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. 

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Rahul Gandhi, ‘Selling comb to the bald’, Innovation and Marketing

 The Congress VP, in his new found aggression of tone and tenor, mocked his political rivals, BJP and AAP. He said at the AICC meet, “Opposition parties can say anything. Their marketing is very good. They have used everything, name, shine and song. They are the ones who will sell combs to the bald”. “Now, some new people have come. The earlier ones used to sell combs to the bald; the new ones are giving haircuts. They are giving a haircut to the bald. Do not fall prey to what they say,”

His statement could be intriguing to many and confusing to others. Why did he get rousing applause when he mockingly said that rival parties’  ‘marketing is very good’. The people in the audience probably did not understand the real meaning of what he said.

Prima facie it is not possible to sell comb to a bald but if you are really a marketer it is not impossible. How? It all depends upon the extent of clarity that one has about marketing and selling. These are two alternate ideas or concepts or philosophies of running business.  But most people in the absence of understanding of fundamentals consider selling and marketing as same. But reality these concepts are diametrically opposite of each other. In this context Drucker wrote that the purpose of marketing is to make selling superfluous. Marketing and selling differ in terms of understanding of what constitutes ‘means’ and ‘ends’. That is if you practice marketing then the need for selling ceases. And with the practice of selling, marketing is preempted.

Then what is the difference between the two and what is their connection with comb and bald? Marketing is about creating satisfied customer (end/goal) by understanding customer needs/ wants by designing and delivering value (means) according to them. This diminishes the need for selling /manipulation (fitting square peg in square hole). Selling on the other hand focuses on conversion of goods into cash (end) to satisfy seller by all kinds of persuasion and manipulation (means)- fitting square peg in round hole. In political marketing, most of the times the candidates are thrust upon voters and the lack of choice forces voters to choose from a limited menu. Political markets are not fully competitive or perfectly competitive for the want of free entry.

The true practice of marketing requires innovation. The process of innovation implies that an idea is converted into something that creates customer satisfying value. It is about a new way of doing or making something. The goal of innovation is to make something better or making someone better (customer). Now consider selling or marketing comb to a bald. It is very in the box or un-innovative to connect comb with hair. In this scheme of things a comb is means to satisfying need for combing and which only a person with hair can have. So combs cannot be sold to bald. And the idiom ‘selling comb to the bald’ becomes a joke.

Now wear innovation hat on your head and think out of box. Free comb from its established connection and take a real close look and list all the wonderful needs/wants it could satisfy: scratching back, gift to your wife or girlfriend, decoration (imagine a big comb in your drawing room-pastiche), tucking bed cover with comb, use it as a scale, to make rangoli & draw patterns, brush your coat, to scrub corners and the list goes on. I am reminded of a case of a hair color marketer who discovered that his color was used by buffalo traders to give them a darker shade because dark animals fetched high price. In Punjab, many dhabawalas use washing machines to churn lassi in big quantities .Dettol by liberating the brand from narrow confines of nicks and cuts managed to stay relevant by innovating new uses and making people better.

So there is nothing to laugh about when he says, opposition parties can sell comb of the bald. What he meant was they are very innovative. 

Ordinance for Criminality, Chameleon, Morality and Rahul Gandhi

Government and business are organized entities.  The very act by which they are created is likely to create power asymmetry between the ‘creation’ and ‘creators’.  There are abundant instances to show how consumers have suffered on account business’s misdemeanor (unsafe products, misleading ads, price discrimination). Even in democratic systems, power transforms politicians in to lords and citizens become subjects, denied of their genuine rights.

Both business and government are formed for their role. They assume positions of decision makers. In an ideal situation, their rationality must stem from their instrumentality.  Government exists for citizens and business satisfied customers. But this often does not happen. Firms produce dangerous products and make money or government passes an ordinance that favors criminal politicians. These decisions lead to uproar and protests ‘outside’ but insiders justify their acts. Failure to do the ‘right’ thing does not vanish without effects. Disrobing of Draupadi led to war called Mahabharata.  It invites reaction.

Consumers have a long history of protests against corporations starting with Ralph Nadar who penned a book titiled ‘Unsafe at any speed’ to expose car makers of Detroit and Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ exposing damage to environment.  The oppressive governments are challenged by peaceful or violent citizen movements including Indian freedom struggle, civil rights in the US, and French revolution.   

The sudden ‘U’ turn by Mr Rahul Gandhi is appreciable, after all everybody is entitled to revisit a decision, question his or her ethics. But what has transpired between the passage of the ordinance and the press conference that a decision earlier constructed to be ‘right’ has become ‘wrong’.  If it is political calculus, this is not going to go too far. But if it is an act coming of enlightenment, then Rahul Gandhi in new avatar is welcome.

All acts require code or standards or normative framework to judge their ‘rightness’.  Some politicians including Anil Shastri and Jay Panda expressed rejection while others supported it either silently or with voice. This demonstrates how different people ‘look at’ things by applying different norms/standards and arrive at moral judgment. There are two broad categories of theories of ethics: deontological and teleological.

Deontological theories focus on principles that guide behaviors. Kant talks of ‘universal imperative’ which means actions do not count rather the principles that govern those. What is right for one should be right for all.  Actions must be judged on the basis of their inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ (intrinsic good or bad) regardless of its consequences. The teleological theories are also called ‘consequentialists’, the morality of an action depends on its consequences.  Accordingly acts do not have intrinsic value rather they must be judged on the basis of their outcomes. Utilitarianism (Bentham) employs criteria of the greatest good for the greatest number. Ethical egoism proposes maximization of your own interest-how beneficial an action is to an individual. Within ethical egoism is a theory of ‘enlightened self- interest’, that self- interest should be viewed from long term perspective.  

Rahul Gandhi’s recommendation that the Ordinance should be torn and thrown away raises interesting questions:

Is he doing it because it is ‘intrinsically’ good?

Is he doing it because it is going to bring ‘the greatest good to the greatest number?’

Is he doing it because it is in his ‘own interest’ (most favorable consequence for himself)?

Is he doing it because he is considering the ‘long term effect on his decision on all others’ (society)?

Kushwaha, Brand BJP and Consumer Behaviour (Voter Response)

In a bid to boost poll prospects, the BJP lapped up and inducted tainted minister Babu Singh Kushwaha. The party seems very eager to establish itself as a dominant force in the state. And to the political strategists , Kushwaha, in their calculation, appears a short cut to build franchise in a certain section of society. Kushwaha is alleged to be involved in multi crore National Rural Health Mission in UP.

Later dissent emerged within the party on this decision which forced the party president to put his induction on hold till the charges are proven to the contrary. How does a decision like this go down with the party loyalists and the uncommitted, especially the youth who seem to be united against corruption, especially considering the fact that this is the group that is going to play an important role in the polity of this country.

The Congress, on the other hand, launched an offensive against the BJP without losing any time. Congress general secretary and prime campaigner, Rahul Gandhi was quick to claim that his party had shut the door on Kushwaha as his party does not welcome any person with doubtful credentials. Congress is not a refuge for tainted politicians, their influence notwithstanding.

The effect of this decision can be analyzed by using balance theory employed by marketers and advertisers in campaign planning. Consider the effect of this decision on BJP loyalists and the uncommitted:

The loyalists or some fence sitters have a positive attitude to the party/ brand (+ attitude to the object). Some of the people in this group, especially in the younger age bracket are likely to have negative attitude or sentiment towards corruption (- attitude to corruption) and Mr Kushwaha is alleged to be involved in a multi-crore scam. His induction (+ connection between the party/ brand and the endorser) in the party has an effect of pairing of a negative and a positive sign (- and + attitude) in the mind which is an inconsistent or tension state. Psychologically it is an uncomfortable state. In a situation like this it is natural for a person to look for ways to wriggle out of tension/ friction and regain cognitive balance.

Tiger Woods has been a remarkable player and achiever and hence people held positive attitude to him (+ sentiment connection). The consulting firm Accenture, for a long period used him as the endorser for the brand ( + connection shown in brand communication) such that people develop a positive attitude towards the brand. Accenture was quick to drop Tiger Woods from its campaign once the news about his controversial relationships broke out. It was prompted by the assumption that these revelations would create a negative attitude towards the endorser Woods. And his endorsement is likely to damage the brand by creating an imbalance state (+ attitude towards Accenture but – attitude towards Tiger Woods after the sex scandal).

In cases like these, it is natural for people to restore psychological balance. People can achieve reconciliation in a number of ways:

  • The negative attitude to corruption/ Kushwaha remains but attitude to the brand/ party is changed to negative (-,-)
  • The negative attitude to corruption/ Kushwaha is changed to positive and current positive to party remains constant (+,+)
  • And the third option is when the party changes it stand of inducting Kushwaha (from earlier + (association/ induction) to – (dissociate with Kushwaha). This would result in a state of balance (attitude to party +, attitude to Kushwaha – and party’s connection with Kushwaha – resulting in +)

The recent decision of the BJP to suspend his induction probably will go down well with people who seek a clean, corruption free governance/ political brand.

How about you? Does this decision make you psychologically comfortable?