Thursday, December 30, 2010

Do Contrarian Brand - Images Work?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri Revisits The Montblanc Advertisement, Adds a few more of his Own, And Does a Reality-Check of This Unique form of Advertising – Using Contrarian Images TO Attract Attention while Attempting Brand-Building

Seen the limited-edition Mahatma Gandhi Montblanc Pen (ad) priced at Rs.1.1 million ($ 23,000; 14,400 pounds) with an 18-carat solid gold, rhodium-plated nib engraved with Gandhi’s image and a “saffron-coloured mandarin garnet” on the clip, unveiled on Gandhi’s birthday last year? Dilip R. Doshi, Chairman of Entrack, Montblanc’s distributor in India, said the pen embodied Gandhi’s timeless philosophy on non-violence and respect for all living creatures. “We are creating a thing of simplicity and beauty that will last for centuries,” he added. Iconic Beatle John Lennon and the father of American literature Mark Twain followed Bapu’s hallowed footsteps in the ad-trail. While the Gandhi edition elicited mixed reaction – “Wow, a $23,000 pen to honour someone who lived on rice and carrots” – and while the jury is not really out on that one, contrarian brand-images (those that perceptually seem contrarian, even unrelated to the brand in question) seem to be doing the rounds in no uncertain a manner. The Big B & Binani Cement. M. S. Dhoni & Amrapali. SRK & Nerolac Paints. Hema Malini and her two daughters with Kent Water Purifier... the list keeps growing.

The point is, do contrarian brand images offer anything special, value-add towards a more meaningful consumption of the communication? Do they provide a more exciting and memorable connect due to their un-conventional pitch and take? Gandhi and an uber-luxurious writing instrument... What’s the link? Paris-based communication consultant Pia Sen, sighs before registering her informed response. “Before the ignoramus types start with their predictable smart jibes and speeches about disconnect and demeaning Gandhi, it would be cool if they cosy up to the major luxury writing instrument-maker’s history of creating limited edition collection of eminent littérateurs, artists, celebrities, revolutionaries and thinkers of the past. It is the German giant’s style of celebrating both the product and the icon. Agreed, the image in terms of product and personality profile may not enjoy a seamless, natural fuse, but the intent is celebratory, an ode, homage and tribute to a legend – not a boring, dumb, politically-correct recitation of Montblanc’s product attributes! Loosen up guys; it’s the spirit not the letter that needs to be understood,” Sen tells 4Ps B&M.

Veteran ad person Nargis Wadia doesn’t agree. The founder of Interpub, a celebrated head-turner in her days believes that contrarian image communication, especially in the Montblanc case, is both bizarre and insulting to the spirit of a man who defined austerity and simplicity. “I wish they had married the essence of the product and the philosophy of the company – integrity, uncompromising pursuit of excellence, transparency, leadership trait – to the essence of the man. It would have bene then more credible. To me, it’s a mockery right now, insensitive and exploitative,” Wadia tells 4Ps B&M.

FCB Ulka’s Head Honcho (North) Arvind Wable isn’t so sure about contrarian-image branding. “This is tricky terrain and so I will hesitate to pass a sweeping remark,” he says. He believes sensitivity – emotional, political and cultural – needs to be understood and respected before pulling the trigger. “What works in one country may not work in another. However, since there has been no major uproar about these ads, I guess, it’s okay. Besides, [even in the Montblan case] it’s possible that the Montblanc guys wanted to generate a bit of buzz in the media and public domain and so unleashed these ads. Who knows? Remember, controversy is big in the public mindspace … and when the father of the nation is involved, man, it can be a freakout!,” says Wable, who believes that contrarian brand imaging is done because it’s a quick, lazy, short-cut to getting visibility without focus or direction. “The result is that the celeb is remembered – but the product promise or value proposition is forgotten, ignored, overlooked or unregistered … a cardinal sin!,” Wable adds in his commentary.

Ad tracker/Commentator Vikas Godbole can’t figure out what this fuss is all about! “Advertisers, marketers, brand-custodians and blue-chip organisations are not duffers, masochists or champion swimmers in the high tide of CSR to splurge big bucks while crafting a communicating strategy to connect with their select constituencies. Whether it’s the Gandhi-Montblanc, Big B-Binani, Dhoni-Amrapali or Hema-Kent ads, there must be a method in their (perceived) madness? It could be a conscious, attention-grabbing controversy – this subject has been going on forever, boss! Tell me something, if there was really such a huge disconnect between the brand and the brand ambassador, then why would there continue to be such an endless boom in this marriage of stars and FMCG shops?” says Godbole.

So, at the end of the day, as the wise one said, if the subject debated (reportedly) – received the blessings of Tushar Gandhi (the Mahatma’s vocal great grandson) who received a cheque of $146,000 (91,500 pounds) to build a shelter for rescued child labourers, then (at least in this case) the pen is indeed mightier than the sword!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Ban The 'R' Word !" Can Star-Power Change Public Mindset ?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri Examines The Clout of Stars in Issues that are Non-Starry

Very recently, an interesting thing happened. Action-star Akshay Kumar, a huge presence in B-town, blew the whistle on the ‘R’ word and said that he would go out of his way to plead, request, warn, threaten (with words!) people to not use the word ‘retard’, because it is humiliating, demoralising and insulting to the children of a lesser god. “I am sure Jennifer Aniston did not mean to use it – when she alluded to the term while describing herself in a recent interview – in a derogatory manner. But of course, on cue, it was blown out of proportion. It just shows how unaware we are and how frivolously we tend to use this word. One can never even begin to understand the depth of hurt it can cause and how demeaning it is to people disadvantaged and striving harder to live a life of decency and normalcy,” said Akshay Kumar then.

Coming from Khiladi No.1 (whose image of a rough-tough macho star or a smooth comic hero doesn’t quite fit the ‘causes and concern’ slot) the concern is as surprising as it is wonderful! Whether this is to reinforce his image as the face of Special Olympics – held for mentally challenged people – is not the issue. He needn’t have done it and he could have well gone about enjoying his exalted position. The fact that he chose to, is the point – and he appears dead serious. “The industry has been totally supportive. Be it Mr. Bachchan, Salman, Farah, Katrina – they’ve all pledged to show respect to those who have special needs,” he says. Great start; but does his speak matter? Does having AK as the spokesperson result in kids en masse promising to be less flippant, casual or bindaas about the ‘R’ word?

Which brings us to the real issue – is this championing of causes and concerns by glam celebs taken seriously by the constituency targeted, or even by the celebs themselves? Living in a shamelessly, blatant, consumer-driven, Friday-crazed, TRP-ridden, image-specific setting, are these great expansive acts simply brand-building gimmicks, or should we for once set aside cynicism and skepticism and remember that stars are human too with eyes to see and hearts to feel and give them the benefits of doubt? Should we really believe that Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, who reportedly has taken up the cause of African apes, will really pay her suffrage in malaria infested jungles to prove her point? Or should we simply roll over and guffaw away in sidesplitting laughter at this misplaced altruism?

Celeb-tracker Meenu Tandon believes that all this is nothing but dramabazi in action, a smart way of brand-building. “These mega-stars are masters in the art of marketing, both their films and themselves, as well as cleverly manipulating the media. What better way to position oneself as a caring, concerned and sensitive soul, protecting and championing the cause of the disenfranchised of the world than making a hue n’ cry about something that is certainly not all that critical! A star-crazed, sensation hungry media is always there at hand to do the rest,” Tandon tells 4Ps B&M. But film critic Rauf Ahmed begs to differ. He believes that a section of society continues to be too harsh and critical – come what may – at these guys as he tells 4Ps B&M, “Never mind everything else, shouldn’t any person’s individual act of courage, sensitivity and concern for a disadvantaged section of society, be recognised and lauded instead of being put under the scanner? I am convinced that frequently, the baby is being flung out with the bath-water! Admittedly, image-building exercises by stars do happen, but the fact is that fans aren’t fools to immediately fall for it. Grant them some intelligence please, and the stars some sensitivity!”

Hard core celeb watchers insist that this brand of celebrity diplomacy definitely works within established political frameworks to advocate, agitate, and even assist change. Also, it has been known to neutralise rumour, scandal and generally foster goodwill. Dozens of sports stars and celebrities remain classic examples. Social commentator Arvind Pathak agrees. While celebrity activism does indeed draw much-needed attention and funds to worthy causes, he believes that it also promotes a specific type of activism that is individualised, commodified and de-politicised. It is too soft, too pat and convenient. Send a text; bid on an item; appear on a public platform; call into a telethon... and you are done!

“It obscures the complexity of humanitarianism and development. It’s like ownership of brands that are dying or are under-siege... and championing them to look good and feel great,” says Pathak. Also, most of these issue are about, or the product of grinding poverty, social abuse relating to the doomed, disenfranchised of the world, whereas celebrities (ironically) are the visible, dazzling and glamorous embodiment of wealth, fame and success – aka U2’s Bono for Africa. This can make the relationship lopsided, unreal, agenda-driven and suspect.

So, coming back to the subject – can star-power alter public views, mindset or perspective; can it refresh parts of the mind and heart that conventional messaging simply cannot reach? While Aamir Khan – perhaps because of his persona – is taken seriously every time he lends his name to social causes, one can’t simply refuse to acknowledge the power that Salman Khan’s ‘being human’ tagline propagates. At the same time, while Celina Jaitley’s irascible presence on the pink platform might not have changed your outlook to the gay community, Amitabh Bachchan’s contribution to the national polio campaign, albeit only as a celebrity face and voice, would have surely. Clearly, the answer to our call totally depends on what is the issue, who is the star representing its public face, who is the targeted group and how it is being presented. This is an extremely tricky, dedicated and dangerous terrain because the value proportion from the celeb going out is going to be scrutinised against his star-persona, very closely. Ask yourself, would you have been flamed into action if any of these stars had supported a sterilization campaign? Touché!


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Hi-Profile Branding Gurus Hired For Mumbai & Kolkata . New-Age Response or PR Gone Mad ?!

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri Attempts to Checkout Some Details of This Unique, First-Time Ever Exercise, With a little help from some Communication Practitioners

It is a well known fact that Public Relations (PR) is both invasive and pervasive. Its critics are quick to pounce on the term and unleash a veritable volley of not-so-complimentary adjectives – implied deceit, corruption, trickery, exhibitionism, specious pleading! These are accompanied by cynicism and disbelief. Like with anything, not all is wrong... or right! Sane exponents of this specialised – and ever-growing – discipline will warn you that before embarking on any PR activity, expectations for the results need to be well framed within measurable and realistic yardstick. Before pulling the trigger, the blueprint has to be fully planned and managed within a close knowledge of the operating environment and its likely future development. Great – Now let’s quickly cut to the chase.

First things first. If the main purpose of Public Relations is “to influence the behaviour of individual groups of people in relation to each other, through dialogue with all those audiences whose perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and opinions are critical to success,” then how does Acanchi, (a consultancy firm based in London, whose job is to deliver “tailored positioning solutions for countries, regions and cities; a pioneer in the field of developing holistic country positioning strategies”), hired to give the city of Mumbai a solid thumping make-over sound to you? And Saffron Brand Consultants’, (Brand Guru Wally Ollins, firm commissioned by the Bengal government to polish the state’s image), swing with you? No kidding, guys! Ratnakar Gaikwad, Metropolitan Commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) is dead serious. “The Mumbai Metropolitan Region is not known to the outer world, especially foreign stakeholders. It has to be presented before the globe with all its rich, inherent characteristics for which the exercise of branding and positioning on the lines of cities like Singapore, Sydney and Dubai is required.”

On the Bengal front, CEO Avik Chattopadhyay admitted that the presentation that Ollins made was discussed with the Chief Minister, along with the “unique cultural pluralism of Bengal”. Ollins explained that “the idea was to help Bengal express itself better. There definitely needs to be a change in the way Bengal is perceived, both outside and within the state.”

Strategic, professionally-driven, solutions-friendly initiatives... or is PR being stretched to do an impossible, houdini act?

Interestingly, social commentator and communication pundit Santosh Desai – whom we expected to actually support PR – is first off the block straightaway expressing scepticism at PR initiatives in general. He has no problem with people leveraging the power of PR for makeovers, altering beliefs & powering reputations, but he feels that especially with the Mumbai context, the intended PR is mostly superficial. “To begin with, they can only be successful if you have the required knowledge & control over the specific image you want to change. Is this happening? Ask Mumbaikars and you will get the answers! Also, I feel this seems to reflect ego-boosting posturing and time hogging, totally ignoring the stark reality staring at them [the administration],” says Desai. In fact, he feels that if they are really serious about image, these guys should identify & address the zillion ills plaguing the city & crying for the attention before getting the PR machinery to hit over-drive. It appears that they are more interested in the sizzle not the steak, about what people should think and view about the cities. “Logo changes, Tee slogans, sexy catch lines... what an appalling waste of time & money... and so demeaning too! Remember the chest thumping Meri Dilli Meri Shaan slogan pasted all over Delhi? What happened? Get your act together first. The rest will follow,” says Desai.

Head-honcho of the Kolkata based Genesis Advertising, Ujjal Sinha is equally frazzled. While branding the Kolkata PR effort ‘cosmetic’, he is of the belief that the guys behind this genuinely seem to think that “desperate times need desperate measures,” which is way off-center. Also, what perplexes him is the implied concerns & preoccupations to impress, impact & inspire a consistency (elitist, outsiders) – who really don’t matter in crunch-time. “Look inside. Get your house in order. Then go in for powering brand and image equity,” says Sinha. Finally, what strikes him as biter irony (something that Bengal & Kolkata could well do without) is the fact that Bengal has invited the very same gentleman, Wally Ollins for an image correction who handled the image of the very same group whose operations contributed much to Bengal’s present image quotient – Tatas!

But this is not to say that the well has been poisoned. There are frenetic appeals to the positive too. Paris based Pia Sen considers all these anti-PR allegations pompous, conceited, sweeping & quite uninformed. “Hey listen! Both Acanchi and Wally Ollins are huge names in the city and nation branding spheres; so please respect their credentials. Fionna Gilmore, Founder & Chairman of Acanchi has worked in initiatives with authorities in Ireland, Britain, Wales and Hong Kong, among other places. And Ollins has image-navigated London, Poland, Portugal and Vietnam.” She believes that this is a very serious issue and surely the powers-that-are behind the commissioning of these endeavours are respected people with “knowledge, focus, intent and a clear blueprint about the desired road map.” She also believes that the problem with Corporate India is its cynicism. “They are probably taking the ‘tomorrow’s superpower’ tag too seriously. Chill”!

Neither Pops Sridhar nor Alyque Padamsee are prepared to do that. While the NCD of Leo Burnett Pops believes that the best means of growth comes from within, and being frivolous or superficial in the perception-reality game can spell doom and disaster, he points towards Malaysia as a glorious example of identity building. “They took time, understood and identified their intrinsic persona they wished to project when they broke away and slowly and steadily went into brilliant image building mode.” However, flamboyant, ageless Padamsee does not waste time & breath and says, “It’s lot of hogwash mixed with a good amount of whitewash! Don’t get me started on this one for Godsake”!

So, at the end of the day, what gives? Since there have been no great positives in either progress report, popular responses or media bytes, it’s quite clear that a better option for Mumbai and Kolkata would have been to either do the PR themselves or to at the most hire a local agency with a sound understanding... Or are we just envious, eh?