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Festive discounts, online shopping and retail evolution in India

P. Karunya Rao of Zee Business in conversation with Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight and Narayan Devanathan, Group Executive & Strategy Officer, Dentsu India, about festive discounts, the evolution of ecommerce and retail business in India.

 

Packaging – Uncovering Personality

Dominos India

Packaging of products is, undoubtedly, an extremely strong means of conveying the essence of the brand, its ethos and its personality.

Packaging is not only a vehicle to endorse the identity of a brand in a consumer’s mind, the growing need for sophisticated packaging also results from many lifestyle needs such as ease of transportation, storage, usage and disposability sought by convenience seeking and time pressed consumers.

But, increasingly, it also reflects the brand’s responsibility and sensitivity towards Nature and its resources.

If we, as consumers, were to reduce or optimize packaging from our daily lives, especially for food and beverages, there will be a redefinition of the processes involving our purchase and usage. It will also to a larger degree alter the systems and processes of organisations whose distribution and retail is integrally dependent on packaging.

Original Unverpackt, a concept grocery store in Berlin, Germany operates without food packaging that would later turn into garbage. The idea around which it is build is to bring one’s own containers and have it weighed. The supermarket will label your containers. After one shops and gets to the till, the weight of the containers is subtracted and one has to pay for the net weight of the groceries. The label is designed to survive a few washings so one may come back and skip the weighing process for a few more times. In this way, not only do the food products shed their familiar identifiers (brand colors, packaging structures, and bold logos) but the ways they move from shelf to home becomes radically different. While shoppers are encouraged to bring their own bags and containers with them, a range of re-usable jars and containers are also available for purchase onsite. As much as possible, produce is sourced locally.

At this point of time, it may seem difficult to adopt this framework in entirety. However we should remember that just a few short decades ago we followed similar practices such as engaging biodegradable, recyclable, reusable materials for packaging, making use of one’s own containers and bags and filling them in with quantities as per the requirements from the bulk containers.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) will be introducing mandatory requirements for companies to use sustainable resources in packaging and reduce packaging waste very soon. It is still being decided in what forms the regulations could be developed, but the preliminary ideas include requiring companies to submit annual reports on how much packaging they use, to develop waste reduction plans, or to meet recycling targets. Belgium on the other hand has been championing the cause of waste management by maximizing recycling and reusage.

The global trends are moving towards sustainable packaging given the ecological resource wastage it creates, the garbage the packaging material produces and the air and the ground water pollution the landfills create. Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year, is arriving progressively earlier and earlier, indicating that the humanity’s resource consumption for the year is exceeding the earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year.

Another very grim consequence that was witnessed is the frightening and highly visible impact on marine life – since the start of this year more than 30 sperm whales have been found beached around the North Sea in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Germany. After a necropsy of the whales in Germany, researchers found that four of the giant marine animals had large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. Although the marine litter may not have been the only cause of them being beached, it had a horrifying consequence on the health of these animals.

Given the serious consequences and the growing sensitivity towards these consequences, it is imperative for product manufacturers, raw material manufacturers and equipment and technology providers to design packaging with solemn intent to address sustainability.

The best time to reduce the use of packaging was 50 years ago. The next best time is now.

Where is the Love? In the Brand.

A few months ago, when asked to speak about value-addition at a food industry seminar, I decided, in a deviation from the usual discussion, to dissect the meaning of “value”.

Most people in industry focus on only one dimension of value-addition – the economic value added by processing and transforming food raw materials – virtually ignoring two other dimensions which are required for most of the (undernourished) population: calorific value and nutritional value (see “Perishable Value Opportunities”).

At the end of that seminar session, an agriculturist from the audience put forth a very pointed question: “What is the cost of the potatoes in a bag of branded chips that sells for Rs. 10? Or to put it another way, how much of the retail price actually goes back to the potato farmer?”

The question, of course, was completely loaded with angst on the economic imbalance between farm and factory, supplier and buyer, small and big, rural and urban. But it also underlined missed opportunities to capture economic value, which in turn accentuate the imbalances in growth.

Economic value can be added to food through improvement, providing protection, changing the basic product and through marketing. Improvement typically focuses on seeds, growing techniques and post-harvest areas for improved quality of harvests, disease resistance, better colours, size and flavour, possibly nutrition. Protection initiatives work across cultivation, harvest and post-harvest, storage, during processing, through packaging, while change is essentially focused on processing techniques (cooking, combining, breaking down and reconstitution).

There is a lot of work going on in the food supply chain to enhance the value captured closer to the farmgate. And, certainly, the “value-added” earlier is vital to maintaining and building value later in the supply chain.

However, what is striking is the fact that as we move downstream towards final consumption, the economic value captured as a price premium also increases dramatically.

So, as depressing as the multiplier may be to the farmer, on a kilo-for-kilo comparison, the bag of factory-fresh potato chips is priced many times higher than his farm-fresh potatoes. And, the maximum economic value is created, or at least captured, by the act of branding and marketing.

The Love is in the Brand

A short quiz break: can you recall the “most valuable company” in the world in August 2011, as measured by valuation on the stock market?

The answer is Apple. It is a company that physically manufactures nothing, but tightly controls the design, development, sourcing, distribution and, yes, branding of a group of products and services, whose fans seem to grow by the minute.

Of course, one can argue that Apple “produces” by the very act of designing completely new, highly desirable, products that are not available from anyone else, and that this is what provides the premium. But similar premium – which is due to branding and marketing, rather than proprietary products – is also visible in thousands of companies, across product sectors, including food. That sustained price premium is the sign that the consumer trusts and wants a particular brand’s product more than another one. There is a hook, a strong connect, due to which that consumer is willing to lighten her wallet just that much more.

In India, surprisingly, “value-addition” discussions in the food industry focus almost entirely on cultivation, storage and transformation through processing, virtually ignoring branding and marketing. In fact, branding is usually only discussed in the context of multinationals or some of the largest Indian companies. What’s more, most of the brands discussed are focussed largely in the area of processed food products that originated in the west.

Run these tests yourself. When you think of food and beverage branded companies who do you think of? And, when you think of food brands, what kind of products come to mind first?

The answer is that the brand landscape is dominated by products such as biscuits and cookies, jams, fruit and non-fruit beverages, potato chips, 2-minute noodles, confectionary products and food supplements, mostly from the portfolio of some of the largest companies operating in the market.

Of course, there are some alternative examples.

Aashirvaad and Kitchens of India present quintessentially Indian products (albeit from the gigantic stables of ITC which also has a multinational parent).

And, yes, there are cooperatives such as Lijjat, as well as home-grown mid-sized companies such as the Indian snack maker Haldiram’s, spice brands such as MTR and MDH, pickle brands such as “Mother’s Recipe”, rice brands such as Kohinoor and Daawat.

But, given the size of the Indian food market and the width and depth of Indian cuisine, shouldn’t there be more brands that are Indian and focussed on essentially Indian food products?

This is a tremendous opportunity – a gap – not just in the Indian market (among the largest and fastest growing in the world), but also globally.

The Hurdles to Branding

So, why aren’t there more Indian brands?

Let’s face it, for most companies, marketing fulfils one need: to communicate their name to potential customers. Most of them generally hope that if they do it enough, they would actually be able to sell more volume.

Of course, no one has been able to draw a straight line graph that correlates more marketing expense with higher sales.

Those are two self-destructive notions. Obviously, if marketing is an expense, then it must be minimised! And secondly, if it cannot be proven to be effective, why would you spend money doing it? For most people, branding is even fuzzier in that regard, in terms of what it is and what it achieves.

However, the picture changes when you look at marketing as an investment rather than an expense. As we evaluate any investment, there should be an expected return that should be quantifiable. Examples of Apple and other brands make it amply clear that branding and marketing, when done well, can certainly create quantifiable financial returns on the investment.

The second hurdle to branding and marketing is that they require consistency, which is not a strong point for most wannabe brands. They end up with too many messages to the consumer, or the messages keep changing and shifting. The company, the name, end up representing many things, sometimes everything, and eventually nothing.

The third, enormous, hurdle is the time needed to develop a brand with a decent sized marketing footprint and a deep relationship with the consumer. Most small and mid-sized companies, constrained as they are for resources, focus on areas that seem to offer more immediate returns, such as distribution margins or discounts, or even expansion of production capacity. Especially in the early years of the business, the benefits of branding and marketing seem to be too far in the future to be a priority for investment.

Due to these one of these reasons or a combination, many companies are unable to see their brands through to success. In fact, sadly, most companies do not last long enough to become owners of successful brands.

Even those who do achieve success and even market leadership, sometimes choose to cash-out on their success by selling their brands to larger competitors, rather than competing with the financial might of the giants (such as Thums Up being sold to Coca Cola; Kissan, Kwality and Milkfood being sold to Hindustan Unilever).

In the past, one of the other barriers in India was the hugely fragmented retail and distribution system, which essentially sapped energy, resources and focus for any company that wished to grow a brand across regions. In fact, one of the key lessons from the western markets is that the growth of brands has been closely linked to the expansion of retail chains. So, certainly, we should view the growth of modern retail in India as a platform for the emergence of regional, national and global Indian food brands.

However, there is a flip side to this retail growth. In the west, most retailers were focussed on running shops, and were content to leave product development and brand development to their suppliers, the national brands. These retailers began looking at private labels only as an additional source of margin well after they had gained scale, and even then they ventured rather carefully into the space. In India, on the other hand, private label is very high on the priority list of our nascent modern retailers, precisely because the effectiveness of that business model has been proven elsewhere and because there are such few national brands that have a strong, irrevocable connect with the consumer.

Should You Invest in Branding?

The short answer is to that question is: yes.

It doesn’t matter if you run a small company or start-up, or a more mature company. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a consumer product directly, which is the most effective and most necessary playing field for building a brand, or an intermediate product or service where you can still achieve a premium within the trade.

If you are committed to selling only commodities, where your selling prices are determined only by the tug-of-war between supply and demand, government policies and Acts of God, then you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Since you are reading this, you should brand.

In the short to medium term, if you do the job well, your customers will pay you a premium. And in the mid to long term, financial investors looking to ride India’s economic growth are more willing to put their money in a company that has a recognisable hook and a trading premium over its generic competition.

The brand can be built on any platform for which there could be a discernible premium. This can be trust (quality, quantity), simplicity and convenience (prepared snacks and meals, pre-ground spices, flour instead of grain), or even novelty (fizzy coloured sweetened water, reconstituted potato “chips” so uniform in shape and size such that they fit into a cylinder). Organic, vegan, fair-trade – you take your pick of the platform on which to build the brand.

Possibly the strongest driver of premium and brand value is a properly maintained heritage. Some brands have a past, some of them even have a history, but very few have a heritage. If your business has a history, there is a heritage waiting to be discovered, and it is worth a lot.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a brand should become anchored at a certain historical time point and expect to only milk its age. Heritage is always viewed in a cultural context and culture evolves over time, so the most effective brands maintain a link between the attributes of their past to their ever-evolving present.

As with most other things, it is good idea to start early. Take on board the lessons of branding early in the company’s life so that the foundation is strong, and the brand can grow organically. As a side benefit, strongly branded companies also have strong and cohesive organisation cultures, a fantastic defence during times of high employee attrition.

The Global Branding Opportunity for Indian Food Companies

One of the most important ingredients of a good brand is clarity of identity and origin.

Often we confuse identity with the name, the logo, fonts or colours associated with a brand. Yes, a brand’s identity is certainly indicated by these – as much as our name and our physical appearance indicate our identity. However, the identity itself is much larger; in fact, it is helpful to think of the brand’s identity as a personality. The personality gets expressed in many different ways, but is tied together in a definable manner and has some strong traits that define its actions.

There are clear statements that can be associated with effective brands, whether or not they have been expressed by the company or brand in any of its formal communications. For instance, some globally relevant Indian brands include Tata Nano (“frugal engineering”), the Taj Mahal (“timeless beauty”), Goa (“party”), Rajasthan (“royal exotica”), and Kerala (“bliss”).

(I am deliberately picking “global relevance” as a theme to keep in mind that there is, literally, a world of opportunity that we could be looking at.)

We find a high number of tourism-related brands in this list, because these are destinations that pull the customer in – as long as they are true to themselves and relevant to the context of the consumer, they will be successful.

More conventional consumer product brands, on the other hand, must work harder to fit into the consumer own context, especially as they move away from their geographical origin, their home market.

This is particularly true of food, which is widely divergent across geographies. Some products can be adopted into multiple cuisines, offering more easily accessible opportunities and potentially greater scale. Rice and generic spices fit the bill here. However, for most other food items, the context of the home country cuisine is vital. Therefore, the growth of food brands, not surprisingly, is linked to the expansion of cuisines across borders. It is partly driven by the movement of people, and partly by the movement of culture (television and movies being the most important in current times), mostly both together.

For Indian companies, there is certainly an opportunity to ride on the back of the Indian diaspora across the world. And now there is an additional opportunity: expatriates who spend a few years living and working in India can also help to carry the cuisine and its associated brands out.

Finished product brands such as Tasty Bite, Haldiram’s and Amul are good examples of diaspora-led expansion, where the original driver was to bring people of Indian-origin a taste of home. In fact, Amul has recently announced that it wants to set up a manufacturing plant for cheese and other dairy products in the US, to service the Indian-origin population more effectively. Should it be restricted only to that? Certainly not; availability, if supported well by branding, can help it to cross into other segments as well.

As the consumption of Indian food grows across ethnic lines, it is likely to drive the growth of Indian ingredients as well – a perfect vehicle for branded ingredient suppliers. What’s more, Indian recipe books could even specify Amul Cheddar Cheese, MDH Chaat Masala or MTR’s Dosa Mix as ingredients – they wouldn’t achieve a 100% hit rate, but it would certainly be significantly higher than zero!

There is an opportunity to capture economic value that branding offers, which is very often greater than any other process in the food supply chain. Remember two phrases made famous by Hollywood: “show me the money” and “show me some love”. In the business of brands, these are one and the same.

It’s worth asking: do we have the patience to live through the lifecycle of a brand, and can we commit resources to nurturing it? If the answer is “yes” to both, we are most likely to benefit from branding.

Here’s to more Indian food brands that grow within India and across the world.

(If you need support with growing brands, do connect with us.)

Will the Indian Apparel Sector Change its Fashion?

The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.

In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of changeover of wardrobe. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer’s willingness to buy new clothes frequently.

We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About 5 years ago, Third Eyesight had evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group. For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently. And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)

Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well. But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.

Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering – these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red “Sale” and “Discounted” signs. When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet, than a brand’s ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are quite prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.

Part of the problem, at the brands’ end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.

Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world, when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently. And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.

Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.

Also, some of the more “modern” operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011! The “organised” apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of “organisation” and “process-orientation”. The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become “normalised”, safe, boring which the consumer doesn’t really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn’t want to pay.

The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.

Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.

Facebook: Log In or Out?

Retailwire raised a pertinent question recently about social media and marketing. In marketing as in life, it is all about timing. The question was whether retailers and brands should be concerned that they are moving to Facebook at a time when large numbers of teenagers are abandoning it? 

I believe it’s horses for courses. Marketers of teen brands should definitely be concerned about teens exiting or reducing their usage of Facebook, as they have done with other social platforms in the past. However, there are plenty of others for whom the Facebook audience is apparently becoming more relevant than ever. Facebook reports 400+ million users as of February. According to them, 50% of the active users login on any given day. That’s impressive stickiness.

Having said that, I’d like also to take a different look at those stats. Demographics and physically addressable market aside, the question is what proportion of your potential customers are receptive to the brand in that environment.

At the moment, Facebook is not a medium amenable to classic interruption marketing. (Although it may become that in the future, just like Youtube, with Google ads popping up across the bottom of the video.)

Neither is the Facebook user’s primary purpose brand loyalty or looking at marketing messages. The average Facebook user has enough to keep him/her busy or distracted, without getting on to a brand’s page. That video of a mother with laughing quadruplets is far more likely to get viewed and shared than any of your marketing messages.

If your brand isn’t interesting, engaging, and open, you can’t have the conversations that a platform like Facebook facilitates. If there’s no on-going conversation, your chief Facebook officer is wasting the company’s time, money and internet bandwidth. Logout. Now.

The entire discussion on Retailwire is here: “Marketers Move to Facebook As Teens Move Away” (needs a free sign-up).

Look Into Your Customer’s Eyes

REVIEW: FLIP THE FUNNEL: Joseph Jaffe (John Wiley & Sons)

I’ve read Joseph Jaffe’s book across multiple air journeys, nationally and internationally. I agreed with the principles described and saw parallels with excellent services businesses over the past few years. However, the implications didn’t quite strike me in the gut until I realised – while writing this on board an aircraft – that the journeys I had taken with this book had also been with just one airline.

My loyalty to this airline is not because of the mileage card I hold, although their mileage programme is certainly among the best in the world. It is not because they were the cheapest or the most on-time, though they compete favourably with other comparable airlines.

My loyalty to them is because of what they did during the Mumbai floods in July 2005. Those who remember the chaos, through personal experience or through media, wouldn’t blame airline staff for abandoning their counters, and leaving the airport to try and reach home as early as they could. Certainly most of them must have felt helpless in the face of increasingly desperate passengers who couldn’t expect to depart any time soon. Jet Airways stood out as being the only one in Mumbai’s Terminal 1-B whose team felt responsible enough to stay back at the airport to be available to the passengers. Not only did they ensure that the passengers stuck in the terminal were safe, but that all waiting passengers got three meals a day! Whether or not they were flying with Jet Airways.

Now, in telling you about incident, I have closed the loop and given you a living example of the “flipped funnel” that Jaffe describes in the book.

The normal marketing funnel is described by the process Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action (or “AIDA”) which underlies the spray-and-pray approach of traditional marketing. The result of AIDA is that a lot of customers become aware of a business, brand or product. Some are interested enough to seek out the product. However the number who move on to the next stage of actually expressing desire to buy is lower, and those who actually buy are fewer still, as amply demonstrated by carts being abandoned before actually checking out.

Jaffe points out that the AIDA principle was created in times of abundant growth in the US, but is a suicidal funnel to fall into when resources are scarce. It is lopsided, with more money being spent on customers who will not buy. It is linear and does not capture the complexity of buying behaviour. It is open and incomplete because it only handles potential customers up to the point where they become actual customers, but does nothing with them thereafter. AIDA also inherently assumes customer churn, hence the opening focus on creating awareness among potentially new customers.

The alternative principles Jaffe describes are simple: getting more customers to buy from us and more often (repeat purchases), to spend increasing amounts with us (loyalty), and finally, to recommend us to their friends and associates (referrals). However, to do this requires dramatically different thinking from AIDA spray-and-pray. Jaffe’s alternative model – ADIA (Acknowledgment, Dialogue, Incentivisation and Activation) – focuses on customers more than prospects.

Acknowledging customers itself is such a major stumbling block for so many companies, such as the retailer whose front-line staff would prefer to fold and put away garments than meeting the eyes of the customer who has walked into the store. In some cases it may be about using technology effectively rather than as a barrier. When the taxi company can recognise the number you are calling from and close your order in less than 120 seconds, why does the telephone company that issued that number make you jump through burning hoops for 5-10 minutes before they will allow you to request a duplicate bill?

That acknowledgement should lead to an on-going dialogue, before, through and well after the purchase is done. This would be supported by constant incentives for the customer to buy more from you. It is not about having a loyalty programme, as Jaffe quotes studies that demonstrate that loyalty programmes alone don’t produce loyalty; in fact there are enough businesses that do not run loyalty schemes but have what can only be called fan followings.

The final link in that funnel is building that community of evangelist enthusiasts who will carry your brand message farther and far more effectively than any traditional form of marketing could. Religious organisations have known this for thousands of years – it is high time that businesses and other organisations recognised the power of the community as well.

Jaffe acknowledges that Seth Godin actually came up with the term “flipping the funnel” over 3 years ago, when he released the e-book of that name (available on sethgodin.typepad.com) primarily about using social media effectively. Jaffe, to his credit, has applied the principles more fully across the marketing and customer service process.

Jaffe recently sold his business, crayon, but has kept his title “Chief Interruptor” at the acquiring company. If you want to make your marketing really pay, you’ll find it worthwhile letting “Flip the Funnel” interrupt your normal marketing thought-process.

(This review was written for Businessworld.)

Fractal Branding – Voice or Noise?

The grocery market is loud. From the times when food markets were in streets and town squares, hawkers have cried out their wares, and the freshness or newness of everything made evident to the customers passing by. So, I guess, it is no surprise that today’s FMCG and food market is also tuned to high-decibel promotion.

You don’t need to search too long for the reason – margins are generally thin on these frequent-use products and inventories need to move fast. And what you don’t make a noise about may not be visible to the customer and may remain unsold.

But if that was the whole story, most players should be focussing on one brand, or at most a few brands, and should be using their advertising budgets to maximum effect on these.

Instead we see exactly the reverse phenomenon in the market – more brands, more sub-brands, more varieties of everything. Why? Because newness sells – it creates excitement, anticipation, and in customers with a sense of experimentation it creates the urge to buy.

The old proven method of doing this was the “New Improved” starburst on the pack. The slicker, updated method is to launch a new variety that is apparently different in some way. For instance, if the old supplement helped to strengthen bones, the new line might contain separate “child” and “adult” versions (growth vs. osteoporosis). The old shampoo might have helped to keep hair clean and prevent dandruff – the new one might leave the customer wondering if she should pick the dandruff-fighter that also reduces hair loss, or the variety that makes her hair glossy, or even the one that provides a date for the next weekend! By the time she reaches the end of the shelf, she might have forgotten that her need essentially was to prevent dandruff.

Due to this, the grocery and FMCG product mix is fractal. Each grocery shelf or grocery store is susceptible to fragmentation. Each such fraction is supposed to act as the seed that can allow a new segment in the market or a new use occasion to grow, and provide the FMCG company or the retailer with an avenue for additional business. This phenomenon is particularly visible in a growing consumption environment – consumption feeds proliferation, while proliferation provides further occasions to consume.

However, an unfortunate outcome of this proliferation of brands and SKUs is the heightened noise, in which the brand often loses its unique voice. Also, over time, the brand may be too thinly spread or be undifferentiated from its competitors, and its sales only sustained through ever increasing bouts of expensive advertising – a vicious spiral.

Another issue is the real estate availability and the cost. Chris Anderson wrote about “the long tail” about 5 years ago – the myriad products for which the market is limited, but demand may be sustained over a long period of time through internet sales. However, while the long tail works for e-commerce businesses such as Amazon that carry limited inventory, the physical store runs out of space for micro-segment items very quickly.

All of these factors obviously start hurting visibly when the market turns down, and when marketing investments start being evaluated against the returns. This is when proliferation starts giving way to “rationalization”, reduction of the brand portfolio, narrowing the SKU focus.

We are already seeing signs of this in many of the developed modern retail markets currently, where retailers and their suppliers are closely analyzing which parts of their portfolio they need to sustain, and which they need to drop.

The story in the Indian market is slightly different for a variety of reasons.

First, the market is still growing, and for most FMCG suppliers there are vast expanses of the market are still blank canvases.

Secondly, India has been a branded supplier driven market for a long time, and remains so, by and large. However, the SKU and brand density is nowhere close to what is seen in the West. There is plenty of headroom still for new varieties to be added and new brands to be developed.

But possibly the most important factor is the new modern retailers, who are desperately seeking additional sources of margin. When there is a limit to the traffic that you can divert from traditional mom-and-pop stores, and when you hit the glass ceiling on transaction values per customer, proliferation becomes the game to play. Therefore, these retailers are either busy introducing own labels or encouraging new branded vendors who would offer them higher margins than the more established brands.

Own label is obviously the tricky one. The customer needs to feel comfortable with the switch – in the US, a study showed that consumers would more easily switch to own label merchandise in categories where the “risk” was perceived to be low (such as household goods, rather than children’s products). Also, the best own label gross margins typically come from products that are presented to the consumer as “brands” comparable to national branded products, because the pricing is more on par.

So, on the retailer’s part, this requires sophistication of product development and brand management that may be expensive and may need time to develop. A short-cut could be the acquisition of an existing brand, its entire assets including the organisation, as some retailers have been reportedly looking to do. How well they integrate the brands into their businesses remains to be seen.

In the long term, like their counterparts in more developed markets, these retailers may also come to the point where they wonder whether these owned brands offer them enough return on the expense and the management effort spent on them, or whether they would be better off just buying brands that consumers are already familiar with through multiple channels.

In the short term, however, we can expect proliferation, fragmentation, fractalization in all its forms. We can expect the illusion of plenty of choice to continue driving sales, and more and more products to fulfil needs that even the customer doesn’t know he has.

Fashioning Seasons

In a recent workshop on fashion styling, we were discussing how the retail seasons have evolved. In the developed economies, from the traditional two seasons – spring-summer and autumn-winter – the number of seasons grew as fashion brands discovered or invented (take your pick!) sub-seasons to create and satisfy distinct demand in specific time periods. For many companies, the number of “seasons” has grown to 10-12 now including transitions and “promo season” series.

India, you would think, essentially has two seasons, the summer and the festive season. However, in the last decade or so, as exposure to the global culture has increased, other “seasons” such as the “Valentine’s Day” have emerged and proved important for retailers.

In fact, events such as the “Sabse Sasta Din” (“the cheapest day”) on the 26th January (India’s Republic Day) created by Kishore Biyani’s Big Bazaar in 2006 should also qualify as seasons, given the huge sales upsurge during the event. In fact, the impact has been such that many other retailers and brands have also taken this concept rather seriously this year. In fact, after a rather dull consumer response in the festive season in 2008, many of our clients reported rocking sales in the last week of January 2009 on the back of heavy promotional campaigns.

More recently while voter awareness campaigns such as “Pappu can’t vote” have been effective marketing initiatives to get many of us out of our comfort zones and exercise our voting rights, many retailers and brands have also seized this opportunity of citizens’ awakening by offering up to 20% discounts to those who have voted. The economic slowdown is certainly getting people to think differently and more creatively. So, “Jago re” (awaken) brands, retailers and countrymen – go ahead and fashion your own season!

Would you like some ads with that coffee?

We’re all for new business ideas and guerilla marketing tactics. However, it is a fact that some work, and many don’t.

Here’s one idea that  raises some question marks.

It’s a business called freepapercups.com that provides free paper cups to offices carrying the ads of other companies who pay for the cups. The company’s proposition is that everyone wins – the recepient office saves on paper cup expenditure, coffee service providers get a new tool to save their customers money (and for themselves to possibly gain some share or the revenues?), and the advertiser gets to penetrate a previously untouched white-space. Who knows – this may work, just like the ads and logos painted on the roofs of white delivery vans.

However, the thing is this: paper cups – with ads or without – will get thrown away like yesterday’s newspaper and last month’s magazine. So, this would be another form of broadcast advertising whose effectiveness needs to be measured and proven, and it’s guilty (of waste) unless proven innocent. 

Also, it is invasive to a great degree in a space that should be uncluttered with any messages other than what are relevant to the organization’s own business. 

So, will it really contribute anything significant to the offices who won’t be spending on the paper cups, or to the brands that do spend to advertise on them? Or will it just detract from both?

What might be next – co-branded letterheads perhaps?

Lest I sound too much of a cynic, let me offer up a thought: maybe governments should put a new line item in their  budgets – “Grant on expenditure on ceramic coffee cups for offices to carry environmental and fiscal-consciousness messages”. 

A caffeine-laced economic stimulus – now that should get the economy going again!

Is Digital Signage the Solution

George Anderson asks: what medium, what message will it take to break through the clutter and influence consumers to buy whatever it is that is being pitched? Rocky Gunderson, co-founder and vice president of marketing and network development for SeeSaw Networks, believes that digital signage networks are the solution.

The dynamism of digital video display has the potential to make ads more impactful but, from my experience, most of the advertisers and the agencies have little clue about how to really make it work.

So many companies are using digital displays as animated billboards, with the same messages in a different format. John Wanamaker’s lament still applies and, possibly, it is more than 50% of the advertising that is getting wasted now. Either the Digital OOH industry will wake up some day and spruce up their act, or digital signage will become like fluorescent safety jackets – everywhere and unnoticed.

[George Anderson’s RetailWire query: Media Follows Consumers Outside the Home.]