Monday, August 10, 2015

Breathing Life into a Brand

Listening to the radio and hear Amitabh Bachchan rap to sell a hill station in Gujarat – the discussion initiated next was like a college assignment being presented and debated in class. So may be so far he has endorsed electronics, hair oil, chawanprash, Gujarat tourism, polio campaign, cars, chocolates, cola and more lately, even baby products e-retail website. In our MBA class, we had him endorse condoms, sanitary pads and fairness cream as well. Though the very active debate was around two very similar sounding terms – brand

At one point, say brand ambassador and viable options in mind were Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar. These two men are like an asset a brand could buy and the halo of dependability and trust to hover above. When controversies involving pesticides in cola and worms in chocolates were boiling and these gentlemen were the ones to bring in an assurance by virtue of their self-image. That is what the biggest difference between a Brand Endorser and Brand Ambassador – they are not just the face for the product but build the whole personality of the product around it. They are people who bring the brand in a flesh and blood to interact with its audience. 

Getting a brand ambassador in today’s time is an expensive affair. Using the ambassador in the right way involves the marketing team to build a whole strategy to present a human face (or human manifestation) of a company that interacts with its audience and take the brand far more than what advertising can achieve. But in my opinion, in a socially interconnected world, an interaction of the consumers with a brand ambassador is usually only limited to shaking hands, clicking selfies and letting the world know that ‘I was there’. The brand, the brand values and what the event was about is somewhere lost. While they still are crowd pullers, I often wonder if the brand actually is deriving benefits.

Which brings be to a question – while we know that in most cases, the celebrity is paid and is acting more as an endorser than a brand ambassador, should we be actually limiting the term brand ambassador in a select few instances.

Interestingly, I see brands interacting with its audiences in so many ways before and after a purchase. There are so many people in an organization that interact with hundreds of business associates every day. It might be selling or buying a product or service, managing vendors and clients, building new business prospects or maintaining relations with existing and lastly – looking after existing, past and future employees. What amazes me at times is considering the amount of word-of-mouth that propagates from these avenues, these sides of brand building are not given prime attention.

For instance, take the case of Google and there is just nothing negative one can identify with the company. People are mostly happy with their products in every way. Call them for a query and they are genuine to revert. As for the business side, no one coming out with woes in terms of unfair practices, non-payment of dues or social injustice. The employees are happy and often talking about their superb environment at work. There are times when even they are working long hours but overall, it is one of the most desired places to work. Apply to Google and even when you don’t qualify, they appreciate your efforts on mail. And all this with no brand endorser or ambassador.

Having started my career in a customer facing role, among the first lessons taught by my manager in those days was to realise that bigger than the name of a company was how every person who had a card with its name behaved in every aspect. How soon people respond, how they respond and what impression they manage to leave on the client. A large part of business is the invisible relation with customers and the approach that people involved followed. Stand up and accept responsibility, be honest and face the music were some of the lessons I had to learn; keeping aside the rush of blood nature I had then.

Counter to this are something I observe and find appalling. As more and more avenues of communication have developed, if anything that seems to have gone down the drain is responsibility and responsiveness. While walls of every big organization are plastered with messages talking customer centricity, responsibility, ownership, open-doors etc., the degree to which these are actually practiced in reality can be an eye opener at times.

Yes, one cannot attend to calls while in a meeting or between something, But it baffles me as to how often people feel no urge to call back to people they could not attend to. The same goes towards replying to emails. A reply saying “no new update” is much appreciated that no revert. Can a brand be connecting to its audience as a human through a brand ambassador when the integral human representatives cannot live and function each day with simple human courtesy?  

I feel there is an inherent and integral need for brands to focus on building brands inside-out. Let every person who is a part of the company, live and breathe its culture on a daily basis. Let every contact point experience the brand in every way and build its equity and preference for real. If that can happen, may be brands can cut down on spends of a brand ambassador and be a living brand in the true sense.

Monday, August 3, 2015

WhatsApp – The King of Apps?

Talk business or technology, the quintessential question always remains – what next and where do we go from here? Develop an idea enabled by technology, build a viable business plan and get investors to fund the project is fast becoming the way to become an entrepreneur. In most cases, we have now become an app driven community and every person who aspires to come in with a billion dollar idea that can change the world look at apps. What is also means is one has to look back at the millions of apps and programs that already exist in the market to even identify an untapped need. The gap between a concept and an innovative concept is now just growing by the day.

Yes, the advent of a smart phone has actually expanded the horizons of consumer targeted technology and there might be almost every possible need of a common man that the entrepreneurs have been investing for through an app. Even a super niche function like identify the quality of printing on paper (which was something reserved for specialized equipment) is already present in the market and available for free on an app. Most phone applications have evolved from an internet based websites and services. While a few are specially created for the mobile space, there is one undisputed king which only resides on the mobile- WhatsApp.

Now to be fair, WhatsApp is not a complete innovation of sorts. Messaging and media capabilities existed via SMS and MMS for quite some time. The Blackberry Messenger was one thing that made the biggest buzz for buyers outside the corporate domain. The success of WhatsApp possibly came from being amongst the first and versatile data based messaging app that was not limited to any particular mobile operating system.  Its capabilities of sharing photos, videos and forming groups was something that gave rise to social communities through mobiles. In terms of convenience: a voice note just in case you are bored to type or have just one small thing to talk.

It might have taken people a fair amount of time to accept an email or an SMS as a formal form of communication. It has hardly much time to be taken WhatsApp to be taken serious.  To my experience, it has become a means to be at two places without actually being there. A film set is being erected, an event stall is being constructed or anything remote that might take for a person to travel to; it has now become a common practice to send across images or videos over WhatsApp to the approving authority and seek feedback instantly.

Another common practice, form a group on WhatsApp with people work
ing on a project and you have everyone on the same page as if an email update. Groups are a great way to spread information rapidly. The last I know is a short film being released exclusive content on WhatsApp. WhatsApp has also put up a strong fight to voice calling apps like Viber with its calling capabilities. So in a way, WhatsApp has so far had most bases covered in terms of voice based communication and file sharing abilities. So where does it go now?

I guess it might just take a few dips in the near past to believe that social platforms tend to die out the moment they stop evolving. The example of Orkut, Hotmail, Chat Messengers are all examples where they got beaten or replaced by others that had better functionality or enough excitement happening to keep people hooked on all day.  The areas where WhatApp still might lack is Video Calling facilities against, say Facetime. Or the fact that you can connect only by exchanging numbers and not a onetime connect that’s possible via Skype.

One thing that WhatsApp has achieved so far is forming communities within users. Ranging from friends, business circles or even a virtual classroom notice board, it has been adapted in many ways. But if WhatsApp could form communities for a social or a professional outfit, it can be the next stage of brand campaigns or even online PR initiatives. The way news and information (much of the times even improper information) travels via groups has an overwhelming viral effect.  

Having already seen how politicians used WhatsApp during the state elections in Maharashtra, it is already become a mass broadcast medium. If marketing via WhatsApp was an idea so far, what is interesting though is that women with their ever expanding social circles and gossip groups are one strong way that Tupperware ladies have already started taking advantage of. All Tupperware does is create short videos of their products and information previously that required demo is now going across through demo videos.

The final word from me, WhatsApp needs to make a good use of its penetration and evolve into different forms for people and their needs. It has already achieved success over smart phone users which might be at par if not above what Facebook has with the same group – but it is how it will grow and endear itself to the future users that will decide the way ahead. For now, I guess there will be little debate that possibly the most subscribes app makes WhatsApp the king of its domain for now.