Life Cut Short

By Prajjal Saha & Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, New Delhi and Mumbai | In Advertising | June 07, 2011
A restless consumer is a terrible target for brand communication. That's just who the advertising business has to live with.

In the '70s, Sholay created a record when it ran for a straight 286 weeks - that's more than five years - in Mumbai's Minerva theatre. In the '90s, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge did more than 800 weeks in Mumbai's Maratha Mandir.

Cut to now. Today, a blockbuster has a life of four to six weeks in a theatre, followed by a telecast on national television a few months later - a few home videos later, it has pretty much reached the end of its life cycle.

As the attention span of people has plummeted, the life of content has been cut short. This is true for entertainment as well as advertising. Until the '90s, the same creative idea, contemporarised every few years, could go on and on. Not anymore.

Remember Liril and how the brand was associated for decades with the girl under a waterfall? Or how Lifebuoy's jingle - Lifebuoy hai jahan, tandurusti hai wahan! - was unfailingly accompanied on television (and in cinema halls) with the video of a cheerful, sweaty footballer? That kind of consistency would be perceived as monotony in today's world.

Creatives today, last for a season, or at most a year. Every idea comes with an expiry date and most creative routes are discussed keeping the quarters in mind, not years.

A brand in the FMCG space that has played the new advertising game brilliantly even as the basic product has remained essentially the same is Cadbury Dairy Milk (CDM). Though it has hammered away with the same proposition - CDM = meetha - for years, it keeps finding new ways of engaging consumers. A senior creative executive who has worked on the account reckons that Cadbury probably generates five times as many creatives per year as it did a decade ago.

Satisfaction limited!

The consumer has changed, and the brands must follow. Until the last decade, the consumer was largely a satisfied creature (or as satisfied as human beings can possibly be). Consistency and permanence was what they sought in most things, be it a job, house or watch. It was in this perspective that brands too were viewed.

Today's consumers are quite the opposite. Change is the sign of growth, so everything should preferably be new - be it the mobile phone or the job. K V Sridhar, national creative director, Leo Burnett, says, "Lifestyles have evolved, and with that, the role of brands in people's lives has changed." He adds that since the purchase cycle has changed, the planning cycle for the brand has to change accordingly.

Since consumers are restless and quick to yawn, "the era of classics in advertising has gone," believes Manish Bhatt, founder director, Scarecrow Communications.

Ravi Deshpande, chairman and CCO, Contract Advertising, says that since "the world has got busier, and is full of distracted people, we need fresh expressions every three-six months."

A long battle

Though the fidgety consumer is bound to leave a marketer uneasy, it is not just her. Sometimes brands have been overtaken by changes in their category or in neighbouring ones, forcing them to relook at their communication from scratch. "If a brand loses its relevance, it's dead. What was relevant in the last decade doesn't work now," says Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands.

For example, through the '80 and into the '90s, Onida positioned itself as the top of the range among TV sets with its memorable baseline, 'Neighbour's Envy, Owner's Pride'. The devil cemented consumer memory to the message. However, as international brands such as LG and Samsung entered India, Onida's claim of being the best was no longer credible. It tried to change its communication but it had waited too long and the brand was no longer relevant.

Lifebuoy saved itself from falling into a similar trap of irrelevance. Lifebuoy was doing just fine as the masculine germ-killer until societal shift shook the brand's foundations. The brand's 'Little Gandhi' campaign - where a small boy ushers in local change - helped it expand its target group and move into the family space. "Healthy family had become more important than a man's tandurusti," says Saji Abraham, head, planning, Lowe. The brand survived and thrived.

Why say 'No' to change?

Some brands continue as if nothing has changed but they survive "because of their historical value and legacy. The adverse effect of this may not be immediately evident but the same creative idea can't be stretched any further," says Desai.

Brands are some-times forced to rework their benefit package for the consumer because the environment in which they exist has changed. For instance, many years ago, Santoor soap claimed that it made the user look young. At that time when creams were few and bathing soaps promised all the benefits - health, beauty, fragrance, you name it - the claim was credible and it worked. Today, when some of the world's biggest personal care brands have anti-ageing skin cream to offer, a soap offering the same benefit naturally tests credibility.

Problem is, brands understandably drag their feet when it comes to giving up their pioneering status. Says Abraham of Lowe, "Sometimes, these brands get caught in their own success."

Claims and counter claims

The low frequency of change in brand communication in the past is also explained by the nature of the products and the low level of competition. Many of the largest advertisers were absorbed in category creation. Maggi, for instance, used the tagline 'Bus, Do Minute' for more than a decade and the creative was almost the same right through. When competition grew, it got in a brand-specific tagline, Meri wali Maggi.

In days past, the largest advertisers were FMCG brands. Apart from everything else, product change was rare. Today, however, there is a whole slew of categories which are either tech or service oriented. In both, offerings are being constantly overtaken by better options leading to fresh communication.

In a services category like telecom, the number of offers and sub offers are so enormous that different creative is inevitable. As a proof, note that Vodafone released 78 Zoozoo commercials in three years. If last year, the cellular phone market was buzzing about one paisa per second, this year, it's about mobile number portability and 3G services. Besides, there is little discernible difference between brands. In such a situation brands have no option but to force themselves on to consumer's mind through fresh creatives," says a creative planner.

Add fierce competition to categories where product change is rampant and it is inevitable that the advertising is being constantly changed in reaction to what one rival brand or another has done. Mobile handsets, teleservices and financial advertising are major examples of this trend.

Media burst

The proliferation of media has had a role to play as well. "With so much of media available, consumers today have a tendency to skip ads. In such a scenario, the quality of entertainment in ads has to be very high in order to grab the consumers' attention. The brand constantly needs to freshen its creative to reward its customers," says Deshpande of Contract.

When media presence was weak, an advertiser had only a limited set of options and frequency to reach his prospect. Since the message would be seen by the prospect on a low frequency in a handful of options, the brand had to keep on hammering away with the same creative idea to impress the consumer's mind.

Today, such is the media presence that, to take an extreme case, a mobile handset brand can be created in just 50 days, during cricket tournaments such as the Indian Premier League. Newer formats such as social media and out-of-home and sports sponsorship have given new dimensions to brands, allowing them to build critical visibility rapidly. The underside of all this exposure: consumers tire quickly of the creative.

Clients come calling

A few years ago, when a client called on an advertising agency for creative ideas, the bigness of an idea was often judged by its longevity. Could it be extended from one year to another?

Now the first concern is about whether there will be a measurable, immediate impact. Return on investment is a mantra chanted incessantly since impact is so much more measurable now.

"The marketing industry has changed to become very transactional, and so have people associated with brands. Most of them have short-term agendas on the brand and want immediate delivery of result," says Deshpande.

Marketers no longer stay with a brand for long. It's natural that the view of many is short term too for the brand. Here today, gone tomorrow...

Unfazed by time

In the midst of all this unpheaval, some categories serve as reminders of the tranquility of times past. Josy Paul, chairman, BBDO India, points out, "The bond between the mother and the baby would always be the same, and across the world. So, a babycare brand which uses the same creative proposition needn't change its communication."

Similarly, the consumer is reassured by tradition when it comes to jewellery. That is why brand advertising in this category - barring the odd, adventurous Tanishq - still tends to be traditional and unchanging.

A risky affair

It's true that the consumer might hit a blind spot if the brand advertising doesn't change. However, a barrage of often changing messages could muddle a loyalist too. The ideal - hard to achieve, as always - situation would be to create relevance for the less involved while keeping loyalists happy. The obvious danger is the same one attending a person standing on two stools.

Santosh Padhi, CCO, TapRoot India, says, "The key is to maintain some degree of continuity with the previous campaign." He goes on to add that important as it was to refresh the look and feel of Nirma advertising, several aspects of the old campaign were deliberately retained in the under-water commercial.

Some of the world's greatest brands have stood for a single something for ages but have managed to communicate that in a consistent and compelling way. That challenge will always be the same.

(Based on additional interviews with Anirban Chaudhuri, Dentsu Communications; Anand Varadarajan, Added Value; Harish Bijoor, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc; Vinay Kanchan, ideation consultant; Sharda Agarwal, MarketGate Consulting; Jagdeep Kapoor, Samsika Marketing Consultants; Anand Halve, chlorophyll; Cajetan Vaz, independent brand consultant; Sambit Mohanty, Bates 141; Priti Nair, Curry-Nation; and Sailesh Wadhwa, Bates 141)