BJP, Modi, Criticism and Refutational Communication

  • ‘India’s democracy was under assault”
  • ‘Govt talking big on economy, but nothing happening on ground
  • ‘Intolerant India’
  • “When it came to making speeches, Modi government got into the T-20 mode, when it was about announcing policies, it became a one-day match, and when it came to implementing promises, the government behaved as if a Test match has been abandoned,”
  • “Chhe Mahine Paar, U Turn Sarkar”

These  are some of the slogans that have surfaced at different points in time criticizing Modi government. Politics is a competitive game. It is same as when two or three dominant brands attack each other to gain supremacy. Consider, how Amaze directly or indirectly hits out at Desire and the battle between Coke and Pepsi gets direct and dirty. Marketing is also an attitude building, sustaining and changing game. Leadership implies that a brand enjoys positive consumer attitude and behavior. In the last general elections, BJP was voted into power which also implied that it enjoyed an attitudinal and behavior advantage over its rival Congress. The challenge for the leader brand is to defend and sustain its market by maintaining attitude. The challenger brand, on the other hand, can thrive by shifting and changing consumer attitude in its favor.  So consider the following:

·         “We are Number 2 but we try harder” (Avis Rent a car)

  • Volkswagen’s ‘Lemon’, ‘Think Small ‘ and ‘Lemon’ campaigns

This campaign by Avis allowed the company to gain significant market gains by the power of what in communication is called ‘refutational’ appeal or advertising. The communicator first raises a negative matter and then demolishes it. Volkswagen, after the Second World War launched Beetle car in the US with campaigns including the one in which it boldly claimed its car to be ‘Lemon’  followed by text refuting the claim that the car in the ad is plucked from the assembly line (lemon) by the engineers due to scratch on the glove compartment so that ‘you get plums’.  In a similar vein, Listerine which creates burning sensation in the mouth first admitted its burning sensation (negative belief, possible attack opportunity for the rival) followed by a refutation that this sensation is sign of its effectiveness. This strategy is also used by expensive brands. They first admit that their brand is expensive (therefore target of attack by lesser price brands) and then refute this claim by focusing on their long lasting quality. Why do firms adopt this strategy?

The idea behind refutational communication is to ‘inoculate’ the consumer/audience against competitor’s counter claims and destroy them. So what implications follow for the BJP government? The need is to study these attacks that the opposition is making or is likely to make in future and then use them to inoculate the audience and then refute them by showcasing what has already been done. It is better to erect perceptual defences before the enemy mounts attack.


Political market, Strategies, NaMo Challenger and the Congress Defender

The Indian political scene, seen through the marketing lens, is interesting to watch these days. A number of things seem to be happening in the political arena that is similar to what happens in a competitive industry. The duel between NaMo and the Congress is closer to a situation when David attacks Goliath or a market leader is challenged by an aggressor. In marketing this kind of duel was played out when Priya Gold attacked Britannia, Ujala attacked Robin, Pepsi attacked Coke, Nirma and Ghari attacked Surf.  It is an interesting case to study how NaMo crossed over the state political arena and his party boundary to become a dominant national player and contender for the ultimate political position in his party and government.


Market membership: NaMo’s initial strategy has been about crossing over from the state boundary. His strategy of relating to and directly attacking (fierce) top functionaries like the Congress president and PM were aimed to establish POP or points of parity with the market that he wanted to take part in. That is, to position himself as a player in the national politics. Unless his name is taken in the same breath as other national leaders, he would not be the ‘competitive set’ in that market, only comparable fight. In marketing this was cleverly done by Avis rent a car against Hertz (hugely ahead of Avis) when they promoted: ‘we are no 2 but we try harder’. The idea was to become ‘comparable’ with top players.


Differentiation (POD): It is here that out of box thinking is important. Launching a direct attack on rival’s strength does not help for it represents an already appropriated asset in prospects’ minds. Close up is etched as a ‘freshness toothpaste’ so there is no point in becoming another freshness toothpaste; Colgate tried but did not make sense. Strategy is to be ‘different’ in order to attract consumers that are unhappy with the leader. Secularism and inclusion are core to Congress therefore they are difficult to crack. Attacking these would strengthen the rival brand instead of weakening it. No Dettol can be more ‘dettolish’ than Dettol or no Band Aid can be more ‘band aidish’ than J&J’s Band Aid. So the discourse on development and governance is a good idea.   


Disruption: Leader brand (Congress) benefits if inertia is maintained. In the current state of politics, voters have pulled out of the game for they believe ‘vote does not yield any difference’ (all are same- ‘a toothpaste is a toothpaste’). For dominant player this behavior is good. Therefore the challenge for the attacker is to disrupt people’s behavior by increasing their level of involvement in the phenomena in question- election. This is done by connecting the low involvement issue (voting) with a high involvement concern (jobs, security, law and order). Maruti faced this kind of situation when it discovered that people don’t pay attention to service and spare parts. It launched a campaign to raise level of involvement: “Maruti Genuine Parts lagaoge to pappu nahi kahelaoge” (If you use Maruti Genuine Parts, then you won’t be termed as Pappu).


Reposition: it must be borne in mind that leader draws its strength from its position- its perception. It is quite tempting to assault its strengths for the belief that it is achievable if ‘more’ resources are used to back it. But in a battle of perceptions it usually fails. Therefore it is good idea if its strength is converted into weakness (don’t mistake attacking weakness). Coke’s strength is that it is first cola, has a set formula and has history. The same thing can be seen as ‘old and unchanging’. Pepsi, by calling out itself as ‘choice of new generation’ repositioned Coke as ‘choice of old generation’. ThumsUp once ran a campaign with Salman Khan: ‘bade ho ja bacche’ (‘grow up kid’) and repositioned Pepsi as drink of children. NAMo’s challenge here is to have the people on the fringe (uncommitted voters) look at Congress with an altered lens.


The US lost in Vietnam War not because it lacked fire power or resources. It lost because Vietnamese changed the battlefield and pulled into a space where the enemy’s strengths were turned into weaknesses. 

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.


Pepsi, “Oh Yes Abhi”, Slogans , Resonance and Layers of Meaning

Two important routes to brand creation are visual and verbal. The visual (illustration, pictures, logo) and verbal (message, headline, slogan) elements are combined to create brand image. These elements engage prospects through two of the five senses, the sight and sound. Brand slogans assume heightened importance in present day time-short and over-assaulted consumer. Perceptual filtering and defense mechanisms are pressed into action to escape from incessant barrage of messages that hit consumer’s mind. Slogans for being short and mnemonic are effective tools because of being less stressful on cognitive system. Slogans can convey brand’s essence (what brand stands for) in an instance and simultaneously contribute to brand strength by building recall and visualization.  For instance a sign off/ slogan like ‘High performance delivered’ (Accenture), ‘Melts in your mouth not in your hands (M&Ms) and ‘”When it Absolutely, Positively has to be there overnight’ (FedEx), ‘We try harder’ (Avis), ‘Think different’ (Apple), ‘Solutions for a small planet’ (IBM) convey brand promise succinctly and position it in relation to competition by highlighting relative strength.  Ranbir,Priyanka And M. S. Dhoni Photo Shoot For Pepsi Oh Yes ABHI! Ad

In the quest to bond with its market, Pepsi has launched its new campaign ‘Right here right now’/ ‘Oh Yes Abhi’.  It is interesting to see how brands change gears in their negotiation of psychological space in their search for relevance and resonance. Brand is much more than product, in this case the drink.  And the drink  is likely to deliver the same kind of experience. But then why the campaign has been launched that seeks to alter brand’s meaning semiotic ally? This brings us to the question whether people buy brands only for the utility sake or their delivery extends beyond functional boundaries.  A campaign that aims to alter brand symbolism without any  change of its product is certainly an effort given to align brand’s meaning with evolving consumer psycho-social reality.

Pepsi’s communication campaigns provide an interesting case study on changing youth psychology and life style. The brand is quick to size up the psychological space and read its undercurrents. It seizes opportunity in hidden concerns, dilemmas, and aspirations of its young target group. Prima facie Pepsi’s slogans appear simple statements with a very definite literal meaning. The denotative meaning actually is superficial to all these communications. The brand actually engages with its consumers at connotative level.  Accordingly communication says one thing at express level manner but quite another at the unspoken form. One of characteristics of good brand is that it forges bonds which transcend the logic, reason and rationality. Consider the following slogans which Pepsi has employed over the time:

‘Nothing official about it’ (1996)

‘Yeh dil maange more!’ (2006)

“Pepsi ye pyaas heh badi” (2000)

“My Pepsi My Way”(2009)

“Change the game” (2011)

 “Oh Yes Abhi” (2013)


In an interview with ET (28/1/13) Justice Verma  said, ‘If the government takes time, they should make way for persons who are quicker. If, at 80, I am so impatient, govt should understand the impatience of youth’.  Philosophically life is a different phenomenon from what it used to be. The meaning of time, relationships, institutions, consumption and artifacts has changed. There has been a fundamental shift in life values, aspirations and goals: life is short, time runs fast, conflicting priorities, a lot to be achieved, now is when you exist, pleasure is fine, me is first, old is no wisdom.  The certainty (emanating from linearity of progression in everything) coupled with philosophy of abnegation (sense control) made contentment an easily realizable goal. When tomorrow is uncertain, the focus shifts to now, young seek instant gratification ‘ Cause time can’t wait then I sure can’t wait, I ain’t got no patience no I just can’t wait… ‘No time for procrastination’ (Now generation song). The dictionary meaning of ‘impatient’ is lack of patience; intolerance of or irritability with anything that impedes or delays/ restless desire for change and excitement. Impatience is fuelled by a desire to ‘do more’ (‘yeh dil mange more’/ ‘ye pyaas heh badi’) which proportionately reduces the time available. This is the reason why the new currency of trade has become time (do you measure distance by time or kilometer?)

The idea appropriated by new Pepsi campaign taps into inner psychological reality of impatient generation (psychology of instant gratification- no urge deferment).  The slogan ‘Oh Yes Abhi, does not urge you to drink Pepsi ‘right now’ as it may seem to suggest but seeks to give the brand a new consumer resonating identity.

 Prof Mitra, my esteemed colleague at FMS says that Pepsi’s slogans have a third layer of meaning which operate within the realm of sexuality. Read these slogans. They do seem to be laden with  sexual connotations.

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. 

Consumption, reference groups and celebrity endorsement

Last week a news item reported that many firms have dropped celebrities from their brand communication campaigns. These include Pepsi Mountain Dew ( Salman Khan), Big Bazaar’s FBB (MS Dhoni and Asin), Fastrack (Genelia D’ Souza), Thums Up ( Akshay Kumar), Netrogena ( Deepika), and Taj Mahal tea ( Chirangda Singh). Yet there are brand which continue to use celebrities in their brand building like Aamir Khan (Hero series Samusng), SRK (Dulux), Aishwarya Rai ( L’oreal), Anushka Sharma ( canon), Nikon ( Priyanka Chopra), Amrish Puri ( JK cements) and Saif Ali Khan ( Royale).
The modern man belongs to the subspecies Homo sapiens. The individual is closely tied to the collective. Accordingly a person belongs (member) to groups such as family, friends or aspire to belong or identify (non member) with like cricketers or film stars. These groups become important for the marketers because of the influence they exert in consumer by shaping their beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors. It is this influence which makes them hot property for the marketers.
Groups derive their importance from the functions that these perform for consumers: informational, utilitarian and self expressive. In some buying situations deficient consumer knowledge and expertise necessitates search for information from others (a doctor is a good advisor for specialized toothpaste (Sensodyne) or infant products (J&J). In certain cases consumer seek or enjoy group membership by conforming to the approved norms to avoid punishment or disapproval (Leather jacket for HOG membership or certain brand e.g. Ecco shoes for golf playing). People want to express their identities as to who they are and who they are like. People aspire to be like some groups/ individuals which help them enhance their self concept. It is psychological association which makes many consumers to like a brand ( Reid and Taylor- Amitabh Bachchan or Katrina Kaif- Lux).
The basis of reference group influence is the power (as against authority) or capacity to exert control over consumption. The power types include: referent power (based on identification based on admiration- we admire Sachin’s achievements or beauty of Kareena Kapoor); information and expert power (one wonders what Amrish Puri has got to do with JK cement; he is neither knowledgeable nor expert of construction/ Dr Devi Shetty is certainly a good endorser for a heart valve and Hafeez Contractor can certainly influence behavior for a housing or office complex); the human desire for appreciation (reward) and avoid threat or risk leads to certain groups acquiring reward power (‘hey you’re looking gorgeous’- Ponds or a women becoming ravishingly ‘attractive’ in Parachute Body Lotion). Consumer buying is also driven by the motivation to conform to group norms in order to avoid something negative for instance stopping at traffic signal (fines) or wearing formals to a club dinner (admission denied).  
Reference group’s capacity to influence consumer behavior is determined by credibility or trustworthiness because of knowledge and expertise (What is Amitabh Bachchan doing in Nano Clean surface cleaner? Or Sachin Tendulkar in JP Cement?). Attractiveness or identification is another consideration. George Clooney or Pierce Brosnan influences Omega’s target audience based on attraction and identification so is the case with Shah Rukh Khan for Santro. Slice seduces its target customers by calling its drink as ‘aam sutra’ borrowing from the attractiveness of Katrina Kaif.
Brands borrow influence from reference groups to move consumer. Once successful does not mean always successful. The dynamism in the marketing environment at both ends sometimes can upset the brand and endorser fit. This necessitates course correction which can take many forms including discontinuance of endorsement. Remember how Accenture dropped Tiger Wood scandal rocked match mixing involving skipper Azaruddin who endorsed Tissot brand. May be the youth brands like Mountain Dew and Thums Up do not find their endorsers not young enough or match psychographic profile. The long relationship between Nakshtara and Aishwarya Rai broke after her marriage and the brand signed Katrina Kaif as endorser.

Brand, Focus and Sacrifice

If you are not growing someone else is. This phenomenon can be psychologically very discomforting. This relativity in the market gets the managers to be possessed by competition. The Boards which set their eyes glued on the stock prices and market capitalization send memos down the hierarchy to grow and grow fast. The ultimate point of where marketers and customers intersect is a mental spot called brand. Brands create revenue streams and hence are also the growth drivers. One of the shortcut growth strategies is to expand the number of products that a brand offers to the market. But such tinkering with the brand with an eye on the stock market but away from consumer often sows the seeds of decline for the enterprise as a whole. A strong business cannot be built on the foundations of weak brands.
Consider the following:

  • When you want to buy a T shirt would you like to go to a Woodland store?
  • Would you consider a brand like Jaipan (mixer and grinders) while buying a mobile phone?
  • What would be your perception if Bata also sold jeans and formal wear?
  • When looking for a perfume, would you like to consider Lee Cooper?
    How about Pepsi selling urban wear?

Branding is about appropriation of an idea which is both relevant and different. The idea should be relevant from the customer perspective and different from competitive angle. Brands are built by establishing a differentiating idea. Consider the following brands and their appropriation of differentiating idea: Band Aid, Dettol, Marlboro, Nike, H&S and Duracell. What makes a brand successful also imposes a constraint. An attempt to increase the revenue by hanging different products on the brand can lead to idea dilution and thereby weaken the brand in prospect’s mind. The market logic often runs counter to the financial logic. How good an idea is to offer vanilla in a Coke bottle or synthetic running shoe in a Woodland store? How about Levis formal wear or a A luxury car from the stable of Maruti Suzuki? Branding success comes from carving out a narrow idea territory in prospect’s mind. It is inappropriate for a brand to transcend this territory. But if a brand does try to jump over, it seriously endangers its strength.

Branding is about focus not spread. Strong brands are built on the principle of sacrifice. Jack Trout suggests that taking everything can be bad for business and giving up can be good. Stretching a brand can erode or damage or dilute the very idea on which brand success is build. Hence firms must learn to sacrifice. Three forms of sacrifice are: product sacrifice, attribute sacrifice and target market sacrifice.

  • Some brands have product at the core to their identity. Branding success in these cases is built on a differentiated product. Consider KFC (Chicken), Duracell (alkaline batteries) Indigo (economy travel) and McDonalds (burger).
  • At the core of some brands is the pull based on a product attribute. Staying close to such attribute is the reason why these brands remain successful. Consider H&S (antidandruff), Volvo (safety) and Rolex (prestige).
  • Then comes target market sacrifice. Brand should stay focused on their target segment an attempt to get new customers from a different segment may alienate brand’s original customers. When Kingfisher name was hung on an economy carrier what effect would it have had on customers true to Kingfisher brand? Consider the effect of Lux (beauty bar for film stars) trying to woo men. Brand must stay true to their target customer.

Are you reminded of brands that suffered because of the violation of the law of sacrifice?