Political Parties, Competition, Positions and Strategies

Conflict is an inescapable aspect of business. The firms compete with each other when they target the same potential customers or employees. Competition is common to people, animals and companies. When a resource cannot be shared organisms compete. And the natural outcome of this is application of mind to outmaneuver or outwit the opponents. Politics comes very close to what transpires in a business situation. And there arises a need to craft a winning strategy in to action. One of the important starting points in strategy formulation process is analysis competition. Just as HUL fights P&G in dandruff shampoo space or Lenovo competes with Dell, Acer and HP in laptop market, political parties like BJP share the competitive landscape with other parties like the Congress, CPM, Samajwadi Party, JDU or AAP.

One of the important starting points in strategy formulation process is gaining a sound understanding of competitive landscape. This involves identification of players and their strategies. Logic demands that conflicts with the powerful must be avoided. And running into a conflict with a dominant player without a smart plan to dodge is an exercise in self destruction. Apple did not engage IBM directly in computers and Micromax did not create a conflict of interest with Nokia. Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and general wrote that war is about planning and positioning. He emphasized the importance of knowledge: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself,you will succumb in every battle”. But he laid supreme importance to winning without fighting: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

There are many ways in which competitive landscape can be analyzed and competitors can be identified. One such method is framework looks at players based on their market positions and strategies as: market leader, market challenger, market follower and market nicher. This framework can be useful diagnostic tool in uncovering the competitive dynamics of political landscape in India. It will be a good idea to develop strategies based on this analysis.

Leader: this position goes to the firm that enjoys highest market share, for instance Nokia and Titan are market leaders in mobile phone and wrist watch market. Congress enjoyed the largest vote share close to 28% (182 seats) in the last elections. A good leader does not rest on its laurels; rather it takes to a higher level by attacking itself and reinvention. By leading it leaves behind the follower. A good example is Intel or Gillette. Congress is taking it agenda forward by not letting the discourse on minority (Muslim reservation), oppressed (possible reservation in private sector) and poor (NAREGA) die.

Challenger:  it is a position that goes to a firm that is next to the leader and enjoys strong position but not as strong as the leader. It is this reality causes this firm to challenge the leader. The BJP is the second largest party with a vote share of 19% and seat share of 116. Challenging is all about attacking the weakness or finding weakness in the strength of the leader. Jerry does not attack the weakness of Tom, rather converts his strength into weakness by shifting the place of fight. Nirma attacked HUL from the flank (economy detergent) and Ujala hit Reckitt Benckiser’s strong brand Robin by mounting a ‘by pass attack’ strategy. The current regime led by PM Manmohan Singh shows many chinks in armour of Congress led UPA which include inflation and corruption (governance deficit, trust deficit), which can be potential targets of criticism.

Follower: Like a challenger a follower is also a strong player but lacks dominance. As the name suggests its style of functioning is to join the ranks and not challenge the equilibrium.  Political parties that do not differ much in their ideologies with a dominant party (inclusion, secularism, backward and minority class considerations) come in this category. For instance parties like Samajwadi (UP) Party or JDU or BSP or NCP share political discourse with the Congress. 

Nicher: A niche brand or company is the one which concentrates its efforts on a space which is left out by major players for some reasons.  In the political context there are parties which focus on a small market segment (geographic or identity group). Some of the examples include TDP in Andhra Pradesh or BJD in Odisha or INLD in Haryana or Shiv Sena in Maharastra. Niche firms build their success on the basis of narrow specialization. For instance Rolex operates in super premium niche of watch market and Thorogood makes shoes for fire fighters. Anchor toothpaste occupies niche comprising of vegetarians and Creative Line woolens brand is aimed at women group of customers. Sticking to knitting is the best way forward for niche brands. Ambition to move on to a bigger market may come at the cost of their specialization which will have a corrosive effect on their core. For instance Trinamool’s active participation in Centre’s politics has shifted its centre to the periphery. Naveen Patnaik’s singular focus on Odisha exemplifies true niche strategy.

The battle for the next general elections is all set to begin and traces of minor skirmishes are becoming visible. With the Congress and the BJP pitted against each other in leader and challenger positions, the most obvious and move of least contemplation is to attach each other. But this is unlikely to yield outcomes significantly different from the outcomes of the last round of fight. The strategy does not lie in mounting more and bigger attack on each other, rather creating a paradigmatic change in the way people arrive at their preferences.

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Colgate, Pepsodent, Parodontax and Becoming Small by Becoming Big

Toothpaste as a product category has a long history. Colgate brand was first to come to rescue humanity from problem of oral hygiene way back in 1876 when it began to sell toothpaste in jars. Later the product packaging was changed to easy to use to tube. Ever since the time of its launch, the brand continues to lead toothpaste market. Currently in India Colgate enjoys a market share close to 55%. To many people Colgate still means toothpaste. The link between the toothpaste (product category) and the brand name is to strong that distinction between the two is blurred. This situation when a brand becomes generic to a product category presents a unique challenge to marketers.

 This phenomenon prima facie appears to be strength but in reality it may not be so. But one thing is clear; Colgate achieved its leadership by being the first brand to imprint its name on a new category that it created.  This bestowed the brand a unique first mover perceptual advantage. This means whenever consumer thought of toothpaste, Colgate was first hit the mind. Mind dominance is a good strategy. When a brand manages to soak consumer mind with its presence like a dripping sponge very little is space is left for other brands to occupy. Brand dominance is a good preventing the competition strategy. If a brand manages to monopolize prospect’s mind, rivals brands end up being present in the market but not in mind and hence do not move off the shelves.

Brand dominance is much more than brand recall. In a typical branding situation, brand name (Coke or Dettol) signifies an offering of a company which participates in a category (Cola and antiseptic). It happens when a brand becomes synonym of a product category in consumers mind. It manifests in when consumers use brand name to refer to a product category. For instance this kind of situation was faced by brands like Dalda (vanaspati), Xerox (photocopying), Amritanjan (balm) and Tinopal (fabric whitener), Remington (typewriter).  This may a situation also with brands like Google (search), Maggi (noodle), Nirma (washing powder), Coke (cola), Bournvita (malt beverage), Sintex (plastic water tanks), Tullu (small pumps), Burnol (cream for burns) and FedEx (overnight delivery).  Brand dominance is good as long as consumer remains insists on the asked brand. Most of the above mentioned brands have enjoyed share advantage in their category.

What is common across all the brands mentioned above as dominant brands? Answering this question is likely to give a clue to achieving brand dominance. Most of the brands are category creators. These brands created category and imprint their name on it in prospects minds. They leveraged the ‘rule of being the first’ to their advantage. Psychologically firsts are always remembered. Therefore it is not difficult to recall first president, prime minster, first governor, first man on the moon, first to climb Mount Everest and first date. Late entrants have difficulty in registering themselves.  This is the reason why the first three brands end up dominating the market.  

So what do you do if you are not the first or among the firsts? It makes little sense to enter in a crowded category. The belief that a (perceptually) strong player can be dislodged out its position by a better product can turn untrue in marketing. Marketing is little about objectivity and more about subjectivity, it is a perceptual game. So if German cars are perceived to be superior or perfumes mean French, the consumer has already made up his or her mind. The entire external world is seen though this lens and information that contradicts or challenges is filtered or adapted. So the way out is to create a category out category and assume its ownership in consumer perception. Category slicing is the strategy.

Consider the following:

If you were to buy a toothpaste for sensitive teeth, which one will you buy Colgate Pro Relief or Sansodyne? Or if you want to buy a toothpaste with breath freshness benefits, will you buy Colgate Fresh Stripe/ Max Fresh or Close Up? Or if you need an ointment for back aches, will you take Iodex  or  Moove ? The answer probably is going to be in favor of brands which are mentioned later. All of these brands have sliced a share of the market (which tends be the first mover) by creating a sub category and becoming the first mover in their category.  Category fragmentation is a natural outcome of competitive system.  The latest to join the toothpaste industry in India is a toothpaste brand, Parodontax. This toothpaste by GSK has further broken toothpaste category by creating specialized toothpaste for bleeding gums. So the question is if you have bleed gums, which toothpaste would you prefer Parodontax or Colgate Total Pro Gum (Colgate Palmolive) or Pepsodent Gum Care (HUL). The choice is likely to go in favor of Parodontax. Both Colgate and Pepsodent become weak by becoming big. Isn’t it?

Brand, Emotions and Affective Blindness

Marketers wish that their customers were blind and deaf to appeals made by competition. None of the tools in marketer’s arsenal can physically ‘switch off’ two of the most important gateways of perception. The problem is further compounded by ‘pro competition’ polices which seek to neutralize attempts of firms to monopolize the market. The challenge is not to find solution through structural alteration but work it out through consumer mind space.  This is precisely great brands seek to create. Branding in this sense is about developing ‘competition proof’ and ‘competition immune’ brands.

Consider some of the brand in identity building space like Rolex, Mont Blanc, Louis Vuitton and Burberry. The fierce fanatic like desire or pull that they create simply cannot be explained by the application of rationality. Then the essential question is what lies at their heart and what defines their soul. The emotional outburst and consequent surge of the urge suspends reason in animation making people behave in trance like manner. Otherwise how could a time keeping device or a trunk command such mind boggling prices?

The cognitive school explains consumer behavior through a hierarchy comprising of cognition leads to affect which mediate behavior. This was challenged affect based choice model which proposed that emotion affect behavior directly and is a different processing system.  Emotions can mediate preference without involving cognition (separate pathway). While the most decisions are based on cognitive processing some may be mediated by emotions unconsciously.

The affect based choice model seeks to explain the role of emotions in choice for self expressive or symbolic products. It is defined by self focus, holistic, non-verbal:

  1. Emotional choices are more about self rather than what is evaluated. The user (trier) is at the center not what is used (tried). Consider trying a Chanel shade. The choice is base on the imagination of how the person appears. Emotional judgments are self involving the focus in on the person.
  2. Emotional choices are marked by an ‘overall’ impression rather than analysis of individual attributes. The overall preference for a Rolex cannot be traced back to its attributes. Feelings cannot be adequately expressed and communicated. You cannot explain what you like a Rolex.
  3. How are emotions communicated? Verbal language cannot capture the essence of emotions therefore non-verbal communication is used. Images are soaked in meaning and their interpretation tends be subconscious and private. Imagine emotions evoked by J&J baby.

The beauty of emotion based choice is that once it is formed it repels reason based evaluations. Emotions can overwhelm reason. One of the critical decisions in branding strategy is to decide brand’s intended perception. By emotionalizing the brand it may be possible to take a jump over cognition and achieve its insulation from the challenges that stems from consumer ‘thinking mind’.

Politics, Involvement, Brand Kejriwal and IAC

One of the reasons why undeserving candidates get elected to Parliament is the attitude of indifference towards politics. In branding terms, this kind of reality is triggered when meaningful difference between brands ceases to exist. Hence it does not make any sense to waste cognitive resource on evaluation and selection (brand parity). Pulling out of decision process by supplanting the ‘thinking’ with ‘routine’ is a logical approach. Branding is all about achieving resonance through relevant differentiation. But most of the political brands appear to be devoid of meaningful differentiation and a large portion of citizens have ‘pulled out’ from the election process.  The consequent reality is low voting rate. This particularly is beneficial for the political class if parties scratch each other’s back.

Kejriwal and IAC’s contribution to political marketing is in the form of ‘disruption’ of the equilibrium. They have brought the issue of corruption at the centre of the political discourse. Corruption in politics has been taken for granted and hence had become a low involvement issue (all brands similar wrt to corruption). But by their aggressive and innovative approach they have managed to highlight corruption as one of the most important aspects in political brand selection process. Almost identical strategy was once used by Godrej in refrigerator market. Godrej sought and successfully managed to differentiate their brand on the platform of PUF (which was a common insulation used in fridge). The brand appropriated an attribute in consumer’s mind to achieve discrimination. The campaign’s focus was to pull customers back in to decision process and make them evaluate brand with a modified criteria.

People can be categorized on the basis of their involvement with politics. Majority is indifferent and has situational involvement (when the need arises or elections take place). The other group enjoys enduring involvement (as shown by high level of interest in product/ election).  People differ in their approach to handling problem depending upon their level of involvement. Involved people deliberate and process information extensively but people with lower level of involvement resort to short cut heuristics (in our case looks of candidate, name, and ease of recall). This is how bad candidates get elected because they escape scrutiny because of low involvement.

The campaign of IAC has triggered the interest (arousal) of this silent majority into politics by shifting people from ‘habit to decision making’. Now people are beginning to look at their affiliation with political brand with the new angle of corruption- which had become dormant.  The selection based on ‘peripheral’ aspects is getting replaced with critical evaluation (central route to persuasion).  This shift is good for Indian democracy.  When Indian electorate begins to discriminate political brand on the core aspects then only good people would make it to the Parliament.  People are encouraged to think hard about their selection of political brands.

In a situation of equilibrium based on product parity, the best strategy for an entrant is to ‘disrupt’ consumer cognitive frame. IAC has done precisely that. People are taking a look at politics, politicians and political brands in new manner.  By this shift from ‘habit to decision making’ IAC has managed to ‘cut through the clutter’ and carve out a position for itself.

Good or bad, that’s debatable.  Now political parties whether like it or do not like IAC, they just can’t afford to ignore it.

Corruption Yatra, Positioning, Endorsement and Brand Anna

Mr Advani expressed his desire to undertake a ‘corruption yatra’. It certainly has political overtones. But that is not the point I wish to discuss on this page. Let us look at this announcement from a purely marketing perspective.

In marketing ‘imprinting’ is a very important concept. Each brand seeks to imprint something (a proposition) in prospects’ mind which is relevant for customer and different from competition. Consider the following brands and think what immediately comes to mind:
• Dettol
• Close Up
• Orient and
• Ujala
• Johnson & Johnson
Without much stress what flows is: antiseptic, fresh breath, PSPO, liquid fabric whitener and baby care. And now consider Anna. It seems the word anti corruption is appropriated by Anna in the perceptual space of people. What happens when a new brand seeks to affiliate with a concept already occupied by a first mover? Two things happen:
First it immediately acts as a clue to mentally rehearse what has already been stored which makes the connection even stronger.
Second the late entrant is perceived to be a ‘shadow’ or ‘me too’ or ‘also ran’ or ‘copy’ of the original. It does not go down well in the cognitive system. Let us go to the above examples.
Savlon failed to appropriate what Dettol stands for, attempts by Colgate to enter into ‘freshness’ haven’t met with a great success. There is only one PSPO fan. Tens of brands were lured into liquid fabric whiteners only to be non entities. And finally Wipro’s Baby Soft brand could not give J&J an effective challenge.

The success of a concept is a big draw for others to jump in. But mentally the early mover in the perceptual space is protected by what can be called the ‘perceptual advantage stemming from imprinting’. Human mind resists forgetting or unlearning especially when new brand constantly sends the reminders by becoming similar to the original brand. Consider how the first movers react: Coke communicates that it is the ‘real thing,’ Levis is ‘the’ jeans and then there is iPhone and phones.

Let us explore how prospects receive and evaluate communication. Most of the brands seek to communicate a concept by a variety of appeals which include: slice of life communication (showing a typical user like Tide or Surf does), celebrity endorser (like Amitabh Bacchan in Navratan oil or Shah Rukh Khan in Linc pens), expert endorser who is an expert in the field (real doctor endorsing Sansodyne tooth paste), testimonial (an actual user who provides testimony to product efficacy as in the Dove ads) and spokesperson (a known person who becomes the mouthpiece or advocate for the brand like Aishwarya Rai for Longines watches). In communication two factors determine source effectiveness: source attractiveness (looks and physical attractiveness), source expertise or knowledge.

The announcement by Mr Advani to embark upon a ‘Corruption Yatra’ has to been seen from above two angles: the first mover perceptual advantage which Anna seems to have preempted. Second how well will this idea be perceived by the filter of people of endorsement?

Anna and Competitive Response (3)

The competitive response to Anna has been very poor. It is bad retaliation and poor counter strategy. The competitive assault by dissenters like Ms Roy and people in power seem to miss the entire essence of on what the retaliation strategy should be based. All the counter assaults seem to be devoted  to fighting the Anna Brand’s manifestation- the person in flesh and blood. If brand Anna is equated with Anna, the person,then you get involved with the shadow or symbol. It is shadow fighting and it does not take you anywhere. If fact the more you fight a shadow the weaker you become. It is gross wastage of resources.
Brands are perceptual entities. Brands inhabit the perceptual space. Brand Anna has appropriated an idea which enjoys huge resonance with the people. For some it may also be a dissonant idea (people in disagreement) but probably these are few in numbers otherwise Anna would not be what he is today. He would not have been a serious challenge for the establishment. Anna in this context now owns a ‘first mover advantage’. In positioning terms he ‘identified a mental slot and filled it’. Now brand Anna singularly and very powerfully ‘owns’ a position just as Dettol owns antiseptic position and Nirma ‘economy’. Brand Anna not only resonates but it is highly different from current brand of political brands, be it parties or individuals. So Brand Anna is highly differentiated on a dimension that is significant for people. It is visible how Brand Anna is favorably discriminated by people.
Once a position has been occupied it is not a good idea to copy that or come near that position because the challenger becomes  dwarf in the mind of prospects. Therefore the brands that borrow ideas and copy, end up becoming shoddy ‘me too’ with a very low appeal. Now the opportunity for parties in power or opposition or people in search of establishing political credibility is lost. They probably cannot own ‘anti corruption or freedom from corruption’ position. When it comes to thinking  soap for beauty ,‘Lux’ dominates the mind and when one thinks of PSPO ‘Orient’ springs up. You can’t just ‘rub off’ the brand from the mind. It requires ‘unlearning’ which is extremely difficult if perpetual references are made to what one is trying to ‘unlearn’. You remember how ‘Devdas’ was reminded of ‘Paro’ when he saw ‘Chandramukhi’.The more she tried to occupy her positionthe stronger became the image of ‘Paro’.
You can’t fight a brand which resonates with its target audience. Brand gains its strength from the value delivery which could be physical or perceptual. Had it not been true all mega corporations would have killed all smaller players. There would not have been any Chik shampoo, Priya Gold biscuits and Action shoes, and Micromax mobiles. If the prospects have ‘made up’ their minds it is extremely difficult to change.
Many people argue that it is media created mass hysteria and frenzy. This thought undermines the human intelligence. As if people cannot make a conscious choice. If this were true then why could Coke not create mass hysteria for its New Coke which set the company poorer by close to $600 million. Why could Apple not turn Newton into a huge success? Why Sony lost on its Betamax technology? These are all big corporations capable of pumping in millions of dollars capable of whipping up hysteria. Out there, in the market cold blooded customer logic prevails. You either make sense or don’t. People are rallying behind Brand Anna probably not because he is a magician (‘gili gili gili and you are sent in a trance’) but because what he signifies makes sense, that too without paid advertising. Mind you, you are dealing with present day generation which is more discriminating (try getting a small child into liking what you want him or her to) and is better  informed. The information is just a click away.
For all times when ever the word ‘corruption’ would be mentioned the name ‘Anna’ would also get activated. These two are now closely tied in memory. So what are the options for the competition? Anna is imprinted in minds as ‘anti-corruption’ or ‘corruption less India’. This advantage belongs to Anna. It can’t be stolen like a physical object because Brand Anna belongs to perceptual world.
One of the strategies in this situation is not to contest rather to leverage upon the strengths of an established player. I am reminded of Avis when it faced a huge giant in the name Hertz, it impressed upon customers:
“We’re number two, we try harder”
There is no point in taking ‘against’ position because there is no slot like that. Instead build your brand by relating to Brand Anna, not by challenging but by relating.
Can you think of a proposition?