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.

Brand Anna (1): Lessons In Branding

People perceive Anna phenomenon within limits imposed by their perceptual realm. It is natural, for perception is subjective interpretation of objective reality. As a student of marketing, for me Anna is a case in creation of a real power brand offering many branding lessons:

The brand is defined as a sign, symbol, name or a combination thereof. So by this definition ‘Anna’, the name, becomes the brand. And for many others who mistake the brand with the product, here the physicality of the person who bears the name becomes the brand. But going by the so called modern culture neither the name (compare the names suggested in books on child naming) nor the person (compare Anna with well chiseled aspirational bodies of H Roshan or Salman) would make sense to youth population. But he does. Here lies the catch. Brand name or symbol or product is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. These are nothing but outward manifestations of the brand. These are only signifiers, not signified. Anna as a person is signifier, amenable to catching by the eyes of both his followers and the condemners. But the brand actually lies hidden which finds a deeper soul connection with people who rally behind him. Brand is the idea which is singularly ‘owned’ or ‘appropriated’ by Anna in the minds of millions who rally behind him.

A brand draws its power from a resonating and differentiating value proposition. The essence of branding is finding a compelling value proposition. Great brands draw their power by forging an inelastic connection. What has this simple man who otherwise may fail to attract attention on the street appropriated? If Anna has caught the imagination of people, which is visible wherever he goes, what is it? Anna’s brilliance lies in his ability to sense the void (latent need- freedom from corruption) and respond to that by creating a product accordingly (Lokpal). Some needs are so obvious (patent but relegated to dormancy) that they escape attention. Anna has lent voice to a murmur which political establishment knowingly ignored. He converted that into a war cry. Anna brand stands for a ‘promise’ (India liberated from corruption) which connects people.

To many it is a baffling reality to see how modern youth clad in Levis jeans, Nike shoes, Benetton shirts, Rayban shades along with less endowed counter part have been rallying behind Anna. The divisive distinctions based on gender, age, geography etc seem to have collapsed (it is a mass brand?). The brand’s extraordinary appeal cuts through the divisions to create a big homogeneous mass. Although followers look different but the unifying factor here is their psychographics and motivation (psychographic segmentation). Anna is a brand with a big following but it is highly differentiated. What is brand’s DNA? While most of the leaders in the political space are hollow brands- promises not supported by performance Anna is differentiated in terms of promise backed by a tangible product (the bill). Most of the politicians used peripheral aspects to differentiate- white dress, party affiliations, security guards, caravan of SUVs, posters- Anna has focused on the ‘core’ of the product.

Anna is a great ‘pull’ brand. Its customers/followers ‘go out of way’ or are willing to bear extreme costs (withstand rain, hunger, crowd, sweat, and lathi charge) to patronize this brand. Brand Anna is certainly a brand to envy for many politicians. This kind of brand is every marketer’s dream when customers don’t take even a second to switch. Anna has burst commoditization in political space in a big way. He is probably every politician’s dream. It is not a hidden secret that political gatherings are often paid assemblies. Brands operate in different value spaces- some value spaces are more elastic than the others. Brand Anna operates on a very high layer of value orbit with near zero elasticity. The delivery of Anna is not on the mundane level. Why do people perform service (the lower the job the higher the service) at religious places? It is because of the spiritual connect. Anna brand draws it power from a higher order connection.

Brands need communication push but branding is not about communication. Advertising’s instrumentality in brand creation can not be denied but you can’t create a brand only out of advertising. This is highly true for brand Anna. The communication is largely ‘community’ owned. It is brand followers who are so deeply influenced by the brand that they themselves have become disseminators, no expenditure involved. The social media is not controlled, it is rather user created. On the other hand traditional media coverage is of course governed by rating points but rating points are not in the control of news channels. It these were then none of brands or the programs backed by money power would fail. People are watching Anna because they want to. Our capacity to process information is limited and it is selectively spent. What it is spent on is governed by satisfaction. Watching news on Anna is a rational and conscious choice which people make. Anna survives filtration and screening out which is every marketer’s major head ache- how to make customers look at my ad?).

In a situation like this when a powerful brand emerges, how does the competitor react? The government reaction has been the opposite of what strategy would command. Would it be a good idea to start a smear campaign against New Swift because it has attracted a great response? First, it must be understood that if commitment is emotional- inelastic connection to a brand (not based on reason), it is impossible to prove your superiority (I like blue and you can’t convince me that red is better). Emotion can’t be contested with reason. People buy Rolex not for time keeping, there may be better time keeping devices available at lower price yet customers show extraordinary commitment to the brand. Second, the harsher the criticism lesser is the openness to entertain (self concept threatening stimuli activate defense mechanism). Anything contrary to the commitment is either filtered to make the original stand harder (criticism falls in the zone of contrast). All the governmental (jail, criticism on media) response therefore has made brand Anna stronger.

Whether Anna is subverting democracy or democracy is systemically already subverted is a matter of perception. People in power see Anna as a threat. It is true that Toyota Etios and Liva are a threat to Maruti Dzire and Swift. But a brand can not be dismissed in discussion and meaningless retaliation. Brands do become obsolete. May be governance in its present form has lost its relevance. Change is not a threat, it is an opportunity. Only time would tell who would ‘read’ it correctly and seize it. The idea is knocking on the doors of political class. It is perfect opportunity for political brands to get rejuvenated.