‘Differentiation and being relevant to the consumer is critical to build a successful brand’

‘Differentiation and being relevant to the consumer is critical to build a successful brand’

Ramanujam Sridhar, founder and CEO, brand-comm

Ramanujam Sridhar founded brand-comm in 1998 after a 15-year stint in the advertising field with companies like Mudra and RK Swamy. He has played a key role in the creation of several brands including Dalmia Cements, Wrigley, Kurl-on, Videocon, Van Heusen and United Breweries. Sridhar has also organized workshops on brand management and advertising for senior management professionals at several companies including 3M, Tata Tele Services, and The Hindu Group.

Today, he shares the knowledge and experience gained over the last 27 years with the students of IIM Bangalore, IIM Kozhikode, IIM Indore and SDM Institute of Management, Mysore, where he is a visiting faculty. Sridhar has also authored two books – Googly: branding on Indian Turf and One Land, One Billion Minds – both popular with students and professionals in the advertising and branding industry. In this tete-e-tete with S. Prem Kumar of The Smart CEO, Sridhar explains what branding means for the Indian consumer.

What are the key aspects to build a successful brand in India?

At a broad level, if you look at successful brands there are two aspects that we notice: these brands are relevant to their customers and they are differentiated from competition. If you are newer player in the market, the only way you are going to stand out is by being different and relevant. Take Big Bazaar for example. Their low pricing is something that is very relevant to the customer. Tata DoCoMo’s one-second pricing strategy started a price war in the telecom industry, but, from a consumer perspective it was very relevant.

If Nike can Just Do It, why can’t we? Is building a brand all about spending advertising dollars and roping in celebrities?

When Phil Knight started Nike, he roped in a college student to create the ‘swoosh’. He personally visited colleges and convinced athletes to use his shoes. He engaged with his customers and roped in college students and sportsmen as early adopters. That is how he built the Nike brand in the early stages. The strategies adopted need to different at different stages. In the case of Nike, the fundamental aspect is that they make great shoes; they are well marketed, well promoted and well distributed. If you are a newer player, and you are competing directly with Nike, then you have a problem. Brands like these are so strong, even if you can’t afford it; you are waiting for the discount sale to happen.

Take the example of brand Colour Plus five years back. It was a high-end brand, priced heavily. But people were waiting for the annual Colour Plus discount sale to pick up the brand.

For newer players, you have to give something to the consumer. It could be a price advantage, better reach (sell at places where a Nike is not easily available) and identify your early adopter and earn their loyalty to start off with.

What are your thoughts on the role of branding in attracting talent to your company?

A few years back, we conducted annual surveys with college students to understand companies they wanted to work for. One aspect that came out of the survey was that people want to work with companies with well-known, well-respected leaders. Almost every year, Infosys and Mr. NR Narayanamurthy would come out on top. In some sense, he was responsible for building the Infosys brand. He took it upon himself to champion the cause of IT services. The whole industry benefited and the IT industry attracted talent from everywhere.

I recently heard someone mention that going forward the IT industry needs one more poster boy, now that people like Mr. Naraynamurthy and Mr. Nandan Nillekeni are heading out of the industry.

To answer your question, branding is extremely important in attracting talent and more often than not, that responsibility lies with the leader of the company.

How should startups approach the problem of attracting talent to their small company?

Every company needs to come up with its own strategy. At brand-comm, I adopted the strategy of teaching at several business schools on a regular basis. Though in some sense we were a startup, I was able to attract people to join our firm. They had the belief that they would enjoy working with us. Career growth and what responsibilities one can offer new hires also play a critical role. Smaller companies will have to sell their uniqueness – whether is a challenging work environment, flexible working hours or anything else.

What can brand managers do to ensure brand loyalty?

Brand loyalty really depends on the type of product you sell. In, say, a product like a toothbrush, the primary role of advertising and promotions is to maintain brand recall. Consumers prefer a known brand to an unknown, and that is what brand managers are working towards.

In certain categories, consumer behavior depends on expert reviews and word of mouth. If I were to buy a car or maybe even a laptop, I’d check with friends who are some sort of experts in these areas. I’d probably read expert reviews on trusted blogs and online media. So, in some sense, the ‘loyal’ loyal customer is dead.

But there are these categories like baby products. It’s very difficult to convince a mother to use a different skin cream, if she’s already used to one. Look at Johnson & Johnson. Where is their competition? Parents don’t want to take a chance with tried and tested products. These are what we call high-involvement categories.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, once said, “Consumers don’t have a clue as to what they want. You got to show them what you got first”. What are your thoughts on this?

People say if Henry Ford had asked people what kind of vehicle they wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse. Fundamentally, consumers have a very fuzzy idea of the future. Consumer feedback is useful for feature-level additions. Once consumers have seen a product, feedback is essential. However for paradigm shifts, consumer feedback is not very useful.

Finally, your favourite brands?

Infosys is a top B2B global brand. The story of Infosys provides lessons on everything from building a brand to how businesses should be run. With a brand like Kingfisher Airlines, I like what they’re trying to do especially in terms of customer service. Of course, the TATA brand is iconic. They cut across several segments and industries, yet there are certain guidelines and value systems in place. A TATA group company has to earn the TATA brand. It doesn’t come automatically.

Among global brands, I can’t think beyond Apple. They sell products that are fairly expensive. They never have discount sales. Yet, consumers just truly love the brand.