Aug 14, 2008

Mktg - Higher,Faster,Further

The Olympics! The very epitome of human physical achievement, as exemplified by that glorious clarion call citius, altius, fortius. These games have always pushed humankind to stretch the very limits of what is possible. Right from the perfect ten that a diminutive Nadia Comaneci pranced her way to at Montreal, to the seven gold medal blitz Mark Spitz gave the world to savour at Munich or the enduring legend of Jesse Owens so magically replicated by Carl Lewis to the mesmeric stick wizardry of our very own Dhyan Chand. On the face of these memories it might be very tempting to classify the Olympics as a true celebration of winners and champions but that only captures the truth partly.
The Olympics eventually at the core celebrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit and that is where these games are at their most potent and endearing. That is where this magnificent event has lessons to teach us even in the seemingly distant world of marketing and brand building. As always the questions that rich human experiences throw up might have some very interesting implications for brand thinking.
The winner takes all? Well, not quite.
While traditionally the laurel wreaths and the accolades have always been cornered by the winners, the Olympics do provide a climate where the underdog is adulated as well.
One only has to think of Eric ‘the eel’ Moussambani’s exploits at the 2000 games at Sydney. Coming from Equatorial Guinea, a country with absolutely no swimming infrastructure or heritage, Eric took a full minute and several seconds more than any benchmark time (or competitor) in the 100 meter freestyle, traditionally the sprint event of the pool, and yet people cheered him on even as he laboured to a finish. He was one of the stars of those games, only because people anywhere across the world really relate strongly to the underdog.
Yet the underdog status in the brand and marketing world is rarely embraced. In this mad rush to reach the top positions in the market (the medal positions), are we missing a trick by burning down the opportunity of building deeper emotional bridges? Volkswagen, perhaps, began in America in glorious ‘underdog’ fashion and we all know what happened. What if brands were more candid about where they stood and faced the market with open arms?

Nostalgia is a thing of the past?
There is always a buzz around the younger upstarts who are lurking close to great achievements before any games, but this time around there is a refreshing change
It comes in the shape of the 41-year-old super mom, Dara Torres. A multiple gold medallist from before, she has really given hope to many people across the world by challenging age-endowed physical constraints. Whether she triumphs actually in the pool or not, her very presence is a wonderful tribute to the resilience of the human spirit
Likewise are there ‘any blasts from the past’ that we cursorily overlook in this quest for the new and enhanced?
Previous brand champions have a certain undefined charm to them that might just get a lot of attention and emotion going their way. One only has to recollect how Coca-Cola was forced to get back the ‘real thing’ after experiments to move on. Even in advertising terms closer home, wasn’t Onida forced to restore the devil after a brief divorce?
Is it time to ‘re-’ introduce some brands that were phased out? Like Dara they just might prove that the new might be improved but that old is still gold.
A rival? Or a friend in need?
The Games at Berlin 1936 saw one of the great moments not just in sport, but perhaps in human history. In that arrogantly intimidating arena of Aryan supremacy, two fierce rivals Jesse Owens, a black American, and Lutz Long, a blond, blue-eyed, ‘true’ German forged a friendship during the long jump competition that not just gave the word hope but lent true meaning to the brand called the Olympics. Even though Owens won the gold eventually after a keenly fought contest, really everyone won that day, except perhaps the watching Hitler.
On that note, is there a call for increased co-operation between rival brands? Far out as it might sound, Novell had wonderfully formalised this idea coining a term ‘co-opetition’, that is to cooperate and compete at the same time. At a time when the economy is poised to take promising turns and opportunities are manifold, does corporate India needs to revisit this philosophy? Markets overseas might present interesting common challenges which might make coming together a truly effective way to play the overseas game amongst others.
In conclusion, the Olympics are upon us and the Beijing edition is guaranteed to be a high-voltage event. But even as the spectacle unfolds, do keep an eye out for the interesting ‘human’ stories that emerge. They just might give us inspiration to take the world of brands, higher, faster and further…
(The author is an independent strategic and ideation consultant. He is also the patron saint of Juhu Beach United, a footballing movement that celebrates, ‘the unfit, out of breath, working professional of today’.)

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