Friday, January 16, 2009

Top Brands in India : The Pitch Magazine Listing

I picked up the latest issue of the PITCH magazine, which had a very interesting feature called Marketing Lessons for The Best. They picked up five very successful brands from India, and talked to respective CMOs to understand their approach. I am attempting to produce a summary of what they said, with my own comments, as usual.

First, the list. The five chosen here were Titan, Kingfisher Airlines, Big Bazaar, Airtel and LG Electronics. I thought this is very appropriate listing, as I could not think of any other consumer brand as good as the ones above. There are a few corporate brands indeed - like Tata or Reliance - but that was not what this feature is for. One could argue that ICICI Bank is a consumer brand and could feature in this list. And, may be some of the car brands too - has Maruti 800 died? - as can be Tata Tea, though they have been considered in a separate section of the same issue. But, overall, a very appropriate list.

Let's start with Kingfisher Airlines first. It was immensely interesting reading about their marketing philosophy. Indeed, their approach sounds uncannily familiar to Richard Branson's - they set out to create a Hospitality in the Air brand. May be, Branson's is slightly different - entertainment in the air. But, those, who travelled with Kingfisher Airlines, know how they package themselves. Apart from this hospitality angle, to which I shall return in a minute, Kingfisher also flies to more locations and have a greater choice of flights than anyone. This is possibly why they have removed the Deccan brand altogether, and repackaged those flights.

At a personal level, though, I must say that I have shifted my loyalties from Kingfisher to Jet recently. I was absolutely floored by the new aircraft, personal entertainment units even in the economy class, Vijay Mallya's charming presentation, its food etc. It had a wow effect on me, apart from the fact that I could use the Kingmiles on Emirates, which I fly often. The availability of the flights had an effect too - I fly Kolkata-Hyderabad sector often, and somehow Jet Airways does not have a direct flight there.

However, I have noticed a marked decline in Kingfisher service off late. I thought they were getting too busy and their staff appeared confused and stressed when the flights were full. On several occasions, I found the cabin crew fairly rude and uncommunicative - they were doing all they were supposed to do, but one could tell that the pressures of quick expansion was telling on Kingfisher. At the same time, I noted the service at Jet Airways improved markedly. Despite various public faux pa they committed, their flights were gradually upgraded, leg space improved marginally and more than anything, their staff appeared better trained, courteous and helpful.

In my mind, Kingfisher Airlines is actually an example of Obsessive Branding Disorder, a title, obviously, I picked up from Lucas Conley's highly readable book. In all this talk about experience, they were out to create an illusion of experience. I hope that it is only very fast expansion and not many trained staff created the problem, and they will be able to focus on fundamentals soon. But, for the moment, I could not buy all the smart marketingspeak which Kingfisher executives handed out.

In contrast, I shall cite Big Bazaar as a great example of consistent branding. It was great to know that the downmarket, Bazaar, feel of Big Bazaar is intentional, designed to appeal to those Indian consumers who have an instinctive distrust of sleek branding and an yawning for value. By being crowded, noisy and a bit chaotic, Big Bazaar is actually trying to send a message that they are cheap and good value. This, in my mind, is branding at its best - projecting a consistent 'character' as opposed to a temporal 'experience'.

Airtel's branding efforts too project a consistent character, a rather traditional Indian character. Airtel adverts and schemes often are very focused on family, the key unit of Indian thinking. It sells itself sublimely through a series of adverts with the message 'some bonding [connections] are forever'. It typically communicates a 'being with you' message. In one of the most memorable advertising campaigns in India, Hutch employed a loyal dog which followed the little girl everywhere, helped in everything she did.

Airtel's adverts, on similar lines, project people-to-people bonding and project a very distinct 'connection' message. Accompanied by a beautiful tune, it invites to 'Express Yourself'.

But then, the line drops.

As in the penny drops. And, we are back to the experience thing again. The line drops. Some connections are forever, but Airtel connections are only for a minute. Their network is on the breaking point under pressure from expansion - success from their branding efforts - which undermine their branding itself. And, again, I would think it is good to have Airtel on that list, but this is taking the purely communications angle into account, and not what would be a complete perspective of branding.

Contrast that, in this case, with Titan. Watches were precious gifts in India, something you received only on special occasions. We Hindus have a ceremony of threading - somewhat akin to Bar Mitzvah - and I was thrilled to get my first watch on that day. This was a mechanical watch made by a Public Sector unit called HMT - watches that worked but was never very fashionable. HMT was what everyone used. Titan changed all that - in a few short years. In fact, I was surprised to discover today that HMT still exists. Titan - more than advertising - built the brand through presence and touchpoints. Suddenly, the fashionable watch stores - the world of Titan - sprang up in the cities, where you could browse and buy fashionable watches. So, my sister started getting watches for passing exams and when valentine day became fashionable, my valentine got watches. That changed the whole ethos of watch wearing in India and in a sense, of personal fashion.

Titan obviously captured that trend and since then, diversified into Jewellery and Eyewear. In fact, I mention eyewear as against Spectacles because of the transformation Titan Eye+ is bringing in India. They are riding the trend of personal fashion and targeted the boring, often unwanted spectacle as an element of personal statement.

In summary, Titan again, represents a character as against experience. Permanent as against temporal - something rooted in the heart of urban India and in line with the times. It is surely not a product versus service thing, as I shall certainly consign LG, whose TVs are fashionable but do not last and whose fridges will need couple of months in the workshop in their lifetime, to the experiential branding.

I do think Indian consumers want value, and such value can be delivered through creating characters through branding - a consistent expectation, buying and consuming experience. The more we focus on experience, our attention gets to the pre-buying experience, and less to what lingers on. I am sure when we judge brands and rank them, it will be good idea to look at them with the complete package, not just in terms of who had the slickest presentation.

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