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

The politics behind political Strategists!

(This piece was written for the news website thenewsminute.com and was first published on the 14th Feb, 2020 and can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/when-poll-strategists-jump-party-party-why-isn-t-there-non-compete-clause-118196

In the business of building political brands in India, Prashant Kishor or PK to many, has now emerged as the undisputed numero uno. In a short period of under ten years, since he started his career with then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the Gujarat state election in 2011, he has indeed come a long way.

The ease and manner with which he and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) have managed to segue from one political party to another irrespective of ideology and geography is now a subject of shock and awe.

Shock because, till he was recently expelled from Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally, PK was its serving Vice President and that didn’t stop West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee from hiring him to help her to fight BJP in her state. And awe because, PK’s client list reads like the who’s who of Indian politics from national parties like BJP and Congress to regional parties like Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the like.

And very recently, in the south, after YSR Congress (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, DMK has become the second party to sign up I-PAC and in effect, PK as its political strategist for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections in 2021. This news was made public via a tweet by the DMK President Stalin recently. Welcome to the era of commoditization of Indian parties where ideology takes a back seat while marketing, brand positioning, catching eyeballs, mindshare retention and at the end winning, reign supreme.

The non-compete clause

This brings us to the central issue of this piece which is the politics of political strategists. And then there is the question of conflict of interest arising out of aligning with parties with competing ideologies, who are rank competitors. In the business of advertising, brands/companies sign agreements with non-compete clauses with advertising agencies and other strategic consulting companies. Under these agreements, agencies cannot sign up with brands/companies in the competing space not just during the currency of the agreement but also for a mutually agreed cooling-off period. The reasons behind signing such agreements are obvious. No company in this highly competitive era can afford any leak of trade secrets. A brand communication partner would have knowledge of the current and future road map of their clients, their strengths and weaknesses and hence no agreement is complete without non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses.

Such clauses have been part of hiring contracts of senior executives as well. Even in the highly competitive world of sports and games, similar clauses exist. I doubt if a coach of one IPL team in a season can sign up as a coach for another team the next season without a cooling-off period. The same holds good in the world of showbiz too.

I have nothing personal against the likes of PK or his organisation but cannot stop wondering why in India’s political space, there is no such non-compete clause while signing on election strategists, looking at the way election strategists have moved on from one party to another. A political party today is akin to a corporate entity and its leader to a brand. So, while companies are so protective about their brand strategies and rightly so, how come, in India we don’t see such sensitivity among political parties and their leaders while collaborating with political strategists?

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

In media interactions, PK has maintained that I-PAC, an organisation which he founded, is on its own now and his role is limited to mentoring and giving wise counsel when needed. This was when someone questioned him on the possible conflict of interest when he became a full-time member of Janata Dal (United) while I-PAC was working with other parties. Now that he has been expelled, it is not known if he is back in I-PAC on a full-fledged role. The I-PAC website carries quite a few references of PK and his work for different political outfits under its own umbrella.

It’s not just PK who is involved with competing parties in the same space. John Arockiasamy, who was associated with PMK in 2016 under the aegis of JPG-PAC, then went on to work with the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.  Reportedly, he has been in discussion with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to be its political consultant.

Before the advent of PK as a professional election strategist, parties mostly relied on in-house talent for running their campaigns. And they used to work largely with advertising agencies for executing the campaigns in a conventional style just like any other product. For Congress, Jairam Ramesh used to be their election war room manager for years. For BJP, Pramod Mahajan and then Arun Jaitley used to play these roles. So, the possibility of poll strategies getting leaked to rival camp or an espionage operation was limited.

I guess that it is after the advent of digital and social media that we see the outsourcing of campaigns to external agencies by political parties gaining traction. Data analytics is the buzz word today in all fields and so too in election management. This needs specialists and hence parties have no choice but to engage with professional organisations who provide end to end election management solutions from strategy conception to last-mile execution. Execution involves back room warriors who work 24*7 on social media and feet on street who do the booth-level mapping and campaigning.

The potential of social media vehicles like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to enable stories to go viral in no time is unparalleled today. This is a boon and at times a bane. Political consulting firms who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information on these parties. And hence there is a real risk of such sensitive information getting leaked online and going viral in no time. Also, I wonder how demographic and psychographic data collected as part of one party campaign is firewalled and not used for another party later on. Memories of Cambridge Analytica, the famed British political consultancy firm that got caught adopting unethical practices have not faded away.

Hence, it is all the more intriguing that political parties in India so far have not considered incorporating non-competing clause while signing up consulting firms. In this politics of political strategists, what are we missing?

Post script: In Tamil Nadu, where films follow politics and vice versa, two big films of last year – LKG and NGK featured election strategists in key roles. A clear sign that these external poll strategists are here to stay.

Book Review – 2019 How Modi Won India!

In this 201st post of mine for this blog, I thought of doing a review of the book ‘2019 How Modi Won India’, written by ace newsman Rajdeep Sardesai which hit the shelves a few days ago. This book is almost like a sequel to Rajdeep’s very first book, which he wrote after 2014 General elections. Titled ‘2014: The Election That Changed India’, it was engrossing from start to finish, peppered with personal anecdotes not just about that election but around events that happened right from the time he started his journalistic career way back in the 90’s. So, it is with heightened expectations that one sat down to read this new book to gain insights into the 2019 elections, hitherto not seen in public domain. At the onset, after finishing the book, I must say that I was not disappointed.

As introduction, Rajdeep gives an overview of how Modi managed to win India in 2019. He attributes the victory to 13 Ms (Modi, Machine, Media, Money, Messaging, Marketing, Mobile, Middle Class, Millennials, Majoritarianism, Muscular Nationalism, Masood Azhar and Mahagathbandhan), 2 Ws (Welfarism and WhatsApp) and a GK (Gharib Kisan). Frankly, I think that many of the factors here are double counted and one can actually put it down to set of fewer unique Ms.  For example, Messaging is part of Marketing. Welfarism is linked to Gharib Kisan. Muscular Nationalism can be clubbed with Masood Azhar. Mobile and WhatsApp are basically the same.

Having set the context, the usual method is to go about detailing all these factors one by one. Thankfully, Rajdeep avoids that route as that would have been less interesting and by now, we have read quite a bit about most of these factors. Instead, Rajdeep chronicles in detail, with back stories, the key events right from the swearing in ceremony in 2014 leading up to the last day of polling in 2019, which had some impact on how Modi eventually won India in 2019.  I liked the way Rajdeep segues from one chapter to another with a hook to end the chapter to the upcoming topic, a style which he used very well in his first book as well!

In his 2014 book, Rajdeep had shared many conversations which he had with political leaders including Narendra Modi when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister throughout his career, to drive home his points. However, this book is less anecdotal and more of research and reportage. It has very few references of conversations with leaders from the current political regime except for late Arun Jaitley with whom the author enjoyed good chemistry. Rajdeep makes it a point to inform us that in spite of being a leading prime time anchor, he still spends the mornings often at the Parliament and so one did hope to read more personal anecdotes and conversations with key players. But that is not to be.

The author himself admits with a tinge of regret that he has not been able to speak to the Prime Minister since May 2014 and probably he is now become a persona non grata in the current regime. This sort of re-affirms the now touted model of media management of the Modi regime.  That of cultivating its own set of favourites and maintaining a report card on “positive” and “negative” journalists. Rajdeep says this is very much akin to the “Big Boss” TV Serial style where everything and anything is watched and accounted for. Being tight lipped and catching the media unawares of what’s in the offing, most of the time is also part of this method.

As an example, on Demonetisation, Rajdeep candidly admits that he and his team did not have a whiff of what the Prime Minister was going to address the nation on 8th November, 2016. He had actually lined up a few defence experts for the prime time discussions assuming that the address was related to some strike on Pakistan!  There have been other instances too where, the media did not get a wind of what’s cooking within the Modi Sarkar.

In a chapter wholly on media titled ‘Prime Time Prime Minister’, in addition to detailing how Modi and the government ensures maximum eye balls for themselves, Rajdeep also turns into a strident media critique, a hat we see him don often these days! Rajdeep tears apart his own fraternity which he feels has lost its moral compass and yearns for a time when media would not just be a lap dog for the government in power.

If 2014 was all about a one man army called Modi, in this book, Rajdeep makes a distinction. BJP is now not just about Modi but, Modi and Amit Shah, the Jodi No.1 of Indian politics. Even the cover design of this book drives this point featuring both Modi and Shah prominently.

The author credits the messaging strategy of BJP as one of the key elements that drove its victory. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar! So we should take it that BJP’s messaging was on point. However, I thought that compared to 2014 when a single point message of Abki Baar Modi Sarkar was flogged and many micro campaigns were woven around this central message, in 2019, BJP dabbled with different messages lime Modi hai to Mumkin hai, Main bhi Chowkidar and so on even till the initial rounds of elections till it boiled down on Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar theme.

In the book, Rajdeep claims that the Prime Minister who has a penchant for coming up with interesting acronyms had come up with another one – JAM to convey the coming together of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhar and Mobiles. As per me, the phrase ‘JAM trinity’ was first used by the then Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian in the Economic Survey report of 2014-15.  This was then widely adopted by the Government and the media to talk about this phenomenon which was bringing a huge change in the livings of the marginalised.

If you were Rajdeep and one who felt that you have fallen out of favour with this regime, you would be tempted to write a book that is more of an eulogy of the current regime and in particular of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. After all, Modi, Shah and the BJP did win the elections with an emphatic margin and there were enough reasons to talk high of. To his credit, Rajdeep does a fine balancing act, commending BJP, Narendra Modi and other leaders where required and equally being critical where he feels so. In fact, you get the impression that he has tried hard to present himself as a “Neutral” journalist, a species which is almost extinct these days. So, in the entire book, the writing yo-yo’s between “on the one hand, on the other hand”, “this and having and said that” format!

Far away from what is shown on TV and social media, the book gives fascinating insights of how the BJP election machinery works. The many faceless back room boys who take up tasks in mission mode and ensure they are accomplished, the many micro programmes which the party undertook at booth level and so on to win the 2019 elections emphatically have been outlined in detail. It is clear that it is these micro tactics more often than not are missed by journalists when they do ground reports during election times because of which they get the extent of the ‘hawa’ wrong.

While on this, I would have liked if Rajdeep had spent a chapter on the whole business and dynamics of opinion/exit polls in India. These continue to be an enigma. Even in the run up to the 2019 polls, media kept saying that it was a “wave less” election and it being “a sum total of 545 individual battles”! Most of the opinions based on ground reports suggested that BJP would be short of majority and have to tie up with new allies to form the government. What happened eventually though was a bigger win than 2019 for BJP and NDA which none predicted!

If you are a news buff and a current affairs watcher, ‘2019 How Modi Won India’ is a must read for not just the political stories but the granular detailing on what goes behind an election win in India!

Post Script: While talking of the many M’s that mattered, Rajdeep prefaces this book with the narration of another M – Madison Madness. It’s more like the author’s Mea Culpa (there you go, another M!) for what happened way back in September 2014 when he got involuntarily involved in fist fights with frenzied Modi supporters in Manhattan! (The “M” Madness doesn’t seem to end!)

2019 How Modi Won India

Rajdeep Sardesai

HarperCollins Publishers India

355 Pages, Rs 699

The Making of Modi 2.0!

As the results of the much anticipated Lok Sabha elections in India unfold themselves this day, it is clear that Narendra Damodardas Modi is all set to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair of India once again. In this avatar of Modi 2.0, BJP is looking set to get a majority on its own and NDA as a pre poll alliance is expected to beat its 2014 tally! First things first. This is a remarkable feat for an incumbent to not just return but return with a better performance than the 1st term and so kudos are in order!

As much as the return of Modi as the prime minister was expected to a large extent, the scale and the ease of this victory was not expected till some of the exit polls predicted so. What were we told all this while? “Demonetisation hurt jobs and the poor. GST is still hurting traders. There is agrarian crisis all over. Job creation has hit a historic low. Minority are living under increasing fear. Economy is not growing enough. And since 2014, the Idea of India has been threatened”. And much more. So, in spite of the fact this this government did perform in areas of infrastructure like roads, highways, railways…, asset building in rural areas, reaching electricity to the hinterland,…,… we were told that these were not enough to re-elect Modi again that too with a clear majority.

That being the case, what explains this massive victory? What is behind the making of Modi 2.0? I call it the story of “M”s!

M for Modi: – Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind people on this. People have not voted for BJP or the NDA. They have unequivocally voted for Narendra Modi! States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan which were lost by BJP are now being swept by them!  Modi has been seen as being earnest in his endeavour to fulfil promises he made. So, even if ALL the promises were not kept fully, people are being kind enough to give another chance. Programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Demonetisation, Toilet construction, rural electrification and Ujwala Yojana… are being seen as sincere attempts in improving living conditions in India. Though some of the programmes like Demonetisation faltered, people were willing to forgive and forget!

M for Muscular leadership: I will have to narrate an anecdote here to elaborate this point. A day before polling in Mumbai, my 11 year old daughter’s friend asked my wife as to whom she would vote.  My wife asked why she wanted to know that. And her response left me stunned. “Aunty, I hope you will vote for Modi. Because only he can give a fitting response to Pakistan. India in the past never entered Pakistan and hit them. But under Modiji, humne ghuske maara”!  This was the impact a strong leader leaves in the minds of the young.  Critics may call it mindless belligerence when Modi decided to do a surgical strike and follow it up with an air strike. But people want their leaders to show spine in matters of their country’s defence.

M for Mission mode: This is the difference between Vajpayee/Advani era BJP and Modi/Shah BJP. During NDA-1, after forming the government and running a reasonably good one at that for 6 years, BJP did not do anything to widen their base. But the BJP under Modi/Shah is a different kettle of fish. After having won a decisive mandate in 2014, did they keep quiet? They got into “Mission mode” in North East and then later Bengal and the results are there to see. For BJP, if 2014 was UP story, 2019 is Bengal+UP story! In 2019, when it was facing the spectre of the SP-BSP-RJD gathbandan, BJP activated its “Mission mode” to target 300 on its own! This by targeting areas like Orissa, Bengal and North East.

M for Machinery: This is linked to the above. That is of having a plan and executing the plan through an effective machinery. The party machinery under the leadership of Amit Shah works relentlessly in expanding their base within India. Not just during election time. This also means that BJP will now target states like Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu next probably for 2024!

M for last Mile Delivery: It is one thing to announce programs. It is one thing to have a strategy in the board room. It is another thing to ensure last Mile delivery. Whether it is Jan Dhan Yojana or Ujwala Yojana or other Yojanas, Modi Government’s track record on last mile delivery has certainly made a difference to people. This is what has made BJP and Modi to hold on to their leads even in the face of a combined opposition in states like UP.

M for Marketing: The word “Marketing” is often derided upon as if it is a bad word! As a marketing professional myself, I have resented it often. And I have said that Marketing is not a bad thing at all and is a critical element in a product’s success or failure. In political arena, for a leader or for a party, it is not just enough to perform. But it is important to be “seen as performing”! In that sense, BJP as a party and Modi as a leader are miles ahead in terms of marketing themselves.  Some would say that Modi’s success is all about just marketing! I tend to disagree. One should not forget the fundamental mantra that even great marketing cannot save a bad product!  One can write a separate blog on BJP’s marketing but turning the Chowkidar Chor hai slogan of Congress on its head as Main bhi Chowkidar campaign in its favour is one example of some great marketing by BJP!

M for Models: One reason for Modi in the 1st place to earn credibility in 2014 was his famed “Gujarat model”. This credibility is important for people to take your promises seriously. And this is the problem with the opposition today. The main opposition party doesn’t have any credible model to point the people to! If today, the Congress promises “Nyay”, people are reluctant to take it seriously. Because, even in states which are ruled by Congress, they find it difficult to hold on. If Congress has to be taken seriously in future, they need to develop their own “models” which they can positively refer to.

I hear some of you saying that it is all just one “M” which is Modi! No victory is accomplished with one factor. It is usually a combination of factors. I believe that in the making of Modi 2.0, the mantras were the above so many “M”s! Now that Modi 2.0 has been accomplished, it is time to look ahead and focus on the agenda for Modi 2.0.  What should that be? Please look for my next post! For now, M for Mangal!

Pic Courtesy: Rediff

Mood (di) of the Nation poll!

For the past few weeks or so, I am certain that only one question is uppermost in the minds of most Indians. And that is not “Who will become the next Prime Minister”? But it is – “Will Narendra Modi continue as the next Prime Minister?”  Everything else doesn’t seem to matter so much.  As we near the counting day which is still couple of weeks away, the excitement and the suspense is heightening. The excruciatingly long drawn poll schedule extended over some 7 phases has only added to the nervous excitement of most Indians.

This is manifesting across India in offices, in nukkad tea shops, in local trains, in parties, in cabs and most of all in WhatsApp groups where the hotly discussed topic in this hot summer is if Modi will get a second term. For one who has been keenly following Indian politics for more than more than three decades, I don’t remember a previous time when one person captured the imagination of people the way Modi has now. And capturing the imagination in both extreme ways. It’s either you love him or you loathe him.

With the ban on opinion polls and exit polls when the poll process is underway, it is now left to individuals to speculate on what is going to happen. As the election progresses phase wise, we find the whole media caravan moving along with ground reports where star anchors, editors, reporters and other sundry journalists try to decipher how the wind is blowing!

In all these “ground reports” which are based on hopefully random conversations, I do feel that we end up hearing what we want to hear! So if the ground report is from a Modi follower, then it is in full some praise of Modi for the work he had done in the past 4 years in terms of pucca houses, roads, toilets…! And if the report is from a Modi hater, then it will be critiquing Modi for doing nothing. And believe you me, the reports could be from the same towns/villages!

And in an effort to play safe, most of the ground reports by star anchors and editors have ended up saying

“There is no Modi wave but there is an undercurrent!”

 “There is dissatisfaction for Modi but no hate!”

“People are vocally in support of Modi but the silent majority would decide his fate”

And so on!

In putting out these ground reports, will common people be left behind? So, empowered by the powerful vehicle called the “Social Media”, we also have ground reports of “People like Us”!  We also give our conclusions based on random chats with Taxi drivers, maid servants, Chowkidars, Doodhwalas and so on.

After the round of ground reports we will be fed with a surfeit of exit polls, come the May 19th. In India we have seen that even pollsters tend to see what they want to see. In India now, opinion polls, exit polls and psephology have become major revenue streams for channels and pollsters thanks to the multiplicity of national and regional news channels. Though forecasting is considered a science we have seen that the forecast results swing from one end to another and rarely do we see a common band making it a perfect modern art! In modern art you see what you want to see!! Ergo, pollsters and the polling company’s own bias come to play in the prediction. In addition to bhakts, bhakt reporters, bhakt anchors, bhakt channels, welcome to world of bhakt pollsters. Would you believe if I say that for one of the state elections, one polling company had two different exit poll results for two different channels!

Dr. Prannoy Roy of NDTV who can be credited for introducing the concept of opinion polls, exit polls and psephology in general to Indians, in his latest book – The Verdict, covers the aspect of the complexity in Indian elections in great detail. No wonder opinion polls and exit polls and the much touted ground reports have more often than not missed the mark when the actual results are out. Hence in a diverse, pluralistic country like India where nothing is common and for every aspect, the opposite is equally true, if a forecast is correct, it could only be a stroke of luck! And that’s why I feel venturing out to hazard a guess on any election outcome in India and in particular the ongoing Lok Sabha polls is fraught with high risks of getting it all wrong!

As experts do always, it is wiser and certainly easier to attach logical explanations to the results as they unfold on the 23rd. Hence I am curbing my instincts to join the ground reports band wagon.  And will stick to a detailed blog post to give my take on the results post 23rd rather than sticking my neck out today!! Having said that, I go back to where I started. No leader has taken the mind share of Indians as much as Modi in the recent times. When “mood of the nation” poll has become “Modi of the nation poll”, he must be doing something right, right? All of it cannot be just “Marketing” as some rue! After all great marketing has not saved a bad product in history! Or has it? Is Trump winning again? 🙂 🙂

Picture courtesy:  India Today

Jet Airways – Positioning lessons from its crash landing!

On Wednesday last week, as I was queuing up to board an Air India flight to Delhi, I could see the tarmac at the Mumbai airport lined up with idling aircraft of Jet Airways, whose operations was being cut down by the hour. Eventually, by evening the airlines shut down its operations completely, albeit “temporarily” as per the company’s statement. And in a twinge of irony, the last flight was a Jet Connect flight from Amritsar to Delhi that landed in Mumbai in the wee hours of Thursday.  I say “in a twinge of irony” because one of the reasons for the airline to get caught in turbulent weather, was its many experiments in positioning wrongly so, trying to compete with budget/low-cost airlines with Jetlite, Jet Connect and so on, when it hit financial air pockets way back in 2009 and later.

Unlike this generation, people born before the pre-liberalisation took their 1st flights when they started working! So did I. Way back in the early 1990’s for the initial few years, it was all Indian Airlines for work related trips. Though Indian Airlines in that period wasn’t bad, when Jet Airways burst into the scene, post opening of the sky along with other private airlines like East-West, Damania, Modiluft and so on, it brought in a whiff of fresh air. I remember vividly those times. The airports with inadequate infrastructure to handle the explosion of airlines and traffic, by and large resembled railway terminus’s and bus stations with multiple loud announcements of arrivals, departures and boarding calls.  “Chaotic” was an oft-repeated description of airports, then.

Amidst all the initial slew of private players, only Jet survived. It is clear that Naresh Goyal, the original promoter of Jet Airways had mastered the one core competency that mattered to excel in business in India – that is of “managing the environment”! But, I must admit that apart from managing the environment, Goyal could get another aspect of business right. That is of managing customer needs and experience well.

In those initial days, –  I am referring to the mid 90’s, Jet Airways experience was really out of the world,  particularly for frequent flyers. You could tele-check in and get your favourite leg space seats without much of an issue. Upgrade vouchers could actually be used to upgrade to business class even at the airport while checking in. There was a wide variety of meal options apart from just Veg and Non Veg. In fact for breakfast, in Vegetarian, they used to have South Indian and North Indian choices!  Dinners were 3 course meals. Hot and cold towels were provided even to Economy passengers! You could redeem your award tickets without much fuss and disappointment. In the initial few years, one needn’t pay even the taxes for award tickets (That changed pretty soon). With fares almost same as of other airlines, there was no reason unless otherwise the flight was full, to look at alternative airlines! I can say that from a user perspective, it was truly a golden era for Jet Airways!

The golden run for the airline continued in the 1st decade of this century, but with conditions attached. This was when it became a market leader by way of market share and leadership pangs started catching up. But still, due to its superior service and its On-time record, it was business travellers’ first resort.

The advent of low cost or budget airlines in the scene in India somewhere around 2006, must be one watershed moment in the history of Jet Airways. Captain Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan redefined airline business in India with his no frills, low-cost offering exemplified by R.K.Laxman’s “common man” as the brand mascot. By lowering air fares to the extent of making it cheaper than train fare, Gopinath ushered in a whole set of middle class travellers into flying. In doing so, Gopinath with Air Deccan became of subjects of case studies in B-schools. The whole landscape of air traffic changed so fast in that period that, Air Deccan with its mindless pricing strategy, ended up disrupting itself and few other airlines on the way.

The global recession of 2008 and the cost consciousness that ensued among corporates world over, brought the curtains down on the party of the expensive, premium priced, full service airlines. In India, it meant Jet and Kingfisher who were truly premium, full service airlines at that time. This is where, I feel Jet was caught in the wrong foot. When it started losing market share to low-cost air lines and new entrants like Indigo, Go Air, Spicejet… Jet decided to pursue its own “budget airline” strategy which in my mind was a big mistake. Extending the brand is a trap which many companies fall into, with their eyes wide open.  Here, Jet Airways, hither to a market leader with a full service offering and impeccable service reputation, decided to extend its brand and launch a budget airline called Jetlite and then later Jet Connect. At the outset, it seemed like a smart strategy to prevent losing market share to the newly launched low-cost carriers, that too in those prevalent muted global economic conditions.

In the process, what happened was a systematic dilution of the brand equity of Jet Airways and all it stood for. In the name of cutting costs, service offerings were trimmed. It was no longer a frequent flyer’s delight. Service started falling apart. I started seeing the writing on the wall sometime in 2011/12. You could never get a seat of your choice even when you web checked in early! Choice of food became limited. For a flight taking off at 7.30 pm, instead of dinner, a snack meal was beginning to be served! Even the After mint (post meal mouth freshener) which was served in Jet Airways in the beginning, which became so popular that it was sold in super markets and stores as Jet Mukhwas suddenly disappeared from the in-flight meal. Here, I must add that I have seen many passengers asking for extra sachets of the same and hoarding them to their homes!  Award ticket redemption process now online, became a farce. There were just few seats for award tickets in a flight and you would never get them. If you redeem award tickets for your family, seldom you will get confirmation of the same while you book. Upgrade vouchers became just pieces of paper because upgrades were limited to few fares.

In the midst of all this, Jet’s financial woes only multiplied. A mistimed acquisition of Sahara Airlines only worsened the situation. Few quarters back, realising its original mistake of taking the budget airline route, Jet jettisoned its low-cost brands and decided to stick to just its full service offering. Considering the fact that global economy had revived, I thought that it was a wise move and hoped that Jet will soon be back to its glory!  Well, it did not. The low-cost hangover continued. The pricing was of full service. But the service was of budget airline! Can you imagine as recently as in Feb, on a 5 and a half hour flight from Mumbai to Singapore, there were no personal screens and one had really sleep through to kill time? And my co-passenger who requested for a glass of water got it after reminding the crew for the same at least 3 times! And of late dinner served in Jet Airways resembled more like junk street food! And I can only say that Jet’s frequent flyer programme – Jet Privilege which was once upon a time really world-class, is a pale shadow of its former self! Jet Privilege was such a strong brand that Goyal hived that off as a separate entity and monetised it. Even that infusion didn’t help to improve the user experience, though. Keeping the financial troubles aside, I was of the opinion that Jet was sinking as a brand anyway! And the culprit was its positioning! Was it a full service airline with offerings of a budget airline or was it a budget airline that was overpriced??

What if, had Jet continued to stay the course of a full service airline?

What if, in that period when low-cost airlines were mindlessly cutting prices, had Jet focused on “business value flyers” and on superior service?

What if, had Jet went after bottom line instead of preserving market share in that turbulent economic period?

So many what ifs! As I said, in hindsight, pontification is easy. But this hold lessons for companies for the future. After all, business cycles repeat themselves.

Having said that, singling out Jet is also a tad unfair. Airline business globally is a tough business to wade through. One that requires continuous infusion of Capex and which sucks up huge Opex. Only airlines that have thrived are those protected by state monopolies or those who have got their positioning and cost efficiencies correct. In India, the woes of Airline industry have been compounded by high taxes, fluctuating fuel prices, high interest rates and crony capitalist policies. In the history of Airline Industry, Jet is only the latest to bite the dust. Before, we had East-West, Modiluft, Damania, Air Deccan, Sahara, Kingfisher, Alliance Air and myriad other smaller airlines which all exited the scene in one pretext or the other! And we all know how Air India has managed to pull through while being in ICU for so many years.  And it is also clear that the other airlines are all clutching at straws and managing to stay afloat. That must really beg some critical policy related questions among the policy makers in India. While on the one hand trying to expand air travel to smaller towns in India, is the current Aviation policy regime really business friendly?

Seeing an Indian brand, which was once upon a time close to world-class fold up, is really unfortunate. Hope wisdom and luck prevails and we soon see Jet get its Jetwings of yore!

Image courtesy: https://www.thenational.ae