Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Research: Educating Consumers or Confusing 'Em!

There was a time when I have had bath with Rin, yes the one that is used to wash clothes. Reason, that was the only one available at the station during our trip to Chennai from Guwahati. It was an almost four day's journey and in those days Indian Railways had an absolutely fantastic record of running late by 13, 14 hours.

Things are not that bad normally. Over a period of time, just like the amount of products that vie for my mouth-share, the number of products that have become part of my bath-share is incredible. There was a time when a soap was enough for the entire routine. Today, the shower gel goes to body; face wash to, of course, face; shampoo to clean the scalp and conditioner to nourish it. Is this sign of prosperity or what!

The role of research reports to 'educate' consumers and 'modify' consumer's behavior to change or enhance consumption pattern is unbelievable. And you thought lobbying happens only with the Government.

Shampoo brands through systematic 'education' urged us to not use good old soap for the scalp. Reason being that the scalp is different from body skin and thus requires specialist product. Once shampoo established, conditioners came in. Of course, then you have afterwash conditioners! Again, since skin on the face is/was different, to 'complement' soap, face wash rubbed in. I still remember when I was young, we were asked to shampoo once a week sighting that the daily application of shampoo would lead to hair fall. But over a period of time, research reports suggested that daily shampoo was better for scalp care.

Staying on the same set of products, while driving back home, Savitha said that a report suggested use of block-soap should be avoided. I was quite puzzled. On quizzing her, she said that the reports indicated that a block of soap attracts germs, hence not good for the skin. Did I read something in between the lines? Of course, I did. To me it looked like a report from liquid soap manufacturers wanting to shake up the block-soap market.

For so many years, people all over the world have been using block of soap. Today, it has become a bad practice!

I came across another such interesting case. A news article whose headline barked - Eat Eggs & Reduce Weight! Wow!

Eggs were a strict no-no for me, considering I am not only big built but also diabetic, I felt very happy. But as I went through the article, I decided to stay away from egg diet. The report 'proved' that a two egg breakfast helps reduce weight considerably. Because of its properties, eggs reduce hunger pangs. Thus, ensuring that a person eats less through the day! Yikes! I would eat as much after four egg breakfast as I normally do and add to the lipid treasure chest (or should I say waist) that I have built, already.

There was this joke in Reader's Digest that I came across. The writer deletes a line from her article stating that pregnant women should stop eating Chinese food. When Editor asks why, the writer replies that she thought over as to what pregnant Chinese women would eat!

Not to say that research reports are all farce, but the amount that is churned out to induce behavioral change can often confuse the consumers.

On something similar but very different, do watch The Story of Stuff.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why Does Twitter or Blog Work? Curious Case of Customer Service

I love my Maruti Swift. I loved my Maruti Alto, earlier. I have been thinking of buying a bigger car, for sometime now. Chevrolet (please don't read it as Chevvy, GM doesn't like it) Aveo, Tata Manza and Fiat Linea to my liking, I have been treading cautiously over the thought. The financial condition is not in the pink of health to accelarate.

But then I know that car buying is a one-year process, so why not test drive! Over the last five months, I have called up couple of dealers in Chennai for a test drive. Surprisingly, I would get a call from these dealers for a time and date, but that's about it. At least on two weekends after complete assurance, I was left 'on-the-road'. I tweeted about it, last week, saying Fiat and Tata are probably overbooked and that is why they are not keen on offering me a test drive.

Tata Manza which has a presence in Twitter, immediately messaged asking me for my contact details. No later, I received a call from the same dealer whom I had contacted requesting for a time to arrange a test drive. But my happiness lasted for a short period. As it would have it, the test drive didn't happen as scheduled, yet again!

In the process I have realized that Twitter makes you heard. Though actual act is still subject to many other things.

I have also used Twitter to track and post developments for my employers. Blogs and customer complaint forums to 'listen' and act.

Is it that social media is working and traditional mediums aren't?

By the way, how does a customer reach out to companies?

  • Traditional modes: Company office, Service centres, Fax (you won't believe, but I have realized with experience that this is the best way to reach to a company and get noticed), Telephone (not call centres)  
  • New-age: Call centre (Toll Free Numbers), Email (standalone or through website)
  • Latest-age: Twitter, Blogs, Customer Company Forums, Social Networking Sites 
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without OrganizationsIf you carefully analyze the modes, you will notice that companies as much as possible have outsourced customer interaction management. Call centres especially have become the spine in the customer interaction horizontal. And blame it on outsourcing it doesn't come under direct purview of organizations. But seriously, isn't customer service core to a company. Shouldn't it be held by company. Well, that makes a topic for seprate discussion. On the other hand, traditional or latest mediums are is 'owned' by the company.

Why latest-age modes of feedback are more turning out to be more effective is not hard to figure out.  
  1. Unlike call centre and email support, company's have so far not outsourced Twitter, Blog, Forum and Social Media support. But as I had pointed out in a previous blog of mine, this may not hold true if process specialists analyze and figure out how to standardize the responses. The entire BPO industry may find a new opportunity in adding these touch points under their menu card.
  2.  It's public. Unlike the traditional mode, which is an interaction between just the consumer and the company, social media allows anyone with access to publish and post experiences. As my friend Karthik would say, this information can be accessed, retrieved and used by prospective consumers to make future purchase decisions.
  3. And since it is handled by the company directly, it is likely to have employees who are far more capable and clued in that an outsourced customer interaction officer.
As I have also seen from close quarters, the social media is owned and monitored by the top management. Such close scrutiny may not be possible in other modes. Think if a CEO has to listen to all the nasty calls at the call centre. Or go through mails.

But, in my opinion, with so many people contributing so much on the net. It is bound to become unreliable. Search for any product or service that you may be considering on the net, I can safely assure you that you will find equal numbers of results, both supporting and decimating your consideration. Mouthshut and Complaints India, as it would be put by practitioners of Pranic Healing, emanate so much 'negative energy', it is not funny. One starts to wonder if there is not one product or service worth its price!

So do people actually use Internet to make purchase decisions?

Of course, the odd 80 mn odd Indians out of the 1 bn plus population might do it. But is it for making the purchase decision or gathering information. I take the risk in presuming that Internet usually is used to gather information. So, what's the difference? As I have noticed my own experiences, after gathering information it is always the word(-of-mouth) of my friend or an acquittance which is the final nail in the coffin, if I may say so.

Isn't it funny that Geoffery A Moore (oh no, not again) in Crossing the Chasm talks so much about referencing as the key to success! So where does the company begin. Looks like it's basics. Keep your existing customers happy first and continue to woo others. Now, isn't that what has been preached since time immemorial.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Crush on Traditional Media in the Age of Social Media

The other day, I took part in a discussion on Social Media for a program in NDTV Hindu. Had some nice discussion. A day or two later, a mail was sent by the coordinator giving information on when the program is likely to be aired. I checked if it's uploaded onto YouTube. Suddenly there was a spurt in request from other participants to know the same. When I checked as to why everyone was so keen, a participant responded "for obvious reasons".

Hmmm. For obvious reasons.

Now I believe that the obvious reason was for the participants to show their 'circle' that they appeared on TV. TV, did I say? Most of the participants were bloggers themselves. Most should be on Twitter. Meaning they were publishers, themselves. Then why this craze to show cameos in 'traditional' media.

Yes, I think there is still a charm in the traditional media. Since, the traditional media has entry to barrier for appearance, it becomes that much more desirable for the masses to appear on. Hence, the third-party endorsement, often heard in PR, is most sought after.

Also, there is this campaign for iNQ Mobiles, 'social mobile' phones. I chanced upon its radio ad campaign. The campaign urges the listeners to go to Facebook page and get clues for a 'treasure hunt'. Thought that was funny! No not iNQ Mobiles but Social Media needing the traditional media.

Long long ago while I was making a presentation at Twenty Twenty Media on Internet, I gathered that Internet was the only medium that allowed the entire gamut of Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action. True. But if it is true, why couldn't iNQ do a campaign over the Internet to draw crowd to its page?

Is it too early for the Internet medium to stand on its own? Will traditional media still be in reckoning in distant future?

Though on a different topic, this article in The Economic Times, today, has some nice points on why traditional media has an upper edge over the Internet medium.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Game Theory: Harrington Road to Pattulos Road

It is only about 5 kilometers from my residence to office. But the number of ways (routes and not modes) exceeds that number. A small reflection on the routes that I could take reminded me of a chapter from Thinking Strategically by Avinash K Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff. 

Now in addition to Geoffrey A Moore's collection of Crossing the Chasm, The Gorilla Game and Inside the Tornado, if there is one book that I really relished is Thinking Strategically. So here, I have tried to recreate, taking a cue from the book, my options. 

Route 1: Harrington Rd-Spurtank Rd-Casa Major Rd-Pantheon Rd-Rukmini Lakshmipathi Rd-Binni Rd-Mount Rd-Pattulos Rd.

Route 2: Harrington Rd-McNicholas Rd-Under Chetpet Bridge-Valluvar Kottam Rd-College Rd-small bridge on left-Ethiraj Salai-Binni Rd and then like Route 1

Route 3: Till College Rd like Route 2-Greams Rd-Mount Rd-Right on Sathyam Theatre signal-Whites Rd-Smith Rd (that is parallel to Pattulos Rd and takes me to office)

Route 4: Till College Rd like Route 2-Sterling Rd-Nungambakkam High Rd-Gemini-Mount Rd-Sathyam Theater signal-then like Route 3

Now there are two mini diversions which I can make in Route 1 and Route 3 that can create variations. Now I can also, if I want to, create further more variations. Complexity can be added to the options by introducing the modes. Like I could think about going by a bicycle or an auto or a combination of walking and share auto. Thankfully, I have decided to ply by my car, only.

Game Theory is about creating different options and the figuring out which one is the most suitable to you. Please note, 'most suitable'. For example, for me the most suitable of the above routes to office is not the one which is the shortest and not even fastest. For me, the drive to office should be quick and hassle-free. Now here is what I consider before taking a particular route:

  1. Which route has the least signal? Even if a particular route is short does not mean that it is fastest. It would be better to drive a longer route with no signals than one in which I would get stuck on signals for a long periods.
  2. What day is it? If I work on a Saturday, I rather take the shortest route, because on the weekend, it also turns out to be the fastest.
  3. Traffic load: While Route 3 might have the least amount of signals, the pile up at the point where it joins Mount Road creates a huge bottleneck.
Now there was this discussion other day during a session organized by Social Media Club, Chennai, about what is a strategy and what is a tactic. In between there was a confusion over strategy and objective.

So in my route-dilemma, what is the objective, what is the strategy and what is the tactic?

In my opinion, reaching office in the quickest (not shortest and fastest) and hassle free way is my objective. And the routes, I have enlisted above, are the strategies/options that I have. And tactic is my choice to change routes based on certain situation that may arise. My choice to take Route 2 instead of usual Route 1 on Saturdays is one such tactic. And as Naru had once explained, tactic should not be considered insignificant.  Even a tactical move can be strategic!

For those who intend to understand more about strategy, tactics and game theory, please order a copy of the book. While I try to figure out why, despite taking the best route possible, I get late!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Latest TV Technologies: Plasma Vs. LED Vs. LCD

Ok, here is a quick guide to buying these latest technology TVs. This is based on limited interaction with different TV sales guys and watching the performance of TVs from a close angle.

1. Clarity: Plasma is the most natural. LCD sucks. LED is very bright.While the material in plasma only absorbs and reflects rays, LED, I believe, not only absorbs the rays and reflects, but also has its own reflection. This is why LED is very bright. This was explained to me by an engineer.

2. Viewing experience: Plasma is good from both long and short distances viewing. LED makes better for longer distances. A close comparison on plasma and LCD revealed that the latter has grains.

3. Life: This I cannot say with authority but was told that plasma have a longer life. LEDs have a relatively shorter life as the emission is more.

4. Energy consumption: LEDs are supposed to consume far less energy than plasma. But a newer plasma technology from Panasonic is supposed to do better.

Time for my own opinion. First of all, let me be honest in admitting that I ordered a Panasonic Plasma TV and I am still to see how it pans out over a longer period of time. I was told that plasma is outdated technology and LED is the latest. But when I spent time looking at the performance of plasma and LCD, I felt plasma wasn't that bad. Though it may not match the brightness of LED. Also, plasma seems to be a lot cheaper than LED. So, if you are fine with a very good quality image for a decent price plasma may be better for you. But if you want to show off the TV performance, for LED. I was certainly not impressed with LCD.

For more technology reading: Plasma, LED, LCD

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Housewife, The Endangered Species

I probably belong to that generation where the parents and the kids, both, were in a great dilemma as to whether moms should go to work and bring in the extra moolah or sit at home and take care of the kids and family.

It was a period (70s and 80s) when the general income levels in the country were rather low. The economy was closed. The middle class leaned towards the bottom. Today, it might be slightly moving to the upper end. Liberalization, not only of economic policies but also the women-kind, has accelerated the rapid urbanization thus catalyzing the formation of 'un-supported' nuclear families.

The family now consists of parents, kids and 'integral and indispensible' maid. 

But if there is one 'breed', if I can say so, that is fast vanishing, at least in the upper middle class urbanized society, is the housewives. This, to my opinion is also true, to a large extent, for many other socio-economic classes on both sides of the 'equator'.

While, to start with, economics was the reason from many women to have ventured out of the borders of their house; today, it is all about women wanting to be independent. Making a career is about self esteem. Women, today, are equally and, in many cases, much more educated and aggressive. Emancipation of women has completely altered the social and family fabric. While it is creating tensions in the family bond, it does present great opportunities for businesses. Fast foods, packaged foods and restaurants are variant of one kind. What interests me is the opportunity to professionalize and organize the maid services. Difficult but great opportunity.

Today, it many not be considered an 'in-thing' for women to say that they are housewives. At least, in the circles or categories, which are reading this blog post or can have access to it. Some women upon pregnancy do chose to become housewives. But I feel that, in future, it may not be so. 

But why can't being a housewife be as cool as career woman.  Reasons are many. Most important being that if something is not monetized, it is not valued. Housewives are at best considered a free maid for lifetime who doubles up as a partner, for sex and other reasons, an ayah who takes care of kids and many times also a finance minister. Identification of housewives as a homogeneous group women who sheds tears watching soap opera has been quite detrimental. Another important reason is that housewives bind themselves and never invest in acquiring new skills or for that matter pursue their passion.

I do ponder if with passage of time, housewife species will become extinct. Should I feel bad about it? Can something be done about it? Or is it a species that has lost its relevance? Is it doomed to become extinct like many species that didn't survive the different ages? Will the new environment necessitate development of the new species - the Househusband?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

All In My Mouth

When I was a small boy, I would be excited to go to the shop and buy the toothpaste. But those were the days when toothpaste came, as Henry Ford would have put it, any colour - so long as it's white. But then things have changed. So has what I consume for my oral hygiene.

Tooth paste: As I said, paste for many years to me was the white uninteresting Colgate. So when the color TVs arrived and Close Up ads played, I finally felt there was some hope. At the age of 10, I took a firm control over the decision to buy the toothpaste. Maybe I love red color or probably the mouthwash included in the paste was the reason. One of the most difficult moments in life is having to deal or converse with someone who has a bad breath. And I have dealt with many. The fear that I should not have a bad breath was probably the biggest driver. Also being a gynephilic, one has to send the right breath out. Those days, in addition to Colgate, brands such as Binaca (later, Cibaca) and Promise were the other options. Till about 2 or 3 yearsback, I was always a Close Up loyalist.

Lekin Master Ji, app ke daanth! Remember this line from Dabur Red tooth powder ad. Well, Dabur products were never in the contention. But a sudden chance and eagerness to try Dabur Red has changed the course of my oral care journey. In fact, Dentist's suggest that one should change the toothpaste, often. I believe the germs in the mouth also get used to a particular paste as much as the mosquitoes to DDT. And believe me I made a right choice in Dabur's product. Dabur Red comes into your mouth like an electric shock. It is bloody spicy and leaves a burning sensation long (maybe because of laung/clove) after you have brushed. I must say no other toothpaste has refreshed me as much as Dabur Red has. Encouraged by Dabur Red, I decided to try other products from the company's stable. And, again, trust me, you will love Meswak for its taste and feel. Dabur Herbal is also good but comes third in my ranking. Encourage by the overall experience, I recently bought Babool. Seems to be ok. But I think I will go back to Red and Meswak.
Tooth brush: As important as a paste but probably the most least involvement category is the brush. I, too, was very indifferent and brand un-conscious. It had to be less than Rs. 20 and SOFT. A while back, Savitha went to a dentist for routine check. The doctor advised her to use Colgate Massager. Huh, Massager! So, as a good wife, she decided to pick on for me. And that was when I realized that the value you derive from a product is directly proportional to the price of the product. Use it to, to feel it.

Mouth wash: Have you seen the ad of Listrine featuring Cyrus Sahukar? The first time I used Listrine, my mouth exploded pretty much the way it has been depicted in the ad. Except, cheeks stayed intact. The alcohol inside your mouth does have a telling effect on your eyes. And after you have gotten used to Listrine, any other mouthwash is a compromise. I did use Plax, didn't work out for me.

Floss: Now, I am quite certain that for an average Indian, I am more adventurous as far as trying out new products for the mouth is concerned. But it is not that I am, basically or generally, like that. I have this problem of food pieces getting stuck between my teeth. So, on one such occasion, I decided to buy a Oral B Floss. I found it too cumbersome to use and the fine plastic did hurt my gums. On a trip to Health & Glow, I saw a pack of floss. It was a toothpick at one end and a U at the other end with flossing ribbon. Worked well for me. I don't want to share gory details, but I can tell you that if nose could smell in between the teeth, one can die. That is exaggeration for elucidation! While big brands also have this type of floss, they don't seem to be in the shelves.

Not only expensive products but also these inexpensive and colorful plastic tongue cleaners have become part of the daily routine. My mouth has become very sophisticated and demanding customer. It makes me wonder as to what percentage of the grocery bill goes just inside my mouth. And how many brands and products fight for a piece of my mouth.

All this for what? Well, health. And, of course, to have a non-smelly conversation.

But from Marketing perspective it is quite interesting to observe consumer behavior. In my opinion, most of the products that we use for oral health are low involvement category products with high customer loyalty, especially for tooth pastes. On the other hand, brushes, except for mature customers, doesn't attract much of loyalty/stickiness. On the other hand, penetration of mouth wash and floss should be very low. It took me more than 30 years, to take the giant leap and that too without any obvious reasons. Walk into a super market, the oral products do corner a huge space!

The fight for my mouth-share!