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!)

No comments: