By Rajiv Banerjee & Shuchi Vyas
9 May 2007

At the MTV head office in Mumbai, the channel’s seven CEOs troop in every month to report their observations. And just like their Mumbai counterparts, CEOs from six other Indian cities too mail in their reports diligently every month. Meet the campus executive officers — the eyes and ears of the music channel, which sweep colleges across India looking for what’s hot or cool.

It’s the kind of information which enables MTV to get deep into its target audience’s minds. “The insights may not lead to a radical overhaul in our offerings, but we do incorporate elements into our shows — in the style and packaging — to make it contemporary and in tune with our target audience,” says Aditya Swamy, vice-president – marketing, MTV Networks India.

While MTV keeps its antennae tuned to the latest fads, Sanjay Luthra, MD, Mattel, bemoans a missed opportunity. The Pixar ‘Cars’ phenomenon isn’t even a whimper in India, even though Mattel factories across Europe and America are falling behind on orders. “In India, it didn’t work as well as expected,” admits Luthra.

The reason, in all probability, could be traced to the fact that Cars (the movie) wasn’t as big a hit in India. “A fad has to be identified and supported by more than one party. Today, when a fad emerges, it has a high-intensity, high-velocity impact, whereas earlier it was a gradual build up. The potential return is high, but there are risks as well,” Luthra adds.

It’s a conundrum which marketers today are grappling with. A fad today has a faster build-up and a shorter lifespan than ever before. He-Man moved from a fad to a trend with a life long enough for marketers of every stripe to ride on it.

Today, it’s Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh to Pixar, re-mixes to Brit-Asian to hip-hop — all flashing by on fast forward. While some do last long enough to become more durable phenomena, others have a very short shelf life. Time it and you ride the wave; miss it and you come crashing down.

The question that begs an answer: are fads worth all the effort? BS Nagesh, MD of Shoppers’ Stop, says that the fashion and lifestyle format no longer counts on short-term spikes. “We learnt this lesson during the days when Valentine’s Day was a hit. We used to work towards giving the occasion a spike. Now it’s just faded away. So unless it’s a product which creates a fad, which still has to be well planned, we don’t look at short-term waves,” he says.

Some of the fads that Titan’s FastTrack has seen are the neon collection in the watches category, and the amber-coloured and mirror effect range in sunglasses. “We see that when a campaign is taken off air, the demand drops. When put on air the second time, it revives interest only for a small segment,” says Simeran Bhasin, marketing manger, FastTrack, referring to the interchangable range launched for women, which did not pick up after the first few months.

But Bhasin also sees comebacks after a three-to-four year lull — in sunglasses, ‘avaitors’ and ‘bug eyes’. Trendspotter Robyn Waters, who’s written a best-seller called The Hummer and the Mini: The Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape, believes that today, as soon as something becomes commonplace, the early adopters move on to the next thing. “That makes it even trickier for marketers to capitalise on fickle fads.

It’s easier to identify because it’s so ubiquitous, but harder to capitalise on because the product lifecycle is so compressed,” she says. Dharen Chadha, MD, Momentum Strategy Consultants, says that fads are an example of downstream marketing. “They have their importance in certain categories like children-oriented ones in which you need to keep the stimulus fresh.

Brands should be about the eternal rather than the ephemeral,” he warns. And even in a kids’ category like toys, for players like Mattel, knowing what fad will catch children’s fancy in the future is crucial. For instance, Luthra has to be ready when kids go on holidays in April 2008.

“Even as children are more globalised today, they are ‘getting older younger’ (GOY), which means a move away from interest in sustained medium-intensity activity to short-term high-intensity fads,” he explains.

The shortened time line for fads owes to the faster dissemination of information through media like the internet and mobiles. Social networking sites and blogs allow anyone to propagate what he or she thinks is cool. “Earlier, a customer was exposed to a fad through a marketer.

Today, as the exposure is so large, sustaining a fad is becoming very difficult,” says Nagesh. Adds Santosh Desai, CEO of Future Brands: “Today, we are able to forget very easily. It’s a hallmark of media-based society. We grew up at a time where everything was given and stable. Today, it is based on change. What’s changing is growing.”

One outcome of the global information exchange is that Indian customers now see hardly any lag before a fad that takes shape in another country reaches India. Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight, a Delhi-based consultancy, points out that this market is still very different from Japan and the US, where the electronic media is more dominant and specific market segments are smaller.

“There is still a significant ripple creating power in India. Fashion has more of a pan-India effect, while fads trickle up, down and sometimes across,” he says. Citing the example of an international retailer that he worked with, Dutta says two years ago, the retailer noticed there was an increase in demand for ‘ponchos’ and so they made 25 varieties of ‘ponchos’ for the UK market.

“They sold large volumes, but when other companies tried it just six weeks down the line, no one really bought them, and within two-and-a-half months, almost no customers picked them up,” he says. Even when it comes to fashion, Bina Mirchandani, head – category management, Future Group, believes time spans are coming down, even in India.

Two years ago, Pantaloons introduced Seven Seasons, with each season lasting around two months, which according to Mirchandani, proves that the timeframe for trends is decreasing. “We see that silhouettes last for a longer period of time compared to colours.

Also, comfort level is a factor that determines whether a fad goes on to becoming a trend. For instance, kurtis started out as a fad, but because people found that it is a comfort outfit, its lifespan has increased.”

So marketers are looking increasingly at capturing trends, rather than going after short-term fads. Ashwin Rajgopal, GM – marketing, L’Oreal, explains: “We are in the business of science and technology. Fashion is just a part of the entire spectrum.” Explaining the emphasis on creating trends rather than riding fads, Rajgopal says that considering the size of the country, if it’s just a fad, it may get restricted to major metros like Mumbai.

This also explains why the company does not indulge in limited editions — barring the recent Aishwarya Rai lipstick shade — dismissing it as a short-term game. “The challenge for us is to appeal to a large cross-section of people, especially when others join the bandwagon soon after we’ve introduced something in the market,” explains Rajgopal.

Most marketers believe that identifying fads is part scientific and part gut feel. While enormous amounts of time is spent researching consumer behaviour, preferences, media habits and language, whether tapping a fad will rake in the moolah for marketers is a matter of chance — and timing. To know what the target audience would be interested in the future, Mattel depends on Play Plus, a research which combines both internal and external sources.

“The idea is to service the play needs of a child, whether he wants a toy or internet or games. The list we have seen is getting more and more crowded,” Luthra says. One insight which came from the Play Plus research was children spending more time with mobile cameras.

So Mattel came out with a digital camera which, according to Luthra, is gaining popularity all over the world. Mattel has launched this in India too, but it remains to be seen whether kids here will latch onto what is a rage in other markets. “At the end, Play Plus will identify five properties — three may do well and two won’t. But it’s a continuous bet,” he says.

Ashish Patil, VP – creative & content, MTV Networks, admits that it’s a combination of research and going by the gut. “But what we bank on is our experience of what’s worked in the past, and whether something will work or not. That understanding gives us the confidence of saying this will work the minute we see it or hear it,” he says, adding that there are some broader trends like Bollywood.

But even within that there are fads like a ‘John Abraham’ from Dhoom 1 to a ‘Hrithik Roshan’ in Dhoom 2. “Today humour is big, but the kind of humour where you have fun at someone else’s expense is a fad.”

It’s not always easy predicting fads — they can be sparked by just about anything. Take, for example, the Motorola Pink Razr, which the company launched in a market dominated by black and grey coloured handsets. Lloyd Mathias, head – marketing, Motorola, says the initial reaction to the idea was met with skepticism.

“People thought it was bizarre. But we decided to go ahead with it and see the reaction,” he says. Within a fortnight, the company was inundated with calls from all over India with youngsters, particularly girls, asking for the Pink Razr. “We thought it would be temporary, but it went on to become a trend.

We took a gut call and decided to break the clutter. It worked for us,” says Mathias.

Interestingly, Dutta of Third Eyesight points out that mobile caller tunes have moved from being a fad to a permanent feature. “When the application was first introduced, youngsters used to change the caller tunes almost everyday,” says Dutta.

Marketing is rife with examples of trends that were mistaken for fads and vice versa. And while fad creators almost always gain disproportionately, cashing in is invariably a function of knowing when the end is nigh.