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Why Did Sarlaben Change Her Mind?

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Abhinav varia and salma ali stood near the mango stalls from where they could see the cold section clearly. They were at Spencer’s Supermarket. Although they had come to check the shelf display and the POP  of their juices, they now watched the cold section where the multibrands nestled together.

Abhi was a senior brand manager at Kino Foods and Beverages; he looked after the Kanto brand of juices and health drinks. Salma was his colleague. For a few seconds, the two talked about the frosted window not being a good idea as it prevented a clear view of the products. Then they argued why it was, in fact, a good idea, and instead said the milks should have been in a different section.... Just then a customer strolled in with her grown up daughter and a large trolley. The lady picked up a one-litre pack of Kanto and examined it, her head tilting backwards, her eyes straining through the lower part of her spectacles. Now she was saying something to her daughter, who ducked into her range of vision, read something, then they said some words to each other. The lady turned the packet around several times, then urgently flipped the carton and saw the bottom. Her daughter said something engagingly and lady nodded sagely. Presently, she put the carton back on the shelf, picked up another brand, barely glanced at it, and put it in her trolley and went ahead.

Both Salma and Abhi  were surprised. “Wow! What was she doing looking at Kanto Juice? The time she spent on the Kanto carton belies her eventual decision,” said Salma.

Abhi: When a consumer drops my brand and chooses another option, I stand to lose. How am I to know what happened in her head?
Salma: Or, or, or, what were the considerations that made you choose another brand over me in the purchase basket? That is a question the brand manager should be asking. Want to catch her in the cash queue and ask her?
Abhi: No, no...  could be intrusive. Ok, let us say her name is Sarlaben and her daughter is Tara. Will Sarlaben  remember why she dropped Kanto for another? Was it that Brand B was nicer even if Brand A met their considerations? Or was Brand A lacking and if so, what was it lacking, can she recall all that clearly?
Salma: I am not sure about any of these.  The choice of one brand over another may well be a hygiene issue. It need not be the absence of a desired attribute in the rejected brand Kanto. Nor will I say she rejected Kanto. She likely was looking for something which she was unable to find on the pack. The picking up of Brand B instead does not mean she found that missing attribute there; it just means Kanto did not meet something. 
Abhi: But she did pick up Kanto first. That was her first choice. Now am I to believe she is indifferent to Kanto and the other brand?
Salma: Likely. Ok, you take cheese, for example. Amul, Vijaya, Britannia — I am indifferent to all of them. Unless someone asks me to get a particular brand, I go with any of them. And price-wise too, they are all nearly in the same range. So, say, I pick up Amul and I can’t find the expiry date readily, or whatever,  I will immediately pick up another brand where the expiry date meets my needs, as at that stage what sets one brand apart from another is this value.
Because in self help stores, finding expiry dates and the amount of shelf life left is my problem as consumer. Only the kirana chap reads it in a jiffy and tells you! Yet, I must tell you, I am not likely to  remember why I did not pick up a given brand — in a category where I am indifferent. In fact, the next time I am at that supermarket, I would have forgotten that I had hovered over  Brand A and then chosen Brand B. Maybe the difficulty did not exist the next time? This happened to me last month —I bought Brand A of milk, when I usually buy Brand B. And I could not explain why I had not bought the usual brand.
Abhi:  No, Salma, Sarlaben picks
up a product-brand, makes some conversation with it in her silence, puts it back, then picks up another brand and moves on. What happened there? Why did she drop Kanto? Or why did she choose Brand B instead? Did she choose B or did she reject A? Does a brand owner ever get to find out why Sarlaben changed her mind?
Salma: The brand owner can never find out or enter this moment without intruding. And if he does that, he will inhibit the consumer. Unless he places cameras. Even then you only know what she dropped and what she chose, but never the ‘why’ of either decision. Both thoughts reside in her mind.

I tell you, Abhi, I am convinced that the consumer himself/herself does not remember why he/she dropped one brand and chose another. Often this happens in categories where all players have reached a level of parity in the quality and delivery.
Abhi: But something does happen at that moment of choice.... what is it?
Salma: Maybe something was not right. Maybe the packet looked dented? Or wet, or soiled or...
Abhi: Very unlikely with Kanto, but even so, what was it? What changed her mind?
Salma:  How about that she was disappointed — that is, the brand presented itself in an avatar that either alarmed or disappointed her. I am thinking.... Like say, an offer is on and you expected to see the offer on the pack. Or there are variants of the brand — vanilla, pista, orange... and you do not get your preferred flavour. But more than all these, Abhi, what I would worry about are consumer issues which the consumer never reports. Either you have not asked or I have not bothered/cared to report. 
Abhi: Or.... it did not make a difference to Sarlaben whether or not the brand had corrected a mistake? For example, on a flight recently, the coffee that was served was worse than bad. In a blind test, even a non-coffee drinker would have sworn that this was not coffee. The air hostess told me it was Senator Coffee. While I don’t drink Senator, I  can tell you it takes art to ruin that brand of coffee!
Read Analysis: B.S. Nagesh and Arun Narayan

Now 350 people sat in that Boeing and I estimate that 10 per cent must be coffee drinkers. Are you saying 30 consumers were indifferent to bad coffee?

And that is my point, people don’t report a bad product always. On an aircraft, there is no brand choice, only one brand,  one ‘supplier’,  one opportunity — during takeoff you can’t get coffee; during descent you can’t get coffee, in between these you can get  coffee only when the trolley comes to you. And that is once. Consumers do not always complain. Or they do to the wrong person, that is, they don’t have access to the right person to whom their complaint will make sense. Like this stewardess was not the right gal. She was sad that I didn’t like her coffee. But she did not know what to do with my complaint. She was not trained to deal with complaints.
Salma:  Ditto Sarlaben... There needed to be access to someone who could answer her query.
Abhi:  Yes, so the air hostess was not my problem solver; but I do think that at her level she needed to ask me what part of the coffee I didn’t like — the taste, the temperature, the thickness,
the what? So, I suspect the brand never expected that its coffee will fail. Hence it did not plan for this contingency. You are right, that is what happened to Kanto too. At the self-service point, when a doubt arose, the consumer Sarlaben did not have anyone who could address it.
Salma: Whereas, in a kirana store, she would have immediately screwed up her nose and told Ramnikbhai, the store man, ‘I don’t want this because..’ In that case, she will remember why she rejected the brand. But then under what conditions will she not remember why she rejects a brand or selects a brand ... Those conditions are important for us.

In self-help stores you also have a huge variety staring at you, so there is not enough time to converse with each one. Hence it will depend on what her orientation is when she picks up a brand. Often a consumer has a familiarity within a product category and within that her is indifferent about a select basket of brands. Like you and cheese. In a supermarket setting, this plays out best, for there she is faced with her basket of preferred brands all at the same time and the act of making a choice is far subtle. What is witnessed is that she picks up a brand, and that choice may reflect on her recall of that brand over others. But this is not to say that she rejects the others. It just means that she has reached for this brand, then she checks for something, and then when this is not met, she moves to another brand in her consideration set. What did she look for?
Salma: It would depend:  price, packaging, promise, shelf life, date expired, ... I am trying to recall my cheese moment.
Abhi: Clearly, there  was something you were seeking which you did not find in the first attempt nor the second but you did in the third on the basis of which you made your choice. Here too, if we had asked Sarlaben  instantly it would be top of mind and she would have been able to give the precise reason then. Even 10 minutes later, she need not recall.
Salma: I know... I am thinking of this phenomenon. What happens? She forgets?
Read Analysis: B.S. Nagesh and Arun Narayan
Abhi:  It is not about remembering. We are guided by our inner checklist of attributes. That’s how a customer  makes decisions in a supermarket situation because the complexity of the decision making is much higher — and it is under time pressure, it is under stress.
Salma: How do you mean stress?
Abhi: See, supermarket shopping is supposed to be a very joyful experience. Being there in good lighting, amid many people, so many brands, light music... all that is very restoring. But increasingly I am coming to see that I am stressed out. Because you realise that the more time you want to spend the less time you have to spend. This is a function of a crazy number of brands calling out to you from the shelves, with attractive packaging and then you have to read the fine print to find out who is this brand? What is the state of origin? Is it a known house of products? Dependable?

Then, there is the population pressure!  Supermarkets are so crowded! And then, you are always conscious that you have only so much time to shop.  I leave on a Sunday morning to buy 12 things on my list and 90 minutes in which to do it. I already know the check out will take 25 minutes, so that brings 90 down to 65. You know you came in thinking that you have 90, you have spent 30 minutes looking for  greens or getting other vegetables weighed. That leaves me with 60 minutes, less 25 for checkout, that is only 35 minutes in which to complete my list. You are now under stress. In those situations, brands have a make or break situation when  a consumer cannot find basic information.
Salma: Do you think Sarlaben rejected Kanto because she  could not find some information? Oh, heck, maybe!

In such a scenario, should not a marketer be alert to the fact that consumers look for some information on the pack?  Nobody looks at Amul and puts it in their bag even if that brand name is huge. They examine it for the variant; they do turn the pack over to read specific, current info which is germane to their purchase. Such as expiry date. Especially when there are many new variants on the shelf. Because some variants are slow movers and we are cynical that supermarkets will ‘get rid’ of their slow moving stocks by cunning plans....

We are dependent on a supermarket system to ensure we get fresh products, by keeping their inventory management tip top. Or maybe the consumer has just learnt of a new health information on the Internet. Like a friend who had heard that some cheeses use lecithin, which her religion forbade. So, she spent time staring at all the cheeses!
Abhi: So, your thought is that some information was missing... Expiry dates cannot be missing. They are required by law. Or maybe it was there but she could not find it readily...
Salma: Have we as brand managers ever asked a consumer what all she needs to know to complete her usage of a product? We live in a tropical climate. We need to know how our Kanto Juices needs to be stored. I have often wanted to ask our R&D guy, can I empty out the one-litre pack into a bottle and store it in my fridge,because I don’t like paper cartons, worse, open paper cartons? Our pack gives a toll free number. How do I know if the answer the call centre girl gives is a researched reply?

Or, can I use the orange juice to marinade chicken? What will happen if I boil it? Or what happens if an open carton gets left out for 6 hours... will I die if I drink it?
Abhi: I know what you are saying, but we cannot have all that information on a pack for heavens’ sake.
Salma: But I as a consumer have these questions! Who will answer them? So, tell me more! Ingredients and calorific values, yes cool. But engage with me more, I mean. How much does our packaging communicate with me? So what did Sarlaben look for and did not find? I think the consumer who is paying for your brand, who is choosing your brand, he is the one who is buying, voting with his money, buying the contents of the packet, he is communicating to you there is an intention to consume what is in the packet. So along with the product what other data is critical to his consumption?

There are some tetra packets that say expiry date is three months from date of manufacture. But even Kanto does not say in how many days after opening it must be consumed!

I don’t think food marketing has matured in India. It is not about getting good food to the people; it is yet as primitive as getting rid of stocks from  my stores, by hook or crook. Examine any food product; that it is elitist and writes only in English, is one thing; but there is worse.
Abhi: Ok... let us take a look at some products then... yeh zaroori hai! 
To be continued...

Read Analysis: B.S. Nagesh and Arun Narayan

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-07-2014)

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