Abhinav Anand
Planner's Journal

"Brand purpose is all about commitment; people can see through bullshit": Saad Khan, FCB Ulka

In a new series 'Planner's Journal', we explore what the world looks like from the perspective of those in charge of mining consumer insights every day.

Here's what Saad Khan, national planning director, FCB Ulka, has to say:

If theres one piece of advice you could give all brand marketers now, what would that be?

I have two.

First, don’t cut down on your share of voice... When most brands are cutting down on budgets, those that can maintain their SOV will get more bang for their buck. They will be able to gain disproportionate share of mind just by maintaining their spends. This will help them emerge with more real estate in the consumer’s mind, when the lockdown ends.

Second, track the implications of changes in consumer behaviour. Never has the current generation of marketers faced something as uncertain and unfamiliar as this. This is out-of-syllabus stuff. We are witnessing a hyperactive breeding ground of new behavioural mutations. Most will die. Some will stay. Some will definitely pull the rug from under certain businesses. The upside is that it’s a marketing reset. An equaliser for brands. It is creating a level playing field. Those who can anticipate the future, will win.

What are the top 3 ways in which the Indian consumer has changed? And, how will these changes affect the way brand managers will sell to them (the consumers) in the days ahead?

Enough has been written about the changing Indian consumer. From their anxieties to the need for togetherness, from pragmatism to looking for simpler joys of life. All these are behavioural symptoms of one mother cause. Vulnerability.

The Icarus has fallen. The audacity of mankind has come crumbling down in a snap. For the first time, mankind is feeling inadequate. The stereotypical man, chasing his dreams, climbing up the ladder of success, taking a bow at each step to a clapping audience has been challenged. The tough armour of I-can-take-on-the-world confidence is not so tough anymore.

He is not a consumer. He is more human now. Humbler. More kind.

Marketers need to rethink how they look at him. It’s not the superficial membrane that needs to be addressed; it is the deeper core of vulnerability that needs comfort.

Words like aspirational, confident, success. The meanings of these words have to be rewritten, redefined. The shining brass trumpets need to change to something that is empathetic, reassuring and placates the fear, rather than fuel fancy.

Which product segments will have the toughest road to recovery? And, which categories will bounce back faster than others?

It's a tough one to answer, honestly. What they will and will not buy. Essentials versus non-essentials. Indulgence versus pragmatism. These are cycles. Any recession, big or small, reflects these. And they flatten out over time. There are the usual suspects. Travel, real estate, luxury, malls, etc., it seems, are going to get hit the most.

But this is also the time to recast the categories. Categories which can re-frame their role in the lives of people, will bounce back faster than categories which don’t. For example, two-wheelers can re-frame themselves from performance and style to safety because of fear around public transport.

"But this is also the time to re-cast product categories. Categories which can re-frame their role in the lives of people, will bounce back faster than categories which don’t. For example, two-wheelers can re-frame themselves from performance and style to safety because of fear around public transport."

Are we headed towards a world in which consumerism will become a bad word? What will happen to marketing in such a world?

I don’t think so. The desires never go away. It’s human to seek a state of permanent happiness. And material possessions are the shortcuts to it. It’s nice to listen to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and feel temporarily transcendental when he sings ‘no possessions too’, but one still wants to listen to it on the best sound system.

I will give a hypothetical example. If the code for high-end restaurants is ‘connoisseur’, and the category sticks to it, it may not go down well. But if it gets changed to, let’s say, ‘nostalgia’, it might have a chance. Because nostalgia is a skin in demand. When facing an uncertain present and future, past is always the fall back.

Consumerism needs social legitimacy. A skin that makes it acceptable. As long as marketers can find ways of legitimising it, change its skin, it will be there. Hence, the re-frame mentioned earlier is important.

Do you see purpose-led brand communication increase, or decrease, in the days ahead?

Two things here. Purpose is all about commitment. And people see through bullshit.

Yes, we will see brands trying to embrace purpose – play a more meaningful role in the world. I have only one advice here, if a brand that never had purpose wired into its system, suddenly lights a torch for people and their deeper conflicts and issues, it will be called out. The currency of purpose is time and sincerity.

If any brand wants to adopt purpose, it has to prove its commitment to the purpose it upholds more by its actions and not merely through communication. It has to breathe it, believe in it. Else, my suggestion is don’t do it.