May 27, 2011

Masters in metamorphosis

What I do for a living was difficult for me to explain about 8 years ago even when I first started work. Over time one would have imagined clarity would have descended upon me and I would not have to fumble or think twice if asked that question. It has only gotten more complex (I wouldn't like to say worse) - thankfully this time...not just for me but for many others who I speak to :)

So here are the interesting bits

For a long time now, there isn't one single organization I have worked for. What started off as freelancing ended up as 'open' work arrangements where I would give only a part of my time to an organization sometimes working with 2 or even 3 of them at the same time ranging from market research to brand communication to retail design. Some days ago, I was called for an interview for a full time position in an advertising agency. Full time was the hitch though the recruitment consultant persuaded me...go ahead and meet them at least. What do you stand to lose anyway? To be honest I felt a little foolish going for a meeting knowing very well I would not be throwing away my existing work contracts. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility of working in diverse areas. I called a friend (a veteran ad professional) to ask her whether i could suggest to this agency the possibility of working as consultant...would it sound too outlandish ? Her response took me by surprise. Are you kidding me she said, who in this day and age commits all their time to one organization! Now I know that might not be a universal truth but it is becoming more and more prevalent. She then went on to cite the instance of another advertising professional she knew who worked at two competing ad agencies at the same time and they both hired him knowing very well he worked with a competitor. On his part he had to tread the confidentiality line cautiously. But that is not an impossibility.

A conversation with another colleague whose career graph has moved from teaching to copy writing to information design on social media and writing for children, was about how as professionals it is imperative today that we invent and reinvent ourselves, else start feeling obsolete. Gone are the days when people specialized in one core skill and stayed with it for their lifetime.

A few others I know mention that whenever they need to switch jobs it is close to impossible to seek help from a recruitment consultant since those consultants who are used to understanding the water-tight world of neatly chalked out job definitions very often do not understand what kind of a job role to fit them into and therefore end up randomly matching key words and sending them leads which do not make any sense

Some one else (an enterprising digital marketing consultant) saw this as an opportunity to offer resource management as a supplementary skill to his clients. He has been with the industry long enough to understand the kind of people that would best fit the requirements of this industry. Digital marketing being a relatively new area, there is little chance for anyone to find people with a specific degree or academic lineage that would be a straight fit. Brand planning is another such specialization I am told. It is a decade old practice in many agencies in India. In the initial days client servicing guys who understood the agency business well graduated to brand planning.With the field maturing and competition intensifying there is a need to hire 'specialists'. Ironically the specialist could come from (not advertising but) a related industry -brand communication or research / consumer insight agencies.

So what is all this leading to...

  • Going forward we may see open organizations - lose collaborations between working professionals who come together for a project.

  • Open job definitions - I have already seen this happening in some organizations which are lean and each employee plays more than one role. So the brand planner also doubles up as a copy-right expert and the office boy also offers basic IT support. And all this is possible made due to the sheer appetite to learn

  • Maybe more 'generalizations' rather than 'specializations' in academic programs. Today's newspaper carried an advert of a private university in Gujrat offering a program in liberal studies - a choice based learning approach where one could chose to study music and economics as electives perhaps. How one applies these unique skills to earn a livelihood would be a challenge but an interesting one at that !

  • And on a more fundamental level - it would allow us to define our own benchmarks, boundaries of competition and metrics of success. After all how many people do you know who combine knowledge about consumer insights and the subconscious mind with maybe retail design? :)

Nov 2, 2010

Indian Ingenuity, jugaad and customer support

Indian Ingenuity or 'jugaad' as it is locally known is now a globally accepted term and philosophy. It features in the HBR and the management gurus and media love discussing at lenght whether the jugaad mindset is helping India & indians grow economically or does this mindset reinforce the constraints that first led to the birth of this way of working and therefore keep us living in compromised situations. Just google 'jugaad' and 'indian ingenuity' to follow the intellectual discourse on the subject

It is difficult to define since it encompasses the creation of alternatives, substitutes, improvisations and make-dos that is spurred by a native inventiveness which is characteristic of a culture steeped in scarcity and survival. It has inspired the creation of hybrid vehicles used as transport in Indian villages to the corner stores on the street making the pc / mobile technology more accessible to masses at a fraction of a cost to the local electrical making a contraption that functions as a home appliance and what have you!

Here is one more such jugaad solution that I encountered.

I had to get my Braun hand blender fixed. Turns out that Braun does not have an authorized serviced network in India. A local vendor promised to fix it for me and actually did, although getting spare parts for Braun products is not that simple.

The man imports a few pieces of Braun's original appliances. He then dismantles them completely. And sells it piece by piece. If I need a plastic joinery for my blender he would happily replace it with a new one and charge me a small premium for that part. Though I know I am being over-charged I pay it gladly. Why? I would have had to otherwise junk my machine entirely. He benefits since the sum of his parts make up more than the whole. Reverse synergy in action here :) It is a win-win situation for both of us.

I can bet my last buck that if i requested / expected such help from a branded service shop - it would be years before they would relent and offer anything close to this. Though I wonder why?

Do brands become less agile...less responsive as they grow?

As for the debate - yes the jugaad solution did prevent me from junking my old appliance and getting a new one. And an economist might argue that my truncated spending cycle does not do much good to the economic growth that gets spurred by consumer spending. Blah!

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Bathroom Blogfest 2010 : And finally airlines with Gender specific loos

Nearly fives years back I had asked a rhetorical question here on my blog.

Why don’t they have gender specific restrooms on board? If its not enough that there is such a paucity of space in the restrooms – the thought about & experience of using the unisex restrooms makes me want to never get on an aircraft again. I am sure the information on the number of male / female passengers is captured while people are boarding and it’s possible to allocate 1 or more of the restrooms exclusively for women depending on the traffic

I was delighted to find that someone...somewhere is listening. Even it is just a few...airlines have started this trend.

A reuter's press release confirmed that - Women flying Japan's All Nippon Airways will have a toilet all to themselves from next month, with the airline designating one restroom on most international routes as female-only. South Korea's Korean Air has been offering similar facilities.

Even a small change like that can make such a big difference to a person's experience with & how one feels about a brand.

Way to go ANA !

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Bathroom Blogfest 2010: On bathrooms stuck in the 60's and unrealistic advertising

For the past five years a group of bloggers - experts in marketing, customer experience and service, public relations, library sciences, museums, home & interior design, life, retail, flooring and healthcare - have been blogging about what could improve the overall bathroom experience for end users. What started as a group of 10 – 12 bloggers has this year expanded to 40. This blog fest has proved to be a real effective medium for accessing a diverse set of views on a subject in a short span of time. The content is rich with people posting pictures and their experiences around great looking washrooms and what is desirable. It happens every year in the last week of Oct. I am late in posting this – though have been contributing for the last 4 years and did not have the heart to break the chain J

“This year’s theme “Stuck in the 60s?” is inspired by Mad Men, the show that has captured the imaginations of many for its portrayal of life in the 60s when social and cultural taboos meant that many critical aspects of life – like bathrooms – were ignored, glossed over and treated dreadfully,” said Christine B. Whittemore, who manages the Bathroom Blogfest. “The result is that end users suffered. By calling attention to modern day instances that are “Stuck in the 60s?”, we can reinforce the value associated with being more responsive to the end user experience.

But what happens if for the end user – life is really still stuck in the 60s? For a lot of people living in India and South-east Asia, the reality is that their washrooms still have stone / cemented surfaces (as opposed to tiles). The sanitary wear is not always in ceramic…it could stone or some toughened fiber like material on which hard water creates white stains / patches. For a lot of these houses bathrooms are not about squeaky clean shiny surfaces or fresh fragrances. Stains and odors are a reality they live with and bathrooms are forgotten areas of the house – forgotten by everyone else except the woman of the house whose job it is to maintain the minimum standards of hygiene.

This is a fairly large segment of the market that currently is out of the loop of branded bathroom cleaners. They use harsh local products like chemicals to get rid of tough stains and the acrid smelling bleach to kill every other odor in their toilets. For a marketer this is a fairly attractive untapped marketing opportunity.

Where does the problem lie?

Current communication through advertising and to a certain extent even current product formulations do not acknowledge and address this reality. Adverts generally show aesthetically done up, fragrant smelling, spa-like, large bathrooms on which a mere spray and wipe ritual by the lady of the house and the magic of the product would restore it to its former pristine state. Consumers don’t buy this story and buy their product. For starters their bathrooms do not look like the one in the adverts. No matter how of the magic formula is poured – a dark cemented surface is not likely to transform into something else. For the few who even try such product – do not find much evidence of the product working. The ads talk about ‘shine’ as evidence or ‘germ kill’. Both these markers for product performance are difficult to believe. ‘Shine’ is an intrinsic property of certain surfaces and absent in others. Products cannot greatly alter this condition. ‘Germs’ are not visible. In the absence of a visible code for germs - consumers understand ‘germs’ in terms of ‘bad odor’. If a bleach like product neutralizes all odors – germs have been effectively killed. What is the need for a specialized branded cleaner then?

For a long time we have been given to believe – that advertising cannot be realistic. Things will only sell if advertising is aspirational. Aspirational yes…but how much is the question?

Food for thought: What is the brand’s outlay on advertising vis-à-vis product development? No amount of glib talk can compensate for a poor / irrelevant product.

You will find other bloggers contributing to the blogfest this year in the list below

BloggerBlog NameBlog URL
Susan AbbottCustomer Experience Crossroads
Paul AnaterKitchen and Residential Design
Shannon BilbyBig Bob's Outlet
Shannon BilbyCarpets N More Blog
Shannon BilbyDolphin Carpet Blog
Shannon BilbyFrom The Floors Up
Shannon BilbyMy Big Bob's Blog
Toby Bloomberg Diva Marketing
Laurence Borel Blog Till You Drop
Bill BuyokAvente Tile Talk Blog
Jeanne Byington The Importance of Earnest Service
Becky CarrollCustomers Rock!
Marianna Chapman Results Revolution
Katie Clark Practial Katie
Nora DePalma American Standard's Professor Toilet
Nora DePalma O'Reilly DePalma: The Blog
Leigh Durst LivePath Experience Architect Weblog
Valerie FritzThe AwarepointBlog
Iris GarrottChecking In and Checking Out
Tish GrierThe Constant Observer
Renee LeCroyYour Fifth Wall
Joseph MichelliDr. Joseph Michelli's
Veronika MillerModenus Blog
Arpi NalbandianTILE Magazine Editor Blog
Maria PalmaPeople 2 People Service
Reshma Bachwani ParitoshThe Qualitative Research Blog
David PolinchockPolinchock's Ponderings
Victoria Redshaw & Shelley Pond Scarlet Opus Trends Blog
David ReichMy 2 Cents
Sandy Renshaw Around Des Moines
Sandy Renshaw Purple Wren
Bethany RichmondCarpet and Rug Institute Blog
Bruce SandersRIMtailing Blog
Steve TokarPlease Be Seated
Carolyn TownesBecoming a Woman of Purpose
Stephanie WeaverExperienceology
Christine B. WhittemoreFlooring The Consumer
Christine B. WhittemoreSimple Marketing Blog
Christine & Ted WhittemoreSmoke Rise & Kinnelon Blog
Christine B. WhittemoreThe Carpetology Blog
Linda WrightLindaLoo Build Business With Better Bathrooms