Saturday, January 28, 2012

Silk Smitha Vs Chikni Chameli

So the old lady from Mount Road in Chennai has decided to take hormone shots to counter her Botox rejuvenated contemporary of Bori Bunder, Mumbai ? The media fraternity – both journalists and the marketing / ad-sales lots – are drawing vicarious thrill from the duel and going gaga over the ‘tongue-in-cheek’  ad from The Hindu in retaliation to The Times of India’s rather ‘below-the-belt’ hit at them sometime back. Perhaps, much of the excitement is arising from the fact that such a spirited response is uncharacteristic of the hitherto conservative media-house that was Kasturi & Sons. Or it could be, at least partly, due to the filial envy most media people feel towards ToI.

First, let me say up-front – I found the ToI’s ‘sleeping old man’ ad not only distasteful but also quite unnecessary. Over the years they have been successfully biting away chunks of The Hindu’s readership – by cleverly positioning the paper to address a need gap within the changing demographic profile of Chennai.  Sitting North of the Vindhyas many of us don’t realize that, Chennai has become a much more cosmopolitan city today  ( and not the Tam-Bhrahm bastion as we still like to think of it as) – with a large population of “non-south origin” people and a sizeable expatriate community. Like all other metropolitan cities – the tastes and aspirations of the youngsters are changing (and, yes – they care more about the ‘size zero’ waist-line  of Kareena Kapoor than the thunder-thighs of Silk Smitha which their Dads used to salivate over) and to that extent they find the ToI much more contemporary and modern. This is the same challenge that the ‘ghee soaked’ Hindustan Times of yore and The Telegraph in Calcutta faced. (ironically The Telegraph was at the receiving end of the same game at which they had so comprehensively beaten The Statesman in the ‘80s).

Nationally, the Times of India has been adopting an “iconic” high-ground with some wonderful ads like “ A day in the life of India” or the very touching one with the “Dhyanchand like” octogenarian hockey Olympian (it’s , perhaps, not a co-incidence that - The Hindu ad mocks by asking: who was Dhyanchand ?). Therefore,  ToI stooping to take a pot-shot at an ageing competitor can only be attributed to the enthusiasm of a newly appointed Marketing honcho of FMCG roots. Instead, they should have let the product to continue to do the talking rather than yielding to the temptation of rubbing salt on a worthy rival.

Now coming to The Hindu’s ads. Apart from generating chuckles – would any serious marketer believe that it will succeed in wooing back an young audience who have shifted to the ToI by simply raising the prospects of looking ‘dumb’ amongst your peers (who are as dumb as you  – and may actually be thinking it’s “cool” to be so) or your parents (whom you consider fuddy-duddy any way). The answer would really have to come from the product – because for newspapers content (which includes design, ease of navigation and a whole lot of other things) is what makes the brand – not ( so much) advertising.

But then, The Hindu has had a change of guard at the top recently with a new “Editor-in-Chief” and a CEO. So, there’s always the provocation for the younger lot to say “what the heck – let’s give it back to the chaps”. In marketing there is always merit in saying ‘enough is enough’, ‘don’t take us for granted’  and “we won’t take it lying down” forever.  But, real marketing wars are not fought on bravado and machismo alone.

As the Hindustan Times in Delhi and, to some extent, The Telegraph has shown the work has to start with the product itself and marketing campaigns can follow. It would be rather na├»ve and simplistic to say that, the ToI is a ‘dumb paper’ any longer. Over the years they have systematically invested in improving content both in depth and range  ( having a ‘catch all’ positioning with offerings from sex to spirituality) – in fact, people would say they have successfully “dumbed-up” (as opposed to “dumbed down” – if there can be such a term) and it’s one of the finest newspapers today. The criticism against the ToI lies on another front of media-net and private treatise. But, that’s a different subject altogether. The Hindu, itself, has not been immune to questions about integrity of content.

The Hindu, therefore, first need s to re-invent itself – which is not an easy task as you always run the risk of alienating your traditional reader base without attracting the new. The HT faced a similar challenge of retaining its Karol-Bagh and Punajabi Bagh constituencies while trying to seduce the cosmopolitan yuppies of Gurgaon. After, faltering initially – when for a while it had become a Punjabi edition of ToI – under new leadership both on the editorial and management end it seem to have finally got its act together. In my humble opinion, The Telegraph is still struggling to do that and is caught in a time-warp of the 80s – when the people who had launched the paper were actually “young”. Sadly, they don’t realize it’s been 30 years since and during this period the people running the paper have aged as indeed the paper itself has.

After its “McKinsey-isation” – The Hindu is on a transformational journey (one hopes). Once their internal turmoil settles down and the new team finds their feet – who knows it could become the sex-siren from the South