India’s best marketers

Aamir Khan is known to be a method actor—and a perfectionist. He studies his roles, however small, in great detail and always gets into the skin of his characters. So, it came as little surprise when he dazzled the nation in 2002-03 in his avatar as Coca-Cola’s brand ambassador. As a paan-chewing rustic with kohl-lined eyes, he spouted “Paanch Matlab Chhotta Coke” in immaculate Uttar Pradesh idiolect. It was a killer dialogue.

The company had just launched a 200 ml “small” bottle of its iconic beverage for Rs 5 in an attempt to penetrate deeper into the market and attract new consumers on the affordability plank and also to get existing ones to, perhaps, consume more.

The killer line succeeded beyond its creators’ wildest dreams—the ad bagged an EFFIE Gold in 2004, an award instituted by The Advertising Club Bombay in partnership with the New York American Marketing Association, to measure effectiveness of campaigns—but almost killed Coke’s India dreams as well. “We simply couldn’t afford to keep selling Coke at Rs 5 and were soon awash in red. It could have worked as a one-time ‘burst’ activity, or something that could open up a key market area for consumption. But it just went on for too long and we had to pull it back,” says Atul Singh, President & CEO, Coca-Cola India—a classic case of a marketing campaign getting ahead of itself. The point to be noted here is that “marketing is not only about advertising but about its four Ps,” says Amitava Chattopadhyay, L’Oreal Chaired Professor of Marketing Innovation and Creativity, INSEAD.

That’s a point that companies such as Coca-Cola India realise now and are being widely acknowledged for. That’s also something that others, who do not learn, will, willy-nilly, be forced to do the hard way.The Coke campaign may have attracted new consumers, but the implementation of the strategy was a failure as, Singh admits, it was not executed with the care it deserved. And herein lies the critical difference: is the marketer conscious of the end that the strategy seeks to achieve? If market expansion leads to losses, is that a conscious decision?

The annual listing of India’s Best Marketers features some players who did not have healthy bottom lines to report, but had still managed to expand their markets. Examples: Kingfisher Airlines in 2006 and Tata Sky in 2007. The intent here is to measure marketing success to the exclusion of all other parameters.We seek to not just acknowledge the success of individuals, institutions and corporations, but also present a sampling of players that have opted for different routes to prise open their key constituencies.

This time, we have an assorted list of marketers— some of whom have taken a detour from the brazen, advertising-led approach (nothing wrong with that, if it works)—who have, in several canny ways, successfully wooed their stakeholders and audiences into buying into their propositions.

India's best marketers (List in alphabetical order)

* Airtel

* Axis Bank

* Cafe Coffee Day

* Coca-Cola India

* Fabindia

* Idea Cellular

* Indian School of Business

* Lalit Modi

* Moser Baer

* Narendra Modi

* Titan

This year’s list of Best Marketers in India has been short-listed from suggestions given by an eminent panel comprising Arvind K. Singhal, Chairman, Technopak Advisors; Rahul Bhasin, Managing Partner, Baring Private Equity Partners (India); Harish Bijoor, Brand Specialist & CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults; Amitava Chattopadhyay, The L’Oreal Chaired Professor of Marketing-Innovation and Creativity, INSEAD; Shripad Nadkarni, former Marketing Head of Coca-Cola India and now Director, MarketGate Consulting; and Sukanya Kripalu, former CEO of Quadra Advisory, former Head of Marketing at Kellogg India and now an independent marketing consultant.

Significantly, these marketers are being profiled at a time when there is a very real fear of the global slowdown rubbing off on the Indian economy and many experts are questioning the very relevance of marketing as a function. With mounting global pressure on growth, media heads across across different countries admit that companies are becoming cautious in their approach and many are cutting marketing spends as a knee-jerk reaction to the slowdown. So, how relevant is this function? And what should companies do to protect their turfs?

Seth Godin, marketing theorist and best-selling author of many books, including All Marketers Are Liars and Permission Marketing, has a relevant post on his blog: “When times are good, buying things is a sport. It’s a reward. The story we tell ourselves is that we deserve it, that we want it and why not? When the mass psychology changes and times are seen as not so good, the story we tell ourselves changes as well. Now, we buy out of defence, to avoid trouble. Or we buy because something will never be as cheap again. Or we buy smaller items for the same sense of reward. Of course, the two different extremes can lead you to buy the very same thing. It’s not the thing so much as the story. Starbucks was the indulgence of a confident person happy to blow $4 on a cup of coffee. Starbucks can also become the small indulgence for the person who just traded down to a small rented apartment. The challenge for marketers is to figure out how to change the story they are living so that their customers can change the story they tell themselves. What you make, where you make it, who makes it, how it’s priced and sold... they all add up to a perception. If you change these elements, the story will change, too.”
Marketing experts are the first to admit that marketing works only in tandem with several other inputs. And after having gone through the gamut of experiences and economic scenarios, they are acknowledging a return to the basics—the four Ps of marketing: product, price, positioning and placement (or distribution). “Of course, the books tell you that the 4Ps are for products. For services, we need to add three more Ps (Process, People and Physical evidence),” says Y.L.R. Moorthi, Professor of Marketing, IIM Bangalore. According to him, process is the key to the success of dabbawallahs in Mumbai. People are key to Disney’s success, just as physical evidence is the key in experiential services like Choki Dhani (a restaurant that serves ethnic Marwari food in Jaipur). “With camel rides, ethnic dresses, photographs, somebody to wash your hands, somebody who serves with the love of a mother... Choki Dhani has converted eating into a treat of physical evidence. In services, the last three Ps are crucial,” says Moorthi. He adds that in recent times, yet another P—pace—has become important. “BPL took 25 years to reach sales of Rs 1,500 crore; LG did it in three years,” he explains.
The economic boom of the last several years had allowed companies to experiment with marketing virtually on a blank slate. That party seems to be winding down to a close now. “It’s a tough market; the media is far more complex today and it’s difficult to catch certain target consumers… but in many ways, the challenge is no different today than what it was earlier,” says Kripalu.

There was never a time when customers were not price sensitive. There was also never a time when customers were only price sensitive. “If all customers are price sensitive please tell me why multiplexes are so crowded? The point is value. Do you think people will really buy a Mercedes Benz if it were to sell at half its price? It will very likely be mistaken for a fake. People moved from Surf to Nirma for a price advantage in the ’70s. But people also moved from HMT to Titan in the ’80s and ’90s. If you give the right value, people will pay the price for it. Bad times should not be used as an excuse for bad marketing,” says Moorthi.
Indeed, on a more grim note, Anand Halve, Co-founder of Chlorophyll, a brand & communications consultancy, warns that the biggest challenge is not a marketing one, but a business challenge. “If the financial and investment community is going to ask for relentless growth, companies (especially publicly-held ones), are going to find themselves forced to launch products that don’t work,” he says. In fact, he adds that companies will be forced to stretch brands “so that a brand like Pierre Cardin, which was a premium brand at one time, is a mass, cheap, brand today. Or, a brand like Louis Vuitton is going to create lower price products in search of top line growth, and risk destroying its brand equity”.

Point taken! Marketing is dead. Long live marketing.

Idea stretch: Marketers have to think of ideas and strategies that have themes around which stories can be built, to allow for continuity across media platforms and to sustain the interest of viewers

Social consciousness in branding: There’s growing awareness and sensitivity towards responsible living and respect for resources and the environment

Humour: Nothing succeeds like humour and everyone remembers a good laugh. but it’s a recourse that needs strategic thought; else, it can go horribly wrong

Peer-to-peer networking via online and mobile media: The challenge is to be of relevance to tribes of like-minded connections and not be treated as spam

Recognition of the individual: There are many shades to defining this identity; there is growing confidence in the nation, the individual (comfortable in the way one is) and regional individuality

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