The Anti-wrinkle Formula for Brands

The famous Posh Spice, is quoted as saying, “Right from the beginning, I said I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic.” And as Jeremy Bullmore of WPP commented, it was very astute of her to choose UK’s best- known washing powder as her benchmark of fame. Indeed it has been suggested that brands are the real celebrities.

Film stars come and go but Lux endures. And it is not the only one. The biggest challenge for all heritage brands is to remain as relevant to the consumer today as they were yesterday.

And that is not as difficult as it may sound because, interestingly, the world’s ten most valuable brands have been around for a long time.
The world’s most valuable brand, Coca Cola, is 117 years old. And 8 of these have been with us for at least 50 years or more. As is obvious, these brands continue to delight consumers.

The World’s Most Valuable Brands


1 Coca Cola 68.9
2 Microsoft 65.1
3 IBM 52.8
4 GE 42.4
5 Nokia 35.0
6 Intel 34.7
7 Disney 32.6
8 Ford 30.1
9 McDonald’s 25.3
10 AT&T 22.8

Data: Interbrand, Citigroup 2001

Brands, as you know, live and breathe only in our minds. The brand ‘Tajmahal hotel’ is not brick and mortar and ‘Pears’ is not a bar of soap. What makes a brand, is only our perception of it. How then does one carry forward a mere perception over decades?
Time can make brands obsolete. New technology and changing consumer milieu, can make long- standing brands look dated and tired.
And yet, many of our heritage brands have not only remained relevant over time, they have become household names – Lifebuoy, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Colgate, Dettol and Brittania are just few such examples. There are several lessons to be drawn, from how some of these old brands have handled change. The examples that I quote have been simplified for economy and effect.

In my experience, there are five classic traps that heritage brands need to avoid:


Brands are often too slow to respond to change. Unfortunately, this allows other players to wrest market share from the brand leader, in this case the heritage brand.

Bajaj dominated the two wheeler market with a scooter, positioned for the family. It was affordable, promised fuel economy and safety. Motorcycles, on the contrary, were seen to be poor on fuel economy, and had a Hell’s Angels image- i.e. a dangerous and powerful vehicle for the young male adult and the 250cc Yezdi was the brand of choice.

With time, perceptions began to change. The Indian male was beginning to view the scooter as too staid and old fashioned. On cue, Hero Honda launched a softer version of a motorcycle. At 100cc it was less powerful than a Yezdi, but offered all the conveniences of a scooter. Bajaj launched a Kawasaki motorcycle not as fuel efficient as Honda and failed to stem the tide. Ultimately, they did launch a successful range of motorcycles but not before Hero Honda had carved out a strong presence in the market.

VIP is another case of being too slow to change. VIP, built the luggage product category in India. It enjoyed a strong position by virtue of being the first moulded luggage brand, providing both modernity and durability -an important factor given the somewhat harsh treatment luggage gets during travel in Indian trains. However, over time aspirations of first class train travel gave way to flying. Luggage became a lifestyle statement. VIP then launched a range of soft luggage but did not match the superior quality of new entrants like Samsonite. While big foreign brands were chipping away at the top end, discount brands and cheap Chinese imports were hitting the bottom end. VIP is now preparing to launch new products and catch up- but there is no doubt that the brand VIP has been weakened.

Lesson– Don’t Create Strong Competitors
Why make life harder for yourself?


Very often, folklore builds in the case of successful brands. And very quickly, every aspect of the brand is cast in stone. That makes responding to changes in the environment very difficult. Therefore, it has become increasingly critical, to understand the DNA or the core value of the brand.
In my experience, marketers make one of two mistakes- one, they want to play safe, and cast the brand blueprint in stone. Liril was a case where the waterfall and the jingle were seen as the DNA of the brand, resulting in the brand being stuck in a time warp. Two – sometimes in shaking off the old and traditional image, they tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I have often seen product features being mistaken for the brand DNA. Wheel detergent bar was essentially seen as a green bar. A move to make it blue, met with stiff opposition from its creators. The blue Wheel, however, when it was launched was a great success. DNA is best a quality, an intangible – like health for Lifebuoy or freshness for Liril.

Lifebuoy the market volume leader was a red, carbolic soap with a medicinal fragrance, promising health. Despite stagnating sales, brand managers were uncomfortable with changing the colour and the fragrance till early last year. However, Lifebuoy was re-launched with a cosmetic fragrance and different colour variants. The brand has grown ever since.

Sometimes, the positioning can be mistaken for the core value as in this Cadbury Dairy Milk example.

In the early nineties, Cadbury, the market leader in chocolates was faced with the challenge of growing the market. At the time, chocolates were primarily positioned as a product for children. As a route for growth, it was decided to reposition the brand for teenagers and young adults. Many in the company felt that this would destroy the core value of the brand. The core value of – Caring and Sharing, however, was retained in the path breaking cricket campaign – And the rest is history.

Lesson – Understand the DNA and Liberate the Brand
A brand not liberated means a lot of missed opportunities.


Marketers are often not connected with their consumers and can sometimes miss the changing consumer values, and behaviour patterns.
Why is it so difficult to stay connected?

One – Marketers see consumers as if their- i.e. the consumers only mission in life is to relate with the marketer’s brand. Is that really true – between the time you wake up and nine am, you could well encounter anywhere up to 25 brands- of tea, coffee, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, hair oil, etc. This does not include the number of TV ads you see in that time. Consumers simply do not look at a brand the way marketers do.

Second – Big and frequent changes in demographics, lifestlyles, literacy and aspirations make staying connected increasingly difficult. Why is it not important anymore to target mothers for health supplements? How did fashion take over from the old consumer mantra of long lasting and durable? When did grooming and beauty become such big business? The answers lie in spotting the changes.

More nuclear families mean more pester power with children are becoming decision-makers today. For fmcgs, it means the possibility of more than one brand in a household. With lifestyle changes, things that were earlier bought for their functionality may be now bought for their aesthetics. Cars, watches, apparel and shoes are good examples of lifestyle products. In these categories there is a graveyard of old brands that forgot to connect with the changes in the consumer milieu – Remember Ambassador, HMT, Binny’s and Bata.

The TIMES OF INDIA sees the consumer as a moving target and tries to stay one step ahead. Convergence of technology where a mobile phone can be a camera, a music system, and a source of news means – that the consumer is unlikely to remain loyal to traditional channels of news and entertainment. Lines are getting blurred between what each medium can deliver. If TV is news and entertainment why should a newspaper be just news? Most importantly, what do you do when the generation next sees you as something from the past?

TOI has responded to this new consumer milieu by segmenting the market and launching brand extensions to meet both width and depth of consumer needs — Supplements like Education Times, Bombay Times, Delhi Times, Times Ascent and so on mean there is something for everybody.
The brand architecture – what TOI calls “Skin to Spirituality” -allows consumers varied experiences throughout the day – TOI at home in the morning, Radio Mirchi on the way to work, TOI web site in the office, lunch break at Planet M for the latest music etcetra.

In addition TOI organises events on Beauty, Fitness, Well being, Home Décor etc. Staying in touch with the consumer helps get share of the person rather than just the newspaper reading consumer.

Lesson – Put on your Consumer Hat
Look at the consumer as a human being in a real environment– somebody like you and me.


Marketers often feel that product function and advertising are the key to building brands. Consumers, however, build up an image of a brand through encounters at multiple touch points. Some like price, packaging and promotions are expected and better understood. Others, however, are not so expected as I will just explain. Last night I went to my favourite restaurant and have been going there for years. Two things happened. The waiter wished me luck for my talk today– he had seen an ad in the Economic Times. Second the food was terrible. I realized the fragility of the brand image. In an hour the brands ET and my restaurant had shifted in my mind space.

It is most important that marketers provide CONSISTENCY of brand experience across all touch points over time. This is a real challenge for heritage brands but is probably the magic that makes brands everlasting.

Today so many brands run price discounts as promotions, ostensibly, to build brand loyalty. More often than not, they are signalling poor quality. Milo, a milkfood drink launched recently has been running promotions since day one and has notched up a market share not worth the money being spent on it.

However an event like the Lakme India Fashion Week is a promotion that reinforces the brand image of Lakme. An offer of one rupee off would fail the test of CONSISTENCY.

It is understandable that new players play by different rules. They do not carry the burden of the brand heritage. Heritage brands, on the contrary, must resist the temptation of doing something in the short term that might have disastrous consequences for image in the long term.
The pricing of a brand does contribute to its reputation. Today there is a lot written in newspapers about the enormous success of low priced brands. I would like to remind us all, that in most FMCG categories that I have worked in, I have yet to come across a low priced brand that is a market leader.

Post a few price hikes, Maggi 2-minute-noodles faced a slump in sales. They came back with a slightly different variation of the original product, at a lower price. This formulation was cheaper to produce and gave them higher margins. Consumers, however, rejected the new tasting Maggi even though it was cheaper!

Lesson – Brand Consistency across Multiple Touch Points
This can make or break your brand.


Companies normally respond when brand shares start declining or growth is arrested. More often than not, it is too late. By big bets I mean brands taking pre-emptive action when doing well even if it means forgoing profits in the short term to emerge stronger later. Let me explain with an example. Digene is a highly successful antacid. Being an ethical drug, it has no advertising support and can only be promoted by doctors. Its closest competitor available over the counter, incurs a large advertising expenditure but has lost doctor partonage since doctors fight shy of prescribing OTC medicines. Digene is a brand leader but to become a megabrand it has to make changes that would cut down on its profits for the next couple of years. Will Digene wait or place those big bets?

It is only natural that moving big brands forward will be big bets. In my experience, the best way to make sure that the bets are made, is, to involve the highest levels in the decision making process early, rather than late.
Lesson – CEO to Move Closer to the Brand

That is where the real value of the company lies.

And finally, I would like to close with this thought. Things don’t change overnight. Change has a habit of creeping in on us unannounced!
I have often heard marketers say – “the more things change the more they remain the same.”
I have a word of caution from Calvin & Hobbes ;

“Know what’s weird, day by day nothing seems to change, but pretty soon …….everything is different.”

(Talk given at the CII Marketing Summit in August 2003)

Related Posts

Leave a Comment