Why good branding needs bad villains…

Eufemia Didonato

About good brands taking on the bad and ugly. Alfred Hitchcock had said, “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture”. The colossal blockbuster success of movies like The Dark Knight and Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame in recent years; does seem to indicate that the master director […]

About good brands taking on the bad and ugly.

Alfred Hitchcock had said, “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture”. The colossal blockbuster success of movies like The Dark Knight and Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame in recent years; does seem to indicate that the master director had a point. Closer home, think of what Sholay would be like without Gabbar Singh, or Mr. India without Mogambo. Even the riveting nature of Indian epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharat owe a debt of gratitude to the evils that needed to be overcome in the complex, but fascinating characterizations of Ravana, Duryodhana and Shakuni among others.

Any story needs a credible and often powerful antagonist, to appropriate audience attention. In Joseph Campbell’s structure of the narrative, this would probably constitute the challenging part of the journey, which the hero has to endure and overcome. In Indian mythological traditions, these are the ‘pareeksha ki ghadi’ (with no reference to the detergent brand) moments, where the protagonists rise to live up to their ‘dharma’.

Eventually, what is the process of branding, if not the creation of interesting stories around products? That is why taking on evils or ‘villains’-to put it in more cinematic terms, has always made so much sense, when it comes to spinning riveting brand tales.

This casting for the villain of the piece can assume several forms…

1-Could be a rival

This approach has been best exemplified by brands like Pepsi and Apple, when they assumed the mantle of challenger brands and took on the market leader. The attempt was clearly to portray the main competitor-Coke and IBM (in the best years of this strategy unfolding), as large, cold, impersonal and almost dictatorial in their outlook. It made for a very relatable entry point for these brands, and an opportunity to build empathy with their audience. Typically a spirit of rebellion was ignited against the established order. And who doesn’t want to be a part of that? Later versions of this casting have seen the likes of TV news channels in India going for each other’s jugular (in fine print of course). This modus operandi has literally become the default mode for all kind of political campaigns the world over. Seems like having someone to shoot down, definitely lends a sense of direction and purpose to branding efforts.

2-Could be an entity

Think of those unsightly, disgusting things that are often uncomfortably magnified for the viewer’s comprehension. These include microscopic menaces like germs and plaque, and some slightly larger ones like dirt, dandruff and mosquitoes. Brands make it their business to unleash weapons of mass destruction on these, ‘not so poor critters’. Exterminating them with great success rate is flaunted; at times citing even 99.9% of all targets being eliminated; the fractional percentage of survivors perhaps being the ones who turned informers. Toothpaste, detergent, soap and shampoo brands embrace these types of nemeses. Even pest control vapourizers and aerosol brands have taken to this, despite at times finding the violence involved quite repellant. Sometimes this approach also finds manifestation in an actual person; naukri.com’s memorable ‘Hari Sadu’ commercial first showcased how the boss has always been an ‘evil’ employees have had to grapple with. Hence from the molecular to the malevolent, this strategy presents brands with many things to bring down a notch.

3-Could be a ritual

Some rituals can be tedious, and that’s not even talking about the filing of income tax returns. In times when people want things at the snap of their fingers, anything which takes a second longer gets labeled as ‘bad’. Think of how the growing pile of dishes in the basin these days sends shivers, especially in terms of the ‘wasted time’ involved. Reflect on how people dread the thought of waiting in never ending lines at banks, just to get simple things resolved. Muse over how the very thought of making the rounds at insurance offices to get claims settled, can transform even the most docile person into a desi Darth Vader, in terms of trying to ‘force’ her way through. Getting rid of superfluous rituals, or at least lessening them to an extent has always been a fertile conversational ground for brands. And where the likes of Swiggy and Zomato, have overcome even the need to step out to eat one’s favorite food; this definitely presents food for thought.

4-Could be an age old dogma

In presenting an alternative perspective to debilitating, long held ‘traditional’ beliefs, brands can sometimes truly elevate themselves. This opens dialogue, far beyond the confines of the category conversation. Here, the opportunity is to influence mainstream culture and push it in a more progressive direction. Many brands which are striving to be ‘higher purpose’ driven, try to operate in this arena. One example along these lines was Idea’s iconic ‘caste war’ storyline, which used the concept of numbers being caste and religion agnostic, to spread a message of harmony. More recently, Colgate’s new tale around remarriage of senior citizens is ushering in some smiles for this approach. Brands are eventually agents of change, and the more they are able to communicate an opinion on important things, the more likely their messages are likely to go beyond mere transactional triggers and into the hearts, minds and conversations of people. They can be heroic beacons in a movement towards a better world. But some really big villains will have to be defeated along that path.

In the end, there can be other kinds of ‘villains’ that brands could address. This, by no means, is an exhaustive list. And in this month which ushers in myriad Indian festivals celebrating the conquest of good over evil, it might be an appropriate time to take that same perspective to brand strategy as well. It is important to remember, before someone becomes a consumer, she is first an audience for the brand. An audience who stays invested only if interested. And there’s something about bad boys which has always riveted human fascination.

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