For Apple, I for India!

In the last week, we were all witness to an overdose of coverage related to the India visit of Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook. In a well-choreographed PR exercise, Cook gave a lot of photo-ops to the media, made all the right noises, tasted some local food, met with key people from industrialists to film stars to politicians and even watched an IPL match – ample proof that he and his handlers had done a thorough job of appealing to all the Indian senses. For Americans, marketing comes very naturally. And in American companies, their CEOs are their best salesperson. So, during his visit, Cook did not waste a single opportunity to soft sell Apple’s products in some form or other. It seemed as if India was the apple of the eye for Cook.

And what was he here for basically? Cook was here among other things to open Apple’s first direct showroom in India. Why is it such a big deal? Apple showrooms are there all over the world. Does a global CEO go all the way from her base country to open showrooms in other countries? Well, it doesn’t happen usually unless otherwise, she wants to turn such an opportunity to convey a larger strategic intent to the stakeholders at large – shareholders, employees, vendors, competitors, local governments and of course consumers. I am sure that’s what Cook intended too during his India visit just like Jesper Brodin, CEO of IKEA when IKEA opened its first showroom in India in 2018.
Even Cook would have been pleasantly surprised to see and hear of the massive lines in front of Apple’s showrooms in Mumbai and Delhi even before they were officially opened. What explains this kind of craze for a product like the iPhone that caters to just 11% of the total market in India? It is the same in India as in other countries. The answer actually lies in the answer to another question – Who is the brand ambassador for iPhone or for that matter any Apple product?
Vivo phone has Virat Kohli as its brand ambassador. Alia Bhat is the brand ambassador for the Galaxy range of Samsung phones. Similarly, other brands have other celebrities. But not the iPhone. For Apple’s products, its numerous users are its brand ambassadors. I remember vividly back in 2007, even before the first model of the iPhone was officially launched in India, people returning from the US were going gaga about it. Even when Apple was not even looking at India as a serious market and was more concerned about China, it had its fan following in India. It is this fan following borne by the aspirational nature of Apple’s products that explains the huge lines in front of Apple’s showrooms. In today’s viral age, for a marketer, this is the ultimate endgame when her consumers become the best brand ambassadors. Just like the line between the brand and the product category blurring completely.
Those who have visited Apple’s showrooms would vouch for the fact that they are not just platforms for showcasing Apple’s products. Apple’s showrooms typically showcase the Apple experience. When I visited Apple’s showrooms in Tokyo and Singapore I was floored by its simplicity and single-minded focus in presenting the Apple experience. There was no one in the showroom to “push” a product to you!
After many years, it is now that India has become very important to Apple. As we speak, India has almost a 360o engagement with Apple. For quite a while now, like other tech companies, India has been a critical source of engineering manpower for Apple. Companies in India have been providing backend support for Apple’s marketing programs as well. As a country, India is now among the high-growth market for Apple’s products. And now, India has also emerged as a manufacturing base for Apple’s products.
Among all the above engagements, though for India as a country, we would look at the last one as the most important, from Apple’s perspective it is India as a consumer market that matters. In the luxury or the premium end of the smartphone market, Apple is the leader with a staggering 50% share for the Oct/Nov/Dec quarter of 2022 and a 45% share for the full year of 2022. Yet, internally to his team, Cook, like most CEOs might say that they are just scratching the surface and here’s why.
If you look at the whole smartphone market, Apple’s iPhone has just a market share of close to 8% and is behind Samsung which leads the pack with a 20% share, followed by Chinese brands like Vivo, Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme. For the whole year of 2022, Apple’s share is less than 5%. The premium market where Apple’s iPhone is playing is just 11% of the total market.
Now compare this to the situation in its home turf, America. There, Apple dominates the market with a 57% market share. However, the market is expected to grow just at a CAGR of 0.29% for the 2023-28 period. In a market where it is already a dominant player with more than half the market share, the possibility is only for dropping share and not gaining. Growth for Apple can come only from markets where the markets are expected to expand and where Apple has a low market share. India fits this definition perfectly at this point in time.
For India, the smartphone market in absolute numbers is expected to reach a staggering 253.28mn units by 2027 with a CAGR of close to 8% for the period 2021-27 as per available research reports. Now this is a mouth-watering opportunity for the CEO of any smartphone manufacturer including Tim Cook. And when the market share is as low as 5%, it is an opportunity as much a challenge.
India is a mass market where the volumes are there in the low, utility end. The moot question is, – Will the recent strategic initiatives of Apple like producing in India and opening up a direct retail presence help increase sales? Unlikely. But both help to contribute to Apple’s strategic plans in different ways. Increasing production volumes in India helps to reduce over-dependence on China. It helps to reduce production costs by taking advantage of the inverted duty structure of manufactured phones Vs imported ones. The showrooms of course act as a reminder medium for the brand Apple.
My sense is that while Apple is not the one to cut prices to increase its share, soon it may come up with an emerging market iPhone that is competitively priced to increase its share. This may not happen today or tomorrow but can happen when Apple is faced with a situation of stagnating volumes from developed markets in the coming years. The journey of Apple bringing an emerging market model and Indian consumer’s per capita income increase may meet midway within the next ten years.
On the one hand, increasing the production share out of India and increasing the domestic market share in India on the other hand, means India would be in the thick of the action as far as Apple HQ is concerned for the next few years. As kids in kindergarten schools, our English learning started with “A for Apple”. For Tim Cook and his team at Apple, it is “I for India”!

PS-2: Is Rahman back?

Ponniyin Selvan (PS) fever is back again with the release date of the second part just a couple of weeks away from now. As part of the now predictable sequence of the promotion routine for any big film, the teaser release was followed by the songs’ release and the big audio launch.  After listening to all the songs of PS-2, it is clear that Rahman who has composed the music score has taken a detour in terms of style in PS-2 compared to PS-1 and I must say for the good.

I remember vividly when the first single of PS-1Ponni nadhi paakanumae was released, I had mixed thoughts in my mind. The song had a peppy tune, a good beat, a stylish chorus and a vibrant orchestration to go with it. In isolation the song was great and it would soon get into your bathroom playlist! At the same time, I suspected that the sounds in the song were too contemporary for the Chola era. When I watched the film later, my suspicion came true. Not just for this song but the other songs like Devaralan Attam, Ratchasa Maamaney and so on all sounded too modern and out of sync with the context. Not just me but there were many others who felt the same. Overall, the verdict for the PS-1 score was mixed, I would say.

During the music launch of PS-1, I remember Rahman mentioning that he and his team did a lot of hard work on the score. In fact, he mentioned initially he presented Mani Ratnam, the director of the film with very traditional-sounding tunes based on Carnatic ragas and so on, but Mani dismissed all of them outrightly. He then travelled to Bali, shut himself out, did a lot of research and then came up with sounds that are now part of PS-1, which got the approval of Mani. From that point of view, Mani has to share part of the blame for the music score of PS-1.

It can be clearly seen that the sounds for the Devaralan Attam song in PS-1 (Check here) are inspired by the Balinese traditional dance form called Kecak. In Bali, the Ramayana Dance-Drama performance in Kecak (See the clip here) is a huge tourist attraction. It seems that Rahman and Mani took creative liberty to portray the influence of the Kecak dance form in an event that happens in Kadambur in the Chola Kingdom which also at a point in time stretched up to Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand. This bit of context notwithstanding, the absence of sounds that we can relate to the region like Nadaswaram, Thavil etc… in PS-1 was quite glaring.

It appears that the mixed feedback on the musical score of PS-1 has hit home. The songs of PS-2 are out and in the first hear itself one can make out that Rahman has gone back to his original strategy of going conventional rather than being esoteric. Take the first single which I listened to – Veera Raja Veera. At home, whenever we hear a song or a musical bit for the first time, among me, wife and daughter, we have this bad habit of trying to recall if it resembles any other song by the same composer or any other director and try to guess the ragam etc… When we heard the Veera Raja Veera song, we couldn’t connect to any other Rahman’s song but we could feel certain strands from Ilaiyaraaja’s beautiful number Aagaaya Vennilave Tharai Meethu… in the film Arangetra Velai, a song set in classical Darbari Kanada raga. Darbari Kanada has been often used in Tamil film songs but usually in duets or devotional numbers but we thought Rahman has attempted a unique faster style in what seems like a victory celebration or a coronation sequence.

It was only later that I came to know that this song is actually based on a traditional Dhrupad tune in the Dagar Baani as Veejay Sai, the author of the Biography on Balamuralikrishna points out. Listen to a bit of this by the Gundecha brothers here. It is indeed creditable that Rahman and the producers have not missed giving credit by mentioning that the composition is based on the Dagar Vani Dhrupad in the Raga Adana which is similar to Darbari Kanada but with faster phrases.

Now we know that it is not new for Rahman to introduce non-conventional genres in conventional situations in Tamil films.  Like how he used the Qawwali form in the song Varaha Nadhikarai oram…in Sangamam, a film that has a clash of traditional dance forms as its theme. That song was rendered by Shankar Mahadevan in its inimitable style and went on to become a chartbuster.

Back to Veera Raja Veera, for the Tamil version, Rahman summons the services of Shankar Mahadevan again whose voice we know is aptly suited for this type of high pitch song with yoyo phrases. And with his mastery over Hindustani and Carnatic styles, Shankar actually makes it sound very easy and simple. Of course, Chithra and Harini also give suitable company to elevate the song which is easily the best in the album.

When we heard the other melody number – Chinnanjiru Nilave, while I was racking my brain to recall the song it resembled, my wife was quick to point out that it is very similar to the Suttum Vizhi number composed by Rahman himself in Kandukondain Kandukondain! It is not just because of the tune but because of Ilango Krishnan’s lyrics also, I reckon. Here is an aside I must add that most of Rahman’s songs suffer from the irony of repetition. We don’t know if it is by design or by default but Rahman has a tendency to rehash his own tunes in one form or another. Even in his first film Roja, in the memorable Chinna Chinna Aasai song, check out the alaap in the 2nd interlude (starting at 3.12’ in this clip), it is very similar to the one Rahman had used in this commercial for Asian paints.

Once he discovers a new genre or sound, Rahman has the habit of using the same in a few of the films in succession. I noticed that the research he did for PS-1, has been used in the score of films like Venthu Thaninthathu Kaadu and Iravin Nizhal. Be that as it may, the Chinnanjiru nilave is a soothing melodic number that has a melancholic ring to it. The orchestration is a bit loud but yet does not seem to be out of place. Will be interesting to watch this on the big screen. The Aga Naga song is also nice but would have done with another voice I felt. The Shivoham piece is a typical Sanskrit shloka type and with a chorus of singers is put together nicely. I am not sure if the PS-2 anthem that has been released a few days ago is part of the film. I hope it is not, as its score is nowhere close to the era and suffers from the same PS-1 problem.

There is a feeling of late that Rahman is over his peak and nowhere close to his past glory.  The tagline of Ponniyin Selvan – 2 is “The Cholas are back”. I am eager to see if Rahman is also back in PS-2.

Index of Opposition Disunity!

These days, as we approach the next Lok Sabha election which is exactly only a year away, there is much chatter about plans and strategies to dislodge the BJP Government led by Narendra Modi at the centre.  Among various ideas, the key strategy being talked about is around mounting a United Opposition against the BJP which seems to be the only way to defeat the Modi Sarkar considering its reigning popularity among the majority of the population. Now while this sounds logical and easy on paper, many challenges and tricky situations emerge when trying to put this into practice.  In terms of an approach, what are the options for the opposition?

Option one is a United opposition which means the coming together of Congress and Regional parties with a pre-poll alliance to take on the BJP. This would mean a rainbow coalition of more than 10 parties. Ideally, if this works, there will be only one main opposition candidate against the BJP in almost all the LS Seats. The problem in this proposition starts with who will head this coalition. With Lok Sabha Polls increasingly becoming presidential, the voter would like to know who is she voting for, as the Prime Ministerial candidate. While for the BJP, it is very obvious that it is Narendra Modi, for a grand opposition alliance, it is a question mark.

In order to fix this conundrum, will all the regional parties accept a Congress leader as the PM candidate? This is almost a certain no-go considering the state of the Congress presently. Will the Congress accept any other regional party leader as a PM candidate now without knowing what will be the electoral success of that leader’s party now? Can all the regional parties come to an understanding on “a” particular regional leader without knowing how many seats his or her party will win?

Also, putting together a coalition means Congress and other parties coming to a compromise on the seats they will contest. Any arrangement that is thrashed out in such a compromised manner will only put the local party workers’ interests at peril. For example, in West Bengal, Congress would have to toe the line of the TMC and agree not to contest in most seats and also work for TMC candidates in those seats.  In Delhi where the AAP came to power after dislodging the Congress, Congress has to play second fiddle to the AAP.  There are many other states in this situation.  This naturally dwarfs the interests of the local state leaders whose ambitions need to curb in order to push the cause of the other party.

It is also difficult for regional parties to convince their core voters of a diluted ideological position like what we are seeing recently with the Savarkar remarks controversy. Both Uddhav Sena and NCP have rushed to not only distance themselves from Rahul Gandhi’s acerbic comment on Savarkar but they have also gone on to condemn it. BJP will only add pour more oil into such fire.

A rag-tag coalition of parties with divergent positions coming together just to defeat the BJP in the 2024 elections is the kind of free fodder, the BJP would feast on to build a narrative of the tyranny of coalitions. An era of a very convoluted coalition politics that bogged India before Vajpayee became the PM in 1998. I already saw some short videos being circulated by the BJP on social media taking potshots at the ills of a multi-party coalition without a clear face.

Finally, in New India, no other sight is more repulsive than the sight of leaders of political parties of all hues clutching and holding their hands up on stage like the one we saw last in 2018 in Bengaluru during the swearing-in of H. Kumaraswamy as the Chief Minister of a post-poll alliance in Karnataka.

The second option therefore would be not to have a full-fledged pre-poll single alliance but for Congress with its like-minded allies and regional parties to contest based on what they feel as strengths. Now, this is similar to the situation we had in 2019 and we all saw what happened. In BJP Vs Congress head-to-head seats, Congress gets decimated. In BJP Vs Regional party situations, in some states like Delhi, UP, Bihar etc… BJP gets the benefit of a fragmented opposition and in a few states where the regional party is strong like WB, Odissa and TN, they win big.

The third approach could be to have a tactical state-wide understanding depending upon who is stronger between the Congress and regional parties. Now, this approach is required only in states like West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, AP, Telangana, Odisha and Kerala. This means a compromise both on the part of Congress and the respective regional parties not to contest in these states if the other one is stronger and also work towards transferring their votes diligently to the other. As I understand, this was the approach advocated by Prashant Kishor before he moved to Bihar on his Jan Suraaj Yatra. However, this approach also has the same challenges when implemented at the ground level. For example, in a state like Kerala where the Left and the Congress have always been on the opposite side of the fence, will one party give up its position in the state just to defeat the BJP at the Centre?

From the above scenarios, it is clear that BJP is in a pole position as far as the 2024 elections are concerned.  If you are a strategist for the opposition, what would you advocate?

It may be a good idea for Rahul Gandhi to embark on another yatra namely ‘Opposition Jodo Yatra’. This need not be a Padayatra of course but air sorties to state capitals that matter first to convince the respective regional party leaders to come to a tactical tie-up with the Congress and then the respective state leaders of the Congress to accept a short-term compromise and work towards defeating the BJP as described in the third option.  Easier said than done.  But, may be worth a try. Before Prannoy Roy the original proponent of the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) concept comes up with the Index of Opposition Disunity as the defining concept for the next few decades!

Yet, will that be still enough to stop the BJP from returning to power in 2024? That’s for another blog.

Pic Courtesy: The Wire