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The Reality Beneath the Gloss of Branding
By Dharen Chadha

It’s the hot, new, slightly unlovely buzzword these days, isn’t it? Branding. All around us in the corporate world, brands and branding are the new mantras that now find currency way beyond their traditional home, FMCG. They are being chanted in all sorts of unlikely places such as IT, steel, cement and of all things, even government, infrastructure and so on.

I sometimes suspect that it seems to suggest to some people an easy advantage of some sort - an intangibility that could somehow magically be conjured up with the help of a couple of hired whiz-kids. Thus letting the marketer off the hook.

To a lot of people it appears to be perhaps a welcome relief from the treadmill of product differentiation, which is the cause of so much corporate breathlessness, isn’t it?

Above all, it is seen to be a quick and clever fix. And in today’s circumstances, what could be more attractive than that?

And so, not surprisingly, everybody seems to be jumping on to this new bandwagon, without realizing that brands are actually in a bit of trouble these days.

Because if you really listen to consumers- which is what I have to do for a living all the time - you find that they are not so hot on brands these days. They will tell you that brands are no more the sources of reassurance and trust that they used to be. And a lot of them are struggling to make sense of a world in the wake of Enron, Coke, Pepsi, Cadbury’s and the last straw, our very own UTI.

And aiding and abetting all of this are a whole new breed of people called stake-takers. I mean, we are all used to stakeholders, but what do you do when somebody grabs a stake, whether you like it or not. You know what I mean, the Naomi Kleins, the Vandana Shivas and all the activist NGOs that have decided to take on today’s large corporations.

If these folks are to be believed, the brand is really the villain of the piece. It is the gloss of capitalism and a symbol of its very worst aspects – the inveiglement of innocent consumers; the instrument with which large corporations manipulate and exploit the hapless consumer to part with his hard-earned money for the sake of illusory intangibles in place of real value.

Personally I have nothing against this group of people for I believe they perform a useful role in keeping us all vigilant. If I have an objection, it is to the implicit assumption that either consumers lack intelligence or a denial of the reality that sometimes they do enjoy spending their money in unwise ways.

The other objection I have is to the painting of everybody with one brush and the building of a stereotype in people’s mind which fails to distinguish between the errant and the responsible. There seems to an attempt here to exploit a natural sympathy for the underdog without recognizing the internal reality of most corporations- that they in fact bend over backwards to do everything they can to please their customers.

With respect, I would like to suggest that neither of these two views reflect the true nature of brands. Brands are in fact not very easy things to build. They need slow, deliberate, and hard work over many years. They are built on the basis of truths that are easy to state but difficult to act upon. And more often than not, they are based more on reality and less on perception. And if there are perceptions working in favour of a brand, then you will find that more often than not, they are based upon and rooted in some sort of reality.

Nor do brands represent the worst aspects of capitalism. On the contrary. Brands are earned by the best corporations guided by a genuine desire to make a difference to people’s lives. They represent the reputational capital of the best companies, the ‘goodwill’ that comes from years of consistent, painstaking service. They are often self effacing, eschewing hype and are based on much more than a smart tagline or a pretty logo. They represent the best aspects of the free market system and are awarded by stakeholders to only those who practise with the highest integrity.

I would submit in fact that brands are positive, virtuous cycles that stabilize demand by bonding customers. They earn decent margins which create surpluses which in turn can be redeployed to bring about innovation, development, in fact all round improvement.

Because brands are the opposite of commodities. And commodities do not benefit anyone. Commodities may appear to be less fanciful and more rational but they are in fact negative, vicious cycles that run everything down. They erode quality and lose people jobs. Witness the great consumer abuse that we all had to suffer in the days when banking was a commodity in this country. And the consumer delight with the new private sector banks or for that matter, airlines.

If all of the above strikes you as being worthy pronouncements that may be incongruent with a cynical reality, let me try and concretize it all by means of an example: I refer to what is arguably the most powerful brand created by this country. It is a name that enjoys instant acceptance in just about every market it enters- from salt and tea to trucks and steel; it is a name that opens all kinds of doors: it doesn’t matter if it is a government department or a foreign collaborator, its reputation precedes it and it is somehow treated in a special way. When it crosses the nation’s borders, foreign companies prefer to be acquired by it; huge volumes of spurious products are sold in its name and customers dispense with testing procedures for its material. At a crucial point in the history of our economy when most industrial employees would have welcomed nationalization, its workers closed the gates and resisted it stoutly. And the amazing thing is that all of this has been achieved with an understatedness virtually bordering on shyness.

No prizes for guessing this one: the brand I refer to is of course called TATA.