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Analysis: Tick Tock Shock

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Connected modern urban jungles have taught us to appreciate one thing most — time. As an indicator of one's status or taste (or lack thereof) our wrist companions have become our new shorthand. Rather, an instant identifier of one's station in life. You can tell a Mad Men season one from three, simply by looking at Don Draper (main lead) who moves from a mere-mortal-watch to a Rolex Explorer when his creativity brings home success.

So are watches merely symbolic or functional brands? Or both? Of the 50 million odd watches sold every year in India, more than half come from unorganized sector with a price tag of Rs 300 or less. Three fourths of the organized, branded sector largely retail watches under Rs 1000.  For simplicity let's put them in the 'functional' set. Behavioral economics books like Nudge or Freakonomics show how people make emotional rather than rational decisions, and I dare add watches are the ultimate proof of that. One can get a watch accurate enough for under Rs 20 but paying any more than that and we are in a territory beyond the functional.

On the other hand, the 'symbolic' set can be indexed on two key dimensions at least, prestige and personality expression. Within the prestige space, you'll probably agree there is enough clutter already. Top tier brands (thanks to falling import duties) like Tissot, Rado, Tag Heuer, Casio et al are busy competing for the same wrists amongst the burgeoning classes (super lux ones like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and ineffably famous Cartier are not that far behind either). Stakes are high and switching costs low within the wealthy.  So if our high-end sports watch Frequa wants to play amongst the top tier brands, it has to do better than just 'prestige' whatever its heritage (Swiss, Japanese or Indian). Dushyant realizes that differentiation is key and seems to be intuitively working on that 'personality' by trying to give Frequa a voice.  It is the content, style, tone and pitch of this voice that seems to be under fire.
Lower end of this personality dimension, watches only provide a certain impression, professionalism or success, keeping an eye on that all elusive time is a good way of letting others know how precious your time is. It is awfully easier to angle your wrist and show some bling than to fiddle in your pockets trying not to drop an iPod or a wallet. It sets you apart from the ignorant gen-Y, who use mobiles as watches from the successful people who use it to express who they are. However, at the higher end of that scale 'personality' greets a more evolved avatar. When Oglivy created Titan's tag line 'be more' to push people to find newer strands of their personality every day, to live many lives in one, to discover their 'time' or when Timex trademarked the lines 'life is ticking' and 'Be there now' they had this kind of evolution in mind. There is a sound reason why these brands play on the personality paradigm. It allows the brands to connect emotionally with consumers (human traits/ values) and makes the relationship two-way (listen, participate and engage).

Dushyant is trying to add another evolved layer to this personality dimension by attempting to associate the brand with progressive social movements and 'those who care' audiences. Needless to say, should Frequa decide to probe and stir the social conscious of a nation, then it better prepare itself to be open and go all the way. No point jumping on the social cause bandwagon in an attempt to generate short-term goodwill. Belief in causes is vital, the controversial creative must sync with the long-term brand intent. Transparency facilitates informed choice:  and so if you don't like mixing business and social issues, then don't buy Frequa. If Frequa's socially responsible attributes and ethical values were claimed to undergird a particular corporate identity, then one would expect these qualities to be revealed throughout the various aspects of that organization (retail points, communication, staff, web etc.).

If Adrian is struggling with Dushyant's strategy, it's because he hasn't managed to align Frequa's image with its identity. The ads they are discussing are just a visual part of that identity. Shock is a good social lubricant and however uncomfortable it makes him, should customers choose Frequa over Tissot, they will be sending an unequivocal 'personal values' market signal. History of advertising shows us that messages that have sustained over time were mostly those that had irreverence, shock or challenge at their foundation — these stimulate the audience's attention and imagination. If profits come from being socially ethical, where's the harm? Ask Body Shop. 

If Patek Philippe is the Rolls Royce of watches then surely there must be a spot for Frequa to be the Prius — the hybrid, sensitive, making the-world-a-better-place personality. Anna's young India it seems is ready to appreciate good shock advertising over the subliminal self-image affecting mediocrity pedaled by some others.  Ads that engage and enable consumers to reflect on the artistic expression, the controversy and the pressure that comes with pushing the lid on subjects that make us cringe but need to be addressed anyway, are priceless. Wouldn't you be proud to wear a brand that can hold its own?  We want a watch that can hold its own, I haven't found one so far that voices my social commitment and drivers; a watch is a perfect ambassador of my values and perhaps in Frequa, Dushyant may find a partner.

Kamal Julka last worked as a Brand Director for Hewlett-Packard, EMEA, at Publicis London. She teaches at ICSC European Retail School and is an examiner at the Chartered Institute of marketing (CIM), UK. She has recently moved to Chicago