Brand New Ideas

Brand New Ideas
By Rupin Jayal

Reproduced by NEN with permission from the author and DARE magazine.

What would make a truly successful joint venture brand partnership? The answer lies in the key factors that drive any successful joint venture. These are mutual interest, mutual respect, a true symbiotic relationship, continually refreshing the relationship and sharing the success of the partnership.

Mutual Interest

This is the cornerstone of a successful partnership. While most people would not buy a brand if they did not "need" it in some way, how many companies actually demonstrate the fact that they not only "sell" to their customers but actually need them in a far more fundamental way.

Consumers are the only source of information on brand performance. They act as early warning radar to signal impending attitudinal change that could cause tectonic shifts in categories. One only has to think of the recent past and many examples come to mind.

The way motorcycles have supplanted scooters in India, iPod and downloadable music have supplanted the Walkman, digital imaging has made film-based cameras and camera film obsolete, pagers were obliterated by the mobile phone, the examples are endless. In each case, the long-standing leader has been left stranded as the river of consumers began to flow in a different direction. Most are still trying to catch up with their rapidly disappearing customer base.

This does not apply to categories with technology shifts alone. In the world of brands too, iconic brands have fallen by the wayside. Does anyone remember Weston TVs, Campa Cola, Forhans (toothpaste), Dalda, Stencil shirts, FUs jeans, Pertech Computers? These were all successful brands at one time but have since disappeared or have a vastly reduced presence. Somewhere down the road the people who bought these brands and even expressed loyalty to them did not feel a sense of mutual interest any more. The companies that owned them did not listen and understand where their customers were headed and in ignoring mutual interest lost them entirely.

The case of motorcycles and scooters is a classic one. Bajaj was the leader and people were happy to pay huge premiums for a Bajaj scooter. When the shift took place in the two-wheeler industry, Bajaj lost out. However, Honda has shown that there is still a healthy interest in scooters. Not only is it the leader in scooters but it has single handedly rejuvenated what was seen to be a moribund category.

Honda even launched its first side-engined scooter - the Eterno, for Indian customers. It listened to the people who did not want a motorcycle, who continued to prefer the practicalities of a scooter. It found mutual interest with an entirely new group of two-wheeler buyers - women. It introduced vehicles that were simple but modern looking. It understood that people wanted designs that were not exotic but didn't want the age-old scooter look and feel either. People rewarded this by preferring it to the hitherto leader. Honda did not just bring its range of vehicles and try to "sell" them to people, it understood what mattered to them, invested in it and has received their loyalty.

Similarly, while Hero Honda has often been criticized for making so-called "ordinary" motorcycles and not making them sufficiently "sporty" (with some exceptions, of course) it has continued to grow and dominate the motorcycle market with its iconic Splendor and Passion range of 100 cc motorcycles. It has also listened to its audience and introduced a range of exciting "sporty" bikes, but in doing so, has not neglected its core customer.

Also, with the passport program, it has sought to recognize the value of its customers and in doing so, has created one of the largest customer relationship programs in the country. It, not surprisingly, continues to grow as other rivals struggle. Mutual interest wins every time.

Mutual respect

This is very critical in a marketplace filled with aggressively competing products and a cacophony of brand promises. People have many ways of according brand respect. When they recommend a brand they do so because they believe in it and by doing so, often gain nothing for themselves. They show their respect by continuing to stay with the brand even though its competitors are busy enticing them with multiple blandishments. They do so by not losing faith when a brand falters occasionally but takes them into confidence and rectifies the problem.

When the Indica was launched it proved to be bedeviled with all kinds of problems. Yet by maintaining contact with its customers and showing them the respect due to them through sharing information and by passing on the improvements to existing customers rather than just new ones, Tata Motors avoided a potentially disastrous situation. Mutual respect drives loyalty and encourages customer advocacy.

Symbiotic relationship

Many so-called brand custodians fail to recognize that they need their customers just as much as their customers need them. The relationship is truly symbiotic. And brands with the highest attitudinal loyalty, those that are actually preferred over their competitors are those where customers feel that they contribute as much to the brand's life as the brand does to theirs. Harley Davidson, Swatch and Apple exemplify this. This also implies an equal partnership where each values the role and contribution of the other. Suggestions accepted and acknowledged, problems sorted out, little delights given with no commercial value, are all rewarded with greater customer participation, involvement and actual preference backed by goodwill. People need responsive, responsible and trustworthy brands just as much as those brands need customers.

Continually refreshing the relationship

It does not matter how often a particular brand is bought - the question is how often does it provide a moment of delightful surprise, of understanding, of sharing of triumph with its existing customers? Many brands, and surprisingly service brands, seem to do it rarely. Having once acquired a customer, they seem to forget that he or she exists. So you get a growing number of customers who might be seemingly loyal but are seething to change as they see the brand offering more and more blandishments to attract new customers while mostly ignoring them. So "cross selling" supplants engagement and "what's in it for them" replaces "what can we do together."

In contrast, I have a car accessory dealer who always hands over something, a small gift (not a promotion) each time I go to him. The value of the gift might not be much but the thought is and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. He understands the importance of continually refreshing the relationship. My mobile phone provider however does not get it. So as a 'special" customer, my SIM card gets replaced with one with a higher capacity but which does not work on my phone and on which I spend endless days trying to get it to work. It starts the "do not disturb" registry but does not provide a simple means to report errant callers. The list is endless. In fact, instead of refreshing the relationship, many brands prefer to take it for granted.

Sharing Success

This is the one hardest to come by. Yes, companies spend vast amounts of advertising when they reach some numerical milestone. Yet interestingly most often the benefits of so called "celebrations" are aimed at acquiring new customers. In the future, sharing success in a real meaningful manner will separate the preferred brands from the "also-rans". This is a very powerful area of opportunity and one that few use at the current time. To share the "profits" of success with a partner who is critical to your business seems obvious but then why do so many brands ignore it when it comes to their most critical partner of all - their customer?

Successful brands enter into a joint venture of mutual interest and reward their customers. After all, it takes two hands for a handshake but just one to wave goodbye!

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