TiE-DC covers Eggfirst’s CEO, Ravikant Banka

May, 2007

TiE-DC, Washington’s largest organization of entrepreneurs, featured Eggfirst’s CEO, Ravikant Banka, in their May issue of E-zine (online magazine).

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Eggfirst participated in TiEcon 2007

May, 2007

TiEcon 2007 was two action-packed days of learning, networking, and partnering. It explored today’s business environment and discussed the issues facing the industry at large and entrepreneurs in particular.

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The positioning of ‘brand Sahadev’…and other marketing lessons from the Mahabharata.

It was the epic Mahabharata that kept an entire nation glued to the idiot box on Sunday mornings. To people at large, it’s a mega story of good vs. evil, but when I looked closer, wearing my marketing sun-glasses, the Mahabharata seemed like an ocean of marketing and branding gems. Let me share my exploration of the Mahabharata.

In today’s yug and Mahabharata, it’s brands that fight each other for micro units of market share.

The kirana store is the new Kurukshetra. Arjun’s single-minded focus the clear branding mantra. The brands that keep learning and evolving are the brands that will triumph in this Mahabharata and emerge as Maha brands.

The character Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, was originally born as a girl child named Shikhandini to Drupada, the king of Panchala. Shikhandi, who is popularly perceived to be a eunuch due to his sexual duality, fought in the Kurushetra battle from the Pandavas’ side. He was instrumental in the felling of Bhishma Pitamah, acting as Arjuna’s charioteer. As Bhishma refused to fight a woman, Arjuna hid behind Shikhandi and attacked with a volley of arrows. In spite of his inadequacies, Shikhandi managed to stay relevant. Similarly, brands need to stay relevant by changing their strategies. For example, service providers such as Airtel and Idea no longer talk about calls, they sell their internet offerings. For that matter, brands like Havells and Titan stay socially relevant by highlighting the traits of today’s women. Bajaj is staying relevant to the youth by moving from stodgy scooters to the energetic, tech-loaded Pulsar.

When we think of Bheem, one among the great Pancha Pandavas, the one word that comes to mind is ‘strong’. Similarly, once a brand owns a word, it is almost impossible for competitors to take that away.

For example, Tata is known for trust, Volvo for safety, Mercedes for prestige, Pepsi for youth, Aamir Khan for perfection, Apple for innovation, Coke for happiness, Maggi for instant, Mazaa for mango, Thums Up for action and many more. It’s always worth having a core proposition that creates immediate recall for a brand. The son of Bheem and the giantess Hidimbi, Ghatotkacha’s maternal parentage made him half-rakshasha and bestowed him with immense magical powers such as the ability to fly. Due to the rakshasha genes, his powers used to increase manifold after sunset. Using it to his advantage, Ghatotkacha wreaked havoc among the Kaurava army. Similarly, brands could do well by using timing to their advantage.

For example, Good Knight increased its advertising spends during the spate of dengue threat across the country. Mazaa capitalises on sales during the non-mango seasons. Bhishma Pitamah had the boon of ‘Ichha Mrutyu’ – death by wish. Although he could have chosen to live, in spite of being seriously wounded, after the battle of Kurushetra, he chose to die. Because he believed his purpose of being had come to an end. Similarly, brands reach a stage when their need/demand in the marketplace ceases to exist. With no purpose, these brands must be allowed to die, instead of spending inordinate resources to keep them alive.

Some of the brands that had to die a natural death were Ambassador car, Maruti 800, Kodak Camera roll, and Ford Mustang, to name a few. For that matter, is it time for bookstores like Crosswords to review their business model with the sudden rise of online booksellers such as Flipkart or Amazon Kindle? Definitely worth pondering over.

Arjuna, as the story goes, hit the bird’s eye with singular focus. This focus was the key. Similarly, narrowing focus helps brands dominate a category.For examples, Domino’s focussed on ’30 minutes nahi toh free’, Subway on Submarine sandwich, Big Bazaar on low prices. These brands have been growing bigger by staying focussed.

On the other hand, would Pepsi lose out by trying to enter the family space? Abhimanyu entered the chakravyuh before he was fully ready and before time. It resulted in his death. Similarly, there’s a right time and space to launch a brand. A brand launch is likely to fail if done at a wrong time and space or before time. Example: Kellogg’s India entry, Thums up in the early 90s, Blue Pepsi, Walmart luxury fashion garment, Crystal Pepsi, Vanilla Coke, Maruti Versa, Cobra deo spray, Atom by Pepsi, Real Value Vacumizer, among others.

Yudhistir was known for his diligence in following ‘dharma’. All his actions were guided by ‘dharma’. Similarly, a brand key is like dharma. All the actions and interactions of the brand are guided by the brand key.

For example, Tata and Google. Tata believes in following ethics and Google believes in employee morale boosting.

Sahadev was an expert in astrology and a highly skilled swordsman. He was specifically chosen and sent to conquer the South because of his expertise with the sword, and because Southerners were skilled with sword-fighting in general. Similarly, it’s important to know your customers and competitors if you want to win over them. When you launch a particular product you need to know who are you positioning it for, what is the market for your product, why will people buy it, and what is its ‘potential’ to capture market and take over competition. You don’t need a great product; you need the ‘right’ product.

Examples: Shaadi.com, Honda Activa, Olx.in, Flipkart.com, Asus Epad. Ekalavya exemplifies belief. It’s his belief in Guru Dronacharya that inspired him to learn archery from just a statue of his Guru. His sheer belief went on to make him one of the greatest archers. Great are those brands that have created such belief in the minds and hearts of their consumers.

Examples: SONY, SBI, Tata, Maruti, among others. These are just a few from the many examples that can be derived from the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata of marketing, the brands that see, listen and learn are the ones that sustain. Others perish.

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Bun Maska vs. The Maharaja Mac

Last weekend, my friends and I decided to meet over breakfast. Dumping the usual choices, we ended up at Koolars & Co., a small Iranian café by the corner of King Circle. And Thank God we did! A splendid place it was – away from all the noise and the bustlings, there we were sipping on our coffees and having our bun maska and chai. Quite enjoying the laughs, the space and the moments. That was until my marketing mind started to take over.

I noticed that despite the amazing place it was, we were the only ones around. I couldn’t help chat up with the friendly owner, and he was candid enough to admit that over the years, the number patrons has reduced drastically. A part of Mumbai’s legacy, Koolars wore a deserted look. That got me thinking, is this what is happening to other old local authentic joints too?

I did some research later this week and lo and behold! According to the Association of Hotels and Restaurants (AHAR), 132 Udipi restaurants closed down in the four years period of 2007 to 2011! There have also been a fair number of old, authentic and near heritage food joints that have closed down. And then there’s quite a large set of those, which continue to operate, exist and are fighting it out. Perhaps a little like Koolars.

Then there is a rather interesting flip side too: some of these old traditional places are doing amazingly well too. Take Mani’s Lunch Home (Matunga, Mumbai), for instance. It is so crowded all the time that there just isn’t even elbow room to enjoy the bowl of unlimited Saambhar. Started in 1937, the first traced and scanned bill actually shows a ‘set meal for 6 aanaas’ and is dated 30th March 1940. It has loyal patrons from across the city frequenting. It has been fondly covered across various social blogs, food-portals like Burpp, Zomato and more.

There are a fair number of other such old ‘heritage’ outlets too doing very well. Crystal, a North-Indian joint at Girgaum Chowpatty, has a bunch of people standing outside every single day. Not to forget the slightly lesser known but fairly successful ones nevertheless, such as Aaswad Upahar and Mithai Grih at Dadar. The legendary Mysore Café, Sardar Pav Bhaji, Mahesh Lunch Home and many more such.

All of this did leave me a little confounded. Why is it that some are doing so well and some closing down? It’s not that Food and Beverages as an industry is undergoing any slowdown (actually, can’t imagine that happening in our country at any point in time :))

It’s quite the contrary actually. There has been an unprecedented growth in the Food and Beverages category in the last decade odd. This has been driven by a number of Indian restaurants/ chains as well as international ones. McDonald’s, Domino’s, Subway, Café Coffee Day and innumerous others to name just a few.

A quick look at the success stories of some of these did give me some clues into the answers to this incongruity.

First and foremost, the tastes and preferences of the younger India have changed. While some might argue this is an effect of the invasion of new food options and others might say, this changed preferences is the cause of these newer options. Irrespective of the cause and effect, the end result is for all of us to see.

There has been a serious invasion of new swankier restaurants offering not just good food, but great ambience too. There has been a serious invasion of fast food as a food category. There has been a serious invasion of large global multinationals with large chains of restaurants/ units.

McDonalds is one such success, which is now a heartthrob of families, not to mention kids. They have more than 271 stores across Indian serving more than 5 million customers a day! They have cracked the code for selling the ‘play value’ of toys through their happy meals. (Something that even Kinder Joy is doing fairly well.) They worked hard to customize their menu to suit Indian taste buds. They have also done great advertising – only a select few nosey and inquisitive characters like me notice the huge difference between the extent to which they promote the inexpensive McAloo Tikki outside the stores and inside 🙂

KFC has more than 200 outlets in India, targeting a five-fold increase to 1,000 outlets by 2015. Pizza Hut has 140 restaurants across 34 Indian cities. Subway operates through 263 restaurants in 50 Indian cities. And many more international food brands expected too: Taco Bell, Starbucks and more…

Now, how have these brands become such successes? A lot of credit goes to their incredible marketing efforts. Both, its strategic direction and muscle.

The success of the new wave restaurants has also been influenced by media and its portrayal of how life should be lived, what trends should be followed, and what the western world does! Television shows, commercials, movies, and every other medium that tells a story directly or indirectly, portrays the cool and urban lifestyle that the new generation should be living, and sometimes even something that the older generations should shift to. Whether it is CCD (Café Coffee Day for the uninitiated!) tying up with movies and being extra-visible in the background, media has its serious influence. Or whether it is a branded pizza being delivered home.

All, in all, where does that leave us? I am truly concerned about whether I would be able to enjoy the Koolars experience again with my friends. Possibly, there’s something for me to learn from the success stories.

Mahesh Lunch Home, which started as a small joint and known for its excellent seafood, has now expanded into 5 large, fancy, and very expensive hotels! The mantra? Originality of the food has been untouched, and the rest has been altered to suit today’s consumer taste. Madras Café has not changed anything, and yet their legendary value and their consistent quality and food flavour have got them ruling, drawing crowds from far and wide. Crystal’s homemade North-Indian food is famous amongst the students and hostel crowd, and a perfect solution for cheap eating!

Even mithaiwalas such as Haldiram’s and Bikaji, which have grown to large chains, teach that the best way ahead is to mould the brand heritage according to people’s new taste and lifestyle. There seems to be no other way than to keep yourself relevant to the ever-changing consumer tastes. It could also be about value through pricing: be it the inexpensive Crystal restaurant or McAloo Tikki. Or the ambience, that say, Barista and CCD provide. A coffee for Rs 90 still seems rather unpalatable to me but surely today’s consumers are willing to pay for the undisturbed peace and quiet.

Last but not the least, mad passion that lends love. For instance, for Mani’s Lunch Home, food is far more than just food for them. It is a form of life – a way of serving, offering, and sharing. When food is cooked with this belief in the heart, and the intense desire to serve, to see a happy smile and perhaps to hear that satisfying burp, there’s just no way it wouldn’t be a super hit. There is a reason why they call themselves lunch homes, after all!

And therein lies the success mantra in what a lot of these ‘local’ joints have been doing. That’s how a Jumbo Vada Pav can take on the Zinger. And that’s how the Bun Maska can survive the onslaught from the Maharaja Mac.

For now, I am planning my next breakfast rendezvous, contemplating between Starbucks and Mysore Café. Any suggestions?

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Who was Elisha Gray?


Who invented the telephone? That’s simple. It was Alexander Graham Bell. Or was it?

Elisha GrayApparently, a scientist by the name Elisha Gray had invented the telephone and also given a few private demonstrations much before Bell started working on his model. It is said that Elisha filed for the patent on the same day as Bell (Feb 14, 1876) and in fact, a few hours before that of Bell. However, allegedly, Bell’s lawyers got their patent application recorded before that of Gray and the patent was granted to Bell.

Brutal as it may sound, the world doesn’t even seem to know Elisha Gray. He (yes, another shocker: Elisha was a man with a huge white beard) lost out, while Bell and his establishments, after a series of acquisitions, mergers and exits, went on to become no less than the mighty AT&T.

Without getting into the morals of the story, there is a moral to be learnt for sure. The one who got the patent, the one who became the ‘first’ is the one that the world now knows… and credits for creating one of the biggest inventions in the 19th century.

Cut back to today’s time and age.

SamsungSamsung has made significant inroads in the Nokia-obsessed mobile phone market of India. Yes, it helps having a ‘brand’ like Aamir Khan as the ambassador, but more importantly, the products are amongst the firsts in their categories. Galaxy Tab, the S Series, Note – these are all products that are, besides being exceptional, trendsetters.

MicromaxMicromax has today become one of the highest-selling mobile phones in the country. It isn’t just huge marketing monies thrown in with Akshay Kumar in tow that led to its marvelous success. Didn’t Motorola try with no less than Abhishek Bachchan? It so happened that, Rahul Sharma, one of the co-founders of Micromax, observed while travelling in rural India that people use car batteries(!) to charge their mobiles. This insight became the cornerstone of their flagship product – a phone with long battery life with 30 days of standby time! Here on, they launched one innovation after another (pertinent and meaningful ones!): Dual Sim handsets, network-switching handsets, network-branded handsets, and of course, QWERTY mobiles in the sub-5,000 price band. And they did this before anyone else could.

As I see it, product innovation and timing are two very very critical elements of success. They are like two sides of a coin: 1) Innovation – product differentiation, unique features, something that the consumers around you seek, and 2) Timing – the preparedness and need of the market. Not to mention the clarity and intensity with which the message is communicated.

Doesn’t seem difficult, does it? So, how come so many brands fail despite the best of marketing brains and spends behind them? While it is difficult to get any authentic data about the percentage of brand failures, various estimates vary between 50 and 75 per cent, or even more. For smaller organizations with limited resources, I guess, it could just be about lack of marketing expertise and budgets. However, for larger well-oiled marketing companies flush with funds, it is often due to the vision getting lost in the journey. From the research team to the brand development team to the brand building team to the agency and back. And back and forth.

Let me share some recent brand launch successes that immediately catch attention and their simplicity make you wonder why category incumbents didn’t think about it.

FOGGWhile majority of the deodorant brands were busy chasing the ultimate male fantasy, Vini Group launched Fogg – a deodorant that set itself apart from the others through genuine differentiation. Glossily packaged and functionally communicated, it was a move aimed specifically to break away from the clutter and creating a niche standing in a market completed crowded by sexy, skin-showing women. While the jury is still out on the outcome, the communication has definitely caught public’s attention and positioned Fogg uniquely.

Beyond our homeland, there is quirky company, named after a fruit that we all love. It doesn’t only innovate but creates product categories. Mac, iPod, iPad are just some of the products that have become categories.

They go beyond reading what consumers are currently asking for or need. They ‘imagine’ needs. They create markets. I could never have imagined a product like an iPad or an iPod until I saw one. I could never have imagined a laptop which just doesn’t run out of battery for all practical purposes until I got my first Mac. It isn’t a coincidence that Apple stores are called ‘Imagine’.Apple

As is the case with product excellence, it is difficult to ‘innovate’. Extremely difficult. Though one of my Art Directors would have me eat my words by throwing at me the examples of ‘Mint with the hole’ (“Beta, where is the real innovation? It’s just an illusion.”), ‘Dimaag ki batti jala de’ (“Beta, ek goli kha and intelligent ho ja!”) and some more centre-shocking ones in that category.

I submit therefore, that surely it isn’t an ‘either-or’ situation. Product excellence, innovation, timing on the one hand are at the core of the offering. And on the other, superior clutter-breaking communication helps communicate and connect with the audiences. Both have their own role to play in driving the success of brands and sending the cash registers ringing. I am sure even if my Art Director doesn’t agree, this would ring a bell with Elisha Gray.

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