Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Who Cares Whom You Sell To?


Your customers, prospects, and everyone else who studies your brand. That’s who.


When you are running a business, particularly an upstart brand, you are eager/keen/desperate to find customers. Most entrepreneurs feel that the colour of money is the same across all customers. From a cash flow, and quality of business perspective, that is true. But not if you view it through a brand lens. Who is seen using your product impacts its long term desirability.


Burberry, the much respected British luxury clothing brand, ran into trouble because it got associated first with British sports hooligans who targeted their shops for looting and then with the mob or chav culture in general. It got banned in certain pubs in UK because of this association. Eventually Burberry withdrew the baseball cap most favoured by these customers. Burberry has survived this “bad customer” onslaught and seems to be now rising again, but its desirability in its home market may still be suspect. ( http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/trends/chequered-times-for-burberry/2054638.article)


Ralph Lauren shirts and Arrow have become no-brainer executive uniforms. Their high price functions as an entry barrier. Junior executives and BYMBAs invest in these shirts as it is “safer” for interviews and at important points in the corporate ladder. On the other hand, Charagh Din - a well-known Indian shirt brand - has become associated with colourful party-wear shirts. They undoubtedly sell all kinds of shirts, but they are now defined by usage occasion and the average exec might consider them great for a date but risky for an interview. (http://marketingpractice.blogspot.com/2006/09/charagh-din-cd-rocks.html)


Your customers matter, particularly if you are relying on word of mouth and references, because they control diffusion. If you see someone you admire using something, chances are you want one too. The converse is true, too. You associate certain products, locations, outlets with a certain “type” of person and avoid them. Most people have an instinctive understanding of what consitutes a PLU (people-like-us) vs a PLT (people-like-them).


You might argue that diffusion is more relevant for a consumer brand, like say an Apple iPOD that relied on people aspiring to have that little white earpiece. But then enterprise sales relies heavily on references, right? If you were the seller of an HR product and were able to claim TCS, Wipro, IBM or Infosys - which have 100,000 employees - as your reference customer, chances are that the potential customer with 10,000 or 1000 employees would have no doubts about its robustness. Or if Pantaloons were the first customer for a retail product, it would be an easier sale to other retail chains.


In an ideal world - that is if you had sufficient funding to be patient - you would launch your product by deliberately targeting the ideal audience. If that isn’t possible, you should in public - ie your website, social media, speeches etc target the ideal audience, but below the radar sell to other customers. That is, your marketing would target a certain type of customer, though your salesforce might be less discerning. There is always the chance of scaring away some of those who don’t fit in with your ideal profile, but that is a risk you will have to take.


I do want to clarify that this is not the same as customer segmentation. This post is only about deciding whom you want to sell to based on what you think will enhance your brand image. It is a superset of customer segmentation.


Photo: Courtesy Ivan Walsh via Flick'r Creative Commons

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Exec Branding - It's different for Women ( I think)

This Women’s Day was all the more memorable in India because the Women’s Reservation Bill which tried to hold 33% of seats in parliament for women didn’t go through. A lot of people hate reservation. Gender-neutrality would of course be the ideal thing, but unfortunately that is harder to enforce than affirmative action.


In my corporate life I took a keen interest in Diversity issues, and gender-neutral hiring is always something that comes up. Unlike, say, the US, in India it is perfectly ok and legal to ask if a candidate is married, has kids, lives in a joint family etc While the questions can be addressed to both genders, the answers tend to be viewed differently. It is assumed that if the family has small children the mother will be the primary caregiver and therefore less flexible in her work timings. If the husband has a transferrable job, it is assumed that the wife will quit to follow him. And so on. Until Corporate India is mandated to observe gender-neutral hiring practices, this subtle positioning of women will continue.


But even after the hiring stage, in my opinion - and don’t eat me - women tend to make life more difficult for themselves than it need be. They project an image that is not designed to minimize gender bias. Or worse, they don't work on their image and allow it to be defined by others. So here are some steps that working women can take to control their brand and project a better image.


  1. Do not drag your family to work. No family photos, no screensavers, no drawings. Yes, yes, I know men have all of these, but who said life is fair. The same boss who praises the picture of your cute toddler will make a mental note that you are unlikely to be able to travel on work.
  2. Do not volunteer information about your personal life or plans. Women tend to think they should let their employers know as early as possible about things like pregnancy or marriage. Nope. Maternity leave is a right in India and you don’t have to pipe up about your progress at the interview stage or when being considered for promotion. Give sufficient notice, but not undue visibility.
  3. No discussion on “feminine” problems. If you’re ill, just say you’re ill - do not elaborate. It will just position you as a weakling and make your supervisor - of either gender - uncomfortable.
  4. Do not make your family’s problems or commitments a reason for taking time off. As long as you are entitled to the vacation time cite “personal reasons”. Saying that you have to take care of a sick child or go to a PTA meeting just reinforces the stereotype that women aren’t committed to their jobs.
  5. Make the effort to network. Become a member of a professional body or a company club. Attend the occasional meeting and make your presence visible. Women tend to be invisible at these forums, even when they attend.
  6. Build your presence online. Even if you have logistical constraints that limit your ability to network physically after office hours, you should be able to find the time to manage your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter presence. An hour a day is all it takes for a bright professional woman to keep this going.
  7. If there is a successful woman in the company, see if she is willing to mentor you. Be careful in your approach - not all women take easily to the “sisterhood’ concept. But a little flattery is never misplaced :)
  8. Take care of your appearance and grooming. Yes, it does seem to matter more for women than for men. Create a “look” for yourself. It doesn’t have to be expensive - even jeans+kurtas+chappals can be a great trademark look if done stylishly.


And I am sorry if this post seems unpalatable to some. But I think if more of us followed these guidelines, our daughters might have a more level playing field. Of course there is lots of stuff that both genders must do for their brands beyond this - but that's the subject of another post!