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Aren’t the new age brands being outdated in their brand thinking?
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Aren’t the new age brands being outdated in their brand thinking?

Recent times have seen many new brands achieve (varying degrees of) success– Flipkart, Myntra, Snapdeal, Zomato, Bookmyshow…and the not so new but still going strongMakemytrip, Red Bus, etc.

They have changed the way many of us buy stuff – travel, movies, books…. Till a few years ago, one couldn’t foresee people buy much online except for books and tickets. Today buying ‘offline’ seems increasingly impractical!

Herein lies an interesting irony. With this emerging revolution in digital buying we seems to have gone back to the good old industrial era of brand thinking! The days when ‘miracles of science’ overpowered a simple fact - That marketing is about meeting human needs.

Most of the players currently seem excited about the miracles of online technology and the generic benefits that come with it – convenience, choice and price.

Evolved marketers have always known that the needs we meet are primarily emotional (even though often couched in rationality). That’s when brands happen. Till then, an offering is at best a reliable product name with high awareness.

A status that is tenable, till competition happens. Which is where the online space is particularly merciless – withit’s low entry barriers. And a consumer who needs little effort or cost to compare options between multiple providers of the same service/product.

If modern trade with wider shelf space provided a level playing field to smaller brands in FMCG, the online market is downright anarchy (to use a recently popular word) when it comes to options and comparisons!

So are these players doomed to at best hanging on to the slender advantage of being first movers in their space? Lurching from one innovation or promo to the other while hoping their base of consumers stays loyal?

To understand this better, let’slook at comparable ‘offline’ categories that face a similar challenge. Categories that we can call – intermediaries or platforms. What typifies these categories is that the ‘real’ stuff the consumer buys is not their own, they are merely delivery formats. So think of TV and radio channels delivering music, movies, sports, retail stores selling you a range of consumer brands, travel agencies and airlines selling holiday destinations or even DVD brands carrying your favourite movie.

Most of the online brands we are talking about are in a similar space.

It would appear that brands in such categories are confined to playing faceless second fiddle to the real thing they are selling. So long as the channel shows the latest India cricket match, you don’t care whether it is Star or Sony, as long as you get your brand of TV at the best price possible, it doesn’t matter whether it is Croma or Vijay Sales or…

Difficult as it certainly is to create brands in such categories, it is by no means impossible. It perhaps has slightly different implications, but by and large great brands in these categories are far beyond mere platforms delivering stuff. Be it MTV in music videos,Tesco in retail (up to a point even Shoppers Stop in India) or Virgin in airlines.

Most of these brands understand the larger need they meet. Even as they deliver what they seem to be selling more obviously. It allows them to design their brand ‘experience’ as well as innovations with signature value, not merely tactical ones.

What does it take? A larger, step-back-view of the audience they are catering to. And an understanding of the larger emotions and meanings attached to the consumption experience. Much of what makes MTV cool is because they don’t think they are merely a music channel. It is their identity as a youth brand that drives their brand experience. Be it their VJs, presentation styles, properties such as MTV Roadies, offline offerings such as bags and yes their advertising. Ditto airlines such as Virgin or Singapore who see themselves in the hospitality business rather than mere transportation.

If we look at the categories the online brands are dealing with – travel, dining out, entertainment, fashion, shopping … you wouldn’t think the emotional cupboard needs to be as bare and uni-dimensional as it currently seems. Even as they work to make their transactions smooth and hassle free, they must avoid remaining transactional.

It would seem, the more times change, the greater the need to adhere to principles that are timeless. Or else we might be guilty of repeating mistakes of the past.