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    Volume 9 Issue 28| July 9, 2010|

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Food for Thought

When Branding Backfires...

Farah Ghuznavi

These days, as virtually every political ideology has given way to rampant consumerism, and the (nominally) Communist Chinese have in fact become the greatest capitalists of all, branding is seen as an all-important means for businesses to differentiate their products whether they are selling spectacle frames, ice cream or air tickets. For example, Ryan Air has successfully made itself synonymous with cheap air travel. And while safety concerns have not specifically been packaged as part of their unique approach, I witnessed an incident a few months ago during a Ryan Air flight that made me wonder if this was to be the newest aspect of their branding strategy.

One of the stewards rather officiously instructed two of the passengers to stop talking while he demonstrated the safety procedures. Given that Ryan Air's low-budget style extends to this process, basically consisting of cabin crew pointing out the location of emergency exits and life jackets, and taking passengers through the intricacies of putting seatbelts on and off - rather than, for example, British Airways or Emirates' more stylish short film presentations on in-flight security - it seemed a bit harsh to prohibit private conversations between passengers for this purpose. As it turned out, that was nothing compared to the steward I came across on another Ryan Air flight. He was clearly experiencing testosterone-overdrive as he insisted that the plane would not take off until one of the passengers had taken the earphones of his MP3 player out of his ears this even after the man had clearly demonstrated that the MP3 player was not on!

Notwithstanding Ryan Air's somewhat rough and ready methods of ensuring passengers' full attentiveness to such instructions, I was even more taken aback to read about a video produced by Air New Zealand, supposedly intended to draw passengers' attention to instructions about how to behave in the event of an emergency. The video, titled "The Bare Essentials Of Safety", features several members wearing “uniforms” consisting of body paint! The company has promoted the campaign with the slogan "At Air New Zealand, our fares have nothing to hide" and according to Steve Bayliss, the general marketing manager of the company, "We think in tough times there's a premium for making people smile, and it gives the opportunity to stand out in a crowd." An interesting approach, given that the video risks eliciting at least as many negative responses as smiles especially if it is being used on international routes.

Not that using a risqué approach in order to market a product is anything new. But it's a good idea to know where to draw the line. Watching some of the recent advertisements for chocolate emerging from India, including one where a woman is lying in a bathtub having melted chocolate poured onto her, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is something very different from chocolate that is being sold! In an interesting twist on sensuality being used to sell chocolate, an advertisement appearing in magazines on Valentine's Day in Bangladesh turned this idea on its head, using chocolate to sell another product. While the product supposedly being advertised was a special Valentine's Day chocolate, it in fact turned out to be condoms. And some would argue it as quite unnecessary to attempt to "enhance" the appeal of chocolate anyway. Judging by the booming sales of it worldwide - including in countries that use very basic marketing strategies - this is one product that needs no help selling itself.

In general though, India in particular seems to be seeking to catch up with Western attitudes and aspirations in a dangerously short time; that is reflected not only in the content of Hindi films, but also very much in some of the advertisements, which on occasion go well beyond the boundaries of good taste. Chocolate adverts being a case in point. I'm not a prude, but seriously folks, I for one would like to see something as important as chocolate not being degraded by such unsavoury (no pun intended) comparisons…

Meanwhile, on the subject of controversy, advertising and delicious things, it's interesting that the ice cream giant Haagen Dazs's arrival in India has been anything but auspicious. With the first store opening in Delhi, the company's branding exercise quickly created a furore. The tagline under the advertisement announcing the opening of the store featured at a mall read, “Access restricted only to holders of international passports”. In the brave new globalised world, the timing of such a move could not have been worse. In the last decade Indians have increasingly been becoming used to the idea of themselves as a future superpower, a definite step up from the “regional power” tag that they have in any case held for some time. Understandably, they didn't take kindly to the idea that Haagen Dazs might be planning to restrict entry to their store for Indians that too, in their own country!

After a blogger posted a photograph of the sign on the Internet, a storm erupted, with outraged Indians demanding an apology and threatening a boycott. The apology was swift in coming, but the damage had already been done. The company that distributes Haagen Dazs in India has called the wording of the ad “an error in execution”. Apparently this ill-advised advertisement was in fact meant to indicate the exclusivity of the world-famous ice cream brand and let Indians know that they could now get a taste of the international best right there in India. Unfortunately this idea got too far ahead of their English language skills, resulting in the obnoxious (and apparently misleading) sales slogan.

Meanwhile, this brand-obsession is despised by some including a friend of mine who invariably goes to great lengths in order to avoid buying branded products. Basically, people like her are a nightmare for advertising agencies and branded goods producers. The extent of her determination not to be one of the herds was amply demonstrated by her displeasure when she went to buy spectacle frames in Dhaka and found that nearly everything read Armani, Gucci or some such, costing several thousand takas.

After fruitless searching for a non-branded pair, she asked the salesman to find her something less expensive and preferably anonymous, brand-wise. Reluctantly, he went into the back of the shop to return with a dusty box of frames, most of which cost around 800 takas. Finally satisfied, she bought a pair only to find out to her horror, once she had returned home, that there was in fact a brand name on her spectacles. It was just badly spelt! So my friend now goes around in a pair of “Ammani” spectacles. And oddly enough, she hasn't taken kindly to my suggestion that this simply makes her look like a brand wannabe, rather than an independent consumer.

Finally, going back to Haagen Dazs' bitter experience selling their designer sweets, one can't really blame the Indians for suspecting racism to have been at the bottom of the alleged clerical error in the advertisement. The world has a long way to go in achieving enlightenment where racial equality is concerned. And sometimes, even the best intentions can lead us straight in the wrong direction. Like the Russian tanning parlour that was handing out leaflets featuring photos of Barack Obama, thereby aiming to assure customers that they could deliver a successful “natural looking” tan at their salon. I'm sure that they meant to be complimentary to Obama, but somehow I suspect he might not quite see it that way. And political correctness aside, it does of course raise questions about Obama's global impact being merely skin deep!

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