Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

Branding wisdom from Russia 2018

Football-flavoured lessons for brand managers.

Before you consider this a lateral, modern-day analysis of how 'War and Peace' inspires branding, do reflect that World Cups tend to have similar epic narratives - war and peace moments if you like. The recently concluded Football Mundial in Russia encapsulated several pulsating instants for the sporting fan.

But for those who sought to look beyond the goals and on-field sagas that unfolded, there were also some very interesting insights pertaining to the branding world. Here is an examination of a few because an exhaustive elaboration would surely entail extra time and sudden death.

It's slippery at the top

Branding wisdom from Russia 2018

Vinay Kanchan

Few would have thought champions like Germany would crash out in the first round itself. They were among the pre-tournament favourites. But fall they did, perpetuating the 'curse of the champions' as France suffered in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014.

Lewis Carol had mused, 'You need to run twice as fast to stay in the same place'. This certainly seems to be the case, be it football or the market, especially in the context of leaders. Getting to the top is relatively easier than staying there. Brands that scale the summit of the ladder are then the target for everyone else following in their wake. Plans are made to exploit their weaknesses. Additional time is devoted around how they could be taken head-on. New innovations come into existence to dethrone the leader. And if the leader is unable to direct the changing tides, decline is inevitable.

Case in point being, how Nokia fell by the wayside and got actually repositioned as 'dated' when it was unable to react to the smartphone revolution. The game had completely changed and the Finnish telecom giant was still caught playing the old one.

Underdogs have to be feared

Every World Cup throws up its share of upsets. And this one in Russia was no different. The tournament was set alight by plucky Mexico putting one over on the mighty Germans; a feat also replicated by the untiring South Koreans. Teams about which not much is known, start off as 'underdogs'. But in this era, where information is central to strategy and the decision-making process, one really has to wonder who the underdog is in these match-ups.

Likewise, when market leaders are confronted with players who are new or relatively unknown, they often have no idea how to react. They have been conditioned by full-scale wars, which usually unravel as big budget slugfests. However, small tactical skirmishes are all that these nimble, unknown brands are interested in. And in the alleys of their choosing, they often succeed in ambushing their bigger counterparts.

The case of Nirma taking on heavyweight multinationals is well documented and is synonymous with this concept. However, the new age unfolding story of Varana, a high-end couture fashion brand from India, travelling to the heart of London to take on some of the world's most elite brands on their own turf, might just entail the idea of the underdog winning in the Lion's den.

Stars might not twinkle

These days, sports stars are built up like demigods. They dominate public conversations and media space. But the dynamics of team sport often makes these obsessions look misplaced at times. Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar started the competition as the top three icons. But as the first two faded out of the event and the Brazilian was left on a roll (quite literally), the old maxim resurfaced that in a team game like football, the individual can only do so much.

This interestingly reflects back to the current fixation many brands have with celebrity endorsements. In many cases, rather than using a famous face to accentuate a differential point and brand values, the star literally becomes the entire strategy. Everything becomes more about the star than a unique connection with the brand, which often gets lost, especially given how celebrities are prone to multiple endorsements.

And while stars definitely have clutter breaking capability, hoping that they will compensate for other lacunae in the brand mix, is perhaps the wrong approach. This, as the World Cup showed so emphatically, can only be the recipe for a downward spiral or an unending tumble towards the touchline, if that image works for you.

Big failures are stepping stones to big triumphs

France lost to Portugal in the Final of Euro 2016. Considering they were playing at home and the pedigree of their team, this was seen as a massive failure. And yet, two years down the line, the French managed to turn things around and win the World Cup. Such a heart-breaking loss surely had the seeds of disintegrating the team contained within. But the French learnt from their mistakes and were much stronger for it.

Frequently a big failure usually means curtains for a brand. The company decides to invest in something else. Sometimes that decision might even be justifiable. But the dividing line between success and failure is a very thin one; a line built up with discriminating insights. Failure is one of the best teachers if you choose to cast it in that manner.

This is why brands that diligently dwell on why they slipped up truly have the potential of turning things around. Viagra began as a drug to control blood pressure. But even if it fell short on that count during clinical trials, the team was alert enough to notice other side effects which came up. Failure is not the bitter pill it is made out to be.

Being inspired by a larger cause

The runners-up, Croatia, were probably the story of the tournament. Not fancied to go very far when it began, they exceeded all expectations by making the finals. What was striking in their journey was the perception that every player seemed to be truly playing for the national colours. It felt like they were all there to elevate Croatia's global position and image. That higher calling surely took them to unprecedented heights.

Brands, as well, do much better when they seem to be powered by larger causes. Call it purpose, vision, whatever... brands function, communicate and conduct themselves in a more directional manner when there is an inspirational beacon guiding them. Higher purpose elevates all efforts beyond the mundane. It makes people feel they are part of something bigger and more consequential. It gives the brand a larger, long-term impact and influence beyond the nitty-gritties of daily dealings. It lights the path to a more meaningful goal.

In that vein, Apple, celebrating 'the individual perspective', has led to a flurry of path-breaking offerings. Surf Excel believing that 'getting dirty is part of the learning process of children' has translated to dazzling white results in the market. Amul's viewpoint of 'making daily news more palatable' has undoubtedly buttered things for them.

Liverpool's legendary manager Bill Shankly famously said, 'Football is not a matter of life and death, it is much more important'. While that might seem far-fetched to some, there is a point to be made about sports and such big stages providing lateral learning when it comes to other domains like branding, especially if you 'Putin' more effort to make the right connections.

(The author is a creative thinking trainer and the author of 'Lessons from the Playground' and 'The Madness Starts at 9'. He is also the patron saint of a football club Juhu Beach United, the tales behind which have loosely inspired the recent Bollywood movie 'Tu Hain Mera Sunday').