29 Mar 2010

In Praise of the Purple Cow

In Praise of the Purple Cow is a blog post by Seth Godin. It was posted on fastcompany.com in January 2003.

Read it. And see if it doesn't make eminent sense even today - especially today.

(And Seth isn't kidding about either, this is how he marketed his book on Marketing.)

27 Mar 2010

Apple comes to Madison Avenue

On April 7, Steve Jobs will take the stage once again to reveal Apple's "revolutionary", "next big thing". Insiders claim that the launch will rival that of iPad and iPhone.

Yet, it is not a device.

It is an Advertising platform that may offer "hypertargeting capability" through location-based advertising. This was coming since the day Apple brought Quattro Wireless in January 2010.

You'd think it's a big deal that digital world's leading lights, Apple and Google (who brought AdMob in November 2009) seem to be converging on a specific growth area in advertising. You'd think that WPP and Interpublic and Omnicom and Publicis would be in hot pursuit. You'd think there was something to learn from it all.

These two technology powerhouses are giant content factories as well. It is an obvious next step to monetise all this content with advertisements. But the difference is that, while the Advertising fraternity is sitting around debating 'media' and 'execution', Apple and Google also see two enormous 800lb gorillas, 'Context' and 'Relevance', waltzing around the room.

And those two smell like... money.

The other side of the 'profit motive' coin

That 21st century India needs alternate sources of energy from hydrocarbons to power its headlong rush to 'superpower consumer' status is undeniable. That nuclear energy is one viable option on the table is also undisputable.

To that end, the wise Cabinet members of the Government of India have even cleared a Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill for introduction to parliament. Among other things, the Bill seeks to put a cap on compensation liability in case of an accident to a maximum limit of $450 million.

This amount is less than the $470 million that Union Carbide agreed to pay in an out-of-court settlement reached in 1989, for the 1984 disaster in Bhopal.

But the level of compensation is not the matter I want to consider. It is what happens to the money afterwards. In 2005, the Indian Supreme Court extended to 2006, its deadline for the Indian government to release any remaining settlement funds to victims. The fund were believed to have ballooned to $500 million after accumulating interest!

But it was 24 years after the accident, in 2008, that the clean-up operations begin. And a quarter century later, in 2009, a report in The New York Times examines Bhopal's continuing struggle with chronic health issues, high levels of chemicals in the groundwater, and toxic sludge in the soil.

No amount of compensation after an event can bring back normalcy. The truth is that the local community first becomes victims of a tragedy, and later pawns in the 'compensation lottery'. Someone's always finds a way to profit from them!

Perhaps the real answer is in setting aside a fraction of the mega-millions to ensure: 1.) Rigorous safety checks, 2.) Independent expert monitoring, 3.) Air-tight contingency plans to tackle any eventuality.

However, the fiesty folk over at Greenpeace are right... No one should get to walk away from proportionate accountability.

Here, I reproduce the open letter from Greenpeace to the luminaries in the Indian Parliament...

Respected MP,

I write this letter to you because the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill is slated to be tabled in the current session of the parliament. It is a call to not let that unconstitutional bill through. The bill has been cleared by the cabinet for introduction in the parliament. The government proposes to introduce this bill to appease foreign investors. Any legislation that attempts to dilute the Polluter Pays and Precautionary Principle and imposes a cap on liability will be in blatant defiance of Supreme Court judgments and should be struck down.

We had queried Mr. Soli Sorabjee on his opinion on the implications of this bill and in his opinion he has stated that, “In view of these Supreme Court judgments which are part of Indian jurisprudence and whose thrust is for the protection of victims of accidents as part of their fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution, there is no warrant or justification for capping nuclear liability, as is sought to be done. Any such move will be in defiance of the aforesaid Supreme Court judgments and will be contrary to the interest of people of India and their fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution.” His opinion is attached for your perusal.

Our Constitution evinces great concern for environment. Article 48-A of the Directive Principle mandates that the state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment. One of the fundamental duties prescribed in Article 51-A is, inter alia, to protect and improve the natural environment.

It is claimed that foreign companies are reluctant to invest in India as they do not want to run the risk of having to compensate without a cap for a nuclear accident on account of imposition of absolute liability. It is understood that the government to appease the foreign investors proposes to introduce a Civil Nuclear Liability Bill whereby inter alia the compensation payable in case of a nuclear accident is capped at $450 million.

In effect, this means that in case the actual damage and the cost of remedying environmental degradation exceeds the proposed ridiculously low cap of $450 million or any other sum, the government would have to bear the remaining burden. This would be directly contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling that it is not the role of the government to meet the costs involved. The effect of a cap in reality would be to shift the financial burden of the consequences of the accident to the taxpayer. According to the Polluter Pays Principle that has been embedded in our jurisprudence, the liability and responsibility for compensating the victims of accident and remedying the environmental damage caused is that of the offending industry alone. No part of the liability can be limited nor passed on to the government.

There can be two views about the advantages or disadvantages of foreign investment in India in the nuclear energy sector. But there can be only one view: health well-being and protection of our people are paramount and must override dollar considerations. Foreign multinationals are not solicitors of the fundamental rights of our people. The Bhopal Gas case is a burning reminder.

Any legislation that attempts to dilute the Polluter Pays and Precautionary Principle and imposes a cap on liability is likely to be struck down as it would be in blatant defiance of the Supreme Court judgments. Moreover, it would be against the interests and the cherished fundamental right to life of the people of India whose protection should be the primary concern of any civilized democratic government.

Karuna Raina
Nuclear Campaigner, Greenpeace

08th March 2010
New Delhi

25 Mar 2010

One hour: A small price

It has a twist. Honest.

Freelancing in the plug-and-play economy

In my previous post, we looked at Efficiency vs. Creativity.

Now let's see if we can reconcile the two - and I truly believe we can. But it will require a near-total de-construction of the traditional structure and approach of an Advertising Agency.

But let us be clear about one thing: Whatever form, advertising creation takes, the advertising industry is, and will keep kicking 'derriere' as long as there are things being bought and sold.

There are many points-of-view on the future of the advertising business out there. From digital technology and crowd-sourcing, to brand conversations and location-specific advertising. (And not all of it is pro-social media either.)

I've myself pondered: "What if you don't need an Ad Agency to do Advertising?"

Let's start from where we left off... If creativity / ideation is the least efficient and predictable function in an advertising agency, can an Advertising Agency divest that function? Or can an Ad Agency do without its Creative Department? And vice versa, can Creative people do without an Agency?

Think. Think again. Think out-of-the-box.

In my estimate, an ad agency's thankless, 'bread-and-butter' retainer-fee-justifying work is done for the most part by a bunch of super-committed, super-efficient, unpretentious, and largely undemanding (by the Creative Deparment's yardstick) individuals. They are potential darlings of ROI-hungry shareholders!

The Creative Department are the big guns. The elite (and as you can see, self-indulgent) smash-and-grab squad that's most useful on 'new business pitches' and the occasional 'big-ticket briefs'. They are the one's who orchestrate the spikes on the balance sheet. They are also, in shareholder terms, a huge cost-centre!

The only way to for shareholders to get maximum ROI, is for the agency to be working at optimum efficiency. That is... Maximum, continuous and measurable output (in the form of retainership fees) on minimal, tight-as-can-be input (salaries and overheads). Now, we have a problem.

Sure, we invent stuff that is supposed to make the Creative Department more efficient: Planning processes, Briefing processes, Creative processes. But Creativity being creativity, you can't manufacture it!

...So can an Advertising Agency exist without a Creative department? Probably yes.

With an agency retaining just a core account management and execution team, which literally functions as an extension of the client's brand / marketing department, the advantages are:
- The shareholder gets near-optimal efficiency.
- The client gets a pliable a dedicated resource that quickly responds to their internal agenda. And they may involve any external creative resource (and find better budget-fits) without a conflict-of-interest with agency.
- The agency avoids a huge cost overhead. Also gains the ability to outsource work that needs Creative input, like 'new business pitches' and 'campaigns' to those best suited for the assignment, the media involved, and the budget available.

It's the plug-and-play economy at it's utopian best!

But can Creative people do without an Agency? Probably yes again.

Freelancing is has gained much legitimacy and momentum across the world... especially, in the current churn. Many of the best creative minds have already left large network agencies for the lack of growth and / or adventure.

There are advantages for Creative people as well in this new plug-and-play economy:
- Without hierarchy, talent / capability can command it's true price and respect.
- Talent / skill / passion can developed into specialisation(s).
- Assignments can be chosen based on how well they align to talent / skill / passion.
- And as a bonus, you don't never, ever have to do another internal newsletter again - if you don't want to.

Advertising is hardly alone in the plug-and-play economy...

One look at any industry - from Finance companies with call centres and DSAs (Direct Sales Agents); Automotive giants with their cost-conscious suppliers; Consumer Durable brands with their outsourced components and assembly, Fashion & Designer brands with their third-world sweatshops; or even the independent developers of apps for the iPad or Facebook... It is well past the dawn - it is in fact mid-morning in the plug-and-play economy.

Efficiency vs. Creativity

Let's start with the big picture here.

Ask the head of any business, what he or she thinks is the single most critical factor for success. And you'll likely get "innovation", "motivation", "teamwork", etc. If we sift through all of it, you will probably (nay, certainly) arrive at that ONE key factor...


There is no escaping the fact that virtually all businesses (except SMEs) today are shareholder-focused. And if there is one thing a shareholder values, it is the return on investment.

When you consider that an investor (or a holding company) really does not differentiate between a shoe factory and an advertising agency when it comes to ROI, you can already see the incongruity.

But what we're seeing is just the tip of a proverbial iceberg... You see, to stay competitive in comparision with other investment opportunities out there, a business also need to show an year-on-year or quarter-on-quarter increase in RIO - or, efficiency.

In Advertising industry parlance, it means 'new account wins' and 'big-billing campaigns'. But we all know there are only so many of either. Now factor in, intense competition, and resulting drop in margins, and you know something's gotta 'give'.

To see what that something is, let's look at what is the least 'efficient' part of the Advertising business... It is without a doubt, the part that comes up with ideas. It is the Creative Department.

But creativity being creativity, it is not predictable or efficient. And it is also at the core of the Advertising business.

Or is it?

A heady dose of Diesel

Some time back I'd posted on the new 'Be Stupid' campaign by Diesel. I agree it's a bold and provocative plank. But to be honest, I think it overstepped an invisible line somewhere. Not in thought. Not in execution. But in expression.

Then again, if there's one thing more true about advertising than any other profession, it has got to be that... Nothing is 100% right - or wrong!

That bring me to a well thought-out Case Study from the "Common blog of the Web Communication Unit of the European Parliament". (Yes, you heard that right!)

There are several completely plausible explanations in there that makes the writer's arguments about why the campaign is "remarkably well conceived". So much so, that I almost believe him.

However, there were three points in his conclusion that I completely, unhesitatingly agree with:
1. [...] A good campaign is not designed by a committee, as they say. Nothing good has ever been designed by a committee, for that matter.

In other words, avoid group-think. It only serves to dilute ability, and accountability!

2. [...] Do not hesitate to segment your audience. Find a target group and stick to it. Accept the fact that you cannot talk to everyone at the same time.

This trick works both ways - for businesses as well as those who advertise for them. If you are trying to get your brand / product / service to appeal to everyone, then rest assured that it will appeal to no-one in particular!

3. [...] Work on your claim before everything. Once you have the claim, don’t change it.

Ah! The corollary... It basically tells advertisers and agencies to expend time and resources (and research) on arriving at a unequivocal answer to the question: "What's in it for the customer?". And to then grow a pair, and stick with it. (Stick with the claim, that is.)

Socialist interlude

20 Mar 2010

Group-think on the Serengeti

Last week, I chanced up on a wonderfully informative and insightful blog by Mark Sigal (a successful serial-entrepreneur). There I stumbled on yet another insightful experience.

It is the 15-minute clip (below) of an interview on CBS' '60 Minutes'. A very well-spent 15 minutes, I must say. It starts out as a postmortem of the seemingly unbridled greed on Wall Street, which preceded the recent subprime-led financial crisis.

Michael Lewis, a brilliant author and thinker (he wrote Blind Side which won an 2010 Oscar for Sandra Bullock) speaking about his latest book, 'The Big Short', dissects the crisis and recount the stories of a dozen or so regular investors who saw the Wall Street emperors' naked folly way back in frenzied heydays of 2005. To them, it was obvious that the subprime bonanza was going to crash... and it seemed unbelievable that none of the financial wizards on Wall Street seemed to notice! (So they speculated against the Wall Street, and made bucket-loads of money... An autistic one-eyed gentleman made $750 million and change. As profit!)

Then I heard something that sounded to me as like the profound truth of corporate culture that was at the heart of it all!

The blinding power of group-think

If Wall Street's lemming-like actions defied logic, perhaps logic does not apply when something becomes "the way things are done here". What blinded them was not greed - but group-think!

For Wildebeest on the Serengeti, a mega-herd offers security, but takes away the relevance of individuals. Huge corporate entities employing multiple thousands function much the same way. In order to achieve a vague corporate (common) goal (fresh grass), the average employee has just two choices: Join the herd or face the lions!

In that sense, as the corporate world hurtles towards the next inevitable crisis, (you must watch the video!) smaller, more nimble businesses are better positioned to course correct - (to milk the Serengeti analogy dry) like a pride of lions capable of changing their target easily. But success is most certain when each member can see the target, and knows where other members are relative to it!

Watch CBS News Videos Online

18 Mar 2010

Research, advertising and other imaginative uses of EEG

Ajith Menon, a good friend and an Account Planner, led me to an interesting article on neuromarketing and research by Hartosh Singh Bal at openthemagazine.com.

Simplistically put... neuromarketers map the consumer’s mind using electroencephalographic (EEG) sensors that measure brain-wave patterns produced by the firing of neurons in reponse to various stimuli. Then peaks and troughs are compared roughly like a lie-detector test to determine what stimulus worked best, and to some extent, on which centre of the brain - e.g taste, fear, lust, etc.

And advertisers are already on it! Fortune 100 companies are neurotesting products, packaging and design, and even advertising. It is seen as having the potential to replace that notorious guillotine of original thinking - the Focus Group. That's great news any way one looks at it.

But I still have reservations on two fronts:

1. The purveyors of the craft claim: “The data does not require interpretation of respondents’ comments.”

True. But it does need intrepretation of the EEG patterns. Laboratory test conditions - no matter how complex the simulation - simply cannot match the stimuli of real life context. So yes, the patterns are sub-conscious, but the very fact that they are being tested will alter the results to some degree. Now, to what degree is the a matter of debate and conjecture.

And by virtue of testing a sample, it is still the generalised extrapolation of the response of a few random individuals.

2. If advertising were measured solely on the basis of sub-conscious stimuli, the ones that will produce the most distinct 'spikes' in the pattern would be the ones that appeal to the most base drivers like hunger, fear and lust.

We've been there. And we've done that...

Beer commercials targeted at young men usually feature young women in bikinis. Fastfood advertising's foremost tenet is 'a feast for the eyes'. Anti-smoking messaging have illustrated the worst-case scenarios to strike dread into the hearts of smokers.

It works, no doubt.

But perhaps the question that begs an answer is this: What is it that we really need... Advertising that works better in research? Or research that works to produce better advertising?

If the obvious answer is the latter, then research committees and focus groups and neuroscientists and all the other sundry left-brain activities should focus on preparing the canvas on which the intuitive right-brain is unleashed.

Imagination and creativity are not about controls and patterns... Remember, even in the EEGs, the researchers are looking for unusually breaks in the regular pattern!

17 Mar 2010

Advertising is doing just fine, thank you.

Online advertising is worth $50 billion, and growing exponentially.

The Battle Royale that everyone's got their eyes on is Facebook vs. Google. And what exactly are they vying for? Advertising revenue.

Facebook hasn't turned a profit yet. But just its potential to do targeted advertising has pushed it's valuation to around $15 billion at last count.

Google makes healthy profits. And about 95% of it comes from one business. Yes, you guessed it, Advertising! That's also probably why Google's valuation is a tad higher than Facebook at $200 billion.

Offline advertising is worth $500 billion, and not exactly shrinking.

WPP is by far The Big Daddy with billing close to $59 billion in 2009.

But the company said, in a recent statement, that it was “staring into the abyss” the same year!

And WPP was not alone. The two other biggies, Publicis and Omnicom too were afflicted by vertigo in 2009.

But was it a bad year for advertising? The money trail is an emphatic, "No".

Investors seem to be implying that the best and most effective advertising is yet to be... Some are betting it's online - Facebook, Twitter or Google. Some swear its in a mobile / handheld device - iPhones, Blackberrys and iPads.

Even WPP earned 25% of its revenue in 2009 (over $2 billion) from digital-related and direct advertising.

Maybe, it has not been a bad year for all advertising. Maybe, it's been a bad year for those who do it the wrong way.

Maybe, 2009 will be the prelude to the most productive era in Advertising!

16 Mar 2010

Steve Jobs' presentation secrets

If you read only ONE thing today, make it this... Uncovering Steve Jobs' Presentation Secrets on BusinessWeek

And did you know that Apple's most visible advertising always features Steve Jobs?

By the way, just what do you think is the most anticipated publicity event on Apple's marketing calendar?

It is without an iota of doubt: THE REVELATION.

8 Mar 2010

354 degrees of obfuscation

I don't usually rant about others' creatives. But this is different.

What's different is this Advert- er, excuse me, "Viral" video for Sony. Although, to my mind 'festering online infestation' would be a more apt description.

And if I never buy a Sony product again, this webpage alone may be the reason: www.live6degrees.com

It turns out that all these years, colourful award-winning TVCs notwithstanding, Sony Bravia TVs had a critical flaw. It's picture quality wasn't particularly good - especially if you watched TV sitting upright like an adult human with a normal spine.

Apparently, one had to lean back precisely six degrees at the hip to see a clear picture!

So I'm guessing that when Sony's Senior Management told their Engineering Department that it was time to revitalise the Bravia brand for Q1 2010, those geniuses did the smartest and most cost-efficient thing: They tilted the screen back six degrees and claimed they improved the picture quality significantly on the new Sony Bravia TV!

Not to be outdone, the wizards in their Marketing Department upped the ante with a really hip (no pun intended) way to insult Internet-users in addition to Bravia-buyers. All accomplished using the latest, coolest and most original Social Media tools out there: a FaceBook profile, videos (albeit with incorrect subtitles) on Youtube, Twitter, and Fickr.

Now don't get me wrong... I am all for a bit of mystery, or a dash of drama to raise interest and pique the curiosity of an audience before unveiling a tantalising new product. But with this camapign, I believe Sony has not just pushed the envelope forward, they've flung it off a cliff!

In fact, after subjecting myself to this campaign, I was left with two burning questions on my mind. (To be fair, I cannot say for certain if the burning sensation in my head was caused by the virulent campaign.)


Point No.1
The inanities spewed by their feckless protagonist (or vector, in the viral context), Jürgen Onderzug - including his view that man took 3 billion years to stand erect - do not bother me too much! He is ficticious (I hope). What frightens me is that he has 7220 real people as fans on Facebook! (Those are 7220 more reasons why I'm not signing up on Facebook in a hurry.)

But here's the question I have for the those who unleashed this idea on the world: Have you sold your italicised TV sets to any of Jürgen's 7220 friends yet?

Point No.2
Needless to say, cyberspace will soon be innundated with gushing experts, flash videos, pdfs, and ppts, all pointing out the impressive statistical success of this campaign.

My question is: Does this make it mandatory for Creatives everywhere to inflict a campaign of Social pestilence upon unsuspecting Internet-users, to be considered sufficiently with-it and hip? (There's that word again... Their darn campaign seems to be working!!!)

5 Mar 2010

The problem with getting more for less

Let us continue on our quest to understand the holy grail of Marketing: The consumer's perception of 'value'

In the previous post, I opined that what we see when we look at brand-names and pricetags is a wholly intangible notion of value.

So what is the common denominator of value?

Just think of the two most common 'concepts' in all of the Marketing and Advertising universe: FREE (including EXTRA, MORE, WIN, SAVE, SUPERSIZE, etc. as subsets), and NEW (including IMPROVED, ALL-NEW, etc. as subsets.)

The way we respond to those two concepts is inexplicable. And they are so powerful, that they have changed little even in an otherwise fast-evolving scenario. In fact, the culture of 'More for Less' has more or less exploded all around us... Think Hypermarkets. Think Social Media engagements that are usually created around freebies or discounts!

Strangely, our decision seldom feel like an intuitive reaction, it feels like we've made a very rational call. It feels like we've scored a point against the 'seller'. Whereas in actual fact, we're falling for the oldest continuously perpetated trick in the book. (Actually, I think it pre-dates the book!)

But most of us would dismiss any doubt of being baited (and we could not validate it without considerable inconvenience). So as reach out to a supermarket shelf and the words 'FREE' or 'NEW', we slip into denial - and mark up the score in our minds: Buyer 1, Seller 0. And the game continues...

But is it really possible to provide incremental - or even consistent quality with shrinking margins?

Let's look at the other side of the coin... While the 'More for Less' mantra has helped convert entire populations into vast open-cast quarries of consumption, the expanding markets also fuelled intense, frenzied competition by the producers.

Competition is supposed to be good for the consumer? But only if it is health competition. It is definitely not healthy, when businesses resort to the downward spiral of offering 'More for Less' to build or shore up a statistic notion called 'marketshare'.

Let's take the most tangible of industries today - Manufacturing. To be competitive, a producer first needs to cut out the 'flab'. Sounds great so far, and lean organisation are also more likely to hire better people... But to maintain marketshare with new players continuously entering the fray, the producer is forced to start cutting 'cost' as well. Now if you cut input, the quality of output is bound to be impacted.

Soon, the only viable source is the cheapest source. First, for periheral inputs. Then it's for essentials. And finally, for the entire product!

When that happens across a category, the only differentiation that remains between products is the marketing behind their Brand / Label. But the Catch-22 here is that once the very essence of a Brand has been eroded or compromised, any advertising that claims a differentiation is bound to ring hollow and carry increasingly less meaning!

In short, the Brand becomes unsustainable.

Let's take a peek behind the scenes of the Advertising industry itself... Marketers slash budgets just when investments in new techniques are most desperately needed to save their Brands from the bleak sameness of outsourced products. With less earnings, Ad agencies scrimped on talent, when obviously a higher order of thinking is the obvious need of the hour. Meanwhile, cut-throat competition at play force Ad agencies to take the easy way to retain clients. THEY OFFER MORE FOR LESS!

Plying clients with value-adds, leading to roughly 60% of the work that leaves an Ad agency's front door going out as non-billable... Quality 0, Quantity 1.

Perhaps, it's time to invent a new game!

What do consumers buy?

In the previous post we saw the vision of Jesse Schell, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and the prospect of our future being centred around behaviour-modifying real-life games. Many of these exist - like the Frequent Flier Programmes where we accumulate points and redeemed for seemingly unrelated benefits. Only the scope of the game expands drastically as elements like the governance, taxation, employment, insurance, etc. are thrown into the mix!

Would it work? Yes, I think it would.

We, as consumers display tremendous cpacity to tolerate highly intrusive advertising messages and profile tracking. Even the privacy-fanatics are being drawn inexorably by design or by circumstance into parting with personal data in return for some perceived benefit.

This adds a new dimension to a line of thought I've been following for a week or so now: What is it that you and I as consumer actually buy? I mean, what is the parameter that helps us decide between brandnames and price tags?

We buy a mere notion called 'value'.

This perceived or notional value has very little to do real value! Think about every instance you picked a larger pack in a supermarket shelf just because it promised an extra quantity that you really didn't need. We mentally perceive only the lower cost per unit.

Buyer 1, Seller 0. In our minds, it's a game. And we've just scored a point!

Life is a game?

Yet, that is what a (seemingly highly accomplished) professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Jesse Schell, envisions as one possibility in the future!

1. We are reaching out desperately from our near-completely artificial environment toward anything that seems to be from the 'real world'. As example, he points to the wildly successful virtual games of the recent that combined both real elements (like cash, interaction with friends, etc.), and virtual worlds (like Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc.)
2. Brands (and governement and everyone else) are going to use game-like point systems designed to modify our behaviour in our daily life. That is, we live a giant game!
3. What sibsidises it is Advertising... Ubiquitous. All-pervasive. Highly intrusive. Created by all-knowing Advertisement-spawning entities that tracking every activity.

...A wholely plausible, and equally frightening prospect! (Hmmm... This is feeding into another line of thought!)

1 Mar 2010

Business sectors vs. User sectors

It beagan about two weeks ago, when a fellow Creative Director, Ramesh P, sent me an intriguing article published in the online edition of The Wall Street Journal by Dr. Y.L.R. Moorthi, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

Granted it is not a well-edited piece of journalistic exposition, it does not even end conclusively. But in it's synopsis, it is nothing less than shocking. And true!

According to the author, in today's business, there is no identifiable competition to compete against!

To illustrate... A few years ago, neither Nikon nor Canon imagined that more Indians in 2010 would use a camera on a Nokia. No recording label expected more Indians to be buying music from a telecom company, Airtel (packaged as caller-tunes). Most airline had not anticipated losing more passengers in a year to video-conferencing services than to rivals in the aviation sector. And no-one saw the mobile device space being pushed furthest by an erstwhile search engine (Google's Android), a mere computer-maker (Apple's iPhone), and a much-maligned software company (Microsoft phone).

No business can tell who its next rival is... In short, it is full and total anarchy out there!!!

The article started a train of thought that slowed enough for me to catch-up only today! And here at this Thought-Station, I shall try to couple this still-chugging view to that of brands (and advertising) as mere commodities... And together let's where it all takes us!

I'll start here.

There are two types of businesses today:

One, creates a solution for a core user-group, and when assured of moderate success, splinters the offering into near-infinite variants - and with the help of Marketing and Advertising, tries to PUSH the solution to an wider audience in the name of 'growth'. In my opinion, this horizontal expansion serves nothing more than to dilute the brands appeal to the core user-group.

The other type of business, creates a solution for a core user-group, and when it sees moderate success, creates a new solution around the evolving needs of the same core user-group - i.e. they PULL user on to a new solution using advocacy and experience. Which essentially is marketing and advertising in a new, user-friendly package! This, in my view, is the sort of vertical growth that will differentiate successful brands in the future.

A.k.a, de-commodification, if I may!

To illustrate... What would serve an athletics brand better in the long run? Moving horizontally into the ubiquitous blandness of 'youthful, lifestyle'? Or vertically into innovative athletics equipment? They could be doing both? Sure. But not if they were serious about either!

I maintain that the brand that focuses on 'growing on' their core user-group would eventually grow stronger.

But what about advertising in all this?

What else, grow on the core user-group, godammit! Forget the 30sec TVC. Forget the 15% of press. Forget the 30% margin on production. Forget the formula. Forget being appendages of the Marketing Department. Let us reinvent ourselves, and become partners in product development. Create training modules for sales staff. Devise distribution channels...

Let's grow on our brands!