Guest Article: Anuj Mehtani: Brand-identity crisis

By Anuj Mehtani , TBWA India, New Delhi | In Marketing | July 29, 2011
What is its DNA?' An analysis on how a brand with a long heritage can be questioned at such a basic level.

Another fateful day when the boardroom had turned into a boredroom, with a handful of people still feeling enthusiastic about taking this issue for closure into the next possible meeting. It reminded the account director on brand, of the famous 'tareekh pe tareekh' scene, with apt emotion displayed by Sunny paaji.

It's one of those frequent incidents which bring to life the phrase 'truth is stranger than fiction'. How can a brand with a long heritage be questioned at such a basic level as 'What is its DNA?' The interesting thing is that everyone left the meeting with a strange sense of satisfaction that everyone was sufficiently confused.

It all started with the new GM (general manager) coming on the brand. He had under him a guy who was also not so old on the brand; both were sufficiently open to ideas. The account director still couldn't decide whether he should be happy about it or scared. More confusing than the obvious agenda was the not-so-hidden agenda of relationships. The account director was sitting on a hot seat, which was hot not only because of the opportunity that he had on this brand, but also due to the chakravyuh that he had to come out of in this and many other meetings. He had an over-demanding and over-informed business head who seemed like a panther to him in terms of his skills on jumping on every opportunity to say something, or paraphrase something with his 'just a bad' examples.

Even more bugging was the fact that in the last 10 days when he had worked hard with an evasive planner who was seemingly over-loaded with work to make this presentation, this business head didn't have much to say barring many existential questions like 'why are we doing this?' But, on this fateful day he was simply unstoppable.

And, not to forget the potential risk of him accusing the account director in his next appraisal for not being heard much in the meetings made him extra vigilant to pounce on every opportunity of confused silences in the meeting to come out with a brilliant opinion of his own. Coming back to the obvious agenda, another perplexing fact was that the marketing head seemed quite sorted, but was always open to questioning anything, including which category the brand operates in.

The justifiable reason for him was the fact that India was exploding as an opportunity and this was the right time for the brand to tap into this by going more mass, and stretch its promise to other categories and SECs. It was like a demo of famous Parkinson's Law that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Not so long back, some wise man had come up with this 'bottom of the pyramid' concept. This had started pervading in his life in various ways on all the brands. This, along with the India growth story on which he had made many tiring AVs made easily into two hours of excited discussion. Then followed the evasive planner's spiel on how the brand fitted into this framework and the extremes that it could extend it to. That's when the account director got his first chance to make a mark when he spoke about the functional promise of the brand and how it can be made more compelling and differentiated. And, the importance of a sharp and differentiated functional benefit that was actually the reason for brand success overtime.

He was kind of expecting it when boss disrupted the discussion by turning everybody's attention to the importance of making an emotional connect with the consumer. As if advertising was meant to do anything else! It was out of his habit of correcting the account director or building on to him whenever he said something. The account director felt something like an out-of-body experience which he then dismissed as deja vu. 'When will this ordeal end' he thought, remembering the brand workshop where it started.

He felt that though these workshops were seemingly done for cracking 'that one great idea' for the brand, but were actually done for taking one shot approval from all the goddamn Dirty Harries who could later punch holes into the thought. They always started on the note of communication head giving glorious examples of Omo, Axe, Dove, Shrek, etc., and saying that they wanted to do anything, but safe and suboptimal. But, sooner than later, after a borrowed inspiring presentation, they would usually make a long winding khichdi out of these inspirations and take orgasmic pleasure in trimming it together. And, this was the time when you really saw the dynamics in terms of who wanted to please whom.

Another point worth noting was that everybody felt how that instinctual way of cracking ideas was so desirable, and yet they were trying to create that together, depending on mere articulation by the celebrated creative head to take it to the next level later. He always thought that for an existing brand, especially one with established heritage, it was most important to first retain what made it famous in the first place and then see how far it could be stretched. But, what they were doing was to write the TG (target group) insight, rational and emotional benefit that didn't prove the existing idea wrong, yet had a semblance of the ideas they drew the inspiration from and create a seamless sentence out of these that constituted the overall brand idea.

Somehow, it reminded him of his own recent 'who am I' feelings. And, most importantly, it had to have the context of everyday usage/consumption/relevance in it. It seemed like they were attempting a utopia for the brand where the consumer will have it TOM (top of mind) not just in category context, but actually in their lives, thinking about it whenever they felt like deriving some joy out of life. Though it felt like mission impossible, they looked pretty confident to him.

After two tiring hours of putting flip charts, everybody having written their ideas with markers while laughing in their sleeves, and then senior management killing the obvious wrong ones, they had twelve not so obvious ones on the board. Then came the moment of epiphany when heads from both sides had suddenly realised the 'aha' words from two best ideas and combined and trimmed them further to make one 'ownable' idea.

Today was just another day to validate this, torture test it from the vision and implementation perspective, etc. Overall, he felt the only shift being made was to make it more boring and vague enough to justify anything any devil's advocate may question.

After all this, the account director left with mixed feelings vis-à-vis others who were visibly excited on having had a fruitful day. On one hand he was happy to get this over with and with his own contribution in the meeting, but on the other hand, he was confused and saddened about the identity crisis, a plight that he and his brand shared.

(The author is AVP at TBWA India.)

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