Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Positioning : A Battle for Credibility?

When the book “Positioning : The Battle For Your Mind” was launched in the 80’s, authors Jack Trout and Al Ries were quick to market their “new” concept and the arrival of the “positioning era.” Positioning is about managing where a brand sits in consumers’ minds. It’s about defining a brand’s expertise and values so as to be distinct among many competitors.

All fine and well at Marketing 101 level, but not something I’d take to graduate school. Positioning is a fundamental truth, but is far too simplistic as a cure-all for all marketing ills. I recall being terribly agitated while reading it, and here’s why.

One, they had promoted themselves as the authors of a “new” idea, when in fact many others before them had put the same discipline into practice. Advertisers and marketers had long known the importance of articulating a clear brand imagery. They just did not give what they did a fancy name like ‘positioning.’

Second, Trout and Ries over-played the importance of a brand name’s relevance. They used Newsweek as an example of a better name than Time, because “News” and “weekly” was a clearer product descriptor.

Trouble is, at the point of my reading, Time was doing better than Newsweek. The notion just looked lame to me then, and more so now, when many seemingling random names such as Google, Yahoo and Skype are doing well.

Third was their caution that when a brand steps outside its expertise, it is likely to fail. Levi’s failed in shirts because Levi’s stood for jeans, they said. Xerox stumbled in its foray into computers because Xerox was long-positioned as a copier.

Hey, if that’s true, how come Panasonic is known for television, air-conditioners, rice-cookers, toasters and fridges? In fact, in Japan, (where it is still known as National), it sells everthing from kitchen sinks to tiles. I think it was at this point I tossed the book out the window, which is probably why I can’t find it anymore on my shelves.

Trout and Ries produced a lot of American brands as evidence of their theory. But they failed to explain the success of many Asian and European brands in crossing product boundaries.

Nokia, as one example, started as a paper company. They then moved into tyres and shoes before evolving into the world’s largest maker of handphones. Rolls-Royce isn’t just a luxury car, but a maker of jet turbine engines.

Many Japanese and Korean brands contradict the argument for positioning. How is Canon, a camera brand, equally adept at copiers and business equipment? How is Samsung both a construction and electronics company? How did Yamaha, a maker of musical instruments, get into the business of motorcycles and ski-mobiles? ? Indeed, what is 3 tuning forks as a logo doing on a racing bike? Nothing could be more different than a piano and a motorcycle.

I later found solace in the book, Business The Richard Branson Way : “Branson is critical of the traditional Western view of branding. He likens Virgin’s approach to that of some Japanese companies.”

No surprise, coming from the man who took the Virgin name from music to an airline, railway, wines, car rental and radio station.

Says Branson “They think brands only relate to products and that there is limited amount of stretch. They forget that no-one has a problem playing on a Yamaha piano, having ridden a Yamaha bike the same day, or listening to a Mitsubishi stereo in a Mitsubishi car, driving past a Mitsubishi bank.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Brand Bromo

Mount Bromo is an active volcano in East Java. I first saw a picture of it some ten years ago. It’s one of the images that sears permanently in your mind, because unless your mother is from Mars, it’s like nothing you’d ever seen. There is an eerie out-of-this-worldness about this serrated giant of a cone spouting sinister puffs of sulphur.

So last year, when a friend suggested a trip, I was on the plane in two minutes clutching my toothbrush and barf-bag. Flying into Surabaya, my imagination ran wild. I thought of Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and wondered if director Peter Jackson had ever considered the moon-like landscape of Mt Bromo as a set.

All this fantasy and my lunch went out the window in the six-hour taxi ride from Surabaya to Mt Bromo. The traffic is leagues more terrifying than any volcano. For to get to this lunar landscape, you must first endure the lunatics on Java’s roads. Only in the deft hands of true third-world drivers, can a 2-lane road become a six-lane highway. I was clutching the hand of God.

By sheer miracle, we arrived with limbs intact. I was as pale as the under-belly of a dead fish when I staggered out the cab. But my jaws dropped to my ankles at my first sight of Mt Bromo. The picture did not lie. It looked just like the photograph I saw ten years ago. This was no photoshop job. I was over the moon. No, actually, I was on the moon. The caldera is ten kilometres across, and in it, are five baby volcanoes, the most celebrated of which is Mr Bromo.

The people who live here are the Tenggerese, and they speak a Majapahit dialect. There are some 30 villages, and they get about on horseback and Land Cruisers. The hottest of days is a dry skin-peeling heat ; on the coldest nights the mercury dips to 12C.

So what has this to do with branding? Well, if branding is about connecting with the mind and the heart, then Mr Bromo certainly delivers. It is distinctive and stands apart in its imagery and its reality, both to natives and curious tourists. And like all decent brands, it promises a unique experience, and serves it up in heaps.

Strong brands also have the advantage of an aura. There is almost a superstitious level of belief in them. And superstition is what Bromo has lots of. In the annual Kasada festival, thousands converge to offer all manner of animal sacrifice. Devotees toss chickens and entire cows into the gaping mouth of this volcano to appease the spirits.

Superstition isn’t just some ancient thing found in exotic places. It’s pretty much alive in modern societies, though in very different forms. Our Mt Bromos come in the shape of stores, superstars and sports. Lines of people flocking to the launch of a new software or game, is not all that different from thousands of Tenggerese making their pilgrimage up Mt Bromo.

At the bottom of it, our behaviour is driven by the belief in the choices we make.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Mobile Wallet

It’s 1 am. Do you know where your wallet is? For those prone to forgetfulness, that can raise a small alarm. I’ve left home without my wallet often enough, my glasses in public washrooms, credit card at the grocer’s and my mobile in restaurants. And just to entice thieves, my keys hanging in my car. It’s a disease. Life’s complicated enough without having to worry about a jangle of keys, the remote for your gate and a half-dozen passwords. The only thing I’ve never forgotten is my PDA, because to the best of my memory, I’ve never had one.
So if you are anything like me, the idea of a mobile wallet is (1) a big welcome because all you got to remember is one thingy or (2) a big worry because if you lose it, you lose everything.
Call it a must-have or call it a distraction, but here it is.

So what is a mobile wallet?

If there are 3-in-1 shampoos and 4-in-1 printers, why not an all-in-1 mobile phone? The mobile is already MP3 player, video, PDA, watch, TV, GPS, game console and fashion accessory, so why not everything else in your pocket?

Japan is where things like this usually begins. In 2004, NTT DoCoMo launched a service for people to make bank withdrawals, take the metro and buy air tickets with the mobile phone, among other stuff. At its rollout, you could walk into any of 9000 stores and make purchases with a few taps of your phone.

What made this magic was a wireless chip built into 2G and 3G phones. And this was just the start. Japan’s 100 million mobile users is a good place to tinker with the future.

Everything can be digitised and like it or not, everything will be, once technology and security are addressed. Governments, credit cards, banks, phone makers and network providers have long been working on this.

It isn’t so alien. Like all things tech, what seems frighteningly futuristic quickly becomes standard gear. We think nothing of plastic money, whizzing past tolls, or walking through immigration with our bio-metric passports.
Many of us zap a keycard to get into the office. Soon keyless cars may be as standard a feature as floormats, and your mother can wave her phone over scanners at the supermarket. If you are caught speeding, you could flash your mobile instead of your driving licence.
Should you be daft enough to wrap you car around a tree, your mobile will inform the doctors of your medical records and allergies, if any. And because your insurance policy is in your mobile, they can also decide if you are worth saving.

The mobile wallet is here

Just this month, the country’s major banks and telco announced a mobile wallet initiative. You can now transfer money with your mobile or buy a movie ticket. Working late? Just dial up a pepperoni thin-crust and pay with your phone. Services are limited now and the technology is sms-based. The next phase is chip-based and that’s when it gets a little more fun. For you and marketers and let’s not forget, the people who create content.
I might still be keeping my diary because I like the sound of pencil on paper. So the only other thing I have to remember is my glasses, unless I get my eyes lasered.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Visual Power

What would you say are the world’s greatest inventions? Tops on my list would be language and the camera.

Language, because without it, we would be grunting at each other. We wouldn’t be able to read, argue, sms, sembang or blog. Without the wonders of the spoken word and written form, lawyers would to have to fish for a living.

The camera, for obvious reasons. No tv. No Desperate Housewives and Grammys. Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t have a job. Newspapers and magazines with nothing but columns of squiggly text. Popcorn would not have been invented because there’s no cinema.

The camera was invented only some 180 years ago. And this is why, all history before that is sort of fuzzy. I mean, we aren’t even sure what Genghis Khan, Leonardo da Vinci, or Paramesawara really looked like.

All we got are portraits, done by artists who were paid to make the guys look better than they did. Did Alexander the Great actually look great? Maybe he was a scrawny mata sepet.

So what has this to do with marketing and advertising? Lots. Advertising’s two greatest tools are words and pictures. In fact, they are the only tools it has. (trivia : the first ad with a photograph was published in 1843 in Philadelphia.)

Let’s put writing aside. Let’s talk about pictures, or visuals as they appear around us and in our living rooms. And for this, we have a famous example.

In September 1960, something big happened. For the first time, politics used the power of
moving pictures. Senator John Kennedy and vice-president Richard Nixon were engaged in the first-ever televised ‘Great Debates.’ Prior to this, debates were aired only over radio. But here, for the first time, two presidential aspirants were going to battle in the visual arena.

The debates were held both on tv and radio. And the outcome has become a case study in politics, journalism, psychology and advertising.

In terms of what they said – pure content- both Kennedy and Nixon were evenly matched. In fact, those who heard the debate on radio preferred Nixon.

But, on television, Kennedy won by a huge margin. And the reason was visual.

Kennedy was this debonair, young man. He had just come in from California, campaigning in the summer, looking tanned and confident. And he put on a great performance on tv.

Nixon on the other hand was not exactly GQ material. He was also just out of hospital and 20- pounds underweight. He was pale and to make it worse, declined the usual studio make-up.

The bottom line was, viewers voted based on what they saw, much less by what they heard.

Never judge a book by its cover? All true and good, and substance matters. But we do react to what we see. We are sensitive to form, shapes, colours or whatever that meets the eye.

The entire visual presentation of someone or something, real or dressed up in our heads, is an awfully powerful thing.

To quote Andy Warhol, the great pop artist who undestood this so well, “I am a deeply superficial man.”

One can see why cosmetics is a billion-dollar industry.

Challenging a few "truths"

As in any industry, advertising and marketing has its share of rules and beliefs. Many are taught in college and perpetuated by the profession. Some are cast in stone and seldom questioned. So every now and then, it’s a good idea to throw a few stones at these so-called truths. Do they really apply today? Have they withstood the test of time? Let’s take a whack at a few.

“Being first is important”

Being first apparently makes an indelible impression on people, and therefore, becomes the property of the pioneering brand. So the theory goes. You hear trivia questions like, “Do you recall the second man to walk on the moon?” Your contentious answer could be “No, I don’t, because they never went to the moon. It was all a hoax.”

The diplomatic answer, if you wish to condescend to the point, is that you had never heard of Buzz Aldrin, but of course, everyone knows Neil Armstrong. It’s a deceptive analogy. For all the obvious evidence tells us being first has less value than we are led to believe.

For instance, can you name the first digital camera? Or the first toothpaste to use flouride? How about the brand of car that invented automatic transmission? Or the first car with variable valve timing?

The first airline to introduce business class can no longer claim competitive advantage. Neither can the first maker of MP3 players. Flip back a few decades and you’ll find that many pioneering companies aren’t leaders in their field today.

Technology, formats and business models can be copied. And copied they have been, innovated on by brands that deliver and communicate it better, consistently. The ‘first’ that marketers really want to be concerned with is being first or among the top in brand perception. That, sometimes, has little to do with a technical fact.

“Branding takes time”

I still hear this one. The most recent was last month at a presentation by a class of graduating marketing students. Try telling that to a brand manager today.

Maybe branding once did take a lot of time. But that was when everything took a lot of time. Back when it took 7 hours to get from KL to Penang. When rendang, pre-microwave, took a whole delirious day to stir and stew. When news of the demand of spice moved only as fast as a ship could steam from Britannia to Batavia.

Fortunately or otherwise, communication now moves as fast as fingers on a keyboard. And so, Yahoo (1994), Amazon (1994), and Google (1998) have quickly become brands. YouTube is only 2 years old.

Even outside cyberspace, rather astute marketing has very quickly established brands of cars, fashion and electronics. Dell and Paul Smith, both founded in the early 80’s, are international examples. Look around and you will see lots more. Many Malaysian companies have elevated their commodities to brands in remarkably short periods.

Branding isn’t about taking time as it is does about being with the times. When people have the memory span of fish, it’s relevance and fresh ideas that win new marketshare.