Wednesday, December 17, 2014

As the air gets turbulent

These may be the three most dynamic sectors in the Indian economy as they seem to flood the news every day- retail and ecommerce websites, mobile telephony and airlines. Each day there is either the rise or fall of a new marketing tactic and sales promotions to drive revenues. I already tried to establish a symbiotic relation all the three are having where mobiles and telephone networks are driving people to the internet, online retail is building the aspiration for products and airlines are making overnight deliveries and satisfaction a possibility. In the last few weeks, the skies have turned murky and the airline industry is likely to face turbulent air. 

Spice Jet was showing signs of running on low cash reserves for a long time. In fact when they launched some astonishing discounts for flight bookings beyond six months from the day of flying; I sensed they were trying to stay afloat by selling a future beyond their reach. And so it happened one day that almost 1800 flights of December were grounded and fuel was now on cash and carry. As for the passengers, well you invested too far ahead on promises to fly on a carrier whose daily operating loss even while flying was in excess of 3 Cr.

This won’t be the first time this is happening with Spice Jet which saw a similar fate in its earlier avatar of ModiLuft, which ironically had also ran out of funds. So from a full service carrier that started off in 1993, Spice Jet turned into a Low Cost Carrier in 2004. Ina typical LCC style, Spice Jet always had its parking slots away from the terminal gates with flights at wee houses in the morning or late night and the buy off the cart catering service. A positive which I definitely noted was the aircrafts were always clean, young by age and more often than not; on time as well.

So how does the 2nd largest LCC and one of the longest serving airline enter the whirl of failures? In my opinion, almost every airline in India has been suffering similar losses in a mad rush to woo customers by bare minimum fares and discounts which in most cases barely seem to cover fuel and airport charges. Spice Jet in its initial years was fighting Air Deccan on a price war of Rs 99 tickets (which after the taxes and surcharges used to come up to Rs 2300), but as far as buyer psychology was concerned, it scored heavy. All flights going full was a record that Spice Jet had in its initial years. The leadership was maintained until Indigo burst out on the scene and its offering of low cost and timely arrivals and departure made a big dent on the markets.

I had a sniff at the possible financial position last year when tickets at a cheap rate and more than 6 months beyond the flight date were being sold; a clear indication that cash flows were fast eroding and survival games have begun. The last reports have now indicated a possible government intervention to boost the airline off its blocks again. But lack of financial profitability has been the truth even with Jet Airways; which after the collapse of Kingfisher is rebuilding itself as a full service carrier and earn back its customers from the LCC’s. Adding to the mix is Air Asia’s entry into the LCC market, but its limited destinations at present makes its market position tough to decide. It now remains to see how the much awaited Vistara which is scheduled to fly from the next month will perform and affect the market.

A matter of debate may be, but one thing is happening for sure; the Indian skies are seeing turbulence and it might be only the financially fittest and consumer selected one’s which will survive the wind fall which is likely over the next few months. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The brands that make every Indian wedding

Family has been a very intrinsic part of the Indian culture and value systems. No wonder the coming together of families through a wedding is also rated as a very big event. A new beginning of sorts is marked with a hell lot of new stuff which floats amongst the families. There is a lot of shopping activity that happens prior to the actual wedding and there are a few brands which have actually carved a niche for themselves as far as Indian weddings are concerned. Yes, there are a lot of local players in each category, but for some verticals- these brands stand as the gold standard primarily through the years of advertising that they have sincerely followed.

 Amongst the unwritten rule for the groom or the majority of the male population is to be dressed in a formal suit for the reception or some occasion during the wedding. At this point only Raymond’s can make a man complete. It may be tailored next door, at a Raymond’s Made-to- Measure store or be it a readymade, the fascination with a suit in Raymond’s fabric is like a must. In more recent times, Raymond’s has tried to make the man a sensitive father, a retiring teacher, a caring son and husband; but as a brand they also have an unmistakable connect with weddings. The man in Raymond’s has the charm to break a traditional sangeet into an impromptu ball dance, express his love in a manner suited to the shining armoured knights and also turn a reluctant arranged partner fall in love. (

The domination of Raymond’s in this space is so high that competition like Siyaram, Grasim suiting’s, Reid & Taylor have all had celebrity endorsements and placed themselves in the office wear category to distinguish themselves from Raymond’s. People can be so particular in terms of the suit fabric that even a fabric worth over 10K or a final suit worth 30K is not looked upon as splurging.

When we talk of traditional wear for men and women, it has been an area which was strongly dominated by local market players. The bling value on traditional clothing for both genders has always been different and varying as per the regions and customs that go around in every part. Not to mention for the ladies, sarees and their patterns have held traditional weavers as the highest authority. When it comes down to stitched wear, designers and tailoring shops still carry a high regard. It has again been a bit different for the guys as various styles of kurta are the only possible variations. Manyavar seems to be making a heavy in roads on this front. Apart from a very heavy team sponsorships in IPL, the brand has also made an impressive TV ad showcasing that they will lead the pack in organised occasion wear for Indian men. (

Now so much for men- the ladies segment has a whole lot of saree and jewellery stores which are local market chains like Roopmilan, Kala Niketan, Nallis or the PC and Ghanasingh jewellers and many more like them. Clothing somehow does not have one brand which has the kind of appeal that goes beyond the product and how it makes you feel. But jewellery has had a larger emotional and social angle in terms of brands. A bride without gold to adorn the dress is like unheard across socio-economic strata in India. So apart from the traditional and family attached jewellers, there are big jewellery brands like Geetanjali or TBZ which have added a touch of glamour and a royal appeal to wedding and occasion wear ornaments. But a national brand which may stand out in my opinion is Tanishq by Titan. I see them as a brand which had communication which went on a note that it could inspire the “not interested” to get in the marriage mode. Which other brand thought that they could also add a touch of glitter to a 2nd marriage? (

 While we are on Titan, watches were always a part of the accessories which could also be a gift for anyone in the family; father to their ward, amongst siblings, as a gift for send-off… but can you propose marriage with a watch? Well in a way, Titan just redefined that space occupied by a diamond ring with a watch in the most refreshing and ‘without words’ emotions. (

There are so many other examples I can think of which have become a part of the Indian wedding saga. The woman get a space of her own in a new environment and the first stage of trust in a new relationship is established by a Godrej cupboard. A whole lifetime of memories shifts to a new space safe and sound in VIP luggage. A lot of brands are trying to break into this wedding space; a lot have already owned this space for themselves.

There is nothing to deny, marriages in India is a big affair and with anything between a million and ten million marriages taking place every year and an average of four members in each family- it is also a considerably large sized market for brands to look forward to. Not restricted by economic conditions or political scenarios; the big fat Indian wedding is USD 40 billion industry which is here to stay and just boom on. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

When expressions find a way- the new media avenues

This weekend, one of my batch mate from college came out with a collection of short stories she has written over the year and compiled in a book. The book came out as a kindle e-book titled, “Do virgins taste better and other tales of whimsy”.  What has got me excited is the fact that she has made it to a point where her thoughts and ideas have been able to reach a larger audience circumventing the vicious nets and monopolies of publishers. The answer came in the form of Amazon and its CreateSpace service.

My class had quite a few talents with literary skills to write books and scripts, very few actually have taken it up as a full time profession. My roommate in college went into advertising, but had a compilation of photographs coupled with his feelings behind them expressed as poetry. The concept was too alien to publishers, and he was reluctant to share excessive details suspecting foul play. Another of my roommate is journalist who having extensively travelled in a riot torn UP has inside stories and anecdotes which no news channel will every carry. The works for both of the above have original ideas but the flight of expression is yet to find wings. I see the new avenues in media as a viable options in the days to come.

The story has been similar to many of the upcoming talents who have the ideas and concepts for a larger stage but find no takers. The Viral Fever (TVF) Media Labs is a sensation on YouTube as a channel which has a very steady and loyal bunch of followers. Their popularity is marked by the fact that a video from TVF crosses 100000 viewers in a day at max. But the origins of the second largest network of youth entertainment in India lies in the fact that the concepts presented by its founder, Arunabh Kumar, were rejected by MTV and other youth channels. By means of YouTube, TVF today has a reach so massive that online portals like Snapdeal, Common Floor or even movie stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Parineeti Chopra, Ayushman Khurana, Ranveer Singh have come on their shows to connect with youth and promote their movies.  

There is no doubting the fact that making a film is an expensive proposition and has a lot more in terms of financial hurdles. But some like another batch mate of mine, Faraz Ali, have taken up spending their time, effort and own savings to find a route to achieving things. The alternative he has found takers has been short film festivals. One of his first efforts, Mehrooni got a lot of critical acclaim after being shown at the Mumbai Film Festival and Royal Stag Large Shot films. The encouragement has taken him to make Makhmal this year which not only had big names like Jackie Shroff and Shafquat Amanat Ali attached to it, but also got opportunities in film festivals overseas (Including the New York 30 under 30) as an avenue to showcase his art to the world.

Another space where alternate media is making an impact is music. Recently, Vayu, a college junior of mine, launched a music video on YouTube of a song he had written and had composed almost 8 months ago. Apart from the fact that he is a lyricist having written for mainstream Bollywood, he had the desire to write about things he felt close to and ultimately wrote about dope. ( The challenge he faces now is promoting his song but with no support of a big production house and only friends and well-wishers backing the video already has more than 62K views and becoming a cult in a small way.  Not to forget, platforms like Sound Cloud are also helping him gain more popularity. 

On the whole, the sphere of media has grown in a big way and is helping people to bypass the traditional road blocks and monopolies of publishers, music labels, channels and film producers and distributors. It is now up for the people with ideas to come up with the best of their own content. Success may be defined once people get to witness what you have, but a lot more avenues to help the right talents see the light of day. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Wanna Date? Get the App!

Finding a partner- it might be the most primal instincts that keeps the human race still in touch with our evolutionary past. Nature possibly wrote this code with the idea of propagation of species; the human civilizations have refined it into a wonderful term named relationships. It is so true that we enjoy being with certain people, have feelings towards them (may be even as friends) and ultimately we assign them a unique place in our social ecosystem as long as it has an impact on our life. This is what I’ed say is my view of how we start and maintain our relations from an individual level.

The first level is usually the family where we are born, next is close and distant relatives. When it comes down to friends; we get them from school just by virtue of innocence- sitting on the same bench, sharing the same toffies, travelling in the same school bus or just nothing at all. As we graduate through school and college, we have a rolling account of friends and our first encounters with dating. But overall in most cases, dating is confined to people we know and to ones we are most influenced by in a group. In such cases, everyone knows everything about one another and where we don’t, we have a friend, acquaint or someone who knows this person in some or the other way and can help. The need to know something about someone is the amazing space which has given rise to social networks of today. (given if the movie Social Network is something to go by)

With the advent of internet in Indian households, chat rooms and messengers like ICQ were the first form of tools to enhance the social circles beyond the boundaries of the known people. But why do we have an inherent need to expand our social circles and get to know more people? The answer is pretty simple- what fun it is to answer an exam where you know every answer or play Prince of Persia with cheat codes. Dating is like being on a treasure hunt for the perfect match from a million around whom you do not know. It’s almost like taking command of the USS Enterprise and going boldly further than any man has gone before to know another person. In most cases, it also brings out a lot of self-awareness as you end up understanding more of yourself from an independent opinion from a person who only knows you as much as you can tell them.

The traditional dating forms like blind dating, speed dating etc. have been tried to a fair extent in India but little has actually caught on. I had heard of mobile led dating devices in some Asian countries but the recent explosion of smart phones in India has led to a large number of dating apps that have come in. Now honestly, I had only heard of Tinder and Bumble for some time and considering the fact that the online space had got creepy in a lot of ways, I was confident that this was just a passing phase. Not to mention, the final nail on Orkut did suggest that people has moved to Facebook and WhatsApp as a preferred choice. But recently I started hearing radio ads of some Indian dating apps gaining popularity. So I kind of decided to do some research.

On an overall I guess the apps have refined the art of internet enabled dating away from the weird friend requests we all get on Facebook (and the fraandsheep seekers on Orkut). Firstly, people are from within your geographical vicinities which eliminates you the chance of finding someone in Latvia, Ghana or Fiji. Also since the larger objective is for people to actually meet at some point, it is necessary that the geography is defined. It is also a great thing for people to just swipe around and take a call based on the first impression if it is worth exploring- there are no second chances and a reject is like permanent. I’m sure this gets rid of a lot of nuisance value and stalkers. The third is that you cannot make a profile on its own as they use Facebook as a reference platform for verification. So no more corny id’s like ‘waiting4u, 4uonly, hunkinslacks’ will every bother you.

While everything as an app might seem good with Tinder or an Indian one like Woo, there is and has always been an element of creepiness which is one obvious thing that floats around here. I mean when you name an app Thrill or Desi Crush; it somehow just doesn’t inspire that confidence to meet genuine and good people. But I guess this is the space where people have to change rather than apps and their filters. I do believe there will be people who will possibly mention their intent well and truly direct manner in their profile at some point. These apps are purely means to have more friends- just friends. Sadly this is something not very common in India for people of opposite genders to be just friends; our movies only preach a bunch of guys exclusively or girls exclusively who can sing a song on being friends. Also we love to promote the myth that friends turn life partners eventually.

In my view, more than anything, people have to understand what really is dating. In plain simple terms, dating (unlike flirting) is merely a casual interaction between two people who meet, talk about areas of mutual liking and possibly share things about their life. There is no space for any malicious intent or involved. Since there is no accord to meeting someone again, people usually do open up without the fear of being judged. Though this might not be a primary use of dating apps, I’m already hearing of people who are using Tinder as a business tool to meet people who might be from a particular field of work with a business proposition. And most certainly, a dating app is not a app or some escort service in disguise.

In an era when I see more and more people involved in activities which actually disconnect them from one another, where the bonds in our social circles, time spent with friends away from work etc. are dropping to a new low, these apps can actually be a breeze of fresh air. A technology connecting people in real. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Indian e-commerce juggernaut- it’s mobile

I have often noticed this fact typical to the Indian Consumer- considering their restlessness and the variety of choices available in the market, they are ruthless in terms of giving failures another chance.   Chances for recovery when a particular car model fails to appeal or when a mobile network fails to deliver on its promises are very bleak. But there is one area where they have been immensely patient and forgiving so far. This is the magnitude of impact the lower pricing of e-commerce has had on the Indian shopper.

If recent events like the Flipkart Big Billion Day and Snapdeal Big Savings day are to go by, it has exposed the lack of attention to the backend and delivery systems. People I know are still sceptic of buying shoes and clothing online as long as the manufacturing and size standards are not established. Big budget purchasing of furniture through e-commerce is not recommended in my opinion as their prices are still higher than what a large scale furniture retailer might offer. Not to mention, it is always advisable to verify the quality of material and workmanship along with exact dimension (which I found do vary in reality) of the units.

If all these do make my sentiments towards e-commerce a bit negative, I am still one of the millions in India who is fuelling this huge wave of ‘internet enabled shopaholics’. And if the data from last week’s Google annual online shopping growth trends report is anything to go by, ( India will have 100 million online shoppers by 2016 and the market will be worth a whopping USD 15 billion from USD 3 Billion today. Also, the report mentions that Mobile phones emerged as an important access device for online shoppers with 1 out of 3 online buyers transacting on their mobile phones in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. In terms of numbers, 50% queries come from mobiles and this was at 24% in 2012. A key driver for the rural consumer is the social elevation offered by the access to the best brands sitting in their own towns and the ability to order over mobile internet.

Experts are now ready to acknowledge the fact that what happened in many other global market by virtue of desktops is happening in India via mobile phones and apps. This is the space where we have to acknowledge the fact that by December 2014, India is poised to become the 2nd largest market with mobile phone subscribers in the world. With 300 million subscribers, India will launch past the United States and yet be short by half to the 600 million in China. But the point to note in this case is the rise in numbers of the rural consumers. It is this mass segment which is now the driving force in e-commerce. ( Imagine the numbers- internet users have increased by 39 per cent to reach 101 million in October 2014. It is expected to reach 112 million by December 2014 and 138 million by June 2015.

It just takes my mind back to the actions by the Ministry to Communication & IT in 1999 when they implemented the Universal Service Obligation. Under this, all telecom operators were required to develop the rural telecom infrastructure at a minimum of 10% of its urban presence as well as further licenses were issued in accordance. The seeds sowed then are bearing fruits today with a 100 million new customers added in just one year as we went from 200 to 300 million.

If we correlate the two reports, there is a definite synergy between the rise of e-commerce in India with the rise of internet access via mobile. Much as India never had a dominant industrial revolution as in the West before the service based economy took shape, we have skipped the dominant phases of the desktops, landlines, land based internet and directly arrived to the highs of the mobile phones and mobile internet. The penetration of retail in the form of shopping malls is limited, but the penetration of mobile app based e-commerce is on the rise.

The wave of e-commerce is like a juggernaut- with the ability to breach the divides of physical limitations and access. The driving force here is the ever growing number of mobile connections and mobile internet capabilities at the hands of millions of Indians; which is paving the road at a super pace. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Brands have Emotionale

A visiting faculty to my college, Sumit Roy, gave us this powerful statement, which opened my mind to better understand the difference between a brand and a product. Anything that can be put on to a paper and floated around is what a product is. But when it comes to a brand, it is a far greater and closer to heart feeling that people carry towards the brands in their home. It is this feeling that people possess which leads to big words like brand loyalty and cults. The higher order attachment is actually the defining moment in the journey between a brand and its consumer.

Honestly, this is nothing new and people across the management verticals talk about this is ways more than one; basically there is nothing new that I can add here. But there is a critical part of this brand-consumer association which more often than not is the first level of this relation- we call it the brand experience and until recent, this was the biggest area of focus for retailers and brand to concentrate on. Everything that a brand put across to the consumer across all the mediums has a uniformity in terms of content and tone. The visuals and merchandise are in sync with all this. Lastly, it is about a sentiment a person has, an unfulfilled need at times, which a brand experience satisfies.

Brand retail- both as brand shops or Shop- in- shop (SIS) have their own charm. Walk into a Nike or Adidas store and even if you are not a hard core sports freak, you start feeling like one. Shelves full of shoes, jerseys, sports goods and accessories suddenly channel a rush of adrenaline. Spot a Federer or Bolt on the wall or just a face in the crowd out for a run on an empty road inspires one to just grab a pair right there to cherish that dream to get into shape. The sight of a man dressed in crisp formals at an Arrow or Raymond’s section builds the aspiration to make that impression in the meeting room. At the perfumery or the cosmetics section, all brands have testers for people to try it on and then decide what suits them in what kind of a look. Not to forget, at each stage, you have a personalized attendant to show you more options, recommend better products and even in case you are hell bent not to take his words seriously; no one hates if that person shares you a compliment. Feels like magic isn’t it?

Retail is a refined art. It is designed to stimulate your senses in every possible way. Attractive colours and themes on the displays, bright interiors with immaculately put up shelves with neatly arranged wares and smiling sales persons. Even the air within the store is pepped up with aroma candles and oils to make the people feel wanted and cared. Say for the look, an Apple store is expected to be in all white with the silver coloured machines and the staff in black Tees. A Samsung Smart Café or a Mercedes Benz showroom will look the same all across. It is all a part of giving you that distinguished brand experience. The entire affair with the look and feel is so great that clients hire specialized agencies as the people who will build this experience. These are the people who specialize in areas like retail window displays, the look for a season or festival as well as the overall retail design to catch our eye.

No matter what; this aspect of the retail experience is something which I believe cannot be easily duplicated in an online retail environment.  The convenience of shopping sitting in your lazy chair just does not have the charm of walking around in the isles, trying on stuff in a trail room to see how it fits you or at times, make you feel that you are shopping against surfing sites for the best deals. I agree that brands are putting in something very close to the SIS kind of arrangements on sites like Myntra, Flipkart and Jabong, but even with the banners and livery visible on the screen, it sincerely does not inspire the same sentiments. How can holding a pair of Ferrari Puma shoes in your hand be compared to seeing it online? How does one gauge the power dressing rush coming from an Arrow shirt by seeing some firang model wearing it unless you can touch the fabric?

It is good to know that brands are taking cognisance of this and keeping a distinction about what it sells through an online SIS as compared to its own online portals and physical outlets. They are ensuring that their products through a multi-brand online retailer is more aimed at brand penetration through these channels and maintaining a watch on the degree of discounts being offered to ensure there is no cannibalization. For all the pricing games and wars which happen every day on the online ecommerce retailers, there is much need to respect the sanctity towards loyalists through the traditional channels.   

Consumers live by experience. Comfortable, easy-to-use, convenient and ergonomic are what products are designed to be. Brands have a higher order of satisfaction- it is the aura, imagery, style and the ‘feeling-good’ factor added in. This is what makes brands, the emotions it invokes and wins consumers for life. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

We are Customers- we need Caring

Customer is King- one of the most basic things we all are taught in a B-School. The justification for this super gyan is often that they are not an interruption to our regular work but the reason we have work and businesses exist. We will often find theories where people will talk of customer retention or how delighted customers stay loyal, but an essential key to all this is something most people tend to ignore: what is that your customer really wants.

Last week my father, a loyal customer and even a promoter of Reliance Communications for the last 12 years decided to opt for number portability and shift to Vodafone. Leading up to his decision was a rush of missed service opportunities to retain his loyalty. Reliance CDMA did not have the apt smart phone options which resulted in a shift to GSM. The GSM network was not having the desired penetration. Adding to this were service woes with the closure of their customer centres and online requests were going unheard. Not to mention that while billings were being cleared by ECS, neither a physical copy nor an online one was being shared. It would not take an expert to question why the shift was obvious; but the Reliance call centre while confirming the request to shift did seem appalled.

Retaining customers seems to have now deemed to be a low priority activity against building new customers acquired through sales. This is actually a very surprising aspect when we are still taught that 80% revenues come from 20% customers or the fact that building a new customer takes 7 -8 times more effort (both time and money) than retaining an existing one. Take for instance the fact that in a service oriented sector like aviation, only Jet Airways and Air India currently have a loyalty programme as an added benefit for frequent flyers. The rest I believe are making their run for customers purely by virtue of pricing wars.

My first job was a field service engineer of GE Medical Systems and as famously said by one of my manager’s then, “the service team should be the first and hopefully the last person the machinery owners should see for any of their needs. You are the man of the hour and along with your training, you have the final authority to take a call of what needs to be done”. Service at that time was looked as a key differentiator after technical specifications and in many cases, service assurance compensated for the lows on specs or high on price comparisons against competitors. Needless to say, we had 5 sales persons and 15 service engineers. We took pride in the fact that we attended most all within the assured 24 hours after the service call was reported. Faith was so high that we actually had to route our customers to the Toll-free number for the call centre to lodge calls since our variable was linked to response times. Things have definitely changed a lot since.

Today, the first step for most mid-sized companies to claim they are customer oriented is to register a 1800 – toll free number and run a backend call centre with 3-6 seats. The organic reflex as the load increases is an IVR system with a menu for language and service options where there is a facility to hold a customer in a waiting queue. When this gets loaded, certain routine actions are automated through key-in responses over the phone. Though if the customer base is increasing exponentially, the number of call centre seats usually do not go up in the same ratio and then we start to experience what I call the ‘King to Suffering’ phase. This is the phase when you are on hold for minutes on the IVR and yet unable to get the required information or job done to satisfaction.

Just take a small example- suppose you have a payment reflecting in your online bank statement and need some additional information towards accounting. A typical bank IVR works in this fashion: 1- language option, 2- bank account or credit card transactions, 3- enter the desired account number (this is read out and verified), 4- customer id and password, 5-account balance, ledger balance, uncleared funds, 6- repeat information or more information or any other account, 7- options to call for a cheque book, stop payments or talk to a phone banker, 8-wait in the queue and hope for a response in a few minutes. It can take about 4-5 minutes before you hear a human voice which can possibly understand your problem and offer a solution or escalate the matter to the right person.

So why did it take me 8 steps to hear a human voice from a bank where I am a customer against the 3-4 unsolicited calls I get every day (not counting the 10 e-mailers) for me to become their customer? No to mention, the power residing with a phone banker is so limited that they are actually incapable of immediate action beyond giving me a complaint number. It is thereby not a surprising that a common response can also be, we will get back as the delegation of power in such cases in questionable.

Considering India is a hub for BPO’s, I was checking on some global best practices IVRs and Customer Care and almost everyone mentioned that the choice to talk to a customer service agent should ideally fall around the 3rd step. To get some additional data point on are customers satisfied with services, I picked up a global report on banking customers (yes, money matters most) surveyed by Capgemini. (
What is astonishing though is that globally, just about 51.3% people trust their banks and only 37% feel their bank actually knows them and their needs. And these are the stats when we talk of terms like ‘Customer Centric Approach’ in the corporate PPTs.

I guess it is high time the gyan moves from the board rooms and presentations into actual action. IN an era when there is no dearth of options, consumers will shift and the right trade-off between long term gains and short term doses of Viagra on the sales graphs. A customer may change by their needs; but the inherent feeling of being cared for, managed well and appreciated will never die. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Online retail in India- Still a long way to the top

11.11.2014 was an exciting day for online retail and shopping enthusiasts. After an impressive opening at the NYSE, Alibaba and Jack Ma have been in the headlines for all the right reasons. The Singles Day sale on 11th November was like a show of its might and abilities to deliver and grow year on year. The numbers are simply mind boggling- $9.3 billion in sales with 278 million orders shipped in 24 hours. The figure is a significant rise from 150 million orders shipped last year, which again was a massive improvement from a year ago. It has shown exponential growth in sales and traffic over the past six years. Surely enough, the Chinese dragon is making its presence felt around the globe.

While all this was happening in China, on the very same day, Snapdeal and Amazon were looking at causing a few ripples in the Indian market. Snapdeal Savings Day was being heavily advertised for four days preceding the sale. To keep the shoppers interested, they put up a listing of all the range of products which would be up for grabs on the day and complete with hourly and limited time sale across categories. It seemed to be a well charted approach with special discounts or cashbacks on use of certain cards or modes of payment.

Parallel to them was the Amazon Appiness Sale- an exclusive sale for its mobile app customers and targeted towards increasing the number of mobile based internet users shopping via its app. But this also had a lot of attractive offerings like the chance to win 11 months of free shopping worth Rs 11,000 each month if one buys through the application.

Both the retailers seemed to have their marketing hats on and trying to ride in the mass wave of consumerism that has set in India. But coming hot on the heels of Flipkart Big Billion Day debacle, as an enthusiast and online buyer, I was really interested in how these two giants fared in comparison. With not much to buy available under the ‘Sale’ tag, I was happy to just a spectator and gather information and understanding. Sadly, the reports were not really encouraging.

Snapdeal Savings Day went on much the same way as Flipkart. The social media channels were buzzing about problems right from site not opening to payment gateways unable to check out orders. Comparisons came up rapidly to the extent where people commented that even the while Flipkart managed to get consumers up to some basic levels, the Snapdeal site was unable to meet this. As for Amazon, the social media pages were filled with more of customer complaints rather than anyone talking of the joy of shopping. While the reports in newspapers focussed on another online disaster caused by Snapdeal, the Amazon offer was possibly lost even for the media. The bottom line was clear in both cases: Snapdeal possibly lost more than gained and Amazon failed to build on the buzz.

In my opinion, the online shopping scenario in India is heavily dispersed across retailers who sell in specific categories and then the big ones who have everything under one roof. In the current boom, customers are actually spoilt for choice and thereby there are even retailers like Junglee (used to be the Indian brand by Amazon) which have got into the mode of a search engine for retail to give you the best deals. Sadly, it is too early for people to have formed loyalties and majority of the population sways to the retailer where the prices are lowest for the day. It is hardly surprising that in case of a flash sale, the number of users multiply exponentially and the support structures are collapsing. Also, it is not viable to maintain a backend in terms of inventory, servers and payment gateways for the flash sale volumes for all other days of the year.

Not to mention, physical retailers have been crying foul towards flash sales riding on predatory pricing strategies. Since the online retailers have no direct arrangements with the manufacturers of durables; LG, Samsung, Videocon, Sony and Panasonic forbid their trade partners to sell their products with deep discounts during flash sales on e-retailers, while to buyers of the products are termed not eligible for after-sales service or warranty. I have had one experience where my product was not even handled by an authorised service as it was an exclusive online product.

I guess on an overall, online retailers have to introspect into what they are offering and what they need to make this wave sustain in the long term rather than more of flash sales and heavier discounts.
a)      Market Size: Online retail is on a boom and is looking at exponential growth. But all put together, it accounts for a fraction of total of physical retail sales in India. The number of categories is today limited and growing, but it has many miles to travel before replacing the traditional formats to a significant degree anytime soon.
b)      Deliveries: Last year I was proud to awe my brother with the record 2 days for a standard book delivery by Flipkart. This year the same has been extended to 5 days. My friend over two weeks has been fighting over apologies and no responses after a wrong book was delivered to him. Another one reported of a delivery boy who fainted on the road due to fatigue and overload of pending deliveries over Diwali. All these are just signs of the lack of robustness in the delivery mechanism which needs an urgent shot in the arm.  
c)       Revenues: Every sale so far has had huge spends on media, investment in inventory and delivery and heavy discounts. This is driving the top line of the sales chart- but what about the bottom line? How far can it be ignored? It is known that everyone in this business run in debt, but is this how things will run for ever?

In every business, there has to be a consolidation phase before the next big step. I believe its time it was attended to as well if we do dream to see someone to be India’s answer to Alibaba. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Future Ready or Future Tense

The very nature of the word ‘Future’ talks of uncertainty and possibility. I sometimes wonder if future and outer space are actually expressions of the same quantity. (No, I’m yet to see Intergalactic) Both are not limited by the bounds of time, speed, surrounding conditions and possibilities of certain things happening, when and why they would happen, and the severity are all unknown quantities. Practically, future is all but a set of speculations and theories based on what we have learnt over the years about people and the space.

So are we bothered by and prepared what the future holds? It might be a thought we should spare a moment on amidst all the happy-go-jolly, live-for-the-day and chill-pill ideas people today ride on. It is definitely not worth ignoring in an era where most people by the end of the first week are counting in on the account balance after the EMI for loans and credit card bills generated largely over weekend entertainment and shopping have been paid off. It is not uncommon for some of the people around me looking for a hand loan or simply saying “I’m a little tight this month” after the previous month’s extravagant spending spree.

Savings and financial planning has been one of the essence towards development of human civilizations. The hunter-gatherer was a wandering person who ate when he found food or hunted and hence never cared for saving any for a day when it was difficult to find any. Planning for future was one of the first things that came in on giving up a wandering lifestyle and settle at one place. I would like to speculate that start saving for the future and get into financial planning is the underlying meaning when parents say, “You need to settle down in life”.

Saving for the rainy day is something we are taught as children with dropping in coins into a piggy bank being the initiation. As years go by, we are given a pocket allowance and unknowingly we start saving in all possible places to indulge into that stick of orange lolly which mom never approves of. As monetary needs grow, so does our allowance and in most cases, we still hunt for that opportunity to save towards our desire list. The allowance continues as we grow up and go through college right until that first job which signifies the arrival of an era of financial independence. In most cases, we tend to earn much more than what we have got as allowance and ideally this should result in greater saving. But today, it is consumerism that kicks in here and as a result, most people do not care for the rainy day any more.

Just because I’m writing this does not make me a person on the righteous path. Though my parents had initiated a Public Provident Find (PPF) account way before I got a job, my initial contributions were about Rs. 5000 per year for the first five years. The idea of fixed return insurance sounded ridiculous as it demanded me to invest a month’s salary every year to live with a huge sum in my account 25 years hence. Also, since I was nowhere close to the taxable income bracket, having money in my account and earning 6% p.a. on it sounded cool. Stocks and bonds sounded cool but you really need to be tracking the market for day trading or have cash in excess for possible long term gains. At most, a fixed deposit to get 8.5% p.a. was the highest level of growth related investment I went for.

I guess 2008 was a year with a turnaround as all of a sudden, tax on income became a concern and investment under section 80 suddenly became important. Even then, my focus was that balance where I minimized taxation and had the cash to spend as well. Investing 50K to save 15K in tax at times did not make sense. Today when I look back, it is actually a revelation that while it did save me tax, the investments are actually going to make an impact on available funds in the years to come as they contribute through interest and dividends. Investing 15K per year in a policy for 10 years is likely to give me a return of 3 lacs on maturity while saving me tax as well. Bottom line, a policy which will double your saving after a period irrespective of what happens around you is definitely worth it.

Another area of uncertainty is our health and wellbeing. As long as I worked with corporate establishments, my employers gave me a Mediclaim and Accidental insurance policy. I never bothered about the value for the same as it was one less thing to bother about. Most people are under similar feelings and never bother to get policies for themselves. But that’s the fatal flaw. A Mediclaim above 45 requires pre-screening medical test and a policy cannot be taken up after 60 years of age. As I for see, most of my generation will have aliments much before this age and company insured coverage of 2 lacs or accidental cover of 5 lacs is hardly going to make sense. Also, very few people would be aware that Mediclaim can entail cashless benefits of up to 8 lacs and that accident insurance policy can safeguard your family to 6 times your annual income.

If future is going to all about survival, it is for us to know what lies best in our interest. Corporate policies suggest a feeling of security, but is it a fact or just an illusion we have of security. All I can say is we as individuals need to be aware of our needs: today and in the future. I would not say we need to cut down on consumerism and become over cautious; but we certainly need to look at investment for the future in some serious light and not only between Feb-March. We need to exercise the right kind of tools to be in a condition where we are completely aware of where our next meal will be coming from. All in all; it’s wiser to be future ready than keep the future tense. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Not just Power, even Horse Power corrupts

"Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely "- the essence of a quote by Lord John Acton was originally in reference to monarchies which went on to wield power in a manner that was oppressive and ultimately resulting in revolutions. The world is no longer rules by crowns and thrones; but the concentration of power with one person has been happening time and again with military rulers and dictatorships. More often than not, these regimes collapse and revolutions led by citizens do happen.

While India has rarely seen such revolutions since the emergency, the Czars in India is a bit different. There is political power which resides with politicians, but is exercised to the full by at least a 100 people under them. The money power with an industrialist extends far beyond the limits of their family. Time and again, this power reaches you and me through their arrogance or acts which challenge laws and rules which apply to the rest.

But there is one area where almost every single one of us has become corrupt: thanks to a certain power vested in us as a privilege and not a right (used to be written behind a book style license). It is the privilege of a drivers licence. May be once it did certify that this person knows how to drive, today it also means this person has a license to chill, go for a thrill and hopefully not kill.

Let’s be honest; we all have driven rash at some or the other point. We do cut lanes, run red lights, ignore the yellow and the zebra crossing is actually a grey area with pedestrians. Many times, we have reasons justifying why we do so; while sometimes, it is actually unwarranted. Overall, we do end up abusing this privilege in ways more than one and in a way dominate power over someone who is not having the same at their disposal.

In the hay days of the License- Raj in India, owning a car or a scooter was something limited to only a small section of the Indian population. Limited choice options, controlled manufacturing and lack of easy access to finance and credit meant that the number of vehicles per family were less and hence also the traffic on the road. Almost everyone know their place in the hierarchy demarcated by their engine horse power: so a scooter was slower than a Yezdi while the Ambassador- FIAT could never outrun an imported car. I guess road rage was also mostly an unheard term then.

The 80’s era saw a super transition of sorts with cars and bikes getting affordable and easily available. The old guard of slow moving tanks like Ambassador- FIAT and Bajaj Super 150 were being replaced by zippier and trendy looking models from Maruti, Hero Honda, Yamaha and the likes. The cycle gave way to bikes and the biker turned car owners. But even though economic growth and access to finance has propelled consumerism to a new high, it is yet to make us aware of the fact that monetary power and its expression in the form of horse power are very different aspects.

I know the last lines were a bit over the top- but you can check this for yourself with a small social experiment. Stand at a signal where the only crossing is for pedestrians and observe what vehicles that stop at the crossing as soon as the light goes to red.  Repeat the exercise for five times and you will possibly confirm to similar results that I witnessed. Most bikers (70%) will not stop; instead will try to weave around pedestrians as they are crossing. Local buses or garbage trucks can be held back only if their way is obstructed by someone. Private luxury cars and private cars with drivers are most likely to stop (60%), so are cabbies and ricks with middle aged or older drivers (63%). For young adults of both genders, teenagers, cars with families- the numbers are just about 50:50.

My understanding from this is pretty simple. Bikers possibly rule pedestrians below them and actually don’t care. The same is true for buses and garbage vans as even when they don’t own the vehicles, they have the horse power. Drivers abide to rules, possibly coz they are still answerable to their employers. Cabbies are trying to just make a living and penalties don’t help their cause. For the rest; it’s all about the muscle and power under the hood that’s talking.

Very recently, a friend of mine was expressing his disgust about reckless bikers and the sheer ignorance and lack of driving skills for first generation car owners. In all honesty, it isn’t their fault coz their cars and bikes are an expression of their means and not skills. Yes, my friend and I have been fortunate to be having a car around us since birth, been bashed up for every scratch as we learnt to drive and actually took a driving test. We tried to hone it like an art rather than use it as means to vent our primal instinct; it was like the frontal cortex and not the limbic brain at the wheel.

Talking of limbic brain (also called the lizard brain), the best manifestation of our primal instinct is that we use SUV’s in cities. At a time when our cities are low on available parking space, we have car a of draconic size, with the driver perched at a position of vantage, an engine sounding like a T-rex chasing you, guzzles fuel like a blue whale and is built in a manner that will save the inhabitants and wreak havoc outside in case of an accident. Not to mention, the looks are often inspired from predatory animals and have names like Duster, Scorpio, Fortuner, Captiva etc. In a nut shell, the entire scheme is for dominating the streets by use of the horse power.

Though I have no clue where all this might go; but if the apathy, road rage and use of roads for defining why cars with powerful engines are called ‘mean machines’ goes on, we are likely to witness an expression of corruption via horse power that is likely to be so common that we shall even fail to recognize it. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The two minute magic of Maggi

A few days back, I was driving down listening to a radio spot quiz, where two participants answer a question and the winner is decided by how many of the ten pre-recorded respondents answered the same as the contestants. On the face of it, this seems like a very ordinary game; but if studied well, it has insights much to the order of a market trend spotting conducted through a research. So the question was: ‘What is the first thing people learn to prepare in a kitchen?’ The contestants chose option which even by my opinion are very basic- bread butter and tea. But what came from the respondents was pretty stunning. While an omelette and dal-rice stood as two individuals; the remaining eight unanimously voted for Maggi.

It is a formality to mention that the name Maggi is synonymous with ready-to-cook noodles in India and has stormed into the 5th position (and a first time in the Top 10) as per the recent Brand Equity Most Trusted Brands in India list for 2014. ( What is worth noticing is that Maggi is leagues ahead of other Nestle brands like Kit Kat (61), Milk Chocolate (72) or even Nescafe (95).

The trust factor is something built upon time and for Maggi- it has been a journey that started over 25 years ago, when it was introduced to kids like myself as an instant snack option. The communication was done apt to position it in that space showing kids in school uniforms swinging across on gates and urging their mom’s for a quick snack. Apart building that connect of an after school snack- the concept of noodles was alien to the Indians palette. Not to forget the, it was seeking to intrude the traditional Indian kitchen space enriched by pulses and cereals with a white flour (Maida) based product.

But the mid-80’s was a time actually witnessing a lot of fresh ideas and changes coming through with the middle class eager to latch on to any new product the market was willing to offer. It was the youth making its way into the driver’s seat and Maggi latched on to this wave. A stall serving Maggi at a college festival was often seen attracting the maximum crowd and at a point in time when the red cart serving Chinese food (or Chow mein in Northern India) was yet to become a familiar sight, masala noodles were gaining rapid popularity. Collect 5 empty packs of Maggi and redeem it for one pack free was a craze for the 5 to 25 age group.

Typically in the mid-80 and 90’s; time, place and nutrition wrote some of the unwritten rules of the Indian food: omelette bread, sandwich, poha-upma, idli- dosa, poori-bhajji were the staple breakfast foods, lunch or dinner was rice and roti’s with vegetables and daal. This used to be a kind of predefined food regimen rigorously followed across homes, office canteens and hostel mess and movement of breakfast items into lunch or dinner was equal to gastric blasphemy. Eating out was considered both expensive and unhealthy. The concept of packaged food or fun food was yet to develop and was mostly limited to biscuits.

It is difficult to establish when Maggi managed to break these rules and changed our food habits, but there can be some reasons sighted to know why it happened. Though technically, Maggi noodles do take more than 2-minutes to get ready, it was possibly the first instant food available in India with a long shelf-life, no oil and a spicy taste to suit the Indian palette. Secondly, how difficult was it to boil water, break the cake into four pieces and add a taste maker for a perfect little snack? By itself, one pack of Maggi was filling enough for one person. While the nutritional value was still being debated, the consumers innovated to fill this void. Adding vegetables like tomato, onions, peas, capsicum, cheese and even eggs to the basic Maggi, we had a new dish added to the dining table. Leaving back some excess water meant the noodles were also soupy.

Maggi also triggered a new phase of satisfaction. Dual income parents chose Maggi over any other street food as their children went home after school.  Students found it as an affordable option to restaurant menu. A Maggi stall at any IIT or other residential college campus is usually the place running well past mess hours into the night. For those at home, cooking Maggi with friends over a sleepover for midnight hunger pangs was like an unwritten rule. Till about two years back, the Maggi stall at the Chennai Airport was a popular choice of an economic and filling snack. With smaller packaging at an affordable price, it has also percolated into the rural pockets in India.

On a personal level, a few packs subconsciously enter my bags for a tour beyond 3 days in India or abroad. Not to mention, me and my friend had a Maggi on Vagator beach in Goa. While he championed it as the food that kept him going while reporting about the environmental disaster in Uttaranchal last year, I take a bow for mastering the art to make noodles in a hot water kettle.

As a product, Maggi in Indian is a winner, but not without failures like the New Maggi (aping Top Ramen’s flat noodles), Dal and Atta noodles or the tomato flavouring taste maker. But there has been no stiff competitor who has challenged Maggi in the market in a bid to take over the lead. So even the complete with a foon and hot water dispensers at the retail outlets idea in 1989 by Bisca (Parle) , or the later ones like Nissin Foods' Top Ramen (flat and with veggies added), GSK's Foodles, Sunfeast's Yippie (round shaped cake), Ching's range of noodles, Knorr's Soupy Noodles, Future Group's Tasty Treat, the cup noodles Wai Wai are still nowhere even close to the Maggi legacy. It still enjoys 70% market share of a market it has built and ruled for over 25 years. (

One thing is for sure, if there is a brand today in India which has carved out a category, changed consumer habits in doing so and is still unchallenged in its leadership position; it deserves its space in the sphere of trust as a brand. Maggi- the magic woven over years but just in two minutes in our kitchens.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Who needs the Event Manager!

In a recent Marketing Round Table at WE School, a noted management institute in Mumbai, this was a comment made by a panel member while discussing a student presentation. The topic of the programme was ‘Gen Nxt Markets’ which was a very interesting title to open up minds. After all, a possibility today opens up and becomes a reality for tomorrow. Needless to say, almost all concepts shared that evening inevitably had extensive use of internet and technology led applications aimed to refine life in the coming years.

One such concept actually caught my attention for a very wrong reason. It was a portal which was aimed at becoming an online market place for material meant for small parties and family events. So this will have a data base of sellers for merchandise, bakers, emcee and entertainment options etc. All a person needs to do is get in touch with these people who the website will certify for genuineness of pricing and value. All in all this looked like just another section under a Just Dial or Sulekha kind of online classifieds with practically nothing different as the monetization model .

But for necessity to be the mother of this invention; Event Managers and agencies overcharge and have their commissions as a part of the entire deal. While this argument was to support why their idea had meat, it digressed to why event managers charge as much as they do. It later precipitated towards- who even needs them? A topic which was looking like a ‘yawn’ moment suddenly turned into a direct attack towards my belly n livelihood.

But seriously; who needs the Event Manager? Weddings, birthdays, customer and dealer meets for corporates, music concerts and sporting events have all been happening for centuries with no mention of an event manager ever. So why in the last 25 odd years a new breed named event managers come up amongst us to do things we already did for such a long time?

Event managers have existed as a part of every big ‘n small event we have seen or heard of since the beginning of time. It was the minister who organized a king’s coronation or our uncles and aunts who ran pillar to post in weddings and ceremonies coordinating with the decorator and the caterer. It either came in as a part of the job or a relative who took the responsibility out of choice to ensure a smooth and seamless execution. While the subordinates usually don’t have a choice; it can be an obligation for the relative who may tend to miss out on important ceremonies while running behind responsibilities.

The main reason for the very existence of Event Managers as a professional outfit today is the fact that people do not have time and do not want obligations. Dual income parents desire a birthday party for their child with all the bells and whistles, but who has the time to plan the same. How often are they in mood to go and shop for putting together a goody bag or negotiate with an emcee or a banquet space? Besides, who wishes to take on obligations within a family structure already under strain as they going nuclear?

Event managers are designed to be specialists in planning, coordination and negotiation- in desi terms; a ‘maha-jugaadu’. They become a single point contact; much like a walking-talking classifieds, which can even deliver a journey to Mars if demanded. But apart from this, they also need to be firefighters towards handling every 11th hour emergency which might arise, with “not possible” and “can’t be done” as unacceptable answers. Customers have zero tolerance to any lapses from their end and it actually takes about 10-15 days for anyone to plan and execute a spotless event.

Take for instance an event as small as a birthday party for a 1 year old kid. Even for this seemingly petty occasion, they have to manage the venue, décor, food, cake, emcee, music, games, and prizes, return gifts etc. as the visible elements keeping in mind a wide array of people who will come for this event. The invisible part is locating a venue which is friendly for children as well as the aged, facilities for both the groups, ample parking space and even basic medical kits for eventualities. In the background, he has negotiated and sourced all the party material, planned how it all comes up as a unified flow along with the statutory permissions for playing music at a public place.

And toward all this, he might get paid at max 15% as commission by the organiser- meaning he earns 15K when a party costs 1 lac. I don’t see which professional will work at such pay scales and deliver flawless on expectations. And it is the very same reason why I don’t feel they need to be charging as per a rate card or MRP assigned by any 3rd person- the biggest reason why I took on the panel against this proposed portal.

So coming back to the main point of contention- who needs an Event Manager? Honestly, if you have the time and skill to organize and execute any event on your own, you really don’t need one. I don’t think an event agency will even try to find themselves a role if they actually are not adding value.

And if you wish to know why we hire event manager- it’s simply either of these reasons: lack of time, lack of organising and planning skills, don’t wish to get into unwanted hassles of coordination, don’t wanna do the thankless job or more commonly- let’s get a scrape goat to put the blame on when things go wrong.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

The rise of the ‘Me’ world

A feeling quite a few people around me shared during Diwali this time around- ‘the number of people bursting fire crackers seems to be going down in our locality’. Most of the people saw this as a welcome sign as it could be related to possible lower levels of air and sound pollution along with an opinion that it was judicious use of money by spending it in other areas. While I still await stats of how much of e-retailers and malls sold this time around, I do foresee some big numbers arising here. But while it may have been better business in retail; I can help suppress a fear creeping in my mind- has the spirit of Diwali slowly eroded?

Bursting crackers during Diwali was like a social event in my building. Children and elders came down for the occasion, pooled the crackers and sweets and spent almost an hour together chatting, sharing jokes and enjoying the fireworks in each other’s company. Lighting up of a 1000 or 5000 maala intertwined with an atom bomb or Laxmi bomb was like the highlight of Laxmi Poojan. Lighting an anar or seeing a rocket go high in the air was charming. It all seems lost today when not a single person took part bursting crackers or even meeting each other on the occasion. My genuine concern- has Diwali lost its social relevance as a festival and become just another occasion to spend time and money on our own self?

Being an 80’s kid; I can safely say that I have seen the world change in more than many ways. Concepts like one car, one TV, one phone, one computer, one house per family has vanished and today we actually take pride in the fact that every person in a family is likely to have their own phone, TV, computer and car. Weekends or time after school was the time for negotiation with parents to play cricket, football or even hide ‘n seek with the neighbour’s kids. Even a game on Sega (only the few fortunate ones who owned it) was a group activity with 4-5 kids lined up before the set. All this seems to be a thing of the past.

With the sharp rise in consumerism has come the exponential rise in personal gadgetry which in a way is threatening the need for social interactions. Almost all kids today have a Play Station console or have mastered the game apps on their parent’s tablets and cell phones. Playing outdoors is usually limited to some sport involving a professional coach who is programmed to get them into a regime designed like a rigid framework rather than a way to unwind for recreation. One bat, a contribution to buy a ball, stumps drawn on a wall decorated with ball marks have been overruled by console buttons labelled by a circle, cross, square and a triangle.

This is not something which has happened all of a sudden. We have very slowly but surely migrated into an individual driven society. For my parent’s generation; it was always a group of friends or family that listened to the same radio shows, saw movies together in a theatre and on occasions of festivals- got together to enjoy on a higher level. Shopping was also a group activity with one buyer accompanied by 3 support cast. The only forms of personal space was either a form of art or reading books. For our generation, it was handheld video games and the Walkman which first intruded the personal entertainment space. Computers came in much later and affordability kept them at bay. Options with TV channels were few and hence was replacing the radio at some level. But the rest all remained similar.

Easier and affordable access to technology combined with rapid growth in communications and connectivity has together resulted in a social breakdown of sorts. Every aspect of life can now be termed personal and thereby be personalized to taste. From being convenience; technology is now giving a reason for the young and the adults to cocoon themselves from the outside world. Why play in the sun, when you can play on the LAN? Why walk around in a mall or a bazaar when you can shop and order online? Why do you need to spend an hour bargaining with a shopkeeper for a better price when the online store offers you a steal to begin with? Why write a letter when you can email? Why call when you can send a message on Whatsapp?

Today, while talking about a ‘built to last’ HMT watch belonging to his grandfather, my friend since nursery posed a thought questioning if ‘new technologies are really an advancement’. For starters, watches have become a fashion accessory and its functional role taken over by the cell phone. If capabilities and features are to be put in perspective; may be a wearable gadget has a lot more to offer than an HMT watch. But in this ‘Me’-driven world, what an iWatch, Samsung Gear or GOQii will lack is the charm of an interpersonal conversation started off with someone walking up to you and asking. “bhai, time kya hua hai”. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

India- Where even small means BIG!!!

If the market is the prime point to start off while thinking of marketing, India is the land of opportunity. Statistical explanations are most often used by research agencies and consulting firms as a support to show how a small sample survey can be extrapolated and a maximum population under a desired market can be segment, targeted and possibly milked. One of the considerations that most agencies will offer is to concentrate under the bell and ignore the extremes at both the ends.

Somehow this isn’t always true when it comes to India. If I was to paraphrase a very senior and knowledgeable person on India, Mark Tully (BBC Bureau Chief in India for 30 years prior to 1994), with the kind of population India boasts of, even a section termed as the exception can actually number into millions. If put into marketing perspective, even a failure like the World Space Radio had 4.5 lac subscribers in India (the only country to deliver profits) and a cult bike like Royal Enfield hugely affects the stock values of Eicher Motors. It is hardly surprising then that Flipkart can make sales worth Rs. 6 Billion (USD 100Mn) through just on Big Billion Day.

While the above might suggest that there is almost a constant momentum by the side of any product or service which can fulfil the market needs in terms of the price & quality equation. There is possibly no company which enjoys the satisfaction of the ‘S curve’ and the fascination of adding more customers and greater revenue keep the journey within the ‘J’ curve for growth. It is at times that this fascination increases the areas of neglect which are most likely to hamper the desired levels of growth in the near and present future. A case in point, Enfield bikes have a waiting period of roughly 4 to 14 months depending on the model and the consumer choices.

Maybe a cult bike can afford a bit of snobbery; but can an e-retailer in a market driven by cut throat competition afford such lapses?

Flipkart’s Big Billion Day was the first of its kind initiative in India and it almost earned itself the title ‘Flopkart’ thanks to all the technical glitches. The saving grace was for the founders to express an apology to the customers it could not handle on that day. ( )

We can draw parallels to the fact that the first Republic Day Sale by Big Bazaar (another first of its kind in India) also had caused similar ciaos and almost rioting by customers outside the stores; a situation managed by riot police and a declaration of extension for the sale.

Both these are cases where consumer response to the discount sale was far exceeding expectations and the retailers were not planned for the scenarios. But the consumer today is a very different animal. They are high on options and low on patience- which practically implies that they are demanding on their terms and unforgiving towards any slip ups.

With one Big Billion Day Sale, Flipkart has 1.5 Mn orders to fulfil. This is in addition to its everyday sales where it trades its numbers with SnapDeal and Amazon for the top spot. All have been offering heavy discounts leading up to the festive season leading up to Diwali and have together contributed to a problem faced never before by the e-retail model: a breaking strain on the delivery logistics. All the giants use some or the other kind of a courier company as its last mile link and the sheer volume of orders is exposing its weakness.

For the first time, it took 5 days to get me a book I ordered from a seller in my own city of Mumbai. The next was a comparative delay on some electronics which was again 5 days from the date of ordering. The previous benchmark was 2nd day for a book and 3 days for electronics of similar kind I had ordered previously. While I kept my anxiety aside by convincing myself on how not being a loyalty club member can affect service, an article I read today actually told me that so was not the case; nor was I the only one who is having such experiences. (

These are not isolated incidents, nor is this a problem just the Flipkart’s and SnapDeals of the world facing; to me it appears as a critical area called ‘delivery’ has been outsourced and ultimately overlooked. The consequences are evident- cancelled orders, further loss of face for the brands and a bad customer experience to top it. Not to mention, large electronic brands like Sony, Canon and Dell are refusing service under warranty for products bought online as they refuse to acknowledge the genuine-ness of the products. I have already have had one such warranty refusal, but luckily the matters have not escalated beyond.

As a marketer, we are often laid a challenge to think of areas where something named ‘competitive advantage’ can be identified and used to the fullest to surge ahead. Service delivery and aftersales is one area where we often searched for such an opportunity with high impact and difficult replication. 

As I see, the retailers of today have possibly missed the bus and having not planned this as a place to build their brands. It might have been a small area and might be affection a small percentage of the orders. But then again- for India, the small can actually be BIG! While the high volume advertising has made 'Let's Flipkart it' as a new addition to the next edition of Slang dictionary, they seem to have failed at winning customers by building on what can actually be the big advantage. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Towards a Phony World

We all take pride in the fact that the world is shrinking; thanks to exponential improvement in technology and avenues to communicate. A 2010 movie named Udaan had a small joke about the state of telephony in India. A student being rusticated from a school has a small moment of ecstasy when the school master mentions about reporting matters to his father on phone- ‘You mean my house now has a phone line???’ I guess the joke shall fall flat today when India has more mobile phone connections than landlines.

While I have nothing against development or technology, I am coming to believe that technology is actually breaking the human bonds of the society by making us more and more impersonal. Today, almost all of us have a mobile phone, but the so called educated lot have given up calling and gone deeper into messaging. The charm of writing a hand written letter has now become something of a novelty (no wonder guys still try to impress girls by writing letters). I fail to recollect an ad I has seen some time back where there was a statement was, ‘technology today can tell you about what your distant cousin is doing in the US, but let aside mingling- we fail to even know or acknowledge our next door neighbours.’  The bottom line, Nokia may still say we connect people- but the human touch seems to be losing its grip.

Back in the days when I started working in GE Healthcare, the mobile phone became a need to connect with people towards getting solutions to field problems. In those day, my job role demanded me to be reachable round the clock for any emergency as a machine could go down at 7 in the morning or even 11 at night. With every breakdown having a rider attached of ‘human life at stake’, I was paranoid to a level where my phone had to be in the same room and as close to me each time I laid my head down. When I entered media, I got to learn that I was under a behavioural illness termed as Nomophobia.

Coined in 2010 in UK, Nomophobia (No-Mobile-Phobia) was a condition where a subject was living under a fear of losing mobile connectivity either by loss of the instrument, no network coverage, no credits or even the battery losing all juice. At that point, I remember there were stats like more than 70% people sleep with a phone at an arm’s length, 30% indulge in messaging during meetings, loss of a phone book record is more disturbing than losing a book etc. I cannot agree more that all this is happening. In fact, I had to take some forceful steps for myself like no phones during lunch/dinner, no phones when out with friends, phones on silent at night etc. to get me off this.

The next term that joined this list of new age phobias has been propelled by the increasing use of social media in recent times- FOMA (Fear Of Missing Out). It is not a stand-up joke anymore for people to visit Facebook or WhatsApp before the washroom after we getting up from bed or the finishing statement switching off the lights is hitting like on the last comment.  (

Let me just shoot you some numbers from this survey by Tata Communications undertaken in India, Singapore, UK, US and Germany. (China would have been interesting as well). With the 9417 respondents across these countries, 29% of the total spent more than six hours daily on the internet; the number for India being the highest at 46%. Of the total respondents, 56% could not survive for more than 5 hours without internet. For 12 hours without the internet, the Asians collapsed while the rest has over 70% survival. 82% Indians showed signs of FOMA and the gender ratio for anxiety was skewed towards women. What’s more, 43% Indians were prepared to give up on TV for more time on their tablets and smart phones.

It is evidently clear- technology is taking over our world too rapidly and eroding all other forms of media and inter-personal communication. In an interaction with students in their late teens, newspapers had made way for news apps on phones. It was not uncommon to spot a few smiling as they looked down to their groin. I threw a fit when recently on a vacation to Goa, my friend spent more time looking into his phone while sitting on a beach. The habit is so common amongst people that beach side shacks advertise being WiFi enabled. It was there by a refreshing sight when one shack declared it was a place with no frills but perfect for family time and live 90’s style.

I fail to understand how people can participate in twitter battles while watching a Federer- Nadal match or contribute to an absurd poll about Dhoni’s haircut while watching IPL. It actually beats the human nature of reward oriented actions as at end of the day, your tweet was one of a million that day. What an amazing date it is when the girl and the guy are both more interested in clicking a selfie with each other and tagging where they went and missing out on enjoying each other’s company.  

I am certain the scenario has risen out of two key components- easy access to mobile internet and social media applications for phones which are actually destroying the physical and inter personal relations in the real human society. It is thereby not uncommon to see some people taking a sabbatical from social media networks from time to time; it is a kind of a self-imposed restrain (or detox) to avoid the complete annihilation of their physical social structure. I just hope this doesn’t mushroom into a clinical mode of treatment- the indicators do suggest: we are after all moving very close to a phony world. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trial by Social Media

We often have regarded the Jessica Lal murder case as one of the first instances of trail by media in India. If you have seen the movie, ‘No one killed Jessica’, the makers of the film have been completely unapologetic in showing that the murder case had lost its place in the news to larger events happening across. It wasn’t until a channel took it serious and took up the story in a manner exposing the ones involved that justice finally came through.

The pivot point here; a news channel- a part of the organised media had to be involved to take notice and act as a conduit to escalate matters and get people on to the streets to fight for justice. This process of waiting for a news channel or organised media to intervene has actually got bypassed to a fair extent today by the hyper-drive status of social media. Commoners use Facebook and WhatsApp and the popular ones have Twitter following to be applied to leverage social media to a very high extent.

TV channels like Bindaas, Channel V and MTV all today have at least one show where there have been some episodes on how people have used social media to speak out against powerful and influential people around them, report workplace abuse etc. Much like any tool, they also show cases where social media has also been abused to malign people or their reputation as an act of vengeance or to inflict social embarrassment.

If this is the case with individuals, how can corporate houses be left far behind.
Vishal Gondal is a name that found fame as the ‘King of Indian gaming’, thanks to the success of his venture, Indiagames in the late 2000’s. But this gaming wiz also has to his credit to be the man taking on Audi India in a case known to the auto world as the ‘Sleep-walking Audi Q7’. (

Gondal had given his prized 65 lac worth luxury car for servicing and as typical of a gizmo freak, had the facility to track the same over GPS. The night before the delivery, he got a speeding alert from the GPS. The next few hours gave him the horror of seeing the car rally across the cities arterial roads and even land up in suspicious scrap yards of Kurla before getting back to the service centre. Gondal’s reflex action, the GPS track went onto Facebook and Twitter where he was blessed with loyal followers who were up in arms with what had happened. Every person who had service issues with any car manufacturer joined hands and the entire fraternity had to take notice. 

But Audi claimed the car never left the workshop and have termed the GPS tracker as defective. In the online war that followed, Audi tried to delete all hate posts on their page; but it simply added to public ire as the smart ones took screen grabs before being deleted. Even though the head of Audi in India spoke of taking action, nothing happened. To this day, Audi has not apologized for any wrong doings on part of their staff even at a cost where it has dented its reputation. A case where an apology and some make good could have cleared the air, still remains unsolved. The insult to injury, Gondal posted pics posing next to a Mini Cooper and handing over the advantage to Audi’s rivals, BMW.

Apart from denial of the truth, Audi faced a lot of flak on social media and also resulted in a loss of face and customers in the coming months. Lessons to be taken: if an apology works- just do it. And more importantly, never delete posts: people are most upset when this happens; especially with woes.
Today I have come across another brewing case: Neha Tomar (apparently a Gurgaon based lawyer) taking on Amul Milk. When a bag of Amul Gold milk went bad (sour) in the Tomar household, they tried to return it back to the vendor. The vendor refused and an attempt to make cheese from the sour milk took things from bad to worse- the curds turned into an elastic emulsion similar to melted mozzarella cheese.  Pictures of this were posted on Facebook on 10th October with an appeal for caution and action against Amul. Sympathy vote: it has got over 77,000 shares. (

Between 10th to 14th October, the Facebook page of Amul has been plastered with this post by various people who saw the Ms. Tomar’s post. Things reached a level that Ms. Tomar has even taken a petition to the Health Minister of India with a call for support for 500 names to pass the legal action. Amul in the meantime had been more of organising its stand but with no ill language or posts towards all this on Facebook.

Today afternoon, after four days of the first post and pictures appeared, Amul has come out with an official stand on Facebook which is both solid and scientific in its defence and openly exposing the flaws in Ms. Tomar’s claims. The milk was expired, some irregularities in the dates mentioned by Ms. Tomar in her post, a video to replicate how and why any kind of milk can turn into this lumpy elastic mass and finally; the behind the scene action taken by Amul officials to actively engage with the customer complaint. The most crucial part, disapproving of malicious intention and trying to reinstall the faith in the brand and its legacy of being built by farmers themselves. (

This is what separates Amul as a brand from the rest of the millions in India. A complaint was taken seriously, investigated and the reply was made in a solid and well researched. Sure the shares at present are slow (only 1500 odd so far), but the message is loud and clear: no attacks on the brand are taken lightly or left unattended. If the medium of the offensive was social media, it is the same medium employed to manage the damage and answer to the world.

In my opinion, this is amongst the best of the reputation management action on social media I have seen so far and unless there is any drastic change on stands soon- it will be etched as a live example for me to share for at least some time now.