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.

Innovation, Disruption and New Consumer

A product is valued for its problem solving ability. For instance a watch measures time and camera captures images. This distinction becomes the basis of industry classification which gives rise to structure and strategy dynamics. Industry structure within which firms compete is defined by factors like seller and buyer concentration, product differentiation, barriers to entry and exit, degree of vertical integration and growth rate of demand.  The product based conception of structure accordingly etches boundary that divides one industry from the other. Firms ‘conduct’ (strategy) in a structure and produce performance outcomes. Hence a camera company like Nikon directly competes with another camera producer Nikon or a computer brand like Lenovo wrestles with HP. This view of competition is direct. Firms evolve strategy and develop success blueprint based on an idea of their competitors and their competitive behaviors.

 In a way industry conceptualization allows managers to identify which competitive space they belong and ‘not-belong’ to. Accordingly it lends ease in identifying competitors and their behaviors. Thus a car maker like Ford should fight with others in the car marketing space like GM, WV or Toyota. This is one of the ways to conceptualize competition known as direct competition. But a need can be satisfied by a different product. For instance transportation can be taken care of by a whole range of non-car products like cycle, scooters, airplane, and railways. That is a firm may face competition indirectly from products that ‘do not belong’ to a given industry. Managers often fall into a myopic strategy trap when they fail to factor in the implication of these indirect competitors. In this regard Ted Levitt had cautioned managers to answer the question, ‘what business we are in?’  It may be myopic to think of an industry in product or technology terms.       Sony Accy MN2 Smart Watch

 The competition indirectly can come from anywhere. The new emergent business environment is rendering the industry boundaries totally fluid and permeable. This is both a threat and opportunity. It all depends upon how far the vision of a manger can go.

Mobile phones are embedded with time keeping utility. Is it wise to consider that Nokia or Apple is not a threat to brands like Nikon or Olympus? Is a computer is computing or entertainment devise? Wrist watch is now being increasingly conceptualized as a ‘device’ with fluid functional boundaries. Many companies like Apple, Sony and Nike are eying wrist for potential business opportunities. Burg has already launched a device for the wrist which combines the watch and mobile phone space into one. This is a watch phone. Burg calls it ‘new smart watch’. Consider the following:

  •  Sony’s Smartwatch has two inches screen and can show emails and twitter posts which it can extract from Android phone.
  • Nike’s Fuel can feed a lot of data about your daily body statistics like calories burnt to a smart phone.
  • Pebble can play music and display text indicating needed information
  • Nokia and other mobile phone brands are building higher imaging capabilities.

 The linearity of thinking causes managers to seek incremental innovation. The accent is placed on betterment of existing value for instance, increasing the accuracy of a watch or refinement of reception of a television panel. But now the character defining core functionality which sat at the center is being decentered in many cases. A radically different perception is needed to view everyday objects. This depends upon an understanding of what makes sense to new emergent customer. It may be wrong to assume that the new generation is a linear extension of the previous one.

 Is computer something to ‘computing’ with or something to ‘accessorize’ with?

Nokia and Lumia: brand limits and brand limited by competition

Recent media news reported a market share decline of the Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia. Many estimate that Nokia’s market share has come down to touch a low figure of 25%. On the other hand brands such as Samsung, LG and Apple and Micromax have gradually nibbled into the market which once was dominated by Nokia. In terms of market share now Korean brands Samsung and LG enjoy second and third positions with about 16% and 6% share of the market. Iconic brand Apple comfortably sits with a share of close to 4% which places it on the fourth position. Although Nokia still continues to lead the pack in terms of volume , its relative position continues to deteriorate. Rival brands such as Samsung, LG, Micromax, Apple and Blackberry have gradually dented the leader Nokia by market slicing from different sides. The recommended strategy for the market leader is to mount attack on the self and thereby preempt assault by others. Nokia has been slow to build a strong position in adjacent markets which eventually emerge as market grows and consequently stands surrounded by strong brands on the flanks.
Is there something new to the Nokia story?
Many brands credited for having created categories have gone down in similar ways. Pioneer brands succeed by codifying a unique formula/ value based on the market reality of a particular period in time. Often this code gets cast in stone and managers lose vision of the periphery. Consequently an important part of the market reality is filtered out. The category creating or defining brands succeed by getting the customers to converge on to an idea which is actually apprehended from assessing consumer patent and latent motivations. Brand is bestowed with leadership position because a novel idea is singularly appropriated by the first mover. This idea is often product centric because these are category creating brands. Something like what Nokia or Xerox or Thermos or Colgate did. Colgate created toothpaste category and Xerox, photocopying. This is the essence of pioneering. Nokia is associated with ‘connecting people’ even on the go/ mobile as against the communication without mobility.
The product centricity is necessary in brand building for the pioneer because first functionality has to be established. Consequently Nokia brand won trust of people by encoding values such as reliability, robustness, and navigation ease. These are prerequisites for a brand to become credible in the first stage of category evolution. But as the product moves along the timeline, more customers begin to see product’s relevance and this certainly makes the brand bigger. But as market expands so does the diversity of customers and this diversity becomes the breeding ground of competition. Some view this as market expansion while the others see this as market fragmentation.
How do market players behave in such a situation? The response is typically conditioned by what is perceived and what is left out. The incumbent seeks to make the brand ‘relevant’ to the ‘joining’ customers. The strategy for the new brands is opposite. These seek to make the existing brand ‘irrelevant’ for the customers entering the category. Accordingly incumbent ‘adds on’ to what it currently has in a bid to win new customers. But the chink in this strategy gives new players an opportunity to build new brand based on what is ‘added on’ as the central idea of its brand. Consider Nokia’s move into different segments:
Nokia music express
Nokia executive phones
Nokia basic phone
Nokia smart phone
Nokia touch phone

In all of the above cases Nokia is the base on which different functionalities are ‘added’ on to make the brand relevant for an adjacent customer group. This is quite logical from the perspective of the insiders but it may not be so logical from the stand point of the outsiders. View this from customer’s perspective. For a person who wants a smart phone Apple is ‘the’ phone because ‘smartness’ is singularly appropriated by this brand as its ‘core idea’. Apple stands for smart phone whereas Nokia in this context means a phone with added smart applications. Similarly for a music buff, Sony Ericsson is ‘the’ music phone whereas Nokia ExpressMusic is a phone with music related functionality.

Consider the strategy adopted by Korean players. In the smart phone category Samsung instead of using its umbrella corporate name has created a powerful Galaxy brand to compete with Apple. LG in a similar way has made an attempt to slice the smart phones market further by creating a new category of ‘genius’ phones by launching Optimus brand. The emergent customer segments apparently all belong to a category but may be characterized more by differences than commonality. In such cases branding success in one segment imposes barriers to its acceptance by the other segment. Often these barriers are mental rather than real. Hanging too many products on a brand can potentially harm the brand by brand dilution. This move can push the brand toward meaninglessness. There is a limit to which a brand can support product variety. The people who seek product distinction are better satisfied when a different brand is created. Customers are not buyers of averages because no customer is an average of all customers.


Nokia is finally waking up to this reality. The company has launched its smart phone‘ Nokia Lumia’. The critical issue is whether people are going to see it as more of a Nokia or Lumia. People wanting to buy a gel toothpaste see more of Colgate in Colgate Max Fresh rather than Max Fresh. And the result is obvious as the brand does not stand anywhere near CloseUp.

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.

Anna Brand (6): Brand Is Bigger Than Product

I am reminded of a verse by Guru Nanak:

“0 Nanak! Be tiny like grass,
For other plants will wither away, but grass will remain ever green.

The meaning as I understand is that grass survives but big and tall trees get uprooted when the storm hits. The ego lays ground for destruction. The perception of being ‘big’, ‘tall’, ‘beyond’, ‘unassailable’, and ‘the best’ germinates the seeds of the fall. Ego and arrogance are two of the worst enemies of a human being. The ego, according to Geeta is the attachment to the body rather than the soul. The body is transient but the soul is immortal. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to surrender his false ego completely for achieving transcendental peace.

Like human beings big companies and big brands are also vulnerable to ego. The bigness- of aspects like size, market share, sales, and scale often breed seeds of decline. Bigness promotes inertia. Long time back in 1985 Alvin Toffler wrote a book titled ‘Adaptive Corporation’ which dwelled upon how organizations fail on account of not being ‘adaptive’ to change. Adaptation is ‘the’ way to succeed in a changing environment.

Consider long standing brands like: Xerox, IBM, Lifebuoy, Coke, and Ford. These brands are able to stay afloat because of ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’. A brand is constant entity in a dynamic environment. True branding is about achieving timelessness by developing an escape route from the operation of product life cycle. Although Lifebuoy is still on the horizon even after decades but it must be understood that it owes its existence to ‘humility’ of being subservient to the cause, the brand. The soul is timeless but the physical elements have limited life. The physical aspects have surrendered completely to the ‘soul’ (the health and hygiene). IBM as a business has undergone great change (the body) but it has stuck on the brand soul (providing solutions). Horlicks as a product has come a long way since it was launched. The product Horlicks has undergone many changes (body) but its soul (nourishment) lived for decades.

Often success of a brand makes the entire enterprise product focused. A success formula of marketing or the product (the means) becomes so important that it displaces the brand (the end). The attachment to the product (the body) breeds arrogance and ego and there starts the decline. The soul (brand) is supreme, the product is only instrumental. Understanding the distinction is the key to creating long life brands. The products can come and go (akin to soul changing body) but the soul is supreme. Imagine how difficult it would be for Nokia to make a transition into services to provide a ‘solution’ which people seek.

One of the important traits of the leader is to keep focus on the goal. Goal is supreme; the leader who leads the team is the means to the end. Leader does not operate in a stagnant environment. So the means cannot be constant in a dynamic environment. Rigidity and lack of flexibility is dangerous. The leader (product) cannot dictate the brand (mission or goal). The leader, the product must adapt to evolving circumstances. Anna Brand stands at crucial juncture where rigidity (fast which worked brilliantly) could be self defeating. Now in the changed circumstances Brand Anna should move to a new level (product reformulation, ingredient changes, augmentations etc) sticking on to the brand DNA (non violence). The success of the brand in the first stage should not intoxicate (ego). The Band Anna is now on the next stage. Leader is a powerful resource; leader can ignite damp gun powder. The leader must understand the instrumentality of the leadership. The cause is supreme.