Last Sunday I was sternly censured by the professional cook hired for the baby’s birthday for procuring ‘Indian’ Del Monte Penne Pasta as opposed to the ‘imported’ version available assuredly at Modern Bazaar. A similar experience stood out from many years ago when a bartender at an office party had been equally scathing when compelled to serve a locally brewed version of Teacher’s Highland Cream as opposed to the bootlegged version. As global brands necessarily produce locally to cater to consumer and P&L demands, a comparison of quality between the seemingly ‘authentic’ and the definitely indigenous productions is inevitable. This is exactly why the transnational corporation must necessarily invest in a Mirror Branding strategy, the ability to manage clearly differing experiences of the same brand.
At times, certainly, the difference in taste is deliberate, the strategy implemented to cater to differing sensibilities, historically or by attitude. A classic case in point is the chocolate bar industry, where sweetening for the Indian palate separates the Dairy Milk or Kit Kat available elsewhere in the universe. Not a reduction in quality but simply a change of ingredient, leading to an orchestrated disruption between the familiar and the new. This is true in certain other categories as well, for instance Lay’s chips where the spiciness is calibrated depending on the alkalinity of the target audience, as well as the proliferation of certain SKUs that are dependent on beef and pork. Here too, most importantly, the departure is by choice as the success of the variant depends squarely on its congeniality to the Indian palate, certainly differentiated from every other peer in the civilised world.
At other times, however, the difference is a matter of origin, due to the difficulty or price of sourcing the accurate elements, which leads to the difference in the experience. This is certainly true for every brand of liquor that I know of and also certain cosmetics that enjoy a global life, as confirmed by regulars who are used to this ensemble. This leads to choosing the grey market or imported versions deliberately over the locally-manufactured produce, in spite of both technically conforming to identical brand values. Invariably the perceived original is considered to be a ‘better’ product, leading to the notion that inferior ingredients are used in India, fuelling a long-held notion that we are lower in the value chain when it comes to genuine pedigree of sourcing materials. Even in high-end automobiles there was a serious belief that the European manufacturers actually compromised on key parts. Nowadays, however, such conversations can no longer be heard.
Certain areas where this pattern is suitably evaded include consumer electronics, a function certainly of standardised global procurement and hospitality, where the Indian standards are higher than global benchmarks. Which proves quite clearly that wherever there is strategic standardisation like the first case, both reality and perception clearly confirms that the same product is available worldwide, truly conforming to the diktat of one world- one brand. Equally, in the case of the latter, where the Indian customer’s expectations from ‘service’ is way ahead of her Western counterpart, even the most structured branding system must become more flexible, a pattern also followed by Pizza Hut when they first launched in Delhi as well as Air Asia India. So, a Western customer arriving at a Hilton property in India actually gets amazed by the superior levels of customer care, which to the chronically pampered Indian user still falls short of the Indian super-deluxe chains. For the cases of Uber and Avis, the difference in standards is usually southwards once again, a function clearly of the lower levels of education and exposure of the Indian provider. In all of the above, there is no comparable grey-market version in India unlike physical products, so the comparison with overseas experiences is easier to manage.
Where companies must formulate the Mirror Branding Strategy is particularly in the case of dual availability, just like a Teacher’s Highland Cream or Dove Body Lotion or even Kit Kat chocolate, starting with trade management. In an ideal scenario, trade practices should ensure that only one version of a brand is available in a single geography, thus limiting the debate to foreign visits and not the routine sojourn to the neighbourhood market. If that is not possible then the stocking should be in a similar space with clearly demarcated origins and price points, unlike the current segmentation practices of Indian retail shelves and ‘imported’ retail shelves. Connected to this must be proactive customer communication, chiefly online and in the retail space, where the company openly admits that its brands are available worldwide and multiple versions are available to Indian customers. The tastes and flavours may well differ as they have been customised for local sentiments, like a language translation, not a question of being better or worse but simply deliberately different. In certain other cases, the peculiarity of a specific source, like the water used for Budweiser Beer, must be clearly articulated to reiterate that while the brand is the same; the product does acquire some flavours of every region.
From currently being in a sense of denial about the mirror clones, arguably of better vintage, corporations must own up publicly to this dichotomy in experience, effectively eliminating the concerns about inferior levels of sourcing, instead educating stakeholders about ‘real’ versus ‘genuine’. We live today in a real and transparent world where the public is deeply appreciative of sincere proactive candour, as opposed to a veil of ambiguity that marked previous eras. For brands with multiple versions of products from different countries, Mirror Branding is a necessary strategy for ensuring consumer confidence in the global and not just local brand franchise.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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