Amazing how brands miss iconic opportunities — don’t let yours be one of them

Iconic.

An often misused word. Sometimes used along with the word “own” — as in “let’s own the fun space” or “this year we intend to own gifting”. Exaggerations? Yes. But a desire expressed by many a business owner or marketeer. So let’s keep the cost of being able to do such a thing out of this article. Let’s just focus on some examples of brands and a category or two that could actually own a space, but didn’t. At least not yet. Is there something we can glean from the gyaan?

Starting with one of my favourite examples. The Tata Nano. Lots has been written about it but I’d like to make just a couple of points. What was being “sold” and what was being bought? As far as the company was concerned it was the “world’s cheapest” car. That’s what all the hype and headlines were all about. So what was being sold was an unbelievably cheap car. But who was it aimed at? Two-wheeler owners. For a typical two-wheeler owner it’s not just a car, it’s a Car. Its a significant step up. Its a mark of a change in social status. So when a brand hammers away that it is in fact the cheapest car in the world, that aspirational step-up gets eroded. Far better then to go for a similarly priced second hand car — at least it doesn’t shout “cheap” from the roof tops.

Now supposing the whole “cheapest car in the world” had been left to our venerable scribes from media to figure out. Let them compare it to other cars in other markets and pitch this story to people who wouldn’t really be in the market for the world’s cheapest car. Instead supposing the brand focused on its imaginative styling. Supposing it pitched it to India’s youth. And insinuated itself into their lifestyles by showing it doing the kind of things they would enjoy doing with such a car? Not such a bad target audience given that over half our population is below the age of 30. Supposing it borrowed some of the energy and innovation exhibited by FMCG brands like a design competition for the car’s graphics. How about a branded range of fun accessories that are designed for the car? How about events and concerts created for or sponsored by this brand? How about the car being a youth “icon” instead of being iconically cheap?

While we are on the subject of cheap, here’s another example. Air Deccan. Again for many of its passengers flying wasn’t a necessity, really. They could take a train. So flying in itself, air travel, the category, was a bit of a luxury, an aspiration. Yet here was a brand that aggressively reinforced the position that this was the cheapest way to fly. To a country that almost invariably opts for the aspirational over the cheapest, this wasn’t likely to win many admirers. And it didn’t. Yet when a brand, Indigo, made flying low cost a “cool” and “smart” option it prospered. While making air travel more accessible it focused on an important essential — being on time. It also spent a lot of time using its imagination at every possible opportunity to dispel and sense of “cheap”. Indigo has become an iconic brand because it made being on time iconic. Fuelled by the many anecdotes spread by its passengers about the strictness with which it ensured every flight departed on time.

Another brand that has a right to a very powerful word, and is iconic when it comes to that word, is Mahindra. The word is “rugged”. Rugged isn’t just about being able to withstand our moonscape roads. Rugged is about toughness sure, but it is also about the toughness of spirit. It is about being able to handle whatever is thrown at you and about embracing challenge and adventure. And the reason why masculinity hasn’t been mentioned, is because ruggedness is no longer the preserve of males alone. Witness Gul Panag driving to Arunachal or Ladakh in a rugged pick up, the increasing tribe of women riding bikes on long cross country trips, and increasingly taking on challenges and adventures that chauvinists considered “male only”. Anyone can see that “rugged” is increasingly gender neutral. So why then does a brand that arguably “owns” such an iconic word not use it aggressively for its two-wheelers? It has launched and then relaunched itself, using track racing and other properties to try and build a brand position for itself. But somehow it doesn’t seem to have built its two-wheeler brand on its iconic reputation for ruggedness. Imagine the properties that could be built around a range of the world’s most rugged bikes. There is already the Mahindra Great Escape — that could easily include bikes. There could be the Indian version of Survivor and sponsored cross country rides to places only covered by dirt tracks. The opportunities are endless. Just as most SUVs owners use them to drive across impossible terrain but SUVs are growing exponentially in popularity. The iconic nature of the Mahindra brand itself and its brand properties, would give it a clearly distinctive, deserved and desirable position in the crowded and cacophonous two-wheeler marketplace. Who knows, it could still happen.

The last brand example. Old Monk. Yes I can imagine some groaning, because really it is so obvious. If there is a potentially, and currently by default, iconic Indian liquor brand it is Old Monk rum. There is no other brand in India that encompasses young adulthood memories, grizzled veterans insisting on Old Monk rather than fancier alternatives, a mythology of almost endless tales of it enjoyed in myriad circumstances, all with a rosy glow of convivial warmth. Maybe there was, but it was a cigarette brand, that time and growing aspirations eventually left far behind. Here is a brand that doesn’t even need a word or positioning statement to describe what makes it iconic. Old Monk is iconic. But by default.

Now to come to two categories that could easily support an iconic brand. All the seeds are there. The first is real estate. Most real estate brands (?) focus on towers, imposing buildings, lots of fancy features, some innovations. And increasingly the reassurance that they will actually deliver on their promises. Occasionally there will be some “human interest” like a couple laughing, looking pensive, romantic. But how many really reflect the way we Indians live? Our distinctively Indian quirks? The fact that these are not blocks of steel and concrete but a space where life is made. Where a million stories are written. Triumphs celebrated. Tragedies averted. Families created and life changing decisions debated. A dream realised, aspiration fulfilled. Moments enshrined forever. An iconic opportunity.

And finally Indian fashion. Why do we celebrate when some international fashion designer or celebrity picks up an Indian garment and popularises it? There are so many garments that could form part of wardrobes all over the world. The kurta, the sari, the lehnga, the choli, the dupatta, the bandhgala, the list is endless. And yet there isn’t an Indian brand that takes these to the world. Why do we need to wait for a foreigner to make them iconic? There are designers of Indian origin who have made it big on the world stage. So why can’t Indian fashion become big on the world stage? Not as some exotic fancy dress but something that people will embrace? To do that we need to take the basic silhouettes and use expertise in ensuring they are easy to adopt. Like Tarun Tahiliani has done with the sari. And then have the ambition to make them big on the global stage.

So then here we are. Brands that have missed or are missing a huge opportunity when the seeds of being iconic already lie within them. Many other examples abound — Nokia, Kodak, MySpace, Yahoo, etc. All of them had the opportunity to be iconic but they did not. So here’s the question does your brand have the seeds, the potential of becoming iconic? Is there something it contains, or a service, or a design or a flavour, or anything else that people immediately associate with your brand to the exclusion of all others? Would you like to own or be associated with such a brand? If you do, here are some questions for you:

  1. Does/can your brand stand for more than its category’s needs/benefits? For example an apartment provides shelter and fulfils and aspirational need. But it is also a place where life and lives are created. Define how your brand could actually fulfil a relevant higher need and capture it for yourself.
  2. Is there already inherent in your brand, a potentially iconic ingredient but you have only been viewing it in utilitarian terms. For example “rugged” could simply mean the ability to handle tough conditions. Or it could stand for the ability to embrace challenge and triumph over adversity.
  3. Are you willing to just focus on this one iconic truth for your brand and not get distracted by other features and facts. Features and facts that may be seductive now? Do you have the commitment to stick to building this one powerful truth for your brand? And not change it with the next campaign.
  4. Do you understand the people you want your brand to appeal to, enough to become the voice for this one iconic truth for them?

Then yours will be the brand to own.