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Brands must reinvent or die!

March 04, 2005 13:38 IST

To bring people back to the church, Izzy Solomon introduced the Automated Confession Machine, commonly known as the Confess-o-matic. The software of the ACM allowed it to take confessions in up to 137 different languages and dialects, and instantly sort voice data into more than 250 different sins.

The user could select from a menu of over 300 different synthesised "confessors" from historical figures including major saints, to licensed cartoon characters. A worldwide satellite link-up allowed any user to contact in real time a live priest at the Rome headquarters from any ACM anywhere, 24 hours a day.

And the introduction of the Church Credit card allowed Christians to pay for their sins with cash, or more conveniently, with the Church's credit card. Then, this was extended into the use of "ACM-on-line" to make it more convenient to believers.

Cohen, however, offered an alternative "old economy" model to re-invent Christianity for the new generation. To bring younger people back to the church, he suggested a segmented approach using the valuable asset the church owned -- Jesus.

A "Jesus Christ, superhero assisted by The Disciples", a force of twelve ready-for-action teenage heroes, addressed problems and difficulties the average teenagers could identify with.

The new Jesus would be featured in cartoon series, comic books, toys and action figures, feature films, playing cards, video games, apparel and white goods, other licensed products, dedicated stores, theme parks, rock music, and so on.

A "Baby Jesus and the Disciples" would appeal to pre-pubescent girls. And so forth there would be an Asian Jesus, the African Jesus, the Hispanic Jesus, and the Eskimo Jesus.

This approach retained the message of salvation and only changed the messenger -- the changes being only cosmetic.

This story from "Redeemed" by Richard Rothman may sound apocryphal, the solutions delightfully fictitious, yet it is pretty instructive. Even religions, the most powerful brands in the world, built on the fallibility of man and the universal human truth that in the long run we are all dead, need re-invention from time to time to stay relevant.

Most religions have faced these challenges over the years. This has given rise to new faiths and has brought changes in existing faiths.

The same is equally true about sport. Cricket has transformed from a "play to the finish" game in the early decades of the 20th century (in Australia, not England, where test cricket was a three-day affair) to five-day cricket in the late 1940s to "one day" in the 1980s.

Today it is experimenting with the more innovative 20/20 format.

Re-invention is the name of the game. Clich├ęd though it may sound, the only thing constant in life is change. It is the basis for progress. It's the natural process of evolution that every generation attempts to change and improve its life from what earlier generations experienced.

This stimulates questioning the past and inventing new paradigms for the future.

The consumer market is no different. There is no doubt that fundamental human needs do not change over time -- the drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own, etc.

However, the means to satisfy these needs change over time with the evolution of human knowledge.

In the last two decades, the communication industry has witnessed dramatic changes -- making old modes obsolete. Postal services gave way to telex, which evolved into faxes, and then to electronic mail.

Postal companies of the past had to redefine their roles and evolve into courier companies and then into logistics management companies to remain relevant. Each transition necessitates new business models and transactions.

The entertainment industry has transformed right through the last century. The stage evolved into the cinema -- first silent, then black and white talkies, and finally colour. Each brought with it a need for new skills.

The talkie cinema meant artistes needed to re-modulate their voices to suit the medium, the "dramatic" voices of the stage sounded too "theatrical" for the cinema; colour meant sets needed to be toned down to look less garish; colours that didn't show up in black and white seemed loud when shot in full colour!

The emergence of TV necessitated change in framing to get the picture more adapted for a smaller screen; and TV also changed the audience composition -- from predominantly male for the cinema to predominantly female for TV!

All these changes meant the creators re-invent scripts and production techniques to adapt to the new formats.

The same is true for brands. To stay relevant, brands need to continuously reinvent themselves. Image-driven brands like Coke and Pepsi need communication to continuously keep pace with the changing teenager -- as the communication is the brand.

For others, the reinvention may have to take place at the product level itself. IBM, the Big Blue, bravely redefined itself from a hardware brand to a service-led brand to come out of the red in the 1990s.

GE's aircraft engines division saw a bigger opportunity in engine servicing to refocus the brand's strengths and expand its canvas in the 1990s. Closer home, cinema halls had to re-define their role in the consumer's life as providing an "evening out" experience and thus got converted into multiplexes.

The radio came back in a big way on the back of the automotive boom by finding a role in a new part of a consumer's life -- while driving -- with FM. Scooters have an opportunity to get repositioned as short-distance transportation in city alleys.

Brands that don't re-invent face the danger of extinction -- the way the Ambassadors and HMTs -- tigers of the past -- have become dinosaurs today. As products proliferate and niches emerge, there is a need for categories and brands to understand the larger role they play in the consumer's life and see themselves more holistically delivering value in that context.

The most important brand in anyone's life is oneself. Interestingly, re-invention is today applicable to the employee market place. Work spaces and cultures are changing all the time.

The world has moved from hierarchies to matrix, from formality to informality, from competition to collaboration, and now, moving into co-opitition. Managing is giving way to the need for leadership and entrepreneurial spirit -- often raising the issue whether management schools are getting outdated.

There is perhaps a greater need for "leadership" rather than "management" schools! The new skills required are less of "learning and acting" and more of "acting and learning". The earlier generation lived in a world where a person did largely similar work all through his life and grew with a fixed set of skills.

Today with the outside world and market changing so fast, an employee can no longer continue to do the same work the same way over for long. It calls for retraining -- both in the hard skill and soft skill areas.

And often it's about the individual changing himself or herself in the environment that he or she is operating in. It means continuous re-orientation!

Yash Chopra is fairly inspirational in this context. At 70 plus, he retains his touch with changing audiences and continues to make films that touch the heart of new generations decade after decade.

From Kabhi Kabhi to Dil To Pagal Hai to Veer Zaara, his love stories have remained contemporary.

If he can, any brand and individual can.

Something worth thinking about.
Madhukar Sabnavis
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