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Changing brandscapes

Recently, I was part of an interesting round table discussion organised by afaqs and IBM around “Technology in Marketing“. While we did stick to the subject, in my mind, I was also wondering about the impact this (topic) was  having on the idea of brand. It has been only 4 years since I had last held a brand job, (I left TOI in 2010) but I can safely say that the landscape has changed massively. A few thoughts –

Time: The cycles of brand building have been massively reduced. This is not a 2010 phenomenon, but to give you some perspective, in that year Flipkart was just venturing beyond books and hardly the well known brand it is now. Zomato was a ‘promising startup’ according to a list made by the Smart Techie magazine and had just expanded beyond a single city. The flip side is that some of the other startups in that list no longer exist. AlooTechie, which reported this, also does not exist. I had a Nokia E series phone then, and they are pretty much a non entity now. In short, that word – change, and it’s faster than ever! It is said that brands get built over time, but do business cycles allow that liberty now?

Geography: A cliche used frequently is “Geography is history”, but a little incident reminded me that it may not altogether be true. One of the regular conversations these days is around taxi rentals and Uber is a favourite among many of my friends. I casually asked them whether they knew of the heavy rap Uber was getting in the US for remarks allegedly made by a senior VP. (alternate perspective) They didn’t, and it isn’t as though they don’t consume news online. They missed it amidst all the ‘noise’. While a brand may be global, how much does its international stature impact regional preferences, even in this hyper connected era?

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Processes, People & Culture

It has been more than three years since I wrote about my Indigo fandom. Since then, they have been my preferred airline, mostly thanks to their on-time promise. A few weeks ago, Karthik wrote an excellent post “Why I love an errant Meru and hate the awesome Indigo!” that offered some unique perspectives based on a few of his recent experiences with the airline. He ends the post with When did the ‘plastic’ nature of Indigo’s customer-facing organization set in? May be around the same time their hostesses were asked to use wigs? It restored a sense of objectivity to my fandom.

Our way of doing things” is how one definition of culture goes and I remembered Gautam’s recent insightful post on the components that make up ‘culture’ in an organisation. If you look at these factors, you’d wonder whether a cultural change was at the root of Indigo’s new avatar. It made me think of something I wrote earlier – Culture Architecture – the thrust of which  was culture being a strategic business advantage. But how can that be made sustainable? I’ve been a big fan of processes. Indeed, one of my favourite posters is

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The Agency Experience

Last Thursday was my first anniversary at GroupM, and the next day was my last there. A short tenure, and one year in an agency is too less a timeframe to be exposed to all the facets, people and processes a large (media) agency has to offer. But limiting though it is, I’d still like to share my (limited) thoughts, because I wasn’t able to get these perspectives before I made the shift to the agency side. My contacts on the client side had near zero clue on life in an agency, and my agency friends were veterans who had always been on that side. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that these things might be unfamiliar to a n00b! :)

These are based on what I saw and experienced, and hence more subjective than objective. I’m restricting it to three aspects that bring out some good and some not-so-good points. More

Culture Architecture

Despite several posts on ‘culture‘, of the four Ps I’d mentioned in the Agile @ Scale post, ‘People’ is a topic that has gotten the least attention here in the recent past. As the change imperative forces organisations to be more responsive to rapidly changing external dynamics, the structures, processes and methods it had adopted for its internal stakeholders will most likely have to change as well. Jobs in earlier era were well defined constructs, but this era requires employees to work far beyond their job description in order to thrive. (“Why We Need to Change the Software in our Organisations“) It is probably not a coincidence that the four organisations that are defining the larger contours of business and technology are also the most favoured employers.

The task is not easy. On one hand, there is a workforce that is increasingly getting overwhelmed by communication technologies that are dictating an always-on culture. (“Why you hate work.”) On the other hand, there is a new generation entering the workforce that has expectations of a culture tuned to their lifestyle and ways of functioning. They rapidly disengage if they feel this is no happening. In both cases, the end result is a loss in productivity. This is only one part of the story. There are several factors that define culture, and in an organisation, there are several factors that resist change as well.  How does an organisation adapt to these dynamics? A few thoughts, some strategic, some tactical. More

@ Social Media Week 2014

The role of content in a brand’s narrative is an oft appearing topic on this blog, so I was glad for the opportunity to discuss the subject with various entities who have a stake in this new ecosystem. I’ll be moderating a panel titled “The New Content Ecosystem – Evolution & Design” on Sep 25th, 2-3 PM during Social Media Week.

A fantastic mix of folks makes up the panel – Asit Gupta, founder of Advocacy Asia, Abhishek Chatterjee, founder of Tookitaki, Arunabh Kumar, founder of  The Viral Fever, Akash Deep Batra, Regional Digital marketing & eCommerce Manager APAC at Nestle, and Kalyan Karmakar, food insights consultant, blogger and columnist – it’s bound to be an interesting chat.

If you happen to be around, do drop in and participate in the discussion that follows. If you’d like me to ask questions on your behalf, use the comments section below, give me a shout out on Twitter.  #SMWMumbai

Platform Principles

Though not by design thus far, I have actually been expanding on the 4P (planning to add one more) framework I wrote about in Agile @ Scale. The attempt is to help me navigate the concept of brand in a rapidly changing landscape. The Change Imperative tried to showcase some of the possibilities of these dynamic shifts, and Revisiting Brand Purpose dwelt upon purpose in the framework. This post is on platforms. Though media platforms have been around for a while and have been utilised by brands, and the internet, mobile and different OS can also be treated as platforms, I’m choosing to focus on the brand/ organisation as a platform.

Thus far, the organisation as a platform has been built to leverage scale for competitive advantage. But technology and open platforms are easily on their way to make scale matter much less. As this post  succinctly states, connections weigh more than efficiency now. So how can the organisation move towards connections?

My thought process on this was probably started in Social’s Second Chance. Social tools and platforms have brought the brand into full contact with the user and have caused paradigm shifts in not just marketing but across the organisation. This deck makes an insightful point that traditional marketing structures are dialectic in nature while social platforms are dialogic. That explains why brands are using social mostly as media and trying to frack it, despite there being better ways to approach it, even in the context of marketing. Experience > exposure is a lesson yet to be learnt.

Among other reasons, one of the big factors that are contributing to a resistance in truly embracing social in entirety is a fear – loss of control. This is a great read on designing for the loss of control and my biggest takeout from it is where it quotes from ‘The Power of Pull‘ – “shaping strategies” on the individual, institutional, and societal level.

I think there’s tremendous scope in rethinking the brand/organisation as a platform. In the bid for competitive advantage through scale and efficiency @ scale, it is possible that the organisation/brand has chosen to see value very myopically – as a transaction. What if the organisation transformed itself around connections – connecting employees to a sense of purpose, partners to the kind of work they’d want to associate with and its own narratives with that of the consumer’s? Of course there’d be transactions involved too, but how about engaging each in a way that understands and works with the unique value in every interaction within the context of a shared purpose?

(Arguable) I think efficiency lays more stress on methods, but engagement has the potential to focus on principles. Profitability at any cost vs value creation as a means to profitability. The choice might actually make the difference between survival and irrelevance.

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Revisiting brand purpose

I had almost completed a post on brand purpose when I came across this.

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I have realised that in my personal life, even ‘what you want most’ is a dynamic thing. I am not really arguing against discipline – there was a time when it kept the blog going. But what I wanted most was just simply that the blog shouldn’t die. To get back, in a rapidly changing environment, I sometimes feel that ‘living each moment fully’ is a better bet than a disciplined course of action towards a purpose.

Back to the brand purpose post. In the original draft, I had flipped Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the human context, the hierarchy is traveled upwards, as each need is met and reasonably satisfied. But I wondered if, in the brand context, it should be traversed in the reverse direction. I mapped self actualisation (the brand version of ‘what you want most’) to the brand’s purpose, Esteem to confidence in that purpose and finding the first set of people who will help translating that into a working model, Love/Belonging to getting a community in whose individual narratives the brand narrative can play a part, and the last two levels (Safety, Psychological) as bettering the efficacy and efficiency of the brand respectively. Yes, it is fairly rudimentary, but think about it! :)

But the quote and my reaction to it made me think, is it possible/good to define a brand purpose that remains consistent in a rapidly changing business landscape? Maybe it’s cohesion, as opposed to consistency? Is a flexible purpose accompanied by an agile way of operating  the middle path? Are we getting to a point where the only constant in a brand purpose is relevance and value in the consumer narrative and the brand is guided more by a set of unique principles and perspectives that are constantly reshaped by its environment?

When does a hotel’s brand purpose meet AirBnB or a watch company’s that of wearables, or a bookshop’s that of an online retailer of books/e-books? When it affects business? Is that around the same time as ‘too late’?

Linking learning & labour

I’m a huge Asimov fan, and am constantly amazed at how he was able to have a perspective of the future on multiple fronts. I was reminded of two of those recently thanks to their application (of sorts) in contemporary scenarios.

First, Hari Seldon‘s (pretty much the foundation of Asimov’s Foundation series) psychohistory, which was able to make general predictions on the future behaviour of large populations using history, sociology and statistics. The easy contemporary connection is big data and predictive analytics.

Second, a short story written by him called ‘Profession‘, (do read) in which every person’s profession is based on an analysis of his/her brain, and no choice is given to the person in this matter! In India, we seem to be already there even without the analysis!

Collectively, these two made me think of employment, and on a related note, education. The thought was that with so much of data available on education and employment, we should be able to create ‘tests’ to compute the interest and aptitude of individuals at a very early age. What this would aim to do is to eliminate the herd education that currently exists. Instead, children would learn things that help them in a profession for which they have the intent and interest, using say, a combination of traditional classrooms and MOOCs. Also, this would no longer be one part of a life cycle, but a continuous process – helping the individual thrive in a dynamic environment.

If you remember, LinkedIn was my representative for ‘L’ in the ‘change imperative‘ deck. That was because I felt that it had the data and the vision to be the catalyst for this kind of a change. I was very happy when it underscored this faith with the fantastic ‘future self‘ experiment, in which they identified the future professional self (5 year time frame) of LinkedIn user Kurt Wagner – another user Mussarat Bata – using various data points!

LinkedIn hasn’t really built this as a public tool, but just imagine the possibilities! A platform that shows people the possibilities which take them closer to their ‘purpose’. (remember ‘The Evolution of Work and the Workplace‘?) I sincerely hope to see this in my lifetime. :)

until next time, live and learn

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Social Nextworks

The impending death of Orkut (2004-2014) made me think of the evolution of social networking and its transience. Orkut lived ‘only’ for 10.5 years, and this is despite being part of Google, though some would call that a disadvantage. Facebook  has been around for the same time, and the fact that it is a force to reckon with is a testament of its understanding of this transience. It also explains the acquisition of Instagram, Whatsapp and the attempt on Snapchat.

However, I recently realised that I am probably more active on Whatsapp, Instagram and Pinterest than Facebook and Twitter. I am also reasonably active on Secret. That made me dig a bit deeper.

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What is changing? From my observations, there are at least two factors that are driving the change.

Perspectives on connectivity: The early era was fueled by the need to connect. Facebook is soaring well beyond a billion users, and its longevity is (also) because the need still exists. It continues to look for better ways to do this, manifested through front end and back end changes. But despite this, and my own curation of my newsfeed by sending signals to Facebook, I am regularly overwhelmed by the volume. This goes for Twitter too. Personally, I have treated these platforms as a means of self expression. I would also like to choose the people whose perspectives I want, and who are entitled to a judgment, if any. But that’s not so easily done on popular platforms.

That’s when I start to look at the many ways to handle this – from social networks to messaging apps. I could go to where the crowds are relatively less and/or are more ‘focused’ – by domain or use cases, (LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram) I could interact with smaller groups, (WhatsApp) use ephemerality (Snapchat) or be anonymous (Secret) As I mentioned, at least three of these work for me. A wonderful nuance I caught in Mitch Joel ‘s prophetic ‘The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity‘, is that it may not just be ‘something to hide’ that makes some prefer anonymity, but it could also be so that ‘who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion’. Anonymity on the web is not new, but many of its enablers are.

Devices: The networks of an earlier era (eg.Facebook) were made for desktop and had to adapt for mobile. On the other hand, Instagram, Whatsapp, Secret, Snapchat etc are mobile natives. Given the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, their growth is not surprising.

What are the possible business models and what’s a brand to do? As more and more users flock to these new platforms, they would need to mature, with business models which could mean associations with brands – the journey from social network to social media.

Instagram and Pinterest are already social media, making advertising at least one of their revenue sources. WhatsApp does not like advertising and already makes money on downloads. Its competitors like Line, KakaoTalk, WeChat etc, however, have found various other means – virtual items, (stickers, in app purchases in free video games) promotional messages, baby steps in electronic payment handling fees, and interesting tie-ups. Snapchat already has many marketers on it and is likely to offer promotion options too, probably tied to a time bound event.

Secret has a lot of negativity surrounding it – s3x talk and startup malice and being just a fad – and there are comparisons to Formspring and its demise despite funding. But beyond advertising and in app puchases, maybe, there’s also potential for insights on a brand and its use cases? Things that cannot be found on indexed platforms. Also, Whisper already has a content deal with Buzzfeed.

Analytics for such platforms haven’t even really begun yet, but it can’t be far away. But more importantly, all of these platforms are potential enablers for a brand to take forward its narrative and become relevant to its users. It continues to be about storytelling, and digital.