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Case Study: Hiding In The Grey Area

Kerson Naik and zara abbas walked out of the yoga class mechanically. Urgently switching on their phones, they fell headlong into a world they had shut off for 45 whole minutes. As normalcy returned, they took the overbridge to the next building and thence the lift up to their office on the 23rd floor.

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Kerson Naik and zara abbas walked out of the yoga class mechanically. Urgently switching on their phones, they fell headlong into a world they had shut off for 45 whole minutes. As normalcy returned, they took the overbridge to the next building and thence the lift up to their office on the 23rd floor.

Gambhir ‘GG’ Gupta, their boss and the owner of the flourishing Trolley & Cart (among other businesses) had converted a big part of his old warehouse in Lower Parel into a swank and well-equipped gym-cum-fitness centre, and the adjoining warehouse he had sold to a builder, which gave him his millions and two floors in the office building that came up on that property.

Kerson: She is good, unusually good, isn’t she?

Zara: Samantha? I knowww….! Her directions and methods are simply amazing! It is as if she has understood the very essence of yoga!
estelle joined them at the coffee machine, and asked, “Many are raving about the new yoga teacher. What’s special?”

Zara: Attend one session to know. This lady is from Florida and is on a round of the country. ‘Samantha Wilke’, and she is as American as they come.
Estelle: An American to teach you yoga? How different are you from GG wanting a gora in his ads?

Kerson: I agree! Ha, ha good one! Yet their approach is so different. They treat the body like a temple and look after it with the same care. It has to do with the way they zero base their mind when they learn so that no nuance is lost to them. She knows every muscle that is worked in every move; she focuses on breathing more than anything, she will ask you ‘can you hear your breath in your belly?’ Stuff like that, or ‘are you stretching enough to feel it in the glutes?’ There is logic, science, method, process… and above all she teaches, not instructs…!

Zara: That’s true. She wants to as if to share with you what she thinks is amazing.

Hmm. And an Indian teacher cannot or does not go into that level of detail?

Kerson: There are teachers and teachers and teachers. In India, we take yoga for granted and we are willing to go and study under any old person who throws in a smattering of Sanskrit. I have doggedly stayed with the lineage the last 20 years and have ensured that the teaching purity is ensured. But to get this quality in Mumbai… takes my breath away.

Estelle: How do you mean?

I am beginning to see what Kerson means. He is right. It’s got to do with their art of learning. And when they teach it back to us, there is a sense of credibility, you kind of know that they know…. It’s not monkey see, monkey do. It is cold hard logic. There is purpose, there is method, there is process… of course, there are great teachers in India, but bad students need teachers like Wilke. She has learnt from the greats and her teaching is effective!

Estelle plugging her mobile phone to her laptop, said, “So, that explains why when a gori does it, it works?”

Zara laughed and said, “Good one, again! Wow, you are in form! But this is different…..”

Estelle: I know… It is in the way they do things. When a non-Indian endorses an Indian product, we feel a greater sense of trust — be it yoga, neem, tulsi, ghee… When I was in the US recently, I was reading the pack print on my sister’s jar of clarified butter. I am now a convert. It’s on my phone, here... read: Grass-fed and Certified Organic Cultured Ghee! Ghee is one of the most sacred and healing foods described by the ancient Ayurvedic texts. … made by a simple process of gently simmering cultured butter to remove potential allergens such as casein and lactose … to get pure delicious butter oil, described as conferring good health and longevity.

See how effective that is? I guess our home brands too see themselves as global players. And that is why they want to use a different platform, a new paradigm. And this time they want to talk like them, like global players, not appealing to Lalitaji or Sharmaji.

Kerson: Maybe there is a bit of auto-suggestion involved here where I feel if we talk as if to a world audience, automatically I become as if a global brand.
Zara: So, you are saying, this is why the Indian is not good for India, this is why brands look for the gori and gora who will lend to their brand a different appeal, a different foil, as it were? Even if I am willing to accept that, why does a Lakshmi Menon, Pooja Mor and their ilk sell in the West?

Kerson: No, no, not like that. It’s not that the Indian is not good for India. How can that be. The new paradigm is leading to a thought that Indian has to look global while speaking the ad script, the brand communication. We have not become confident enough to put a brown skin there to do the talking. So, we want the same script and same product to be presented by a more acceptable white skinned person, someone the global dais identifies with.

Zara: No, no... how can we say this?! If you want an international paradigm, do what Sensodyne is doing, using an Indian with a foreign accent!

Estelle: See, there is a difficulty with brown skin, we have to accept that. Brown is very Indian and Indian brands may be wanting to move away from the traditional to the modern. Maybe, even wanting to look less Indian and more western. Also, and this is important, Indian brands have not really made it to the global platform. To rub shoulders with global brands we need some presence, some chutzpah…

Zara: And that is going to come by putting a gora in the ads?

Kerson: I feel without fighting the white colour of skin, accept that white sells even if it is racial, even if it is discriminatory. To hell with all that. For some reason marketers want to abandon brown.

Zara: Ok, why doesn’t brown ‘sell’?

Kerson: I have been thinking about this… To my mind, brown has now begun to stand for nonprogress, for unhappy, for ‘not enough’, for ‘not fun’… ! For oppression… can’t you see traditionally, white has stood for growth, winners, success, justice, fairplay, equality, inclusivity, good health, happiness, that combo is ‘beautiful’.. That’s what I feel… if not why would people shoot for white? White is happy. It glows. That is why Dove is white.

Zara: Heck, it is a buyable theory, but then today’s successes are all brown, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Rakesh Kapoor, Indra Nooyi… all brown.

Kerson: Ok, now that is extreme. You forget the Mark Zuckerbergs and so on. But brown also stands for poverty, malnutrition, crowds, untidiness, clutter… representing as it does the Third World countries! What to do? Where in the world does brown stand for all the traits found in the US and the UK and Australia?

Estelle: Ok, you guys are disturbing my mind. Stop this nonsense. Address the real issue not the perceived issue: and colour is only a perceived issue.

Why does Liril want gori and Parle want gora? Why does Bubbly Blossoms play school on Veerasami Road have a pink and white baby on its hoarding? Will my dark skinned child feel comfortable there? And all these are brands selling in a brown country. So, don’t tell me colour of skin.

Kerson: Be clear what you are saying. You think this has nothing to do with colour of skin?

Estelle: Not because she is white but because she is western. Better. Aspirational. Inspirational. Happier.

Kerson: So, aren’t we saying the same thing?

Zara: Ok, we did not get too far with this harangue. Hang on, you two. Yesterday I was having dinner with Sanat Munim, (financial advisor). And I asked him about this. You must hear what he has to say…

Calling Munim, Zara asked him to share it again for Kerson’s benefit.

Sanat: Ok, this is what happened. Much to my dislike and discomfort, the gora effect works and in ways you cannot imagine. I have been advising a start-up that is setting up a chain of kindergarten schools where all the posters, banners and handouts carry — prominently and significantly — westerners, white-skinned humans. Sounds bad even using words like that, but sadly, this is how it is. Their Board has a slew of international unknowns it works for them. When they first showed me their collaterals, I laughed, till I saw the numbers. Clearly, it works and commonsensically so in B and C category towns where the colonial hangover has not been erased!

If Kerson is experiencing confusion over the use of goras, that would be one of profits versus morals/ethics. In reality, there is no downside to using a gora face on an endorsement, especially if there is a credible connect that can be established. Like an American Montessori preschool should have a global look and feel; they can use westerners on their handouts.

I already told you, Zara, if Mr Gupta wants to use goras on his POP, just do it, how does it kill you? Such ads will work in impulse retail. Even more so in small towns.

Kerson: Wait, wait, wait…. We will come to Trolley & Cart later. This Montessori you mention, you do not think there is an issue of ethics here?

Sanat: Yes, my immediate reaction was that this is misleading and their prompt response was, “not by law!” Seems like this question has been examined by them already! I did try but failed to persuade them to see reason. Indeed, the economics was against me; the perception of quality — and therefore premium attached to a product / service certainly gets compounded when endorsed by a ‘phorener’ from the West.

Kerson: So, what is the purpose that gora is serving in the ad? Is it saying we are a school for kids of foreigners? Or that we are of international quality? It cannot be the former. If you are implying the latter then there is a serious ethical issue…

Zara: How? International quality is not necessarily uniformly good!

Kerson: Point is, and since you talk about B- and C-class towns, the perception they have of ‘international’ is ‘one to be aspired for’, ‘excellent’, the best and so on. That is what ‘phoren’ means to them. And by putting foreigners in your POP or ads you are holding out that what you perceive is what you will get in these schools. That is not unethical?

There was a pause in all thinking…

Kerson: See, if we used foreigners on a retail POP or hoarding, at best it is stupid to do that. A consumer can verify the quality by visiting your store, buying your store brand and, if unhappy, he or she can choose to exit the retail brand. But not so in a school. If you hold out that you are of international quality, I will admit my kids into your school thinking they are getting excellent education. And if I find they are not, then the exit is not as simple as exiting a retail outlet. And in B- and C-class towns as you now say is where this is working, isn’t it even more bizarre to so suggest? A school is about education and it is being delivered to a very young child who has no idea what he or she is supposed to receive from you. If you deliver rot, she gets rot.

The other thing is that in these small towns, often parents themselves may never be able to tell if the quality you are delivering is international in nature, or the best, because they don’t know, having not experienced that international teaching (or any teaching in some cases!), and hence they trust you, the English-speaking wonder, to be true to your word.

I see your point. Exactly how we trust the back-of-the-pack information about a product to be correct and good for us. Such as, ‘Shelf life: 3 months’. We believe that the manufacturer has spent on testing this and is now telling me based on what he knows to be good for me.

Kerson: So, to touch upon your example, Zara, when a Sensodyne uses a foreign accent to explain the goodness of the toothpaste, we gather that they believe that if a foreigner or a foreign returned Indian — in this case the model is obviously Indian and her accent is American — were to endorse the product/brand, then the conversion to acceptance and sales is likely to be or will be higher, as it was at the Montessori school.

Sanat: I think there is a slight difference in the selling, between a still ad and a moving picture like a TV commercial. The former is just a picture of white people or sophisticated people looking happy and educated. The latter is spoken words, intonated, expressed…people engaging with the consumer or prospect. The other issue could be the aura of progress and sophistication that gets added when the model is foreign, elegant, sleek and so on. The visuals show her style, her richness and all this is yet aspirational for the middle class. So, western also means more sophisticated, more progressive, more technologically advanced, more intelligent...

Zara: This is complex. At one end, you have international brands using their foreign ads in India with foreign models sometimes to get on with brand communication and to send out the international appeal as well. Or take Amway; it necessarily has to use its foreign models. But when Indian brands, home grown and all, presents foreignness either through accent or colour of skin or finesse…. Are you not somewhere alienating the peripheral customer from aspiring for your brand? What does it say for Indian marketing (minds)?

For example, sensitivity of teeth is a condition that hits my driver too; he gets to see the Hindi commercial spoken by a very Indian looking dentist in very superlative Hindi. It was when he asked me what is jhanjhhanahat, that I went to You Tube to see the ad!

But my prime time shows me Sensodyne in English, in a foreign accent. What is going on here? Why does the English speaking belt need to be sold in an accent? What is the research finding here? Please, please… don’t get me wrong. I only wish to understand why I have to be sold so. This is where I feel the phoren pressure is a bit over the top. Does marketing feel that using an Indian model does not make me get realistic expectations, and actually encourage product trials in a better way? So, for example, a Gomathi from Guntur too will wince when her teeth smarts while sipping hot kaapi; I am actually more likely to find her pain more convincing!

Estelle: I think, the lady is English oriented, because she is foreign returned so she will have an accented English. Hindi has only one accent — now isn’t that unique — unless you speak it, the way they do in Bihar or Haryana… but that will not help your cause. As for the English-speaking belt, that lady’s accent tells you she is foreign educated and what not.

Zara: But I have a point to make and I must tell this to Mr Gupta. The best advertising and that means the ones that converted to sales, starting from Lalitaji’s ‘dekhiye bhaisaab’ — which was probably the starting point of usage situation real consumer advertising, the “relatable” models were the ones who were in the usage situation as mothers washing off stains, a new age father grappling with baby’s diaper, or sailing through a washing machine operation. Closer to our times, that adorable man in the 99-acres ad for selling property so rattled and single-pointed about selling his 2 BHK, or that precocious kid and his madcap parents checking with him about their choices on Amazon were most identifiable. Now talking of Amazon…. Why didn’t they mesmerise us with a gori-gora parents set? Why did they use middle class, impulsive parents?

This is what I want Gupta to see.

Estelle: Playing devil’s advocate, that could be because Amazon is not selling products in its ads, but the idea of buying or shopping online, a concept that Indians in the middle belt need to feel comfortable about. So, you will see their advertising using different socio-economic segments efficiently. Then again, Amazon is an international brand and to sell in India they have to use ‘Indianese’.

Kerson: I think, the key driver in any ad is the desire to get a second look. The fight for eyeballs on the ad space is very intense. If I am one more seller of mobile phones (Karbonne) then, how do I stop you in your tracks (in India) and have you stare at my brand longer? By using a foreign lady.

Hence why a pan masala brand will want to make poetry using a foreigner. It seems to me for exactly this reason — to hold your attention. So, the idea may be to confuse you with the theme being very pointless and while you wrack your head, the model does his dance and you then say — wow, what an ad. And don’t forget, you are also saying, ‘My God, such a long ad, must be expensive! Wow, he is definitely selling enough to afford this and blah.’ Never mind the health angle.

And all GG could say, after hearing their arguments was, “It is good, thoda interesting ho jata hai…!”

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)