Google Search: The Reunion

13 11 2013

This Indian ad from Google is REALLY good. Parts of it are in Hindi but you won’t have any trouble understanding what’s going on provided you’re familiar with India’s partition.

This is a fantastically emotive subject, but I think Google treat it with respect here. And as a brand integration case study it’s fabulous. Google has a good track record for making emotionally resonant ads, Dear Hollie perhaps being the best known example. But for me, they’ve often tried to cram too much in, tried too hard to say WE’RE GOOGLE AND WE DO EVERYTING – gmail, Youtube, Chrome, search etc. This makes the ads feel crowded and you’re not really sure what they’re for or what they’re trying to say about why each tool is important to your life. In focussing on search here there is much greater clarity around the brand’s involvement in the story and, perhaps paradoxically, by talking about one thing rather than everything that idea of Google penetrating all aspects of our lives comes through much more cleanly.

Google search is absolutely integral to the story here. In my day job, we have always said that if you can describe what happens in the ad in a sentence without mentioning the brand then it is probably not well branded. I think you’d struggle to do that here.

Of course, it’s 3 and a half minutes long so there’s plenty of space for the story here and perhaps it seems odd to be congratulating such a long ad on its focus. But it also had a big subject to deal with in a respectful way. It achieves that rare thing of being a powerful film in its own right, but still having the brand at its heart in a way that does nothing to cheapen the subject matter.

I’m also certain shorter versions are possible and that this story can be developed across a longer campaign – perhaps bringing in other elements of Google’s portfolio as they go.

I believe Ogilvy India are the people to whom the credit belongs.


On the tenacity of norms and innovation

16 11 2011

Tom’s most recent post over on Blackbeard reminded me of a story I was told by an erstwhile client during my spell in India.

In his younger years, said client had been a lowly agency side man like many of us. He had gone on a field visit for a tracking study to meet with a field head whom he described quite directly as “a real crook”. I assume this was meant in a research context only and he wasn’t an arsonist or a murderer or anything. Anyway, on this field visit it was discovered that the crook was living up to his reputation and allowing his team to flout even the most basic of field controls – no right hand rule, no adherence to the assigned starting points, ignoring instructions on routing and rotating – your basic PAPI chaos. When my client intimated that this was completely unacceptable and that he needed to whip his team into shape forthwith he was met with a knowing smile. “Do you really want me to fix things?” the crook asked, “we’ve always worked this way, aside from the time and effort required to put things right which will be costly, you will also need to explain the radical step changes in your data to your client”. This was where the story ended so I don’t know for certain what call my client took but being a fine and upstanding research man, I naturally assume he did the right thing.

What’s clear from this story is that Tom has something of a point. There’s no doubt that historical trends, databases and norms are, at times, invoked as a defence against change even where the established order is spectacularly wrong. The order being established is all the validity it needs. And of course this is a very extreme example, the simple weight of inertia can easily discourage those of us with far greater scruples than our protagonist above from making changes that untether us from the warm comfort of norms.

But I’m not convinced it’s as bad as all that. In my view, norms have the potential to raise the bar for innovation and change. You cannot make change for change’s sake. You do not flit around on the short-lived breeze of fad and fashion. If you are going to make a change to a research architecture built around norms then you have to demonstrate clearly that what you are moving to provides a genuine, substantive improvement over what currently exists. More than that – better looking architecture is easy to find, checking the structural engineering is up to the job requires the real stress testing that norms help provide. What norms predicate against is incremental tweaks around the edges (the research equivalent of feature creep) and the roll-out of ill thought out, half baked ideas. Houses built on the sand.

Saying norms are ‘tenacious’ is certainly right, but that tenacity need not be allied with enmity. Norms can perform the role of Devil’s advocate always probing with the questions ‘why is that better than what we have?’ and ‘can you prove that it is?’. If you have constantly asked those questions then not only will you always have a powerful rationale for any change but you will also have reinforce the validity of what you were doing previously.

India Transcends the Jingle

4 11 2011

When I was actually in India I didn’t post much about Indian advertising. Maybe I should have done more. A significant contributory factor was our conscious decision not to have a television so that we actually experienced India rather than watching endless re-runs of Friends. This meant that, aside from the ads I was working on, I wasn’t actually exposed to a huge amount of (TV) advertising. In contrast,when we were on our six month travelling stint, most hotels had a TV. Even some of the real cheapies (INR300 a night) provided one. Our narrow channel profile coupled with the Chinese water torture approach of Indian media planning (again, again, again, again – same ad break? don’t worry, drip it again) means I’d rather gouge my eyes out than see most of ads I was (over) exposed to in that period ever again, let alone write about them. But some, including the two discussed here, were more than worthy of recollection.

These two ads stand out because of the way they use jingles. Given that when I talk about jingles in the UK you probably think of terrible local commercial radio ads from your youth (in my case, T.C. Harrison and Stechford tiles, I’m sure you can think of your own examples) or at best the sort of Go Compare! and stuff that makes it to the national TV stage, it seems almost disparaging to describe the music in these two ads as mere jingles. They’re certainly “short tunes used in advertising and for other commercial uses” and whilst they may not go so far as to include “one or more hooks and lyrics that explicitly promote the product being advertised” – there’s some pretty heavy hooks with implicit promotions going on which is probably as close as it gets for service brands.  Whilst irritating memorability has long been the raison d’etre of jingles like those in the UK ads above, these ads go way beyond that, seeking to use a jingle to for genuine brand impact – repositioning and strengthening the brand as opposed to just making people remember it.

The first is from Airtel:

Now, Airtel are India’s biggest mobile network providers. They were amongst the first movers and had long been associated with having the best network coverage and all those boring but essential type of things. They felt fairly austere to me. They seem to have been aware of this and with increased competition in the market started to push the relationship button. They did so in what I felt was a fairly gentle, wishy washy and ill defined touchy-feely family kind of way (e.g this and this) – all very nice but not especially coherent nor consistent. India’s demographic is such that there is quite a rush to target the “youth” market. It’s a sensible policy seeing as there’s so many of them and for a brand like Airtel they’re far and away the heaviest users. So in comes the beast of an ad above. All of your friends are important. They might be cheeky, gossipy fucks some of the time, but they’re still your friends and that matters. It does ‘relationships’ in an instantly more engaging and resonant way than the earlier efforts and shakes the Airtel brand back to life. It does so almost exclusively through a catchy jingle which manages to sidestep irritation which even manages to incorporate and refresh Airtel’s sonic brand mnemonic.

The second example is an altogether more epic affair from Hero Motorcorp:

Hero-Honda was India’s largest motorcycle brand. Hero took the decision to end the joint venture and fly solo and needed to relaunch.  To help them do so they convinced legendary singer-songwriter AR Rahman to take time off from helping to besmirch the reputation of one of my heroes (no, not Joss Stone, Jagger, you cheeky scamps) and pen them a tune. He did not disappoint with this number that gradually builds and suggests more before eventually resolving itself with a lovely drop around the 1:38 mark (or course, we get there much sooner in the more oft seen cut-downs). The lyrics talk about there being “a hero within us” – stirring up India’s easily inflamed patriotic fervour. Alongside the images of everyday Indians rising heroically to various personal challenges it makes for pretty powerful stuff. It’s also nice because it eschews the typical macho stuntsmanship of this category in India. Even when Hero motorcycles are featured they’re not pulling mad stunts, they’re enabling the bravery and heroism of the rider (cf. the bloke edging across the dodgy bridge) rather than themselves being the hero.  Again, the jingle here is an absolutely integral part of the story-telling – with the brand a direct and memorable reference point throughout it.

There may be more seasoned ad-watchers than I out there who can think of British work that has jingles that transcend the traditional understanding of the form in the way these two examples do (please shout if you are one) – personally I’m stumped for anything that comes close. I strongly suspect the reason for this is that the India’s film syntax beyond advertising relies so heavily on music and dance as storytelling devices. Songs in Bollywood movies are often employed to suggest (regularly without much subtlety, but still) what cannot be said explicitly due to cultural sensibilities. People are used to hearing and decoding from narrative songs in a way our audiences aren’t. There are also fewer people around who could execute songwriting for ads of this type credibly and of those that could fewer still would agree to do so.

Technology and Toilets

24 04 2010

Pic source: Oh Wow!

If you were to have a standard class train ticket in India, you’d probably encounter a toilet like the above. If you’re of a typical Western sensibility, you’d probably find it quite unpleasant. But you should count yourself lucky. According to a recent report by the UN, only 31% of the Indian population have access to a proper toilet. That’s not all however, the thing that really grabbed the headlines was the fact that the same report indicated a mobile phone penetration of around 45%.

In my last post I talked about how every now and then I get a big reminder of India’s scale. With that in mind, it’s worth referencing what this means in real numbers. The basic truth is that there are 179 million (or 17.9 crore in local parlance) more mobile phones in India than there are people with access to basic sanitation. Further, there are somewhere in the region of 800 million Indians without access to a proper toilet. This can only reflect badly on Indian governance.

The crux of the matter is that private industry in India is forging ahead. In a country this vast, mobile phone infrastructure is not easy to build – particularly in the face of a complex and restrictive regulatory framework and a vicious price war (though admittedly, the telcos only have themselves to blame for the latter) – despite these not insignificant headwinds, mobile networks and handset manufacturers have been able to reach, pretty much, right across the country.

What this report highlights beyond doubt is that the public sector has been markedly less successful in putting the necessary infrastructure in place. Even the very basic sanitation and refuse services that you expect a government to provide are lagging way behind the commercial development of India Inc. In the medium term, this can only negatively effect India’s GDP growth. This recent McKinsey report (registration required) shows how desperate urban India is for a focussed programme of regeneration and how it lags behind rivals such as China and South Africa in per capita investment. That’s before you even start to think about the conditions of vast swathes of rural India.

I’m not saying that building sewers, refuse systems, roads and the like is easy. Of course it isn’t. But India, rightly, has pretensions to be one of the major global powers in the next 50 years or so. If it wants to achieve that, it can’t afford to continue lagging so far behind the other pretenders to the throne in terms of raising the basic standards of living for the majority of its vast population.

I’m a social democrat at heart and as such I’m certainly no advocate of privatisation of public services. But I can’t help but wonder whether if Tata or Reliance had been in charge of bringing a proper system of sanitation to the Indian masses over the last ten years or so, there wouldn’t have been significantly more progress.

IPL will eat itself

15 04 2010

I’m a purist. I like the strategy, the long-running individual battles, the pressure cooker environment of a Test match. Football is my favoured sport, but I would still take the last couple of Ashes series (the one’s in England, that one in Australia didn’t count) over just about any other sporting event going. Despite this, I’ve still really enjoyed the IPL. But it’s absolutely mental, it’s schizophrenic and I seriously doubt whether it’s sustainable unless Modi and team owners change their approach – the recent controversy around the new Kochi franchise is evidence enough, but even aside from that, there are worrying signs. I’ll just be focussing on it from a brand point of view, but there are a number of stories and blogs on the economics of the IPL over on Cricinfo and the BBC’s Soutik Biswas recently wrote a decent piece if you’re interested.

The first challenge is going to be building the team brands. This year these are starting to take some shape – Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai already have some strong local bonds forming. Rajasthan have started to build a reputation as plucky over-achievers, driven more by Warne’s captaincy than any superstar players. But versus other sports leagues in the world, there’s a huge challenge here – if you think of the Premier League for example, most of these teams were around for 100 years before the league was fully commercialised in the 90s. They had established rivalries, they have personalities (dirty Leeds, Spurs ‘playing the right way but inevitably bottling it’ etc.) – not to mention their roots in the local community. IPL teams are borrowing their personalities from their owners as much as anything – Vijay Mallya, Shahrukh Khan etc. As a brand owner, you’re not really picking a team to associate yourself with, you’re picking the owner or the players – given that celebrity marketing is so pervasive in India already, I’m not sure there’s anything new to gain there. The teams need to establish their own identities if they are going to become profitable in their own right – otherwise, what happens if one of the stars moves teams as the new franchises are talking about trying to do with Tendulkar?

The second question is over the approach both teams and brands are taking towards sponsorship and advertising around the IPL. Let’s take mobile manufacturers. I recently picked up a Kolkata Knight Riders replica shirt for a mate of mine at home – their main sponsor is Nokia, but on the sleeve there’s also an endorsement for Videocon. Videocon make lots of electrical goods, but mobiles are amongst them. Can you imagine Samsung allowing Chelsea to have another mobile manufacturer on the sleeve of their shirt whilst they are spending big money to be on the front? Can you imagine Chelsea wanting to do so? Both Chelsea and Samsung recognise there is more value in an exclusive agreement – it’s not a landgrab, it’s not sell as much space for as high a price as possible, it’s a mutually beneficial value exchange.

Then, during the course of the game you have the ‘Karbonn Kamaal’ catch – another mobile manufacturer sponsoring catches. One of the joys of cricket commentary has always been the little side conversations that go on in the regular breaks in the action. The IPL has sold these off. It’s a far cry from Henry Blofeld describing the activities of pigeons to Dominic Cork and Sunil Gavaskar telling us about how wonderful the MRF blimp is, how innovative they are to be bringing a blimp to India, just like their innovative tyres. Oh but wait, there’s a DLF Maximum, would you say that was a Citi Moment of Success Dominic? Of Course it was.

It doesn’t end there. Brands are paying ridiculous amounts for GRPs during the IPL – and their ads are on SO frequently. Every over gives an ad-break, most games seem to have a rotation of about 5-6 different ads max. This means with the 40 over breaks, plus the begining and end of the match and the innings break, we have around 45 ad breaks to deal with – do you really need your ad to be seen 8-9 times in 4 hours? But wait, that might not be enough, so we better engineer a way to get some longer ad breaks in. So in comes the Maxx Mobile Strategic Time Out (ooh look, another mobile manufacturer differenitating themselves by being associated with exactly the same thing as 10 other mobile manufacturers).

The Maxx Mobile Strategic Time Out annoys me more than anything. Commercialising all your commentary is one thing, but creating an unecessary break in a game which anyway has 40 convenient natural breaks is criminal. Not to mention the fact it’s the batting side that’s supposed to be using this break for strategic purposes – the bowler has to wait until the batsmen is ready anyway, if he wants to walk down the pitch and talk strategy with his partner, he can; if the coach wants to get a message on he can use the time honoured method of sending on the 12th man with new bats or gloves. Further, there isn’t really a batting strategy in T20 beyond belt the bugger out the ground whenever possible and if your eye is in, the last thing you want is a break for strategy discussion. It’s an absolute farce and it takes away from the spectacle of the game – that’s the last thing I’d want my brand to be associated with.

What all of this suggests to me is a short term outlook. Nothing like this has existed in India before and people don’t have any idea if it will last. The problem is that this short-term, gold rush approach is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The amount players will be paid next year is up, the amount the Pune and Kochi franchises have paid for their teams is mammoth. Where is all this revenue going to come from? Sooner or later brands are going to realise they’re not getting the value they thought from their investments – because how can you if every other mobile manufacturer is doing the same thing, sometimes even on the same shirt?

Sports have a difficult balance to strike, of course they need to bring in money. But fundamentally, once the sponsors and advertisers start to disrupt the game itself, they begin to undermine the very thing that they’re paying to associate themselves with – they become an irritant and the property itself is devalued. It seems to me that the IPL is being run first to generate profits, second to massage Lalit Modi’s ego and the cricket tournament itself being a distant third.

Unless they wake up, the IPL is going to eat itself.

UPDATE: Last night Indian income tax officials raided the IPL offices and some of Lalit Modi’s personal offices as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is partly due to all the noise he’s made around Kochi and Tharoor – if you’re going to attack a government minister in India, there’s likely to be a consequence. It looks like the BCCI will use the opportunity to seize greater control of the IPL. I doubt it will make much difference to any of the above as the BCCI hasn’t exactly shown a desire to put the sport ahead of the money flowing into their coffers in the past – but it does say something about the instability of the IPL as a property.

Persuasion Is Social, Stupid

14 04 2010

Today I have the day off for a combination of Ambedkar Jayanti and Baisakhi. They say there is a festival for every day of the year in India – the reality is that on some days there are several. Anyway, by way of testament to the title of my blog, I’m spending some of the day writing up a few posts I’ve been thinking about but haven’t got round to. I’ll drip feed them over the next few days.

My starting point is persuasion. Persuasion is hugely unfashionable at the moment (it has never been that fashionable in fairness, we don’t really like to be reminded our job is to sell stuff), it is under attack from any number of angles. Ehrenberg, behavioural economics, neuroscience – all these things call into question what we thought we knew about persuasion. Ehrenberg tells us behaviour leads to attitudes and not the other way around, behavioural economics tells us we’re not the super-rational post-Enlightenment thinkers we think we are – we rarely, if ever, weigh up the options and make the best possible decision, neuroscience tells us we basically buy brands because we like them – advertising is not seperate from brand memories it’s all one big jumbled up mess, so by extension, the most effective ads are ads we like not ones that persuade us. I don’t doubt that any of this is true, which led me to ask myself why then is persuasion such a good predictor of short term sales changes – why does it work?

First, let’s deal with whether it actually does work. I’m fully willing to accept that we’re unlikely to learn much about long term sales from a persuasion question and we all know they’re the bulk of any sales an ad is likely to generate. I also accept that correlation doesn’t mean causation and I’m not arguing that persuasion questions work because we’re actually persuading people to change their behaviour in the traditional sense – but virtually every pre-test uses some approach to persuasion and despite arriving at a metric through different approaches and different means, they all tend to see some relationship with a change in sales in the short term. I know lots of people used to think the world was flat (remarkably, some still do) but I think it’s unlikely that we’ve all reached the same point through very different journeys and come up with something completely meaningless. It seems more likely that persuasion metrics are telling us something meaningful – just not necessarily what we thought they were telling us.

My personal hypothesis is this (emphasis on ‘my’ and ‘personal’ here) – we are not rational, we do not buy brands because we have been persuaded to do so by compelling, newsworthy creative – but we believe we are and we believe we do. Our peers in society expect us to behave in a rational and sensible way – if you’re a housewife in Pune spending an extra Rs100 on a washing powder, you’re going to have to justify that to your husband – ‘I liked it more’ doesn’t allow you to justify it to yourself, let alone him even if deep down that’s the fundamental reason you were swayed. One criticism we hear regularly is that we talk too much about what advertising does to people and not what people do with advertising – my feeling is that persuasive advertising has massive utility – it allows people to justify their irrational decisions to themselves and to their peers. It’s not telling us why people are buying, it’s telling us why people think they are buying.

Further, we know from neuroscience work we’ve done with the University of Bangor that brand memories sit in three broad buckets – knowledge, emotion and experience. We have found that a breadth of associations across these three buckets is more important than depth in any one single bucket. Effectively, the greater area of brain with firing neurons, the greater likely brand strength. Experience can be driven by advertising (through enhancement) but most advertising is probably primarily dealing with the other to. Ads that have traditionally been seen as persuasive are likely to be doing a good job with your knowledge bucket.

Broadly speaking, the emotional reaction will happen first (in fact it is this that garners our attention in the first place) and then spread across the brain into other areas where we seek to clarify what the reaction was and why we had it. Clearly if that initial emotional reaction is negative, we’ve lost – fundamentally, it’s this that drives our decisions. However, if two brands generate a positive emotion of similar proportions but one has done a better job of explaining why we feel that way (through being new, relevant, credible and different – sound familiar?) then that brand is likely to win out. Not only do we love it, but we can explain to people (including ourselves) why in terms that don’t make us sound ridiculous.

Fundamentally, there is no question that too much emphasis is placed on persuasion (for some people it’s the ONLY important metric!) given what we now know about decision making and how the brain works. I don’t think we should be afraid of admitting that. But I also think there’s a reason why measures that tell us how emotionally involving and likeable an ad is and measures of persuasion are both related to sales changes, but not related to each other. We shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but we should definitely be reappraising why that is and, more importantly, where our priorities should lie as a result.

I tried to come up with a clever acronym, but it’s probably a fair comment on my character that I came up with a puerile one instead – Persuasion is Social, Stupid. I’m not sure I’ve fully fleshed all this out in my own mind as yet, let alone in this post, and I’d welcome any thoughts.

Ambuja Cement

29 03 2010

Ambuja Cement
Photo Source: Lia’s Photos

I love these Ambuja Cement ads. There are a number of reasons why.

Iconography – the massive muscles on this guy, the fact that he’s holding a big concrete dam (presumably hydroelectric, symbol of a progressive new India). What more do you need to say about a cement brand? It’s a hugely efficient visual. It reminds me a bit of the Soviet propaganda posters demonstrating the strength of the working Russian people.

Ubiquity – You see it everywhere, which coupled with the clarity of the image gives it a good chance of achieving hyperfamiliarity. I particularly like it when it’s painted on the side of buildings, as it often is – wall paintings are still a massively important channel in India. You also see it on billboards in the urban centres.

It’s a cement ad – Clearly this says something about our relative positions on the development curve, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t see a single cement ad in the entire 27 years I lived in the UK. As such, for me it is novel. Having lived in India for only just over a year and a half, I could name at least 3 cement brands off the top of my head. Unfortunately not all of them have sensible ads – this JK Cement effort apparently coming straight from the Dave Knockles school of ads. I’m pretty sure cement is sold as a commodity in the UK, though sold, mixed and delivered by branded builder’s merchants, or from your local B&Q (I might be wrong about that, I’ve never actually bought cement) – I guess this is an example of a move from a society that makes things to a service economy.

Anyway, that’s probably over-analysing things a bit (obviously rare for a researcher to do that). I just like them.