Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

Branding lessons with 'Big B'

Vinay Kanchan pens down his branding insights on how Amitabh Bachchan has managed to stay relevant over the years.

A few days back, yet another film Uunchai released, with Amitabh Bachchan in a lead role. Truly remarkable, considering just this October, Big B (as he is fondly called) celebrated his 80th birthday. He still actively performs at a rate which would put many young, six-pack flaunting actors, to shame. How has this man managed to mesmerise an entire nation for the larger part of 50 years? 

Here are some insights culled from his fantastic career path:

Keep the faith

Today, it is inconceivable to think of Big B as anything other than an instant and incessant success. The reality was a bit different. He struggled immensely in his early years. He found success as a solo hero, only after experiencing the heartbreak of a dozen or so films flopping. The going would have been tough.

Criticisms like, he was a complete misfit for the time, and tellingly, that he had a voice not even appropriate for a radio announcer, would have surely undermined his confidence. He would have felt like giving up many times. But he hung in there and waited for the tide to turn. And the rest, as they say, is history; not to mention a lesson in voice modulation and acoustics, for the person who made that ‘radio announcer’ comment. 

We normally see only the success stories of brands. Often, the struggle they endured to reach there, is glossed over, even forgotten. Especially, their stoicism in the face of harsh feedback. Think how J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 major publishers. Reflect on how The Beatles were told “guitar groups were on the way out”. Ponder about how even Sholay, now considered one of India’s most successful films, had a really slow start at the box office.

All present compelling cases for brands starting out, to keep believing in themselves and their idea. Sometimes, this is the most vital ingredient for success. Look back at the interviews of several unicorn startup founders, and unerringly find them all talking about having to get through this phase. Having to give the inner voice precedence over all others. Because sometimes, even venerated experts get it completely wrong. Faith, it is said, can move mountains; but it can also do wonders for a brand's success over the long run.

Tap the latent insight

Bachchan’s rise to superstardom, can be traced to his playing the ‘angry young man’ archetype. Something not really touched upon by Carl Jung directly, but which was, nonetheless, all about starting a Jung (as in Hindi) of sorts.

He (Amitabh, not Jung) entered Bollywood when the romantic hero was the dominant trope. Tragic outcomes, especially where the hero was a helpless man against societal pressures, were the norm. But there was also a growing sense of frustration within the Indian masses, about the lack of control they had on things. This anger was brewing beneath the surface. It was seeking an outlet. It needed to find a spokesperson people could identify with. Someone who could fight ‘the system’ on their behalf.

This undercurrent found an excellent avenue in the writing of Salim-Javed. They created a character, who took on the situation and, despite the impossible odds, triumphed. Big B, for a long time, was inextricably linked to that character. The films may have been different prima facie, but one could see those tell-tale traces everywhere.

Powerful brands are built by leveraging strong insights. Sometimes, these are readily evident. Such as today's increasing digitisation. Or, the rising awareness around health and wellness. Even the need to have an alternate life, far beyond one’s professional work.

Many brands fight for space, in terms of building unique narratives around these. But probably a more effective way to approach things, is to uncover an insight which few have really noticed. And, fewer have got down to talking or doing something about. These lie latent, beneath the surface of cultural conversations, and yet have the potency to be true market disruptors.

A case closer home, is the story of Saregama Carvaan. At a time when many brands were all about the ‘new and improved’, Saregama Carvaan tapped into the nostalgic mindscape of the music of yore. In a sense, it went contrary to the market drift.

With its core pitch being to a generation which craved for this, it was able to create a really focussed story around rewinding the clock and ushering in some truly wonderful memories. Very quickly, it has emerged as one of India’s very few and true cult brands. And while this tale began with a (juke) box, it’s ‘out of box’ possibilities hold the potential of making even more sweet music. 

Going from big to ‘small’

After returning to movies, post a brief stint in politics, Big B found things to be tough again. A new generation growing amidst the opportunities of liberalisation, the loss of relevance of the ‘angry young man’, his own advancing years, all conspired to keep him from the kind of success he had been accustomed to. All that changed when he decided to transition from the big screen of cinema to the small screen of television. A move that no one had pulled off successfully before. And, which was often seen as a kind of final curtain call for cine stars.

However, his exemplary compering of the program Kaun Banega Crorepati, not only laid that idea emphatically to rest, it also opened the door for several movie stars to look at television with new eyes. He showed it was possible to go from big to small, only to go big again. Needless to say, his stint on the silver screen has considerably extended to XYZ, thanks to his performance on KBC.

The domain of marketing and branding is obsessed with big. Big impact. Big influence. Big disruption. Big market share. Big brand recall. And, so on. But to become big, as any wise seer would concur, one often has to begin small. Or, at least learn to appreciate the value of the little step.

Indians are exceedingly value conscious, and there’s merit in giving them mini doses of a new idea. In fact, we have a ‘tasting culture’, which actually demands it, ask any local ice cream parlour. And, marketers across categories seem to have taken this lesson to heart.

Think about how the shampoo industry in India would have fared, had it stuck to its big pack obsession solely. It was only when sachets were introduced that a new concept around hair care, was extensively sampled, and its fortunes truly began to take root (all puns intended). For a nation largely using oil for hair care, this was a low-risk avenue for trying out something novel. Eventually, ‘oils well that ended well’ for the shampoo category. 

Reinvent and re-engineer

Over the decades, Bachchan has wonderfullly adapted to changing audiences, tastes and times. His look itself underwent change. From the largely unkempt onscreen one in the 1970s and 80s, to the primarily slickly coiffured, goatee sporting avatar, which endures today. He transitioned character wise from the impetuous youth, angry with everything, to the wise old head, who people around turn to for counsel.

While in his younger times, he was the centrepiece of all movies, these days, he is completely at ease, performing as one of the many important characters in a film. This flexibility has allowed him to develop an entirely new fan base with the younger generation. 

A close parallel to Big B’s exploits here, comes from Big C - simply put cricket. India’s other favourite obsession. The gentleman’s game has survived and thrived against the vagaries of time, precisely because of its ability to transform into different avatars, all catered to market needs.

As the interest in Test matches began to fade, cricket offered a day-long, 50 overs per side version, which not only attracted a whole new set of fans, but also made exciting, global contests like the World Cup possible. When even 50 overs began to drag for the young and impatient, cricket launched a pulsating 20-over edit.

This, under the aegis of the IPL, has taken the sport into a whole new arena, where it seamlessly fuses with entertainment. No wonder cricket is more than a sport in India. Eventually, it is the ability to evolve, retool and rejuvenate, which helped cricket bowl many maidens and men over, in a journey spanning many years.

Always be present

It is interesting to notice, how omnipresent Big B seems to be these days. You turn on the television or the Internet and he is there; part of some governmental or social campaign, some brand commercial, or as a principal dignitary at a conclave. That’s a far cry from his days in the 70s and 80s, where he had an extremely elusive media presence.

It shows the value of always being on the mantelpiece of people’s minds. Familiarity instills a lot of desirable values in perception. These span the gamut - from credibility to stature. Familiarity fosters a sense of connection. And, that recognition and respect these exposures entail, always influence any future casting decisions.

This is an extremely over-cluttered era. Brands, which were big once, are quickly relegated to the warehouses of has-beens, if they constantly neglect engaging their audiences. New age brands, which have emerged in this generation, like social media influencers, intuitively understand this very well. Which is why leading YouTubers drop content on a near daily (and sometimes, even more frequent) basis.

But one Indian heritage brand, which appreciated this trend much before it became a big thing, was Amul. By building its conversational platform around taking a lighter look at current issues, Amul maintained the same topicality as the daily newspaper. And, in most cases, was far more palatable. This has ensured Amul’s relevance, stature and differentiation simply got butter over the years… oops sorry, better.

To conclude, Big B came into the picture when the concept of putting a camera and a telephone together would only be a part of sci-fi (or extremely inebriated) conversations. He is still thriving in the age of the selfie. He has been written off more times than e-commerce companies conduct discount bonanzas these days. Yet, here he is. Undoubtedly, one of India’s greatest ever brands. Surely, there are lessons from his career, which could help brand custodians break their own Zanjeers, when it comes to emerging as Dons of their marketplaces. 

(Vinay Kanchan is a brand storyteller, innovation catalyst, and the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’ and ‘The Madness Starts at 9’)

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