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Mass or Class? Walking the Thin Line
By Balaji Gopalan

Alice : Would you tell, please, which way I ought to walk from here?
Cheshire cat : That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

If you think ‘poor Alice’, think twice. Half the time, even brand managers have trouble figuring out where to go. Assuming one does figure that out, there are always bigger hurdles. How about this one?

Alice : How do I get there?
Cheshire cat : Oh that’s simple. Just walk forward and backward.

If that sounds more bizarre than Alice in Wonderland, well…it is something more bizarre. This is your brand in the consumer-land. You take one step backward from the customer. She tells you are too far away. So, you start moving forward. And before you know, you have got too close to be something she can aspire to. What do you do?…Simple. Walk forward and backward. Between aspiration and connection.

And the tension that results from this is as powerful as the one unearthed by Monty Alexander in his landmark paper ‘The myth at the heart of the brand’. He argued that famous brands, like myths, reconcile opposites. Something quite unthinkable to the logical, western mind built on the Cartesian model. But, like post-quantum physics, one has seen the limitations of the Cartesian model for explaining reality. And this is just another instance of it.

Language and mathematics have no space for contradictions. But, society abounds with them and they find their expression through myths. For example, let’s take the famous fairy tale ‘ The snow-white and seven dwarfs’. The cultural norms are - beautiful people are good at heart and ugly people are evil. But, the seven dwarfs in the story are ugly but good at heart and the stepmother is wicked but beautiful.

It is the very contradiction, the tension between opposites that make myths very exciting. The same is true of some of the very successful brands around the world. And when the two opposites are about aspiration and connection, the brand can cover large segments of the market. Take the case of Citibank in Hong Kong. Being from America, it was considered more prestigious than Hong Kong Bank and Bank of China. But, at the same time it was also seen as more accessible than the other two, largely because of the staff demeanor.

Now, which brand manager wouldn’t love to strike the balance between class and mass? Who amongst us, wouldn’t love to have his cake and eat it too? . But who amongst us would be ready to take the risk of walking the thin line between aspiration and connection like Citibank does?

Let’s look at one brand that did this – Reebok. Year 1997. The fact that Nike was beginning to outsell Reebok in major stores was beginning to worry Reebok. And it wasn’t quite sure whether its local heroes like Rahul Dravid were good enough to take on the Nike juggernaut with its mega-stars like Michael Jordan.

Research conducted amongst loyalists of both clearly showed that it could. The youth did look up to Reebok as being technologically sound. But, largely they saw it as something they could easily relate to. Nike, on the other hand was all testosterone - individualistic, snobbish and American. While Reebok had all the connection, Nike seemed to have that aura, that sex-appeal that made it highly aspirational. But, there was a chink in Nike’s armor. Nike was also seen as a cut-throat soloist who goes all out to win. And more importantly as someone who is a bad loser. Reebok on the other hand was seen as a good loser. Even the Nike loyalists felt that the Reebok guy would be more of a team-player and a gentleman. Bingo. Here’s a guy who plays to win, but he also plays to play. Looked at from a different context, the brand had suddenly developed sex-appeal. What emerged out of this was the commercial of cricketers playing in the rain - It starts raining in the middle of a tense match between India and West Indies. The players rush to the pavilion, except for Dravid who continues to play. Soon everybody joins and they just play for the fun of it. The idea ‘Enjoy the game’ managed to keep all the connection, while making it aspirational.

So far so good. But, as the saying goes, one learns more from failure than success. So, what happens when a brand is not able to walk the thin line? Lets look at such a case.

The initial communication for Coke consisted largely of the foreign commercials with one or two poorly adapted Indian versions thrown in. Some of them did focus on the real thing and refreshment. But, by and large it was highly incoherent. Unbelievable marketing spends and a year later, Coke had still not developed the kind of market share it had wished. One reasoned it out by saying that the foreign commercials had alienated the brand and Indianising the brand would do the trick. What followed was a series of Indian commercials. Even they didn’t help things much. What was really happening?

Walking the thin line

The youth actually thought the red chillies commercial (Scenes of children playing cricket in the street with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the background) as something very downmarket and hence not for them. The failure to strike the balance between aspiration and connection often happens from mistaking the target person with brand personality. For example, Lux’s brand personality is Madhuri Dixit, but the user could be in a village tucked up somewhere. Lux would be in serious trouble if it let go of the ‘soap of the stars’ image to connect. Some of Coke’s Indian ads were clearly a result of this confusion. Especially the one in which the cricket fan plays the expert and the lyric logo with Hindi songs. These are based on research done a couple of years ago. Of late, Coke is seemingly getting its act together with its Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan commercial.

The moral of the story is if you learn to walk the thin line between aspiration and connection, you could even take on a brand like Nike. But, if you don’t, then you could fall and break your neck even if you have all the money in the world. Even if you are the greatest brand ever.