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Case Analysis: Consumer Dialogue

To connect with the consumers’ heart, brands have to say it from their heart. That’s what builds the strongest brand value, writes Prakash Nedungadi

Photo Credit : Bivash Banerjee

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The conversation that Aparna Aiyer triggered at the dining table in this case study is one that comes up at almost every family round-table in some form or another. Or in a friends’ group. It sounds a bit like idle chatter, as the individuals concerned often shrug their shoulders and continue to eat what is tasty, wear what is fashionable or travel in what is cool, hoping that ‘someone up there” will take care of their safety. Occasionally, some of us will cut off this habit or take up that other in the hope that it helps. But by and large, we remain followers of our senses more than our minds.

The idea of how brands should communicate with their consumers is relatively a new topic for us. A hundred years ago, we used to buy and use generic products. There was no one except the neighbourhood kirana store person or a vaidya (or local doctor) or your mother or guru to tell you what was good or not. And there weren’t many choices either. Truth is, I doubt it was any safer, it is just that we didn’t know and the lack of choice made it irrelevant anyway. You ate what you got, you wore what you had, and you travelled in what was available.

Then came mass production and the evolution of brands. Brands initially gave consumers the benefit of easy identification. Progressively, they were valued because you could trust them for their consistency. You don’t HAVE to read the fine print… the maker has taken care of the quality. Often brands were named after the promoter — Ford, Lever, Gillette, Johnson & Johnson, Cadbury’s… giving them even more authenticity. “The man has put his name on the line, surely he will take care of everything!”

However, the need for trust also kept increasing. As consumers’ lives became more hectic in the latter half of the 20th century and choice increased, the need to simplify things became critical. So, the brand name and its one-line promise articulated loudly on the pack or via a hummable jingle became shorthand to help quick buying decisions. And, as neuroscience would tell us, also the way for a brand to gain “mental availability” and thereby an “unthinking” decision from the consumer.

This trust, of course, was often badly misused. That led to the development of “consumerism” in the West — Ralph Nader and several others — to push back the brands’ tendency to take advantage of consumer trust. In India, we had government regulation stepping in with the Acts to prevent adulteration, misrepresentation, incorrect pricing, etc. The issue for us, of course, was in the implementation of the law that led to consumers often getting left to make their own decisions.

In the case of food and nutrition, this got even more complicated with various lobbies making a case for their products and using nutritional research to say why they were good and their competitors weren’t — usually for more commercial reasons than in the real interest of consumers. In the West, the butter lobby and the margarine-makers spent millions in pointing out that the other was wrong.

In several countries, the oil debate, like the one on Aparna’s family dining table, was sparked off by makers of commodity products trying to show that they were adding value more than their competitor was. Several researchers and institutes were funded to prove superiority on some attributes, parity on others and sheer “benefit-of-doubt” on the rest. Lawyers were brought in to “find a way” to establish these claims. Marketers got creative advertising folks to combine these two inputs to arrive at ‘sleight-of-hand” claims that they could bombard consumers with — in the air, on the shelf and on the pack. Acronyms (like PUFA) and impressive sounding ingredient words were thrown into the pot-pourri to hide the parity of the product.

Another approach was to claim benefits of “alternative” ingredients such as ayurveda or natural herbs without any real scientific basis, relying more on traditional beliefs and convictions. With consumers becoming increasingly suspicious of additives, flavour-substitutes, colourants, concentrates, artificial methods of mass-production and “chemicals” in general, the move was to go “back to nature” and to one’s roots. Many brands moved quickly in that direction with “value-additions” like “organically-grown” or “zero-calorie” which were really ingredient-subtractions for which consumers were paying a premium.

And thus today, we see the knowledgeable yet utterly confusing discussion around Aparna’s dining table as to what oil is “good”. One wonders whether we have progressed at all since the Greek phrase from thousands of years ago, caveat emptor — let the buyer beware!

Trust is the biggest value that brands need to win in the coming years. Larry Light, the former CMO of McDonald’s and an eminent marketing guru, in his latest book (co-authored by Joan Kiddon), New Brand Leadership: Managing at the Intersection of Globalisation, Localisation and Personalisation (Pearson FT Press), says, “…Slogans claiming “Trust me” do not work in an increasingly informed, questioning, skeptical and demanding society. Trust cannot be claimed, it must be earned.” The fact is, if brands don’t work to earn that trust, they will be even more open to regulation, consumer resistance and social media-watch than they have ever been, only leading to more consumer dissonance and less brand value. But the real reason to build trust is not to ‘stay out of jail’. The reason unfortunately may also not be because of pure good social intentions since that may be too idealistic to hope for. (In a recent study of high school students in the US, 95 per cent of students reported that they had cheated in their tests at some point! (The Economist 23 January 2016 ‘Their Time Will Come’) When it comes to business decisions where the stakes are higher, could we count on them being ‘moral’?)

The best reason to be straightforward and honest, practically, is because it is good to be so, both for consumers and the public as well as for business. Consumers are not fools and while a brand can “get away with it” once or twice, the reaction inevitably happens impacting brand and business value. On the other hand, refreshing and bold honesty wins consumer understanding and empathy. Recently in the US, I was at a restaurant that belonged to a chain. A big poster behind the counter said words to the effect that, “We have so far changed xx% of our ingredients to safe, organic ingredients. We still are working on the others (and they specified these) and aim to be completely safe in these by 2017.” I felt it was a courageous statement, making themselves open to criticism. But this chain seems to be doing very well. I felt that their authenticity came through very clearly and also their knowledge and concern about healthy foods. Hence, my feeling is it would have helped them build trust and thereby built their brand.

Jim Stengel, the former CMO of P&G, in his 2012 book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s 50 Greatest Companies (Random House), studied 50 leading and fast-growing brands globally, which he felt exhibited strong values. His analysis showed that companies that commit to and communicate strong values are more successful than those that do not.

Very often, the answers to certain questions are not very clear. This is especially true in the nutritional space but applies in other areas as well. (It’s what I call the “Pluto effect”. For 12 years of school, I was forced to memorise that there were nine planets and Pluto was the 9th. And then, all of a sudden, a few years ago, someone said Pluto wasn’t a planet at all, and that became the incontrovertible truth! What a waste of an education!). The same is true in nutrition. For example, first, you hear that coconut oil is bad for some part of you, then it’s good for some other part, then it’s neutral, and so on. In such cases, to build more credibility, brands need to be more open and transparent about the issue rather than communicating selectively and hiding or skipping alternative viewpoints.

In a world of trust deficit, building trust is not just the right thing to do, it also builds business. The old way of slapping on a brand name and a big promise must give way to a more authentic dialogue. One can argue that such authenticity and candour may make the brand “easy meat” for competition, consumer activists and some of the media who have their own axe to grind. It’s a risk and legal protection needs to be taken. But the consumer dialogue can still be real and that approach, in today’s world, could win more respect, more loyalty and more long-term franchise.

Brands need to move away from selling to the consumer’s senses to engaging and relating to what we know is the most powerful part in persuasion — the heart. To connect with the consumers’ heart, brands have to say it from their heart. That’s what builds the strongest brand value. In the coming years, authenticity would play a big role in creating and sustaining that heart-to-heart connect.

Also Read:  Know Not What I Eat | Sachidanand Madan | Dr Rakesh Gupta


The writer is Group Head, Consumer Insights and Brand Development, Aditya Birla Group


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