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Brand communication – taking the alternative route

13-September-2004
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Brand communication – taking the alternative route

Advertising, as often reckoned, is an outrageous mix of flattery and threats. Yet there are brands that are distant from all the pomp and show of advertising and slink their way to building meaningful and effective communication. To give you a gist of what we mean, let’s take a look at the story of the famous Body Shop, brainchild of Anita Roddick, that managed to carve a niche for itself amongst consumers purely through word-of-mouth publicity for a collection of high quality, natural and not-to-mention environment-friendly skin care and beauty products.

Roddick cleverly used media to build her image as a small-time entrepreneur, albeit with noteworthy values, pitted against multinationals peddling unsafe products. And, Body Shop grew up to be an international chain selling beauty products to an intensely loyal base of consumers who were bonded more with the philosophy of the company rather than anything else.

There are several brands that have made it big without banking much on advertising, and these include popular brands like Café Coffee Day, Barista, Avon, Tupperware, Nilgiri Stores, Readers Digest, Herbal Life, Amway and The Club. Be it through direct marketing or word of mouth, these brands have managed to stick around and they pride for not being in the daily gambit of ‘Saas Bahu’ ratings or hot spots within the cricket can.

Said Brotin Banerjee, Marketing Head, Barista, “Consumers come to Barista to sit back, relax and enjoy. And, of course, to have a cup of strong and freshly brewed coffee. I think our success lies in the fact that we have marketed an entire ambience around the brand. Step out for a minute and ask random consumers about their out-of-home coffee experience and 75 per cent would relate it with Barista. That’s the kind of equity we hold without any use of mass media. We have 120 outlets in number with around 20 per cent footfall. New customers come in purely on the recommendation of referrals or after reading write-ups in key publications.”

The obvious question that pops up in mind is whether at the time adopting such a business model, Barista could predict the level of success that the group would eventually receive. Banerjee was quick to say no. “We had not expected the kind of popularity that currently comes our way. Yet, we were clear on the fact that we wouldn’t resort to mass media. This doesn’t go to say that we don’t re-innovate around the brand, we constantly reward our customers with concert tickets, audio cassettes, free offers and other knickknacks,” he elaborated.

Interestingly, rival coffee outlet group treads down the same path. And, Café Coffee Day too has a similar success story to narrate. Marketing head Sudipta Sengupta said, “In a survey carried out by us, we found out that 85 per cent of the customers came to the outlets purely based on word of mouth publicity. The rest 15 per cent wanted to try out our brand after reading articles or by watching segments, peddled by the media community. We started off rewarding our consumers through loyalty programmes from 2002, and by 2004, it had brought in 1.35 lakh consumers. We really believe that our customers are the best brand ambassadors and we don’t really need mass media or any such endeavour.”

Adding further, she continued, “We have brought in certain changes to the format of Café Coffee Day; for instance, in Delhi, we have a lounge café, a garden cafe in MG Road, Bangalore and in GK, Delhi, internet café extensions in certain airports and a book lounge. We would constantly be in the process of innovation around the brand, and introduce requisite changes to the ambience.”

And, what would brand gurus say on such success stories? Jagdeep Kapoor of Samsika Consultancy is of the opinion that advertising plays a very small part in the entire process of brand communication. “A brand can succeed without advertising, but not without communication. There are various facets to communication, such as brand experience, direct marketing, relationship marketing, public relations, event marketing, packaging and demonstrations, while advertising is just one part of it. For instance, most pharmaceutical companies seldom advertise. Kayani’s Shrewberry biscuits are surviving purely on sampling and word of mouth,” he explained.

Illustrating the success of communication sans advertising, the brand guru took up the case of The Club resorts. Kapoor recalled, “When I met Dinesh Khanna in 1996 (who worked for Holiday Inn) for the brand ‘naamkaran’ (christening) of the resort. My suggestion of ‘The Club’ was accepted with much scepticism. But my point was that, just because the name was extremely common in our everyday conversation, it would strike a chord with consumers. And it did. What started out as an initiative with 1,000 members, went on to five lakh associates and from thereon the figure reached six-and-half lakh. But, all without the basic mix of mass media.”

So far, the success stories revolved round smaller brands, especially in the food and lifestyle category. The question remains – how far would direct marketing or word-of-mouth work for bigger brands in automobiles, consumer durables, FMCGs or financial sectors.

JH Mehta, Executive Director, Kwality Walls, HLL, remarked, “I believe the strategy holds true if you structure your business model that way. Amway had an entirely different modus operandi and the same goes with a brand like Oriflamme. With HLL ice creams, we don’t rely as much on television and print as on outdoor hoardings and below-the-line activities. Word of mouth or direct marketing can work just as well for certain brands, provided the business model is well strategised and thought out.”

If advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket, brand communication is a lot bigger than buckets or sticks. And with media getting cluttered and more and more fragmented by the day, brand builders are concentrating on alternative methods of communication. As it is often said, you don’t have to shout in order to be heard.

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