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Madhukar Sabnavis: The ancient art of persuasion

Advertising can be inspired by Chanakya's principles

Madhukar Sabnavis 

The big media story of last month was the nominations for the Indian presidency. The tale saw a lot of twists and turns, with coalition partners becoming opponents and antagonists becoming bedfellows. Clearly, was at work behind the scenes. This is not surprising since we do not live in either a monopolistic or an oligopolistic political market; ours is a multi-brand, competitive one. Dictates or dictatorial summons don’t work; people have to be “persuaded” to accept a point of view — and this is where Chanakya and his four principles of saam, daan, dand and bhed come into play. This is not a treatise on the behind-the-scenes happenings of the presidential nomination, but an exploration of the same principles in — the world of persuasion, no longer hidden but quite explicit. has been built on the same four principles the world over. We in India have seen three at work over the last two decades as markets have become competitive and has evolved.

Saam, the process of explaining and advising, has been the cornerstone of brand-building. Whether it was the (unique selling proposition) of Rosser Reeves in the sixties or the (unique selling emotion) that it evolved into, classic brand messaging hinged on explaining benefits to consumers and getting them to understand the value of the brand in their lives — rationally and emotionally. Much of Indian in the nineties and early 2000s was based on this principle. As new product categories and global brands with strong emotional equity entered the market, the key task was saam — explaining yourself to the consumer. “Anti-dandruff” and “no hair loss” are strong propositions for consumers to be persuaded to choose one shampoo in preference to another, as long as it was a problem that they experienced and hence resonated with. Similarly, putting emotional spins of “social confidence” or “mother-child concern” moved the heart for consumers to prefer one brand of toothpaste to another, as long as the emotion was real.

But as the market evolved and became more competitive, quality got commoditised and consumers became savvier. Simultaneously, marketers began to seek scale, more “rational” consumers needed to be targeted, and, so, deeper-ingrained behaviours and deeper-held beliefs needed to be challenged. Daan was a quick-fix solution — providing incentives to buy through sales, offers, promotions and the like. In the early nineties, when a “premium” watch brand wanted to go on its first sale, the agency had a strong resistance to the brand giving a “price off”. We felt that the brand was being diluted and we should be able to sell on our values and proposition and didn’t need to incentivise consumers. In order to convince us, the client had to refer to international luxury brands having annual sales. Today, daan is the norm. Walk through any premium mall and at least twice a year brands are on sale. It’s a business reality that to keep inventory going, old stocks need to be pushed out to make room for new ones; and, to keep a factory going, it is a necessity. While there are brand-conscious consumers who will pay a premium to own a brand early at full price, there are many more hardened consumers who need to be enticed to break their inertia. Volumes and continuous throughput depend on this larger set, and this is where the second principle provides quick gains.

As markets continue to evolve and get crowded, branding needs new tricks to stay ahead of the curve. That’s where dand, or the principle of instilling fear, comes in. Basing the brand message on a deeper consumer fear pushes harder, and finding that sweet spot is critical. Cooking oil brands with healthy ingredients tap into fears of heart attacks, and soaps with germ-killing properties evoke the fear of dysentery and diarrhoea to create differentiation and get consumer attention. Traditional marketing believed in providing positive stimulus to move consumers; however, when saam and daan fail, the next attempt is to employ dand to persuade. This could be the next thrust for branding. Fears could be emotional too — the feeling of being left behind and the fear of losing social face, for example, are very powerful emotions in an affiliative society like ours.

Chanakya's principlesAnd then comes bhed, the principle of dividing or creating haves and have-nots. The world over, cult brands have succeeded in doing that: espousing philosophies and points of view that can evoke strong likes and dislikes, polarising to get deeper loyalties. Though it may sound Machiavellian, it’s a powerful branding tool. While the fundamental principle of branding is about creating “liking”, as brands gain mass popularity and quality gets commoditised, the power of a brand weakens. This is where making choices and appealing to a sub-segment come in. Whether in individualistic or collective societies, people are fundamentally different and want to be different — and finding the sweet spot to drive difference is an opportunity for brands. High-priced luxury brands create clubs based on affordability. Many youth brands do the same with their philosophies — Diesel’s “Be Stupid”, Harley-Davidson’s “Break free” or Benetton’s “Unhate”. The aim is to provoke, and the test is that the messaging while being liked by one group needs to be rejected by another, even if only for being absurd. It must connect and disconnect simultaneously. Imagine an Indian beauty brand that promotes “dark is beautiful” in a culture in which fairness is so revered. Or another brand that leverages the cultural pride of language or caste in a world that believes in unity of people to drive division. Bhed is about finding a deeper secret of a group – a secret that makes the group feel different from the rest – and exploiting that difference to make your brand connect.

Clearly, the age-old principles that Chanakya expounded are as relevant to commercial business and marketing today as they were then for, perhaps, political purposes. He smartly identified deep motivations that could get people on your side; and that is what attempts to do. So, there is much to learn from, and be inspired by, saam, daan, dand and bhed. A presidential nomination in a coalition political world is not very different from marketers trying to entice consumers in a competitive, branded world. Something worth thinking about.

These views are personal. The interpretation of Chanakya’s principles is an adaptation based on colloquial understanding.  

First Published: Fri, July 06 2012. 00:19 IST