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Kaumara Sen. That's what the nameplate on my apartment door reads. Where I live, my neighbours were happy to have an imagined relative of the great Amartya babu living among them. Hence, I come in for a lot of respect and exaggerated smiles. But this respect thing is also dicey. Soon, your conscience goads you to ask tough questions to yourself. Like this morning, Gargi, my wife, was packing three-day-old food in polybags to give them to our maid Gayabai -affectionately called GB by our kids. And it struck me, our affection for her is a bit misplaced. Three-day-old food, and packed in Jalan stores turquoise blue polybags; not in our expensive Tupperware. I told Gargi, 'At least, give it in boxes!' and she said, "No need, the boxes won't come back!" Distrust.
I went to my study to think. There was something familiar about this whole drama that was enacting before me. Sparks flew all around my head, making me to question all that we marketers do - we who think we exist to serve the consumer. Truth is, we don't. Let me explain. GB is my consumer and my employee. Why do we not want the best for her? I told Gargi, 'keep your Tupperware, at least pack it in Cling Wrap?' and she said, "I am not wasting it on GB, hanh?' Waste.
I am a marketing manager of a food brand (Chips n Sips) and Gargi's attitude reflects the entire marketing community. We, as marketers, carry the same attitude to our consumersâ€¦ hesitant to give them our best. And lest there be some doubt, let me spell out what I mean. We, in India, are not respectful of the community of consumers. Respect is shown as long as there is a revenue earning potential, or where the consumer has a choice. Conversely, the respect quotient drops, when it becomes clear that the consumer has no choice.
Ever since I heard Gargi's verdict for GB, I have been rattled by the tremendous parallels I see. It has caused me to think a lot. What is the baggage that we as a nation are carrying, that affects our outlook towards each other? What is it that makes us feel insecure, inferior to and distrust others? This is about marketer psychology. If I can sit with a magnifying glass and study the consumer's every sneeze and wink, I should be equally willing to examine the marketer and his behaviour. And what I unravelled was a whole nation of GBs all over the landscape!
What is it about the Indian brand manager that (s)he is unable to think that (s)he deserves the best and, therefore, his/ her consumers also deserve the best? Recently, I brainstormed this among my first-year marketing students and they said, first, awareness that there is a best. Second, exposure; third, conviction that you deserve it; fourth, compassion for others; fifth, action to ensure others get the best they deserve, and sixth, not be insecure in that possession and be willing to give away the best. From the mouth of babes.
Where is the Indian brand manager in this sequence? Before Chips, I was a brand builder at an ad agency, and every time I mentioned something radical to clients, they would say the consumer won't accept it. Why? The consumer will accept anything you do compassionately. In fact, it is when you look at the consumer as a burden, that is when he cannot trust you. Do our consumers feel that marketers are out to give them the best? They don't! Hence, the distrust.
I guess this is what Antara, my brand manager, was frothing about last month, when our new premium brand of drinking water 'Jal' was about to be launched. "There is an overdose of spite in our marketing," she said. "We are spiteful towards our consumers because the consumer is our neighbour," said Antara, leaving me more dazed. "And we have not been taught to love our neighbours. In fact, we have been taught to be wary, compare unfavourably and be one up on them. That is why we have premium brands!" Our consumer is our neighbour, our consumer is GB. That is the crux, we feel if we give leeway, our neighbour will take advantage of us. Equally, we are happy taking away more than is fair. For example, when I have luggage, I ask the security guard of my building to help me. If he does it once, then I ask him even when I can manage the task on my own. This is 'taking advantage of the meek'.
Before we think as brand manager, we need to think as neighbour, citizen, human. You can't enter the middle and take off. You have to start at the bottom of all definitions - as human. People who are security guards are not like all-purpose creams. You can't say to them, "OK, pick up my luggage, walk my dog, buy eggs". The respect that we should feel for a person's role, for his job definition, that respect is simply absent. We thrive on a simple mantra, 'adjust kar lo'.There is a particular culture in us that always tries to cut corners. Yeh bhi karo, saath saath woh bhi karo, because dammit, I am paying you more than the security you keep for me.
We are unable to offer the best to our consumers because we feel they are getting more than they deserve. Recall how this played off in my home with GB. So, we say 'dammit, I am giving her more than she deserves. What did she expect, real cream in her soap? It is enough if she can 'imagine' it is real cream.' So I use imagery. I was at my local self-help retail store recently to buy groceries. GB was with me minding the kids and she wanted to buy a bar of detergent. The cakes on the shelf were dented, pack torn. Naturally, she asked for a better-looking one. The retailer said, "saat rupaiyye mein kya kya milega? If you want a good-looking pack, buy Silo at Rs 12." Pay more for respect.
This takes me to another respect quotient - the premium-end consumer gets better respect because he demands it. Also this - the more choices available to the consumer, the higher is the respect quotient imbedded in the brand scheme. Which is why government services are low on respect, because they offer citizens no choice. Or why the railways can get away with no consumer respect. There is no urgency felt to provide these to the passenger travelling second class, because his ticket was subsidised, and he has been done a favour already. Who is he to complain? Take the lowest-priced iron or refrigerator. The lowest price is arrived at by value engineering the product, that is, using lowest-cost components that can deliver the performance at a bare minimum level. Now, this is the SEC D/E customer who does not complain in the loudest of voices if his product is deficient. The attitude is, "What does he expect in Rs 8,000, the whole world?" Antara adds more froth, "Why do we have to demand respect as consumers? Because marketers are not willing to give respect without being nudged and pushed. Why do we not want to respect the consumers? Why aren't we celebrating them? Because we see ourselves as separate from them and us."
So, how is GB our consumer? She is a buyer of a Reliance cellphone connection, she uses Lux, she buys Colgate and Maggi noodles for her family. She watches TV and Bollywood movies with ads targeting her too, she buys mosquito coils, bedsheets and is the indirect consumer of the free sandal soap that Gargi gets on her Ezee fabric wash. If I cannot treat GB as a human, how can I treat my consumer as a human? If I am a brand manager and I am giving GB three-day-old mithai, which I think is not good for my family... that attitude seeps into all that I give even from the platform of my organisation. Because when I am giving the old food just as I do not stop to think 'is this right?'... I also do not think about propriety when I produce substandard product or service. This is the chalta hai' or 'adjust kar lo' attitude. So, tell me how secure your brand manager is, and I will tell you how successful your brand will be. The difference between a safe decision and a right one is the security that your brand manager feels.
And here is the other thing: when you are operating from a position of insecurity - no compassion, looking down on consumer, what are the marketing initiatives that you indulge in? You offer discounts, freebies, insecure marketing - bring old clothes and get 5 per cent off, get trash from your home and we will weigh the trash and give you shopping points at our supermarket; what does the consumer take back from your brand then? 'I need to collect more trash, let me take trash from my neighbour too, let me hoard trash'. Whereas the underlying marketing attitude here is: 'Come over and allow me to make an ass out of you'. Thus you feed off the insecure consumer's insecurity.
Now, do you see how we have made the market full of GB-type consumers for low-grade, sub-optimal old products? This is exactly what lies behind the 'Buy One And Get One Free' promo. I could have sold one jar of shampoo for Rs 20, instead, I say come and buy one for 35 and take another free so that you feel greatly warm in your heart and gratified. These are the workings of an insecure mind. But we have a name for that - strategy! The bottom line is, the whole selling activity of this nature, at its heart is frankly about me and my topline, me and my company's bottomline. It is about what is the fastest and most cost effective way in which I can get the consumer to part with her money for my goods so that I see an accretion to my top line. Isn't it?
Look at the consumer first - he is struggling in an economy where his income has grown. True, but choices have grown too. There is a ladder of goods, from luxury to economy. He aspires for luxury, the new, the innovative. Actually, he aspires for the experience. Luxury is about experience - of being respected, of feeling that, yes, I deserve this - that moment of respect is an uplifting experience. But luxury is not about money, it is about the experience. Consumers want that feeling more than anything. But what cheap promos and buy-back offers are saying is - you need the product not the experience, not the feeling. This is nothing but cashing in on consumer 'loneliness'. And in a vain hope at getting another little iota of joy, the consumer buys the cheap products and yet she is dissatisfied. Then we come up with new tactics - exchange trash for points. So, the consumer is caught in a spiral of insecurity, fed constantly by cheap promos and discounting. That is the emotional damage.
Now, the physical damage. After putting consumers in a maze like hamsters, we start feeding them goods that are ready to expire, of poor quality, old stocks, and send them into a frenzy saying - 'Get 5 for 3'. Add insult to injury with "Hurry, or lose a chance of a lifetime!' This is mental damage, consumer stress. We who discount with a frenzy, forget that the transaction begins with the purchase, but it never ends. The transaction never ends as long as the brand lives. The consumer has to experience the brand and feel positive about the purchase, and about himself. The consumer is not just the physical body, he is also the mind and the soul. Body, mind, soul equals composite whole consumer.
How many brands cater to the complete me - my body, mind and soul?
So, in summary, the consumer who rushes to sales and discount offers is doing so in the hope that she will be able to sort through the discounts and find something that stimulates her heartâ€¦ and if she comes back again and again, it is not because she likes you or your brand of serviceâ€¦ but because she is searching for completion. That's what we all miss - 'completion'. And that is my point. Our retailing experience does not deliver completion. Whereas what you, as a retailer or seller, need to be doing is, stop all your wretched discounting, promotional and buy-back activity and wonder about this consumer... about what she could be seeking, and KNOW that none of that which she is seeking is in your backyard. And that is the point at which the retailer will stop accumulating leftovers from manufacturers and start building a new stock line.
What manufacturers are doing by unloading clearance promos on the market is exactly what we did to GB. Likewise, at work, we are unable to simply junk old stocks, incomplete brands and outdated products. We unload these on the consumer in ingenious ways and worse, we want the consumer to be grateful that we gave her a discount. While we thus fill the underbelly of the exhausted consumer, when our new product hits the market, she is not only low on funds, she is also low on enthusiasm. She has lost appetite and we wonder why she is unappreciative of our new offering.
This becomes apparent when we realise that the respect quotient is highest in pre-sales (pre-launch) than in post-sales/ post-launch. Equally in service businesses where revenues are significant in post-sales services, respect quotient is higher because an element of 'sales' continues to exist. Very often, the respect a company has for a consumer is only until he is a source of revenue for it.
So, where does the change begin? Right now, the change has begun inside the consumer - they are rejecting 'unhealthy' brands. The change now needs to begin inside the marketer - to stop creating 'unhealthy' brands, stop sustaining exhausted brands and start liquidating valueless stocks and brands. To enable this, top management needs to start a programme of respect. Audit every act you do against a respect quotient. Is my act respectful of all the stakeholders and consumers of my act? When I am asked to launch a food product that is going to claim health for your familyâ€¦ do I subscribe to it?
Antara thumps tables every time we think of new launches. "No new launches please! First tell me, how are we resolving consumer insecurity? One, are we producing what is overall good for the need which the consumer has? Two, are we producing what is overall good for the environment - that is, the means of production? Three, are you respectful of the business intention with which you began your enterprise? If you can say 'yes' honestly to all this, go aheadâ€¦ your brand will soar!" During my orientation week, I recall distinctly hearing the phrase 'consumer good' seven times in 40 minutes. At the end of it, I was in serious doubt: what is consumer good? One said, satisfaction of physical need. Really? How do we assume our brand is delivering consumer good?
What all this amounts to is this: you have to STOP your profit motive definition. Rather, redefine it. Today, the topline and bottomline orientation is single-minded. I need topline growth because I want to be seen as better than my competitor. Does that sound like consumer good to you? Not to me. It is entirely company good. So, I plunder and ride roughshod on the consumer because he is the one who pays. At another level, yet connected to this, I must, first of all, scrap the products that are in the bottom most pile of my price segments. Say, I have three brands in a category, Sif 1, Sif2 and Sif3 in premium-, mid-level and low-price category. The Sif3 has to go, scrap. Move Sif2 to the Sif3 price line, so that the Sif3 consumer gets respect and products, and a better way of life. Then remove all perceived premiumness from Sif1, all the false words and padding you have been doing to lend an impression of Sif1 being the dream brand, whereas many of your claims are word-based imagery. The moment you remove perceived premiumness you will price it correctly; automatically you will have lowered your tendency to earn super profits. Now with Sif1 having moved to where Sif2 was... you are in a position to innovate a new brand that is true, honest and excellent. Today, there is barely any innovation. If at all innovation is in words and it is these pointless words which you have added to the formulation of the brand and for the words, the consumer pays. But is the new improved version in fact new and improved?
So, I, as a consumer, am simply paying for the increase in your costs for hiring the ad agency to do a new campaign, whereas my take home product is the same as before. Yes, the pack changed, it is now yellow and not purple and it has a spout on the side that is not adding any value to my wash. Consumer is saying 'don't give me moonshine convenience talk'. To commence this respect mantra, first, are we willing to sacrifice our super profits? This was at the heart of my chat with my CEO. Recall a little while ago I mentioned Antara's frothing ire over 'Jal'. Trust me, it was as good water as our current one, Swell. The difference was to be in the bottle. Jal was going to have an aqua green bottle with a sipper cap. The extra cost? Thirty paise per bottle. The price? Rs 7 for a 500 ml bottle. Even if we adjust for scale (500 ml being more expensive than litre) the price was Rs 3 more.
"What is the idea?" thundered Antara. "It bothers me that there is no innovation involved, yet, we were teasing the consumer to believe this new brand to be better water! No, no, no!" Internal agenda was to phase out Swell and, thus, move all consumers to Jal, and get them all to part with Rs 3 more for the same water, thus enable our phasing out Swell and of course, growing the bottomline. Now, you can see why Antara is fuming. I protested to my CEO. I said to him, "If you are genuinely focussed on consumer good, you will drop the super profit. And when your brand is really delivering consumer good, you also don't do superficial stuff to it to move it to premium category. Yes, you now have a sipper cap which is nice, but at Rs 3 more?" Brands are vehicles for delivering consumer good. They are not merely names of products, they are movements. Have we experienced a movement?
We haven't had political leaders who have stayed as long as some brands (What political brand is older than Lux, Rexona, Mysore Sandal, Saffola, BEST buses and Colgate?) The longer they last, the longer they have delivered consumer good. Simple. Britannia Marie. The smell of childhood. The taste of after-school tea time moments. Cherry Blossom, the early morning smell of old banians squeaking over Bata shoes. Bata. These are brands. Quiet, steady and affordable. My driver, my CEO and I in the middle - we all use Cherry Blossom, eat Britannia Marie and all our kids wear Bata shoes. That is the best undifferentiated on price brands. Good for CEO, good for peon, good for me. No false positioning there.
Net net, it is about ignorance - marketers have not seen any advantage arising from good behaviour. "Good leads to good" is for others. As for me, I am doing business. That is the mindset. We are the ones who coined that disjointed idiom, all's fair in business. Of course, the irony is that the best statement on customer service came from that man Gandhi.
Yet, let us pay attention to what retail signages are even today: 'Goods Once Sold Will Not be Replaced' decoded, 'I don't trust you, you are a crook.' The process defined by a company for replacement is a measure of how much respect the company has for its consumer. In most cases, it won't be easy for a customer to get a replacement and he has to depend on the empowerment of the point of sale, the local shop, for this. Do we understand the pain of the consumer? Do we respect him? That is why retail so glibly gets away with, "Hum replace nahi kar sakte hain kyonki woh computer mein ja chuka hai." This, in a country that preens itself over its software sons. The biggest representation of India happens in retail where man meets man and transacts... it is in transacting that you know where you stand in the perception of the other and hence of the country.
Bottom line: I am treating people the way I am being treated. If he can do this to me, I can do this to you and we will all do this to each other.' That is how we have a market full of GBs, each getting less than 100 per cent.