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.

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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.