Is your brand X’y?

No its not the preserve of the select phew! Or Reality Television. Y should it be? It need not remain a steadfast tenant at number 24 in the alphabets table. Everybody can have it. What is your X Factor? How can it help you succeed?

We can no longer emoshun it. We are talking emotions. The kind of conceptual branding that is about finding the all-important X Factor and getting that message out there.

X Factor

It’s a different math. This X Factor is about creating engagement, arousing emotion and that which demonstrates how even the most unlikely brands can find an emotional touchstone: sadness, joy, anger, loyalty, laughter, frustration, pride and many other emotions. The X factor is (surprise, surprise) multiplies attention, attraction, appeal and action.

Lets travel beyond the typical visual clue. The DNA of a unique, differentiated brand is far more than just a logo, a typography set and colour palette. The plate needs to be fuller. The consumer believes in brands that tell a story and convey a clear, simple, believable message. Brands should appeal just as much to the heart as they do to the intellect. Call it State of the Heart branding!

As brand guardians we have the fundamental responsibility of ensuring that our brands and the associated concepts are imbued with the X Factor, no matter what category or sector the brand is from. Every brand has the potential to be truly unique, be it cement, telecom, fashion, bank or a coffee shop. Lets realize that in an increasingly over commoditized world, USP is passé. The day and age belongs to UFP (Unique Feelings Proposition) and brands that understand Y the UFP factor is vital to customer loyalty will be devoting more time and attention to embedding the X factor into their offerings and laugh their way to the bang! And Y not!

The Creative Apocalypse: Preparing your client

There is great, there is good and there is average (ok). Superlative. Comparitive. Relative. Most of us want to (atleast there is good enough intent!) do good work and over a period of time how that transmits to average and below remains an unsolved mystery. Have we ever started out saying; Lets do some Great Work? No one came into the profession thinking ‘I really want to produce work that’s a bit meh, a bit vanilla, that makes no impact on the world and sinks without a trace.’ So how come we don’t see brave creative work that often? The occasional breakthrough shines like a lighthouse across a lacklustre sea of work that is often boring, weirdly familiar or just a little bit disappointing.

Creative Apocalypse image











So how is the end game playing out? It’s a whole new world out there. Recession or no recession- there is a perennial pressure on budgets and jobs. The ‘always on’ shifting media landscape and the move from broadcasting messages to managing conversations. The balancing of brand, ROI and an increasing reliance on data and metrics. There is safety in numbers (metrics reloaded!). And how! All of these things have stitched together a sinister conspiracy in the last 10 years or so and made it more difficult for creatively brave work to ever see the light today.  It takes real balls for a client, or an agency, to take a leap of faith in this climate. Till then, it’s a lip of fate! And sealed at that.

Where does the skull drudgery end? What can be done? Selling creatively brave ideas requires an ability to promote the safety of risky situations (don’t miss the contradiction here), psychological management skills and a client that can hold their nerve. Sometimes you have to help hold it for them.

This situation provides both agency and client an absolutely perfect platform to do creative tango. So here is the brief: Depart from norm, break free from convention whilst remaining true to creating lasting campaign impact and brand recall. Surprise, delight, intimidate and come back to do more of the same. Don’t just hand hold the client, hold his heart and get to your customers’ soul in the process. That should be your sole goal.

Alice in Extreme Consumerland

The old order has changed and how. Consumers are now marketing to marketers through the 3 Ps- Price, Pressure & Politics. They are demanding bold innovation with every new product. Apple recently lost 25% of its value as investors punished its lack of new ideas. If it can happen to Apple, it can happen to you. The problem with big companies is not having ideas – it’s bringing them to market.

Coming to the heart of the matter: research kills brave ideas.

Average consumers can tell you how your current products and services are doing.  But they are often resistant to change, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his Aeron chair story in Blink. The chair sat down (read died) in research because average consumers couldn’t get over its lack of leather. But it got made nonetheless because some more creative consumers loved it.


So what’s the remedy? How can research help sell bold ideas within your company -and to the consumer? How do we get meaningful tectonic shifts created? By looking beyond the usual suspects (your regular customers) to the fringes. Out there are the hackers, the early adopters, the extreme users who will co-create your products, inspiring you instead of shooting you down.

So what’s the take away when you look and go beyond? The results are stunningly significant. Mega corporate brands like Nike, Samsung, Google, PepsiCo, Zappos, Amazon, Starbucks, Vodafone and such ilk are able to make big leaps in product development, repositioning and even restructuring their organizations. Average consumers tell you what you already know. They bring in validation. Thank you. Extreme consumers can give you a whole new way of thinking about your category. They bring inspiration. They induce innovation. They embrace disruption. They coerce relevant change. And if you’re looking for that big, transformative idea, inspiration may be the most valuable thing your company can buy.

How can we become better storytellers (and storysellers)?

Jonathan Gottschall, author of Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human , thinks humans are beasts of emotion more than logic, and the process of changing one mind or the whole world must begin with “once upon a time”. He takes rather a dim view of dispassionate presentation of costs and benefits: More on this some other time…

As we battle the surplus V deficit challenge (surplus of information, goods, services and deficit of trust, time, attention & resources), how do we develop a knack for turning complicated (and often arcane) scientific ideas into digestible, tasty nuggets of knowledge. That gets readers/listeners to not just passively sit and listen, but are inspired to take action. To change their behavior. To transform themselves and their organizations. To tell and share with others what they learned (and unlearned).

So, how do we become effective story tellers and story sellers?

a) Simplicity

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

It’s a case of been there, done that. When articulating ideas we have a tendency to slip into jargon. Little realizing that there is always a slip between the cup and the lip. To talk in ways that only insiders can understand. We have internalized the idea so much that we assume others do as well. So we go into all the nuances and complexity. Without realizing that we’re losing our audience along the way. It’s called the Curse of Knowledge(The term was coined by Robin Hogarth).

So keep it as simple as possible. Respect the fact that most readers aren’t experts on cognitive psychology, network sociology, or the science of dyslexia. So, stay away from the minutiae. Boil down complicated concepts into the key details and share only those. Not the whole forest, just the most important trees.

If your audience remembered only one thing you told them, what should it be? How can you strip out unnecessary details and keep it simple?

b) Stories > Information Every Time

Information is great. Facts can be useful, enlightening, and help us make better decisions. But because there is so much of it, they can also be overwhelming, boring, intimidating and hard to remember.

Rather than just providing information, tell stories. Tales of a new age Bedouin inspired do gooder or a school basketball team woefully unmatched with the rest of the league and yet coming up trumps. These stories surprise and engage the audience and they help the reader/listener visually simulate what is happening.

Not just that. When carefully designed, stories also serve a larger purpose. They illustrate the main point of an argument in a way information alone can’t. They’re like vessels or carriers.

If we were to dig a bit into mythology, the most effective stories are Trojan Horses. Sure, there is an engaging narrative, but information comes along for the ride. It’s proof by (compelling) example.

So work on your Trojan Horse Story. What’s the enthralling narrative that will carry your message along inside?

c) Script Tease: It Always Holds Attention

Most plays have three acts. The first act introduces things, the second act develops them, and the third resolves them. Movies, while not as explicit, usually follow a similar pattern. Set up then conflict and then resolution. They call it the Hollywood Paradigm. Sure everything could get resolved faster, but a good first act sets the scene in a way that draws us in. Just like a good mystery.

Get your stories to have a similar structure. Ignite a question but don’t resolve that story right away. Instead, launch into a second and even a third story before wrapping up the first one. Rather than distancing themselves,  the listener stays tuned along the way because they want to know how the first story ends. Researchers call it the Curiosity Gap or a hole in the listener’s knowledge, you encourage them to pay attention to the rest.

How can you open up a curiosity gap? Point out a hole in your listener’s knowledge that will make them want to lean in closer to learn more?

Become the master that you can be at selling ideas that drive others to action. Whether you’re selling a product, an idea, or just yourself, we can all benefit from being better storysellers.

Creative Risk & CMOs- The Twain Has To Meet!


The saying is as old as the hills. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The average tenure of today’s CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) is 18-22 months. One major driver is the fear of taking creative risks. Ironically, it is the problem of producing mediocrity that is the true risk.

As members of a society, our brains are hardwired to fit in, to conform. That’s why so many people dress the same way, sport the same hairstyles and are uncomfortable to be the ones that stand out in a crowd. The safety in homogeneity is all pervasive. This fear of being different seems to permeate marketing departments every day. Many clients seem to buy advertising the same way they buy clothing – gaining comfort from what their peers are doing.

And yet, ironically, as a consumer, this same human brain is programmed to filter out everything that is known, accepted and routine. The brain pays attention to things that it least expects. So, deliver the unexpected. Check this link

If your marketing becomes habitual and conforms to the category norms, no one will notice you.  If you are mimicking the same conversation as your competition, you’ll be ignored.  If you change the conversation you become the story teller (read this article on how agencies & brands need to use the power of story telling in Brand Knew on Given today’s accent on tactical over riding the strategic or creative, little wonder the ignominy of sameness has a stranglehold on most creative communication. If you want to achieve cut-through and relevance you need an idea and execution that stands out, that is different and challenges convention.

Imagine this: clutter: hyper clutter: commoditization of products and services. Hyper commoditization of communication. Interpretation fatigue, trust deficit…heading straight towards safe therefore sorry state of affairs.

Break the shackle. Bite the bullet. Beard the lion. Become the Creative Marketing Officer(CMO) that you can be, want to be and expected to be!

The comfort of sameness: the happiness of routine: the absence of newness!


Look no further than whatever meets the eye or gets your hear: you will see a sea of messages screaming Back to School. I reckon its the new ‘Come September ‘tune that a brand Venture(s) into.  Across products, categories and media platforms, brand messages pour out, selling, cajoling, coercing, bribing, reminding, pleading, imploring, threatening (almost) and more. Well its doing the obvious, I guess. And the comfort of the safety net that comes with it.

What is it (you begin to wonder) that drives brands to depart from the nomenclature with unabashed disdain and find solace in the sameness of being? I understand that routine has its compulsions at being consistent but is this mind numbing consistency generating customer constituency? Are customers really coming ‘back ‘year after year or they have begin to see through it all?

Often times we have heard about following the fundamentals; ‘instead of sharing from the same size of the pie, grow the category ‘; the cola wars, the two wheeler battles, the smartphone skirmishes and all of that are constant reminders. So, ‘growing the category’ would be a comforting prognosis here. To use an overused adage ‘ Birds of the same feather, flock together ‘, but what about wanting to actually have a feather in the cap and doing something that gets you there. Once upon a time it was called the good old ‘differentiation ‘and here is where I have a serious difference of opinion. Times have changed, or have they?

Stationery cannot be stationary, on shop shelves. Shoes have to stand on their own two feet, often with no soul searching. Uniforms cannot be the same, year after year (there is no uniformity in that you see), there is more to a Tablet than meets the eye (must be the Retina Display), the thirst for new water bottles leaves you wet behind the ears, the need for a new printer leaves you reading between the lines and you cannot be more unsmart at being still seen with the same smartphone in week 12…..

The excess baggage of Back to School campaigns, take flight, year after year, unfailingly. Probably the reason why most marketers do not feel the need to go back to school and re think their strategy. All that is needed is to share a few ‘same pinches ‘and it still doesn’t pinch them. Why should they, when they all seem to be laughing their way to the school…I mean bank!

Brand Ambassadors: Celebrities V/s Real Customers

Brands the world over spend millions of dollars trying to woo celebrities to act as brand ambassadors. Does it really work?
What’s the ROI on this? Can it be measured?

The jury is still out on this one: are celebrities really worth the millions they are paid for endorsement deals? For every Roger Federer there is a Tiger Woods. For every David Beckham, there is a Paris Hilton. The mightiest of them are biting the dust far too often for it to become anything that is predictable. Are the CFO’s impressed? I prefer to be the naysayer on this one.

There is no short cut to building and growing a brand. A celebrity might put a brand in front of millions but will that compel buying and consumption? Would you buy a Videocon TV just because a Shahruk Khan is endorsing it? Or believe a ridiculous claim that he makes through a TVC that VI JOHN is the largest selling men’s shaving cream brand in the world- (the poor Gillette & Niveas of the world, would you please sit up and take notice). That is a lot of unwelcome foam floating around, I dare say!

Pitch this scenario against a real world situation wherein end users propagate the brand passionately. Look no further than the iconic Apple brand. Apple users are probably the most committed, sincere and super zealous brand ambassadors that you can ever get (without the brand having to pay a dime!!!). You will notice them in all markets and situations, laughing at Windows users (are you still stuck in the Stone Age? You don’t know what you are missing out on…etc etc) and extolling them to make the switch. That’s brand loyalty at its very zenith, truly bottom up brand marketing.A dream situation for any brand marketer. When Dove wanted to create a disruption in the hyper cluttered environment of soap brands, who did they turn to? You guessed it right- every day users- nothing unreal, no guilt pangs and easy resonance with every day people- a killer brand marketing strategy that has worked remarkably well in all the markets that Dove tried it in.

We are getting to a stage of brand democracy- wherein brands will be made by people, for the people and of the people and in an increasingly socially networked eco system which encourages to say it as it is, the power will truly rest with the people. Celebrities: you may rest in peace. You can no longer laugh your way to the brand! At least not all of them.

How Brands KISS & Make it

KISS here means well, nothing else, but Keep it Simple Stupid ! In an era of confusing media messages, aggressive, hyper competitive eco systems and changing by the day marketing theories, the best way that brands can manage to get respectable attention is to go back to the basics and keeping things really simple. Invest in the idea and give it meaning, relevance and value. Communicate that to the consumers in a no nonsense, no frills manner. And step back to see how it resonates with the people who really matter ie your customers.
Brands are just short cuts in people’s decision making process. And short cuts as we all know are simple. Everything imaginable is branded be it water, asprin, chicken or even lettuce for that matter. But is your brand relevant in the perception of your customer is the all important question- andrelevance is relative. Google, FedEx, KFC, Coke etc are some classic examples of brands with ideas that have proved relevant, different and better to a large number of people across the world. Not so long ago,in the US, Ivory was soap, Hersheys was chocolate, Maxwell House was coffee, Kelloggs was breakfast cereals. Closer home, Colgate was toothpaste, Bisleri was water. But as retail shelves get increasingly crowded, vying desperately for consumer attention and wallets, what remains distinct and assuring is your brand’s relevance to your customer, its capacity to consistently deliver on its promise, time after time, purchase after purchase. The old order has changed and how!

Simple ideas well executed last a lifetime. Take for example Kit Kat– a wonder of confection that blends chocolate & wafer while allowing you to relish it brick by brick. Simplicity at its very tastiest! Complicated,not needed ideas go southward very quickly- New Coke for example. Customers did not find any great meaning or differentiation that the New Coke was bringing into their consumption experience and inspite of Coca Cola spending hundreds of millions of dollars in product development and advertising, it got taken off the shelves in under a year of launch. Proved to be a NEWsance value to Coke.

Luxury brands serve a certain niche of people. They are very clear about the very finite universe size of its customers. Their business strategy remains rooted to ensuring that the small segment of customers they serve, get the promise and experience they perceive from the brand. Louis Vitton, Rolex and Rolls Royce are classic examples of luxury brands knowingly, by design, serving a small section of customers. Simple plan of action and following through with diligence over extended periods of time.

In an information overload environment, people need simple, straightforward ideas that are meaningful, easy to comprehend, believe and can throw their weight and loyalty behind. Similarly, in organisations, the brand building process has gone beyond the conventional brand & product marketing heads to encompass sales, distribution, customer service, product development, logistics, supply chain, retail and more. So, the simpler the idea, backed by differentiation and relevance, would definitely have a greater chance of being understood and thereby getting internal stake holder buy in leading to getting the resources and commitment to last the distance. Make it even remotely complicated and you can see the bells of deja vu ringing loud and clear.

Brands in today’s market place seem to be in a state of transition, at most times. Established brands might be feeling the nip of new competition at their feet or a new management vision may call for a complete overhaul of the prevailing brand strategy or the business model itself maybe on the brink of collapse seeking immediate attention to brand re engineering and rejuvenation. In other words,the opportunity(or need as the case maybe) is ever omnipresent to make matters simpler, better and more meaningful to customers.

When the idea behind what a brand stands for is simple, the people behind the brand will very clearly understand what it aspires to be and would be therefore in the best placed position to articulate to potential users with the strongest of conviction. Consumers will pick up this thread and store in in the hard disks of their mind and use it as a short cut to make purchase decisions. Maintain this sequence and there is no reason why your brand will not be successful. And when a brand becomes a de facto short cut in people’s decision making process, they go onto becoming hugely successful brands.


Brands are certainly not walking the talk on customer satisfaction- well, at least most of them-In the last decade or so CRM would have been the most used, abused, misused customer oriented(?) jargon ever prevalent. Relationships and management of that would never have been more at cross purposes.
How would you feel or want to react when you receive a call from one of the leading telecom providers saying it’s a call to remind you about your payment. More so when you receive it three times on an average in a given day at all odd times and the calls start a good 10-12 days before the actual due date. It won’t be surprising that the call center person who is making the call is just ‘ under instructions ‘ and none of them are ever empowered to offer you an explanation. I can’t for the life of me understand how life can be added to life with such an intrusion- or ” Sir your subscription is about to expire (its still a good 90 days away) and the newspaper ( a leading English daily in the market) follows up the late afternoon call on a Friday ( customer relationship you see!!) with the newspaper boy coming home at 9.30 in the night just when you are settling in for dinner( going the extra mile in customer delight!!!) to remind you about your subscription and the cascade of goodies( which no one wants in any case) that we will miss out on. The leader is truly guarding (read stalking) the reader!

Customer satisfaction drive doesn’t stop here- have you tried the shoe on the other foot? Try calling up a bank asking questions about your credit card or settlement plan and the mandatory ” I will get back to you after checking with my manager ‘ or ” that’s a separate department sir and you have to call again, punch in all kinds of numbers(security you see), hold on for a good 20 odd minutes and if you are lucky, you get a human being on the other side of the line, asking you the very same set of questions that you in all your naivette thought you had technologically overcome, only to be promised about a call with a ‘ solution ‘ within 24 hours. Of course, a bank’s idea of 24 hours is very different from yours and mine and if you get any answer at the end of 6 or 7 weeks, after 34 calls, you should be in clover. And these are the same banks who call you ten times a day to remind you that your credit card payment is overdue by 48 minutes and a penalty and interest would be chargeable in case you do not leave everything that you do now and bolt across to the nearest branch or ATM (again very limited in number, in most cases) to pay off what is (over)due. Mind you, they are treating you with kid gloves (supposedly you are a PRIORITY Customer ) because you have been a loyal customer of the bank for only 9 years. In most cases, we end up doing only ‘ banking ‘, and never do life. So much for our ambitions. And before I die, I would like to at least speak to this call centre manager just to assure myself that such a person does exist in real life. Yes, I insist.

‘Customer First ‘, ‘You are the reason for our existence ‘, ‘ Here to Serve ‘, ‘ Your call is important to us(but you damn well hold on for as long as you can because we are not sure when we can attend to you, if at all), CLV(Customer Lifetime Value)…….why spend millions of dollars on hollow claims through all forms of mainstream advertising and below the line communication when none of it is meant to be? CRM needs a serious re visit. Till such time, for us the hapless customers, it is only permitted CRiMe, albeit in disguise.

Brand Building: Great Axepectations !

Its often said that when it comes to branding, marketing & advertising, almost everyone and his cronies, near and dear ones and the entire social network of the individual has an opinion. Why does this happen and what actually causes this sense of uber confidence is yet unknown but prevail it does with alarming regularity causing both angst & irritation amongst brand building professionals who obviously see things from a completely different pair of lens. Especially if they are focused on Excellence!
I got tempted to write this after a 3 hour long meeting with one client a few weeks ago which nearly convinced me that more than half the world’s population or even more are branding experts. Some even gurus. The topic in question at the meeting was the launch of a fashion brand in a completely new geography. The brand is an unknown commodity in that market and we thought the best way to introduce it was to bring in a sense of local culture whilst pushing forth the international aura and chutzpah. The brand’s life cycle was embryonic at best and therefore the need of the hour (or so we felt) was to create something that captivates attention, is not intimidating but inviting and eases people into the acceptance of the brand. The brand was being given birth to that also coincided with the launch in that market, so our strategy and creative thought process was completely influenced and motivated by those circumstances.

Upon presenting the creative concepts that were conceptualised for use in Print, Outdoor, OOH and Television, the feedback that we received was nothing short of rudimentary. In fact, downright shocking. Without actually saying so, what the client was communicating was that we know this better and this is the way we want it. The suggestion given was illogical to say the least and upon probing (we just can’t suffer it silently and gladly you see), we were asked to benchmark our creative communication campaign ‘ on the lines of another leading established brand in the category ‘- was it exactly an apples to apples situation? Far from it- the established brand was in the market for more than 25 years and had gained significant foothold and respect in that category through strategic brand equity development adequately supported by the product that satiated people’s faith and confidence in the brand. And this brand had not even stepped onto Mother Earth yet.

Since we respect all our client’s views and work closely with all of them as their brand guardians and custodians, there was a sense of disbelief and disappointment that enveloped the entire team working on the brand. Its not as if to say that our work should or will always be accepted. Not in the least. We do have only realistic expectations (and we always encourage dissonance, debate and disruption that resonates with the big picture realization) but what took the wind out of our sails was the irrationality of it all. One way to look at the situation was to accept the perception (we just can’t call it fact because it is not true) that the client knows best and he is always right. Or the other way to address this was to go back and make a rejuvenated and fresh attempt at re calibrating the client’s psyche, however obstinate he may be. The endeavor at our end continues.

What is it that makes seriously successful entrepreneurs miss the wood for the trees when it comes to building and growing their brand/s? Is it because they are far too close to the brand that plays with their sense of objectivity leading to only irrational exuberance? Why do perfectly crafted brand building strategies based on empirical and real time, on ground customer/market insight far often get the axe? As brand builders and nourishers, we have many an axe to grind!