Wednesday, 4 October 2017

True Lies: Competition force brands to buy ‘Best Brand’ tags & trophies

Consumer brands all over the country (and the world), are leaving no stone unturned to shout on top of their voice and proclaim themselves as the best or the most powerful or the most trusted in their product category. Be it one of those quarter page inserts or a double page jacket ad, or some gigantic billboard at one of the most ‘strategic’ intersections in the city or your daily dose of digital marketing pokes - brands are there in almost every nook and corner of our lives – pleading you to take a note.

And mind you, it is never a lazy-stroll-on-the-beach for the brand manager. Every day, every moment, the brand manager is put to task by the Boss for his lack of vision - "how the hell could you miss out on 'this' strategy that our closest competition managed to execute so effortlessly?" It is as if the law of the jungle out there - one wrong step, and the brand could be effortlessly devoured by the competition (or better to say, rejected by the consumer).
So what does the brand manager do? He has to constantly be on the look-out for something new, something innovative, something that the company has never invested in before to drive brand marketing efforts. Bingo! This is where enters the various brand research agencies. Of course, there are agencies with a credible past who offer different research methods to investigate and identify the weak points and offer consultations to bring about a change in the way the brands need to talk to their consumers. But they are all not the same.

Over the past decade or so, a ‘new breed’ of research agencies have mushroomed all over the country. These firms are not the typical research agencies - although they find it 'credible' enough to be categorised as one. Their claim to fame is a mix of 'three-dimensional' offering - brand research, a coffee table publication with ‘customised’ brand content and a 'gala' event with awards and recognitions. These agencies brought in a whiff of fresh air for the brand manager, opening up choices galore – “whatever and however you want your brand to be categorised as – the best, the most powerful, the most trusted – we have an award to meet all your needs.” The brand manager is certainly spoilt for choice.

Globally, Superbrands was the first such agency to initiate an effort to recognise select brands based on certain parameters. Starting as a radio show on GLR (now BBC Radio London), the Superbrand organisation has come a long way over the past 22 years, operating out of 55 different countries and publishing different titles, each honouring a different category of brand development. The organisation has been quite active in India for over a decade now, offering the Superbrands trademark to be used by selected brands, in different brand communication. This thereby helped many brands leverage the credibility of the Superbrand trademark and create an impact in the minds of the target audience.

Gradually, over the past 5-7 years, a number of me-too ‘brand research’ agencies soon realised the market potential of such brand assessment services and decided to jump on the bandwagon. It was too lucrative a business proposition with a lot of ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ brands willing to rub shoulders with the real big brothers in the industry. These agencies offer lucrative ‘packages’ for brand managers to select from, with little or no viable research process in place.

The model is very simple – brands need to pay up a price, in lieu of which they get an award, a certificate and a customised content in the brand publication (which is often given away as a coffee-table book) – thereby nullifying all claims such agencies make, of the ‘most comprehensive and credible’ research driven brand listing. Yes, they do add in some top-of-the-mind brands in their listing (all of who however decline to make any payment of sorts) to ensure that their claim of a credible ‘top 100’ list is maintained.

At times, to assert their claim that the research process is credible, such agencies rope in one of the ‘globally acclaimed’ audit firms to validate their listing. The firms, unfortunately, seem to have their own revenue targets to fulfill and hence, remain completely uninvolved till the last stage. By then, it really gets pretty late and they finally give their stamp of approval, allowing the agencies to go ahead with their publications and award ceremonies. Not to forget, the awards are held in some of the choicest venues all over the world with the brand heads or promoters flying in to collect the trophy from the hand of a Bollywood celebrity in the presence of hired-out models and social butterflies.

It’s a shame that members of the marketing and branding fraternity are very much in the know of such unethical practices of ‘buying’ awards. They still refrain from voicing their concerns. Self proclaimed ‘management gurus’ and ‘marketing geniuses’ often pop-up with their own proposition of brand models, while offering such brand listing services.

Out of 100 brands (or whatever numbers) listed in such publications, they entice around 20-30 ‘Tom, Dick & Harry’ brands (using a structured business development team with revenue targets) which till then, no one would have possibly heard of. The list is further topped-up with another 30 names which are credible and definitely more established, while filling up the middle with some more names, if not in the top league, but having some reasonable brand recall. Payments received from the lowest rung 30 (Tom, Dick & Harry) brands is enough for the agencies to execute a project. With a lot of fanfare, a coffee table book is published, the award ceremony is held and a glitzy, glamour event executed, leaving behind a sizeable margin for the agency to revel after the show and plan out the next ‘project in the coming 3-4 months.’ This has become an established business model, which unfortunately, is being adopted and executed by various established media groups as well.

So the competition here is heating up. More and more brand research agencies are entering the fray to make some quick money. Brand managers are happy in keeping aside a part of their marketing budgets to buy as many ‘stamps of credible approvals’ from ‘consumer insight’ driven brand researches. For consumers, they are even more confused – to believe in what they see (in ads) or in what they experience (when they use).

And the game must go on... (sic!)

Friday, 11 October 2013


‘Rules and regulations are meant to be broken’ – an adage, which by now, every literate and illiterate Indian citizen have adapted to consciously or subconsciously. Schools and colleges have also played a great role in helping one to imbibe the same in one form or the other. And then you have the natural nurturing environment back home, among family members or friends, in your professional lives, in relationships and so on. At every step, in your daily routine life, you indulge in breaking rules and regulations. It somehow gives you a ‘great kick’ – a feeling of immense satisfaction, a sense of euphoria, an incomparable achievement orientation.

The way, every individual strives to raise the bar in achieving a bigger goal, a greater fortune and a more comfortable lifestyle, similarly do we, raise the bar of bending rules to the extent that they are not broken, but gouged out from the very rule books in the most notorious manner.

The recent headlines on sand mafia in Gautam Budh Nagar district of UP and the suspension of SDM Durga Shakti Nagpal, add to a multitude of small and large scale conscious acts of ‘legalised crime’ over the decades, ever since licensing or other control mechanisms have been employed in any commercial system in India. The media has only glorified the so-called ‘rule breakers’ by branding them as Mafias - doing a greater favor of boosting their self-esteem to a higher pinnacle. So, let me also stick to the same term, only to extend its usage as a generic term for ‘a group of conscious law breakers with an intent to cause immense damage to public exchequer and public livelihood to attain their own selfish motives.’

Now that I have already generalized the term, let me enlist the different types of Mafia who are actively operating in India currently:

Political Mafias – A group of decrepit, old men, who subvert the common man’s conscience by the most inglorious means with an objective to stay in total power and control as the sole decision maker of the country’s future course of action. (example – Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sharad Pawar, etc.)

Corporate Mafias – A group of well groomed, white collar corporate big-wigs, who, in the name of selfless contribution and CSR, stack up hoard of money for their political bosses, in return favour of lucrative tenders, at quarter of a cost of the actual prices. (example – Mukesh Ambani, Anil Aggarwal, etc.)

Education Mafias – A group of ‘world-class’ institutions, which in the name of offering ‘a life-changing experience,’ change the lives of the students once and for all. These students finally seek respite by making their presence felt in another world, not frequented by mortal beings. In the meantime, these institutions make a lot of money, change more lives and continue to offer newer means to change many more lives. (example – IIPM, Sharda, Lovely Professional University)

Aam-admi Mafias – A group of people, with or without any political affiliation, generalized as the common man or aam-admi, enjoy the privilege of being represented by the most powerful political leaders, while they themselves take a lot of pride in quashing every possible rule on the streets, at the workplace, at home, at almost every conceivable place on earth. (example – seen in the mirror)

Bureaucratic Mafias – A group of highly educated, erudite individuals, who occupy the highest seats of governance, with little or no authority of their own. This breed enjoys getting recognized in the eyes of the aam-admi, by making a hell of their lives. (example – visit any government office to find one)

Defence Mafias – A group of individuals, vested with the authority and power to maintain the sovereignty of the homeland, enjoys flexing their muscles in building houses, orchards, resorts on properties of the state or stashing cash out of illegal sale of arms, ammunition or secret information. (example – there are many donning the olive greens)

Media Mafias – A group of institutions, a part of the 4 pillars of democracy, who likes to create breaking news to subdue/criticize someone or something at the behest of the political or corporate mafias. The mostly illiterate aam-admi mafias take onto the streets to protest, thereby helping the media mafias to gain more TRPs and their political/corporate bosses more mileage in the entire cycle of events. (example – Kolkata TV, News India, etc.)

Student Mafias – A group of individuals with bloated egos and high self-notion of worldly knowledge, who feel they are the next generation to look out for, when it comes to politics, corporate world or social sphere, takes pride in disrupting everything – from education to public life – at the slightest wink of the political mafias. Although they symbolize youth power, but the incumbent executive councils comprise mostly of grey-haired, forty somethings. (example – all college unions)

Social Service Mafias – A group of individuals from different walks of life, who desire to bring about a social change in different spheres – education, public policy, poverty alleviation, malnutrition, etc – but end up becoming cronies of the political or corporate mafias. Their ‘hand-in-glove’ approach to serve as the secret treasury of their political or corporate masters, have made them a safer bet for investments with higher RoI. (example – GIDF, SoS Village, etc)

Medical Mafias – A group of individuals or institutions in the profession of providing medical healthcare – doctors, hospitals, clinics, pharma companies – who can get subversive, while wrenching out money from your pockets, at the cost of providing world-class medical healthcare. Their blackmailing tactics, while sometimes subtle, are mostly loud and on the face. They are very closely networked with the political and corporate mafias as well. (example – Apollo, Max, Fortis, etc.)

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Train Ride

"Ah, thank you," gasped Srobona, trying to catch her breath. It was for this strong arm, which pulled her through the sliding doors, that she is now onboard the Kavi Subhash bound metro rake from the Shyambazar station. It would have been a real mess, had this gentleman not extended his hand to help her up, with the doors almost sliding in from both the sides. It's time for some pleasantries, but who or where is this person?
As Srobona looked around, trying to locate whose hand she had clung onto, some 10 seconds back, she could only see over a dozen pairs of eyes staring back at her with an air of shock and disbelief, as if they have spotted a red striped zebra walking into a Kolkata Metro rake at the peak office hour at 9:35 am. The gaze she got back did not deter her spirit to look around for her invisible 'friend'. Srobona, as usual, was immaculately dressed for her presentation today in front of the board, in a white formal shirt tucked smartly in the boot-legged black trousers that she recently picked up from Zara. Her rounded face, well primed attire and her toned body have been stared at by men around in many past occasions and Srobona was quite comfortable with all sorts of looks from men. But, what dismayed her most was, she could not locate the person who helped her up onto the train. Was this person shy enough to publicly accept her compliments and has camouflaged himself in the crowd or was he one of those men with bloated egos to accept "thank you's" from young women - Srobona pondered. She took a quick glance all around her for one final time, with a hope to meet two friendly yet shy eyes. It was not to be. Srobona made her way towards the ladies' reserved area in the middle of the rake.

Srobona Chatterjee, young, independent, single and career-driven PR professional, works for a leading global PR agency at their Kolkata office in Park Street. After finishing her high school from Modern School, New Delhi and losing her parents in quick succession in an accidental mishap some five years back, Srobona decided to come down to Kolkata and stay with her only grandparent - her octogenarian grandmother at their paternal mansion in North Kolkata. The majestically built mansion, she was told, dates back by over 125 years and was erected by her great great grandfather Dinanath Chandra Chattopadhyay, a close aide of the British regime during the good old days of the Raj. As the only heir to this huge property, Srobona had inherited an estate, which a couple of years back was valued at over Rs. 120 crores. But her rich, next-to-royal heritage, never ever intrigued her; she was quite content with her independent and fast lifestyle that she led, happy in her own world, nestled within the folds of a rich ancestry.
But, today Srobona was quite intrigued about something else. A long and tiring day had kept her mind preoccupied from thinking about the incident that took place in the morning. Now that she was all alone, trying to stretch her muscles on the 19th century king sized pure redwood teak bed, her mind floated back in time to the set-up in Shyambazar metro station. She recalled that it was 9:34 am. She had just moved through the ticket gates after flashing her Smart Card on the magnetic reader. A stream of crowd was already rushing down the stairs towards the train on the platform on her left. She could barely zip down the stairs that fast with her high heels. The moment she reached the landing, she started moving towards the last rake of the airconditioned coach. That was when the door started to slide close on her face. She gestured at the driver in the rear engine to wait, but before she could realise anything, her outstretched left arm was already gripped strongly by a faceless gentleman, who virtually lifted her from the platform and dragged her inside the rake just when the doors came closing behind Srobona! But did she get a chance to see the face? She pressed hard to think. The faces that popped out were of those dozen or more men, staring at her with sheer bewilderment. She pressed harder. No, it's of no use, she thought. She rolled over to her side to try and catch a sleep. It was quite a tiring day indeed - first a team meeting, followed by a presentation in front of the board and then she had two client meetings at The Park and finally a strategy briefing for the media team. She should doze of any moment now.

It was half past 12. Srobona was still awake. The harder she has tried to sleep in the past one hour, the more she has been made to stay awake by the images of the events in the morning. Srobona got off from the bed and moved out of her first floor bedroom. It was quite an irritation not to get a sleep, when the body wanted to, but the mind was totally against it. She took the first turn on her right and took the flight of stairs on her left, reaching down to the landing which opened up on to the huge marbled hall-way. The stairs and the hallway were illuminated by the bright full moon, whose light streaked in through the victorian high windows. She sat down on a couch next to the aquarium, which was brightened up with a hue of green light. The scales of the fishes swimming by glistened with a silvery sparkle. Srobona wondered whether a game that she used to play as a child would come handy now or not. Her dad had once taught her this game, wherein, the easiest way to fall asleep was to make the eyes heavy by looking straight at some moving objects, without blinking. This can make anyone fall asleep instantly. "Ah! So let me try it once again!" Srobona stared back at the fish bowl, concentrating hard into the aquarium.

"Srobona, get up quickly. See, your dad and I are all ready. Any more delay and we will miss the flight!"
"Ma, aar ektu..." (Mom, a little longer)
"Na, aar deri kora jabe na. I am giving you 5 minutes and we will meet you for breakfast downstairs."
"Uff, jao na. Ami aschi," the blanket that lied till her chest, was now pulled up over the head.
"Jhinuk, we will leave you back here. Is that fine?"
No response from the bed. The door of the room was slammed closed by a visibly irritated Mrs. Riashree Chatterjee, Srobona's mother, as she made her way out grunting.
A reluctant Srobona dragged herself out of the bed, still sleepy and staggered towards the bathroom, trying to watch out where she is walking through her half opened eyes. 
In another 25 minutes, the Chatterjee family was aboard the Toyota Hiace van, arranged by the resort to drop them till the Sir Ramgoolum International Airport in the picturesque island of Mauritius. There was yet another family of four - the couple and their 5 year old twins, occupying the rear of the spacious vehicle. 
The journey lasted a little less than half an hour. The Chatterjees got their luggage loaded on a trolley and rolled it up to the check in counter. After completing the immigration formalities and clearing the security, they decided to stroll around in the duty free zone before proceeding to the lower level from where a hi-speed train service would take them to the departure gates. Some 15 minutes had passed and an announcement was made for passengers of AI 231 heading for New Delhi to proceed for boarding. Riashree was sitting at a coffee shop with her husband, right next to the escalator, waiting impatiently for Srobona. But she was nowhere to be seen. After another 5 minutes of wait, Riashree dialled Srobona on her mobile, which went unanswered. She frantically tried to call up over the next 5 minutes incessantly, grunting every time and cursing herself for letting Srobona wander around, knowing very well that her daughter was carefree to the hilt. Srobona, in the meanwhile was at a nail art parlour, completely oblivious of the announcements, while her phone buzzed in the vibration mode in her Gucci handbag kept on the table alongside. A second boarding announcement was made in the meanwhile. Mr. Chatterjee asked Riashree to wait in the lower level, at the hi-speed train platform, while he would be back there with Srobona. It took him a good ten more minutes to locate Srobona in a fashion accessory shop, where she had proceeded after her designer nail enamel work, truly incognizant of the boarding announcements.

"Jhinuk, eki? Tui ki announcement shunte parish ni? Rush up now. Tor ma toh regey agun."
"Oops, I am sorry bapi. Accha dekho toh, eta kemon lagche?" Srobona extends her hands for her dad to take a look at the nail art.
"Akhon ei shob dekhar kono shomoy nei. Come on Jhinuk, grow up." Mr. Chatterjee started to move towards the escalator tugging Srobona's cabin trolley. Srobona follows at her own pace.
By the time Srobona's dad had reached the lower level, the airport transfer train had already come. Mr. Chatterjee got in the rake along with Riashree, just to realise Srobona on the upper flight of the escalator stairs.
"Jhinuk, ai dikey. Taratari," Riashree called out from the train gates.
Srobona realised that she was late; seeing her parents already in the train, she darted down, jumping steps on her way. As she was just about to reach the landing, she lost her balance and fell face down on the turf, unable to control her speed, which was compounded by the escalator's own pace.
"Jhinuk!" exclaimed her father. Just as he was about to step out, the train door collapsed, forcing him to withdraw himself into the rake.
"Ebar ki hobey?" Riashree questioned. "Train-ta ke arektu dar korano jabey na?"
The train has started moving out of the platform by now, gradually picking up speed.
"O choley ashbey porer train-e. Noy toh ami gate-e pouchey, assistance chaibo. Don't worry. She will be safe."

Srobona looked up to see the train slowly moving out of the platform. She was not perturbed. She was quite mature to handle the situation, but still she could not stop blaming herself for missing the train. "How stupid of me," she thought. She looked around for some help desk. By now a couple of people had come forward to help her up and find out her well-being. "There's no time for seeking unnecessary sympathy," she murmured to herself.

And that's when she heard it. It sounded like a big blast coming through the tunnel. In no time, she heard sirens all around with security personnels dashing down towards the platform level, where she was standing, still trying to understand what just happened. The platform was quickly cordoned off as a team of uniformed personnels descended on the track and swiftly moved inside the tunnel. Something was being announced on the PA system. She cocked her ears to listen carefully.
"Passengers are being requested to move out from the platform area and move up to the ground level. There has been a small mishap in the airport rail transit network for which the system is being closed down immediately. All boarding will happen through the pre-announced gates, so there is nothing to panic. Passengers are requested to visit the Terminal Assistance Desk next to the lift lobby B2 for transfer assistance. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused."
There was a sudden rush all around. Some of the passengers who were waiting for the next train, to move on to the different boarding gates up front, were seen clamouring around some of the security personnels demanding an explanation, while the rest took the escalators to move up to the ground level.

Srobona, till this point was completely flummoxed, knowing not what to do next, while still wondering what made that noise in the tunnel. "Hope, nothing happened to the train that left with ma and bapi on board," deep inside she prayed. She got herself together and moved up the escalator. Sensing that there would be a wild rush at the Terminal Assistance Desk next to the lift lobby B2, she approached a security personnel in uniform, standing close to the coffee shop.
"Excuse me. Can you please tell me why is there such a rush around? Is everything fine?"
"Yes, everything's fine. There's been a small mishap in the tunnel, a freak accident. Our team has gone in to check," came a very cold response.
"Sir, if you don't mind, may I request you to let me know whether things are surely fine in there? My parents had boarded the last train, which I missed by a few seconds."
This time the look on the face of the man has changed. His cold looks have softened. He asked Srobona to follow and took her to a Customer Help Desk in one corner of the terminal building. There he asked Srobona to wait outside and went in to speak with someone. He came out in sometime and asked Srobona to go in and meet the Customer Help Assistant inside.
"Hi," the 20 something lady sitting behind a 17 inch HP desktop spoke up, seeing Srobona come in. "Can I get to check your boarding pass, maam?"
Srobona handed her over her boarding pass.
"Well, you see maam," started the lady. "There has been a small mishap in the tunnel. Boarding for your flight AI 231 is currently on hold."
"Maam, my parents had boarded a train and was in that tunnel, when I heard this blast. I hope there is nothing serious?" questioned Srobona quite anxiously.
"Ah...," the lady cleared her throat a little before proceeding, "there seems to be an accident in the tunnel and the last train which left for the boarding gates, have been severely damaged. We are awaiting further reports and I can't confirm anything more than this right now."
"Severely damaged!" exclaimed Srobona. "But what about the passengers? Are they all safe?"
"Maam, I am sorry. We don't have any further information on this. I request you to be a bit patient as we are trying to retrieve more information."
"How can I be patient? My parents were on that train! I need to know," Srobona could feel herself almost choking.
That's when the radio crackled and a message was relayed in French. Srobona looked upto the lady anxiously, expecting a speedy translation.
"Um, maam..., it seems there has been a major accident. Most people on board are reported dead, while some are in critical condition. The paramedics are trying to get the injured to the hospitals." She paused a little and continued, "there has not been any further communication, I am sorry."

Srobona later got to know that both her parents had died in the accident. Her father collapsed on the spot, while her mother was taken to the ICU with 75% burnt and severe injury on her head. She collapsed in another 2 hours. Srobona's world changed in just a couple of hours. She was now orphaned. Arrangements were made to fly her back to India.

Srobona jumped onto her feet, completely drenched in sweat. She had lied on the couch, infront of the aquarium and had fallen asleep. It was her grandmother, who had woken her up, not finding her in her room.

"Ki hoyeche ma?"
"Koi na toh.. kichu na."
"Tobey tui ekhaney? Shara raat tui pakha chara ai bhabey?"
Srobona smiled meekly, hugged her grandmom tightly and keeping her chin on her grandmother's shoulders, wiped off her moist eyes dry.

It was yet another new day for Srobona. A new beginning. Usual metro ride, client meetings and media briefings.

Strangely, she remembered nothing from the last morning - the closing door of the metro, the invisible grip, the way she was pulled in and the invisible 'friend' who ensured she was safely inside the train, only to disappear in the crowd.