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
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
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
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
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.