The Tribune - Spectrum

, November 10, 2002
Lead Article

Why selling doesnít buy any more

Since the end of the last decade, the tactic of spinning out marketing gimmicks to raise bottomlines seems to have lost much of its sheen. This trend has become more pronounced in the last year or so. However, there was a time when advertisers could manoeuvre consumers into buying anything, says Prerana Trehan.

NOT many years ago, fresh out of university armed with an MBA in marketing, I appeared for an interview as a marketing executive in a FMCG company. Introductions over, the interviewer, a beefy man with the bearings of, well, a bear, asked me something that probably every student of marketing has heard or read sometime or the other. "We need people who can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. Can you?"

Never mind the outcome of the interview, this anecdote is meant to illustrate a particular organisational mindset, the kind that believed in the credo of Ďhave product, will sellí. Some years down the line, mindsets havenít changed, only realities have. Little wonder, then, that companies are asking themselves why their blue-eyed boys, the marketing executives, have stopped delivering. Why is it that the promotion function seems to have reached the limits of its effectiveness? Why has the one-size-fits-all promotional model stopped working? Why are Eskimos refusing to buy refrigerators?


Since the end of the last decade, the tactic of spinning out marketing gimmicks to raise bottomlines seem to have lost much of its sheen. This trend has become more pronounced in the last one year or so. Things were not always like this. There was a time when advertisers could manipulate and manoeuvre consumers into buying anything. Or so they thought. The idea was not to make products for markets but to make markets for products. The focus was on advertising, while the consumer was a never-seen-never-heard entity. Anything was possible for product promoters. Advertising was the magic mantra that could transform any product, never mind its intrinsic worth, into a market leader. The theory behind building strong brands was simple enough. Make a product, spend huge amounts on advertising, put up billboards, make television commercials, come up with hummable jingles, give freebies, in short bombard the consumer with so many images that the poor guy had no choice but to say yes. Which he did, with flattering ease. This naturally did wonders to the advertisersí self-esteem, not to mention the organisationsí faith in the infallibility of their abilities. A tragically misplaced trust, as the subsequent experience of many brands was to prove.

Do you remember Le Sancy soap? No? Never mind, neither does anyone else. It is a classic example of a brand that sank without a trace in spite of aggressive advertising. At one time, images of this curiously shaped soap graced every magazine. It sought differentiation only on the basis of its boat-shape, and its advertisers went out of their way to convince consumers that its shape would lead to a never-before bathing experience. In fact, so convinced were the brains behind the campaign of the advantage that Le Sancy enjoyed that it was considered to be just a matter of time before all other soap manufacturers ditched the conventional round and rectangular shapes of soap in favour of the boat-shape. Obviously, no one bought the story or the soap because Le Sancyís passage into history shortly after its launch was an unmemorable event, quite unlike its much-hyped launch.

The automobile industry is replete with examples of products that didnít make it in spite of huge ad-spends. Fiat Siennaís entry into the market was preceded by massive advertising, but it never really took off because of negative perceptions among the consumers regarding its fuel efficiency, a perception that vigorous advertising couldnít alter. Likewise, Peugeot, Ford Escort and Mercedes failed to make a dent in the market. Here were products that were backed by immense credibility in overseas markets, and no one doubted their intrinsic worth, yet there were no takers for them. A plausible explanation advanced for this was that the models that were launched in Indian markets were old ones and it just doesnít work anymore to assume that the information-savvy customer would either not know or not mind being sold anything less than the best. Cielo, too, is a case in point. All the advertising in the world could not change the fact that customers doubted its fuel efficiency and felt that its spares were too expensive. Herein is an important lesson for marketers: word of mouth as a vehicle of publicity, especially negative publicity, cannot be overlooked. Advertising, even if it is excellent, is usually unable to counter the effects of word of mouth publicity.

The entertainment industry also offers interesting case studies. Recall Krishan Kumar? Backed by the financial might and the near-iconic position of his brother Gulshan Kumar and the strength of the T-Series label, Krishanís advent into Bollywood was hyped as the dawn of new superstardom. Promos on radio, television and of course T-Series cassettes extolled his acting and singing capabilities and predicted the beginning of a promising career. Except that the viewers didnít agree. And his movie (actually I canít remember if it was a movie or a music video, which just goes to prove that Krishan Kumarís presence on the screen left nary a dent on anyoneís mind) didnít exactly create waves, or even ripples, in Bollywood. That marked the untimely demise of a would-be-but-definitely-wasnít star. Nearer in time we have the example of Sanjay Leela Bhansaliís Devdas. The presence of a former beauty queen Aishwarya Rai, a flawless performer, the gorgeous Madhuri Dixit, a tried and tested Shah Rukh were reasons enough to believe it would be a hit. Bhansali went to town using every public platform imaginable from interviews to feature write-ups, to promos on television to promotional campaigns to scatter tid-bits of information about the larger-than-life sets of his movie, the cost of the costumes that his leading ladies wore, the songs and dances and even the various departures that he had made from previous versions of the classic, all in an attempt to raise curiosity levels about his movie. The viewers were promised an unmatched cinematic experience, a sweeping saga that would sweep them off their feet. But the viewers, the discriminating creatures that they are, didnít quite see eye-to-eye with Bhansali. The movie, most felt, didnít live up to its expectations. Quite simply, the over-the-top promotion that preceded Devdasí launch created the kind of promise that the movie could not deliver. A classic case of promotional overkill, if ever there was one.

Many make the mistake of assuming that a sale is a one-time transaction. Use freebies, add-ons, buy-one-get-two-free concepts, lotteries or whatever to make the first-time sale, never mind the cost to the company or the chances of a repeat buy. The newspaper industry is a case in point. The readers are given free gifts ranging from bags to pens to watches to ó hold your breath ó shampoos (!!), anything to convince them to sample or subscribe to the particular paper at least once. All this, of course, at huge cost to the organisation itself. How many of the readers thus ensnared form a habit (and remember newspapers depend on habit to sustain circulation), of reading that particular paper is, of course, another story. And herein lies the rub. Promotion can create an initial hype and ensure initial sales but it is up to other departments to ensure that the product is bought a second time. If the customer feels that a product is not worth the money he spends on it, he is not going to buy it a second time regardless of what advertisements tell him or how many freebies he gets. In addition, it is also bad strategy to promote a product at such a high cost to the company that the company is forced to pass on a part of this cost to the customer, thus depriving the product of a price advantage vis-a-vis competition. Ultimately, brand building, sales and bottomlines cannot rely on one-time sales, these have to stem from loyal customers. Fortunately many, especially in the service industry, have realised that building a long-term relationship with the customer, even at a short-term cost to the company, is more beneficial than a one-time interaction with him. The focus is not only on getting new customers but also on cementing ties with existing ones so that competition cannot prise them away.

It is now time to restore balance to the Four Ps ó product, place, price and promotion ó that formed marketing guru Philip Kotlerís marketing mix. For too long promotion had been conferred the status of the most preferred P to push sales and raise bottomlines. It was believed that anything could be sold if the advertising guys were hard at work to sell it. Create a hype around a product and consider it sold, was the maxim. The focus was on pushing sales rather than giving the customers what they needed. As a result most companies had huge ad spends while investment in HRD and R&D was virtually non-existent. For a marketing exercise to be successful, the emphasis has to shift to making products and brands that can survive a competitive market and astute customers. The product has to be brought centre stage. Understanding what the customer wants and actually listening to him so that his needs can be identified and fulfilled is what is needed. The customer has to be a part of the whole marketing exercise rather than an after-thought.

The new realities have to take into account a very well aware consumer. No longer is a customer dependent only on ads for information regarding a product. The democratisation of information has ensured that any query that a customer has can be answered at the click of a mouse, and, as such, the customer is no longer just a passive participant in the process of information exchange. He is now in a position to manipulate the relationship that exists between him and a brand. Often a consumer knows more about a product than does a salesperson. Obviously, trying to con a well-aware customer would be foolhardy, as also to assume that it is possible to bombard him with so many heady messages and dazzling images that he will be content to remain in a state of suspended disbelief till kingdom come.

It is not that advertising doesnít work, in fact, no product, no matter how brilliant, can sell if no one knows it exists and hence the indispensability of advertising. But even excellent advertising cannot sell a bad product. Actually, it cuts both ways. A good product can be a hit if it is backed by effective advertising, while nothing kills a bad product faster than too much hype. Ultimately, it is the intrinsic worth of a product that determines how well it will fare in the market. Advertising can only be a catalyst in the success of a product, never the sole reason. Promotion can neither save a bad product nor can it be the cause behind a marketing success.

Maybe this is a pointer to the future of advertising. Old rules have changed, ground realities are no longer what they once were. And this calls for a re-think on the role that promotion plays in building worthy brands. The days to come belong to those who can adapt to the changed rules of the marketplace. Promotion, as an important P of the marketing mix, has a bright future, provided that the products it seeks to promote live up to the promises it makes. Advertising is dead, long live advertising!