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.


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, ‘Selling comb to the bald’, Innovation and Marketing

 The Congress VP, in his new found aggression of tone and tenor, mocked his political rivals, BJP and AAP. He said at the AICC meet, “Opposition parties can say anything. Their marketing is very good. They have used everything, name, shine and song. They are the ones who will sell combs to the bald”. “Now, some new people have come. The earlier ones used to sell combs to the bald; the new ones are giving haircuts. They are giving a haircut to the bald. Do not fall prey to what they say,”

His statement could be intriguing to many and confusing to others. Why did he get rousing applause when he mockingly said that rival parties’  ‘marketing is very good’. The people in the audience probably did not understand the real meaning of what he said.

Prima facie it is not possible to sell comb to a bald but if you are really a marketer it is not impossible. How? It all depends upon the extent of clarity that one has about marketing and selling. These are two alternate ideas or concepts or philosophies of running business.  But most people in the absence of understanding of fundamentals consider selling and marketing as same. But reality these concepts are diametrically opposite of each other. In this context Drucker wrote that the purpose of marketing is to make selling superfluous. Marketing and selling differ in terms of understanding of what constitutes ‘means’ and ‘ends’. That is if you practice marketing then the need for selling ceases. And with the practice of selling, marketing is preempted.

Then what is the difference between the two and what is their connection with comb and bald? Marketing is about creating satisfied customer (end/goal) by understanding customer needs/ wants by designing and delivering value (means) according to them. This diminishes the need for selling /manipulation (fitting square peg in square hole). Selling on the other hand focuses on conversion of goods into cash (end) to satisfy seller by all kinds of persuasion and manipulation (means)- fitting square peg in round hole. In political marketing, most of the times the candidates are thrust upon voters and the lack of choice forces voters to choose from a limited menu. Political markets are not fully competitive or perfectly competitive for the want of free entry.

The true practice of marketing requires innovation. The process of innovation implies that an idea is converted into something that creates customer satisfying value. It is about a new way of doing or making something. The goal of innovation is to make something better or making someone better (customer). Now consider selling or marketing comb to a bald. It is very in the box or un-innovative to connect comb with hair. In this scheme of things a comb is means to satisfying need for combing and which only a person with hair can have. So combs cannot be sold to bald. And the idiom ‘selling comb to the bald’ becomes a joke.

Now wear innovation hat on your head and think out of box. Free comb from its established connection and take a real close look and list all the wonderful needs/wants it could satisfy: scratching back, gift to your wife or girlfriend, decoration (imagine a big comb in your drawing room-pastiche), tucking bed cover with comb, use it as a scale, to make rangoli & draw patterns, brush your coat, to scrub corners and the list goes on. I am reminded of a case of a hair color marketer who discovered that his color was used by buffalo traders to give them a darker shade because dark animals fetched high price. In Punjab, many dhabawalas use washing machines to churn lassi in big quantities .Dettol by liberating the brand from narrow confines of nicks and cuts managed to stay relevant by innovating new uses and making people better.

So there is nothing to laugh about when he says, opposition parties can sell comb of the bald. What he meant was they are very innovative. 

AAP, Blue Ocean and ‘Making the Competition Irrelevant’

In one of the interviews on television news shows, Yogendra Yadav of AAP was asked about his party’s approach to politics. In his quintessential humble and soft style, he said that AAP is here to make the existing political parties irrelevant.

The simplicity of expression and the statement was lost in the cacophony of participants who represented different parties.  Like any other debate on television, the decibel level and force behind modulation of other participants tried to run down what Mr Yadav had just said. To spokespersons of different parties this statement did not mean much for they failed to understand the profundity and the substance that lay hidden beneath those words.  It was an expression of vision that AAP spokesperson seemed to have articulated with phenomenal strategic orientation.

Let us try to decode what Mr Yadav meant. There are two critical elements of this statement: irrelevant and other parties (competition).  This implies that AAP was not fighting the rival parties rather they aimed to change the way voters evaluated political options by altering their evaluative criteria. To put it simply, for instance car buyers conventionally evaluate options on the basis of price (fuel efficiency) and image (luxury) and these dimensions are negatively related (due to constraints imposed by manufacturing and marketing structures).  Accordingly firms target their segments and operate in their chosen markets.   Congress plays out on its strengths of inclusion and secularism but is marred by corruption. BJP is perceived to be a saffron nationalistic party (now developmental pro-business) but considered divisive and has its own taint of corruption.   And general elections are about attacking each other.  These two highly differentiated brands in Indian politics have their own followers. But does  this neat division of market/ voters reflect the reality or is it created by structural imposition (two players two options-like manufacturing and marketing compulsions)?

The structural imposition may not reflect reality. It only tunnels the vision. The eyes are trained to look at the market/industry in a ‘particular’ way.  But an out of box thing can throw up new opportunities. For instance innovation of a model that combines luxury with price can have an overhauling effect on the car market. Kim and Mauborgne in their Blue Ocean Strategy say that a firm can create a new uncontested market space and thereby make competitors irrelevant by creating new consumer value. Mr Yadav was talking about making BJP and Congress irrelevant by creating a new political space. AAP used Blue ocean strategy and targeted people who valued inclusion, secularism (minus corruption) and pro-development (minus divisiveness). Here was a mix or value combination that two established players did not offer.  

The new emergent demographic ( younger population) and psychographic (now generation and rebel instinct) change in the population, especially  in Delhi gave rise to a new uncontested space where value combination of AAP enjoyed high resonance and set it apart from traditional players.  Both the parties in this space with their accompanying negatives (Congress- perceived corruption and BJP-perceived divisiveness) were rendered unappealing but AAP appropriated their positives (Congress’s inclusion/secularism and BJP’s development).

 It is therefore no surprise how AAP made its competition irrelevant by altering the way Delhi’s voters evaluated their political options.  In car industry if customers begin to use both luxury and price as combination rather than dichotomous aspects, the existing car brands would lose their appeal for being incomplete.

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. 

Arvind Kejriwal, Aam Aadmi Party, Guerilla, Repositioning the Competition- Congress & BJP

It is not uncommon in marketing to come across cases in marketing that resemble with Delhi’s politics. Most markets are dominated by two or three dominant players who together enjoy shares close to three quarter of total market. In their book ‘The Rule of Three’, Sheth and Sisodia explain the dominance of this phenomenon across industries. Consider PC operating system- Microsoft, iOS, Linux; browser- Google, Microsoft, Mozilla;  beer-Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors/Stroh) and  batteries-Duracell, Energizer, Rayovac. The political market in Delhi has been dominated by two brands- the Congress and the BJP. These parties are have long standing history, experience, presence, resources and above all known leaders with dedicated following. These forces at play favor the insiders and put any new entrant to severe disadvantage.


How does one play out in this situation of predicament? The literature on war and their application in marketing spell out strategic options. Pepsi battles with Coke, Energizer wrestles with Duracell and BJP combats with Congress. It is not unusual to see two dominant companies or brands engaged dual in which the leader’s strategies are motivated by a design to retain and maintain its position. The aggressor on the other hand deploys its mind and materials to steal share form the leader. Broadly the leader’s strategy falls under the rubric of defense- protection of share against potential attack from challenger (flank defense, preemptive defense and counter defense). For its Coke or HUL lever try to cover all their flanks (segments- consider bathing bars of Lever), preempt possible assault (Surf Excel and Lifebuoy hand wash preempted launch of Airel and Dettol hand wash), counter defense (counter offensive by Fair & Lovely for Men against Fair and Handsome , Clear antidandruff shampoo against Head & Shoulders).  


The second player enjoys status of a challenger or aggressor (BJP) and its strategy is that of an attacker-to hit the leader and steal market (voter). Broadly the strategic options available to an attacker include head on attack (bloody strategy requires preparedness to sacrifice and withstand loss). This is not recommended especially if warfare is psychological. It is extremely difficult to convince a Congress committed voter to shift loyalty. The second option is to launch attack on position that is weakly defended (flank- force concentration against vulnerable points). In this case it could be some minority, religious or occupation groups. The leader can be overwhelmed into losing control by ‘encirclement’ offense. This requires attack by deploying all kinds of ammunition to all sides- grand offensive. Titan at the time of its launch overwhelmed then leader HMT by launching huge variety, advertising, distribution, price points, and service guarantee. The pockets of voters like the Sikhs or urban slum dwellers offer scope for encirclement. Another option is to ‘bypass’ the leader in a unattended or latent market. The so called ‘indifferent’ voters or people who do not figure in the current agenda of the leader become possible targets. The young first time voter was one such segment but challenger BJP has not been able to target with ‘specific’ manoeuvers.


What options do AAP has in its kitty. It lacks ware withal that of a challenger. It is new, resource deficient; lacks experience and above all its leaders are new. One is reminded of a war between unequal in Vietnam. There is no way Vietnam could have countered the US’s sophisticated, big and able force. The challenger or aggressor options just did not exist for Vietnam. So what did it do? A close striking resemble exists between the AAP and Vietnam. If you go head on you will get decimated in no time by launching an attack on strengths (Congress’s) – entitlement, secularism, heritage. The big flanks are guarded (minorities, marginalized groups) and small ones will not give any benefit. So what do you do?


The US was humbled in Vietnam by not matching strengths against strengths or strengths against weakness. The strategy subtly altered the way a battle is fought. A battle is usually fought with arms on a given space but in Vietnam, Vietnamese changed coordinates to a place where the US forces’ strengths became weakness and then they played out what is called guerilla warfare. The AAP has managed to change the discourse on which the forthcoming elections are likely to be fought- corruption (both dominant parties on this space get humbled for their corruption stories), experience (redefined by AAP as experience in misgovernance/ corruption), resources (muscle power to mind power- social media, visible caps,  flash mobs and direct connect). And the most important tool in the arsenal of a guerilla is ‘surprise’- attack and vanish strategy. AAP party launches selective and localized attacks to their fullest advantage- electricity bills, demonstrations in favor of victims of any kind, women security, protest against rapists, targeting auto drivers.  


The discourse introduced by AAP and putting it in the center of electoral agenda- corruption and misgovernance- has dragged two of the dominant players into a court where their firearms and strengths prima facie appear diminished. The competition stands repositioned in favor of AAP in marketing terms.   


Tarang Singhal, Narendra Modi, Congress and Patel


Wish you and your family a happy and prosperous Diwali and Dhanteras
i have been following your blog ever since you began posting and havent missed a single post. the idea of conflating the concept of brand with real world constructs which are more visible is something you do effortlessly. Since you have written about Narendra Modi already, i wanted to point my take on the idea of Vallabhai Patel and modi from a branding point of view. Below is my opinion on the same. 
Narendra Modi in national politics is an outsider, consider the polls for PM in the last 8 years. NM began featuring only in the last three, the TOMA for him was really not there. The NAMO brand had to mean more. So here comes the first story ” Gujarat being the crown jewel in an otherwise ailing country”. The brand creates its first meaning in the mindspace. The story resonates, the dissemination on social media ensures that a restless young generation eager for sweeping changes laps it up and , there he takes a first mover advantage. 
What does the Congress do ( from a pure strategic point of view) ? It is well known that people are more likely to be swayed by body language and appearences rather than content. ( reference: Kennedy Vs Nixon TV Debates). So while both brandish the Nehry style jackets and are eager to burnish their “sons of the soil” tags. In the mind space the idea of what Rahul Gandhi stands for as a leader versus what narendra modi stands for is really the question. So here comes congress calling him a regional leader. A rhetoric that questions his ability. My hypothesis is that by using Sardar Vallabh bhai patel’s legacy Narendra Modi is trying to create the second anchor ( phyically as well as mentally). The Nehru Gandhi narrative has ensured that there are only certain “tall leaders”. Leaders with immpeccable credentials, sacrosanct ( something akin to founding fathers of US). Leaders such as Ambedkar ( used briliiantly by mayawati for another “market” segment) or Rajendra Prasad, Madan Mohan Malviya ,C. Rajagopalachari have lost their appeal. Yet there is something relevant about Patel. Like Apple which used the idea of think different to pitch for people who defied conventions. Patel and the way his legacy has emerged in these years has ensured that he be labelled the unsung hero. It is this audience he wishes to capture by aligning with Patel ( forgotten by Congress, adopted by Modi) a narrative that in my opinion will only strengthen his appeal and also delay the fatigue that his bilitzkrieg may create in the mind of the audience.