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Can India have cult brands?

By the strategist
May 29, 2007 11:27 IST
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What does it take for a brand to achieve iconic status? Has any Indian brand reached the levels of customer empathy as, say, Harley-Davidson, Starbucks and Apple?

Anmol Dar, managing director, Superbrands India

"To make cult brands possible we need a complete overhaul of the way we view things"

The Oxford English Dictionary defines cult as "something fashionable or popular among a particular group of people".

In this context, it would suggest a brand that has migrated to various parts of the world, finding in each a place in the hearts and minds of its people. Pushed to a logical conclusion it would imply a manufactured product - not a religious worship or a service. It would also suggest that the brand is possibly youth driven.

One look at the changing face of urban India would indicate that all the parameters for the creation of a cult brand are in place. And that a cult brand from India could be here any day now. So what does it take to create one?

Brilliant brands don't happen because someone, one morning, said, "I want to create a cult brand." Harley-Davidson or Starbucks weren't created with the intention of becoming a way of life.

They all began life as products - sometimes as unique offerings such as the iPod or the Walkman - with huge potential. Along the way they did everything that was in sync with market needs and trod a path not explored by others. They created strategies and supporting communications that nudged people towards the view that the offering was a fashion statement. The chemistry happened here.

Can India create its own cult brand in the foreseeable future? The short answer is no.

India has the managerial expertise and marketing brilliance to manage and create brands. What it needs is the magic that happens when corporate leaders buy into a vision that is not their own. This requires a profound appreciation of the potential and pockets deep enough to support that dream.

At the core of India's economic boom are two types of enterprises: the large, family-driven businesses and the country's huge public sector undertakings.

The former almost necessarily bequeaths management to its progeny, when at a small price highly trained, professional talent could have easily been hired. While this practice has helped retain businesses within the fold (and why not!), it has also created controls in which brands simply didn't become strong enough to survive beyond visual range. As a result, Indian brands remained small in terms of sheer volumes and remained confined to a market that was at best diminutive.

Consider this fact: the US greetings card market is nearly twice as large as the Indian sanitary ware, kitchen appliances, apparel, writing instruments, mattresses, plywood and automotive battery industries in the organised sector, combined!

The public sector undertaking, on the other hand, has its own political compunctions. Between these two polarised positions the sharp Indian mind is inhibited and reined-in.

This explains why Indians can create and mange cult brands abroad and why despite several years of free enterprise not one Indian brand has managed to make a serious impact in the world's developed markets.

To make cult brands possible we need a complete overhaul of the way we view things. But when that happens, it will first impact other priorities and imperatives before it can cast its mind to creating a cult brand.

Moon B Shin, managing director, LG India

"If companies can forge distinct, attractive identities, cult brands are sure to emerge from India"

When the success of a brand transcends boundaries, challenges every rule of marketing and attains followers who worship every intricate detail, it becomes a cult.

The essence of creating a cult brand lies in sustaining its aspirational value over the years and contemporising it without losing its essential originality. You know you have a cult brand when customers become the ones following your brand, generation after generation.

But before setting on to the path of cult branding, a company needs to answer many pertinent questions.

How does a brand cross the line from ordinary to heaven-sent, to be one that customers will really champion? Should every brand be groomed for potential cult status? What are the pleasures and perils of managing a cult brand and its sometimes-obsessive customers?

Companies need to be in tune emotionally with its customer base, allowing them to glean superior marketing insight without spending millions of dollars.

Indian companies are mature enough to cultivate popular brands, but to make them achieve cult status, they need to take popularity to a different level through inventive and revolutionary tactics.

Indian brands have the potential, but management and marketers behind that brand do not have a risk-taking mentality and understanding of the potential pay-off. Since the first and foremost rule cult branding is "dare to be different", companies need to shake things up when everyone at the organisation is feeling most cosy.

Most cult brands have been created and continue to flourish through consumers who actively form larger communities around their favourite brands. A case in point being 101-year-old Harley-Davidson Inc, which is more iconic than ever, with its 886,000-member Harley Owners Group. They don't call themselves a cult but believe they are a family and that's how they treat each other.

This is the biggest challenge and if Indian companies can forge distinct, attractive identities, creating bonds beyond the point of purchase, and reinforcing those bonds through constant contact, cult brands are sure to emerge from India.

With the power of the Internet and the cultural and demographic shifts in India, it is not so difficult to get consumers to actively form larger communities around their brands.

Any Indian brand, from a lighter to a plane, can become iconic and achieve cult status. However, marketers need to build brands that help give people an identity. People like to be different. At the same time, they would like to be part of a group that acts different.

Indian companies need to hit on that fine line. If Indian brands can find the right way to do it, in a way that is entertaining and interesting, perhaps delightful, and makes people talk to each other, that would be the beginning of an Indian cult brand.

Mithileshwar Jha, professor of marketing, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

"Marketing Mahatmas required!"

I define a "cult brand" as one with focused, committed target customers with high degree of reverence for the brand, who are willing to put extraordinary effort to acquire and use the brand and are willing to publicly demonstrate their love for the brand in an extraordinary manner.

It takes tonnes of creativity, coordinated effort, capability leveraging and sustained vision to create a cult brand. It requires having the pulse of the customer in your hand. Creating a cult brand requires balancing head and heart in decision-making, tilting more towards the heart.

Indians have had their own cult brands, right from mythological characters to statesmen and godmen. We also have some commercial examples. We do tend to be personality-focused, though: think of Chanakya, Ashoka, Valmiki, Mahatma Gandhi, film stars, sports icons and politicians. In the world of commerce and business, think of regional brands such as Wagh Bakri Tea and MTR foods.

We can produce and sustain many such brands, provided top management is emotionally attached to brand building, not just chasing top-line and bottom-line targets. They also need to be stable; you don't plant teak and palm trees if you have a five-year tenure.

Then, India needs to find and nurture marketing talent that doesn't fiddle with creatives, get bored too easily and jump around markets, monkey-like, with no focus on customers and resources. Two critical areas of marketing - market research and advertising - especially need to attract the right sort of talent.

Equally important is the need for marketers to start reappreciating the interdependence of the marketing and sales functions, rather than over-glamourising one over the other. The marketing department also needs to start sharing the ownership of customers with other departments within the organisation.

It's not a long list and it doesn't call for mavericks. But it does require marketing "Mahatmas"!

A G Krishnamurthy, chairman, AGK Brand Consulting

"We are a very diverse nation. Cult following happens when a country has a large proportion of people following a common lifestyle or group behaviour"

India will not have a cult brand. We have not seen one in the past 50 years and I don't think we will see one in the next 20 or even 30 years. We came somewhat close to creating a cult brand some years ago with Rasna.

The soft drink concentrate was immensely popular with children; they even aped the little girl in the ad, copying her style of dressing and her haircut. But even that was not really a cult brand.

But then, cults have never really been "in" in India. We didn't have The Beatles or Elvis Presley. Yes, some people may argue that our cricketers and film stars have huge fan followings, but they don't wield the same kind of power.

That is largely because we are a very diverse nation and we tend to disagree more than we agree. Indians are very individualistic and prefer our own approach to everything. Cult following typically happens when a country has a large proportion of people following a common lifestyle or group behaviour.

Going forward, we are only likely to become even more diverse and segmented, as a nation and as consumers. India has never seen cult brands like MTV, Apple, Harley Davidson or Starbucks. I don't think we ever will.

Shripad Nadkarni, director, Market-Gate Consulting

"Indians are encouraged since childhood to "fit in" rather than "stand out", and cult brands draw their consumers with propositions that go against the mainstream"

The difference between cult brands and others is more than just the loyalty of following over a sustained period of time that they command. The intensity of emotions displayed by the aficionados of cult brands borders on the, well, cultish.

Responses to the denigration of their brand (or products) by heretics can range from sullen silence to vitriolic violence. Think Marmite, the durian fruit, karela and the perennial favourite, Old Monk rum. But then, food and beverages are intensely emotional categories. And, of course, no debate on cult brands can be complete without a reference to the Hog.

There are essentially two qualifiers for a brand to be called a cult brand. One, the emotional attachment has to be enormous. Two, the consumer base has to be small. If the base was large this would be called an iconic brand. Hence, a critical choice by marketers of cult brands is to define consumer segments that they will not serve: the appeal is, by definition, polarised.

Why has India not been able to produce cult brands the way Europe or the US has? Don't we have several brands that have a small but sharply loyal following? The answer is both, yes and no. Brands that could qualify for cult status are usually confined to a specific region where local socio-cultural, linguistic or religious factors are the fountainhead of the appeal.

Hence they end up being strong regional brands rather than cult brands. A pre-requisite for a cult brand then is a fairly broad geographic dispersion within which there is an indoctrinated segment.

And this is one reason why India has not been able to produce more such brands - the economics of reaching a small, widely dispersed consumer base. Unless, of course, the brand piggybacks its distribution on others within the stable, like Old Monk. As distribution gets more organised, this constraint could turn into an enabler.

The second reason is more culture specific. Indians are encouraged since childhood to "fit in" rather than "stand out", and cult brands draw their consumers with propositions that go against the mainstream. While Indians have begun experiment more, it is always within a socially acceptable "comfort zone".

Where then does the future lie? Two socio-economic trends have the potential of fostering the growth of cult brands in India. One, the free movement of labour (blue- and white-collared) across the country: the bonds of the "fit in" culture get diluted as a direct consequence.

A case in point is children of defence personnel, who have long been known to "stand out" relative to the general populace. Second, the role of media and distribution in creating broadly "convergent" wants across the country. Look no further than the telecom and the airline industry to see the pan-Indian nature of their appeal.

Once the appeal of categories goes beyond regional to national, the emergence of sharply differentiated cult brands is a logical next step to the opportunities of growth via segmentation.
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