STORM IN A COFFEE CUP
An interview with the Brand Strategy Specialist , Harish Bijoor
Mr. Harish Bijoor is one of the most esteemed experts in the realms of Indian marketing. He is best known for his role as the General Manager, Marketing, TATA Tea Ltd and his innovative marketing strategies during the launch of TATA Coffee, which include printing ads on eggs and on papads; and knowingly hanging banners upside down!
Here he gives his insights on both common and uncommon Indian marketing trends in the Hindu Business Line. Currently he is the brand strategy specialist and the CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.
Markathon: Launching a brand is exciting and at the same time challenging. You created the successful TATA Coffee brand. Kindly share with us your experiences.
Mr. Bijoor: Branding is an exciting realm to live within. There are different categories of branding. One is where you take a commodity and brand it. A commodity typically has no real and overt or covert differentiation at all in physical terms. Coffee is one such; as is tea and as is mud. This is the most difficult category to brand. This is a category that requires a great degree for consumer insight to leverage; a category that demands strategic differentiation as a key mind-set to possess.
The second categories of products that can get branded are what I call “quasi-brands”. These are essentially categories that show some degree of differentiation between one commodity type and another and are easier to brand. Rice is one such. You have Basmati, Ponni, Nellore Fine, Sona Masuri and 356 other types. The category does however also require strategic insight of some merit to derive value. The third category is differentiated products. Here, it could be a mini fire-extinguisher for home use, or an egg-beater with a timer-device attached to it. This is an easier category to handle. The fourth category is the very unique product. Something no one else has. Nestlé’s Milkmaid when it was launched was one such. This is the easiest category to handle of them all. The fifth category is services where again, you build a hierarchy of of branding. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in the most difficult category of them all for a start. The experiences that I went through in this category helped me shape my psyche as a brand person.Working in the commodity category means groping in the dark. It makes you heavily dependent on consumer insight and indeed on the power and merit of personal judgment, which could go wrong many a time. I made many mistakes; expensive mistakes. But every one of them fashioned me to be a better brand person. I had an excellent super-boss who was the MD of Tata tea then. On brand-issues I was reporting to him direct, circumventing the many layers of management that typical organizations thrive with. This helped, as decisions were quick. The brand image for Tata Coffee was therefore cobbled together by the collective effort of all of us involved. Our objective was common: get Tata Coffee the kind of brand salience that Tata Tea had already cobbled for itself. I do believe we were successful in doing that.
Markathon: What inspired you to venture into independent brand consulting? How different is the life of a consultant from that of a corporate manager?
Mr. Bijoor: The inspiration came from working in industries that spanned plantation, FMCG and telecom for 18 years. There came a time when one wanted to check whether the success I had achieved was a bit of a flash-in-the-pan or was a reality.
One wanted to check if I could survive without being in the umbrella of a corporate name. I wanted to check if there was anything that one could do add value and create wealth without being a corporate person. To an extent this move from being a corporate manager to being an ideas-entrepreneur was one to check out personal merit. After two decades of working for others, I wanted to check if I could do it on my own. I wanted to check if I could build an organization that could help nurture the dreams of others similar to me.
It is a different life. I am not chasing targets given by others. Instead I am setting targets for others to chase. I am creating a team of people who breathe ideas and innovation, from one nostril each. I am creating wealth, not only for
Markathon: How does your firm approach a new assignment? Also we have seen many brand consulting firms flourishing in the last few years? What is your opinion on this trend?
Mr. Bijoor: Brand-consulting outfits are aplenty today. The trend is good and bad at the same time. This is a tough business. Real merit is detected very early in assignments. To that extent, very few float up as the cream and most really reach a quick degree of incompetence from which they find it difficult to rise.
My business is a build-operate-transfer mode business. This is a USP that helps. Typically we assess a project before it comes to us. We are a zero-solicit business. This means that we do not make pitches, do not do client-lunches, do not make networking calls, and do not have a website, a brochure or a PR outfit that sells us. We have no Business Development Managers even. Everyone is a Senior Consultant who handles a project except one. The most incompetent of them all: I.
We first assess a project and we charge a fee for this assessment even. Every hour anyone spends is billed, albeit at a different rate; a more modest rate than our consulting rate. Once this is done, we sit with the client for a joint due-diligence exercise wherein the project scope is listed out. We then assign operatives and commence work. We work on short term one year contracts, medium-term 3 year contracts and long-term 5-year contracts. We do not out-source work. Everything is handled internally. And this is a USP as well. We build strategy. We operate our ideas for the client for a pre-agreed period, and then hand over the project to the project management team of the client as per pre-agreed dates.
Markathon: You are the visiting faculty for rural marketing at ISB. What kind of branding strategy do you think is appropriate for Indian rural markets?
Mr. Bijoor: Rural markets are different from urban ones. Rural markets are nascent and innocent. Marketers need to open their eyes and understand that rural marketing is a different kettle of pomfret altogether. It is important to understand insight and customize. This is exactly what I teach in my courses and this exactly what I speak about in the number of Talk sessions I deliver across corporate organizations in India and elsewhere.
Rural is a mindset. Very few have it. In many ways, every talk session and every class of mine helps build this mindset and helps build rural marketing evangelists. The future of Indian marketing is really rural marketing. Branding that is bottom-up and not Top-down works best in rural markets. It is important to understand and emote with the rural mind, mood and milieu before one embarks upon a rural marketing journey.
Hang on! This is a subject that excites a lot of passion in me and I can go on and on. But this is not appropriate.
Markathon: The “Zoozoos” campaign is a huge success in increasing the brand recall of Vodafone. Can such a strategy be replicated in the FMCG sector where brand recall is very less?
Mr. Bijoor: No. I don’t believe this can be done effectively. The clutter in FMCG is great. Further, FMCG offerings are reasonably pari passu and a bit too close to commodity offerings. Telecom is also getting close to that, but not yet, and hence one gets away with the ZooZoos.
Markathon: With the IFRS adoption in India (due in 2011 and which makes brand valuation disclosure mandatory), the significance of brands and their management is scheduled to come of age. What is your opinion on this?
Mr. Bijoor: Agreed! This has taken time coming, but it is well nigh here. Good for everyone really; particularly businesses such as mine!
Markathon: What advice would you give to budding managers who aspire to become successful brand consultants?
Mr. Bijoor: Don’t! Don’t enter this business till you have slapped on very valuable industry experience. I recommend a full 15-year engagement in industry before you take the plunge. Entering the business early spoils you. Burn-out is quick. And the glass-ceiling is out there, just above you.
Markathon: Kindly share your views on student initiatives like Markathon which throw light on the nuances of marketing.
Mr. Bijoor: It is an excellent initiative indeed. I do believe there are only two types of people; the marketing person and the marketing person. Each one of us is either a marketing person who markets something or the other to someone else. Or each one of us is someone who has something or the other marketed-to.
Therefore, Markathon is a valuable initiative. Does not matter whether you are a logistics person, an HR person, a Finance person or whatever, marketing is important for each one of you. Touché!