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Ramesh Jude Thomas

The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory

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BW Businessworld

Brand Modi: Sharp But too Niche?

Many years ago as a young consumer researcher, I had the opportunity to work on the revitalisation of a well-reputed but shrinking business. A baby oil from a much-loved MNC.

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Many years ago as a young consumer researcher, I had the opportunity to work on the revitalisation of a well-reputed but shrinking business. A baby oil from a much-loved MNC.

The brand was a big question mark for the management. It enjoyed a share of mind of over 85 per cent. It had almost 90 per cent market share and loyalty in the branded baby oil (Keo-Karpin being the only other serious contender) segment. However, it had a very small volume base. Interestingly, most mothers did not use a branded oil at all. It was mustard oil in Bengal, coconut in Kerala, gingelly in TN and so on. Qualitative research revealed that most mothers and grandmothers did not like the idea of putting a factory made mineral oil on a young baby.

So was it worth the company’s management time and investment?

We worked with a brilliant young brand manager (now the Indian CEO of the world’s largest aromatics firm) who was willing to invest in new thinking. The brand was repositioned for all mothers (instead of their babies) who were much more willing to use it on their own faces and bodies, particularly with the massive equity of the mother brand. It got accepted into the house via mama and the rest is history.

Now consider our very popular Prime Minister for a moment. Highly articulate, extremely well-positioned. Enjoys a high share of mind and a very decent vote share of a well-defined market segment.

And here’s where the risk comes in. The target market is very sharply defined, completely loyal but tightly circumscribed.

Furthermore, like the baby oil, there is a whole market of multiple segments of consumers who don’t buy into the brand. Not just neutral or apathetic. In fact, exactly like the baby oil, many folk genuinely believe it isn’t good for them. These non-believers can be broken up into three broad segments: those within the company, some business partners and distributors as well as large numbers of non-consumers.

This poses a genuine long-term risk. There is no point in writing off the other consumer segments as biased, sore losers, irrelevant, illiterate, ‘sickular’, anti-national, pseudo-liberal and whatever else.

Think of a Nike. Sharply positioned on an individual achievement platform. But without being insular or excluding. They didn’t say they dislike older or pot-bellied people. But gently reminded them that there are so many physical and aesthetic benefits of “Just Doing It”. The difficulty for Modi the CEO is that his brand managers are actively alienating consumers who they don’t believe fit the archetype of the brand. This is risky. Not in the short term, but over time this eats away at the outer periphery of your customer base. If you keep sending out the message that we don’t appreciate people who are unfit or can’t Just Do It, then that segment is up for grabs by a competitor who makes them feel a little better about themselves.

Obama’s ratings at the time of his election were sky high. “Change you can believe in” became the leitmotif of the American Dream in 2008. As it became increasingly clear that this was available only to a small set of people, the euphoria died very quickly and the exciting new brand lost much of its sheen and its consumer base. It took some very sharp repositioning in 2012 to revive the brand for a second coming.

Are there lessons to be learnt from sharply defined brands that have brought in new customers because they wanted to belong to that story? Indeed there are. But the problem with vote bank marketing is that by their very nature they are built on fear. Not fellowship.

How then do we build a growing community of belongers?

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2015)

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narendra modi mncs branding magazine 30 november 2015