Coke, Cadbury, Being good, Doing good and Branding

Marketing conjures up images of a salesperson aggressively pushing his products. It is popularly believed that marketing is all about selfishness wherein seller seeks to enrich himself at the cost of consumer. However in last couple of decades marketing practice has evolved and companies have begun to put consumer at the center of their marketing efforts. Accordingly marketing is emerging as a practice directed as satisfying customer or moving them on a higher level of existence (by solving their problems) making profits in the process as a consequence. But his shift of focus on consumer does not liberate marketing from selfishness or self-gain.

 In consumer centric paradigm, what do marketers offer? The marketers are made subservient to goals that consumers pursue or ends that they want to achieve. Consumer needs and wants present spaces on which brands are created. Branding mandate is consumer dictated. A brand cannot be anything other than want its target consumers want it to be. So what do brands offer to their consumers? Brands become agents of the delivery of material wellbeing- consumers’ material existence becomes the areas of focus. Brands position themselves as solutions to their problems emanating from their physiological or psyco-social spaces. Consider: Dove prevents damage to hair or skin; Dettol provides hygiene: Amul makes you healthy; LIC covers risk: MDH makes food tasty; Maggi saves time; Asian paint weatherproofs walls; Cherry shines and protects leather; Airtel connects with the friends; Ceat gives grip on the road; Sansodyne comforts sensitive teeth; Louis Vuitton makes you stand out; iPill gets rid of unwanted pregnancy and Fair & Lovely bestows confidence.

Within the overall imposed needs/wants structure, marketers work out branding strategy. Brands appropriate attributes (Castrol’s synthetic oil/ Vicco contains turmeric) and benefit (Bisleri’s safe to drink, Phillips bulbs saves energy). Mostly branding discourse is narrowly confined to the means and methods of making consumer’s material life better. Brands establish justification by delivering material gains or becoming devices enabling effective negotiation of material world. Rarely do brands tread the non-material or existentialist concerns. It may be due the fact that existentialist aspects do not translate into sound value propositions. May be being good and doing good make good theoretical sense but do not translate into branding opportunities.

Quite contrary to popular branding practice two brands that have taken the branding appeal to a higher existentialist level are Coke and Cadbury Dairy Milk. Both of these brands have been subtly shifting focus away from the product. Products are a physical construction and hence open to deconstruction and reconstruction. Objective differentiators are easy to outmatch. And in a reason based environment more is perceived to be better. Competition based on specifications can degenerate into collective annihilation. It creates dog eat dog situation by narrowing consumer focus on to objective product based criteria.  Therefore better brands develop escape routes by not being ‘more’ rather ‘different’.

Coke had its own share of product focused branding. It for a long period of time it used drink as the center piece of communication (secret formula/ hobble skirt bottle, tingle, taste, fizz, and refreshment). The brand also called itself ‘the real thing’ to suggest that Pepsi is not real or fake. But the question is how far these propositions can take the brand. The larger reality is that the product is nothing more than carbonated water packaged in a bottle albeit with different brand names. When the taste and sensations come close to a narrow threshold, Coke has taken the brand to compete on feeling platform but feeling here is not about activation of bodily senses  rather engagement with higher order consciousness.

Consider the brand communication. Last year the brand ran a campaign. ‘Ummeed wali dhoop sunshine wali aasha’. The core idea was to promote ‘ummeed’ and ‘aasha’ (hope, expectation) about the future. The brand tried to fight an overall sense of hopelessness about the way things are moving in different spheres of life (tomorrow is going to be better). And now ‘haan mein crazy hoon’ campaign takes the concept of happiness (‘open happiness’) from drinking (sensory pleasure- selfish) to doing things that make others happy. There is a shift from getting to giving. It urges people to discover the joy of giving, an appeal to higher order consciousness. The modern combative and overly competitive environment creates a heightened concern for self and a complete disregard for others. Sanity/ logical and mindfulness means concern for the self. But this singular quest for self-betterment/ concern for ‘I’ makes the collective existence hostile/ unlivable. The communication suggests break the rule, be crazy and do something good for others and bring smile on their faces. This kind of craziness (selflessness) is good

Cadbury Dairy Milk brand’s growth trajectory is almost similar to that of Coke’s. The brand sought to establish its legitimacy in the market by focusing on goodness of milk (brand’s logo depicts dairy goodness- milk being poured into the chocolate). This has been attribute based positioning which was necessary to get approval from mothers. Recently the brand took the communication from the literal ‘meetha’ to metaphorical ‘meetha’. It was transformation of the brand from sweet confectionery meant for kids to something that could be enjoyed by adults. The meaning of sweet was reinterpreted (meaning extension by subversion of sensory sweetness to sweet moments- remember cricket ad). The statement ‘Kuch meetha ho jaaye’ is a double layered with two meanings running parallel with each other (sweet occasion and sweet thing). Later brand changed its communication to ‘kuch meethas ho jaye’. With this the brand took upon itself to appeal higher order consciousness by urging people to  become agents of happiness – how small gestures can bring sweetness in relationships (wish your uncle Diwali who you have not spoken to for years).   

The only purpose of life is not to indulge in pleasure for the self. Humans are born with high order consciousness. It is a source of happiness for many. This gives brands an opportunity to forge deeper connections. 

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Multi-utility or sports utility vehicles: the power or powerlessenss on road?

The automobile industry has been undergoing a subtle transformation. In the June quarter of 2012 MUVs outsold sedans for the first time. Two of the recent launches by M&M and Maruti Suzuki have created excitement to a segment which always trailed behind regular sedans. M&M’s XUV 500 and Maruti Suzuki’s Ertiga have received overwhelming response from the market.

Consider some statistics. XUV sold about 9000 units which is a figure higher than combined sales of brands such as Corolla Altis, Cruze, Honda Civic, Skoda Laura, VW Jetta (6500 units). Maruti Suzuki’s Ertiga enjoys a waiting line and is grossing sales of about 6000 units.

Structurally a MUV or SUV is vehicle built on chassis of light truck which makes it bigger, sturdier, powerful (two and four wheel), and spacious capable of a comfortable on and off road drive. The unique blending of internal and external dimensions makes SUVs or MUVs irresistible to many. That is the reason why they are flying off the showrooms fast.

Around the world, especially in rich cities SUVs are a common sight driven by a single person. This stands quite opposite to the ‘reason’ built in the vehicle in terms of space and sturdiness. The city roads hardly provide space for ‘playing round’ and riding the beast beneath the bonnet. The physics of SUVs remain grossly underutilized. The congestion on roads adds to driving and parking discomfort. The unused space and gas consumption combine to make them environmentally unfriendly. Then how they make sense?

The connections probably go deeper. Consider the brand names that these vehicles sport:  Duster, Safari, Fortuner, Thar, Endeavor, Captiva, Pajero, Range Rover, Yeti, Land Cruiser, Outlander, X Trail, Discovery and Scorpio. These words have nothing to do with neatly laid smooth city roads. These roads rob the ‘Outlander’ or ‘Cruiser’ to be a ‘Rover’ of ‘Thar’ or ‘Safari’ to show the bite of ‘Scorpio’ or power of ‘Yeti’. Further take a close look at the frontal façade of these vehicles and keep staring at them. It may take a while to observe the ferocity of a prying big cat.

Urban cities are great levelers. These are democratized spaces where the unevenness of class, creed and status and power become invisible. Consider long queues of cars line up at a traffic signal or people crowding around a mall on a weekend. All become children of the god, made of same matter and chosen to thread on the same path. In such a situation a SUV become an instrument to reverse the identity robbing effect of urban existence. Baudrillard observed that in its concrete function the objects solve a practical problem but in its inessential aspects they solve a social or psychological conflict. The The  subliminated meaning of a SUV make is an object of male fantasy. By the very construction a SUV is a heavy projectile capable of fast movement. Travel is a necessity but speed is a thrill, excitement and enjoyment. In its structural muscled up oversize construction SUV cannot escape the phallic symbolism as a male thing. It is a play thing, a sporting device. A SUV is an easy filler of the gap left by the subjugated city life. SUV is an extension of home with all its protective walls and grills designed to protect from the aggression of the outside world.

Bikes, Male thing and Statutory Warning

Opinions are important. They constitute fundamental building blocks of brand image.  When opinions turn against a brand or product category they pose serious problems. Consider the following line which I came across painted on different spaces in the state of Uttrakhand (UK):

“Give your son life, not a motorcycle”

What does this statement convey? This is a warning to parents not to allow their son to buy a motor cycle because it may take away his life.  Certainly a biker is vulnerable in the absence of protective case but can a bike actually be a life robbing machine? A bike in itself can’t do that but how it is put to use, definitely can.  There are many instruments or substances which come with a warning. Even an innocent polythene bag used to pack a shirt warms its users to ‘to keep it away from the reach of children’.  Floor cleaners and mosquito spray cans also have similar warnings.  So does the fault lies in a motorcycle or its users and why it is driven in an accident inviting manner.  Why does dangerous driving attract a typical youngster?

The way a product is prescribed to be used and is actually used is tempered by the media influence. The images portrayed often promote dangerous practices (like stunts and rash behavior) and position the rider as desirable.  Brands are positioned on appeals such as thrill, daring, power and sexual attractiveness.  Movies also position the rash and brash with heroism and valorize the negative. The feel good subverts the attention from the reality and fantasy takes over leading to recklessness and rashness. The mandatory warnings like ‘don’t try this at home’ or ‘performed by experts’ are deliberately designed not to capture attention.  The id takes over pushing the superego in to the background.

Motorcycles are male objects. The terms object signifies ‘desire’ and you ride and drive them. Their orchestration at one level works on the pleasure principle and it is always a challenge to try new things out. In many cultures taming a wild horse or facing a beast is what manliness all about. But urban centres do not have coliseums but certainly have roads. The brawn is how you ride.  How daring, how noisy (modified silencers), how one of a kind (break rules). Cars are like cows, silent, move in herds and are docile, where as the bike is a new beast.

For the urban youth these rites of passage into manhood or shows of male strength don’t exist but the desire to go through the same does not vanish; these are rooted in the collective subconsciousness.

Alcohol companies promote responsible drinking (‘don’t drink and drive’, ‘champions drink responsibly’).  This way both industry and consumer interest could be guarded; Bajaj once ran a ‘hamara Bajaj’ campaign which tired to touch emotional chord by focusing on Indian virtues. If promotions directly or indirectly encourage riders into dangerous biking, it is time a campaign is a launched to counter such motivation.  Accidents have big econo-social effects. Bottom line considerations need not blind marketers to unintended effects on larger society.