This appeared in the Brand Equity dated August 21,2019
Brands have always segmented horizontally. The masses at the bottom, the elite at the top and the rest in the middle. For years I have been been advocating that we need to segment the pyramid vertically as well. In this article, I will elaborate on the reasons for this vertical segmentation, and argue that as the world, and India, is getting polarised, brands have no choice, but to choose their preferred corners. Neutral is not an option.
India has gone through rapid change in the last couple of decades. Economic liberalisation, the growth of cable TV, the rise of the internet and mobile, rapid urbanisation, mass domestic migration have all been factors that have created huge change in our society. When society sees so much change, people tend to react in one of two ways. Either they love the change and seek more of it. Or they complain about the change and yearn for the good old days. Those who complain about the change may accept the fruits of change (the physical goods and services), but not the ideology that goes with it.
I call the people who hate change, Harish, and the people who love change, Harry. This is not to imply that these two segments are only for men. In fact, the polarisation seems as strong among women.
There are Harishs and Harrys in every segment of society. They are not defined by age, income, education or any other demographic parameter. They just respond to change differently. Harish has to be coerced into using new technology, tends to be loyal to old and established brands and doesn’t want his (or her) world to change. Harry, on the other hand, loves anything new, is constantly changing brands and associates change with progress. Harish tends to be religious, in a traditional way, while Harry may also believe in religion, but is happy to mix modernity with it (e.g. growth of e-darshan).
So far so good. The key question for markets is: can a brand appeal to both sets of people? In the old days perhaps they could. But this is the era of social media and outrage. Can neutrality work in this era?
By now we all know that Zomato found it had to take a stand when a customer attacked it for having a Muslim deliver their food. It decided to side with Harry. They said in a tweet, “Food doesn’t have a religion”, and their CEO said that he was “proud of the idea of India. And the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners.” This seemed to work for them as some customers tweeted their support and decided to order from them that day.
Having a brand personality of Harish or Harry does not mean you will never get customers from the other camp. Patanjali is a Harish brand, but at its peak it had customers from the Harry camp. However the difference was that the Harish customers were more loyal to the brand, while Harry types bought it for more functional reasons.
This is not just an India phenomenon. Nike famously did an ad with the NFL star, Colin Kaepernick, which took a stance that was strongly in favour of the Black players and against President Trump and others who felt that these players had insulted their nation. A lot of people decided to boycott Nike. And yet, in the quarter after the ad was released, Nike stock had risen by 5% and their sales were up by $6 billion.
So what about your brand?
Most businessmen would argue that they don’t want to get involved in all this and want to stay neutral. We want to cater to all segments of the market, they say.
Well, you can, if you are already a big dominant leader. By then you appeal to all segments. However, you cannot guarantee that you won’t get sucked in, and so you better have a contingency plan ready. Zomato reacted instantly and that is why they turned a potential PR disaster into a brand strengthening episode.
On the other hand, if you are a challenger brand or even a leader in a crowded and competitive category, then you no longer have the luxury of being neutral. Your consumers will either like you or hate you. And they will do this based not on your product features, but based on your brand personality.
Choose your brand personality. Else your competitor might end up choosing it for you.