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Case Study: It’s Time To Talk That Talk

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Dushyant Verma peeled off his Frequa watch from his wrist and placed it on the table. With the tips of his fingers he moved it towards Adrian and said, "If you were hiring and Frequa was a person with this bio data: Black dial, black frame, black strap, charcoal grey variant, waterproof, yada yada yada, would you hire Frequa? Is this bio-data interesting you?

"Now meet prospective consumer Dushyant Verma, age 31. I play squash, I read Jiddu Krishnamurthi, love water sports, grow mandarins, I don't drink, am a stage actor, love street food and work with the mentally challenged. How is Frequa connecting with my life? Does it have anything to do with my pursuits?"

Recap: Adrian D'sa, the MD of Speeder India has seen some campaign ideas for Frequa (Speeder's range of sports accessories) watches which proposed to shock through the use of out-of-the-ordinary imagery. But he felt that shock, while being the medium should not become the message. And going by the styling he had seen in Benetton's shockvertising as well as in others, which had used shock with no lasting value, Adrian shuddered at the thought of shockvertising coming to Speeder. After tackling marketing head Barrun Sarkar, Adrian felt it necessary to hear the views of the man behind the idea, Dushyant Verma, the brand manager.

Adrian: So what potential do you see in Frequa? Clearly you are closest to the brand and understand it most.

Dushyant: Frequa is simple, understated and politically alive. A lot like the common man. It has the ability to stir a nation's soul with its deeply shocking though ‘how sadly true is that' advertising. It reminds us that time is everything and we should be happy to be in our times, and if we are not, Frequa asks why not? This is how Frequa has built an online community of ‘watchers' — those who keep an eye on socially relevant subjects and discuss them openly online. It is the only brand that tells more than just time.

I know Frequa's personality. But the man on the street only knows its physicality and he may not only reject watches but Frequa itself. I wear a Frequa because I consider myself to be a game changer. Just like my watch, I do something with my time instead of waiting for it to pass. But others? What do they know about Frequa to want it? Why does someone want Frequa?

Adrian: Perhaps because sports stars tell them so? But not because it shocks them and arrives in a red hairdo with punk lips looking for a job. How likely are you to hire someone who shocks you however good he or she may be?

Dushyant: Now where does this come from? I don't understand.
Adrian: Simply this: A watch is not cool because its advertising shocks. See? Therefore, those red punk lips and studs on the eyebrow...? Will you hire?

Dushyant: I will definitely be alarmed! Those are not what I seek for my organisation. But I will not hide. I will shake his hand and ask him what his world view is that he chooses punk lips.

Adrian (smiling): Okay, I guess watches cannot anymore stop with telling time just as computers cannot only compute or mobile phones only communicate.

Dushyant: You said it. You just said it. Mobile phones are in the business of communication —  you with me, the world with me, me with the world, my memory with me, my ideas... Likewise, Frequa should ‘tell time', as in what does the time tell for me? What am I supposed to do now that ‘it is time'? Frequa is my time keeper....

Adrian: In the process of defining Frequa's new avatar, let us not get fantastic. Finally an ad has only that much space and time in which to tell and that much time for which it will stay in the desktop of the mind. Are we getting fancy? Frequa is a time teller, not a news widget. It can't be your time keeper! How do you expect to find your conscience hidden behind a watch and if so, how do you intend to reveal it to the consumer? And I am leading up to your very unnecessarily shocking advertising campaign.
Dushyant: I got it. So, young people today are not literal. For them that tile is an iPad, not a computer. They ‘message', not write mails. So a watch keeps time, not tells time. And I am willing this paradigm upon Frequa... Clear this for me and I will tell you why that priest in a pub will not shock us.

Adrian: That's semantics — ‘tell time, keep time'. Why do you think shock will get us there?

Dushyant: Frequa is more than a watch. It is the witness of time. And as my witness, it has my viewpoint. This expression of Frequa is what I want to demonstrate as its unknown personality. It did not talk until now. But now, it watches and tells. I have heard its online community of users who identify with Frequa, identify with truth, with telling things as they are and not being muffled by antiquity. For Frequa is about being with the times, not buried in it.

Adrian: Despite the drama and poetry you are unleashing, I like that entire positioning very much. Go for it. But why such explicit visuals?

Dushyant: If Anna Hazare had just said a few words about corruption, would you have listened? Fasting unto death is explicit by any means... no? How does Frequa stand out, make a point, win the nation, become a proud sponsor of sting operations, news, junta's campaigns, etc.? If a whisper could do the trick, I would go for fuzzy advertising. But when did taking a moral stand go easy with the immoral or all powerful?

Adrian: We are in business, not statecraft; and business asks to be done differently, with elegance, reason, polish.
Dushyant: Pardon me, but five generations of Indians, including yours, tried that and what we have today is an emaciated, looted country. While this is not to differentiate, the point is that Frequa is commanding my generation, who are the TA as well. This is a call for an uprising towards restoring India to Indians. More than drama, this is a pointer that times have changed and advertising cannot be merely cute.

Adrian: Powerful, powerful… yet, if campaigns begin to be explicit and audiences are getting disturbed, isn't that enough reason to withdraw?

Dushyant: Every brand contains a truth. This truth needs to be taken to the consumer. But what happens is, over time, perceptions and ‘hearsay' settle on a brand and assume the form of its truth. The brand owner then has to extract the truth again. And in the process of getting to the heart of the brand's personality by peeling off its untrue layers, the brand manager begins to get rid of all that is not the brand. There is that great analogy my Master once made where he said a sculptor does not create; he chips away what is not the idea. Then the sculpted idol arrives.

Adrian: Nice. But where are you peeling? Are you not superimposing an idea on the brand? An idea that it will now speak about the ‘times', be the conscience keeper, etc.? Can the reality of the world define the brand? Do the daily rapes in this country define my watch? Unless you can lead up to the truth and show me so!

Dushyant: For that you need to revisit your thoughts on Benetton. Shock has been one of its key weapons. And it stayed with the times — when race was the issue, when AIDS was the issue, when clergy abuse was the issue... poverty, infanticide, it used them all. Most of their themes have had social relevance. Now why are we shocked? Peter Fressola, their ex-North American spokesman, said: "Yes, we mean to shock some people with our ads, but people who are shocked by this ad have been living in a cocoon. They need to be shocked into seeing what's really going on in the world."

Isn't that it? Why are we being so genteel if child abuse, girl-child killing, rape, honour killing, misleading godmen, and political thievery are brought into focus by the brand? Isn't it exploitation enough that these issues exist and other brands try not to touch those subjects?

Adrian: Which is exploitative? To piggyback ride on these issues? Or, to not touch them?

Dushyant: That's my question! We are communicators; we speak through our brands! Or our brands speak through us. A brand speaks about itself when it talks about a product. This can be its physical qualities or its thoughts. We no longer need to talk physical qualities because Frequa watches are known. But Frequa's inner personality is not known. And it is this persona that has defined the physical qualities, don't you see? Our parts are world class, we care about honest quality. Remember 2010, when we recalled all the batteries that went into our Fq-328 when lab tests showed a slowing down.

So why should Frequa not talk about dishonesty? False marriages, boy babies, educating girls, choices women make, stealing taxpayers' money, lying to the citizens, literacy, choosing to keep the poor illiterate... Frequa wants to pry these open and lay them bare. So, say, Frequa chooses to become the voice that decries abuse of women; it can develop into a change agent and people who align with Frequa's ideas will align with the brand! Any harm? So now, as a consumer, perhaps if you believe in being a change agent, you might align your beliefs with brands that ‘feel' the same way. Frequa stands shoulder to shoulder with rape victims. There is one number that says 20,000 women were raped in 2010. They say this is the fastest growing crime in India. It used to be corruption and stealing taxpayers' money. So we are raping more than we are thieving. Both are about hunger, depravity and sick minds. Frequa draws your attention to the sign of the times.... This is brand empathy with consumers. Why are you fighting that?

Nimki Bharucha watched keenly. She didn't need to say anything. Adrian never dictated his viewpoint but he would fight Dushyant till he argued his way through. And if Dushyant did have a point, he would win anyway. That was Adrian's tack.

Dushyant: So what if the brand stands to gain? I agree, some of Benetton's visuals are not desirable, but it's a good weapon to encourage solidarity, even a passionate dialogue, with the TA!

Adrian: We are right now only talking about the shock images, but I imagine you are building the rest of the brand along these lines to allow the persona to be well rounded?

Dushyant: Absolutely. So there will be Frequa Brave Minds awards for 20-35-year-olds, Game Changer awards for 35-55, and so on. All that is in place. 

Adrian: What else have you got in there apart from the priest?

Dushyant: I will not suggest a blitzkreig of 5-6 ads. But, say, a minister who was thrown out for corruption is brought back because he made a coalition noise, Frequa can say: "Our damaged watches never make a comeback from quality control. Why should he?" So many issues are in the face — speeding cars and related accidents, and no action; rape after rape and no conviction yet! Frequa will ask, "If your brand fails you again and again and again, why keep it?" Or take this new brouhaha over government-doctored history texts, "We tell time as it is. Tell us history as it was!"

Adrian: Some positive notes too have to be struck, Dushyant. If not, the brand will seem like a cribber.

Dushyant: Yes, Frequa should showcase public victories like murder investigations, cricket wins, Anna's campaign, charitable marathons and defining moments — with the same ease as bitter cringe-worthy truths. It's all in.

Adrian: I still don't like the priest in a pub. While I agree there are great moments in these ideas that we can leverage, I ask you the same question I asked some time ago: If campaigns begin to be explicit and audiences get disturbed, isn't that enough reason to withdraw?

Dushyant: Umm, no. Some truths are truer than others. It's like saying that smokers hate being reminded that smoking kills but the warning on every pack still shocks and often curbs their smoking. For the brand in the long run, they would rather have long-term smokers than short-term, high-usage cancer patients, no?

Also, does a technology company's CSR campaign have anything to do with technology? It could be about how they help patients with, say, Parkinson's, so in the same vein they gain from such CSR coverage. It helps build the tech brand's equity. Why not through Frequa's advertising then? Related or not, ‘taking a stand' shockvertising may not be a bad idea. It is tougher to do this than show pretty girls wearing pretty clothes and then sell pretty clothes.
Adrian: You may have missed the point. IT companies' CSR for Parkinson's startles us, but helps people with Parkinson's disease. It sends home a message. Because the portrayal is true. But the portrayal of Presidents or priests kissing does not enable world peace by any stretch of imagination. And I don't see how Frequa avows to ‘correct' pubbing priests. Frankly, it is none of its business. It merely startles and then annoys. Infosys using Parkinson's is to startle you to get into action. Both are different.

Dushyant: To your mind they are different, but allow me to ask — what are renaissance brands? Brands that cause deep thinking; that cause a shift from set-in-stone thought patterns; that shake you out of complacency. If Frequa throws a lazy light on some of your holy cow beliefs and thus goads you into becoming your own conscience keeper, will people be startled? Yes, at first. Why? Because it questions their blind faith in the so-called torch bearers. It's very true, brands like having a voice and Benetton is being heard seven out of ten times.

Adrian: You quoted Peter Fressola just now — that  people are living in a cocoon and must be shocked into seeing what is going on... Why does a brand communication move away from the product and address the consumer? Now why the heck am I telling people that they are in a cocoon and know nothing about that priest in a pub? Maybe they want to tell me to go to hell but do not have a platform to say that to me? How about a brand simply behaves like a brand and not like a pulpit-preaching priest? That is one thought. The second is: In these ads, nowhere do I see product advertising. Are we making a mistake? Are we pretending to be invincible, competition-less and the best?

Nimki grinned; that was a smart tack!  

Barrun: Let me take that, Adrian. Often communication has to move away if the strategy is to be, say, less product-centric and more brand-centric. This is especially true for big mother brands where a common feel of belonging has to prevail. If the advertising message is offensive even a bit, the advertiser will pull it off the air. Even there my assumption is that some people may find it shocking, some offending, but the majority will not be offended. No one is telling the Frequa customer that they are in a cocoon. The brand is only trying to take a higher moral ground and share it with its customers!  As a person, I am so immoral on so many grounds — not religious, I drink, I shortchange, I bribe my way out of small moments ...  So the small picture of a priest in a pub or a priestess rolling a pram, never hurts me. Rather I do believe this to be partly true and natural for our times! Power corrupts and it is good that such sections are not free from censure. Should they not be censured?

Frequa/ Benetton are not sitting atop a pulpit but trying to connect, emotionally, help you see yourself, in their image, clothes, and their united mission. So yes, the category is doing fine but the brand has gone silent, and Frequa must speak!
Adrian: And Frequa derives this image from its online community-driven image?

Dushyant: See, I belong to a generation that wants white to be white. But if white turns grey, we don't throw our tees away, the grey becomes acceptable. I do wear a tee with a hole, a pair of jeans with a rip, my pen has no cap... we are okay with all this. So if a priest goes pubbing; I am cool. So should people who trod the high moral ground sin? Well, if they did, may they please step off that high ground? Frequa is also saying this: ‘Are you shocked or is it just us?'

Nimki: Point still remains na, Dushyant, elders will not be happy. This is India. Elders are serious business. Can we hurt their sensibilities?

Dushyant: Our government is also made up mostly of elders, and they are milking my country dry. They throw doctored CDs of each other in compromising situations. Are they not spending taxpayers' money for this? Sensibilities are not hurt? The brand will use this platform to gain.

Adrian: True, brand has to gain. But, typically, causing pain and distress to audiences cannot and will not equal brand success. I like the arguments but not the chosen theme. Although I know it is an indication of what else is in store.

Dushyant: Young India is not worried about technology, it is a given. It is not worried about education, it is a given. Not worried about money, it is a given if you have education. Young India is worried about a concept called ‘clean India'. This is why supporting Anna Hazare became such a big thing. Likewise, there must be a vacant spot somewhere for a brand to possess. Frequa can frequently remind us about the Anna Hazare in us. The visuals will shock only because we have chosen to be blind to reality.

Adrian sat back. He was pleased as punch.

Classroom Discussion
We all need masks to express ourselves. Is a brand also a mask for the truth of a brand?


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-05-2012)