Thursday, November 21, 2013

BBM for Android and iPhone - Is this a good communications strategy?

In the month of 2013, Blackberry announced that BBM would soon be available for Android and iPhone users. It will be the first multi-platform version of the instant messaging app which has 60 million active monthly users.

By October, over 6 million people signed up for 'information about BBM' at Over 2 million people found out ways to download the BBM application on their Android and iPhone devices unofficially using 'creative ways', as Blackberry would like to say.

As of November numbers, the news is that BBM on Android and iPhone is a big hit. It has been downloaded over 20+ million times. BBM's engagement of around 40 minutes per user is also higher than other multi-platform messaging platforms such as Tango and LINE.

It is a Branding Harakiri.

All the above sounds great. But are we missing the forest for the trees? Around 2008, almost all my friends had a blackberry, and all of them swore by BBM. In 2013, only very few have remained loyal to Blackberry, but all of them still swore by BBM. Only change is that they have added WhatsApp as an alternative to BBM for friends without Blackberry phones.

Still they were the privileged few to enjoy BBM service. Those few users are around 60 million. With BBM becoming multi-platform, these loyal 60 million users would surely feel a pinch in losing their exclusivity. This is something the Blackberry brand managers have missed in their enthusiasm to get into the instant messaging marketplace. They seem to have momentarily forgotten that they are primarily a device company, at least in the minds of the consumers.

Messaging Marketplace is fiercely competitive and commoditized.

In the instant messaging marketplace, WhatsApp needs little introduction since it is arguably the world’s most popular messaging application with more than 300 million people using it each month. It is number one in the biggest mobile app market, Europe boasting a weekly engagement stats of a whopping 160 minutes per user. It has reached the critical acceptance level to charge $0.99 for a one-year subscription - although it is free for the first year.

There are over 22 mobile messaging applications in the market such as GroupMe, Line, WeChat, MessageMe, Kik, Tango, Hike etc. Kik is one of the few messaging apps that doesn’t require you to provide your phone number. It is therefore in tablets that does not have a SIM card. There are also a few regional apps like the KakaoTalk of Korea. Then we have the Facebook messenger app that can't be ignored with its mega user base.

Surprisingly, Blackberry has decided to shift focus from its device business to this crazy competitive marketplace which is just about to get commoditized. I can't understand the branding and business motive behind this costly move. It is not only costly in terms of capital and operational investments, but also costly in terms of dis-illusioning its loyal consumer base.

Where is the revenue?

Blackberry had announced in September 2013 that it is planning to cut 4,500 jobs, or 40% of its worldwide workforce, in an attempt to staunch huge losses. The smartphone maker said that it anticipated a loss of as much as $995m (£621m) when it reports its second-quarter earnings.

Blackberry's Chief Executive Thorsten Heins said: "We are implementing the difficult, but necessary operational changes address our position in a maturing and more competitive industry, and to drive the company toward profitability."

This is where I have a disconnect. How is multi-platform BBM, a drive towards profitability? What is the revenue model in this instant messaging marketplace? Putting ads onto the app is unthinkable, as such intrusions are taken very negatively by the generation of today. Subscription revenue is the only likely revenue model, which can be dangerous in a commodity market. Facebook has shied away from putting a subscription revenue model even then they had over a billion users hooked.

Games, video, digital stickers, music sharing are probably the other upcoming revenue generators, but that space has been already keenly fought by other players. Of the $58m, LINE made in sales in the first quarter of 2013, half came from selling games and 30%, or roughly $17m, from sales of its 8,000 different stickers. With KakaoTalk, which is thought to be on 90% of all smartphones in South Korea, registered users can choose from more than 100 games they can play with one another, and games alone helped the company generate $311m in sales in the first half of 2013.

WhatsApp has clearly identified communications as its mainstay. It doesn't intend to dilute its proposition by offering everything possible in the messaging environment. That is perhaps the reason of its ever increasing user base. It is profitable by its sheer subscription revenue.

I am not clear what is the revenue thought behind making this multi-platform BBM? How does a multi-platform messaging app sell a Blackberry phone or its services? It will perhaps erode the user base whose only reason for a blackberry phone is BBM. Whatever the revenue model is, it is surely going to be one difficult business to sustain for Blackberry.

Both from branding and business perspective, I believe that Blackberry has got it wrong. It is wasting its energies in uncertain domains, rather than focus on the device division creating more exclusive Blackberry services like the BBM for its loyal retail and corporate customer base.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

#greatestfan campaign - Reliance Life Insurance

"Sudhir is Indian cricket’s most well known fan. Let us support him" is what the latest campaign of Reliance Life Insurance says.  I have seen massive hoardings in Mumbai, heard radio commercials, and have visited their Facebook and Twitter profiles. I think the campaign is perhaps live on TV as well.

Every ad mentions it without fail that this campaign has no commercial purpose. It is a social responsibility led initiative from Reliance Life Insurance in support of the greatest fan of Sachin Tendulkar and India's favourite sport, Cricket. :)

I wonder, "why is Reliance being so foolish?" Why are they thinking that consumers are gullible and stupid enough to make believe anything on mass media.

What is even surprising is that the campaign is not in the news. There has been very little PR push around the campaign. I could find just one press release from Reliance Life Insurance that said 'Sudhir's passion is such that he does not have a regular source of income. He spends all his time cycling across the country (even abroad) following his idol Sachin Tendulkar. All this has led Reliance Life Insurance to come up with a social responsibility campaign to support him.'

The company’s Facebook page states, “For us, he is an embodiment of everything that comes in the way of planning for one's future. And that's why we have taken up Sudhir's cause and want to help him secure his future with a regular income. After all, retirement is definitive and needs planning before it becomes a shock.” If that is the fact, shouldn't Reliance be discouraging such fanatism?

I have been into communications for the past 15 years and I can say with certainty that consumers would look at this campaign as a desperate attempt by Reliance to take advantage of the media hype about the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar. The current perception of Reliance in the minds of the consumers of being a shrewd business house further adds to this conclusion. Consumers would not take it as a CSR initiative.

It is also a classic case of how a good opportunity is lost because of wrong execution strategy. The thought of helping out Sudhir is surely a good marketing idea, and a social idea. There is nothing wrong about being opportunistic to build business and profitability. But it has to be executed well.

The flaws of this campaign are as follows:
  1. An initiative like this should not be taken to the mass media in the manner that Reliance did. More so, if the initiative was a CSR initiative. The disclaimer added salt to the wounds. Instead, it should have been a PR campaign with a local activation strategy. The media would have brought the initiative to the various mass media.
  2. The campaign is not clear about what Reliance is actually doing for Sudhir. The campaign says, "As a part of CSR, Reliance Life Insurance is providing financial aid to Sudhir". If Reliance had taken up a few conclusive steps for the family of Sudhir, and informed us about the same through a PR and social media campaign, media then would have taken the message to the consumers through TV, Radio and Newspapers.
  3. The campaign is asking consumers to join them in supporting Sudhir by texting 'SUDHIR' to a short code, by liking the company's Facebook page and by using the hashtag #greatestfan and following the company's Twitter account. But the motivation or rationale behind the same is missing. For example, Reliance could have said, "every 'life' or an 'SMS' has a value of 1 rupee. Each 1000 likes, Reliance Life Insurance will give Sudhir an insurance worth Rs. 1000/- as premium.
  4. The campaign is just featuring Sudhir. It may not be a flaw, but India sure has many crazy cricket fanatics like Sudhir. The campaign could have been inclusive. The campaign idea could have taken all cricket fanatics as the target audience, with Sudhir being their mascot (or ambassador). An offer could have been weaved around the same. It would have been an honest attempt to support Sudhir and Cricket.
I have always believed that communication strategy and creative strategy have to be honest. And that there are ways to communicate any damn thing on earth without appearing dishonest.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Marketing Communications in the times of the World Wide Web.

Marketing Communications over the last decade has taken a big leap (of faith!) with the advent of interactive, super-fast, inter-connected world wide web and the myriad web technologies. All the critical pillars of communications - message, media, consumers, design tools, skill-sets etc have undergone a change.

Or I should say, the technological advances have brutally demanded a change in the way we think, create and execute brand communications.

The creative process required to roll out a print ad or a TV campaign is very different than the process of creativity required to create a message on the Internet. Building a website, designing a search campaign or executing a social media campaign requires a completely different kind of skill set.

Media, in the good old days was the kingdom of the media planners and the buyers, today the scene is fragmented. Adwords professionals are equally important media buyers and planners. With content aggregation and inbound marketing, the media is not even always a paid commodity. There goes the 15% commission revenue model.

With Internet and technology, the content is no longer uni-directional, aimed at the consumers. User generated content has become a major source of content. Youtube and the whole of social media runs on user generated content. They are interestingly multi-directional. Even TV, Print and Radio have not stayed uni-directional with the advent of tools like Shazam and QR code

Consumers of media have also changed in terms of time spent on each media, attention span and general lifestyle attitude towards brands. Television and Print have lost a good deal of youth in the age group of 15-24 to these new media. Even a cricket match is getting tracked through tweets and Facebook updates.

For the advertisers, it has not been easy. The tools, the terminologies, the knowledge domain is now not with one big agency. There are so many things to know to implement an effective advertising campaign. We need to not only know vector images, illustrator, TRP, Readership and the works, but also know Impressions, PPC deals, HTML5, JAVA, Email, SMS technologies and the whole new media related knowledge.

The client servicing teams and the other creative, studio and production departments of the bigger advertising agencies have not been able to cope up with the digital onslaught. With media and creative separating in around 2003, it only added to their woes.

A marketing company now has to deal with a creative agency, a media agency, a digital agency, a website agency and a technology company for mini interactive applications. At one end, it may be taken as a positive outcome that the industry is moving towards specialized businesses and services, improving the quality of services, helpful to the economy in general.

At the other end, it is diluting the concept of advertising. There is no single brand custodian. The advertising agency used to be brand custodian in the good old days, but the advertising industry has lost its credibility or ability to be the brand custodian. Today, there seems to be no unanimous decision on who is the brand custodian today. The level of confusion in the definition of 'brand custodian' is quite funny (and stupid).

In a 2008 HT article, Madhukar Sabnavis, Country Head – Planning and Discovery, Ogilvy & Mather India, once said, “The marketing director or the marketing head is the brand’s custodian.” MG Parameswaran, Executive Director, Draft-FCB-Ulka, once said, “The CEO of the company that owns the brand, is the brand’s custodian.” Lynn D’Souza, head, Lintas Media Group, says, “The brand manager is the brand’s custodian.”

The brand custodian is the person or team that knows the brand the best. Brand, from a marketing communications perspective, is what the consumers perceive or feel or believe; or what the consumers should perceive or feel or believe. The advertising agencies used to have an Account Planner or an Account Planning team that used to understand this aspect of branding. They used to understand the consumer behavior behind brands.

Understanding consumer behavior, or the interest to seek this understanding makes the basis for effective communication. The effort required to understand consumer behavior in this world of fragmented myriad media scenario is a big challenge. But it is a possible challenge.

The second basic truth about advertising is that it is exponentially effective if there is convergence of media. 360 degree communication in true spirit is the need of the hour (and always been the need)

For an advertiser and a marketing person, it is always easier to have one brand expert managing the whole gamut of communication. There is a need for a consultative cum outsourcing business model to provide an effective 360 degree communications services to advertisers.

We at TSO - The Significant Other, work in the this new media paradigm. We are working hard to make ourselves experts in consumer behaviour in terms of media consumption, branding and purchase cycle behavior so that we can create the most relevant message. We also tried hard to understand all the available media so that we can sent the most relevant message through the most appropriate media, through the model of outsourcing.

Outsourcing is the key to the execution of such a strategy. In effect, appropriate knowledge and experience in liasonning with all the myriad vendors is the key.