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Madhukar Sabnavis: In search of rarity

Brands need to retain specialness to stay competitive

Madhukar Sabnavis 

In the 1970s, a cricket Test match involving India was awaited with much anxiety and excitement. For days before the match, there used to be debates and discussions on what the team composition would be – who would be in and who out – what the pitch conditions would be, or the weather; and past records would be scoured to understand what the country’s chances of winning were. The match would be followed intently on radio through the voices of people like and on AIR, and on the and on — and this would be often ball by ball, with pocket transistors stuck to the ear, or in a group when outside. Wins would be savoured for many days after the match — India’s first triumph in England in 1971, our historic 400-run chase in the West Indies in 1975 and our so-close defeat in Australia in 1977-78 were discussed for weeks after the event.

And the pain of defeat also lingered longer. For weeks after our three-zero whitewash in England in 1974 or the two-zero defeat in Pakistan in 1978, the sadness and frustration of losing was a topic of conversation. In a ration economy, cricket was also rationed and came once, at most, each season: a summer away tour and a winter home series. The options for entertainment were limited — the cinema hall and the radio. It was a simpler world, and this made the game special.

Today, the sport has grown in size, in terms of both money and eyeballs. But the intensity of involvement is different. There was little time to savour the World Cup win last year. A week later, the cricket aficionado became engulfed in the Indian Premier League. The trauma of defeat to England was quickly followed by two series at home — against the Windies and the same English team. The agonies and the ecstasies come and go faster. We live in a world of plenty of options for entertainment and recreation, and cricket is just one offering. While media magnification does over-dramatise the highs and lows, they pass by quickly, too, as the next big event catches our attention.

That’s not surprising. As categories get crowded, brand pyramids – from awareness to loyalty and advocacy – do tend to move from rectangles to something more like triangles. This indicates a reduction in the depth of the relationship. As cricket becomes more common, it’s more widely enjoyed but loses its specialness, both in emotions and consumption.

Let’s move from cricket to the other Indian disease: cinema. There is something different about compared to other stars, even the other Khans. Sarfarosh, Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, Ghajini and 3 Idiots are six films he has done in the last decade; all hits. He did have misses too — however, understanding his approach to film-making makes for an interesting study. He is selective, doing only one movie every year or year and a half. He chooses his roles carefully to create anticipation and excitement around every release. Unlike other celebrities, who thrive in a world of media exposure – for the opportunities are many – he is very careful about being media-accessible. He is very visible close to his releases, and then goes low-key afterwards, almost disappearing. There are strains of in his method of media management. What makes special, both as a star and in his movies, is the low frequency with which he is seen.

In search of rarityIn their book The Experience Economy, Pine and Gilmore opined that, as branding moves from commodity to product to service to experience, the final frontier will be when only exist in the world of transformation. True will promise transformation, in which consumers enter in and move out with a “life change” — e.g. education, health and management consultancies. However, one other world could also exist: the one of rarity. Brand power will continue to rule when the product or the stories around the product create an “aura of rarity”.

Exclusivity of access and affordability is clearly a domain reflected best in the luxury category. Luxury operate on the formula that they can be afforded by 0.1 per cent, desired by 4.9 per cent, and remain alien to the other 95 per cent. The 4.9 per cent participate in the brand by buying a small part of it, e.g. an accessory of a fashion brand. Luxury operate by making themselves hard to get. The environment in which they are sold is consciously “intimidating”, revelling in creating a distance between the brand and the accompanying discomfort.

However, two other domains are also worth considering. Authenticity is one. Darjeeling tea, Basmati rice, Scotch whisky and other such categories, which have rich source stories, create rarity by just building on the specialness of how the brand has been created. Originality is another. The pioneer – the first one either in invention or in mass legitimisation – has the advantage of being special in reality or perception. The first man on the moon and the first man to climb Mount Everest always hold a special place in consumers’ minds — and brands, going into their origin story, could always have a hidden gem to make themselves special. There is a charm about Levi’s since it’s the original, just as there is a charm about Coke because it is the original cola with the “mystical” Atlanta formula, and Vespa is the original scooter.

Rarity can be built on myths. Coke did it well many years ago, by creating a Santa Claus who today lives beyond the brand. Cadbury invented the half-day, working on Saturday, and that remains a hidden secret. And Vespa has been part of many Hollywood romances. Hidden in the history of are stories that could add to magic and specialness, that create the aura of rarity.

Exclusivity, authenticity and myths are three ways of creating rarity — and there could be many more. However, what’s common is that they all add to specialness.

People naturally want something that’s hard to get. That’s a truism. As categories get democratised and become commonplace, need to add a little aura and mystique to make themselves special. From the lessons of cricket and Aamir Khan, one recognises the power of rarity. Imbuing it is a good way ahead for

Something worth thinking about.  
These views are personal

First Published: Fri, February 03 2012. 00:55 IST