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. 

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Sachin, Politics, Cricket and Brand Prototypicality

Sachin Tendulkar’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha has caused almost everyone from indifferent to intensely involved reacting to this development. And unlike many other nominations to the Upper House which go unnoticed, Sachin has become topic of discussions this time not for some cricketing record but for his new role in the world of politics.

Leaving aside the ‘indifferent’, people with opinion take two opposing positions. One group has welcomed this development and they find nothing wrong with their star playing his new innings at the political stadium. On the other hand, the other group does not find it comforting to see their legend donning a new role in political theatre.

How can this phenomenon be seen from a marketing angle? This seems to be a case of brand extension but with one difference, here the extension decision is not taken by the firm that owns the brand but by an external agency. For instance the decision as to what product categories (spaces or markets or categories), Pepsi brand should get into is a decision choice of PepsiCo not anybody else.  Brands are extended to harness their full potential and make them bigger. This often involves taking them into spaces (categories).  The Dettol brand ventured out of its antiseptic category to toilet soap and hand wash category to become a mega brand. But does it mean that a brand can travel into ‘any’ category in its journey to become a mega brand. Here lies a catch. It may be very difficult to think of Colgate on a category other than toothpaste. This concept is called brand prototypicality. It is how closely a brand is linked to its category. Prototypical brands get intrinsically anchored to their category so much that their alternate conceptualizations become difficult.

Some questions become important in this context. Is Sachin a prototypical cricket (concrete attribute) brand? Is he more about achievement and excellence (abstract attribute)? What is the commitment and liking level of his followers and fan? What associations are linked with the world of cricket and the world of politics in peoples’ minds? Are competencies needed to excel in these two fields same or different?

The opinions are highly divided on this issue. Some people have called this as ‘dirtiest play’ and some think he is used ‘to divert attention from the problems’. Many are concerned that ‘he does not suffer the same fate as another legend’.  One of the voices is said that ‘The kind of person Sachin is we never expected him to take up politics’. Then there are people who have welcomed this development. Many of the former cricket players have expressed their shock and echoed concerns have to how an apolitical person like Sachin plays political game.

These reactions are very similar to how consumers react to a brand extension. Consider Ponds marketing toothpaste or white beauty cream. One simple exercise can reveal why people have reacted to the way they did:

  1. List the words associated with politics and politicians.
  2. List the words that are associated with Sachin Tendulkar.
  3. Now mix these two sets of associations and create a new list.

Now check the third list whether the words/ associations in this list create a harmonious mix (do not militate against each other) or have high degree of harmony.

An inconsistent mix would signal that two concepts, Sachin and politics do not  make a nice cocktail.

Brand Equity, brand power and trust deficit

Brands are about mediation. Most exchanges, whether personal or commercial, are power games. In business there is nothing like authority to command buyer behavior. The two ends of the marketing continuum- the seller on the one hand and the buyer on the other- struggle to gain control over each other. Pursuit of self interest is not a bad idea. The competition strips the marketer of his power and favours customers. Marketing seeks to reverse this. Power is acquired, authority is formally given.

The Brand Equity survey of the Most Trusted Brands lists the top ten this year as: Colgate, Lux, Airtel, Lifebuoy, Nokia, Dettol, Britannia, Vodafone, Maggi, and Closeup. What does it mean to have a trusted brand? Probably there is connection between trust, power and performance. Trust allows a brand to gain power over customers which ultimately translates into superior financial performance. By building trust marketers can easily knock off rivals from customer consideration and thereby create monopoly in the competitive setup of the markets. Branding in this sense is about monopoly creation. Monopoly is detested for its suboptimal economic outcomes . That is the reason why most free economies have anti monopoly and pro competition legal framework.

From the customer perspective brands are important. There is pervasive trust deficit in almost all walks of life. The institutions are not able to keep up with the emergent changes. Take the political upheavals in Egypt and Libya, the financial crises enveloping the global economy, September 11, Mumbai attacks and terrorism, scams and corruption in political system and neighbour relations. How is one to live in this environment of suspicion, doubt and distrust? This impacts both physical and psychological well being. It causes tremendous strain and fear. A sense of loss of control pervades one’s existence.

Set against this background, at least in consumption situations, brands symbolize consistency and certainty. Brands are tension reducing mechanisms. Amidst uncertainty brands are assuring and comforting. Imagine existence in a world without brands. The luxury to short cut buying would not exist. You would not have reached out for your tried and tested brands. Brands simplify life by providing opportunities to develop short cuts. The mental eloquence so saved is used to resolve other conflicts.

The branding agenda has evolved over time. Branding began for the purpose of ‘identification’ (a mark on cattle helped identify the ranch). As production and consumption roles got divorced and markets came into existence, this function assumed significance. For many, branding is about creating ‘trust marks’. This is about delivery of reliable products or services. German and Japanese companies ushered in this era. But now certainty of performance is not a differentiator in many product categories. It is a common denominator. Accordingly marketers in their bid to control buyer behaviour and gain power, approach branding with an aim to create ‘love marks’. Branding in this sense is about transcendence beyond what is embedded in the goods or service element of the brand. The idea is to liberate the brand from its ‘productness’ and put it on space of ‘non contest’ by embedding it with a ‘transformational’ capability. A brand, from this perspective, becomes a very personal and intimate experience.

Corruption Yatra, Positioning, Endorsement and Brand Anna

Mr Advani expressed his desire to undertake a ‘corruption yatra’. It certainly has political overtones. But that is not the point I wish to discuss on this page. Let us look at this announcement from a purely marketing perspective.

In marketing ‘imprinting’ is a very important concept. Each brand seeks to imprint something (a proposition) in prospects’ mind which is relevant for customer and different from competition. Consider the following brands and think what immediately comes to mind:
• Dettol
• Close Up
• Orient and
• Ujala
• Johnson & Johnson
Without much stress what flows is: antiseptic, fresh breath, PSPO, liquid fabric whitener and baby care. And now consider Anna. It seems the word anti corruption is appropriated by Anna in the perceptual space of people. What happens when a new brand seeks to affiliate with a concept already occupied by a first mover? Two things happen:
First it immediately acts as a clue to mentally rehearse what has already been stored which makes the connection even stronger.
Second the late entrant is perceived to be a ‘shadow’ or ‘me too’ or ‘also ran’ or ‘copy’ of the original. It does not go down well in the cognitive system. Let us go to the above examples.
Savlon failed to appropriate what Dettol stands for, attempts by Colgate to enter into ‘freshness’ haven’t met with a great success. There is only one PSPO fan. Tens of brands were lured into liquid fabric whiteners only to be non entities. And finally Wipro’s Baby Soft brand could not give J&J an effective challenge.

The success of a concept is a big draw for others to jump in. But mentally the early mover in the perceptual space is protected by what can be called the ‘perceptual advantage stemming from imprinting’. Human mind resists forgetting or unlearning especially when new brand constantly sends the reminders by becoming similar to the original brand. Consider how the first movers react: Coke communicates that it is the ‘real thing,’ Levis is ‘the’ jeans and then there is iPhone and phones.

Let us explore how prospects receive and evaluate communication. Most of the brands seek to communicate a concept by a variety of appeals which include: slice of life communication (showing a typical user like Tide or Surf does), celebrity endorser (like Amitabh Bacchan in Navratan oil or Shah Rukh Khan in Linc pens), expert endorser who is an expert in the field (real doctor endorsing Sansodyne tooth paste), testimonial (an actual user who provides testimony to product efficacy as in the Dove ads) and spokesperson (a known person who becomes the mouthpiece or advocate for the brand like Aishwarya Rai for Longines watches). In communication two factors determine source effectiveness: source attractiveness (looks and physical attractiveness), source expertise or knowledge.

The announcement by Mr Advani to embark upon a ‘Corruption Yatra’ has to been seen from above two angles: the first mover perceptual advantage which Anna seems to have preempted. Second how well will this idea be perceived by the filter of people of endorsement?