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.