Product life cycle, Political brands, Killing the self and blaming AAP

There was a time when people loved their Facit and Remington typewriters, Weston and Televista televisions, Murphy and Busch radios, Amkett and Moser Bayer floppy drives, Sunlight and Swastik detergents, Kelvinator and Leonard refrigerators, and HMT and Allwyn  watches. But then these brands do not even figure in cognition of consuming public. Managers and strategists make crucial mistake when they begin to believe in the power of their brand or product.  Levitt’s classic paper began with the lines  ‘Every major industry was a growth industry, but some that are now riding a wave of growth enthusiasm are in the shadow of decline. Others that are thought of as seasoned growth industries have actually stopped growing. In every case the reason growth is threatened, slowed or stopped is not because the market is saturated. It is because there has been a failure of management.’

 

 

Now consider the latest TOI (Jan 9, 14) political opinion poll. On the issue of prime ministerial choice (who do you think would make the best PM?), 58% people preferred Modi, followed by  Kejriwal (25%) and Rahul Gandhi  (14%).  In Ahmedabad 31% preferred Kejriwal to Modi.  The survey also revealed that about a third of surveyed people felt that AAP would win 26-50 LS seats, while 26% expected AAP to win 51-100 seats and 11% expected it to win more than 100 seats.  A five percent of respondents felt AAP would get majority seats.

 

What do these surveys convey? In marketing, especially in contested markets, customer satisfaction surveys and opinion studies are important tools to get how a brand or firm is perceived by its target customers. The feedback helps companies to craft responses according to evolving market conditions.  Companies adjust their market focus, change marketing mix, rejuvenate brands, and improve quality in order to ensure that their customers remain satisfied, new customers are  attracted and customers from rivals are attracted. Broadly there are two types of satisfaction surveys. Customers’ feedback needs to be sought with respect to their expectations (how a product/service measures against customer criteria). Secondly, marketing is a competitive game. Therefore, it is important to explore how a firm’s (eg Congress or Samsung) delivery fares in comparison to rivals (BJP or Apple).  A brand can succeed when it beats the competition on relevant customer expectations. 

 

Marketing is about innovation and adjustment because everything external to a firm is dynamic but a firm is likely to be a constant unless consciously made organic. In politics, all the political entities/outfits need to evolve with time.  Who is to be blamed for the birth of AAP? The blame squarely goes to existing players. New products and brands emerge not because of competition but due to the failure of existing players to cater to changing and emerging needs.  Both of the national parties failed to understand loud voices and silent whispers of citizens (customer expectation). Second, they stick to their old ideologies and policies (stuck up with structure) notwithstanding measuring how they perform against evolving customer criteria. The result is self-evident. AAP spokespersons publicly say that they are forced to enter into politics. It is current political parties which compelled them to become a political outfit.

 

What the options available to the old political parties in this situation? Viewing the political products from product life cycle perspective, the following options exist: product modification strategy- which involves changing an existing product by incorporating new functionality like modifying a detergent by adding fabric softener or improving its performance (making a car more fuel efficient or improving speed of a microprocessor) ; market modification- extending the customer based by appealing to a new customer group (youth is a new market for political parties), new geographies and rival’s customers. For instance Fair n Lovely sought to target men segment,  Dabur Honey made a pitch for young women segment, Pepsodent is currently trying to snatch customers from Colgate (130% better toothpaste).  Finally, a marketer can use marketing mix modification strategy- this involves changes in product, price, place or promotion strategies to capture or retain customer.  BJP’s candidate may need to reposition himself as secular to broaden his appeal or new communication mix strategy could be used (less reliance on conventional advertising).

 Competition is not what kills a company or brand. It is the failure of the strategists to recognize what market wants them to do. Managers kill their own brands.  AAP is only an evidence of this failure.

 

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Brands, Time, Dissociative group, Core Customers and ‘It’s not for me’

Branding is an exercise in perpetuity.A good brand achieves timelessness by a transformational process by which a product is converted into a ‘construct’ of an eternal appeal.  Anything that exists in physical form or in imagination cannot afford to be a constant, for change is the only constant.  A product is pushed into obsolescence with the arrival of new products which embody superior functionality. Consumers switch to a new product for it offers better solution to their problem. Consider how long playing records gave way to cassettes which later were overtaken by compact discs. The new storage devices like pen drives are making CDs obsolete. This is due to progression of technology by which the old one is rendered inferior in solving a consumer problem (consider progression from manual typewriters to electric to electronic to computers).

Brands developed on functional identity appeal to consumers primarily for their ‘problem solution’ capability. This is particularly true in a business to business and technology centric scenario (Intel marketing its processors to different computer makers or a firm specializing in demolition of old skyscrapers).  The challenge for the brands in this category is to keep climbing up the technology ladder and updating the functionality of the brand. The latest ad of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste is built on the appeal of ‘two times faster’ relief. Apple has been moving up on the functionality dimension with its different generation of iPhones (thinner, lighter and faster). This has been true for top German cars like BMW (improvement that they introduced to make it the ‘ultimate driving machine’) and Mercedes.

There are brands which operate on emotional and expressiveness plane. This is especially true for conspicuous products which help a person express what the kind of person he or she is. In this sense brands act as conveyors of meaning. The boots of Woodland express the ‘outdoorsy and adventurous’ streak of the wearer and Nike (based on the goddess of victory in Greek Mythology) reveals a winning attitude (grit and determination).  Brands that derive their success from their expressive symbolism operate in the realm of imagination with very little connection with functionality.

Even for brands with emotional and self expressive propositions staying in sync with the socio-psychological realities is a great challenge. The ‘hip and happening’ (values in vogue) keep changing with each generation. The values that define consumers and drive their buying evolve with time. Accordingly the brands which succeed by ‘value appropriation’ need to evolve their proposition subtly. For instance Bata’s durability may not go down well with new consumers’ desire for style. HMT (‘Time keepers to the Nation’) reigned supreme for middle class for their ‘accuracy and reliability’ but Titan stole the show with ‘design’ appeal (watch became a means of expression) in eighties.

Some values appear timeless like rebellion, liberty, honor, beauty, peace and happiness. Values become timeless when people subscribe to them generation after generation. There are two challenges for managing value centric brands. First, the icon (person) used by the brand to represent its value must be changed with time. This has been very successfully done by Lux which is built on the value of ‘beauty (we have seen its endorsers changing from  actresses like Leela Chitnis to Wahida Rehman to Babita to Hema Malini to Aishwarya Rai to Kareena Kapoor). The icon representing the core value of Lux has been changing with time.

Second, social brands succeed by conspicuousness. People use them for their ability to express a given value meant to construct a social identity.   Brand’s core consumers who fuel its success can also become reasons for its failure. This happens when brand’s core consumers graduate on to a different class (non- core) but continue to use the brand or peripheral segments use the brand. This way the brand develops association with a dissociative group breeding seeds of disconnection with its core customers. Consider the following ‘the brand is not for me’ situations:

  • Fiat and Ambassador cars got inextricably linked to a group that new car buyers do not relate well with
  • Louis Vuitton’s bags with conspicuous branding encourages some customers but also discourages many
  • The aggressive marketing of a sports shoe brand like Reebok to non-sportsperson can diminish its appeal with hardcore sportsmen
  • Hawkings and Prestige pressure cookers which girls have grown seeing their mothers cooking with
  • Even a brand like Nirma is perceived to be undesirable by new generation because of its ‘Hema, Jaya, Sushma’ connotations

The latest reported disconnection like this is the case of Levis and Wrangler. Both  the brands are struggling to cut ice with Indian youth who perceive these brands to belong to ‘ fathers’ generation’ (which is obviously old and not so stylish according to their standards- dissociative group).

Symbolic brands are intended to negotiate meaning either for self construction or social signification. Two way interactions characterize this consumption:  meaning transfer from brand to consumer which is followed by a reverse transfer from consumer to brand. This renders meaning in a constant state of fluidity. The reverse transfer or pollination can alter brand meaning subtly rendering it inappropriate for the core consumer. This calls for a tight control of meaning by enforcing a stricter regime of endorsement and reach.

Symbolic brands therefore are faced with twin challenge of building acceptance and at the same time erecting barriers to consumption.

Products, New meaning and Re-contextualization

Every product is designed with an intended use. For instance the intended use for a razor is to cut hair safely and a pressure cooker is intended to cook fast using pressurized steam.  Products are born with a specific meaning which is set in a use context. This meaning defines and determines the relationship between the supplier and the customer.  Adam Smith proposed two types of values: ‘value in use’ and ‘value in exchange’.  The paradox of value explains the contradiction as to things such as water which has great use value (value in use) but has little exchange value (value in exchange), whereas diamonds which have little use value enjoy huge exchange value (a lot of goods can be exchanged for a diamond).

Saturation is often experienced in marketing when a product-customer exchange is set in a context (intended use).  Such a relationship can slide the product down its life cycle pushing it into oblivion. This calls for rearticulating the product-customer relationship in innovative ways to infuse relevance back into the product or object.  But the critical issue is if product-customer relationship is defined by intended use how can a fresh life be breathed into it? The answer probably lies in re-contextualization or use innovativeness (Hirschman).

Use innovation calls for innovating uses of a given product. The question is can an existing product solve a new consumption problem? It is mediation between existing solution and new problem. Consider  example of Arms and Hammer baking soda which was used to deodorize the fridge. But the product found unintended uses in stain removal, dish cleaning, deodorizer, wash fruits and vegetables off chemicals, teeth cleaner and coffee stain remover, hot bath to remove muscle aches, baby nursery cleaner, and fire extinguisher.  Aspirin which was meant to provide relief from headache has found a new use for heart patients who want blood to  flow freely in their arteries. Aesthetically designed whiskey bottles are used as show pieces and to grow indoor plants.  Foxall uses the term ‘use innovativeness’ to suggest behavior of people to use a product in non-intended way. Not all people are prone to use ‘innovativeness behavior’. People differ in the ‘use innovativeness trait’ . People who have innovative personality are more prone to exploring ways to find new uses of an existing product.  Innovative unintended use of products may be accidentally discovered or the user ingenuity may play a role. People use ubiquitous newspapers to dispense merchandise, as packaging material and make paper bags. This behavior may add an entirely new dimension by recasting user-product relationship.

Products or objects may find new utility by acquisition of a new meaning. Piaget and Strauss call this recontextualization. The literal meaning of the term ‘recontextualization’ is to place something in a context other than it was initially intended for.  The meaning depends upon its context. By placing an object in a new context it  acquires a new meaning or achieves a change of its meaning.  Consider vinyl record players (functionally meant to reproduce sound inscribed on LP records) thats have acquired a new meaning as display object (artifact that belongs to a different era) by recontextualization. Worn out pair of jeans which are abandoned (trashed) by people are recycled and command high prices from some people who use these as means to express their style. In seventies, punks used everyday objects like safety pins and blades as jewelry (new context). Rugged pair of jeans originally meant for the workers found new meaning as ‘casual wear’ as an alternative to ‘formal’ wear (not only wear but also attitude and personality).  Recontextualization as a concept is linked with ‘bricolage’ which means constructing something with whatever material is available. For instance an artist may sculpt something by using everyday objects (utensils or discarded material).The  Rock Garden in Chandigarh as well as the human skull made out of utensils by artist Subodh Gupta.is a bricolage where discarded materials have been used to lend concrete form to an artist’s imagination.