Every year, millions of new brands emerge. In the digital age, where our attention spans are less than that of goldfish, a cohesive brand strategy must be crafted to capture consumer attention. In this episode, Vani tells Amit Ray about what makes a business a “brand” and the mistakes new-age brands are making.
04:50 – Marketing is not just advertising
09:24 – View the problem from the consumer lens
13:32 – Noticeability for the sake of noticeability
27:36 – Simple things that new-age founders must get right
Read the complete transcript below:-
When you brought up this topic, I think it was because you had observed some sort of issues or people had been coming to you with problems, with their branding and stuff, which you, I think, diagnosed down to these failure points or issues. So tell me more, like what this topic is in your mind.
So one of the first things Amit, that I’ve seen is that many of the things that one would expect a business to sort of sort out right at the beginning. One sees that they come to realize that, that they needed it much much further down the journey of their existence. So for example, the most common problem, one of the biggest things I work on, most of the projects that I work on, most of my entry with most clients is to help me define my proposition. Because most often I find that clients come, they’ve been doing a great job at selling as well, because that is the intrinsic nature of a founder, right? There’s something that they’re very, very passionate about. They’ve jumped into business because that is what makes an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur. And business is happening. Business is coming, but somewhere along the line, they realize that maybe consumers aren’t getting me as I expect them to get me, like one of the first projects that I started with even the Baker’s dozen. In all humility, the founders said, look, our breads are selling. But we don’t know who the consumer is and we don’t know why she’s buying us and hence we don’t know what our proposition should be. Now, I think this is the first, most important thing to even be able to ask, who is my consumer? Do I have a definition of the consumer? And do I understand from the consumer lens, what should the proposition be? Because that is the starting point to doing anything. If you know what your proposition is, only then can you write the communication brief. Only then, can you develop the strategy for your new product development. Only then, do you know if there’s anything that I’m planning to do in business, is it on strategy or not on strategy? So the first thing I would say is just this. Linked to this proposition, what we call a brand key now in various different corporations, they have different words, whether you call it the brand wheel or the brand key or the brand ladder, it’s all the same thing. Basically what we need is a single page definition of what is our brand? Now this is not an easy piece of work because one has to have a very clear articulated point of view on what is my competition frame? So even if let’s say I’m in the business of shoes, if I’m in the business of surgery, if I’m in the business of bakery, if I’m in video conferencing, what is my competitive context? How am I defining my competition? Who is my consumer, what are the relevant insights to my consumer that I’m going to leverage in order to craft my proposition? What is my headline benefit? What is my discriminator? Why will people believe me? What is my tone of voice, my personality, my brand values? All of that has to come together, unless that is defined and the proposition coming from this is defined. For a founder to move forward very often, entrepreneurs feel, let’s get a creative agency on board. If we don’t know why we’re not selling or we need to sell more, let’s quickly get a fancy advertising agency, the advertising agency will make a nice ad and then it’ll be all sorted in. In any case, no agency will tell you we can’t do strategy, it’s assumed the common misunderstanding is that marketing is equal to advertising. Advertising’s a very, very, very small part of marketing, especially what we consider that 30 second film which is considered the most glamorous, very small part of what marketing does. Marketing is actually defining strategy, I mean, one would think that if one were to replace an ad agency with marketing, one would wonder, why do CMOs at Unilever and Pepsi and wherever else, why do they get paid salaries in crores. They must be doing something sitting on their chair if they are getting paid as much. The recognition of that and to understand that we must have a clear strategy before we jump into creativity is very, very critical. We ad agencies claim to do that. That should be something that should be held closed by the founder. There should be clarity on what the business wants to pursue, the strategy and the business must be writing the communication plan.
So Vani, speaking as a founder myself, you’re actually right. I think business owners probably realize that they need to have a proposition so that the customer can understand what they’re all about. The challenge is that we know what we are selling and we know it in great detail because we’ve built it piece by piece. But it’s very difficult to figure out how that message is going to land. So I think people do craft some sort of a message or have some thought process around it, but it doesn’t land. I think that’s kind of what you’re saying, which is to the consumer this is making more sense, but to the founder, it’s making perfect sense. How does one actually do that?
Exactly, hundred percent. And what you’re saying is so spot on. I mean, for my own business, sometimes I wished there was a Vani at the other end because even for my own business, I feel that people should be able to get what I’m doing, but sometimes I wonder, am I doing a good enough job of even defining my own proposition? Because when you are very, very close to it, when you are living, breathing, doing it day in and day out, it’s very difficult to pull away and look at it with fresh eyes and to be able to do this exercise, which is why for a lot of technical businesses, I would’ve never thought at one time that, I could work with a company in financial wealth management or something highly technical or RPA, Robotic Processing Automation, a lot of these are complex. But I would’ve never thought, why would somebody come to me for finance? I look at myself as a complete dumb video on finance or on tech and I would always say that very openly, but I find that actually sometimes knowing little and being able to ask really stupid questions and being able to look at it from a distance is a great gift which it helps to be able to ask the same questions and to be able to bring it down to what would make sense to the common man?
I think Vani, you are probably answering my problem already by saying this, which is as a founder, I’m very close to the product and to the problem I’m trying to solve. And therefore I’m not able to articulate it in a way that lands well for the majority of the target audience. And maybe the way to do this is to have somebody who is interested in the problem, but not an expert in the problem, I suppose. And therefore we’ll ask the simple questions, which will kind of guide us down to what is that food thing or what is the phrasing of things that is landing very well? I’ll actually give you a sort of weird example of this. So I write on LinkedIn almost everyday. And, in my posts, I try to get people to sign up for our newsletter and I’ve been varying what I write in that call to action. And I try to link it with what I’m actually writing. This is not an exact science, but on some days I get more click throughs and some days I get less. So I’ve realized that the ones that get them more click throughs are sounding like something. And then if I maybe repeat that, I might see click throughs, more of those click throughs happening. So very sort of small example here, but the whole point is about how do I craft the message? It’s the same message every time it’s just written with some kind of word that is resonating. And I think that’s the thing that you would discover.
Hundred percent. So you know what you are doing, Amit actually, intuitively you are doing what in the marketing world, we call consumer research and you are doing this by iterative experimentation. It’s exactly what concept research is. In the traditional world, what do I do with a lot of my clients also, we test proposition cards. For most of the clients that I work with, I do consumer research where we generate different options of proposition statements, which are backed by relevant consumer insights that we then throw into research and get feedback and iterate in that research process. And you’re doing exactly that by putting out different statements on LinkedIn, you’re getting consumer feedback on it. You’re learning here, iterating and then you’re throwing something back in fresh every day when you write. It’s exactly what consumer research and it’s exactly what founders need to do. Now, there are intelligent, smart ways of doing it like you are doing it, for example when I worked with Mars on a new food project. Now over there at that time in that project, we didn’t have the luxury of doing consumer research because we were very short on timelines. So we said, instead of doing the traditional consumer research, we will test in social media. So we actually did a lot of social media mining. We spoke with food vloggers, we got food efficient ados and we tested concepts with them. So it’s just a shortcut, but essentially this is one of the very critical things that founders must definitely do, which is to see what from a consumer lens is resonating. Like you said, to me, as a founder, I feel, how much more of this can I mean? Why should people not get it? This is such a great product. It’s such a great service, it should sell by itself, which I’m sure if I were in the founder’s shoes, I’d probably say the same thing as well, but we forget that the consumer is not processing it the same way.
I think to bring this down to the tech industry, startups and new age businesses, which is the topic of this conversation, tend to be very good at AB testing and performance marketing. But what you’re saying is that the same thing needs to first be applied to the proposition. So you have to go to all this research that you’re talking about, you have to go to people and try various kinds of messaging about your core business and not get so bogged down by, hey can we tweak the copy on this Facebook ad. That’s the first step and that’s what brings us to the sharply defined proposition which maybe underlies all of this. The first thing you said is not having a sharply defined proposition and people tend to rush to an ad agency. Obviously everybody wants to stand out from the platter. So they’re trying to be, to do it creatively, to be a little different so that people will pay attention to them and then hopefully their message will come through. Is that what’s happening and what’s wrong with that?
I’ve seen these comments on Twitter as well. Now, through the entire cricket season, all of the ads that I saw, gosh, there was a very, very, very small fraction of ads, I remember Live space and I don’t know what else I remember the very small Centuryply, but a lot of these ads I find, I don’t know whether it’s my intellect, once it doesn’t get, what are they selling? You have those classic examples is Cred. I still haven’t figured what Cred does and I just couldn’t care anymore. Cred was a classic example of just getting noticeability at any cost. Then there’s this brand called Slice. There are some animals in a car and they’re speeding one ahead of the other. And I don’t know why these animals are in this car race. And how is it linked to this car and what does a car do? So there is this, what happens is that when there isn’t a clearly defined strategy, when you don’t understand that, yes, it is important to stand out, but please don’t stand out at the cost of comprehension of your product or service as founders, as advertising for, we think if we were to create intrigue, people will Google us. Please, people have their own lives to deal with and shit loads of stuff to deal with, it’s unlikely that anybody would do that. So I think this is one fundamental issue that it can’t be noticeable for the sake of noticeability, it can be clutter for the sake of breaking clutter. But I’ll tell you one brand that actually did this very well. It’s an example that I’ve used in a lot of my presentations and that is one of these Chinese phones, where there is Ranveer Singh and he’s doing this dance on I’m too sexy and it’s all captured on the mobile. And the idea is to show the quality of pictures and filming and the camera that the phone is capable of. Now, you are showing a product. And in doing that, you are using Ranveer Singh at what he does best, which is this crazy song and dance and he’s doing this, I’m too sexy number. Now that is breaking clutter while bringing the product feature alive. That makes sense. And I am a [00:14:00] great fan of Apple ads, though I’m not a great fan of Apple itself. But Apple does a fantastic job of breaking through the clutter while keeping the communication really simple and product focused. During the height of COVID, Apple took this long film on how you can actually make a full film on an Apple phone, it’s a brilliant insight, which is that I spoke, can’t make advertising anymore in studios the way we traditionally were, but you can shoot a film on an iPhone and you can edit it on an iPhone. They made such a brilliant film at that time, the whole film just brought alive everything that the Apple phone is capable of. I think one must not forget that it can’t be noticeable at the cost of comprehension of the message. It can’t be noticeable at the cost of not embedding in the consumer’s mind, what are you selling? In that respect I feel a lot of the old world advertising actually was very, very effective. One of the first things that must register is just your brand name, so if you think of the old advertising, for example, Limca Limca, Limca Limca that’s all that the ad did. There was nothing else. And it was all very category relevant. Even if it is a girl jumping into water, it’s all about refreshment and Limca being the gold standard and refreshing everything.
I was just thinking the equivalent of that would’ve been maybe Amul, the ads themselves, the hoardings, talk about nothing to do with butter and it’s nothing to do with any category. Nothing at all. How is that different though?
So Amul can afford to do that. I don’t need to know. Now everybody knows, starting from the migrant labor to my driver, to the billionaire who he knows, who sells butter. We don’t have a conversation with things like emotional advertising, the stuff that is unlinked to the product proposition in early stages, since we are talking about what new age brands typically get wrong is not the right thing to do. If people don’t know you are in the business of wealth management, then you can’t, for example, copy human nature, which is then you take the creative leap into nature and then you start showing flowers and butterflies. And for God’s sake, seeing flowers and butterflies, I don’t understand why should I be buying financial products from you or that you even sell financial products? If I don’t know who you are then first please tell me why should I do business with you? Who are you? Why should I be giving you my money? Why will you take care of my money well? First, communicate the basics.
Yeah. We talked about Amul or Cred and the way they present themselves visually. So it sounds to me like that’s a distraction from the core, how are you supposed to position yourself? So is there something in this as well? What you look like or how you present yourself or packaging?
Very well said, exactly, Amit. So, this is about my visual identity. So the first thing I talked about was defining your brand, like I said, this brand key or the brand ladder, this is very, very important to define in all these stages. And the next step of that is to define your visual identity. Now, this is something I myself have struggled with. Even though I have changed my logo two times over, even though I’m only four years old now, it’s not an easy job. Branding is not equal to just pasting your logo. No. Branding is about giving consumers very tangible handles via visual identity via it could be a Sonic identity and in many cases, brands even use fragrances or tactile feel, in order to help consumers remember that this is what the brand is. There is a reason why Paytm has that painful woman, Paytm karo, however painful it might be but that sticks, they use that relentlessly or the simple, I mean, Coke is a great example, right? There’s this beautiful case study of how even the shape of the couch that the jury is sitting on is in the shape of the Coke wave. And there is no other branding, there is no logo stuck there. It’s just a red couch. It is done in a way, when you look at that wave and supplementally you are thinking Coke, that is branding. Real test of branding is if there were no logo, if there were no logo on your uniform, on your advertising, on your POSM on your packaging, will consumers still say, oh, that’s blah, blah. Then you’ve done a great job of branding because what is branding? Branding is finally providing an aid for the consumer to be able to remember you. How is that brand gonna come to your mind? Only when you’re able to build memory muscle for the consumer. The consumer is not waking up and sleeping every day thinking about your brand or your business. No. You have to find ways of helping the consumer remember you. And in order to do that, you have to make it easy for her. So should you have a Zomato for example, Zomato has a very clearly defined visual identity. The style of their humor is very, very distinct. If you see the brand in its initial stages was all built a lot on Instagram, a lot of the quality of humor, the kind of hoardings that they did, even the little messages that they had on the delivery boxes that the men carry. There is a very concerted event to build a certain tonality and that tonality is consistent. Now, simple stuff like that. It sounds simple, but it’s actually very difficult to get. So when we do a brand book, we actually give examples. It’s not just about saying I’m a humorous brand, that’s bullshit. Or I’m a serious brand. What does that mean? There are so many different kinds of humor. There are so many different ways of communicating the same thing. So one has to have tangible examples. If this brand were to speak in social media, how would it speak? If it had to reply to consumer queries, how would it? If it had to solve a consumer problem, then how would this brand do it? If this brand had to be presented as a package to the consumer, what would it look like? If this brand had a delivery boy, what would the delivery boy look like? If this brand had a truck, what would the truck look like? Unless there are tangible examples of the visual identity, as well as the tone of voice and personality, you don’t build towards a consistent brand. Building towards a consistent brand is what builds trust. Those are supplemental messages. That’s what builds trust and trust over a period of time builds market share.
And I remember back at Uber. So I was in customer support, not exactly the place you’re thinking about branding or anything but we used to have a sort of a style guide as to how you should phrase things when you reply to customers and you would never write dear sir, because it was a very young, casual sort of brand. So it would always be first name or Hi, first name or something like that. And all the phrasing would be informal or rather semi-formal, but casual and we would try to stick to that. And you would actually train customer support agents who were using language that was not white in the spirit of what we would say. And that is a level of detail, which I’m sure people are not normally going into. And what you’re trying to say is that’s what creates the brand consistency and I agree with you. When I started Crazy Tok, I had a small brand book and all of that and I can totally see the difference it makes because now anytime we have a visual decision to make, we have a point of reference. But at least we know that we need to figure this out versus just doing any random thing and moving on.
Because we don’t realize this, actually all of the messaging, all of the processing in our minds about brands all happens at a supplemental level. There’s this beautiful book I refer to so many times, which is Jonah Lehrer, The Decisive Moment. And the fact is that every decision we make, everything that we process in our minds, we like to think of ourselves as very rational people, but that is absolute bullshit. Actually, we are all hundred percent emotional and actually every decision is an emotional decision. yesterday, I had a conversation with someone who sells shoes from Jalandhar and he makes shoes for all of the big brands in the world, all of the global brands. He says, I wanna launch my own brand and I can make a shoe that’s exactly equal to any of the global branded shoes, but I don’t have a brand. So I command zero pricing power. The shoe that sells a big brand at 10 grand, I can’t sell it for even one grand because I don’t have a brand. That is the difference in branding mix. And you were talking about consistency in the look, et cetera. There are so many brands. If you look at their Instagram feed itself, as you scroll through the feed, you can see how the look of the feed itself changes.
Please don’t scroll through the Crazy Tok feed. It looks like we changed agencies every day.
These things are very, very important to code. What’s called the visual identity. And a lot of times I was, you remember, I was having this conversation with you, even on Kurkure, for example, we didn’t have a brand book for the longest time because it’s a brand that was born indigenously. And it’s a brand that has sort of just passed on by word of mouth from one brand manager to another brand manager. Everybody believes, we intuitively know it. Teams at the agency have changed. The brand has been able to become iconic with a certain brand of humor, with certain colors, certain visual identity, but it’s all been intuitive. And I remember having this discussion with one of my CEOs, for some piece of creative that we were looking at and he said no the brand’s color is blue. I said, no, the brand color is orange. And I’m thinking, why should we even need to have this discussion? And why am I having this discussion with the CEO of the company? Because this is very, very basic. It has to be hard coded. I mean, in levers for a lot of the global brands that I worked on, everything was hard. A brand like Dove, for example, it’s a global brand, X percentage of it has to be the drop. The naked product will be shown like this with the packaging shown like this. So much of it will be white. You look at Pantene, for example. In ad after ad, if you were to hide the logo in a Pantene commercial, their branded cut through will still be very, very high. Even the model, what the model’s makeup is like, what her skin color is like, the kind of jewelry accessories she wears. If you see everything is consistent, the tonality of the ad, the hair shot, the panting hair shot is also defined. It’s those subliminal cues that build brands in the long term, it’s not about doing these flashes of creativity, having something different and then something different and then sticking the lower at the end and say, oh, we made a lovely ad, that is not going to get you sales. That might act best when you win an award or two once in a while and get you some LinkedIn kudos but that does not get business over time.
So, we talked about brand books, visual identity and so on. We’ve also said that, Hey, we shouldn’t be spending so much time trying to be overly creative without talking about the core message. Why not just do something like Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan to just come and say, here’s the product, or Shahrukh Khan, come and say, look, this is the product. This is what it does. Enjoy it. Why not just do that.
A) because Amitabh Bachchan and company are very, very expensive. B) because you don’t need them at this stage. A lot of brands, as soon as they land funding, they’re like, oh, now, which big name are we signing up? And we are gonna show the world, look, I’ve got funding and I’ve got this big hero and I’ve got this big, fancy agency, big name. Yeah, you can do all of that. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to sign up a celebrity by all means if there is a fit with a celebrity, but there are smarter ways of getting awareness. There are smarter ways of being able to communicate what your brand delivers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a celebrity. First get your brand proposition. If your basics are in place and that brand celebrity, your celebrity, that you’re signing up is going to work towards delivering business for the brand. And you are not going to spend money to make an already famous celebrity, even more famous. Then you are fine. What happens in a lot of cases is because the proposition is not defined and you are not clear about how the celebrity is going to deliver the brand message, how the celebrity is going to help you get more sales. If it is not well thought, Subhash Kamath keeps saying again and again, that most celebrity advertising in this country is not well thought through. Then you end up spending all of that money that you’ve landed up from the investor, you end up spending it to make the celebrity look pretty, to make the celebrity even more famous. People bring a celebrity at a very early stage merely to break clutter, we don’t know what it is that consumers should remember me for?
27:24 Amit Do you think this tone of messaging using the right words, emotions, et cetera, can come from consumer research or should it come from the agency’s experience that you know, because they’re building the brand?
No, it should come from what we want to be. It can’t come from consumers. You can’t ask the consumer, what should our tone be? Consumers can’t be asked to imagine. Consumers can only be asked to react to what you want to be. No innovative product would’ve ever come, if consumers were asked to imagine what, because consumers simply don’t know and why should consumers be asked to imagine? We should know what we want to be. Do I want to be a heroic brand? Do I want to be a down to earth humble brand? Do I want to be a brand that lives that takes you to a fantastical surreal world? Do I want to make you laugh in small ways? Do I wanna make you laugh at yourself? Do I just want to pull someone’s leg, whatever, be the tonality, whatever be our personality is something that we should define and we must be so, so, so clear about it. Great founders, most often actually they bring a part of their own personality even into the brand or the business. Like corporations where brand managers keep changing and even CEOs move from job to job. In the case of founder-led companies, founders are not expected to change every second day, so it’s a lot easier to maintain that defined tone of voice, personality, et cetera. Assuming you’ve defined it, assuming you have a sharp view on it, assuming what you want to do.
Mine is well and good in the sense, you are getting your message across, you’re getting better known, et cetera, but you still have to sell products. And is that something that people are actually doing or do you think they’re focusing on marketing and not on sales or focusing on sales, not enough on marketing.
See, one of the simplest things which I think goes highly under leverage is just packaging. I was talking to the founder of global bees the other day and he was telling me that even when we buy brands, one of the first things that we look for, one of the first things that we correct is just packaging, because packaging is your own real estate and that is your best form of advertising. For God’s sake when you are doing packaging, make sure that your packaging is so hardworking, that it is your best ad. When it sits on the shelf, assuming it’s a product, then the packaging communicates what it must. Making use of that and packaging is also very, very important considering we are all scrolling on the phone. So, when you have to be available on the marketplace, your packaging has to jump out in that scroll. Am I able to clearly see the brand name? Is there something about the packaging that’s going to pop because after all, you are hustling for space, you are hustling for the consumer’s attention, fighting for the consumer’s attention even in that scroll. So packaging, I would say is one of the simplest things that goes too often, founders don’t give enough attention to packaging. Also, having a very pretty little logo with pretty little things or not showing if it’s a food product, for example, not adequately building true value on the face of the product is a big no-no. It’s a huge opportunity wasted. The second simplest thing is when you are a young company, don’t shy away from creating shitloads of content. Because content is cheek and think of the amount of content that you could create with the money that you would otherwise spend to make a 30 second ad or even to air a 30 second ad, I’m saying, so if you have to build what we call thought leadership, then whatever be the subject, whether it’s baking or shoes or video conferencing, or financial management or whatever it is. This is the simplest way of being able to tell your audiences that look, I know my shit and this is relevant for all business. So find the right platforms. You don’t have to spread yourself thin, identify who your audience is and make sure that you are creating ample content to be able to stand out, even with content that’s simple and cheap. And the other one is just making sure that on all the key market choices you are discoverable because eCommerce, there are two things you need to do. The first is discoverability and the second is reducing friction. How do you get discoverability by making sure that you are present on all platforms where the consumer is present? So please make sure that you are discoverable, whether it’s on Amazon or anything else, are you featuring on the top? Are you there in the sponsored ads, in your scroll? If the consumer were to land on your product and click on it. Are the different little posts, the picture and the videos, et cetera, all hardworking? Make sure that you are discoverable and second reduces friction, which is the journey till payment and ideally even till referral, is all really smooth? Those are the simple things that one should focus on as a new age founder.
So before we close maybe the other things, you would recommend that a person start outright doing these two or three things.
So first get your proposition right. Make sure you have a clearly defined brand or construct the brand identity linked to that is define your visual identity and visual I’m saying because it’s the most apparent actually, if you can then go step further and even develop a sonic identity. And the other one would be don’t try and advertise everything, identify what is your hero product? You cannot advertise everything that there is this simple concept in marketing, which is you have to have an equity building range and a volume building range. You advertise what you think you can build equity with, like we were discussing earlier Amit, Apple doesn’t advertise all of their products, Apple doesn’t advertise the phone that they launched five years back. Mercedes doesn’t advertise its lowest end Mercedes or something that’s mid segment and identify what is your hero product because you need the consumer to associate your brand with certain hero attributes in her mind. What are those hero words? What are those associations that you would like the consumer to remember you buy and hence make sure that your advertising is building those associations. Then there is, of course, the larger marketing plan, which addresses how you will sell the rest and participate in different categories, but identify what is your hero product. So I think those would be the two, three things which are to make sure you have a sharply defined proposition, make sure you have a brand book, which is the brand key and your visual identity and make sure you’ve identified, what is your hero product? What is your equity building portfolio versus the volume driver?
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