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Should brand managers be social anthropologists?

For most brand managers, trained in the USP (unique selling proposition) school of management, finding that "one thing to say" that will create a superior positioning in the consumer's mind - the battleground! - is the reason for existence. Suprio Guha Thakurta writes.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2011 22:03 IST

For most brand managers, trained in the USP (unique selling proposition) school of management, finding that "one thing to say" that will create a superior positioning in the consumer's mind - the battleground! - is the reason for existence.

I have happily gone through a couple of decades with this premise in mind till I read Howard B Holt's How Brands Become Icons. His basic premise is that the key aspect of creating iconic brands is about unearthing current contradictions in a nation's cultural identity and then creating communication that resonates with understanding. He uses American icons (Corona, Bud, Mountain Dew, Beetle) and demonstrates very convincingly that the most important part of building a great brand is finding that contradiction in society and placing your brand there.

So, I started wondering about Indian brands, asked a few gurus, and came up with examples of great cultural understanding. Cadbury's use of the "success and meetha" connection, Britannia's spotting the "chai and biskoot" connection, Nike's use of road cricket, Maruti's use of "kitna deti hai?" were touted as showing great cultural connect. However, I wasn't sure if I had found what I was looking for.

I was reminded of a bike brand called Caliber and its launch campaign in the late '90s. The brand seemed to have spotted a cultural contradiction: while India was booming and stories of unheard of riches were doing the rounds, the truth was that the majority of the youth were facing disappointment. The success was limited to a few. The brand gave the majority hope and used another great cultural tool, a Hindi song, to tell a wonderful story of a man going in search of his childhood sweetheart to find her married. And how the man gives the puppy to her son and walks away with a smile ("chalne wale rahon mein, rukna na haar ke").

Cultural contradictions. Can we spot any?
India's growth story has created a nation of confident, we-can-conquer all, India-is-the-future young men and women. Is this confidence now getting dented by corruption and is the Lokpal agitation a one-off or a trend?

And what does it mean for brands building themselves on a cool, confident I-am-Dhoni platform and more importantly, does the inherent contradiction of positive energy of India-will-rule and the bubbling discontent of corruption provide a unique opportunity for a brand to capture its market's imagination?

The fact that I can only spot the most obvious contradiction makes me believe that I need to study social anthropology and apply the tools to my work and hopefully then I will be able to spot a contradiction that will help make my brand an icon. And maybe, "MBA, Social Anthropologist" on my card will be my USP.

The writer is Managing Director, The Economist - India