July 25, 2009

Near-Total Eclipse

God invented man now we manufacture them in India. In fact this is probably the only ‘thing’, product/service, where no one can compete with us on productivity parameters. Now let us not blame the Chinese alone for large scale manufacturing operations churning out poor quality products. On the other hand we have grown up reading from the Darwinian dude that man has evolved from a monkey and not fallen onto earth from somewhere. Let us clear this muddle for once and all. God could not have done such a mistake. Let us dig a little deeper.

July 22nd 2009 was a momentous day for people living in high rise, read story above the ground floor, apartments. Their homes were flooded with fresh sparkling water at 6 am from the always open taps in the kitchen sink and washrooms. These taps remain dry almost always therefore people never turn them off. Living at 2nd floor in India’s designer showcase city conceptualized by Le Corbusier I too had that welcoming wet feeling on the twenty second July morning. My kitchen sink was overflowing with pearls of water. I dare not disturb the tap and kept looking at it with gratitude and pleasure. I generally believe in hard work over luck. But that day I was plain lucky, otherwise how you could explain the real running tap with serene water bubbles oozing out like a milk streams in my house. I realized later that I was not being lucky. It was a case of Solar Eclipse in India. If you are not from India you cannot understand the phenomenon. As an ancient custom people are forbidden from working during the eclipse as it may bring bad omen. Although we have surely realized long ago that work is a four letter word, must be shunned with all your might.

We have been told by our wise people, who do not themselves go to work and become preachers that everything that needs to be known has already been explained in our ancient texts and it is for the west to create new stuff that we have already experienced in our glorious past. And moreover we know the future too. Our astrologers can tell us all future events with six sigma accuracy. Therefore we Indians are advised to go back to old books so that old glory can be achieved. These self professed wise people use cutting edge ICT tools to propagate their back to future ideology. Steven Spielberg, I love your films but why did you make a film with such a title? Well you may disagree with us.

So a solar eclipse can happen anywhere on earth but in India it was a unique experience. The media with the advice of great astrologers cautioned the public about the impact of the eclipse. On a cursory look India seems to be divided along religion, caste, region and profession lines but the astrologers divide us on the basis of zodiac signs. You never know in future we may have zodiac signs as family names. These wise sages tell us to suspend all work during eclipse and sit down and sing religious songs and mantras. Such events often remind me of the tale about a yogi’s encounter with the Prince of Macedonia. It is told that after conquering India when Alexander was returning back he saw an old man lying on the ground in hot Sun. When the prince stopped to ask him the reason for taking rest in such odd circumstances the yogi told him that he was enjoying himself like this. Yogi asked Alexander why he was running like this from place to place. Alexander replied that he wanted the make the world a better place so that he could enjoy in it. The yogi replied that he already is having loads of fun so why try to go to battles.

There was another side to the eclipse in India. People thronged the rivers and ponds for a bath during the eclipse. It is said to be opportune time to wash your sins. Our government spent millions to make safe arrangement for people to take bath but did not spend a single paisa on educating the masses and children about the modern scientific living. That’s why it is not uncommon in India to see professionally qualified people doing round of astrologers and wearing stones and other talisman to get lucky in life. Which stone does Obama, Sarkozy or Manmohan wear? Come on Indians let us be futuristic and move on.

July 20, 2009

Balle Balle - Punjabi food, wheres the brand ?

Punjabis are known for hard work and entrepreneurial nature. Punjabis happily venture out on roads where few dare to trot. We have considerable expertise in manufacturing as some punjabis have done quite well at the global and domestic level. When we discuss cycles, milk products, yarn, hosiery, knitwear, hand tools, sports goods there are some sparkling stories. But why do we not have a 'brand' like Amul, Dettol, Britania etc ? Punjabis are popular for thier appetite and fine eating, what stops us from creating a brand ? Lassi has market potential, why not have a branded lassi ?

As consumers are becoming more demanding the food companies have to work overtime to convince the buyers to depend on them for offering nutrition combined with pleasure. Therefore food companies are taking fatty foods off the shelves and replacing them with the healthier foods. You may segment the food along four benefits; Nutrition, Taste, Health and Pleasure. What are the alternatives with the Cola majors like Pepsi & Coke? Would they be able to sustain a strategic attack on their consumption? Could they survive by asking consumers to go for cola drinks for pure pleasure? Or could they pass off as the tastier water available? They would find it very scary to go for a pleasure tag. Certainly they would never imagine killing their market by hawking Cola as a health drink. How the future is going to play out is a million dollar question.Snack food market in India is dominated by the unorganized sector.

Future may be different. The organized retail revolution unleashed in India would change the contours in no time. Most retailers have or are in the process of launching their own snack food brands. The local small snack food players would be edged out from the market and would remain in business as vendors of the large stores.

The evolution of biotechnology would also upgrade the snack food portfolio.The sweet snack food segment dominated by biscuits is experiencing real tremors with entry of new competition from within and global market. Players in biscuit market are planning to launch biscuits as a healthy snack food. We are all convinced with cereals and dalia etc as a healthy food. But a snack is a snack.

How can you force fit a biscuit to pass of as a health food? Surely a snack food product positioned on health benefit segmentation is in nothing but a horrendous idea here in India.

Hope no snack food player would like to present their products on the lines of Chawanprass or some Churan. If they do how would the packaging look like? Would it look like a health product, a medicine or some happy pleasurable packaging? How many snack food players have we got in the Punjab region? Not many! Why is it so when there is huge market available in the region? When you shop for a snacks all you see if Frito lay, Haldiram, and 2-3 local players.

We know that being a developing country that has recently come out of a total regulatory regime, our entrepreneurs are more comfortable with production than being adept in marketing their produce. Every big small town in the region has 1-2 famous snack food player. How we all miss the great retail effort undertook by Lovely Sweets from Jalandhar. Gopal from Patiala has also flexed its muscles but have not taken a real shot at becoming an established player. Dhoda sweets may have shifted base to Ludhiana but their product line is woeful short.Cremica has opened up into this domain but they seem to be satisfied with organic growth only.

When would we see a snack food brand leveraging the worldwide appeal of PUNJABI DHABHA and SHER-E-PUNJAB? Is someone listening!

July 10, 2009

Crime & The Watch- a short story

Ghosts are dead and only those close to death could be afraid of them. It is the living who scare us. Decades ago I stayed in the hostel at a university campus near Chandigarh. It was a unique experience  for protected youngest child of north Indian Sikh family. Hostels are generally dingy places engulfed in seething smell of suppressed dreams, of boiled stupid food, butter lonely living and made worse under the specter of an insecure future. Loneliness makes people treasure their independence because they learn to adjust with it over time. Millions are pushed out every year from the imaginary security of hostel walls out into the shelterless job market painted with crude hopelessness. It is like the trauma a child experiences emerging from the safety of mother’s womb into the big bright world. 

Life in India is like travelling in an underpowered vehicle swerving and screeching on some frozen snowy kutcha road hoping to stop someplace with least injuries.It’s normal during summer vacations for students staying in the university hostels to head home. If you happen to visit a hotel at that time you would be drenched in strong scary smell of vacant locked rooms. With ninety percent students gone home, and one of the two main kitchens shut, hostel wears a strange lean look accentuated by silence of falling water from some leaky dark washroom and an occasional grunting of the solitary guard trying to establish his presence while sitting on hunches at the entry gate that is hardly used by most. When wind picks up a little in the usual pre monsoon season you could also be visited be the fragrance of unripe mango fruits from the trees in hostel compound. The unkempt hostel building, walls, mess and lawns tend to look much worse with the swarm of students gone home and their absence leads to greater attention to the state of such things. Although we do not complain about the quality of infrastructure of the hostels as most are mature adults are expected to be resigned to the destiny in India.

Well hostel look much the same even after a gap of twenty years. It is like an unbelieveable near super natural experience. Ghosts do not threaten the youth anywhere. Probably it could be explained as the willing suspension of disbelief of fear during the youth period. It is the living who threatens us. In India we avoid working hard as we understand that life is going to be very hard here so it would be wise to keep the hard work off as long as possible. But still there are exceptions to the rule. Some Indians start working hard early in life and some of them succeed also. I had a friend who lived in the next cubicle and attended the same class with me in the faculty of business management. He was of slight build, fair complexioned and had naughty eyes and a brooding forehead. He walked slowly and spoke in a loud clear voice. We were known for making a quite a noise in debates on issues threatening the existence of India. These issues have failed India time and again in the last couple of thousand years and have once again at work to push us away from the march of life and living on the Earth into the ghetto of our so called ancient wisdom and glory.

Such debates and discussions are quite common amongst the youth in the university campuses all over the world. Why our country is not among the league of rich and developed countries? What are the reasons, and who are responsible for the current state of affairs in India? Why have we not solved our major problems of abject poverty, weak moral values, and lack of work culture, illiteracy, population and mushrooming of so many varieties of religions, sects and complete lack of trust in fellow humans? Finally what can we do to solve such dreadful problems? The question is do we need to look backward in order to succeed in the future? University are ideally suited to find answers to the problems facing humanity though our Indian Universities have seldom tried to even attempt in such a direction but the young restless minds swarming the university compounds have head full of bright ideas that could lead us onto the path of glory amongst the nations on this beautiful earth. Off course sexual escapades and the lack of them also form a major part of our discussions. Why religious people are afraid of discussing sex openly? Why they deny its power?

Such debates turn quite noisy and would also eat into time kept for studying to pass in examination after examination so characteristic of our education system. You must have noticed that some young people debate very passionately even if they do not much substance to contribute. And some of us would keep on zealously defending our view point once made that we also find weak or wrong on second thought. One evening while gossiping about girls, we stumbled to discussing the impact of near death experience early in life on the personality of person. Some of the great persons had to go through near death traumatic experience very early in their life. Who can find fault with Hemingway’s life and death? How many of us had felt the chill running down our spine on learning about Dostoevsky’s sentencing to death by a firing squad at age of eighteen? Youth gets excited by exciting stuff. No one aspires to be a sitting duck. It was during such a discussion that we started discussing the idea of Sin and morality in life. Please do not presume that the young are generally not careful about moral issues. In fact it is the youth who would surely be bothered about the moral side of an act before going through it unlike the mature middle aged wise persons, who let themselves be guided by their objective and interest without much regard to the moral aspect of an action.

It was unusual for that a discussion point would become a serious issue of debate that would continue to generate heat and adrenalin for days. What is sin? What is a commensurate punishment? Let us imagine that someone has slapped a hardened criminal and then a genuine good fellow, is the crime same in both the cases? A hardened criminal may not mind it much but the other guy could kill in return for a slap. The debate kept going on for days and many other joined in with their positions. It was during those days that something unusual happened with my friend that stocked the fires within us. He used to get up little late around lunch time and would emerge from his tiny room at the university hostel. Since he was particular about taking bath every day, not a popular activity amongst youth, would straight head to the common bath room. Bathroom in university hostels are like jails, dark, dirty and dingy almost like the enlightenment our universities profess to promote in the minds of people.

Therefore he would start his bath even without opening his eyes fully. It was a custom to open the eyes only after the classes were over for the day. The silence in the hostels in June to July is over powering as the place remains virtually empty. One Tuesday when he woke up at noon, shove the toothbrush into his half open mouth, and picked up plastic bucket with left hand, threw the towel on his shoulder and headed to the great refreshing place for a bath. Since bathrooms do not have a place to hang clothes some students hate to carry unnecessary clothes, so he too would not break the rule. Our bathrooms do not have the shower attachment and the water falls like a thunderbolt from the pipe directly on the head or the place chosen by the person. So generally you offer your feet first followed by shoulders and then the head. And the complete bathing is over in less than a minute due to the smells filling your nostrils coming from the adjacent toilets. When he was about to wrap the towel around his waist he spotted an expensive wrist watch lying on the floor. It was a truly expensive Swiss watch. Some of the students bring expensive cars and other stuff to hostels. He took the watch and after dressing up went to the warden’s house to hand over the watch.

The warden did not like his visit to his home and took the watch from his hand coldly. He was expecting to be appreciated for this act of honesty which was not at all a common here. Moreover the watch was worth the price of a car so he didn’t expect a cold reception. He met us in the common room and explained the incident. All of us advised him to ignore the event. He did so promptly. But we were amazed when he found another expensive watch in the same bathroom. Then he brought it straight to us. He was not wearing anything except the wet towel. We went together to the warden’s house to return the watch. It was lunch time and the warden was sleeping after a heavy meal. We woke him up and got the expected cold reception from him. He looked at the watch and took it inside to show his wife. He was reminded promptly by the lady that her father had given him a gold plated watch studded with diamonds in dowry gifts.

The following day our friend got up early and went to the bathroom on the other side of the building. He promptly finished his bath and headed back to his room. In the long passage way he saw a cheap watch like object lying on the floor. On reaching near that he found a very cheap watch of Indian make that most students from poor families get to wear. He left the watch in lying there and went into his room. There he thought that if this watch gets in the hands of someone who did not care to return it then the poor owner of this watch may be hurt. So he went out again and picked up the watch. He brought it back into his room and leaving it there headed for the mess for food. He was disturbed and amused about his watch finding expertise. Why was he the only one to score a watch finding hat trick? He did not share the latest find incident with anyone and went alone to see a Hindi movie in a newly opened multiplex in a mall. He did not return till late in the evening as he felt disturbed. What the warden and others are going to think of him when he would go to return third watch in exactly same number of days.

When he returned to hostel it was after dinner at around ten. He saw warden addressing the assembly in the common room. He went closer. Warden looked at him and asked him to come by his side. The warden told the gathering, “Look at this boy he found two luxury watches and brought them to me. He is our hero. This is an example of good character and moral values. And now when a poor boy has lost the only possession of his life given by his father some bloody immoral person has not cared to return it, what a shame. What a shame. How i wish to fish out that thief.Isn't it is a cold blooded crime to steal a watch”.

July 6, 2009

World’s largest exercise in democracy 2009 edition

Month long exercise, having 5 phases, Indian General Elections 2009, to the 15th Lok Sabha- the Indian parliament, began on April 16 and closed on May 13, could rightly be called the greatest spectacle of democracy in the world. It was an opportunity for 714 Million eligible citizen consumers to exercise their franchise at 828,804 polling stations using 1,368,430 electronic voting machines across India to elect 543 Members of Parliament to sit in the lower house of parliament called the Lok Sabha. India’s first elections in 1952 had only 176 Million eligible voters. Whew.

Imagine 7 national political parties along with some 22 state level parties and a smattering of 1000 odd registered unrecognized political parties in the fray for voters’ approval. That’s some competition. Moreover the consumer side is no less amazing scenario for a marketing strategist responsible for the task of succeeding in such a market. The linguistic profile of India is as colorful as it gets. It has 22 officially recognized languages and 1500-2000 spoken dialects. This becomes a real challenge to the media professionals and political parties to bridge them all into few groups so as to target the advertising messages to the appropriate segments.

Literacy in India has been on the rise ever since first election. Compared to only 15 percent of the eligible voters during those times we had a much respectable figure of 54 percent for the 2009. Besides you have six major religions, caste divides, and few hundred very influential religio-cultural groupings that follow the community chief’s command as gospel truth and vote together as per the chief’s dictates. Even in more economically developed and globalised states like Punjab major political parties shudder at the idea of earning disfavor of such ‘Dera’ (literally translated as a settlement) Chief.

The election exercise involved an estimated expenditure of close to $ 3 billion by the political parties and the candidates. Don’t be surprised if the figure seems more than that of recently concluded elections in the United States. Well in the US you don’t have many astrologers to pay off to propitiate the Gods for a favorable outcome in the elections. And there were those mundane affairs like political advertising, transportation including air travel bills of the leaders, and off course some loose cash to share with the voters who eagerly wait for elections to bring some work and money into their lives. One survey indicated that even in the national capital of Delhi some 25 percent voters received the money for votes.

The Election Commission of India conducts and regulates the election process. They have implemented a model code of conduct for the political parties and politicians that include caps on election expenditure and the general conduct of campaigning. The restriction on media translates into a major expenditure allocation moving towards the television, away from the traditional print and other below the line media. The use of internet, mobile phone advertising and other digital media has been on the rise. The 400 million mobile phone base in presented a ready target for the short text based messages to the ever eager voters. There have been several technological innovations in the 2009 elections such as use of social media like Orkut, Facebook etc by the leading parties to attract and satisfy the younger interactive generation of voters. Lal Krishan Advani of the Hindu ultra nationalist BJP went on to leverage digital media with dedicated website a la Obama complete with a blog and blogger outreach program. In the din of election fever he conveniently forgot that media is the message. Digital space is not a suitable media fit for any narrow parochial message based on religion, culture, caste or national orientation. It is pure democratic space for all of us who find it easy to accept each other with open arms.

Main political parties Indian National Congress (INC) and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) did not contest elections individually but as a group of parties with pre-poll alliance as most thought that none of them can expect to form a government on their own without forming some sort of a coalition with others.INC led the United Progressive Alliance whereas the BJP contested as National Democratic Alliance. It presented interesting communications challenges. Besides the plight of the marketing researchers who predict the elections outcome has been no less miserable. It is customary that in a country with powerful independent media the press would like to have their opinion on such issues like politics and elections with great zeal.

The Election Commission does not allow the media to broadcast or publish any opinion or exit polls during the election process to safeguard the possibility of swaying the public sentiment. But still media organizations as well as the political parties commission such polls to feed the 24x7 news channels. This time too, like in the 2004, most polls went completely way off the mark. Not even the Exit polls could predict the results with some degree of success despite being carried out by the world’s leading marketing research firms like AC Nielsen.

The Indian National Congress was the first political party in India to use a professional advertising agency for political advertising in 1989. Similarly leading advertising agencies were engaged by the political parties in these elections too. The Congress party had hired two advertising agencies namely John Walter Thompson (JWT) and Crayons to design its advertising campaign whereas BJP engaged Frank Simoes-Tag and Utopia for their campaign. The challenger BJP led NDA alliance went on attack with a negative advertising campaign. The incumbent stuck to largely defensive low profile positive messages.

The BJP talked about its ability to govern better and tried once again its Hindutva (Hindu Nationalism) based rhetoric but without much success. There were glaring contradictions in the message content and selection of media to disseminate the messages on the part of media strategist in the BJP’s war room. They used digital media profusely to convey its ultra nationalist agenda without any regard to the profile of the target audience. Educated Indians, particularly the youth, has global outlook and modern perspective on life. It is not possible to sell them such ultra nationalist policies as they are already living or aspire to live a modern materialistic globalised life without prejudices. Therefore it resulted in defeat of the party in major metros like Mumbai, New Delhi etc. In fact the political parties that broke away from BJP alliance or did not share their ultra nationalistic agenda have done significantly better than BJP or INC.

BJP had nothing ‘new’ in its message therefore it failed to excite the fence sitters. The congress party had a defensive low profile campaign with substantially ‘new’ offers in its promise to the voters in form of projecting Rahul Gandhi as genuine youth leader and the incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the next prime minister. Well the economist Manmohan Singh with impeccable credentials of sincerity & humility, coming from a minority Sikh community does not fit the traditional profile of an Indian politician fit for PM’s office, offers quite newness in the promise to the electorate. INC did not even try to repeat the mistake of projecting India as a country on the threshold of becoming a super power as was done by previous NDA government in 2004 though its ‘India Shining’ campaign. Persuasion remains the objective for the political players during elections. The parties in general stop short of finding out what the electorate wants from them; instead they claim to know what people must expect from them.

The elections were unique in more than one way. Three leading commercial brands released social advertising campaigns to motivate voters to exercise their franchise and consequently build their own brands. Tata Tea’s Jagoo re (Wake Up) campaign, Idea cellular’s ‘Janta ki Awaz’ (Voice of people) and Lead India campaign of The Times of India group were directed to motivate the voters to cast their votes. Because large sections of middle class in India refrain from casting their vote due one reason or the other, major one being their lack of faith in the electoral process and its impact on their lives.

Indian elections are not contested on serious national issues alone. Different regions have their own local issues that take precedence over the so called national issues. The previous incumbent government of the UPA was subject to show of strength on the floor of the parliament when the major part of alliance represented by leftist parties choose to withdraw support as a consequence to the signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement by the Congress led alliance. But still this crisis did not form the major issue in the elections. Cheap food rations still remain a vote catcher in this developing country more important than the deal. Some political parties openly distribute television sets other items and even cash to win the support of the electorate.

Another facet of Indian elections in the last few decades has been the rise of elite political families. BJP generally accuses the INC party for being led by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Current president of the INC is Sonia Gandhi whose husband, mother in law, grandfather has been the Prime Minister. Her son Rahul Gandhi and daughter Priyanka are tipped to be the next political elite. Although BJP has several leaders in its top positions who are promoting their children to inherit their political space. There are several political parties that operate like private family dominated organizations such as Shiromani Akali Dal led by Badal family that is in power in Punjab, AIADMK in southern state of Tamil Nadu is led by Karunanidhi, his sons, daughter and other relatives. INLD in Haryana belongs to Chautala family. Samajwadi party of UP is dominated by father son and uncle triumvirate of Mulayam yadav. RJD operates like personal property of Lallu yadav his wife and other family members. Shiv Sena of Bal Thakeray has his son in command. There are others parties that swear by one or other leader’s legacy making elections in India as more of a personality dominated affair rather than issue based service organizations. This leads to almost complete obfuscation of people’s issues and their genuine needs.

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