How to shrink BJP? Forgotten lessons in marketing: Balancing customer and competitor orientation

Newspapers and television channels have used several expressions to describe the debacle of BJP in national capital. The newcomer, AAP won 67 seats (seats in 2013) and BJP, the ruling party at the Centre shrunk to 3 from a near majority number of 32 seats in 2013 elections. And the grand old party Congress, failed to even open an account.  It is a quite shocking result for a party which scored victories on all the seven seats in last Lok Sabha elections in 2014. The Indian political landscape has been subtly undergoing a profound change. Although for the political strategists and stalwarts who are generally soaked in bias and operate from rooms covered with thinking consistent posters, artifacts, slogans and people mostly fail to recognize change. I will use the expression used by Ted Levitt to say that they ‘look into mirror instead of looking out of window’.  The constructed environment acts to reinforce and strengthen beliefs however misplaced they are. Looking out of the window is the way to develop strategy closer to ground.

The marketing orientation is one of the superior philosophies of running a business enterprise. It commands that business must cultivate mindset, structure, processes and strategies which aim to satisfying customer needs and wants better than competition. It subordinates the enterprise to the will of the market. It establishes the instrumentality of business as means of making the lives of target consumers better. Accordingly what is right or correct for a business is articulated from consumer’s point of view not from that of managers. Jaworski and Kohli distill it as organization wide dissemination of market intelligence about customer needs and wants and responding to it. The idea is to generate superior value for consumers as compared to competitors.

The failure of BJP in Delhi elections is manifestation of its failure in promising a product/value that was in sync with target customers and better than its rivals (AAP). But then, the same BJP won all seats in national elections last year. What explains this? The BJP’s success in national election was primarily due to deftly executed brand repositioning based on demographic shift (younger population or now generation). The brand BJP was emptied of its meaning as saffron party and it was given a new meaning. It fought elections on the plank of ‘growth, governance and inclusion’ (‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’). Its governance agenda usurped anti-corruption and Modi’s performance in Gujarat lent it credibility in perception notwithstanding its fact based criticism.

But than what happened in Delhi? This can be explained with two aspects of market orientation: customer orientation and competitor orientation.

Customer orientation: implies keeping an unwavering focus on evolving customer needs and wants and developing responses to meet them effectively. Delhi, although it is same physical place with same inhabitants but competitive reality in these two elections has not been the same.  In terms of consumer choice, the consideration set in national election was made of primarily two brands- BJP (with governance, inclusion and strong spokesperson) and Congress (riddled in corruption, lack of leadership). The frustration with Congress and carefully executed election strategy (inclusion and governance) of BJP lead people to vote for the latter. What happens when you try out a brand with enthusiasm and brand fails live up to your expectations? You look for a change. Remember the young voters which swung in favor of BJP in national elections shifted to AAP (Congress lost its status as alternative) because the discourse in media (easy to spread) shifted back to saffron (love jihad, conversions and reconversion, attack on church and jibe by some MPs).  It may have been satisfactory for inelastic hard core BJP supporters but it was certainly disappointment for new rational and discriminating younger class.

Further, BJP strategists failed in recognizing the shift of people or shall we say customer migration that happens when an existing brand is perceived to be near end (Congress).  There was huge opportunity for BJP to win Muslim voters. The beginning of a shift to BJP of this population was nipped in the bud by BJP itself when some of its leaders assumed center stage on media on triggered debates away from inclusion and development.  So when a car brand like Ford recalls its cars due to some flaw it is natural for its customer to look for alternative in Toyota or Hyundai. It is a huge mistake if one does not read this as an opportunity.

 Competitor orientation: it implies a mindset when a firm keeps its competitors (analysis of their strategies, strengths and weaknesses) in the center of its strategy development process and takes upon itself to beat them at all costs. It is aggressive and reactionary mode of operation. Often this comes at the cost of ignoring customers. Beating the competition is not the mission of any business. It assumes significance when competitors come in the way of reaching out to customers. Being obsessed with competitors is sure recipe for a disaster.

BJP’s strategy in Delhi was entirely driven by competitor orientation.  Its campaign focused on AAP leader in aggressive and personal manner. Consider the words like ‘upadravi’, ‘thief’, ‘monkey’, ‘toxic’, ‘liar’ and ‘anarchist’ in its campaign in outmaneuvering Kejriwal. Further, its radio campaign which tried to paint Kejriwal in poor light on the message like ‘bhagoda’ was irrelevant for the voter.

Customers and competitors are two important constituencies of the market. Both need to be given due attention and balanced. BJP‘s failure in Delhi is attributable to getting obsessed in beating the rival at all cost.

Rahul Gandhi, Branding, Confusion, Complexity and Connection with People

Brands have become relevant in modern society for a variety of reason.  Urban life is very complicated compared to rural life and life and the past was simpler than what it is now.  What does complication mean in contrast to simple? It means tangled, difficult to unravel or understand, intricate, arduous, convoluted, knotty, and abstruse. Confucius said that ‘life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated’.  Let us just focus on complication from marketing perspective.  The markets are flooded with endless product and brands. Does explosion in choices add to pleasure? Answer is that beyond a point excess of anything becomes a burden.  The product, brand, and feature explosion make choice difficult instead of simplifying it.

Can an average customer actually make a choice of a LCD or mobile phone or even toothpaste in rational manner? Probably not, brands in this context assume significance because they have become short cuts to negotiate complicated and confusing choice terrain. Brand acts like an ‘information chunk’ or ‘short cut’ or ‘short hand’ or ‘engram’ or ‘trust mark’ or ‘love mark’ or ‘signature’ which simplify choices.  Two of the important facets of a brand are visual and verbal. Brand name and visual symbols become signifiers of what a brand truly stands for. For instance ‘Apple’ word verbally and the ‘apple’ fruit visually communicate the essence of what Apple brand stands for.  In this sense every brands appropriates or assumes or envelops a meaning in its fold. A brand name in the absence of a meaning is nothing more than a hollow symbol.  It must be understood that a brand name is nothing but a signifier; it conveys what a brand stands for. It is carrier of a meaning. Meaning is far more important than the name.   

Name per se is likely to assume important when all available option are devoid of any meaningful difference. Therefore in commodities, name may alone be a differentiator and can potentially attract customers.  For instance if eggs produced in farm are similar but are given different brand names the customer are unlikely to be evenly distributed among different brands. The reason, name causes differentiation and creates liking which depends upon how a name is elaborated. For instance a name may be closer to your name or son’s name or linked with pleasurable event in your life. I remember my grandmother liking Congress just because it had a symbol of ‘cow and calf’ just because it reminded her of her own cow or lamp symbol of Jan Sang. 

Political parties in India have long relied upon peripherals to attract voters like cast, religion and other symbols (wearing a skull cap) name (Shiv Sena,  Samajvadi Party).  Peripherals assume significance when customer/voters are immature or incapable of making choices based on thinking. All these provide short cuts to voting. But as customers become mature, discerning and discriminating the peripherals are pushed to background and substance take the front seat. Names like Haldiram and  Hazoorilal may not be acceptable to many but they are good brands because name is ultimately a signifier, signified is what people want.

Rahul is a good name. If you add ‘Gandhi’ it becomes better for it leverages equity of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. But unlike the past when people (people who remembered INC and its role in freedom struggle) voted for the name or symbol, the new generation which constitutes a significant portion of voting population is unlikely to be impressed. For the youth of this country now the word ‘Gandhi’ is only a sir name like any other name- this does not add any equity. Rahul is a good looking relatively young person. This may ring bell with some naïve (who get moved by looks in politics too) but young generation is far more educated, discerning and discriminating. They know good looks are a qualification in media or movies not in politics (now even not so good looking actors by conventional yardstick are successful).

 In this background, what is needed is for Rahul Gandhi  is convey what he stands for besides a good looking young politician who is a Gandhi.  Political choices like any other product category are complicated because there are many political brands which make competing and often confusing claims. Gone are the days when political parties could succeed simply by miscommunication or over communication. Now people what to make informed choices. Political campaigning is not as much about image making as communicating the substance.  Thus the essential important question is what Rahul Gandhi stands for and electorates want to know that.

One of the cardinal rules of branding is that brand must stand for a concrete idea- like Moov stands for back pain relief; Pepsi stands for the young, Head and Shoulders for dandruff.  What does RG stands for? Not many of us have a clear idea. In the absence of clarity of what he stands for, it is very unfavorable situation for him as people do not buy brands which either stand for many things or do not stand for anything. Confusion is antithesis of branding, especially when people live complicated lives which leaves very little time and energy with them to resolve it.  When confused, it is much easier to move on to the next clearly defined alternative or to avoid the situation. 

AAP, Symbols, Subconscious Meaning and Somatic Markers

What best explains overwhelming response to AAP. How people respond is caused by many factors. Although providing the explanation to one’s behavior is generally the job of the conscious and the reason but it is not all. A lot of thing remain outside the realm of reason but have influence behavior profoundly. Long back Descartes made a proclamation, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Science for long pursued the path of reason to explain behaviors by concentrating on cognitive side brain and ignoring the emotions.

But neurologist Atonio Damasio challenged the old ideas about the connection between reason and emotion. He claimed that emotions are integral to rational thinking and normal to social behavior. They are the source of a person’s true being. The dichotomization between body and mind, and reason and emotion proposed by Descartes was an error. Emotions and body guide the human rationality and thinking. In many cases our reactions are almost automatic- these can be called gut level reactions. These gut level reactions are called ‘somatic markers’ by Damasio and these cause us to behave almost automatically in an instant. So quite contrary to our notion that thinking drives our preference, it is emotions and feelings that assume the charge. The somatic markers add bias and fasten our decision making in complex situations.

Cognitive/ rational/ economic school proposes that humans make decisions rationally uninfluenced by emotions by performing cost/benefit analysis. This model assumes that a person is capable in terms of time, knowledge, mathematics to arrive at optimal decision. But his is hardly possible. It is here, emotions assume driver’s role and help us in negotiating complex and uncertain situation. Imagine making choices between parties/candidates in political arena-these are complex and conflicting choices.    It may not be possible to make decisions based on only reason or cognition. It is here somatic markers come to our rescue and help in decision making.  The somatic markers are associations between reinforcing stimuli that induce an affective/emotional state and cause bias.

In response to a stimuli the body/ physiological (muscle tone, heart rate, facial expression, endocrine release) changes are conveyed to brain where they are converted into emotions. For instance, sight of a lion would create pounding of heart and that would create feeling of fear. With time, the emotions and corresponding bodily changes become linked with particular situation. Thus when a person is thrown into a situation of decision making in future, these connections between physiological signals or somatic markers and corresponding emotions gets activated which causes people to approach or avoid certain behaviors. So when in a certain situation somatic markers are associated with positive emotions, a positive bias is added. Consider what somatic markers are associated with when one happens to see a politician (prototypical politician is dressed in white kurta-payjama, surrounded by musclemen either hired or in khaki, car with red beacon, arrogant demeanor, rings on the fingers etc)- given the track record of political class in India the physiological response and corresponding emotions are anger, frustration, dislike and hate.

Now consider how the members of AAP by dissociating with the politician by profession (not statesmen) have managed to avoid negative emotions. The people from AAP are very ordinary, minus all the symbols that the political class in India has come to be associated with.   The outcome of this is that they activate emotions that subconsciously trigger people to approach not avoid AAP and its leaders.