Guest Article: Alby Anand Kurian: The Mirror Maxim

By Alby Anand Kurian ,
Management Development Institute, Singapore | In Marketing
Last updated : November 30, 2012
Frailties, ordinariness, imperfections and handicaps become strengths when the Mirror Maxim is used skilfully. It repositions the competition as artificial and plastic, out of touch with the common person.

You cannot but look up to Mitt Romney. He belongs to the tiny, privileged minority of America that is advantaged in every way. He's white, belongs to a family that is wealthy as well as powerful, and, at Harvard, he did both law and management degrees simultaneously (an extraordinary achievement, even by Harvard standards). He has a lovely wife who wears pearl necklaces and has five children, who take after him and seem destined to live the life that he leads.

Alby Anand Kurian

Perhaps, in the old days, there was no way that he could lose.

But these are not the old days. In the new age, there is almost no way that he can win.

Today, Mitt Romney and his ilk truly belong to a 'minority', to a group that will be increasingly marginalised in certain areas of our lives - wherever vast numbers of people (the masses, to use the language of the left), are being addressed. The crucial question here is this - when Americans look at Mitt Romney, do they see themselves? They certainly see a superior member of the American tribe but do they see even a glimmer of themselves?

Unfortunately, for the Republican Party, the majority of Americans don't.

I call this 'The Mirror Maxim'. When you are appealing to the majority among a mass of people - whether they are voters, consumers, or even cine-goers - this is one of the most powerful ways that a brand can be built.

Perhaps nobody has used the Mirror Maxim to better effect than Obama. As a black man, it is apparent that those who are African-American may see their mirror image in him. But let's look beyond that - since he is black, he is seen as part of a disadvantaged minority. It follows that an entire rainbow coalition of communities - from Hispanics to Asians to American Indians - could see their mirror image in him.

The next question is - who amongst us is not disadvantaged in some way? Even a woman who is white could feel more empathy for Obama rather than for Mitt because she may feel, at some level, that her gender puts her at a disadvantage, too.

So across America, a broad swath of voters sees themselves in Obama. And then it spreads across the world (over 90 per cent of those polled across the world wanted Obama to win). Software engineers in Bengaluru and Asian students in Singapore can see themselves in Obama. In Kenya, his father's entire village became quite delirious with joy when he won; they felt he reflected them.

But, of course, the mirror image must go a step further - it must show you yourself, and then give you a winning edge - it must show you what you could be. Obama went to Harvard, is serenely self-confident, is a multi-millionaire many times over, and moves easily among kings and presidents and bartenders. And all the while, he assures you, he belongs to you - his achievements are your own.

In a very different space, Shah Rukh Khan, in a career spanning over 20 years, did the same. He was the mirror image to most of us - a little brown, not very tall, a shock of untidy hair messing up his forehead. He was not the best-looking, or the most talented, but he was certainly the best at reflecting us.

Of course, as the Indian superstar ages and his audience grows younger, it will be a challenge to maintain that reflection.

In Hollywood, you can see what a dramatic shift happens when the Mirror Maxim is adopted as a creative, in addition to a marketing strategy. You will see this in the evolution of Bond- in the character of James Bond himself, as well as of the films. The British secret service agent who, in the past, juggled only guns and girls, now struggles with inner and outer demons - just like the rest of us. In appearance, he is not a male doll come alive anymore; he is rough-hewn, enabling us to see ourselves in him. It may be argued that he needs to play with girls and guns a little more (because that is what we aspire to) but that is a balance that the movie's makers will find. Meanwhile, there is no arguing with the box-office numbers - which are all the way up, ever since the new strategy was put into place, starting with Casino Royale and culminating with Skyfall (where you have James Bond actually failing a physical test).

You can see the Mirror Maxim used expertly across countries and across domains. An unexpectedly good exponent is Mayawati, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. When she sports a short hairdo, a pink churidar, a dainty handbag, and indulges in extravagant birthday excesses, the traditional elite of India may find it all a little ludicrous. But her followers, exploited as they were over many centuries, see in her, and in all that she does, a larger than life image of themselves. In the turnstile of Indian politics, she may be in and out of power but there can be little doubt that, as long as she reflects her mass-base, she is here to stay.

Narayana Murthy's world may seem very far away from the world inhabited by James Bond, Mayawati and Obama and, of course, it truly is. But in a long conversation to unravel why he and Infosys became so iconic among the Indian middle-class, we discovered together that, even in the rarefied world that Infosys inhabits, the Mirror Maxim was at work. Earlier, success in industry was seen to belong to those who were wealthy and willing to do shady, back-room deals. Murthy and Infosys perfectly reflected the Indian middle-class, and the values it looked up to: education, honesty and hard work. That strong identification catapulted Infosys to an iconic status that its competitors could not match, even when the competitors were ahead of Infosys in the numbers game.

In cricket, Sachin Tendulkar and M S Dhoni, both fabulously rich and successful, are adored by their fans across the length and breadth of the country in a way that is qualitatively different from the respect and awe that, for instance, the Nawab of Pataudi commanded. You can clinically admire a century by the Nawab but when Sachin and Dhoni hit centuries, every Indian feels he has hit one! And both have retained 'the common touch', even while they have attained fame and fortune.

With cricket moving from a leisurely game for gentlemen to a slam-bang game for the Indian masses, it is doubtful if the BCCI, one of the shrewdest marketing machines, will ever appoint a captain who rises from the elite.

When we look at all those who have used the Mirror Maxim to great effect, we can plot the pattern that emerges thus:

I am no different from you - therefore you can see yourself in me, I am your mirror image, your reflection.

I do extraordinary things, things that you consider wonderful and heroic.

This inspires you and makes you happy.

You reward me by watching my movies, voting for me, watching my matches, buying products that I endorse.

In a very different domain, Chetan Bhagat used the Mirror Maxim with great precision, storming his way into India's stuffy literary world. He never did belong to the classic Indian literary scene, never did write like any of them. He wrote instead in the vernacular of the average Indian student, who could speak and write English but to whom it was still a second language. Note, however, that he wrote of his years at IIT and IIM, institutions that inspire awe and respect. The mirror that he held up to the average Indian reader was so attractive that his sales are now the envy of the entire Indian literary establishment.

Across the ocean, Gangnam Style by the South Korean pop artist PSY has worked the same magic in music videos. It never would have worked if PSY had been Asia's answer to Brad Pitt, would it?

Frailties, ordinariness, imperfections and handicaps become strengths when the Mirror Maxim is used skilfully. It repositions the competition as artificial and plastic, out of touch with the common person. If a Steve Jobs consistently scores over Bill Gates in the perception of the public, it is not always on the basis of their respective contributions. The drama of Jobs' life - the rejection by his birth parents, his ouster from Apple and finally his triumphant return - all put out there, without apology by Jobs, makes for the stuff of legend. We rejoice in his victories in a way that we never would for Bill Gates. We can never see ourselves in Gates, he never seems to put a foot wrong.

I call this the new democracy of the marketplace. It offers new opportunities, as well as new challenges for people, for products and for corporations. Many of those whom I have cited have used the Mirror Maxim by gut feel and instinct. President Barack Obama, however, was probably the first to meld intuition with meticulously laid out marketing and communication strategies. There is much that we can learn from him.

The author teaches at MDIS, the Management Development Institute of Singapore. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, 'Reality Plus: The Neo World You Live and Work in'.

First Published : November 30, 2012

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