Love, joy, ecstasy, happiness, delight, satisfaction, commitment, Starbucks coffee and Macallan single malt.

On my recent visit to my brother in law’s home I discovered a live case study of how a brand can create an ordinary consumer into a brand fanatic. He had moved into a big spacious home and the family was keen to show me around. When I was being taken on a guided tour of the house, the conversations revolved around the construction material, equipment, lighting, flooring, faucets, hobs and hoods. This house had all the common accouterments of a decent metro house and I was not so keen on seeing them. The commonality is a great leveler. It is a big robber of identity and uniqueness. The windmills of marketing machine run on this unending cycle of unique-common-unique. In the commonness of things one thing that struck me was two Starbucks mugs on the top shelf of an expensive hand carved rose wood show case. These shared space with expensive crystal figures and bottles of single malts.

The curious learner of consumer behavior in me who was resting peacefully on this Sunday was suddenly kicked awake. The ambiguity that sat on the top of the shelf needed to be resolved. Why mugs made of common inexpensive porcelain sat on the highest level? Is there anything in common between single malts and coffee? Coffee is enjoyed hot, single malt  is best on the rocks. Coffee is common but single malt is uncommon. And it would be stupid to compare Macallan with Starbucks. My curious CB mind did not want to be left there. It wanted to delve deeper into the apparent incongruous reality. What was the method in this apparent madness? And upon being asking as to how much these mugs cost, he replied, Rs 750 each. It was quite a shocker to me.

And I could not resist pointing at the inaptness of Starbucks mugs that sat majestically on the shelf. To that my brother in law narrated an incident with his eyes gleaming and his smile nothing short of pure ecstatic joy. It appeared as if he had met God who blessed him with mugs to savor the drink of heaven. He narrated an incident of his visit to Austria. He told me that one very cold morning he was on his way to airport to take a flight. Half way to the airport he was alerted by the airline that the flight was late. He had checked out of the hotel and did not want to go back. Upon seeing a Starbucks sign board in one of the shops, he along with his friend thought of spending some time at Starbucks sipping hot coffee to kill time and ward off freezing cold. But as they moved near the outlet, it was unclear whether the shop was open for it was too early in the morning. Nevertheless they tried their luck and pulled the door. It was quite disappointing to them to see the coffee bar deserted except for a lady who appeared to be readying things. It did not take much time for them to realize that the shop was not yet ready for customers. But in curiosity my brother in law asked the lady if they could have coffee knowing fully well that it was an unfair and unreasonable demand and no way could they be entertained.

In response to their request the lady politely replied that the coffee bar started its business at six and serving customers before time was not possible. No business could be transacted before the bar officially opened as per rules. Reading the disappointment on their faces the lady explained she could still do something. She explained her predicament that she could not break rules but would also not like to let customers to go unhappy. Then all of a sudden she agreed to prepare two cups of coffee for them. This pleasantly surprised them and they did not want her to go out of her way to serve them. But then she insisted on the guests to have their coffee.  Before leaving the bar, the duo wanted to pay for their cherished Starbucks brew but she refused to take any money.  Upon insistence as to why she would not charge, she explained that as an employee she was entitled to some cups of coffee in a day free of cost which could be had any time of the day and she offered them two out of her share.  

Now I understand that these simple mugs were much more than simple coffee containers. They were reminders of the Starbucks experience which was etched in my BIL’s mind. It is not much difficult for a rival company to procure better mugs, brew a better coffee, create better environment but still they may not be able to deliver exceptional experience. It is difficult to capture how both animate and inanimate blended together to create a memorable experience. A brief encounter of my BIL with Starbucks has converted him into a brand fanatic who talks and talks frequently about how somebody touched his heart. A look at those Starbucks mugs with eyes other than his misses the entire reality. This differentiation here is impossible to imitate. Great brands are differentiated in hearts; they create unique highly personal memorable experiences.

This episode revealed to me how a person can get so possessed by a brand and he does things which appear incongruous but are actually not.  

In a book titled ‘The Starbucks Experience’ given to spelling out guiding principles, principle 3 goes as ‘surprise and delight’ and the chapter begins with a quote of Rabindranath Tagore:

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.

 I awoke and saw that life was service.

I acted and behold, service was joy.” 


Soft drink brands, Commonality, Personality and Archetypes

An interesting piece of writing by Gautam Talwar, chief strategy officer in The Economic Times throws how strategists use several methodologies to glean consumer insights to create brand resonance and differentiation.  Soft drinks come in different names and flavors but these essentially contain sweetened water with added fizz. This product sameness is both obvious and known. It takes not rocket science for consumers to discover that most brands of cola, lemon, and orange drink are no different from each other.  This product sameness makes marketer’s life difficult for they walk on a slippery path unsure of customer loyalty and commitment. Customers switch brands with drop of a hat.

When product element ceases to be a source of meaningful difference then branding assumes significance. When difference can’t be created by product then it brand symbolism holds some promise. With branding, marketers lower their anchors deep into consumer mind to get a hold and stability against waves of competition. Two of the bed rocks on which anchors are hooked are customer resonance and competitive differentiation.   

Different brands of cola like Pepsi, Coke and Thums Up tap into all kinds of cultural resource to create a sense of perceived inequality to kill brand indifference. These include plugging into meaning reservoirs like ambassadors, events and other forms of express communication. The brand asset valuator model is one of the diagnostic method ( of Rediffusion-Y&R)  which can be used to discover a brand’s  reality in consumers’ minds. This model tracks brands on four aspects: differentiation (brand uniqueness/ stand apart from competition), relevance (answer to personal needs/ appropriateness), esteem (living up to expectations/ perceived quality) and Knowledge (awareness and understanding of brand).

Most of brands in this category score high on knowledge and relevance factor of BAV but score low on differentiation.  This implies that different brands of cola are unable of stand apart from each other in spite of millions of rupees that are spent on building differentiation.  The attribute commonality restricts product differentiation. It is here the role of imagery or symbolism begins. Brands are given characters which often are inspired by archetypes (model of a man/ template of persona of a man). Carl Jung , Swiss psychiatrist  suggested that these archetypes come from the collective unconscious and are innate and universal.  These are mythic characters housed in collective unconscious of people: hero, creator, explorer, outlaw, jester, lover, caregiver, everyman, innocent, ruler, sage and magician.  These archetypes characterize our personality and hence become of interest to marketers. Brands are invested with human qualities or characterization to develop relationship.

Consider different brands in soft drink category, a large number of these are given an imagery involving dimension of energy and emotions.  Cola brands like Pepsi and Coke (including Fanta and Mirinda)  have been a joyous, free spirited and fun character.  Thums Up and Mountain Dew also come close to this imagery but with additional dash of Jester traits (daring, witting and resilient- live the present moment with full of enjoyment because you live only once). Given the competition it is a matter of investigation whether shifting these brands towards Warrior and Hero will help the brand further. The other drinks like 7 U p and Sprite share Jester character. Quite away from the crowing mango drinks like Maaza and Slice come close to enchantress and lover archetype. This brings traits like sensuality, glamour, and temptation to the brands.

When product element of a brand ceases to provide meaningful differentiation, marketers turn to symbolism. Human archetypes provide an important guide in shaping branding strategy to break away from cluttering effect created by proliferation.


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.