What makes a legend?

This weekend the world woke up to the sad news of Muhammad Ali, passing away at the age of 74.

And everyone’s facebook timeline was overtaken by words, pictures and video tributes. Quite a few of the posts that I saw actually referred to the fact that they were not even fans of boxing. Yet they felt sad, and moved to share their ‘on-line grief’.

That got me thinking about what is it that makes for a legend. What is it that separates greatness from legendary.

In my opinion it is a unique combination of 3 factors. And I will use Ali as support for my example:

  1. Good at your job: I believe the foundation of a legend is a core competence in an area. With Ali it was boxing. Factually speaking he fought 61 fights over a professional career lasting 21 years, recording 56 wins. These included 37 knockouts. He was crowned World Heavyweight Champion thrice and won the Olympic gold medal once.22_18228a_lg
  2. Stand for something meaningful (at personal risk): Ali was a boxer yet he stepped out of the ring to take a stance on the matter of race. He refused to be drafted though it meant that he would be stripped off his boxing license and medals. He made it very clear that he’d rather fight for the freedom of blacks than the freedom of people unknown, thousands of miles away. For this he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000. Muhammad-Ali-Newspaper
  3. Create sound bytes that live on: Ali had a lot to say about many things. All perfect to remember and pass along. Some of his more famous quotes were


  • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
  •  I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.
  • I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.

And longer statements like “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”


I believe it is a perfect combination of these three elements that makes for legends.

  • Being good at your job
  • Taking a stance on a social matter, at personal risk
  • Having the ability to communicate in quick sound bytes that will travel well and be remembered

Those who have 1 or 2 of these will be remembered as being great. So will having all three.

But in the case of Ali, they were in perfect harmony. And that is what made him a legend.




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Brands have social responsibilities

Last evening I was watching something on TV and this ad appeared.  It’s an ad for a phone brand called LYF.

I don’t know about you but I found it cringe worthy. No I am not talking about the lack of an idea or even the poor execution or anything like that. Here we have a bunch of guys sitting around watching a woman taking off some item of clothing and then dancing to an item number.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I found the ad offensive. Then again, I do see many offensive ads. But when we have someone like a Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, R Ashwin and so on, watching Kangana Ranaut do a number it gives permission to a whole bunch of men around the country to expect women to do the same.

I know there will be a lot of people saying that I am over reacting, but we are a country where people even copy hair styles of their heroes. And at a time when we are rocked pretty regularly with horrible stories of how a woman got mistreated by a guy I strongly believe that brands that can, should be more responsible, than only trying to sell their product.

And we have examples of brands doing just that..marrying a social message with a brand one.

Started in Canada but quickly became a global phenomenon was Dove.


They have continued with the same message in many countries. Their campaign for real beauty has consistently tried to reinforce the idea that one should be proud of the way one looks and not be forced to align to stereotypes.

Closer home is Ariel. With their campaign #Sharetheload they have tried to ask the Q: Why should laundry (and indeed housework) only be the woman’s duty.

There are many more examples, of brands that have risen above the short term need to meet a quarter’s numbers to deliver a higher message that tries to change the way society behaves.

I believe all brands have this responsibility. The bigger brands more so, as they have the ability and credibility to do so.

Brands are not just what you see on a shelf. Celebrities are brands too.

Celebrities that endorse brands should keep an eye on the script and have a point of view on whether they support the point of view of the ad. After all if a Virat Kohli refuses to do an item number ad, he also sends a message to his peers and the brands that seek his endorsement that he expects a certain behaviour.

The same is true with our movie stars. As long as they are shown, on screen, killing people, beating their women and children, smoking and so on, we are going to have millions of people who ape them blindly. I am, not for a moment, blaming society’s ills on them of course, but we all have a role to play if we want to rid society of the demons we have.

It is not hard for big brands to align their brand messaging to a higher purpose creating a movement that they can ride on. From Dove’s case we have seen that it is global, sustaining over time and beneficial to the brand.

Brands should lead society, not just reflect them.

The challenge for legacy brands


old man cartoon

When I was growing up my dad had a Fiat car, which we had for most of my growing years. The toothpaste of choice was Colgate. The TV at home was a Crown. School shoes were from Bata.

These are the brands I call legacy brands. All solid brands of their time but not really king of the pond any more, if they are still around that is.

I believe all brands face three kinds of challenges.

  1. Functionality: As time goes by consumer expectations from their products change. TVs to be HD, Smart etc. Shoes to have modern designs. Laptops to be thinner and so on.
  2. Values: With the new generation coming into the market place they have different expectations from their brands. It seems to be less about life long loyalty and more about experimentation and social imagery.
  3. Disassociation: This is connected to the point above but probably a little more illogical, if I can use that word. The need to not be seen using the same brands as one’s parents/previous generation and thereby being seen as ‘old fashioned’.


Brands need to address the above three challenges to survive the generations of new consumers who have evolving functional and emotional needs from their brands.

Brands like Bata just completely missed the boat on all of these. They, briefly, caught my attention with the introduction of North Star and then they faded away from my attention. The landscape is littered with such brands. Think Philips, HP, Nycil, FM jeans and so on. I would argue even a brand like Jet Airways has entered a similar zone.

Staying relevant therefore needs brands to work on the 3 challenges:

Functionality: People evolve their needs evolve. Or technology evolves making better product possible. Or the environment changes making product tweaks necessary. So shampoos need to do more than just clean hair. Fixing Split ends, falling hair, dry hair and  become expectations from shampoos. Better product forms become expectations from toothpastes. Cars need to be more intelligent etc

Values: The current generation views brands differently from their parents. Beyond the willingness to experiment, they are a little more attuned to concepts like environment-friendliness, sweat shop production issues. Not for them a brand that just washes well. But it needs to also talk female empowerment, for instance.

My father’s brand: This is the tough one. Brands that have been around for generations need to balance the solidity and stability of time with the ‘cool-ness’ of today. One of bosses used to always warn us of running the risk of ‘granny in mini skirts’ when trying to wrap modern imagery on an old brand. As a brand Cadbury’s comes to mind as one that has done this successfully.

Sometimes one is in a category that can exploit its legacy to its advantage. Hotels come to mind immediately. Taj is in the ‘legacy’ business. They operate with heritage properties and charge a premium for it. On the inside though they have continually upgraded their services to ensure that guest needs are being met.

The legacy brands challenge is especially acute in the tech space where the functional needs/expectations change far more frequently than in FMCG.

One brand that stands out for me here is IBM. It’s a 100 year old company and, quite frankly, falls squarely in the ‘how comes it is still around’ category.

Yet every 25/30 years (a generation) it reinvents itself to ensure relevance. Functionally and at a brand level.

About 20 years ago with the internet taking off IBM came to the party a couple of years late with e-business. And changed the way people used the Net. More recently, with it’s cognitive business messaging it is again trying to ride the wave of cloud, but integrating it with data and analytics to ensure it is able to gain momentum in that rapidly growing space. That is how they addressed the functional challenge.

From an imagery perspective IBM has always been deeply involved in ‘social’ issues. Be it health of administration, you will always find that IBM is playing a very active role. It is not charity, but it strongly believes that technology should do good. You can read about IBM’s contribution to education with it’s P-TECH program. IBM did Smarter Cities, tied up with Manipal Hospital to help with cancer screening and so on. Things that every generation believes strongly in. Doing good for the world.

And of course the new advertising from Ogilvy talks about Watson in such a cool, fun way. It makes the brand more human. More relatable for a younger generation. It moves it out from ‘my father’s brand’. It is never going to be the ‘millenial’ google or amazon , nor do I think it can be, given its heritage and the kind of business it is in. But it has managed to reinvent itself for today’s companies.

We have to wait and see how this pans out for IBM over the next year or so, but initial reports seem favorable.

If brands want to last generations they need to have some folks who are looking across larger time frames than a year to understand the functional and generational shifts taking place and then adjust both product and messaging to not just continue to be relevant, but also get their fair share of the new market.

After all brands do want to be …forever_and_always_by_paramorebuddy33-d3d7vpz

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How Social Media is destroying brand loyalty


Last week, I wrote about my trysts with Scotty’s diner. I had been there a couple of times, and rather enjoyed the food and the conversations with the staff. On my walk to Scotty’s I noticed another place called Bloom’s Cafe. Wondering, what it was like, I went on-line to read about it. And there were some pretty good reviews of the place. So the next morning, I went to Bloom’s.

There was nothing wrong with my experience at Scotty’s. I was quite happy there, but the temptation to try out an option was too hard to resist, buffeted as it was with great reviews. Quite frankly, there was nothing Scotty’s could have done differently to prevent me from trying out Bloom’s.

And that is the risk that brands are facing with the advent of social media.

Used to be that there was a category of goods called ‘impulse purchase’ that were always susceptible to consumer moods. Typically candy/snacks and the type, where the risk was low and the financial downside was minimal.

Higher involvement categories were pretty much inured against this. These were considered purchases and the sales outlet, the salesman and word of mouth  of friends mattered a lot.

Till the mid 1990s ones awareness was limited to what we read in the media and heard from friends. With the advent of the internet the choices before us exploded. Brands we had dreamt of, or never heard of were all available at the click of a button. But how do you decide on what you were willing to spend your hard earned money.

Enter the concept of reviews. First on amazon, now showing everywhere. From a pair of socks to apartments there is no shortage of opinions being expressed that is changing consumer decisions everyday.

Emirates or Etihad

Hyatt or a Westin

Mobilio or Ertiga

Sobha or Prestige

And so on..

What we are seeing is that with social media, words of strangers carry as much weight as that of friends.

Much as people are willing to try out new options, bad service from their own brands is instantly shared on-line as well.

It appears that the days of lifelong loyalty are long gone.

So what are brands to do?

I believe it is a combination of 3 elements.

Customer Satisfaction: Ensure that existing customers are happy and their issues/concerns are instantly resolved. Don’t give them an opportunity to complain publicly. If they do, ensure the problem is addressed publicly as well.

Consumer Advocacy: As reviews play an important part in prospect decision making, there is need to run a continual consumer advocacy program. Some companies incentivise consumers to post advisors on trip advisor, for example. Similar programs exist, or should be created, by other brands as well.

Consumer Acquisition: Acquisition has to be a continuous program as there will always be people who drop out, seduced by a good review somewhere else. Hence it is important that brands are always on the hunt for new prospects, who may well be loyalists of another brand.

In my opinion consumer decisions will be shaped by

Advertising + Media (editorial) + Social Media.

Brands will need to play in all these spaces and have distinct, integrated, strategies that work across all.


When process clashes with culture

In my travels to the US, I often prefer the food in diners, to the posher places. Largely, because it gives me a chance to see and engage with the local folks. Normal people, if you like.

Last month was no different.

I visited a diner near my hotel called Scotty’s. 20160410_084059

As you know a diner is a simple,  no frills place where you get eggs done a 100 ways, pancakes done 50 ways and so on and endless flow of coffee. Simple, basic food.

The customers typically tend to be regulars from the neighborhood, or people working near by. About 25% tend to be people like me. Who are visiting and popping by for a bite.

So when I went there last month, it was the typical bunch of people around. As I sat down, a couple walked in who were guided to their booth. Now, the first question asked of any new customers is ‘would you like coffee?’. It was not different this time too. And in a strong Australian accent came the response ‘ Can I get a latte?’. It was probably the first time this year someone had asked for a latte, but it didn’t faze the waiter who said ‘Sure, of course’ and went off to get the order. Food was a similar complicated one ‘Can I get my pancakes, with strawberries and berries, on the side, with a topping of cream and honey, and some nuts and…’ I think that was sorta the order. The loud voice of the guest rang through the diner, so we all could hear.

Now, this is not a typical diner customer. Diners operate on pretty much standard fare and get customers in and out. And here was a customer who was asking for the unusual and getting it with a smile.

Contrast this with my check in experience at a luxurious 5 star hotel 24 hours earlier. I had arrived after a long flight from India. I was going to be staying in the hotel for 5 nights. Quite a long stint, I expect, compared to the average stay. I asked for what I always do when I check in. ‘Can you please ensure I get a good room? On a higher floor, with some sort of view?’ The guy at the counter went ‘Well you have been booked in the standard room, but for $30 I can upgrade you to a bigger room, on our 30th floor, with great city views’. In my state of exhaustion, I said ‘I’ll take it’, figuring I can get approvals for the increase cost later!! 5 minutes later I was in my room. Didn’t look all that big and when I opened the bathroom door, I found, that I could barely fit in. Figuring paying $30 more for a room that seemed like any other room and having an exceptionally small showered made no sense, I trudged back down to talk to the guy. He had already forgotten that he was the one who had checked me in, literally, 5 minutes earlier. On hearing my issue, he responded’ Well I can put you back in the room previously booked. It’s not very good and has no view’. I was really tired and all i wanted was a shower and change of clothes urgently so I agreed, and off I went. Feeling rather pissed off and irritated, if I may add.

The check in counter guy’s remarkable unwillingness to do anything to make my stay better, contrasts significantly with the attitude displayed by the waiter at Scotty’s.

I know many of you will say that, that’s the difference between a small organisation where there is a lot more flexibility than in a large organisation where the room to maneuvre is low, if at all. Processes and systems come in the way.

And you would be wrong.

See, the reason I checked into this hotel the second time, was my experience the first time. That time, when I was standing in line to check in, there were 2 people in front of me. A lady came up to me asked me to follow her to a new counter she opened up. I asked for the usual ‘Can you please ensure I get a good room? On a higher floor, with some sort of view?’. She went : ‘Of course, let me see what I can do.’ After a couple of minutes of searching, she cam back with ‘Ok here you go. I’ve moved you into a corner room, which is slightly bigger. It has good views on both sides. Here are a few bottles of water for you. I see you are a member of our loyalty program, so you get free wi fi reserved for the loyalty program users as opposed to the free one available to other guests. Wishing you a god stay, and if you need anything when you are here, just buzz guest services and ask for Natalie’.

It’s the exact same hotel. But because of the person at the counter, they were delivering two completely contrasting experiences.

And this is a challenge that large organisations face. As they become big in terms of numbers of people and locations, the only way to manage it, is to ensure there are processes. This way, a location in Vietnam is operating the same way as a location in Sao Paulo. It makes for consistency. And takes away the humanity. Especially, if you are in the service business.

The opportunity before leadership is to wrap a strong culture around the process. A culture that reinforces the primary purpose of the business. A culture that ensures, employees don’t forget that the process is only there to ensure that there is a skeleton to keep the muscles and flesh in place. Processes are created by management consultants and procurement people and people like that. To keep things moving. But they don’t run the business. That is the job of leadership. Business leaders in large companies, especially, need to ensure that the culture they create is stronger than the processes in place, to ensure that innovation, flexibility and agility flourish and everyone gets a Scotty’s experience.



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How VCs are affecting marketing



Couple of days ago there was a great discussion on facebook which went something like this..


A person in Bangalore wanted to transport a bed between two locations. However, the cost of transportation was more than the cost of the bed. So he had posted a Q asking for leads for transportation vendors who were cheaper.

Someone gave this great idea.

Register yourself on quikr as a seller and upload the picture of the bed.

Then visit quikr and offer to buy the same bed. You are paying yourself so no cost to you.

Quikr will arrange for free transportation and paytm will give you cash back as well.

How amazing is that? You not just save money, you make money.

This is just another example of how VC money has flooded the market and basically made everything ridiculously cheap or even free, for that matter. Making marketing of start ups all about a price game.

It did not bother me too much till a very recent example in Bangalore.

A furniture lending company launched on the proposition of 72 hours from ordering to setting up in your house. Good, bad or terrible positioning doesn’t matter. It was a position they had taken.

A week later came another company with the proposition of ‘anything you want for Rupee 1’ or something like that. What I remember is Rupee 1.

There isn’t even an attempt to claim range, quality, delivery, service or anything of the sort. Straight to the lowest price possible.

This is what I therefore fear, with so much money flooding the market and no drive to profitability, it becomes increasingly easy to go the price route. And that is lazy marketing.

Of course there are brands that have stayed away like bigbasket, urban ladder, pepperfry and the ilk. But tons of others are giving away something or other free just to get whatever digital metrics they are driving.

Good strong brands are not built that way.

After all those who come for a deal, will also leave for a deal.

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Re-visiting re-targeting

December 6, 2015 2 comments

This morning I went to a grocery store and looked at some cereal boxes. For some reason, I decided to not buy it, put the box down and left the store. Then I wandered into a shoe store right next door. As I was browsing through some shoes, there was a guy from the grocery store holding a box of cereal, asking if I wanted to buy it now. After overcoming my shock at seeing him there, I declined and went to the store next door. This time a clothes store. And again, as I was browsing for some jeans there was the same guy holding another box of cereal. And this continued through a few stores.

In fact for a few days I saw him nearly everywhere I went. Just as I was getting really irritated with him following me, he mysteriously vanished as well.

In real life this would be really weird. But it happens often on-line. It is a concept called Re-targeting.


Re-targeting is simply an advertiser’s way of targeting you with sales messages based on your previous browsing history. Usually connected with some e-commerce activity.

Earlier this week I was looking at buying a pen on-line. Since then I have been inundated with ads for the pen on my facebook feed, email side ads, nearly every other site I have visited. Yes, bordering on irritation.

In my humble opinion the idea of re-targeting, while great, needs 3 simple principles to be followed.

  1.  Context: Just like when advertising’ context is important, the same principle applies to re-targeting. I think sometimes brands get so anxious that the customer has not bought that they start showing up in the very next page being browsed. This serves to, both confuse and frustrate the customer. So ensure that re-targeted messaging continues to be within the context of the brand/product/message.
  2. Message: Often times I have seen that the advertising message being delivered in re-targeting is basically just restating the product/brand message. There is little attempt to factor in that I have just been on that page, seen that message and not completed the transaction expected. So showing the very same messaging is not going to work. Re-targeted messaging should be delivered in a manner that gets the customer to perform the action, that was not completed the first time. Typically, this may include an offer. Or, my preference is, to deliver the message in a different way. Perhaps a new value proposition even. This is a rich bed for some A/B testing.
  3. Timing: There are 2 aspects to this. How soon after the initial targeted message do you re-target? If the customer is continuing to browse related content then obviously it makes sense to be visible literally immediately. However, be careful to not come across as stalking. The other aspect of timing is how long do you continue to re-target. For a b2b product, re-targeting should focus on getting the customer to move to the next step of the journey. Any estimates on typically how long this takes should guide the duration of re-targeting. For FMCG brands this is a little trickier. Factors like, when the original interaction took place, basket value, seasonality all play a role. Any continued message delivery after purchase is made is money wasted, and stopping message delivery when the customer is still shopping is leaving money on the table. So some rigorous analytics is called for.
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