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. 

Brands Burst Boundaries: Some Do It Better

I often have to justify the unjustifiable on Sundays. It is a day when ordinary things hidden in nooks and cranny get attention and face threat of ouster. That is the reason why kabariwalas do brisk business on Sundays. A small box in my home is a refuge to a lot of discarded objects which also houses a single piece of cuff link. Preserving a single cuff link does not make sense. It is neither likely to be used nor gifted to someone ever. Hence it does not make any sense to keep it especially in times of space crunch in urban dwellings. Tremendous pressures are mounted on me to throw it but I don’t. And at the end I am called an idiot when it say, ‘throw everything out but not this link’.

My stickiness with the cufflink is beyond the comprehension of reason. For the others the cufflink is just an object devoid of any use value or sale value. And there are other cufflinks which score very high both on use value and monetary value but hold little importance to me. To a reason oriented mind this phenomenon is nothing more than an absurdity. But here lies an important branding lesson. Some brands manage to create this kind of stickiness that their customers ‘go at great lengths’ and ‘pay absurd prices’ to buy them, own them and preserve them. Consider a Rolex or an Apple customer. The important question here: is Rolex a watch or Apple a smart phone? I have heard many people say that ‘this guy is absolutely crazy to spend ten lacs on a watch’.

There is a merit in the above observation. A brand can only succeed in a highly competitive and product parity environment through this ‘craziness’. What do strong brands thrive on? It is the strength of their bond with their target customers which borders ‘madness’ That is they work their way up to creating an inelastic demand. The slope of demand is curve is altered so much that it runs parallel to the Y-axis. The customer just does not want to consider any substitute. In fact in their mind there is a given brand or nothing else. Strong brands push their competitors out of customer’s consideration. But if brand is a product then there are hundreds others. These are all commodities in a way. Then how does one create a blind discrimination in favor?

The cufflink to me is much more than merely a device which holds the cuffs together. A Rolex is much more than a device that keeps time accurately. An Armani is much more than a finely cut and stitched piece of cloth. There was a time when the product element allowed a viable route to brand building. Swiss watch makers did this initially with exceptional watch making skills and Japanese did it with excellence in electronics and automobiles. But now a high degree of commonness running across marketplaces pushes the brands to the zone of ‘indifference’. The superior utility or functionality embedded in the product element of the brand which use to be a discriminator has now cease of an effective brand building mechanism in the modern time. It is just an entry ticket to brand building, nothing more.

Brands therefore have to find escape routes from pervasive commoditization. The boundaries imposed by the product should be transcended to create a value add which pushes the brand in ‘no questions asked’ zone. Great brand move up the value ladder and operate on high value orbit. Considerable elasticity differences exist at different levels of value orbit. A brand can escape the wrath of competition by a careful selection of the game that it wants to play in customer’s life. Consider a brand like Airtel which initially focused on signifying the network related proposition and then moved on from ‘communication network’ (coverage, congestion free, voice clarity) to ‘expression’ (‘express yourself’) and further higher on to ‘breaking boundaries’(how communication can break boundaries between countries and make the planet a better place). Similar elevation of value is visible in Dairy Milk. The brand which initially was sold on the basis as milk equivalent (see the brand sign two glasses of milk being poured into the chocolate). In the recent past the brand has transcended the chocolate element to embrace ‘celebration of life’ and now the brand is promoted on the platform of ‘kuch meethas ho jaye’. That is to create some moment of happiness (sweet not chocolate but moments) in someone’s life. A brand like Tata Tea has reinterpreted the role of tea in modern time. The role of tea is to ‘wake up’ but the business that the brand Tata Tea has assumed is to ‘awaken’ the people.

Brand building is about creating a ‘meaning’ which resonates by hitting at an inelastic inner space. The acid test of brand success is when its customer cannot articulate the reason why he or she is committed to a brand. Brands must discover to develop a subliminal connection otherwise they tread on a slippery road.