[ This one’s a little long. But worth it. And if you read through it all, there’s a ……. ]

Being consistent was such a virtue all these years for brands. Of course it still works for most brands most of the time. But there are diminishing returns on consistency for brands in the times in which we live. Of course we are not talking here of consistency in quality – that definitely needs to continue! We are talking here of the consistency in branding, standardised marketing and promotional activities.

In 2013, marketers, brand managers & agency folks must never forget that the consumer has become highly sceptical and bored of our messaging. Good service is expected and only the lack of it elicits a reaction. Hardsell is a put-off – there is far too much information & brand messaging overload. Everyone needs a break from the brands selling us all the time. One of the many reasons we lap up a Kolaveri or a Gangnam Style video is that it doesn’t try to TELL or SELL us anything.

And in those virals and memes there is a hidden message for us. There is an element of surprise and discovery in those seemingly inane videos.

That’s the 5th P of marketing – surPrise. (“Hey, that’s not a P, it’s an S”. “Well, surprise!!”)

Olacabs surPrises its customers on its birthday!
Olacabs surPrises its customers on its birthday!

Now, can we make it work for more serious stuff – like branding and marketing?

The scarcity of attention

Once upon a time in the consumer-land there was largely a scarcity of money, then there came a scarcity of time and now there is a new scarcity of attention that marketers must contend with, but refuse to acknowledge. How do you get across to the guy with a remote and a DVR and a shrinking attention span? The cutest ads and the corniest lines get a short shrift. Even Ogilvy can’t make Vodafone ads work all the time!

Today, branded communication is in competition with cute cats,  cuter kids from a billion posts and albums, in-depth and/or banal conversation and other stuff that the consumer  spends her time on across multiple screens. The same old communication strategies don’t get us the same old results anymore.

The New New Economy

Everything around is changing at warp speed. We are now in the middle of the New New Economy. And in this economy , the consumer doesn’t want the same things to be repeated to him. Many consumers expect to be shown a new idea every single ad exposure, sirji?

If you watch a full length film on any of the movie channels you will realise the enormous nuisance quotient of branded-advertising today!

Surely, going forward this interruption-by-annoying model of advertising is not going to give optimal results. And we are being very generous here. We need to invent a better mouse trap based on this glaring, growing reality in our face!

As we look around the brandscape in a consumer connected era, we find that the brands that get lapped up, liked on facebook, get retweeted on twitter have a common thread. In their brand story, marketing play customer interface and service, there is a strong dose of surPrise!

Whether it’s the quirky mega brand Google that constantly plays with it’s logo and has eschewed all established thinking on logos and branding, or our homegrown youth icon brand – fastrack that has challenged its followers on facebook to give it 10 mn likes in exchange for a name change or a start-up brand Ola Cabs that offered cab rides at auto prices, each of theses brands has managed to surprise the customer!

Using surPrise as a tactical or strategic marketing tool challenges our thinking. We grew up with a watertight model of brand consistency. Right from the brand colour ( just the right pantone shade :-) to the entire campaign having a similar look & feel, consistency in strategy and execution were always the hallmark of a successful advertising and branding campaign.

Even when media proliferated. When 360 communication was the reigning mantra of branding, it was lead by consistency.

But consistency often kills spontaneity. And today consumers are looking for their favourite brands to surprise them. Whether you are a mega brand or a neighbourhood brand, you can pack in a whole lot of surprises. And your consumers will love you for that!

surPrise with Stories

One of the things that most brands forget to factor in their marketing is how smart consumers have become over time – they are very smart at tuning out the noise of the brands. They use the remote, the Tata Sky recorder, youtube to filter and avoid all the repetitive, unnecessary brand messages.

The key words here are repetitive, boring, hyped, outright lies, unsubstantiated claims.  However, the same consumer is quite open to new stories about the brand.

Imagine a new high-end range of wooden furniture telling you about how the wood used is from the ‘renewable forest area’. It’s a new story. An authentic one. It adds to the allure, charm , story appeal of the brand for it’s TG. (by the way the brand is Mother Earth )

Using story-as-surPrise has always worked for hotels – big and small. People are very fascinated with the stories of who stayed in the room before – a Bollywood Diva, a princess, an ex President. The story is amplified when narrated with embellishments by the manager or the hotel chef!

And every brand in every category can surPrise its customers. Soap or chocolate brands can tell stories of ingredients ( and what they can do for you), mobile phone brands can share infographics on feature evolution, wine brands could share stories of a wine sommelier and so on…

surPrise with Context

A lot of ‘Post-Advertising’ advertising is about context. When brands ignore the context, to the savvy consumer (now also prosumer) their claims and messages sound hollow (which they often are).

Two societal events captured the imagination of people over the last year – first the Anna movement against corruption and recently the groundswell of protest over the brutal rape and killing of the Delhi girl.

Around both events, almost all the brands that had anything to do with women ( Femina, Dove, etc.) or even corruption (eg. Tata Tea – Jaago Re) largely stayed away from the events. They were busy staying married to their standard messages and their media plans.

Of course it’s difficult and very challenging for most brands to weave in context into their branded narrative. Their ad agencies , PR departments and communication managers were not trained for that . In fact we were all raised to stay away from real context. Brands were happy in their silo make-believe-happy-faces-self-centred world.

But consumers have moved on. In the same internet session, a consumer can like the facebook contest of a noodle brand, sign an online petition on cause.org and snap a deal at an e-commerce site.

Brands will have to recognise and smartly weave into this contextual world of the prosumer. Or else the more media monies they spend, the less they might get!

surPrise with Technology

Till a decade or so back , technology was a just a feature in most of the products we consumed. It was very important but largely hidden. We were happy looking at the shiny packaging of products  and many of us even built our identities around the branded messaging and icons.

But this is no longer the case now. Look at a branded eco-system like Google. With it’s search, email, browser, maps, wallet, picasa, places – we the consumer have an intimate relationship with the brand based on pure technology and user experience. We don’t even remember ever seeing a Google or a Facebook or an Amazon ad. True Flipkart does a lot of advertising, but for many the brand relationship is built more on it’s technology supported ‘famed delivery system’, user experience rather than its initially interesting but eventually repetitive advertising!

And technology is now no longer just for mega brands or certain categories. Hotels can make surPrising apps to enhance their discoverability. Small vacation resorts can use the technology based review platform – TripAdvisor to build their brand and surPrise the off-beat traveller with their service. Neighbourhood mom-& pop brands can use technology to make their own neighbouthood newspaper using paper.li or pinterest  and surprise the consumer with their in-depth knowledge of the local stuff.

Most service brands must use twitter (some like Airtel are already using it effectively) to address customer complaints and surPrise with real-time (and, of course, useful) response.

surPrise with Humanness

The world no longer only operates on  an industrial era paradigm. Yes we do manufacture cars, trains, ships, chips and all kinds of machines on assembly line. But the branding infrastructure built on the manufacturing era of mass media and mass messaging is creaking and not working as efficiently as it did in the past .

The reason is not difficult to fathom. Rapid changes in technology, the existence of parallel information and creative economies and social media led connectivity has shifted a lot of value to human interaction and ‘humanness’!

Consumers want to be treated as audience of One. Many no  longer want to be clubbed as SEC A, age 35. A single fits-all tagline, headline or a single campaign crafted with strategic insight, care and perfection in ad agencies is unable to engage the customer for long.

Brands now need to display humanness in the last mile – surPrise them at the store (plan to keep a few ‘unplanned’ giveaways),  in the community in which they operate (offer to host something, or sponsor something with nothing in return), in their CSR initiatives, inside the films and video based entertainment they buy their way into, in the packaging. It’s even possible to surPrise consumers in the invoices (fortune cookies did a great job in a similar context!) that you make for them, definitely when you make them wait on call centre lines, on twitter, on facebook, and even in the Terms & Conditions of a product or service purchase!

Surprise consumers with humanness – Be ready to bend or even break a few rules for certain customers, or certain situations – and you will be surprised at the attention, loyalty, WOM publicity that they will shower you in return!

surPrise in Real-Time

Would you agree that ‘Real time is the new Prime Time’? Consumers expect brands to surprise them with real time information. Sometimes it’s location based in real time, other times it’s context based in real time. Its still about context, but the important thing is the ability to recognize opportunities and react on the fly.

Whether you are a cafe brand trying to retain a seemingly ‘disloyal and shifting youth audience’ or a micro credit  brand trying to get through the time starved donor, or a new local restaurant brand trying to do neighbourhood marketing, information and utility offered to the consumer in real time could be your best possible chance to achieve your goals. With enough technologies that let you figure out who the consumer is, a random positive surprise on their birthday will go a long way. You don’t need to do much – a gift wrapped delivery with a card is plenty, when done without too much fanfare or PR effort. Let the delighted customer do that for you.

As a brand owner/manager, do not ignore real time ideas from employees, real time conversations with consumers, real time feedback from vendors, real time happenings in the surroundings.  Surprise your consumers with authentic participation, benefits and random acts of kindness and see your business grow and WOM publicity shoot .

Everyone loves a surPrise. As the marketing edifice is gradually morphing into a more open, more participative, more collaborative one, have a surPrise or two up your sleeve! You might be pleasantly surPrised at the ROI it gives you.

[ … treat at the end! ] And as we leave you with those thoughts, here’s something we thought we should surPrise you with

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With over 16 years of advertising strategy, branding and digital planning experience, across JWT, Ogilvy, Leo Burbett, Digitas, Manish Sinha is now co-founder at travel start-up – Oravel.com & curates neighbourhood brands in Gurgaon – Cinnamon Stays – a homestay and Tikdam – a quirky creative studio.