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.

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Timeproof brands and branding

The desire for perpetuity manifests in images cast in stones. Some think one can defy time by converting the soul into matter or statues. But statues are nothing more than soulless body replicas which become relieving places for pigeons. Somewhat a similar dilemma confronts brand managers who seek to create time proof brands. Humans and products have a common enemy, “Time”. Does casting a brand into a physical product ensure its timeproofing?

Statutes do not make Gandhi or Martin Luther King perennial brands. Neither do their products in cases of brands like Lifebuoy or Lux which stood like rocks against time? Like a human body, products are transient and their transitory nature must be recognized. Too much love for the body or the product can be myopic. It can be degenerative and subversive. There cannot be disagreement on the fact that perpetuation of a body or a product is an unreachable goal. Life can be extended by science but it does not proof it against the effects of time. A statue acts as reminder of an idea not the person. It is the resonance with the idea that determines its perpetuity. The idea Gandhi signifies is ‘non- violence’ which has an endless appeal. Product is a physical manifestation of what a brand stands for. So the finite reality of a product or person can only be made infinite by creation of timeless essence, the reason of its existence.

For a brand to exist, it needs home. A product can be housed in a warehouse or retailer’s shelf. But brand and product is not one and the same thing, just as body and soul are not. A brand is perceptual entity; it needs a perceptual space as its home. So its home is consumer’s mental space. Then the obvious question which arises is, how can a brand achieve permanence when a consumer himself or herself is impermanent?

One way out it is to make a brand ‘the’ choice for a customer for his lifetime. This is difficult because consumers pass though life stages and psychological evolution. With the change in consumer demographics and psychographics, constancy of preference for a brand is unlikely. So what is the way out? One such route is to create a brand built on an essence or promise which is time proof. Consider a brand like Lux, which of course is a bathing bar but its essence is ‘beauty’. Beauty is not governed by the law of diminishing relevance. On the same lines Rolex brand is built on the core idea of ‘prestige’. Unless a person attains higher level of understanding of life, prestige makes sense forever. Though cowboys may be fossilized in great western movies but the archetype still holds a pull. Marlboro maintains its existence to the timeless appeal of ‘rugged independence’ which cuts across national boundaries and ages. Almost similar is the code of Harley Davidson, the metal appeals to a particular type of mettle: if one has it, he has it. It does not go with time.

Brands succeed when they enjoy customer patronage. A brand may face a leaky bucket like situation. It means that the brand makes sense to a customer for a certain period of time so customers join the brand and then leave it after some time. Consider a brand like Johnson’s baby care. Women get into motherhood and then move on. A similar transience exists for the users for a brand like Whisper. These brands are built on a very solid understanding of consumer need insight. Life of these brands is perpetuated by perpetual churn of customers. The brand in this situation must find ways to compensate for the customers who leave. It is an essential part of growing up to move from Tommy Hilfiger to Polo or Armani. Cadbury Dairy Milk became a much bigger brand by bringing back the customers who typically abandon a childhood indulgence by pushing the child in them into background. Their ‘kuch khas hai’ campaign was aimed at taking the guilt off when an adult consumes a chocolate.

Often brands are locked in a situation when the market or segments make a strategic transition. Consider the mobile telephony market both in terms of instruments and services. Similar is the reality faced in electronics and computers. This situation embodies a fundamental or structural shift. Nokia as a brand has suffered a setback primarily because it took time to realise the shift towards smart devices. Sony as a brand owes its perpetuity in shifting market by adapting to change as well as leading it. Given the imminent shortage of hydrocarbons, car brands are also on a cusp of shift. Accordingly some car brands have ‘read’ the subtle but fundamental change and are preparing for the next generation. The rise of ecologically sensitive consumer and green consumer are similar trends. Brands that seek perpetuity cannot afford to be aloof to these shifts. Bajaj, known exclusively for scooters ‘read and responded’ to shifts in two wheeler market. Before consumer whispers could turn into a revolt against Maggi for being perceived as unhealthy, the brand changed its track by incorporating healthy ingredients. Lifebuoy noticed the declining carbolic soap market and went on to resurrect the brand by leveraging the health and hygiene proposition. This brought the brand back into relevance.

Brands that look steady on the market horizon are like ducks floating on water. Beneath the serenity of their façade, a lot of paddling happens. Timelessness is about continuity and change. Reconciling the irreconcilable is the ultimate challenge of timeproofing a brand.

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.