Faces are important in India, because people connect with people, not concepts, says Madhukar Sabnavis.
Nearly four decades ago, the late Tony Greig released his first book, Cricket: The Men and the Game. To a lover of cricket, the title sounded sacrilegious. Consciously or unconsciously, Greig put the players above the game (and country).
As a teenager, it stirred up a chicken-and-egg debate: did the players exist because of the game, or did the game get its power from the players? Greig had cast his verdict, and it didn’t seem palatable to an ardent fan like me.
After all, the game outlived the players and that clearly showed the supremacy of the game over the players. Yet as one set of “heroes” went, another set emerged and the new ones had their role in getting fans and spectators (and in today’s context, viewers) for the game. And kept the game going. What would a game be without its heroes?
The just concluded FIFA World Cup finals provide another data point for the game-versus-player debate. India didn’t feature in the finals — yet there is enough enthusiasm for the football tournament.
While there are some who root for the Latin American “melody” of football and European “professionalism”, those flirting with the game are often regaled by the stars and support teams based on the presence of Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr, Luis Suarez or Thomas Mueller.
This also provides “flirts” with an opportunity to continue watching the tournament even after one team falls off. You switch your allegiance to the team of your next hero. While the observation on football is empirical, this behaviour has been proved for the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament.
Alongside city loyalty, marquee players draw support for their teams. In fact, player following is sometimes stronger than city support — and, hence, IPL teams do face a challenge, to build an independent city or club following on the lines of the English Premier League. In cricket, where patriotism has been the first line of connect, the second clearly seems to be star players — especially in an environment where cities are getting more cosmopolitan, and local pride is being downplayed as being parochial in popular culture.
Clearly fans, supporters and consumers connect with faces and that is not counter-intuitive when one looks at the fact for itself.
However, in orthodox management education and theory, in which products and brands are created in categories where they live by themselves and have an independent form, this ability of faces to create brands (in the cases mentioned above, sports teams) sounds counter-intuitive.
Even in everyday buyer behaviour – at least in India – the importance of people cannot be downplayed. The largest companies have faces that, subliminally or explicitly, represent them.
Tata, Birla, Mahindra, Godrej, to name a few big business houses — all have family and faces in the names of their corporate groups.
And Reliance is closely connected with the Ambanis. For retail products, mass-distributed, the face connect at the intermediary level is often very explicit.
The face is what makes the next-door retailer a formidable competitor to the chains of retail stores.
Besides the service and extras that mom-and-pop stores provide, a decisive factor for comfort is the personal rapport that is struck between the housewife and the retailer — whether a formal shop with a name, often a family name, or a roadside vendor.
And, removed from products, the local councillor, or the member of a Legislative Assembly or Parliament is the point of connect between the citizen and the political party.
Hence, a lot of pain is taken in their selection by most astute political parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent victory can also be ascribed to the fact that they consciously shifted political discourse from “amorphous” parties and “local” candidates to one national personality.
The presidential format helped voters have a face to connect to, rather than promises; it prevented them from getting lost in the sea of people that parties often represent.
Giving their branch employees a face in their first Khayal Aapka (“caring for you”) campaign in 2009 provided a human connect to ICICI Bank, perceived as technologically advanced and efficient.
Putting the face of a “saccha advisor” (sincere advisor) on their agent helped to build stature and credibility for a smaller player in the private life insurance space, Max Life. Both are in categories where public sector companies have historically held sway on the base of an on-the-ground relationship with their consumers.
Relationship managers are a service that banks have created to provide preferential treatment to their top -end consumers. It also provides a face to a bank that otherwise is a set of technologies.
Eureka Forbes is a story of success built on the back of showcasing their salesmen. The door-to-door salesman, often seen as a pain, ringing the bell and interrupting everyday chores, took on the persona of a friend through the brand’s advertising. In each of these cases, faceless organisations got a face through advertising. And the face provided a human connection.
Brand ambassadors perhaps operate in a similar way. Celebrities are often used as a substitute for an idea or message.
The brand tends to ride on the equity of the celebrity; they give the brand a face, and lends some credibility to its message — especially if they’re looked up to by the audience.
It is an established fact that, all things being equal, a celebrity does allow advertising to cut through the noise, and become more memorable; however, subliminally, if the celebrity is also an authority, he or she could lend more to the brand. Hidden within the celebrity disease in the marketing world is an urge to give your faceless brand a face.
The concept of organisations and brands originated in the West. Culturally, the West is about evaluating concepts for themselves and deciding based on a rational framework. The East – and certainly India – is about people.
For us, concepts don’t exist as absolutes, but along with the people offering it. Hence, even new-age companies like Infosys are quite inseparable from their people — N R Narayana Murthy or Nandan Nilekani.
This is both a positive and a negative. A brand can be built on the back of a credible face. Yet the face could become a millstone, a limitation if the brand cannot break out of being connected to it, or evolve beyond it.
At the core, it is that people connect with people as much or maybe even more than the concepts they stand for. Players are as important – if not more important – than the game. Something worth thinking about.
The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, India. These views are his own.