Brand lessons from the Ballot

24 Mar,2022




By Avik Chattopadhyay


Avik ChattopadhyayA little over a fortnight ago the election results were announced for the five states of Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The outcomes were as expected only that nobody expected the magnitude of the Punjab victory.


This was one set of elections where we saw seemingly smaller and regional parties wanting to be counted. Not that this was their first attempt, but in this round they seemed more committed and invested.


There are interesting brand lessons to be taken away from the strategies adopted by the key political parties and personalities and also the outcomes.





This was the most emphatic, so let’s start with the AAP’s campaign in Punjab. There is nothing like a solid proof-of-performance as a testimonial of what you can do when in power. Just like start-ups with the best proofs of concept get the highest investors, so did the people of Punjab decide to invest in this development model from the shark tank.


Whenever entering a new market or business segment, it is always prudent to appoint and announce the person who will lead the operations and give him/ her the required bandwidth to set the narrative. It is best if the person is a local who understands the market better than an expat.


A critical part of a market entry strategy is to get your ‘own people’ converted first before you set sights on the others. Your own people are those who are culturally closest to your domestic market in terms of codes, rituals and likes. They become your early adopters and brand advocates in an otherwise socio-economically fragmented market.


Lastly, the classic advertising appeal of “try me once” never fails. The appeal still carries a sincere ring to it, sans all the hype. There will always be the experimentative and early-adopters who lead the way. Just that in the case of Punjab they seemed to be the majority!



Another “Nokia moment”!


You have a commanding market share and come crashing in just 12 months all due to your own obstinacy of not deciding on an operating system and understanding what the customer needs. That’s the Nokia moment of 2007. Can also be termed a Rip Van Winkle moment!


The Congress repeated it with unerring accuracy in Punjab. It depended on legacy while the people wanted policy. And it failed to capitalise on a traditionally supportive segment in the farmers who could have turned the tide.


Just like a market leader loses focus on its core customer base in its urge to capture newer markets and address new product and customer segments. A case in point are brands like Maruti Suzuki and Hero wanting to go ‘premium’ while their core base of entry level product offers gets neglected.



Divide and Rule!


It still works. As it did in UP for Yogi and the BJP. Astute marketers do not waste time in addressing all customers needs and desires. They go for those that have a natural alignment with the product benefits. Like aspects of protection, exclusion and intimidation in the case of BJP. Consultants call this segmentation.


Also, the best event managers do not fuss with the entire duration of the show but create just one or two ‘wow’ moments that impact most and stay on longer in the viewers’ minds. So, images of temple corridors and highways that double up as airstrips combine very well to cover both tradition and technology. The recipient is not really bothered with all details of your narrative, so a few ‘doosras’ are forgiven. The average human being understands and remembers pictures much better than data tables.


Do not reinvent the wheel, at all. All successful brand managers will tell you that. Not that they are halting the wheel but are going on the same track, faster, smoother, and better while refreshing the look and feel of the wheel. Within a smaller gestation period.



Elephants cannot dance!


If Kodak had taken heed of early digital photography and re-calibrated itself accordingly, it would not find mention here. Market leaders typically fail to notice warning signs on their radar screens… of a new technology, of a new trend, of a new entrant, of a new solution, of a new regulation…! Some quickly change course while others perish. Netflix did. Blockbuster didn’t.


While divide and rule worked for the BJP, it cannot escape the fact that it lost more than 50 seats to the SP. Most contests have been very closely fought. It might not be a wave yet, but certainly a ripple. And it is not that the BJP has not been defeated before, despite the narrative being the same, albeit much milder.


When both AAP and TMC announced themselves as true successors of the Congress, it needs to read the clear signals on lifecycle management.


When you are too large as a brand, the Nirmas and Chiks of the world can come up, nibble away at your pie and create a larder big enough for them to sustain. Someone like Sensodyne can change the narrative at one end. Size has its disadvantages. Elephants cannot dance!



Different ground, different game!


“Khela holo na” for Didi and the TMC in Goa. The game may be the same, but the ground conditions are different. Knowing how to play football does not mean one plays equally well on hard and slushy turf and in any position. Just because VW rules the roads in Germany does not entitle it to do the same in India, as it has painfully learnt. Cut-copy-paste does not work especially when there are strong cultural differences in the two markets.


Remote control operations do not work in any market and for any product category. Also, a non-playing captain is not always the best option. One has to have a leader of the team at the ground level to assess the pulse on a daily basis and take corrective action in narrative and promotion. Moreover, the local team has to be empowered to take decisions and modify strategies without having to wait for an approval from headquarters.


Controlling is fine. Micro-managing kills.



Tell me something new


The general narrative of the legacy parties remains more or less the same, be it the Congress or the BJP. They typically bash each other silly. While it works in some places, it fails in others.


The Congress had nothing to offer the people of UP except for the glamour of the family and the legacy of the freedom struggle. The fact that the leadership had to fall back upon the forefathers rather than create a testimonial in Amethi or Rae Bareilly, is telling it all.


Even though playing second fiddle to the Akali Dal, the BJP could have certainly performed better had it not applied the same narrative of UP. Also, its stand vis-à-vis the farmers over the last 18 months did not help.


Political parties rarely seem to have any candour. They never seem to accept mistakes and own up to them. They offer no apologies. Just like most big brands never do. The challengers, however, use candour and vulnerability as strategic tools to move ahead faster. Today’s customer appreciates brands that are frank and fragile rather than infallible. This is a trait that most brand managers need to train upon and acquire.



The light at the end of the tunnel…


Work shows. Good work shows better. I saw an interview of N Biren Singh on NDTV after the exit polls were out and showed that the BJP would get a 3/4th majority in Manipur. He said that the projections might be too optimistic but as positive work had been done over the last five years, he was confident of getting the mandate. Eventually, he did get a mandate close to the projections.


Market share is the outcome and not the objective. Just like good governance. Profits, loyalty, repeat purchase, electoral results and majority are all outcomes of fundamental work for the target customer. I get amused no end when brands make announcements of “x%” market share by such date almost as soon as they enter the market. Makes for masala journalism and nothing more.


Biren Singh should know that pretty well. He was a journalist once. And a footballer before that!


Avik Chattopadhyay is a senior brand and strategy consultant. He writes on MxMIndia every other Thursday. His views here are personal


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