The Anti-Climax of a Rajinikanth Film!

First up, I haven’t seen Annaatthe – Rajinikanth’s latest film to have hit the big screens all over the world during the festive Deepavali week. So, this is not “My Flash Review” of the film. However ever since the film got released on the 4th, I have seen quite a few reviews – both of the professional reviewers and the social media type. And mostly they have not been charitable about the film. In fact, they have all trashed the film. Herein lies a tale of irony.

Among the Tamil speaking audience not just in Tamil Nadu but all over the world, Rajinikanth has been a huge phenomenon for many years now. No other star has been able to get the kind of adulation he gets, till now. In fact, over the years his appeal has spread to other South Indian states and now even to other parts of India.  So, when a Rajini film is about to be released, there is this huge expectation. And this expectation gets hyped up and amplified in the new age digital era with the release of First looks, Teasers, Singles, Trailers and Making videos which flood our screens before the release through well-orchestrated PR campaigns.

One would argue that the trend is the same for all popular stars today who use social media to the hilt to create a buzz before release. But in the case of a Rajini film, other than the hard core fans (which every star can boast of), the excitement extends beyond his loyal fans. It extends to common public, youth, children, elders and even IT Professionals!  The countdown starts as soon as the release date is announced.

First there is frenzy and craze for booking the tickets for the opening weekend and then there is this craze for the FDFS (First Day First Show) tickets. The whole experience of watching a Rajini film wherever in the world FDFS is completely different. Since this has been written often enough, I am not dwelling into the same here. And those who watch the film FDFS also take it upon themselves the onerous responsibility of giving a ball by ball update of the film from inside the theatres through social media with pictures, clips and what not. The result – the verdict on the film is almost out within three hours of the release. The irony of Rajini films in the recent past has been this “Verdict”.

The fact of the matter is since the film Sivaji – The Boss in 2007, we are yet to see a fully enjoyable “Rajini padam”. Enthiran was also good and enjoyable but I would call it as a Shankar film rather than a Rajini film. If you see the films since then which are Lingaa, Kabali, Kaala, 2.0, Petta, Darbar and now Annaatthe we can see  a pattern. A pattern of the films weighed down by some huge expectations and then flattering to deceive. I am not getting into the debate of Box Office collections or profits these films made because they are subject to interpretations and fair data are seldom available in open domain. We can’t get into conclusions with the available “convenient” data.  So, instead of calling them as flops or failures, let me call them as “Underwhelming” films.

In the above seven films, Ranjith’s films – Kabali and Kaala were disappointing not for the same reasons as the other five. Ranjith tried to capitalise on the Rajini persona with a matching character, imagined Rajini and cast based on his actual or close to actual age and did not make him dance and prance with heroines one third his age. The problem in these films as per me was Ranjith not knowing what to do in the screenplay while untying the knots at the end, resulting in both films promising a lot but leaving us disappointed at the end.

The other five films can be grouped together and they suffered from what I call as the “Fan Boy Director” syndrome.  The directors of these films namely K.S.Ravikumar, Karthik Subbaraj, A.R.Murugadoss and now Siva see themselves as fiercest fans of Rajini first and then as his director. And herein lies the problem. When they wear their fan boy hats, they only see the form of Rajini which they enjoyed way back in the 90’s.  The script takes a backseat. Showing Rajini as this larger than life mass hero of the 90’s takes prominence. In my opinion, this concept is done to death in movies like Annamalai, Baasha, Muthu, Padayappa, Yajaman and in even Arunachalam where a template of “Riches to Rags to Riches” (R3) formula was used to good effect.

We are in 2021. In my opinion, only those in the age bracket of 40-60’s now can relate to the 90’s nostalgically like the directors. Children in the teens today were not born then and they can’t understand the brouhaha over a film like Yajaman!  Similarly the youth in the 20’s and probably 30’s were toddlers then and so cannot relate to the Rajini –Meena romance in Muthu or a Rajini-Khushbu kadavule kadavule chemistry in Annamalai.

This is the BTS (Bangstan Boys) or PUBG generation. To them, trying to bring back the nostalgia of the 80’s and 90’s by rehashing some of the earlier themes in my opinion just doesn’t work. Even for those in the 50’s, having seen many of Rajini’s films in the past, we would like to see him in substantive roles rather than doing the same thing again and again. Here, I would also like to add that it is not necessary that in these times of feminism, social media activism and wokeism, yesteryear super-duper hits of Rajini like Padayappa and Annamalai may meet with the same response today.  Some of these films haven’t aged well, frankly.

I would suggest therefore, that Rajini provided his health permitting, follows the playbook of Amitabh Bachchan who still rules Bollywood but, qualitatively and not quantitatively.  Following the footsteps of Amitabh is nothing new for Rajini. In the 70’s and 80’s many of Rajini’s super hits in Tamil were remakes of the “Angry Young Man” films of Amitabh. Just that when Amitabh’s glory as a hero waned off in the 90’s, Rajini had to look elsewhere for his scripts and landed up with the “R3” template.

Today, Amitabh is not necessarily cast as the main protagonist but is always cast in a role in which he can make a difference.  Which means that directors finish the script and approach him for casting if he is suited for it and not the other way about as it is the case for Rajini today. Mostly, directors and producers get the nod from Rajini based on a broad story line and then they try to fit in Rajini, the mass hero into a templated script. This also means casting the most popular lady as the heroine invariably, crowding the film with popular co-actors whether the script demands or not,  filling in with frivolous comedy tracks thereby shooting the budget to astronomical proportions. This in turn raises the expectations of the entire supply chain and as we have seen, the film wilts under the weight of its own expectations.

Even in the last few films, one thing which is still going, is Rajinikanth himself.  No one is still questioning the power of his screen presence or his energy or even his capability. What is under scanner for sure is his judgement of scripts and roles. So, at the December of his career, Rajinikanth can decide to write the climax of his career differently by being more discreet and choosy. After all, we don’t want this climax to become an Anti-Climax!

Tata…, Air India!

The last time I flew Air India was before the pandemic to Shanghai from Delhi and return. The reason to fly Air India was obvious. There were no direct flights from Mumbai to Shanghai (Yes, surprise of surprise, after Jet Airways stopped flying this sector) and to save time on transit, it made better sense to fly to Delhi and take the direct flight to Shanghai. For most of us, the reason to opt for Air India for international flights, particularly when travelling for business/work would be this.  In the absence of a better option and not necessarily being the first choice.

The other set of non-business travelers from India (Students, Senior Citizens, vacationers) opt for Air India for cheaper fares or the extra baggage allowance which comes handy.  In the past one or two decades, rarely I have seen or heard anyone opting to fly Air India for its superior service or for the flying experience.  And herein lies the sad and sordid tale of Air India as a National carrier of India. If this is the situation with Indians, one can imagine where Air India would stack up in the minds of foreigners.

The situation was not so bad all along for Air India. During my MBA days, way back in 1990, we did a survey of air travelers in Mumbai as part of a marketing project. International travel was not common those days as it is now. I vividly remember that Air India fared very well in terms of perception and I guess those were the heady days for the Maharaja. But in the subsequent years as International air travel picked up and when the market was actually exploding in India post liberalisation, Air India was imploding.

The reasons for the rot in Air India have been chronicled well in Jitender Bhargava’s (Former Executive Director of Air India) book – The Descent of Air India. In a deadly cocktail of an indifferent and unaccountable Top management, political interference and string pulling and a demotivated and tired staff, there was only one direction the airline was heading – southwards. Of course, he argues that the descent was accelerated by ill-timed and ill-advised decisions including purchase of new fleet at uncompetitive prices and signing of non-profitable bilateral agreements during the UPA regime.  Irrespective of the political regime, it is a known fact that PSUs like Air India and ITDC were treated like personal fiefdoms by both the executive and the bureaucracy to further their own personal interests.

Now and then, different governments have tried to revive Air India by blowing money on marketing campaigns and taking advantage of exclusive route agreements.  The Air India marketing campaigns have always been top notch. But as I have said before, the best marketing campaigns cannot save a floundering product. Some of the attractive routes, Delhi-San Francisco for example, are profitable and well sought after by Indians but such far and few successes in between cannot sustain a full airline.

The present sad state of affairs at Air India, the losses it has accumulated, the capital it guzzles on a monthly basis, the struggles of the staff in getting salaries on time etc. have been documented well overall and hence not repeating those points here. Enough to say that if there was any company which the Government of India should disinvest and exit in a hurry, it was Air India. So after a few attempts in that direction right from the first time under the Vajpayee’s regime to Modi’s current run, finally the disinvestment of Air India is a reality.

 

Air India is Ghar Wapsi for the Tatas. The story of how Tata Airlines became Air India by a forced nationalisation is also well documented. It will be interesting to observe how the Tatas embrace Air India and more importantly turn it around quickly. For Ratan Tata, there is an emotional connect with Air India. But then, we know how just having emotional connect doesn’t help in business. It calls for a Himalayan effort to start from scratch, change the culture, compete and build a world class airline. Tatas of course is not new to the airline business. They have been running Vistara in a joint venture with Singapore Airlines for some time now. Tatas also have investments going in Air Asia – a regional airline. But then, taking over a fledgling Airline like Air India and turning it around is another cup of Tetley tea!

Airline business is one business which is CAPEX intensive and OPEX intensive at the same time. There are businesses which are highly CAPEX intensive but once done, do not incur high operational costs (Like the mobile telephony business). There are businesses that don’t require high CAPEX investments but need working capital and operational efficiencies to remain afloat and profitable (Like trading businesses). Airline business is one which demands very high CAPEX investments (Planes, slots, infrastructure etc…), high operational costs on a daily basis (fuel, high salaries, marketing etc.) and require operational efficiencies of the highest order in order to be profitable. The moving parts are so many that with one wrong move, the business can get into a crisis mode. Ask Vijay Mallya or Naresh Goyal. This is one of the reasons why we have seen so many airlines folding up in India itself ever since the skies were opened up to private players.

In Airline parlance, there are this headwinds and tailwinds. Tailwinds propel the flights and headwinds have the opposite effect. In he history of Air India as a business though, it has seen only headwinds.

I am certain that Tatas would have obviously done their homework that too extensively, before bidding for Air India. Now that they have won, they have their task cut out. There are many things going for them, on top being the good will of Indians in general towards Tatas. That’s why we didn’t see much of opposition to the announcement of Air India being sold to the Tatas. With “revenge travel” post Covid expected to take off, the timing is just right for Tatas to soar into the Indian skies with Air India N.0! I am personally looking forward to the day when I would opt for Tata-Air India as my first and only choice when I fly abroad. For now, it’s Tata, Air India from GOI and as Amul says, a “Good Buy for Tata”!

Post Script: Interestingly, the Air India Staff Union expressed its happiness over Tatas winning the Air India bid! When was the last time a staff union was happy over privatisation in India? And when was the last time we saw no noise from the Left over privatisation?  Acche Din are here, guys!

Olympics and Sports as a great Unifier!

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 which got delayed by a year due to Covid, finally got over today. The Indian effort at the Olympics culminated in a flourish with Neeraj Chopra winning the Gold in Javelin throw. All these years, after every Olympics, the commentary has been about how a country of 1.3 billon cannot win even one Gold.  Or for that matter how small countries like Kenya and Spain can win more medals than India. This time, we will be spared of the usual diatribe or so I hope. For, we won a Gold that too in a track and field event for the 1st time. With a total tally of seven medals that included two Silvers and four bronzes, this is our best outing in an Olympics. Not just that, we missed a handful of bronzes by a whisker.

At a time when the whole country has been going through a challenging phase for more than one year tackling Covid and its spiralling after effects, the encouraging performance of our contingent at the Tokyo games came as a whiff of fresh air. We almost forgot to track the everyday Covid statistics of daily new infections, number of deaths and the R-Factor etc.  The media as well, which is what steers our attention usually on a day to day basis, gave more coverage to the games rather than the usual stories.  For a change, WhatsApp groups were buzzing with forwards related to the lives of the winners at the Olympics. And for once a Javelin throw was being watched by many Indians when a Test match was going on in parallel!

I have not seen this kind of frenzy for following Olympics as we saw this time, ever before. This kind of excitement and passion is usually reserved for Cricket in India. With Cricket of course, the craze and following have been for a long while.  For instance, an Indo-Pak Cricket encounter at any level can bring India to a grinding halt. Cutting across geographies, religion, caste, creed, language, gender and social strata, a World Cup Cricket match and that too if between India and Pakistan unifies India like no other.

What we have seen in the last few days with Olympics has shown that the Indian passion for Cricket need not be exclusive. People’s passion will follow wherever we win or succeed. For long, it has been ingrained in our minds that “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar”. But the other part is the question of National Pride. The number of times the clip of Neeraj Chopra on the podium with the National Anthem being played in the background, got shared on Social Media since yesterday is a testimony to this.

The general commentary or narrative has been that we Indians only support or cheer Cricket and that is the cause for other sports not flourishing. While this could be true, it is only partly true if at all. I am of the opinion that as Aam Admi, what we chase is not Cricket, but National Pride. For a long time that National Pride has been bestowed upon us by our repeated success in Cricket. So, we became a Cricket crazy country.

Make no mistake. If our Indian Hockey takes off from what we have achieved at the Tokyo Olympics, fan following, attention and of course money will chase Indian Hockey too. Same is the case with other sports as well.  Well, defending India’s craze for Cricket versus other sports is not the purpose of this blog. But trying to articulate that any sport or for that matter any event that arouses National Pride can be a great Unifier in a diverse country like India, is.

That is why I find questions often raised on why India should spend its money and resources on the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions while millions languish in poverty, to be ill founded. We have seen how landing its men on the moon first successfully with the Apollo mission tilted the scales of National pride in the US during the Cold war period.

Similarly, I saw some questions being raised as to why Orissa state should spend its money on sponsoring the Indian Hockey Team instead of focussing on its own state’s players. If by spending that money, Orissa has enabled the revival of India’s fortunes on the world stage as how we saw in the Olympics, it is certainly worth it.  The National Pride that got aroused thanks to the performances of the men’s and women’s Hockey at the Olympics is priceless. For everything else there could be a MasterCard. And Naveen Patnaik the shrewd politician he is, has understood this well and took a call to back the Indian Hockey teams when no one else did.

As I had written in my 2016 piece post Rio Olympics (Read here), availability of financial resources is a key factor in winning more medals.  So, with the backing of sponsors, talented sportsmen can get access to the best – whether it is coaching staff or equipment or infrastructure. We have seen this in the flourishing of a Neeraj or a Sindhu or a Saina! What Orissa has done or a few other brands have done is an eye opener for many including other States, Centre and Corporations to pick up a sport or sportsmen and back them to the hilt. The returns on this investment by way of National Pride and the associated brand recall is beyond comprehension in a spreadsheet.

And no one else understands the power of National Pride than Narendra Modi. Each and every phone call he makes to a winner is because of this understanding, the after effect of it, we will see in 2024.

Postscript: The next Olympics is in 2024 😃😃

2021 State Elections – My Flash Take aways!

This round of elections in five states is finally over today and India will get a break from being in election mode for a year.  It’s been too long an election process that, everything else took a back seat including our war on Covid.  The counting is still on as I write this but the broad trends are clear. Since there are pundits galore in theorising on the results, I will skip that for the moment. Instead, in this post, I would like to list a few take aways on the whole elections, not just the results of this round of elections.

Here we go:

  • Anti-Incumbency as the pièce de résistance among theories for explaining a result is passé: In the past, analysts would always just dismiss any defeat of an incumbent government by ascribing to “Anti-Incumbency” as if it was extremely legitimate and acceptable. A few decades ago, it is true that incumbent governments were thrown out 7 out of 10 times. But, that’s no more the case. As we have seen in this round, 3 out of 5 governments have been re-elected. In Bengal, TMC has won a third consecutive term. It all boils down to quality of governance and what people feel about the next best option.  Anti-Incumbency is no more an excuse. And Pro-Incumbency is a virtue.
  • Hawa, Leher, Mahoul exist only in the minds of commentators: This is increasingly becoming the case in social media driven journalism. As we saw in UP in 2017, Karnataka in 2018 and now Bengal this time, mainstream media and social media can create their own “Waves” and “Hawa” that is far away from situation on the ground. So, making predictions and conclusions based on social media trends, Youtubers’ narratives and mainstream media commentary is fraught with a lot of risks.
  • Opinion Polls and Exit Polls are for entertainment only: This we have seen time and again now and doesn’t need much explanation. For almost all agencies, getting the polls right has a huge amount of luck riding on it. If they get it right, it’s their day. That’s all. In a diversified country like ours, statistical samples however scientific they are, have proven to be inconclusive. So, opinion polls and exit polls are a lottery. Even in this round, no agency predicted the scale of Mamata win and almost all predicted a tough fight.
  • Voters vote for Lok Sabha and State polls on their own merits: This is getting very conclusive by every election. In one of my earlier articles for Newslaundry (Read here), I had explained this with quite a few examples. In this round as well, we can see this aspect quite established in Bengal and Kerala.
  • Time for building consensus around One Nation – One Poll: This is linked to my last point as well. Now that we can see clearly that voters are indeed intelligent and vote as per merit in Lok Sabha and state elections, many of the regional parties and even the Congress which have their apprehensions that it will be only “Advantage BJP” if India opts for simultaneous elections, should shed the same and have a re-think for the sake of larger national interest. It is obvious that elections every year or twice a year are a huge distraction for governance. Also it is a drag on the resources for any government. Both the government and the parties can save a lot of money and time if we have simultaneous elections. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but there should be a national debate on the same and a consensus built around this so that at least in the next 10 years we can move in this direction. My personal opinion is, if not simultaneous polls, at least we should move towards “One Nation, Two polls” by having Lok Sabha Polls once and all State polls together after 2.5 years.
  • Limit the number of phases to 3 or 4 for any state: I don’t think there is any country in the world that conducts its elections over two months in eight long phases. The phase wise polling was conceived by T.N.Seshan when he was the Chief Election Commission mainly to counter violence and election related mal practices so that the EC can muster central forces and conduct free and fair polls. But those were the days of ballot papers where the chances of rigging were higher. Also in today’s times of EVMs and of course prevalence of Smart technology, ways and means need to be found for conducting free and fair elections in 3 or 4 phases in any state and eventually one phase.
  • Limit for expenses in an election is a joke: It is high time, the limits are re-visited. Also new limits need be prescribed for self, party and total expenses. It wll be good to take a look at best practices in other democratic countries on this and come up with a model for future.
  • Huge market opens up for political strategists and IPAC type organisations: This is not a new take away based on today’s results. But today’s results cement this proposition beyond doubt. It is no longer enough for parties to depend on their loyal karyakartas to carry our ground work. Parties need strategists and organisations to hold a mirror to them and carry out smart work in the field using data, analytics, technology and tools. It is not that an external strategist or marketing can save a bad product. But even a good product in today’s competitive times need adequate marketing cover. And therefore, the market for political strategists and political consulting companies in India has expanded. So it is as a career for youngsters in election management and related marketing. And Marketing works.
  • Last but not the least, EVMs are not instruments in the hands of those in power: I hope the debate around EVMs is put to rest conclusively now that opposition has also won spectacularly.

As you can see half of the points are related to the way elections are being conducted in India. After a round of reforms which Seshan initiated during his tenure, we have not seen much of electoral reforms. It is now time for the country to build consensus around electoral reforms and introduce them to keep our status as a vibrant democracy.

Image Courtesy: Firstpost.

Nothing Private about this!

Ever since, WhatsApp informed all its users of its new update on the privacy terms with an option to accept or “else”, debates and discussions have been happening on whether to move out of WhatsApp or just agree and continue. Irony lost its privacy when all these discussions have been happening predominantly over WhatsApp itself!

In the meantime, rival platforms like Telegram and Signal have seen a huge traction in terms of new users. WhatsApp has been trying to put out the fire through full page ads in mainline newspapers insisting that the new changes are not of any material consequence. And finally, it took a call to put off the effective date for the new policy till at least May which was earlier the 8th of Feb. Hopefully the chatter on this issue will reduce in the coming days. For the rival platforms and media companies though, in these tough times, this has become a bountiful New Year present from the Facebook Corporation.

I personally have been trying to wrap my head around what’s the brouhaha about and what should I do. Privacy is indeed a major issue. But the moot question remains as to where do we draw the line on it. With the advent of technology first in the form of computers, internet, Networks, the Mobile phone and now Apps for anything and everything under the Sun, it is clear that life has become more convenient. At the same time, it is also clear that all these invade a lot into our privacy.

The last time when the issue of privacy entered the drawing room discussions in India was when the Government of India was pushing Aadhaar linking to bank accounts, mobile phones, IT returns and so on. The move was challenged in Supreme Court and post the verdict which sent mixed signals, we don’t see so much push on the Aadhaar front these days in terms of linking with anything and everything. Aadhaar has now been relegated to just being one of the requirements for identity proof.  This is unfortunate because, when Aadhaar was envisioned by Nandan Nilekani and his team, the scope was to use Aadhaar for delivery of many of the Government services. There was also a talk of a virtual Aadhaar Bank. All those big ideas lost their way now due to the battle which a few launched on the privacy front against Aadhaar.

I was then of the opinion that all those who use mobile phones, who are active on social media, who use tools like Google search and maps and so on should never complain about privacy. As part of their functioning, they anyway track the users. So the question of privacy doesn’t arise. The only way to protect one’s privacy is not to use them at all. Even the congressional questioning which took place in the US against Facebook, Google etc.… did not lead anywhere because, at the end of the day, as users we choose to use the tools and accept the conditions that define the usage of these tools. We all have the choice not to use them at the expense of convenience in life.

My position around the new changes in WhatsApp and the next steps, veers around the same points.  If you are a user of Google search, Maps, Mail and the works, anyway a lot of your activity is tracked and shared across platforms. And today, I came to know that our off Facebook activity say in other Apps are being shared with Facebook by the Apps for which we have signed up and accepted the terms of usage! It’s ironical that many who complain about the new update in WhatsApp continue to post “Check in” and “Check Out” status on Facebook!

I also realised that more than the issue of actual privacy, the inhibition towards WhatsApp’s new policy has come from “Big Corporate phobia”. I remember reading in Philip Kotler’s Bible on Marketing that large corporates and market leaders are always prone to becoming victims of negative public reactions frequently and so the Marketing team in such large companies should be equipped to pro-actively sense this and strategize accordingly. Had this privacy update notice come from a smaller player, the response would have been muted. But because it was from WhatsApp which is this humungous communication monster today that too owned by another monster called Facebook, the noise became louder.  And looks like the marketing team there hasn’t read Kotler!

I feel a bit lazy and hassled to ditch WhatsApp now and start using another messaging App say like Signal knowing very well that Signal could be acquired by Google or Facebook tomorrow. And what stops the rival Apps from changing their privacy policy tomorrow? And also even after moving to another App for some group activities, if I have to continue with WhatsApp for other groups, it is a pain to dabble in multiple platforms, not to mention of the erosion in the available memory space on the poor mobile phone.

WhatsApp has turned out to be one of the most convenient mode of instant communication today and has become ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that WhatsApp has become a verb. You don’t send a picture over WhatsApp but you just WhatsApp it! It is indeed convenient and it has been free all along. It has broken all kinds of class barriers. It will take a while to completely sign out of this presently. Not that it is not probable. (Remember Orkut?)

Back in 2014, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a staggering US$19bn, the first question that came up in our minds was, what all will Facebook do to monetise WhatsApp? What’s been happening of late with WhatsApp is part of the answer to that question. The launch of WhatsApp business accounts, WhatsApp Pay and probably a virtual WhatsApp Bank are all steps to add revenue streams to the company.

It appears that there are two options now. One, if I am so concerned about my privacy, I have to ditch my smart phone, become smart myself, stay away from social media and stop using all the convenient Apps. It’s like going back in time to another era altogether.

The second option is not to get so concerned about the privacy threats and continue to use technology but be conscious of what we do and what we share on Apps and platforms and hope and pray that all’s well that ends well. For now, I have chosen the 2nd option. What about you?

If you like this post, do share among your WhatsApp groups or any other platform you have taken to of late. Thank you.

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

Tanishq Ekatvam – Anatomy of the Campaign!

When you read this, I am sure you will be familiar with the latest product of the “Outrage factory” in India. Tanishq, Tata’s crowning jewel other than TCS provided the raw material this time. The outrage was around an ad which was put out to kick off its new Ekatvam campaign. The company soon pulled down the ad bowing down to the social media outrage but not before it went viral and divided popular opinion.

As a standalone ad, (see here) I personally liked it. The story is consistent with the purported theme of the campaign, where “the beauty of oneness” was being promoted. Oneness in this case was conveyed through the coming together of Hindu and Muslim faiths after a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man in this case.

There was predictable outrage following the ad where many questions like “Will they show a marriage of a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy?” and “Why are they showing as if the Muslim parents were doing a favour by following the girl’s traditions” and so on. I am certain that if the ad was shown as above, there would have been exactly opposite questions. Newton’s third law – “For every action is there is an equal and opposite reaction” and Whataboutery are the cornerstones of today’s outrage factory.

My take on the ad itself is that it was a well thought out plan. The campaign was launched during IPL just ahead of the festivals which is peak season for brands like Tanishq. And during this period and particularly during IPL, it is important to cut the clutter. One way of doing it is to make a nice commercial but with a contrarian story line. It helps the ad to stand out and also ensures it goes viral. That’s what happened with the Tanishq ad. Today for most marketers, the starting point of a campaign is to make it “Go viral” and if it does, it is the ultimate take away for the bucks spent.  So, kicking off a controversy through the ad is one established method of making it go viral. Many companies in the past have done that and Tanishq is no exception. I had written about this in one of my earlier posts “Stir up to sell” and if you haven’t read that, please do read here.

It is unfortunate that the company decided to pull down the ad. At the same time, it is easy to criticize the Tatas for succumbing to social media pressure in taking that decision. But I believe that it was a pragmatic choice. Already the business is reeling under the after effects of Covid with showrooms just being opened up. And the peak season is just ahead of the company. At this time, it makes no sense to do grandstanding risking the safety of its retail staff and properties.

At the same time, due to the heat the ad cranked up, the ad went viral and more people have seen than probably originally envisaged. The ad and the brand have become talking points for weeks over and even this blog would not have been written if the ad showed a plain vanilla oneness story!

This post though is not about the journey of that particular ad. I wanted to use the window the ad provided to look at the strategy behind the campaign itself.

As I mentioned earlier, the campaign titled Ekatvam has been kicked off by Tanishq just ahead of its biggest season. In North India, the festive season around Navaratri and in particular Diwali/Danteras are peak seasons for buying gold jewellery. And any serious brand would not like to miss out on this high stakes season.

At the outset, Ekatvam seems to be a brand building exercise to build on its core values of “Trust” etc. So far so good. After having seen the ad that sparked the controversy, I went to Tanishq’s website which also showcases the Ekatvam campaign. And here’s the thing! It says “Tanishq presents Ekatvam – the beauty of Oneness!” It says the “thought” being, “Beautiful things happen when people come together. But today, we’re asked to stay apart, keep a distance and be safe. While we continue to do this, through compassion, empathy, hope and care, we’ve come together when it was needed the most.” And goes on further. “The beauty of oneness. One as humanity. One as a nation. Ekatvam. A confluence of India’s finest craft forms, intricately knitted into one stunning collection, bought alive by our skilled Karigars, where similarities and differences all become one!”

Beautiful thought and an excellent copy. However, if this is the Ekatvam (confluence of India’s craft etc.) Tanishq wanted to promote, where does this aspect come out in that ad? It is common marketing wisdom that when a company launches a campaign, it is showcased consistently across media platforms may it be Print, TV, Web site, Digital etc. I don’t see that being followed here. While the website talks of the campaign being a noble effort to bring together different craft forms and craftsmen, the TV commercial tries to convey oneness by bringing faiths together.  If you look at the print ads, the one in North India (see below left) is consistent with the theme in the web site. However, the print ad in South (see below right) doesn’t explain anything about Ekatvam beyond the tag line of “the beauty of Oneness” and looks more like a “Sales promotion” ad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, this brings back to my original hypothesis that the controversial ad was part of a game plan to “Stir up to sell”. The brief it seems was to deliberately bring in the Hindu – Muslim angle and showcase the oneness. And probably the company sort of expected the backlash. In any case, backlash or not, the ultimate objective was to make it go viral and maximise the bang for the buck. The outrage factory in my opinion completely missed this point and effectively contributed in making the ad and the brand top of the mind for few weeks.

What the controversial ad would do to sales would be an interesting thing to watch in the coming weeks. While some commentators feel that it may affect the retail sales a bit, I reckon it may not do much damage.

In final summary, just as you shrug off a lean business period after lock down and get into a peak season phase, why would you launch a CSR kind of corporate campaign of Ekatvam?

Post script: Another innocent question to the makers of the ad. When you wanted to showcase Hindu-Muslim confluence, why would you choose a Kerala family as a backdrop when the ad is in Hindi and aimed at festival season (Diwali) in North of India?

The Social Media monster!

What is common between CU Soon and The Social Dilemma that have hit the OTT platforms in September in the space of few weeks in India?

CU Soon is a Malayalam feature film that is streaming on Prime Video. The film has opened to positive reviews for its novel screen based way of presenting a thriller. In the film, most of the time what we see is characters talking to us through chats and video calls. The film poses as a love story but is essentially a thriller revolving around illegal flesh trade.

On the other hand, The Social Dilemma is an English documentary film which is streaming on Netflix now.  The film traces the evolution of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the likes from being “useful” tools in the beginning to becoming the “monsters” they are today! The film talks through a bunch of people who were associated with these social media platforms in the past but now horrified to see the monster they have let loose into the society.

Coming back to the question of what is common in these seemingly disparate films, it is the feeling you get once you have finished watching them.

In CU Soon, Fahadh Fazil who is the one who helps in cracking the mystery of this mysterious girl, is actually a software geek. Just by spending hours and hours in front of his computer screen and by tracking the digital foot print of people concerned in various platforms.  When the film is over, you get a frightening sense of the digital footprint one leaves behind these days! In the chase for likes, comments and shares there is a whole trail of personal happenings, dates, pictures, videos, check ins, check outs, our personal likes, dislikes, dispositions, our political leanings that we leave behind for anyone to track.

In The Social Dilemma, we are told how we are manipulated without us being aware. That social media platforms use our habits and preferences to monetise, is now a well-known fact. But what is chilling is when these come out as insider accounts as a well thought out strategy.  Of how these companies which started off well with noble and pious intentions of “Connecting people” have gradually moved away to “making us the product”. Of how they simultaneously straddle between “utopia” (doing good things, bringing people together, connecting in times of crisis and so on) and “Dystopia” (pushing selective stories and fake news that feed off your preferences)

“It’s a disinformation for profit business model” says one of the interviewees referring to the social media behemoths. “It’s a marketplace that trades in human futures” indicts another. Being a documentary, the narrative is in the format of many interviews where the interviewees deliver many “Shock and Awe” moments through quotable quotes like these. And at the end of which all, you get a sense of betrayal and a bitter taste in the mouth.

After watching these, how many of us would shut down our social media accounts after knowing well the ills?

 How much of social media is too much?

I don’t think there is too much of a problem if Facebook props up ads of stuff we would like to buy based on our preferences we have professed through our likes and comments. After all, advertising has been a source for revenue in conventional media as well and we are used to that. Of course the digital platforms allow for customised, targeted advertising based on our profiles. And ultimately purchasing something after watching an ad is a personal choice.

However, the recent increase in the angst against social media platforms I believe, has got to do with how they have taken the role in shaping the political destinies of nations. As it is shown in the documentary, these platforms push stories without realising if they are fake or genuine by just feeding into our beliefs and choices. As it is, psychologists say that humans suffer from “Confirmation bias” and as per dictionary it refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. For a platform like Facebook or Google, it becomes very easy to sense one’s leanings and feed appropriate stories to build in on this confirmation bias. The stories could be fake as well.

The traditional media like TV, Radio or Newspapers also feed stories by way of opinion pieces, news clippings and so on which also play a role in influencing our thought process. But the key difference is, here it is a one way process. In social media vehicles, it is a two way process. Meaning, everything happens in a customised fashion based on our likes and dislikes on what we transmit. As per those Ex-team members who were interviewed as part of “The Social Dilemma”, in social media platforms, manipulation is by design and not by default.

What is the way out? As mentioned in the documentary, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But I do believe if nations come together with a political will, these platforms can be made to stay away from politics. And as social media users, it will keep us in good stead if we ourselves do not depend on these platforms for consuming political news and stop sharing anything and everything of politics that come our way without putting our own fact check filters.  The positives of social media have been well documented. Now those are being overtaken by the negatives, it appears.  The bottom line is, the Lakshmana rekha needs to be drawn by us for ourselves.

Now that I have watched this documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I have just received a mail from Netflix prompting me to watch “The Great Hack” – another documentary that unravels the manipulative power of social media!

Ram Mandir and the Positioning battles!

“Positioning” in my book is one of the most important and enduring concepts of marketing. How you position your brand in the minds of the consumer, leads you to all the other elements of the marketing strategy. Any lack of clarity or misstep mid-way on how your product is positioned in the minds of the consumer, is usually reflected on the poor or waning market share of the product. Why am I referring to the concept of positioning which is already well known, in the context of the Ram mandir?

In the run up to the Bhumi Pujan for the Ram mandir at Ayodhya which took place this week on the 5th of August, it is interesting to see how most of the mainstream political parties fared in the positioning battle. I would group them as winners, losers and neutral based on how the parties reacted to the event.

In the positioning battle, the foremost winner is of course the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party had made the Ram mandir its existential issue in the 80’s with which it could rally the Hindu vote.  Now in power for the second consecutive term in government, the party got a golden opportunity to make good the promise to build the mandir by way of a favourable Supreme Court verdict.  It must be noted that though the temple construction was made possible due to the Supreme Court verdict, in the minds of the party’s voter base, it is the Narendra Modi led government which has made it possible after such a long wait.

Therefore, it was expected that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi would lead from the front in being a part of the historical Bhumi Pujan. For those who scorned at the leader of a secular country being present at a Hindu religious event, the answer lies at the core of BJP’s positioning strategy. That is of the only party in India to represent and protect the “Hindu Hith” (Hindu interests).  So, why would Narendra Modi let go of an opportunity like this being a ardent Hindu to be out there to leverage on the positive public sentiment emerging out of the Mandir construction?

There were also those who felt that a spectacle like this could have been avoided when the country is fighting a huge pandemic. I feel that from the party’s point of view, re-scheduling the event or making the event low key due to the pandemic would have dented its Nationalistic positioning. “When the time is considered to be the most auspicious for starting the work of the Ram temple, why should we dilute the importance of it due to a virus? That too a virus of Chinese origin?” would have been the thinking among the stake holders.  And not to forget the urgency to complete the temple construction and throw it open before the end of the term in 2024.

In my opinion, it would not have done any damage if the party had somehow got its Ram mandir mascot Lal Krishna Advani to attend the function at Ayodhya. In fact, the presence of Advani alongside Modi on the stage would have added  heft  to the event.

If BJP was the foremost winner, the foremost loser in this battle is obviously the Congress. After having positioned itself as the bulwark of secularism in the country, what did it do now? One by one, its party leaders on cue talked about Bhagwan Ram, Ram Rajya and so on. Starting from Priyanka Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi to other leaders like Kamal Nath, Manish Tiwari, Digvijay Singh, there was a virtual stampede to appropriate Lord Ram and even take credit for the temple construction. In the voter’s mind, the “Hindu” space is clearly occupied by the BJP. By trying to be a political “Me Too” (borrowing the phrase from Barka Dutt) in that space, can Congress ever be able to woo the Hindu voter base? On the contrary, it might have ended up alienating its Non Hindu voter base. How will that section of the voters trust Congress now to be their saviour? In fact, this re-positioning could lead to Congress being neither here nor there. In my opinion, Congress should have just said that it respects the SC verdict and happy that it is being implemented.

The other prime loser is the Shiv Sena. Shiv Sena has been in the forefront of the Ram mandir movement from time immemorial.  Its leader, the late Bal Thackeray was positioned as the “Hindu Hriday Samrat” for the longest time. So, here was the chance to cement its positioning as a party that stands for Marathi interests locally and Hindu interests nationally. And accordingly, its leader Uddhav Thackeray should have pulled all strings to be there on the stage at Ayodhya on the 5th August.  Even if that was not possible, the party should have at least been generous in supporting the event. Instead, it chose to make a “sour grapes” statement denouncing the conducting of the event in the midst of Covid!

Apart from the BJP, the other winner in my eyes is Asaduddin Owaisi and in turn his party, the AIMIM. And here’s why. His is a party with a core Muslim voter base back in Hyderabad. So, in line with this positioning he stuck to his guns of strongly condemning the Prime Minister for being a part of such a Hindu religious event in a secular country. This would keep his positioning among his voter base intact and in the absence of alternatives, can help his base expand outside of Hyderabad.

Apart from these winners and losers in the positioning battle in the aftermath of the Bhumi pujan at Ayodhya, I would say there were parties who didn’t gain or lose. These are parties like the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu (just issued a statement congratulating the PM for the foundation stone laying ceremony), Mamata’s TMC (Issuing a plain “Unity in Diversity” message), Janata Dal (United) in Bihar (keeping silent), Mayawati’s BSP (crediting Supreme Court for paving the way for the temple construction) and DMK in Tamil Nadu (remaining silent). In doing what they did, they chose to remain consistent with their respective party’s positioning in the minds of their voters.

Like for brands, being consistent with its positioning is crucial for political parties as well. A mid-course correction in positioning can be undertaken as a strategy but, the new positioning cannot be a poor “Me too” of the market leader. This is what Congress is attempting and in doing so, is walking straight into to the trap “positioned” by the BJP!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Return of the Dragon!

For few months now, China has been in the news mostly for all wrong reasons. First, due to the way it handled the initial outbreak of the Corona Virus and now for the LAC row.  Ever since the Corona virus became a pandemic bringing the entire world to its knees, there has been a perceptible anti-China sentiment in most parts of the world. In the midst of fighting this perception battle, China also has been engaging in turf wars.  The obvious question is, why would an embattled China engage itself in these activities at a time like this? I am no foreign affairs/Geo political/Defence/Strategic affairs expert. But as an avid follower of current affairs, it is not too difficult to understand the predicament of China, at least towards India.

Consider the following chronology of events (Aap Chronology samaj lijiye):

  • In 2013, China announces its One Belt One Road project (OBOR), now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This was aimed at connecting China with important cities and ports in Asia and Europe through maritime corridors and shipping routes. All of the neighbours of India like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan with the exception of Bhutan have joined this initiative.
  • In 2017, India announced its decision not to join this China’s ambitious programme on account of strategic reasons – read as “National Interest”. Not just that, India did not send even a representative to attend the launch summit which was attended by many countries which were not part of BRI. (The project is in tatters with some participants expressing concern over the large debt trap they were walking into)
  • In June 2017, India and China got into a border standoff at Doklam when India objected to the alteration of status quo by China, in constructing a road in Doklam at the trijunction border area. “Operation Juniper” was launched by India whereby, several companies of Indian soldiers crossed over to the Doklam area of Bhutan to prevent the construction. The standoff continued for two months and after hectic diplomatic parleys between India and China, the standoff ended with the halting of the road construction.
  • September 2017: India relaxes its rules relating to obtaining forests clearance for infrastructure and army projects along the LAC in a bid to speed up construction.
  • August 2019: Fresh from the re-election, Modi government changes the status quo of Jammu and Kashmir. As part of that, Ladakh region becomes a Union territory directly under the Central government. Though this is an internal re-organisation, the impact of this move on China was not lost on anyone. During the parliament speech, Home Minister Amit Shah thunders that whenever he refers to Jammu and Kashmir, it includes POK and Aksai Chin.
  • In November 2019, India opts out of the negotiating table of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) ostensibly due to the China factor. One of the main reasons from the Indian side is to protect Indian industry and farmers from a surge in Chinese imports, if a free trade pact is signed.
  • February 2020: In the Union Budget, Customs duty on Toys was hiked from 20 percent to 60% to curb Chinese imports. Similarly 10 to 20 percent hike in few other product categories where China was the chief exporter.
  • Mar 2020: In the wake of Covid-19, QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) originally intended to be among United States, Japan, Australia and India) got upgraded to Quad Plus to include New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. The conference calls, aside from discussing the fall out of the pandemic has also been seen as an opportunity for India to enhance its strategic weight in the Indian Ocean region.
  • April 2020: India revised its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) rules to prevent “Opportunistic take overs” of firms who have become vulnerable due to Covid-19 triggered business slowdown. This was few days after People’s Bank of China increased its shareholding in HDFC. The move for obvious reasons irked China.

In between all this we also had informal summits between Modi and Xi in Ahmedabad, Wuhan and last year in Chennai, multi-fold increase in FDI from China into manufacturing and construction projects and start-ups and so on.

In Marketing and Public Relations, there is a strategy which is adopted by large corporations. Which is to “Say one thing in public and do exactly the opposite” in a bid to catch the competition on the wrong foot. I forget the exact name for this strategy but let me call it “Marketing by Deceit” TM for want of a better term. This strategy cannot be used by the same company repeatedly but to be used like a onetime Brahmastra!

If you see India’s strategy, it has been something like this. While, we have tried to engage with China to improve trade and diplomatic relations overtly, we have also tried to secure our National interests in matters of strategic concern. I am surprised that this point is lost even on expert commentators who keep referring to Modi’s photo-ops with Xi.

If I were an official in the Ministry of Foreign affairs in China in charge of India, I obviously would be concerned by the above timeline events. Combined with the pressures around the spread of Corona Virus, it is not an enviable situation to be in. As a wannabe dominant power, China wouldn’t like to show that it is embattled or weakened at this point in time. So, the approach of “Offence is the best form of defence” not just in the Indian borders but in Senkaku Islands, in Taiwan and South China seas etc.

Ergo, our attempts at the LAC to up our infrastructure has been faced with a belligerent China. For both the countries, this development comes at a wrong time. Not just India, but China also is facing the ills of a plummeting economy now for few years. Both the countries are also in the midst of fighting the world’s worst pandemic. Hence better sense has to prevail at both sides to avoid a full blown war.

For India and the government, it is paramount to protect the sovereignty of the nation without getting engaged in a bloody battle. In Arthasasthra, Kautilya aka Chanakya says, “Do not reveal what you have thought upon doing. But by wise counsel, keep it secret being determined to carry it into execution!” In line with this, I believe the government will do what it should in India’s National interest without being overt about it in an All-party meeting or in a media conference.  It is laughable that the opposition and the commentariat being hell bent to know what the government is intending to do to resolve the standoff.

In India, Bruce Lee’s film was released as ‘Return of the Dragon’ as a sequel to his earlier hit ‘Enter the Dragon’! But in Chinese and in the original version released in the United States, it was ‘Way of the Dragon’!  Even in real life, between 1962 and now, let there be no doubt that it is the “Way” and not the “Return”. So, our Statecraft must be prepared to deal with this.

Pic Courtesy: India Today

Packaging of the Package!

In India, in the past few days, most Indians or at least the urban folks have been hooked on to the television by 4.00 p.m. every day. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand announcement of ushering in an Atmanirbhar Bharat with an economic package of Rs. 20 Lac Crore, not just the devil, hope was also in the detail. So, it was left to the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to announce the details that would not belie the hopes of millions of Indians.

In India today and probably the world over, if one has to depend on the media commentary to make up one’s mind on an issue, it is virtually impossible. On any topic, the tone of the commentary and its conclusion can be guessed without even reading the piece or watching the full clip, by just looking at the author’s name or the medium carrying it. These days, very rarely you get to read a piece that gives a balanced opinion on a topic, the two or more sides of it, the pros and cons and possibly the positive and negative impact.  So, even to the slew of announcements the finance minister has been making, the reactions have been on predictable lines. The pro-government media/authors have been only praising the initiatives while those opposing have only picked up holes in the announcements. Balanced commentary is increasingly becoming as oxymoron.

It is under these circumstances that I feel, any government today needs to be super-efficient in its communication, so that it has the intended impact on people.  The usually communication savvy Modi Sarkar, has been found wanting particularly in these dire times, when it is utmost critical to bring in comfort and then confidence to the public at large. I will explain why and will try my best to provide a balanced view.

  • First up, the intention of the government not to get bogged down by Covid, but use it as an opportunity to re-define strategic priorities for the country is welcome. To that extent, Modi’s speech on the 12th May, was pretty much on point. There was a vision and though delayed, a financial economic package to the tune of Rs. 20 lac crore,  which are both commendable.
  • The details of the package were to be released in the next few days which is what happened in the last few days, beginning 13th Feb and ending today.
  • The announcements do reveal that the government has done a lot of homework and that probably explains the delay in the unveiling of the package. Having said that, there has been issues with the content and form.
  • First the content.
    • The government in its wisdom chose to use this opportunity not to just announce the economic stimulus package but also address long pending reforms and amendments in laws which is appreciable.
    • Globally, there is an Anti-China mood and having a strategic game plan to take advantage of the changing winds is important. So, some of the measures announced I believe, are in that direction which augurs well for the country.
    • While few may understand that some measures are meant for short term remedy and others are meant for long term transformation, most of us cannot make the distinction.
    • It would have been better if the Government had broken down the announcement into two parts.
      • The first one, to just focus on the immediate short term stimulus/support measures that will “comfort” the ailing strata of the society. This announcement was the one which was widely and eagerly expected. So, what is in it for the MSMEs whose businesses have suffered badly, the urban and poor workers who are left without work and wages, and the farmers who have lost their income?  In this regard, some of the initiatives like the expanded MSME credit facility even without collaterals, free ration to the poor including those without ration cards and the Additional MGNREGA allocation are greatly appreciable.
      • There has been all around pressing calls for cash transfer to the poor as the panacea for the migrant crisis that has unfolded. The government’s view is that, it believed in empowerment rather than entitlement as a route to support poor at this stage. Also, there is a view that money transfer may lead to longer lines in front of liquor shops. There are no doubt, merits in these arguments. But, considering the current acute distress situation, it would have been good if, the government opted for cash transfer to Jan Dhan accounts of women for the next six months.  That would have addressed the lack of money and the alcohol problem in one bullet.
      • The second part could have been reforms and parliamentary actions that are more strategic that will give “confidence” to investors – domestic and foreign.  Muddling all these and choosing to announce major and a lot of minor initiatives together, has resulted in a problem of comprehension.
      • On each of the days of announcement, Twitter and WhatsApp groups were buzzing with more questions than answers, as to what all these actually meant the Aam admi. If the urban elite couldn’t make out that, how do we expect the poor who are expecting some immediate succour desperately from the government to comprehend what is in it for them?
      • If restricting the announcement to the top four or five big “new” initiatives would have reduced the stimulus to Rs.15 lac crore or something, so be it. That is better than creating a Shock and Awe with a huge amount and eventually leaving the public to just count the zeroes in it for the rest of the year.
  • Second the form.
    • In India, most of us suffer from what I call as the “More Points in Power point” syndrome. We feel that if there are more points in the slide, it is always better. In the corporate world, this syndrome translates itself into “More strategies”, More Key Actions”, “More priorities”, More slides, More everything!
    • In this case, the government too being a victim of this syndrome, ended up re-hashing many old initiatives, repeating stuff which have already been announced in the last budget. For example, the “One Nation One Ration Card” initiative was first announced if I am right in 2016. Stuff like reforming the Essential Commodities Act etc. have been touched upon in the past budget speeches.

The result is that, the Finance Minister ended up making her third budget speech for this year, the only difference being, it was in tranches. From the government’s point of view, this would have helped in deflecting the headlines for a week from the migrant crisis and other related bad news. But, I am not sure if the budget speech type announcements have helped in either “Comforting” the needy or building “Confidence” among the business community!

When marketing Guru Philip Kotler first talked of the P’s of marketing, he just referred to 4 P’s – Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  As marketing evolved, more P’s like Positioning, People and Packaging got added over a period of time. In the modern retail world, packaging got a lot of prominence due its influencing role at the point of sale. In today’s era of political communication too, I believe, even an economic or a stimulus package needs to be “Packaged” properly to reach its desired outcome.

Lest we forget, Narendra Modi has been the maiden recipient of the Philip Kotler Presidential Award.

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya