Brands Relaunching After a Long Hiatus.

There are many brands that we grow up with and are an intrinsic part of our lives. Some fade away into oblivion, but most stay around and strengthen their relationships with consumers. And even when we outgrow them, there is always another set of consumers to take our place.

There’s a curious thing I observed a few years ago, when buying toothpaste in Goa. The brand my parents and I use is Colgate, of course, and there are just so many different variants of it, it’s hard to keep track of every new one. But one time, I noticed that the pack of Colgate also said Cibaca. I thought to myself, really? Wow! And just like that a flood of memories washed over me. Of my younger sister and I brushing our teeth as little girls with Binaca first, which became Cibaca. And of us collecting the little charms that used to come free with every pack – miniature plastic animal figures in different colours – and then exchanging or trading them with others, if either of us had more than one of each animal. Then, I remembered Binaca and Cibaca Geet Mala, the programme of Hindi film music on Radio Ceylon that used to be compered by Ameen Sayani, a doyen of Indian radio in those days. Not that we ever listened to Hindi music all that much but between my dad tuning the radio to catch the news on Radio Ceylon, or BBC, or cricket commentary, I remember this programme quite well.

The other very clear association with Cibaca was fluoride. Sure enough, when I tried the toothpaste, it had the unmistakable taste of Cibaca fluoride! The thought that went through my mind was has Colgate acquired the Cibaca brand or merged with a part of Ciba Geigy? I just couldn’t understand why Colgate would keep the Cibaca acquisition so low-key and not advertise it prominently to say this is the same old Cibaca toothpaste now from Colgate. I am certain it would have boosted Colgate’s brand image – not that it needs boosting – and strengthened brand loyalty among the older consumers. And even among younger consumers, if fluoride toothpaste benefits are to be sold to them, then Colgate-Cibaca is best equipped for it.

This might be a rare and somewhat extreme example of a brand gone AWOL trying to stage a comeback. But the larger point I would like to make through this piece is what challenges brands that disappear and then reappear face and how they can work around those.

Brands that expect consumers to wait while they’re AWOL, have plenty to catch-up on

Most brands that fade or recede into the background do so because something very fundamental has changed. Either in the company’s fortunes, or in the industry, or in the consumer’s tastes and preferences. Whatever be the case, their return to the public sphere is dependent on a variety of factors, as we shall see. How many such brands or companies can you think of, that were part of your life in some way and have faded away? Or even if you weren’t a consumer of the brand or company, you still remember their presence in media, in stores, their messages even, maybe?

The few big brands and companies that have vacated this space and that come to mind for me are Kodak, Philips, Xerox, Nokia, and Sony. As far as Indian brands are concerned, I think of car brands that we grew up with in India. Fiat (the old two-door one, as well as Premier Padmini, Ambassador from Hindustan Motors and Standard Herald. Then, I also recall BPL electronics, HMT watches and yes, even Titan watches. You might wonder at the mention of the last, but I shall address it later.

In most of the cases such as Kodak, Philips and the others, the biggest changes were at the industry level, and of the technological kind. For example, even though Kodak invented the digital camera, it didn’t capitalize on it, perhaps thinking that the market was not quite ready for it. And by the time it realized the importance of its own invention, it was too late. Philips perhaps realized that there was increasing commoditisation in consumer appliances and electronics, and therefore decided to concentrate on lighting, specialized medical equipment, and a few high-end gadgets. Xerox, a brand still synonymous with photocopying at least in India must have found that with the advent of email and the internet, the need for photocopiers in offices has reduced drastically. Besides, the company would have obviously liked to innovate for the next phase of whatever it is that executives and offices would need to still manage and share their documents. Modi-Xerox was one of the first businesses I worked on after joining Ogilvy Delhi in the late ‘80s and so I have actually seen this brand fade right before my eyes within a decade. From what little I have read, Xerox has now computerized and digitized its document management system and also offers storage on the cloud. Through its many acquisitions in the past decade, it has become a business process management company, offering data and information management services and is far more automated now.

Nokia, the brand of ubiquitous mobile phones, was hugely disrupted by the arrival of the smartphone with the launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007. It was simply not prepared for the change in technology and failed to catch up in time as well. Although the company exited the mobile handset business to concentrate solely on mobile networks business, the brand did try to relaunch first with the release of an older model of feature phone and then with smartphones. I think trying to relaunch with one of their older feature phones was a huge mistake, as it suggests to customers that you have still not bothered to innovate and catch up. The smartphones made little impact thereafter, and I don’t think the company thought through the relaunch strategy at all.

Sony is a company that in my view just never realised what a huge difference their ‘80s acquisition of Columbia could make to the company’s future. Right till even 2010, I don’t think Sony made any effort to capitalize on their content assets, when there was enough indication that the world was heading in that direction. As a Japanese company, they tend to be preoccupied with the details of manufacturing innovations, and incremental changes in technology. However, the biggest changes on the horizon, which was the internet, digitization, services and content seemed to have escaped their attention.

They continued to make television sets and home theatres, music systems, even as the world was moving to mobiles for all media and entertainment needs or their computers. Nor was Sony so highly considered in the home theatre and music system arena, as some of their Nordic competitors who specialized and stayed niche players. 

I have always been of the view that Sony as a company, with its technological and content strengths, was destined for greater things. And I believed that Sony should have repositioned itself as a media and entertainment giant at the turn of the millennium, if not in the 1990s itself.

What does it take for companies who have missed an opportunity to catch up on an innovation, or industry or consumer trend, to stage a comeback?

First, I think it is necessary to catch up in time, or cut your losses in time and make amends. For example, Kodak should have gone digital with their cameras much earlier or else sought to become a different kind of image services company, with all the changes that were taking place in technology. Think of Adobe, and how it has managed to become a completely subscription-based creative services company driven by the internet and cloud. Of course, it helps that Adobe was always a software company and not into hardware. That said, Kodak waited till it had to apply for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has now emerged a company that focuses on industrial level imaging and printing solutions.

Staying out of media and consumers’ minds can have deleterious effects on brands; tap image to view gif

Second, I think it is important to stay in the news and stay visible in media, updating consumers and stakeholders on what new directions you are exploring and why. This, I think Philips and Xerox have done reasonably well, even though both have had to navigate tough industry conditions and economic downturns in between.

Next, if you are trying to stage a return after a hiatus or a setback of some sort, it is critical that the brand and company acknowledge the technology change and consumer’s preferences and innovate accordingly. Simply providing more of the same, when the market has changed dramatically won’t help, as Nokia discovered with its handset relaunch.

And finally, if a brand is making its presence in the public sphere after a long break, it has to relaunch with the right brand strategy. Here, I would like to discuss what Titan watches is doing recently in India. After its initial launch in the late 1980s in India, Titan receded into the background in communication terms within a decade. The late 1990s and the 2000s were when international watch brands became easily and legally available in India. This was precisely the competition that Titan launched against, but in the grey market. Now that those very international brands were legally and easily available in India, Titan ought to have had a well-thought brand strategy to take them on. Instead, the company thought that since they were market leaders by then, geographical expansion into smaller towns and also expanding their dealer network ought to be the focus. I also think that Titan the company is very much more focused on Tanishq jewellery than on Titan watches, since the former brings in greater revenue and profits.

Not innovating in the right directions and not communicating can have disastrous consequences. Thus far, Titan has plenty of residual brand equity and goodwill which have stood it in good stead. The question is will that suffice to counter customers’ preference for international watch brands, and also build the Titan watch brand for the future?

Focusing on the right product innovations and communicating through the most appropriate brand strategy are prerequisites for staging a return. Returning to the subject of Sony, I attempted to put down my thoughts for what kind of brand strategy they should adopt in future and created a brand relaunch campaign as well, many years ago but lost them to termites, at my parents’ place in Goa. Now, I have tried to recreate the strategy and the brand communication ideas from memory.

Sony has many competitors in the field, but I think their biggest competitor is Apple. The strategy I have worked on involves integrating their technology and products with their media and entertainment content, and to that extent, I also recommend that they launch a new one-stop streaming service for all their content, including gaming. You can read all about the brand strategy for Sony as well as the brand campaign ideas I have worked on, by clicking the link below.

It was somewhat of a pleasant surprise to visit the Sony website recently and see that they are making some attempts to integrate their product offerings. However, they have a long way to go and a lot to do, before the brand comes together the way it should and communicates its benefits in a way that it is seen as a global media and entertainment giant.

Finally, I’d like to end by saying that companies and brands must always continuously engage in communicating with their audiences, especially consumers. And if they are taking a hiatus, or rethinking strategy, that too must be made clear to their customers and stakeholders. And, of course, if a company has made an acquisition, then it must capitalize and build on it. Colgate’s acquisition of Cibaca could have given consumers plenty to smile about, but it left me merely surprised and perhaps a little puzzled.         

Post script: I might add here that Sony was a client of RK Swamy BBDO Chennai, where I worked for a few months when I relocated there from Delhi in 2003-04 (my second stint with the agency). There was no one in the agency that I could engage in such discussions with, on what Sony’s brand strategy really ought to be, else Sony might have been on this path sooner.

I might also add that given how much Perfect Relations’ unprofessional bosses have been meddling in my work and life since I quit them in 2007, I think they have been meddling with Sony from just guessing and second-guessing my thoughts and ideas. Suffice it to say, I have been working on my own.

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