Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Branding Lessons from Terrorist

Priyak Purkayastha | MDI,Gurgaon

It is not possible to precisely define each and every thing in this world, neither it is necessary to do so. Even the greatest of the geometricians cannot define a point. We use a point to define all other entities in geometry, yet we cannot define a point. It is considered to be a concept. Drawing parallel to it, various articles and books have defined “brand” in various ways, but truly speaking it can best be defined as an indefinable concept which can only be realized through experience. Given this abstract definition of a brand, it is not tough to realize that brands are not something that can be used exclusively by the marketers only. It is knowingly or unknowingly used and utilized by everybody starting from a kid who wants to be his / her teacher’s pet to a notorious “Bhai” (Don) of Mumbai. This article will focus on some of the branding lessons that a marketer can learn from a terrorist group!!

Functioning of a Terrorist Group
The horrors of 9/11 and 26/11 shook the entire humanity and today the entire world is aware of the terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, HuJI, Al-Qaeda etc. A careful analysis shows some of the notable features of their operations.

1. They never fade into oblivion. They are aware of the fact that public memory is ephemeral and hence they keep reminding the entire world of their destructive abilities by executing small yet frequent attacks.
Example: The recent series of blasts in various parts of Pakistan or the series of blasts in various cities like Ahmadabad, Delhi, Surat, Jaipur etc in 2008 is a testimony of this fact.

2. Most of the times they keep giving ultimatums to the security agencies of the world in order to keep them on their feet all the time. Thus common people remain terrified all the time anticipating yet another dreadful assault.
Example: Al-Qaeda’s constant threat to the US through the news agency Al Jazeera.

3. When people get acquainted with threats and ultimatums and start taking them for granted, they come up with massive mass attacks killing hundreds which continues to terrify common people and the security forces of different nations for a long time.
Example: Attacks like 9/11 and 26/11 were preceded by lot of threats and ultimatums.

4. After any attack in any part of the world, they publicly take the responsibility of the attacks. This is particularly true for a newer group who tries to shoot into fame and limelight.Example: A group named Indian Mujahedeen claimed the responsibility of the series of attacks in various cities of India like Jaipur, Surat, Ahmadabad, Delhi etc in 2008.

5. This owning up of attacks often leads to confusion where more than one group claims the responsibility (or from their perspective, credit) of one attack. This is done generally to increase their reputation and attract funds. Thus like any other competitive market, there is competition among the terrorist groups.
Example: Just after a series of 17 blasts in Ahmadabad on 26th July 2008, both Let and HuJI claimed the responsibility. Later it was claimed by a new group named Indian Mujahedeen.

6. There exists fair amount of differentiation in the way the different terrorist groups undergo their operations. Security agencies often identify the appropriate terror outfit related to an attack just by observing the mode of attack.
Example: All the attacks by Indian Mujahedeen in 2008 were accomplished using timer bombs consisting of microprocessors and quartz which were placed on cycles, cars and inside food containers in busy market places of various cities. LeT attacks, on the other hand, reveal the use of modern technologies.

The points and the examples mentioned above describe a distinct process by which a terrorist group cuts out a place of its own amidst competition from other groups. This is true irrespective of the past history of that group. This process is followed by both the established groups like LeT, HuJI as well as newbie like Indian Mujahedeen.

Branding Lessons to be learnt
The purpose of any branding exercise is to caste a permanent effect on the consumer’s mind. It is true that a terror attack leaves a much larger and unimaginable imprint on a human mind and hence it is easier for all the terrorist groups to brand themselves. However irrespective of this advantage possessed by the terrorist groups, marketers can still take some leaves out of their books and apply some of their branding strategies. These are elaborated below.

Continuous and Consistent Communication
The terrorist groups never fade into oblivion as they keep on appearing in the headlines by creating destructions and damages at regular intervals. The recent series of happenings in Pakistan are the testimony to this fact. Groups like ULFA, HuJI, LeT reappear in public memory every now and then and the security forces of the concerned nations have to remain alert all the time. This is the key aspect of brand management.

Creating a buzz is very common in branding. Buzz marketing helps to develop the brand, but the key is to sustain it through continuous communication. Often brands die down after reaching great heights as they lack consistency in communication. In the 1970’s the brand Liril (HUL) was created through an excellent piece of advertisement portraying the liberalization of Indian women, bathing under a waterfall in a two piece bikini. It was a contemporary idea and hence influenced the consumers’ minds instantly. However due to lack of proper communication and relevant advertisements in the ever-changing era, the brand has lost much of its sheen.

On the other hand, many brands have gained long term success through continuous and consistent communication. Brands like Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds remain embedded in consumers’ mind through different promotions and offers and constantly developing their packaging and pricing strategies.

Clarity and Authenticity of Promise
The reason for failure of many brands is that they fail to deliver the value that the consumers expect from them. Hence there exists a gap in the value promised and value delivered and this creates a negative image for them. Today Nike is synonymous to Performance or Axe to Sex Appeal or Gucci to Style and Fashion. However these have not been created overnight. These iconic brands have shown clarity in their communication with the customers and have delivered that over the years.
An analogy can be established with the way the terrorist group functions. It has become a day to day stuff to read about terrorist threats in various parts of the world. The threats are targeted towards specific groups or events or individuals. These terrorist groups are capable enough to rise up to the occasions. Threats towards mega events like the World Cup or individuals like the Prime Minister and Home Minister are well communicated through the media. There’s not much beating about the bush as far as their threats are concerned. These are clear, specific, timely and well directed.

The authenticity of the promise of the terrorists stems from the fact that there is hardly any lull as far as terror strikes around the globe are concerned. Small terror activities keep happening across the world especially in the Middle East and the Subcontinent and they are punctuated by the bigger ones like the 9/11 or 26/11.
While designing the communication strategy, brand managers need to be specific about those promises that their brand can deliver to the customers. Hence both clarity and authenticity need to be kept in mind in their message strategy.

Providing Greatest Experience to the Customers
Conversations through satellite phones for the 26/11 attack revealed that the terrorists were specifically instructed to kill as many people as possible so as to create a massive impact on India. The impact was indeed huge and common people were emotionally and psychologically shattered by the magnitude of destruction. The same thing happened in the 9/11 attack where the magnitude of the terror had left a permanent imprint on the minds of not only the Americans but also the entire world. The sole idea behind both these examples is to understand the fact that whenever the terrorists go for a destruction plan, they plan it huge with the aim of providing the worst experience of terror to the common people.

Marketers need to follow the same principle of providing greatest experience to the customers so that it has a permanent imprint on the customers’ minds. Thus the focus should be on Customer Experience Management. The process of providing best experience to the customers is not restricted to the marketing department; rather it is a combined effort of the entire organization starting from its strategic vision, mission and values to the sales department. Marketers play an important role in this as they need to align their brand strategies to the mission and core values of providing best customer experience.
Toyota has maintained this strategy by ensuring that once a customer has a Toyota experience, the customer would not go for any other competitors. This has indeed been successful as most customers who bought Toyota once bought more Toyotas. Creating repeat purchases through customer loyalty and superior customer experience should be a dream for any marketer.

Differentiating from Others
Just when the security forces across the world were becoming aware of the suicide bombers in the streets and daily transports, the world was taken aback by the use of aircrafts in the attack of 9/11. It shook the entire world by virtue of its sheer unpredictability and innovation in terrorism. That’s what the terrorists had been looking for. However this is not a one-time incident. Indian Mujahedeen took the Indian government by surprise by repeatedly implementing small attacks in various cities using RDX in food containers. The subtle nature of their attacks made the lives of Indians miserable. During the 26/11 attack, the terrorists took the sea route to stump the security of this nation. All these examples are cited to bring out one basic similarity. Terrorists don’t use predictable measures; rather they use differentiation and innovation as their measures of success. Every time they plan out different measures and hence differentiate from the rest all the time.

In today’s world, where all low cost airlines provide the same experience and all colas taste the same, differentiation and innovation are of utmost importance. Today product differentiation has almost ceased to exist except in the technological domain like iPods and iPads. Differentiation through price is not sustainable in the long run and can have serious financial implications on the business. Availability is a key factor but trying to differentiate through availability and location is temporary as it can be easily replicable. Thus we see a cluster of stores developing in the same locality within a short time in order to take advantage of the benefits of location. Often brands try to differentiate through promotion but it usually turns out to be an expensive affair.
Thus the key question is what the brands should do to differentiate from others. This critical question can be answered if we analyze what the terrorists had been doing for years. These terrorists are differentiating themselves through “customer experiences” making each encounter as horrendous as possible to the security forces, the government and the common people.

Brands need to differentiate themselves through the experiences they provide to the customers. This includes the 5th “P” of marketing sustainable in the long run and can have serious implications that is the PEOPLE which forms the interface between the brands and the customers. Customers choose the brands not by price or availability or product difference, rather by the experience they have while interacting with the brands. Hence differentiation through customer experience is the order of the day.

All the examples cited in this article are the most devastating ones in the history of mankind. These are referred multiple times in this article only to highlight the effect they had on the common people which was precisely what the terrorists had aimed for. The crux of this article can be best understood if we realize that the sole aim of the terrorists is to inflict terror in the minds of the common people, whereas the aim of successful brands is to provide delight to the customers. Comparison has been made between how successful the terrorists and the brands are in realizing their own aims.

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