Build experiences not brands

A communications consultant, author, columnist, teacher, trainer, cricket enthusiast and a passionate social activist, Ramanujam Sridhar, the founder of brand-comm, a Bengaluru-based brand consulting firm, claims that he has never spoken a serious word in his life. “People in advertising are that way. Time and tide don’t change them,” quips Sridhar. He founded brand-comm 15 years ago, when many marketers weren’t even familiar with the word ‘brand’. “People thought I didn’t know how to spell because there were two Ms. And, thousands of software engineers used to come trooping to our office, looking for jobs,” he recalls.


During his talk at the Brand Owners Summit, he took the audience through how branding strategies have evolved over the years – what has changed, and what hasn’t. To explain this better, he quotes a few examples. “During late 90s and early 2000, we thought the only way to start a scooter was to tilt it to the left, because the engine was to the left. And, if we bought a Premier Padmini, as we stepped out, we booked a white Premier Padmini, which would come into the showroom four years later.”  He adds, “But, today, we have over hundreds of options for cars (every single foreign brand is here), over 600 options for bathing soaps, over 356 brand options for clothing and more. This indicates the biggest change that has happened over the years; increased competition,” he says. He believes that now, brands are dealing with people who have deeper pockets, who are smarter, and global. So, if anything, branding is only going to become more focussed.

Over the years, customers are increasingly getting involved in the product design, product packaging, advertising and the brand itself. In such circumstances, it is imperative for a brand to identify a unique way of engaging with its customers.

Additionally today, brands are being built in a much shorter period of time. A classic example of this would be the brand presence and brand value created by Google, which was founded 16 years ago, as compared to Coca Cola, which has been in business for over a century. According to BrandZ (a brand equity database company, part of WPP Group), in 2014, Google topped the list of 100 most valuable global brands, while Coca Cola took the No.6 position. “The speed at which brands are being built is something we have to reckon with. In fact, technology, in particular seems to be the flavour of the season,” observes Sridhar.

Consumer’s king, forever

So, why are brands evolving? Because consumer preferences have changed, competition has increased and technology is evolving. And, if there’s one thing successful brands have mastered over the years, it is communicating in a consistent manner even in their endeavour to stay fresh. “On the logo front, some good examples of companies which have evolved over the years are IBM, Microsoft, Kodak and Pepsico. Usually, such a change comes about when brands start competing in global markets,” notes Sridhar.

A second evolution that has taken place is on the design and packaging front. “I remember, the first television we bought at home was Konark, which needed a five-feet space behind it, to fit in, whereas now, we have flat screens. So, consumer preference plays a crucial role in how brands evolve,” he says.

An important component of consumer preference is building a relationship with them. As Haaji-Ioannon, chairman of easyGroup and founder of easyJet once said, a brand can spend US $150 million in advertising, go bankrupt and its name still won’t mean anything to people. A brand is created out of customer contact and the experience its customers have of it. “Let me give you an example. When we were handling client servicing for a prominent restaurant chain, the founder narrated an incident. One day, a customer at her restaurant posted an update on Facebook stating that he’d been waiting for over 20 minutes and his order had still not arrived. The restaurant’s central tracking system picked up the complaint and notified the restaurant manager, who duly took care of the customer’s needs by offering him a coupon and ensuring the service was smooth thereon. Realistically speaking, the customer should’ve been happy that his problem has been resolved, but he still won’t go back on Facebook and talk about it. That’s the reality brands have to work with,” explains Sridhar.

Sridhar also believes that, over the years, customers are increasingly getting involved in the product design, product packaging, advertising and the brand itself. In such circumstances, it is imperative for a brand to identify a unique way of engaging with its customers. “One strategy that is currently questionable but was brilliant at one point of time is building a brand only through public relations,” he states. And, according to him, one company that executed it well was Infosys. “During the early stage, Infosys indicated that it doesn’t need advertising, and it will not seek the media. Instead, it will have newsworthy information that is accessible, articulate and has a point of view,” he says. Further explaining the strategy, he indicates that it started off as a successful company, but the likes of HCL and Wipro came into the market soon and recorded a good success rate as well. Then, Infosys faced a sexual harassment case, during which key executives were asked to leave. Here, Sridhar notes that Infosys turned it around and started talking about corporate governance, thus positioning itself as an ethical company. “Then, it spoke about providing business solutions for the flattened world (the title of the book, ‘The World is Flat’, was derived from a statement made by Nandan Nilenkani, the former CEO of Infosys). And later, it changed its positioning to transforming client businesses through technology,” he says, and adds “All of this was done not by advertising but by media relations. But, over the last few years it has been getting fairly unfavourable press, due to Mr. Narayana Murthy quitting and joining back, and many such significant developments. Finally, in June 2014, it issued a legal notice to media houses for defaming the company,” he concludes. He attributes this incident to a famous saying by Maureen Dowd, the American columnist for New York Times. She said, wooing the press is an exercise roughly akin to picnicking with the tiger. You might enjoy the meal but the tiger always eats last.

Creating wonder-lust

Sridhar believes that brand power comes from defining the brand experience and delivering on it. For example, Tanishq developed a campaign where, when a customer bought jewellery from them, the representatives would take note of any special occasion (like a birthday or an anniversary) and deliver a cake and a bouquet of flowers to the concerned person.  “This is going to be the differentiator for brands; how can I maximise a customer’s sense of wonder when he is dealing with me,” notes Sridhar.

As he states, India is fast becoming a surplus society, with similar companies employing similar people with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, developing similar products with similar pricing and similar quality. “In such a case, where’s the brand? That’s why thinking differently or doing differently is going to make the difference. Too little innovation is happening right now,” he says while adding, “Today, it’s important for brands to seize opportunities, be first and be different. Otherwise, they won’t know what hit them.”


Over the last 30 years, competition has increased many fold and brands are being built in a much shorter period of time

As consumer preferences change, competition increases and technology evolves, brands should try to maintain consistency even in their endeavour to stay fresh

 A brand is built from the experience its customers have of it

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