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Can brands bounce back?

Yes, if the owners take decisive action

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Madhukar Sabnavis

India brownwashed Australia last month - a 4-0 win is as comprehensive as one can get. Yet, it wasn't much fun to watch India pile up runs, Australia crumble and every match end with a wide margin of victory. In fact, when India was batting, I told a friend that it was boring to see two players play a full day scoring centuries. As a cricket fan and an Indian team supporter, I should have been overjoyed. So, what happened? Deep down one realised that this was a second-string Australian team - has been in decline for some time and this was just a final announcement.

It has happened already once in my lifetime, in the early 1980s. When Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee retired together in one match, saw a major slump. The recovery started only in the late 1980s, with Allan Border's World Cup win in 1987. Then, after the mid-1990s, Australia became the dominant force. With the recent retirement of Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Anthony McGrath and Shane Warne, this is a second decline. Can Australia bounce back? History shows it can. However, the same history has a contra-story to tell. The dominant force of the 1970s and 1980s, Cricket West Indies, has struggled since its decline in the late 1980s to revive its halcyon days. This raises the question: can bounce back? If yes, what does it take to make it happen?

has many examples of once-leading that disappeared once their heyday was over. Kodak is a great example from the international canvas. Closer home, we have seen a number of dominant that have lost pace since the boom in the 1990s. BPL was the king of white goods; Philips was the leader in audio entertainment devices; HMT dominated the watch market; Fiat and Ambassadors meant cars; and Bajaj Tempo's Matador meant light commercial vehicles, or LCVs, in the 1980s and 1990s. Then things changed; these brands disappeared, losing ground to both "better-quality" products and more fiercely marketed brands. And some lost their popularity owing to outdated categories.

However, in the last two decades, a few market leaders have felt the heat, but seem to have come back successfully. Colgate's dominance was shaken in the 1990s owing to strong attacks by Pepsodent and Close Up, but the brand seems to have recovered ground through its sharp of variants. Maruti's position in the hatchback segment was threatened with the arrival of Hyundai, but the company has braved it aggressively by offering a slew of options in the same segment over a period of time. Bajaj's recovery has been particularly praiseworthy; once synonymous with scooters in the 1970s and 1980s, the brand took a beating with the advent of motorcycles, particularly by Hero Honda. In the last decade, the company has created at least two big brands - Pulsar and Discover - and leveraged the Bajaj name as an endorser. It, thus, re-crafted its product and brand to become once again a big force in the Indian automobile market. The latest brand in this block is Nokia. It was seemingly unshakeable in the early 2000s, with over 70 per cent of market share. Today, Nokia has been reduced to a brand with under 40 per cent share, and the battle is between Samsung and Apple. As the market reshaped, the leader brand faced flak at both ends of the market. Nokia is attempting a comeback with Lumia, but the jury is still out.

Dominance is bound to be affected when new competitors enter the market. The markets expand, as has been seen in many categories such as packaged tea, automobiles, and white goods. But this expansion leads to a decline in the market share of the leader, and that is natural. So how does the leader retain his market and mind leadership even with a lesser share?

Three things are required. First, there is a need for renovation. It could be reinvention or creation of flanker options that attack your core offering to ward off competition. This could sometimes mean giving up your past for a brighter future. Bajaj redefined itself as a motorcycle brand; it discarded its scooter heritage and created new brands to fight in the new space. Colgate carried out a series of innovations, including a variant with salt to capture consumer mind space. Maruti introduced a slew of options in the hatchback segment to give consumers greater choice and to protect its core turf. New introductions make news, thereby giving a fillip to brand image and salience.

Second, it is important to have "big battalions" - in other words, the firepower of resources to support new initiatives and strengthen the brand's image through brand communication. A has the ability and power to do this; and it needs to protect or regain one's rightful turf with all the might that past equity has helped the leader to acquire in terms of volumes and consumer equity.

Apart from these two tangible initiatives, the third requirement is the need for the brand owner or leader to have a vision to transform and fight back. Most successful brand comebacks are a result of a forced transformation, which often necessitates internal change and focus.

In the last two decades, the technology world has seen two great comebacks. Lou Gerstner successfully changed IBM - the "Think" brand - from a hardware to a services company, thus making the elephant dance again. And the other is of Steve Jobs' return and transformation of Apple from a desktop company to one that changed five industries with its iconic - yet ironic - philosophy of "Think Different" just half a decade later. When you think different, it perhaps helps to transform.

has shown the guts and gumption to continue to be passionate and fight back to regain dominance in cricket in the past. Clearly, this is different from another sport closer home: Indian hockey. India had been the dominant player for nearly half a century in hockey since 1928, but lost its way forever once the playing field changed from turf to AstroTurf in the late 1970s. When touch hockey gave way to power hockey, India failed to adapt and change.

So, brands can bounce back. But it is tough to do so, and it clearly needs decisive and focused action from the owners. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy, India.

These views are his own.

First Published: Thu, April 04 2013. 21:48 IST