Online persuaders

The demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000, coupled with a strong push to go cashless, could be the turning point for India’s e-tailers. Of course, the big players were quick to jump in with full page advertisements and offers that encouraged customers to enjoy their new cashless state. This move, close on the heels of the festival season, has meant that consumers have been subjected to a ‘tsunami of e-tail’ with their morning cup of tea. 

Armed with deep war chests and battle-hungry marketing veterans, the online marketplaces have been particularly relentless in their pursuit of the consumer. Yet, a fundamental question remains: Are they, despite the apparently bottomless budgets, really creating differentiated brands?

Disappointingly, our e-tailers behave alike, look identical and say the same thing: “We have a vast range of products and amazing discounts and we’ll deliver to your home and in record time and un-boxing them will make your family delirious.” 

Are they differentiating their advertising? The visuals are virtually interchangeable. The emotions they attempt to evoke are similar. The only thing different seems to be the colour of the box that arrives at your doorstep — and I doubt colour matters very much to the bargain hunter. 

It is entirely possible that e-tailers may have exceeded their sales targets this season, convincing them perhaps of the efficacy of their strategy. Yet the brand differentiation objective is completely under served, even forgotten. Despite the pitched battles, they have at very best, helped create and expand the e-tail category, increasing the size of the pie for the benefit of everyone at the table.  

That’s undoubtedly a huge and valuable achievement but also, to my mind, an opportunity lost. There are two broad strategies to category creation. One: Create the category first, never mind about brand differentiation. Fight to be among the ‘last men standing’, because the survivors will share the pile.

The second strategy: create brands as you create categories, just like the world’s leading chefs do on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Differentiate your identities beyond just the logo: Act, talk and look different from competitors. Be excellent in delivering category needs, but also deliver higher order needs. Create distinct brands, even as you create new categories. 

The airline industry in India is a great example of the latter. Category benefits are clean airplanes, cheap fares, on time departure and arrivals, quick ground services and pleasant staff. Most carriers do this well. But, while the number of carriers, the number of planes in the skies, and the number of destinations have all been growing rapidly, are all India’s airline brands the same? 

Carriers have invested time, thought and effort into their brands, with impressive results. IndiGo, the poster child, has a perky tone of voice, excellent aircraft hygiene, impressive punctuality and helpful staff. Vistara is quietly classy, ever reliable. Spice Jet tries to be fun and provocative, with weekend dressing and racy copy. While price does play a role, fliers today are driven by brand considerations when choosing their airline.

India’s airline brands display two interlocking principles of brand creation: Performance, coupled with personality. Performance is all about delivering category needs, and always striving to do this better than competition. Personality is about who you are, your take on life, and how you say and do things. 

Performance builds categories. Performance plus personality builds brands, as it builds categories. 

To take advantage of favourable tailwinds, India’s e-tailers would do well to build differentiated brands. They have to look no further than our airline industry for inspiration.

The author is Brand consultant and founder of Bharat Bambawale & Associates

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