Saturday, June 16, 2018

Journalism, whither goest thou?

Recently, I interviewed a young journalist wanting to turn to public relations as a profession and I asked her two questions. The first, why she joined journalism received an appropriate, though expected answer - 'To give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves', followed quickly by 'It is perhaps the only profession in which you can be fearless and work towards correcting the wrongs you see in society.' 

I gave her a smile, and lodged my second question. 'Why then do you want to shift to Public Relations?' She remorsefully replied, 'I'm disillusioned.' 

That conversation, in a nutshell, sums up most of mainstream journalism today. Viewed from the outside, most see a brave, determined journalist standing up for the truth, upholding the 4D principles above all - Detect, Discern, Doubt and Demand. When seen from the inside, most journalists have experienced persuasion - bordering on mild coercion disguised as 'advice', management encouraged 'self-censorship', editorial bias and/or complicity, interference of 'Response' - the benign name given to the media advertising departments, not to mention the sometimes direct threats and forced resignations. 

Today, much of the Indian media is under corporate control. Network 18 (CNBC, Colors, Firstpost, MTV among others) is owned by Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries; Hindustan Times Group (Hindustan Times, Mint, Hindustan, FM channel Fever and some more) by the Bhartias; Zee Group by Subhash Chandra; Sun Group by the Marans; and this is just a list of a few. 

Every corporate entity is careful about, if not completely fearful of,  how media can impact them. From my 20-year PR experience I can staunchly aver that a negative media story tops among their biggest horrors. It's no wonder that investment in a big media house makes flawless business sense. And, those who cannot or will not invest in a media house, know that similar influence can also be exerted through threat of moving the advertising budget. The less pronounced journalistic Ds have their origins here. 

The recent Cobrapost stings show the face of the media owners and revenue generators - those with a love of lucre. The journalists from these publications (and journalism as a whole) are the victims. Victims because, the trust that most journalists so ardently strive to protect in their media, has been tarnished. As a consequence, so has their profession. Public Relations agencies too have become inadvertent victims. News - once seen as the unassailable truth, has come under intense scrutiny. 

As always, in such chaos too there is opportunity. I see opportunity in journalists reemphasising their role, independence and importance in editorial rooms. I also see opportunity for PR agencies which have stayed the ethical path despite all pressures to create awareness among disbelieving businesses, about the real and true nature and role of journalism. I also see it as the propitious moment for independent media, like Cobrapost - the paid-media sting originator and others that strive to keep up journalistic integrity, to establish themselves strongly as alternatives to the mainstream. As for the readers, I see a chance for choice - the choice to not follow the herd - to let their money follow their beliefs. 

If any of these four stars align, the vested interests will follow suit. Else, journalism will be snuffed out. And so will Public Relations. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Swara Bhasker: An amazon warrior singing a tune of fortitude

It is not every day that a brand gets tested such. It’s an uncanny coincidence that a brand which bears the name Amazon, a name depicting the legendary female warrior race, believed by ancient Greeks to exist on the edge of the known world, comes face-to-face with a modern day social warrior living on the edge of her beliefs.  Like every human or brand battle, this one too is about courage, convictions and beliefs.

It is important to bring the episode to fore, lest the discussion become an anesthetized one about a brand and its ambassador. The incident which Swara Bhasker tweeted about is a blood curdling gang-rape of an eight year old, by a man, his son, his nephew, and his friend, repeatedly over four days. The girl was kept alive with this single gruesome purpose and finally strangulated, and her head stone-bashed to doubly ensure her end. Swara tweeted “I am Hindustan. I am Ashamed. #JusticeForOurChild #JusticeForAasifa. 8 years old. Gangraped. Murdered. In ‘Devi’-sthaan temple. #Kathua and lest we forget #unnao Shame on us! #BreakTheSilence #EndTheComplicity #ActNow”

I too should have tweeted, written and shouted against such a barbaric act. I didn’t. Many more should have. They didn’t. But Swara did. She showed courage in her convictions. However, there were the many others who felt that her tweet was unpatriotic, and some reflected that it was against their religious sentiments. Try as I did, I could not read any such meanings in Swara’s tweet.  

A brand and human are similar in many ways. To have a strong identity, both need to have fortitude and grit to stand by their convictions, values and beliefs. A brand and a person reveal their character by the stand they take, and it gets even more exposed when the stand taken is in the face of extreme adversity. 

We already know Swara’s stance. Amazon’s reaction, when it faced the brunt of ‘uninstall’ threats by belligerent sections of the audience who bandied her association with the brand was to, swiftly but discreetly, disassociate with Swara by deleting the promoted tweet she had been signed up for. With this one muted delete click, Amazon ended up displaying a character of their brand, which many will paint as insensitive. Some even went to the extent of calling the brand spineless. The threat to ‘uninstall’ came again - this time from a more deeply hurt customer base of Amazon who were aligned with Swara’s tweet and thought. 

Customers buy brands (and from brands, in this case) they perceive to reflect their own personalities. And when a brand personality dissonance is encountered, the pain felt can be real and deep, often leaving lasting trust wounds.  The immediate solution for Amazon in such a complex damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t situation is not easy. The only way to handle it, in such a case, is by clearly acknowledging the brand character Amazon wants to project of itself, and then to take a strong, convinced stance on it. No matter which stance Amazon takes, it has led itself into having a sharply divided audience. That cannot be undone. Now it is just a matter of knowing and understanding which side it wants to be seen with. 

The need to protect the brand’s customer trust at any cost is perhaps best understood only by those who have lost it. Regaining trust for brands after losing it can be extremely tough and tedious, apart from it being costly, causing direct and real market erosion. Amazon or any other brand for that matter, if they want to avoid such ignominy in the long term, must strongly consider giving a brand trust expert a seat on the high table along with their other top management. The real need is of such a voice for the brand in its own internal debates, one which can give a sane but strong opinion in all matters which impact the customer trust quotient. 

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Is print media dying?

When a newspaper like The Hindustan Times shuts down its editions, 4 of them simultaneously, letting go of nearly 1000 people (as reported in the media) it does so because it is seriously considering its future options. At the same time there is news of large regional media houses like the Kolkata based ABP cutting down staff by 40%, creating a frenzy of speculations, including many professional orbituary writers inking their pen while anticipating the next business demise to be that of print media. At the same time, there are reports to the exact opposite like the recent World Press Trends Survey 2016 which have globally shown 4.9% growth over last year largely on account of the growth of print in India. Sometimes, these two situations seem quite contradictory, throwing all print media related businesses into a tizzy.

 I have been in businesses that are considerably dependent on print media and, if print media were to shut down tomorrow, three of our group's five businesses would suffer substantial damage. So this discussion is pertinent and important to our group and I do spend much of my time building scenarios and possible strategies to overcome such outcomes. One other grassroot input for me is also from the discussions I regularly have with our newspaper vendors to understand how their curbside business is doing, since it gives an insight into the direct buying behaviour of people. I have been doing this now for over 2 years, which while may be statistically unacceptable as a data set, but does provide a from-the-stands perspective.

Let me begin by saying what the newspaper vendors tell me - and for those who are like me, in businesses that depend on print media substantially, brace yourselves. In Mumbai and Delhi, the curbside newspaper vendor business is down to about 40-60% of what it was 15 to 18 months ago. Another current fact - the Demonetization drive has put a axe on their already bruised backs and on top of their reduced newspaper sale, the sale of magazines which cost more than Rs. 100 is down to 20% the same period a year ago. Most want to get out of this business, but unfortunately, they do not know much other than this trade, and are also unable to risk any other business for fear of losing even more. Reading this far, most would have got the feeling that it sounds like the end of print media.

However, conclusions cannot be that simplistic or linear. All in all, the print story will be discussed, with consolidations, experimentation and evolution for the next decade. In my opinion there will be a two directional impact on the print media in India over the next 5 years. With the time spent on print news getting lesser and lesser, in metros they are likely to go through pressure of reducing readership, where some readers will move to digital subscriptions of the same papers, which I estimate to be about 15 to 20%. Many of the rest, will depend on free news that is widely available through the internet.

On the other hand, in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, the rising literacy will help grow local news publications, a trend which can be expected to continue for the next 5 years at the same pace, and with reducing pace over the 2 years thereafter. In the same time, the digital access and digital literacy gap and language gap is likely to get reduced helping many from Tier 2/3 to leapfrog to news-over-the-phone. However, please keep in mind that these are merely reducing trends and not a prediction of the demise of print. After all, even now more than 50% of people in US consume news from only one source - Print and the reduction in readership has only started two years ago. (Pew Report -

 But there will be shooting stars in print media too? Some of them will continue to grow rapidly over the next 5 years. These are likely to be niche publications, either for a language, region, sector or community. Five years from now will probably be one of free newspapers, like the Metro, which will survive only on advertisements. But be it subscribed, nice, or free, even in the very end of the print media, even if it were going through its last painful throes, you'll find me, even if I were the only one , reading a printed newspaper while sipping my morning tea.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Is it time for a Brand Trust expert on the Board

(also appeared in Firstpost) 
The recent Tata boardroom spat has spawned many faceted discussions, and one of these has been on the appointment and role Independent Directors – an aspect that not only concerns governance, but also Board room expertise. Like many, I spent a considerable amount of time wondering what the boardroom discussions would be like, extrapolating from the little information that was available.
To emphasize the need for expertise in the board, the rules for appointment of independent directors of a board under the MCA Act require the independent director to possess appropriate skills, experience and knowledge in one or more fields of finance, law, management, sales, marketing, administration, research, corporate governance, technical operations or other disciplines related to the company's business. It is quite clear that expertise (and not just experience) is one of the necessary qualities of the board.

The question that kept coming back to me was whether it was possible that the board of Tata did not see the repercussions of their actions on the brand and the trust it carried for 150 years? Or is it that counsel prevailed to decide that this action was worth the risk to the brand? Was the Tata brand not important enough to be a the core part of this discussion? Or was it that the people in the room did not enough expertise to understand what would be the impact on brand trust, other than in the simplistic ways that everyone does? I think the last is more likely than any of the previous options.

My argument is that the board has experience of maintaining trust in brands, and in Tata’s case, perhaps the best the country has to offer, but the board did not have the expertise for understanding Brand Trust. Because the one important outcome of this Tata tiff is that the one word that Tata was synonymous for, Trust, is definitely lost some sheen. Can Tata regain the trust? Of course. Will sales be affected? Of course not. But the question is could the ouster have been handled differently? I think, everyone including the board which took the decision will not deny that possibility.

Trust is an aura, a halo that the brand carries around it, and that halo around the Tata brand just does not seem as shiny as it was a few days ago. This, unfortunately, is not just an intangible as the Rs. 24,000 crore market-cap loss of the Tata shares in only three days after the announcement goes to show. Trust is the confidence that one places in a brand, even when nothing else exists – no products, no people, no assets. If Tata can traverse from salt to software, it is on the basis of the trust that is placed on two simple alphabets, repeated – T A T A. If the board did not see these four alphabets, the brand, just as one sees a living person, as something with a soul - quite independent from what the current interim Chairman carries as a surname - then the gap in expertise in the board room is evident. Trust is so potent that it is immutable and lives on beyond the tangible, physical aspects of the organization and the lives of the people who build it.

If the board cannot or does not protect the brand trust that is responsible for everything the brand is and does, even perhaps the reason that the independent directors are hold the position, then it is not a sufficiently equipped board. The need of a Brand Trust expert on the board is not only important, but now an imperative that brands like Tata, Nestle, Volvo will probably testify to. It is time to rethink the boardroom indeed.

Friday, August 05, 2016

On Mitigating Brand Risks with the Power of Brand Trust

The benefits of an information-connected world have been widely experienced by most of humankind. This unbound freedom of expression is giving rise to a new world with information democracy making a compelling impact on the fate of the big and powerful. Governments, institutions, brands, and the influential are all being subject to microscopic scrutiny by the masses, who are armed to unforgivingly ‘share’ unfiltered individual opinions. Every drop of individual reaction now has the potential to unnoticeably but swiftly swell into a tidal wave of mass opinion.

However it may be seen, Brand Trust is fragile, like a sparrow chick held in one’s hand – hold it too tight and you’ll suffocate it; hold it too lightly and it will escape. The grip has to be just right, and to keep the bird alive and thriving needs constant nurturing. The brand risks associated with loss of trust in our perplexing networked world makes predictable consequences difficult, but most of us intuitively understand that trust must be a constant endeavor for a better future.

The world’s biggest and oldest corporates are now faced with new brand risks that threaten the trust they have painstakingly built over decades. On the other hand is the world of start-ups, some of which have quickly acquired multi-billion-dollar valuations backed by the trust of their investors. In their hurry to grow, a few of these start-ups have lost trust of their consumers due to wrong action, communication, transgressions, or plain inanity.

However, no matter how different, that which went wrong in both the old and the new corporates were similar issues like security, privacy, caring, transparency, competence, sincerity, and social values, among others – attributes that make up Brand Trust. These brands did not lose trust because they had lesser revenues or lower profits, but they lost trust because they failed to prop up the essential intangibles of Brand Trust.

A brand must constantly analyze the brand risks it faces with regard to trust to create and implement strategies that will help mitigate these risks. There will be times in the lifecycle of a company when it may communicate wrongly or make mistakes. However, the risk is not in the fact that these incidents occurred, but instead is resident in how prepared was an organization to mitigate the risks faced and how it reacted to them. Learning from Brand-Trust-related risks is how organizations build greater long-term or Residual Trust.

Trust is like a river, in that its different layers of trust move at different speeds, akin to the cross-section of a river. The bottommost layer in the river is the slow-moving, more stable layer, which in Brand Trust is represented as Residual Trust – the trust accumulated over time and through repeated successes. However, this slower layer too is impermanent and is constantly moving, albeit at a lower speed. The top layer is the fastest and also the most fleeting. In trust terms, it represents anything new – new action, new brand, or new communication. Brands must see the top layer of new trust as the seed that grows into the bottom layer of Residual Trust and always act with a long-term, fundamentals-oriented view.

In almost all our consulting assignments on Brand Risk mitigation, the one aspect of diagnosis that carries the maximum risk is the stakeholders’ self-awareness of the potential of Brand Risk. In several cases, many of the stakeholders fail to recognize this basic problem, preferring to stick their heads in the sand. It is such brands that are most vulnerable to eroding their Brand Trust. There are enough cases that surface every week on some company or the other where Brand Trust is visibly eroded at the most unexpected times. As some farsighted organizations have already begun, perhaps the time has come for all organizations to create an internal Brand Trust team that constantly evaluates threats to the brand and manages its mitigation.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Driving Factors behind Retailers and E-tailers

Any brand’s personality is the combination of the way a brand speaks to its audience and reaches out to them, and how it represents itself. So, how are the mass retailer and the e-tailer different? What characteristic behavior patterns of the two are the drivers of their businesses? We look at these two channels and compare the reasons behind their successes and study their behaviors based our group's proprietary models of the Trust and Attractiveness quotient of any brand or category.

The brand personality of Retailers and e-tailers that make up the Buying Propensity of each follows:
Brand Personality
Brand Trust
Commanding Respect
Commanding Respect
Outward Appearance
Non-Threatening Ambience
Shared Interest
Guiding and Helping
Brand Attractiveness
Conscious Effort
Social Maturity

There are two common brand behaviors that traverse both the Retailer and e-tailer categories –Commanding Respect and Oration. These two are the basic prerequisites for any brand to be successful in either of the two categories, and the former precedes the latter in this. To elaborate, Respect is a responsive feeling that brings attention, deference, valuing, and acknowledgement. Commanding Respect is much more though – it is generated when the brand evokes this feeling from a significant number of followers. Oration, the ability of a brand to communicate well, is intrinsic to the Communications Appeal of a brand, and the more natural, unpretentious it is, the greater the effect on Buying Propensity. Sought after Retailers and e-tailers have these two essential elements.

On Gaining the Consumer’s Attention

There are several unique differentiators between the two formats, though. For a Retailer, what stands out is Outward Appearance, by its sheer ability to have a physical presence – the shop down the road or the outlet in the mall that one can visit and physically experience is more real than the flat structure of an online shopping portal.
In contrast, the e-tailer relies on its Non-Threatening Ambience, where the consumer is able to approach the brand without being self-conscious or feel in any way intimidated. The e-tailer’s ability to be accessible anywhere, everywhere goes a long way towards building this essential element of Trust. Despite having a flat non-physical interface, the e-tailer uses the advantage of being incognito to attain the otherwise reluctant-to-shop consumer’s attention.

On Educating the Consumer

We intrinsically understand the Trust in a Retailer to be higher than that in an e-tailer. Though we may understand this innately, the articulation requires us to bring in the theory of Trust. The Retailer, by virtue of its very format, has the ability to encourage the consumer to experience the product before it is bought – thereby fulfilling the Shared Interest of the consumer to experience the product through tactile means. This display of understanding lends to a higher transactional predictability and better outcome expectations, thus reinforcing the Trust environment.
Although there is no such teasing of the senses involved in online shopping, the e-tailer compensates by undertaking the role of a guide. Online shopping websites are replete with all the possible product-related information at the consumer’s fingertips. In most cases, the consumer can even use the online information available to compare products and make the best possible purchase decision for her/himself, thereby highlighting the e-tailer’s Guiding and Helping approach, making it more amenable to the consumer’s trust.

On The Nature of Business

One unique concept, that of Self-Control, a part of Aspirational Appeal in creating Attraction, goes in the favor of Retailers. The Retailer has enormous limitations in terms of what to display, how much to display, pricing, and so on since the costs of space and logistics are more or less fixed. Hence, Self-Control is a characteristic imbibed in the retailer’s business ethic.
On the other hand, for an e-tailer, the high intensity of Conscious Effort, a part of Rational Appeal (which contributes to Brand Attraction), that is required by virtue of operating in a highly competitive space with low differentiators, to stay on top of the consumer’s mind makes the category’s Buying Propensity high.

On Engaging with the Consumer

Retailers show high energy, enthusiasm, full concentration, and alertness to material situations – traits of Positivity, an aspect that is crucial to engage its audience. The manner in which a store attendant greets you with a warm smile, the suggestions and advice that he imparts while you walk around at your own pace, the new products that he tells you about before requesting to talk to you – these experiences can occur only in physical spaces.
E-tailers, in comparison, have inadvertently set themselves up to building and preserving a new culture of sit-at-home (or office) shoppers. The idea of shopping is no longer uncomfortable. E-tailers showcase the traits of Social Maturity – humility, community participation, and socialization, which appeal to a new set of shoppers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Misleading Endorsements – Where Does The Blame Lie?

The recent controversy regarding celebrity endorsers being penalized for misleading endorsement has brought to light an old debate. Is spurious brand endorsement merely the responsibility of an endorser? What is the brand's obligation in making a claim? If something goes wrong, where and how does the blame get assigned? All combined, the debate about changes to the Consumer Protection Bill surrounding the penalization of celebrity brand endorsers with misleading claims ought to be conducted on an open platform. There are several layers to the debate and these must be considered carefully before the panel’s recommendations are put into effect.

At present, the debate revolves around the suggestions of a parliamentary standing committee on food, consumer affairs, and public distribution, which recommends celebrities be held accountable for the brands they endorse. If the parliamentary panel’s recommendations are accepted, a celebrity endorsing a brand that has a misleading advertisement can be fined up to INR 50 lakh or a jail term of up to five years. It can be argued that owing to their celebrity status, any brand endorsed by celebrities is automatically found attractive by the masses. However, is a celebrity status enough to be incriminated? Shouldn’t both the promoter and endorser be held accountable?

The argument that consumers blindly believe endorsements by celebrities, though not entirely flawed, has a few drawbacks. Firstly, a celebrity endorser is at the end of the day an actor, and her/his role in the endorsement also involves putting up an act. Celebrity endorsement often is crucial in terms of reaching a large number of people, but does the endorsement by a celebrity prove critical for the audience to accept the brand? Influencing audiences to use a brand may have a correlation with celebrity endorsement, but establishing a causal relation between the two seems doubtful. In fact, every advertisement that is aired is one that involves paid actors acting out a concept approved by the promoters of the brand. Where, then, can we draw the line between acting and real endorsement? It becomes imperative, therefore, for the government of India along with the relevant bodies to formulate proper guidelines enlisting the boundaries of spurious endorsement.

Furthermore, it is essential to build a formal protocol to check the authenticity of consumer complaints as well as one to calculate the extent of the monetary damage inflicted by misleading endorsement before incriminating celebrity endorsers. This will be another essential step towards demystifying the discussion around misleading celebrity endorsement. Once again, the onus falls back on developing and having stricter guidelines in place that ensures an objective assessment of the concerned parties.

Misleading brand endorsement is a conversation that has been going around for a while. However, what this controversy needs is not more attention from media but from the legal community of the country. There is a dire need for creating a concise legal framework that neatly outlines the terms and conditions of endorsement; there is also a need to define the contours of spurious or misleading endorsement. Laws are essential to help outline the extent of responsibility on the side of the endorser and the promoter respectively. Without such a framework, things will stay murky in the world of advertisement and celebrity endorsement.