Madhukar Sabnavis: Move up, brands!

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 04, 2010 19:51 hrs

Three years ago, I was presenting the agency point of view to a client, gesticulating my hands passionately. Suddenly, I noticed my client was getting distracted — his eyes roving around me. I put my hands down, pen in hand, when he suddenly asked to see my pen. He felt it admiringly, particularly noting the star on the cap of the pen. "A Mont Blanc," he asked smilingly. I had received the pen as a token of appreciation after a client workshop I had conducted. I never gave much attention to the pen, as I would never have "wasted" money on a mere pen. But after this event, the value of the pen went up in my eyes. My client would have loved to have that pen, my heart didn’t allow me to give it away. I realised the power of a "premium" brand. In my estimate, in the long run, brands will exist only in two categories — transformational (e.g. education, health services, consultancies) and top end (luxury included).

True, "luxury" products (or brands) are owned by 0.001 per cent while another 4.999 per cent are able to afford only a "part of it", and the rest 95 per cent find them alien and irrelevant. The 0.001 find it valuable partly because the 4.999 want it but can’t own it! The core of luxury is rarity and soul. And true, "luxury" is the exact opposite of true "mass". If accessibility defines "mass", luxury is "inaccessible for most"; luxury is "unaffordable" (versus the affordability of mass), it doesn’t fit into people’s lives; people fit it into their lives. Exclusion is the name of the game through pricing and limited additions, and it’s more about special, unique features which often tend to be even irrelevant. In the last few months, there has been much buzz about luxury — malls, brands, super-rich and even stepped-up advertising campaigns in glossy magazines with the presence of both familiar and "unpronounceable" names!

However, as Indian markets evolve and consumers become richer, a new wave is waiting to be unleashed. If the 1990s unleashed the "consumerist" India, the next decade is likely to witness "premiumisation’. The big opportunity lies between the "mass" and "luxury" markets — call it super-premium, prestige or masstige. This market actually delicately manages the paradoxes between affordability and unaffordability (through "stretch"); between accessibility and alienation (through right distancing) and between "fit in my life" and "dream" (through being aspirational). This is an opportunity to get consumers to pay disproportionately more by playing up the right emotional buttons!

Culturally, India is just right for such products. At one level, we are thrifty, austere, frugal; we recycle to extract more value and love striking hard bargains. We idolise spartan living (the way Brahmins and ascetics lived life in mythology) and believe in "simple living, high thinking". Gandhi is the role model for the same. Yet, at another level, for us "big is beautiful", we are known for the big, fat, loud Indian weddings, gold is bought not only to be hoarded but displayed specially on social family occasions just like silk sarees and gluttony is never frowned upon. The modern-day businessman symbolises the same. Our heroes in our epics — Ram and the Pandavas — lived lives of "pauper and prince" with quiet equanimity. Wealth is not grudged or frowned upon as long as there is benevolence and generosity that go with it.

Four interesting cultural truths make India readymade for "premiumisation". First, we are a hierarchical society where status is embedded. "Rajas" lived wealthier lives than "praja" and that was acceptable. Second, we are affiliative and so society matters. What others feel about us is as important as, if not more, what we feel about ourselves — others’ views are markers of who we are. Third, we are an expressive race and unabashed about it. Just as we openly express our feelings, so too are we open to state our status. Finally, willing well is part of our tradition. Our cultural icons lived in palaces, dressed in finery and had all the good things in life (just as women were mostly fair!). A society that is conscious of what others think, driven by hierarchical status, where wealth is good and that is unashamed to express itself, has all the ingredients for premium brands that will aid and create class differentiation and expression. It provides opportunities in almost every category that has an external dimension to it.

The real challenge for the "premium" brand marketer to tap this market is getting the owner not to feel "guilty" — a guilt created by the presence of have-nots. It’s the have-nots who stimulate the need for differentiation, yet a society conscious of what others think also feels a sense of guilt of indulgence. Hence, western triggers like "personal" reward or "sheer indulgence" will have limited appeal in a market like India. It’s interesting to note that much of "luxury" or "premium" brand advertising focuses on brand (living off its heritage), product features and celebrity. Even in celebrity, the use is semiotically revealing. Only one diamond advertisement shows a couple while every other ad shows a woman only!

As premium brands aim to open up the market to larger numbers, there is a need to explore newer emotional triggers — the understanding of which is fairly limited and in infancy. The key is to assuage guilt. Pampering your loved ones perhaps will work better than personal reward. Craftsmanship can be converted to brag value — giving the owner an opportunity to use the brand to show his knowledgeability. Labels need to be converted into badges — creating larger "specialty" clubs of owners that consciously add value to the owner. Riding on the brand’s western heritage, as many current "premium" brands are doing, will help the innovators and early adopters within the "premium" segment get in, but for the early majority, there needs to be a more conscious attempt to push them over the chasm. The money in the segment will be available; it’s for the brands to make the move to get it out. As Indian demographics evolve and with it categories mature, this will be the next wave. The market is nascent and the first movers will have the advantage. A different kind of marketing thinking is needed.

Something worth thinking about.

The author is country head- discovery and planning, Ogilvy and Mather, India. The views expressed are personal. Contact at:  

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