segments: Wheel for economy, Rin (whiteness seekers) and Surf for mid price, Surf Excel for the top end quality.

Segmentation is proper when it is based on real consumer differences. Real differences manifest in heterogeneous demand. This prevents use of one strategy (marketing stimuli) in different segment. Effectively it implies in marketing you can’t kill two birds with one arrow. Wheel does not offer correct solution to the needs of Surf Excel consumers and vice versa. Often segmentation studies reveal interesting picture of consumer differences. As consumers move up the income ladder, consumption begins to acquire psycho-cultural overtones. Consumer preferences begin to shift from real product differences to symbolic because they want their brands to reflect their personality and lifestyle. Quality excellence is essential first step in marketing to these segments as a result it ceases to be a differentiator. Consider the case of luxury perfumes, clothing, bags, shoes, and bikes. Most Italian brands provide exceptional quality of fit and fabric but their differentiation lies in heritage and signature. Similar is the case with Swiss watch brands.

One of the strategies to fire at two targets with one bullet is cross badging. This involves when a product of one firm is also sold by another firm in cosmetically changed form. One of the old examples of this strategy has been GM’s Prizm and Toyota Corolla. Geo Prizm was same as Corolla in terms of basic design. This strategy allows a firm to increase market participation by increasing its bouquet without making corresponding investment product development. Prizm allows GM to participate in sub-compact sedan segment and Toyota gains by getting a cut from sales pie of its modified Corolla. But moves of this kind can damage the cross badged brand in absence of appropriate equity insulating measures. Although Prizm and Corolla are same cars with different names yet the latter sells much better. Brand name ‘Prizm’ itself insulates Toyota from possible damage to its equity and at the same time it does not allow GM to directly plug into its huge trust (built quality) factor.

Cross badging is a common practice in car industry. For instance Maruti’s A Star is corss badged as Nissan Pixe in Europe and Toyota IQ goes as Aston Martin Cygnet. In India the cross badging is employed to its maximum by Nissan Motor and Renault. Do you get confused between a Nissan Micra and Renault Pulse; Nissan Sunny and Renault Scala. If yes, then cross badging strategy has not worked well. The internal similarity in terms of production systems is fine but if brands have overlapping image it is a sure recipe of branding disaster. Confusion is the biggest enemy of branding. Consider the case of Skoda Rapid and Volkswagen Vento. Do get confused? Probably not, their brand imagery acts to insulate one from the other although they come from the same stable.

Cross alliances and technology sharing permits firms to cross badge products with an unprecedented ease. But the real reasons for cross badging should not be internal. The differences in the market or consumers should be at the center of cross badging decisions not the manufacturing.