or Class? Walking the Thin Line
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
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
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
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
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.