Brand building, say experts, is about establishing a person-to-person relationship as opposed to a salesperson-to-customer relationship, and that tough conditions test the brand management skills of a manager more than anything else. In this interview, Raghu B Viswanath, managing director, Vertebrand Management Consulting, tells Saumya Prakash what it takes to get a brand up and running, and keeping it operating at peak capacity
What is the basic difference between branding as it has been defined up to now, and what it is becoming as we head into the new normal — where every thing veers around doing more for less?
So far, branding has been largely restricted to ‘visual identity and communication’. But in today’s scenario, branding has become more a function of managing the entire ‘branding process’ more efficiently. Brand managers are forced to make choices between communication options, media vehicles and juggle limited resources among multiple activities and brands. So, effective brand management has wider ramifications across the entire sales and marketing value chain.
It is clear that companies are devoting more resources to their brand management, but are they actually getting it right?
The sad truth is that many of the new kids on the block are still confusing brand building with visibility and awareness. For them it ultimately boils down to spending millions of dollars on a celebrity or advertising on the Indian Premier League (IPL). Of course, there are a handful of those that recognise that brand building is a rigorous, scientific process. It’s about choosing the right customer segment using scientific consumer research processes, it’s about avoiding the irrelevant ones, it’s about clearly articulating the brand’s value proposition in every single customer interaction. Sadly, many growing, Indian businesses continue to spend money inefficiently, caught as they are, in a trading mindset.
What is the role of corporate identity in brand valuation? Is there a conflict bet-ween brand value and shareholder value?
Corporate identity may not have such a huge impact on brand valuation, but corporate ‘equity’ sure does. The valuation of a corporate brand is in some sense, an effort to quantitatively measure the (intangible) ‘reputation’ of the entity, as opposed to simply measure its ‘recognition’. So brand valuation is a result of both the company’s market share as well as its mind share. No doubt, a well-recognised logo/symbol will have some role to play in building credibility, albeit small. Share value is to do more with market capitalisation, in a sense more strongly linked to market performance parameters. But, brand value has more to do with the intangible, intrinsic value of the brand.
As you say, the biggest problem with brand valuation is probably is one that affects the valuation of any intangible asset. How serious are Indian corporate about managing the equity of their brands? At Vertebrand, which is one aspect of brand valuation that is given utmost importance?
The whole concept of increasing brand valuation is a journey. It is not one-time audit report. A brand represents the coming together of a lot of elements-such as the product, the pricing, even the HR strategies of a company, the channel partners including the distributors and of course the consumer. You have to look at the strenghts and the weaknesses, what is working, what is not, the pricing strategy, and above all, the communication. So it is really a 360-degree approach to the business as a whole. That’s the way you have to fundamentally look at a brand.
The problem in a country like India is that people think branding is equivalent to advertising and communication. That’s not the way people look at brands anywhere else in the world. For instance, P&G — and they were the first company to do this — roped in people for a particular job and they did not call these people brand managers; rather they were referred to as brand equity managers. And the job role was to see how the equity of the brand can improve both qualitatively and quantitatively over time.
In a sense, it is that function that we are trying to replicate in India from a consulting perspective — tracking the brand in its totality. This is the philosophy that is quite similar to what is happening at Equancy.
To answer your second question, I would say we put a lot of importance on the ability to build brand value, which is different from brand valuation.
What is the most frequently made mistake by companies trying to assess their brand(s)?
The most common mistakes marketers make today are in adopting a series of tactical measures to improve brand performance. More often than not, decisions are reactive to respond to a particular situation. Holistic brand building is a strategic process with an eye on the future. It requires us to be pro-active, always in tune with changing consumer expectations and dynamics in a complex market. Sadly, we tend to ignore this, as it seems just too much trouble, given our obsession on the ‘here and now’.
How complex is the Indian market in terms of brand building and what are the challenges here for a consultancy like yours?
Branding in India is still primitive; it is extremely nascent as a practice. Too many people continue to confuse branding with brand building or brand management. The former is to do with a mere identity/ design; the latter is a long-term process requiring time and effort. In a sense, true brand building is like playing a test match in an era of T-20s. Given a shotgun mindset among many business-owners, the challenge for consultancies like Vertebrand is to be able to convince CEOs to invest in the ‘looking’ before the leaping.
Maintaining consumer connect is a difficult task even during the best of times. How does a marketer keep his consumers engaged when prices are going up, competition is intensifying and when the overall economy looks far from being healthy?
By and large it is very important to define your target customer. A brand has to mean something to somebody. It can’t represent everybody. A brand manager has to define the brand that will appeal to its target customer. So the moment you are able to define very clearly who the target customer is, which means people whom you want to talk to and whom you don’t want to talk to, you will be avoiding a set of people by design and not by default. So if you are able to define your target consumer and what I mean to them, then I think 50 per cent of the question is answered.
It’s precisely this job that we are paid for. A lot of people don’t do sufficient looking before the leaping. They decide that they have a product and there is a big market like India, they say I will spend this kind of money in this kind of media and I will be home. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Above everything else, whether times are good or bad, it is about how you can position your brand differently that makes all the difference in the market.
Can you explain how difficult or easy it is to research a brand in India given the width and depth of the market?
The tools and methods utilised are different in India and Europe. Primarily, the difference between India and the developed economies would be that in India, the information is unorgainsed. It is not readily available. Anywhere in the West, information is very easily available. A lot of information can be culled by mining secondary data and buying reports online etc. In India, we still have to do face-to-face to be able to get information. Second, the techniques used in Europe-like email questionnaires or a conference call to collect information-wouldn’t work in India. You will not be able to get the information you need within a stipulated time frame. In India any research becomes a time consuming and laborious effort simply because while we are getting professional there is still a lot of indiscipline.
Apart from these two factors, I would say it is extremely important that the marketing naunces be well researched. The Indian market is not homogeneous and therefore very complex. The needs and preferences of a person living in Maharashtra and Delhi may not be identical. In fact, brands like Coke have different campaigns for the north and the south. So customisation is more important in India than in its Western counterparts.
What sort of opportunities do you see in India in this respect? Can you talk about some of your projects and clients?
We have done a lot of work for the Indian brands that I mostly refer to as nuclear brands — small Indian brands that have ultimately gone international. In Bangalore, I would say, two of our success stories are MTR and Nilgiris. MTR is an Indian brand that ironically got bought out by a Norwegian seafood brand. Another example is W, the women’s wear retail chain. We actually were the early consultants that helped them launch the brand in India. In the retail space, Ethos is another example, which is a high end luxury watch boutique. Again we virtually created the brand. Thus we have been involved in a lot of success stories of Indian brands that we took national and then to the international level.
What we essentially do is mind-to-market that is, we help take an idea that is currently in the entrepreneur’s mind into the market and make it a reality.
You have been in India for many years now. Have the priorities of your Indian clients changed over the years? What exactly are they looking for when they come to you now?
One of the reason why we were very keen to get into the partnership with Equancy, an European boutique firm, is that many Indian clients are going global, at least mentally if not physically. Clients in non-metro cities like, Bhubaneshwar, Vijayawada and Guwahati, who are savvy, English-speaking people, are today asking us what are the global practices and trends I can adopt in India to differentiate myself in a crowded market. There is a lot of knowledge seeking in our Indian clients. Second, many Indian companies are ambitious, they are looking at the business from a long-term perspective and to want to absorb the emerging trends in the Western world as quickly as possible. So they are looking for some sort of methodology wherein the information and knowledge can be channelised.