Monthly Archives: November 2013

The currency of relationships

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Some people know me way too well! :)

A few days ago, I received a message that gave a jolt to my perception of how I deal with other people and what they make of it. I had written this post sometime back on taking friends for granted, and while that was in the specific context of friendship, this is an approach I extend to all relationships, be it transactional or emotional. I like to think that I’m fair in my approach and try to give back more than I get. But apparently, at least according to one person, I am not, and am “Mr.Use and Throw”. It hurt because I have always acknowledged the help that I’d received, to that person and others. I have not had an opportunity to repay it in kind, but whenever I have felt that my presence would bring happiness, I have made it a point to be there. I did reply with my perspective on the accusation, but it led me to think of the subject and how our actions are perceived by others.

In this case, for instance, there were possibly expectations from me that I had not known of – not of a monetary kind, I think, but some other kind of help or acknowledgement. (Generalising) We live in an increasingly transactional world, where we are able to quantify all sorts of things and are also able to throw money at issues/problems/situations to resolve them. In scenarios where that is not applicable, we use our judgment to repay a gesture of kindness/affection/love. Over a period of time, I have dealt with the latter by acknowledgment and thanks in word and deed, and by paying it forward. But there is no standard currency in relationships, and my lesson from this experience is to not to take for granted that my approach is the one that works for people at the receiving end. I should spend some time first in understanding expectations, and then meeting them. When the price and currency are not agreed upon at the outset, you will need to keep paying until both parties have agreed that there are no dues.

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until next time, emotional monthly installments

P.S. and a happy Thanksgiving 😉

Troika

originally published at Bangalore Mirror

‘Troika’, to me, immediately brings Russia to mind, and though the resto-bar itself does not show any red colour preferences, the Staples signboard right below makes up for it! (map) They do have valet parking. But it is to be noted that the restaurant is to your left once you get out of the elevator. Actually, the name is more a function of ‘three’. The logo shows three elements – fire, water, and air. The décor is classy and functional with three kinds of seating – high stools near the island bar, a semi-open lounge area, and an air-conditioned space. The ambiance is classy and comfortable. But we were there mostly for the food, and the menu is also a mix of three primary culinary influences – Mediterranean, Oriental, and Coastal. If you’ve been keeping track, that’s three times that the theme of three had manifested itself, and I was increasingly reminded of “The Number 23”, in which Jim Carrey sees all events and incidents being connected to 23. See?

I decided to distract myself with the menu (reading the font in the dim light is quite a pain) as we waited for the third couple to join us, and as soon as I opened the beverages menu, among the cocktails, I noticed the drink Awesome Threesome! Avoiding that, we tried the Cin-Fully Yours and the James Bond Martini (shaken not stirred) and both were quite good. The chef has done an excellent job of creating intrigue around the dishes long before they are served – the fusion combinations are unique and many a dish would sell solely because of the description! Take for example, the Lemon Grass scented Pineapple and Parupu Rasam! We missed the scent, and it was more sambar than rasam courtesy the lentils, but none of that could take away from the super soup! We began solid food consumption with the Crispy Fish Coconut Chilli and though the coconut didn’t really feature much, the dish was spicy with some flavourful seasoning. The Rochaedo chicken dumplings are very un-dumpling-like in their appearance, but the Goan masala and the sweet and sour flavour didn’t disappoint. The chargrilled Lamb Souvlaki was quite bland and despite a valiant effort by the Tzatziki dip, and the well cooked meat, the dish was not really a favourite. We’d been ignoring the vegetarians and their revenge did turn out to be a dish best served cold – the Sweet & Sour Glass Noodle Rolls. A surprise hit, with a Vietnamese salad inside a rice paper sheet, and flavours that hit all the right notes!

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In the main course, the Tai Chi chicken was supposed to have a chili pepper sauce but actually turned out to be quite bland! The Kingfish Darne Kodampulli was served with coconut and spinach rice and it fondly reminded us of traditional fish curry meals! The Curd Roast Lamb Casserole had a very bland marinade and the Oozi (sic) rice didn’t really thrill either. The Chicken Roulade, with garlic, mushroom and ricotta stuffing was excellent, and would’ve been the favourite if not for the Potato & Red Onion Roesti, with its lime and parmesan dressing. Yes, vegetarian again, and it must be mentioned that the menu does provide some excellent options for them. The other vegetarian dish we tried – Grilled Cottage Cheese and Garlic Roast Spinach mille-feuille, Tomato Provencal Sauce – was only average. The main course portions are sized just right, and one would easily feel confident about ordering desserts!

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There are just about half a dozen dessert options, but each of them is unique! The Coconut, Honey and Green Lime Panna Cotta turned out to be quite a win, and the Banoffee pie was a delight to look at and consume. The Chocolate crostata didn’t really fulfil its chocolate potential and we’ve had had better blueberry cheesecakes. The Cannoli Kaapi yogurt was the biggest disappointment both in terms of texture and flavour.

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Troika creates some fabulous adventures from different cuisines. For about Rs.1800, you could share a drink, a non veg starter, a veg and non veg main course dish and a dessert. (Inclusive of taxes and service charge) A few dishes didn’t live up to the textual expectations they created, but there were others which made up for it. Add to that the classy décor and the peppy ambiance, and there’s really no reason to raise a red flag. Well worth a visit.

Troika, 100 feet Road (above Staples) Indiranagar, Ph: 080 41511155

The utility of a brand

After the ‘social product‘ post, the brand guy in me wanted to reconcile this evolution of the product with the brand story. After all, ‘network effects’, ‘purpose’, ‘community’ etc are essential parts of the brand story as well. But I thought of stepping back a bit before moving forward.

The ‘tyranny of the big idea‘ is oft discussed here and the more I see platforms evolve, the more I feel the need (for brands) for nuanced strategy and propositions that are relevant in various contexts and take into account the radical change that is two-way communication. (as opposed to broadcast) I think this is an inevitability of consumption fragmentation as well as changes in attitudes/behaviour/expectations, and sustained nuanced propositions is one of the key ways to create ‘network effects’ across platforms.

In this context, I thought the ‘Moving Forward’ section in this insightful post titled “Killing Big Strategy” captured it perfectly. Also, through it, I came across something that helped link the product-brand stories – “Finding the right job for your product“, a fantastic alternate perspective on traditional market segmentation, and some excellent lessons in defining competition and positioning. Not to forget this gem from Drucker “The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it is selling him.”

So where does this all begin? Though ‘purpose’ is increasingly being used as a buzzword  and also espousing a corporate-centric view (unfortunately) I still get to see a lot of relevant literature that does more than lip service. At a broad level, this little framework of Purpose – Delivery – Resonance, for instance, is a good start. There are many needs that brands fulfill and many reasons why they are loved, and these could start as pointers for a brand to figure out its purpose. John Hagel’s “The Untapped Potential of Corporate Narratives” offers some excellent perspective on how user-centric narratives gets several ‘pull’ factors to work in tandem and offer numerous sustainable advantages. The examples include my usual favourite – Nike, and this is a subject I have touched upon earlier as well, (1,2) though not as eloquently. :) If you think about it, this is also another way of ‘finding the right job for your product’.

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On delivery. Russell Davies’ “Activities not audiences” draws the distinction between users and user needs and calls for focusing on the latter. Again, another rendition of a product doing its ‘job’. This post, titled “Brands: One System Of Touch“, explores the misalignment of brands which view customer experiences in isolation, by channel, whereas customers of course view and grade their experiences cumulatively. This is a good starting point to think about what needs to be changed internally to deliver a cohesive, relevant and useful experience to the consumer.

In the meanwhile, I came across quite a few examples of brands adopting the ‘product doing a job’ approach even though it might be an isolated exercise at this point –  Hermes’ silk knot app, Volkswagen’s and Audi’s Augmented Reality apps to repair/know the features of their cars. While they might seem too self serving to qualify for the concept under discussion, they’re definitely a step in the direction. Uber’s response to a bus driver strike with free rides might be a more evolved example. Another one might be Ford’s platform to ‘hack’ its car hardware and software. Many more examples of ‘branded utility’ can be seen here. I think that in the looming collaborative economy, platforms like Google Helpouts will help brands become a real time utility in their domains.  Interestingly there are also examples of brands (Citi, Kleenex) which are trying to create value beyond their core purpose/utility. Levi’s’ ‘School of Make our mark‘ is another example.

The last bit in the framework (though the framework also mentions differentiation, I see it as something that needs to be built into purpose and delivery) I referred to earlier is resonance. I think these above experiments will not only help brands learn what it takes to build sustained resonance in various consumer contexts but also how to amplify this to potential consumers who might share similar needs. This will require learning and application beyond the conventional mass reach tactics employed currently. The corollary is that measurement paradigms would also need to change. I could see this being aligned to all the points mentioned in this superb post –  ‘The Future of Marketing‘ – messages to experiences, rational to passion, adaptive strategy, simulations, brands to platforms.

To bring it all back to the link between the social product and the brand, I now (again) see technology (including social) as an enabler in the product and marketing road maps – working in tandem to deliver the brand’s purpose and help it augment resonance.

until next time, utilising brands

Window Seat

Janhavi Acharekar 

There couldn’t have been a more apt title for the book than ‘Window Seat’. If you were told that most of the characters in the book are people you happened to see from a window seat while traveling within a metro, chances are that you’d probably believe it.

The book consists of 30 stories, and though the blurb would have you believe that it’s mostly Mumbai-centric, it’s only in Part 2 that the city actually becomes a veritable character. The first part, with 20 stories, wins you over with the simplicity in narration, and the tales themselves. Stories and characters I could identify with, regardless of their ethnicity, connected only by the humanness. The author’s ease with Malayalam (thanks to the husband) and the subtle use of Bengali in ‘China’ is worth a mention. The copywriting skills come to the fore in several anecdotes and witticisms, which add to the characters.

The amazing part is that each story in the first part is completely different from each other – not just in terms of settings (slum, advertising agency, Kerala, Banaras, Goa….) and characters, (from a newspaper vendor to a ‘freedom fighter’) but also in the way each story is made to work (for me) – a twist in the end, melancholy, subtle wordplay, events that one can identify, humour, nostalgia, the human emotions portrayed and so on. Each card is a different trick. Several stories are rich with layers, a few words here and there that speaks volumes about the character. Each story has something that I could connect with. I could go on and on about the characters, but I wouldn’t want to spoil your experience. It’s better you meet them yourself. :)

The second part has 3 sections, each with a setting that’s probably quintessentially Bombay – the local train, a beauty salon, and a Page 3 crowd. (featuring the epic Rajkumar song “If you come today, it’s too early”) The stories within each section are connected. I liked this a little lesser than the first part. It almost seemed that the author wrote this as a preparation.

This one goes into my favourites list – not just because of the stories themselves, but also for the craft that’s displayed superbly in the telling of each story. Must-read!

A different kind of prosperity

A couple of months back, there was a very heated debate (mild term) based on an article that was titled “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” and (also) dealt with something that has occupied my thoughts for a while now – the sense of entitlement. It had a very simplistic formula on happiness : Happiness = Reality – Expectations, and the author’s take was that a sense of entitlement/being special heightened expectations and when that collided with reality, Gen Y’s happiness suffered. Another key factor in this was they are also regularly ‘taunted’ by people who are doing better – simply because the latter share their successes much more.

I must say that my observations on the sense of entitlement have led me to believe that it’s not totally an age thing. I do agree that societal and lifestyle changes have led to parents becoming more indulgent, but I think the larger culprit is mass publishing platforms –  the ability to broadcast one’s thoughts to large number of people. It is enhanced when the publisher realises he/she has an audience. It does seem higher in younger groups but that’s only because they have been exposed to these platforms much earlier in their life than an earlier generation and therefore do not have the alternate perspectives and experiences of the latter. But the entitlement discussion is for another day.

An interesting point made in the article was that Gen Y wanted fulfilling careers. What does not come out though is what defines ‘fulfilling’. Is it the emotional satisfaction of working towards a shared purpose, or is it the perks that come with a high-flying career? I suspect that fulfilling at this point swings more towards the material success that the latter provides. Umair Haque has an interesting take called ‘Growthism‘, a devolved form of capitalism, whose dogma is to achieve growth at all costs and according to the author prevents us from developing a sophisticated conception of what prosperity is. It does seem fluffy but that’s probably because we have been conditioned by various institutions for a long while now.

But I sense a change is on its way. For instance, thanks to this post, I came to know of The Prosperity Index, which goes beyond the GDP and economic success based models of measuring prosperity of nations. While this is indeed a positive step, I think true change will happen when constituents like the Gen Y mentioned earlier begin to look at currencies beyond money for a sense of fulfillment, and happiness. In this must-read article titled “Who Will Prosper in the New World“, the author mentions “People who don’t need money” – people who have the incomes of the lower middle class and the cultural habits of the wealthy or upper middle class.

I think we’re at the beginning of a new cycle – a generation will start ignoring the paradigms of success and fulfillment set by its predecessors and their institutions, and use the fabulous technologies that are evolving to craft its new narrative of happiness. I also think that my generation might be the casualty of two large concepts at war with each other, but maybe that’s what it takes for a civilisation to be entitled to its prosperity….

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until next time, changelings

P.S. On a related note, do read ‘On Lifestyle Rigidity

Red Fork

For some strange reason, these days we’re more inclined to Sunday breakfast-outs than Saturday dine-outs. Though a beer brunch has been the standard, we decided to give that a break one weekend and try out Red Fork, for more healthy options – bacon and such. 😉

Red Fork is in the same premises as (the new) Daddy’s Deli – here’s a map to help you. Park in one of the many side lanes that spread out of 12th Main, and walk up. Helps build appetite! At noon, we just about managed to find a table from the indoor and outdoor options. The menu is on blackboard(s) and is usually a marginally different version of this. The ambiance is pleasant and peppy, and the owner (I’m guessing) is extremely helpful. The decor is functional, includes a lot of quotable quotes, and reminded me of an elegant home – especially the shelf units.

From the beverages menu, I asked for a Kahlua Coffee and D ordered an ‘Indian’ tea. The coffee came in a wine glass and drew suspicious glances from the tables nearby, especially when I added the sugar! :) D’s Indian tea had a cardamom flavour and was in a kullad. Pretty much two ends of the spectrum.

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We oscillated between the ‘Big Breakfast’ and the Breakfast Pizza and finally, the latter won. The other dish we decided to check out was the  Eggs on Kheema. We had chosen the soft bread option for the ‘Pizza’,  which had bacon, a tomato based sauce and a poached egg! Quite tasty, though the soft bread obviously began getting soggy pretty fast. I loved the flavourful eggs on kheema – in terms of looks, this was closer to a pizza than the other dish. Since we had some additional space, even after considering desserts, we decided to try out the Mini Lamb burgers. Good choice, I thought, with excellent patties, cheese and a tinge of mustard. A good time to note that the Big Breakfast, which were being consumed all around was quite a looker – especially that mini frying pan, that seemed straight out of a kid’s kitchen set! For dessert, we asked for a chocolate mousse, and it was quite good, the quantity just right for two people who have hogged reasonably well!

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The bill came to around Rs.1350, and that seems reasonable enough for the location and quality of food.

Red Fork, #59, 12th Main, HAL 2nd Stage, Indiranagar, Ph: 41154372/5/6

The Social Product

A few days ago, I read this post that cited studies on consumer sentiment (US, UK) about brands being present on social media. There are plenty of interesting perspectives and nuanced insights but one key takeaway is that consumers feel there is a glut of companies on social media, though it seems the younger age group feel that presence on social media adds to trust. Around the same time, I also came across the theory of peak advertising which begins with the decreasing effectiveness of online advertising and moves through various stages to suggest alternatives to the current business models that sustain the internet.  Collectively, it would seem as though the (generic) advantage of just being present on social is plateauing, or probably even going down. There are obviously brands that are using these platforms effectively, but increasingly, social is being used as media and this is easily replicated by other brands. At a larger level, the advertising barrage on social is also reducing effectiveness. That led me to think – before the utopia of social business, what opportunities does social have beyond the traditional marketing, advertising media based approach, enterprise collaboration, and social CRM?

In the second Myntra post, I’d written about how I felt that ‘product’ was best placed to deliver sustainable business advantage. Though it was related to the website/features in that context, I’m now considering if this is applicable across the board – to physical products as well. Also, the more I see social evolving on customer care, marketing, advertising and sales, the more I think these are becoming hygiene. I have omitted marketing because I think there is scope to build a unique brand and thus some business advantage in the long run. However, I also think that this marketing will have to significantly integrated with ‘product’.

In this context, I found this Forrester post titled “There is no Internet of Things” extremely interesting. Though we’re in the early stages of this phenomenon, I think it’s a good time for her to have raised the point of fragmentation and apps/brands working in silos. There are some excellent examples and scenarios in that post that make it a must-read. The conceptual answer to this is in the title of this HBR post – “The Age of Social Products“, and it makes a great point on ‘shared purpose’. “In an age of social products, competitive advantage comes not from product features but from network effects.” (though at this stage, I do think it’s both and not an either/or) Nike, as mentioned in the post, (and as usual) continues to be on the cutting edge. The common theme in their case is that the product + community (user+developer) offering only uses popular social platforms to augment, and is not dependent on them.

The current approach to social (media) is either to use $ or influence. I’m not sure there’s enough importance given to the network and the effect that’s created over a period of time. As this superb post states on the subject of disruption and diffusion states, “It’s not the nodes, it’s the network” In that light, I feel social products might be able to do more justice to the promise of ‘social’ than its current avatars, especially social media. I did think the same way about social platforms earlier, but we live in hope!

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until next time, objectifying social :)

P.S. I was reminded of a term coined much earlier – social objects. In that context, it was anything that could be a conversation starter, and the focus was more on its ability to connect people around a subject of common interest. Social products have the ability to take that connection and give it a platform where even people who are not in the same time and place can be part of the conversation. This is beyond its ‘utility’ not just as a product but also as a device that talks to other devices and makes itself more useful. I’m actually thinking of that ‘bottle of memories’ I mentioned in an earlier post, probably in a smarter avatar – like this or this – but also ‘tagged’ (say, using an augmented reality app) with the people who are part of the stories associated with it. Now, at some point, when I see the bottle, and get particularly nostalgic, I could use the same app to see what those people are up to, and quickly ping them to start a conversation about the good old times. In the collaborative and sharing economy, think of the possibilities! (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you should like this post) When I think about it, what we probably need to accelerate this is a browser (what it does for the web) equivalent.

The Non Fiction Collection: Twenty Years Of Penguin India

Celebrating Penguin’s twenty years in India, this book has a collection of 46 non-fiction works, (chapters from published works) and since there’s no specific theme that links every one of them, I’ll just list my favourites. Devdutt Pattanaik’s Myth = Mithya is probably the best way to begin the book with its premise of creation (as per Hindu mythology) and its take on the complementary forces at play in the universe. Gita Piramal’s “the old fox” gives us the ringside view of the Ambani – Goenka war that played out in the eighties. Humra Quraishi’s “from Kashmir” offers us a glimpse of today’s Kashmir, and the life of the people there, a far cry from the times when Kashmir was described as heaven on earth. Vikram Seth’s “From Heaven Lake”, in addition to its vivid description of travel in China, shows in its last page a snapshot of the human condition that remains unchanged across the globe. Amrita Shah’s “Launching Into Space” is one of those reads that take across time, and space, with its chronicling of the early days of India’s space research programme. Khushwant Singh’s “Village in the Desert” is a very personal recollection of the author’s own childhood in a village that now stands in Pakistan, and shows how people across the line really can go beyond the lines drawn on a map. Sanjay Suri’s “Near Mrs.” (that title is a good example of the humour involved) is a brilliantly funny respite from the serious content in the rest of the book, involving a bride-search in London.

Roopa Swaminathan’s “Extras” is a poignant piece of writing on the life of extras who come to Mumbai/Chennai with the hopes of becoming the next star, but who find that their life has passed them by even as they clung on to hope. Giles Tillotson’s Jaipur Nama has an account of the East India Company’s activities in the context of Rajasthan. Even as Mark Tully’s “No Full Stops in India” gives an excellent perspective on ‘development’ in India, Pavan K Varma’s “Being Indian” has a fantastic take on how India’s own way of getting things done still survives. Abraham Verghese’ “My Own Country”, while set in the US, touches upon, among other things, the idea of a home.

Pinki Virani’s “Home as hell” informs us about sickening cases of child abuse in India. John Wright’s “Indian Summers” gives us a behind-the-scenes look as well as a non-Indian’s perspective on the game that unites India, even as S. Hussain Zaidi’s “Black Friday” shows how communal forces and the merchants of terrorism try to break this unity.

There are also very interesting pieces like the Veerappan based “Face to Face” by Sunaad Raghuram, former PM Narasimha’s Rao’s version of what happened at Ayodhya in 1992.

The book also had quite a few excerpts from works that are already my favouries – Mishi Saran’s “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow”, Shashi Tharoor’s “India: from Midnight to the Millennium” and Arundhati Roy’s “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”.

The book is a few years old, and some of the works, even more so, but they are in some ways, timeless pieces too. I read them because they not only give me clues on interesting books to read, but also offer me a glimpse of worlds that I probably might not travel to in the course of my normal reading journey.