"Today’s marketers are certainly not curious enough; they tend to rest on their laurels all too easily. They don’t spend enough time with their consumers,” says Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian, Tata Sons Ltd, author of the book The Curious Marketer

Post On : 02-05-2017 | Tuesday

"Today’s marketers are certainly not curious enough; they tend to rest on their laurels all too easily. They don’t spend enough time with their consumers,” says Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian, Tata Sons Ltd, author of the book The Curious Marketer


Q] Which are the brands, besides the ones from the Tata stable, that are good examples of constantly re-inventing themselves and staying ahead of the curve… Indian or global?

A brand that has constantly reinvented itself (or should I say himself), and has done so brilliantly, is James Bond. This is a brand that is over 50 years old, but see how different and contemporary Daniel Craig’s James Bond is today in the recent movie Spectre, compared to Sean Connery in the very first Bond movie Dr. No. The essence of James Bond continues to be the same (fearless, flirtatious British spy with a licence to kill), but note how everything else has changed – the technology, the settings, the cars, the gadgets that Q makes for Bond, and even the dapper modern suits that James Bond wears today.  Because James Bond has been reinvented, he remains so very relevant to today’s audience, and hence virtually every Bond movie delivers a hit and makes a fortune.

I know this is an unconventional example, because it is not from the world of products and services, but 007 is surely an example that should inspire marketers to reinvent their own brands.


Q] Do you think marketers today are curious enough? What are the real challenges they are facing today, in times when the role of a marketer itself seems to be undergoing dynamic changes?

No, in my view, today’s marketers are certainly not curious enough. They tend to rest on their laurels all too easily. Often, many experienced marketers think they know it all, and hence do not search in interesting new areas. They don’t spend enough time with their consumers, who are of course changing beneath their noses.

Younger marketers mistake digital surfing and data analysis for curiosity, which unfortunately it is not. Curiosity requires marketers to search, to observe, to reflect on these observations, and to internalize relevant insights and learnings from this voyage. How many marketers do this, in today’s times ?

The biggest challenge that marketers face today is that their consumers are changing much faster than they are. When this happens, marketers will end up being sadly outdated.


Q] Does this innate natural curiosity seem to take a backseat with the pressures of Return on Investment (ROI) taking on a whole new meaning?

Curiosity can deliver fresh new ideas to marketers, which can trigger new growth opportunities and fantastic ROI as well. An excellent illustration of this is a nice story about Steve Jobs that I have narrated in my book – how his curiosity led to the brilliant designs of Apple products, and this has eventually led to the creation of one of the most financially successful companies of our generation. Would anyone argue that Apple does not have good ROI, or acceptable market capitalization, because it was born out of curiosity? Of course, the ideas that curiosity generates have to be validated, because each such idea may not yield acceptable financial returns. But without curiosity, your starting point becomes that much weaker.


Q] What is the insight behind ‘The Curious Marketer’, what prompted you to write a book on this subject? What does it aim to do? When did you start writing it? What helped you write it?

The simple insight behind my book The Curious Marketer is that marketers who are curious have a far better strike rate at being successful. And every marketer can increase his or her curiosity quotient by following seven simple and practical steps, which I have explained in my book.

I wrote this book because I am a very curious person. I am curious about the places I visit, the people I meet, the food I eat, the teas and coffees I drink, the things I see around me. And for the past three decades, I have also been a very keen marketer in the Tata Group. So this book stands at a natural junction of my curiosity and my experience as a marketer.

The only objective of this book is for readers to get a glimpse of what a wonderful thing curiosity is, and how they can become more curious than they already are. All the 50-odd essays in this book try to nudge readers towards this goal. It took me a little more than three years to write all the essays contained in this book. The Tata Group has a very supportive environment, that implicitly encourages employees like me to embark on constructive initiatives such as this, in areas of our interest. I think this was clearly the single most helpful factor in the writing of the book. And then of course, since I write primarily over the weekend, it also helps greatly that my family always provides me the space and time that is so essential to good writing. I consider myself very fortunate that both my professional home (the Tata Group) and my personal home (my family) are both very encouraging of my desire and urge to write. 


Q] In your many years as a marketer what is your biggest learning? In hindsight, which is that one campaign/marketing decision you would take differently today given a chance?

My biggest learning is that any brand, any product or service, should be built on a sharp consumer insight. This consumer insight should reflect a key consumer need, or a problem in the consumer’s life that our brand can help solve. Sometimes, the consumer may be aware of the need, and sometimes she may not be explicitly aware. That does not matter. The brand should still discover the need, and one good way of figuring it out is to be intensely curious about people, because people are our consumers.

There are many judgemental errors I have made over the years, and many marketing decisions I would have taken differently, with the benefit of hindsight. One of these stories comes from early in my career as a marketer, more than 25 years ago, when I helped launch a brand called Brahmaputra Tea. Unfortunately, this brand was not based on a very strong consumer need or insight, and so it does not exist anymore. On the other hand, other brands of tea that we launched, such as Tata Tea and Chakra Gold Tea, which were based on strong consumer insights, have gone on to become strong market leaders in India.


Q] Who among contemporary marketers of our generation, lives upto the title of a ‘Curious Marketer’ in India and globally?

Many great contemporary marketers are ‘Curious Marketers’ too. Steve Jobs of Apple, Xerxes Desai of Titan, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Darbari Seth, who inspired the creation of Tata Tea and Tata Salt, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Aamir Khan, whom I consider the marketing guru of Bollywood. All of them have been very curious marketers in their own spaces. I have had the privilege of seeing Xerxes Desai and Darbari Seth at close quarters within the Tata Group, and I know the restless curiosity that drove them, and helped them create world-class brands.


Q] You have said, in a very interesting manner, how marketers can learn from museums. Can you explain it briefly for the benefit of our readers who haven’t read your book yet?

Around two years ago, I visited two famous museums within a month of each other. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, and the British Museum in London. At the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, I was delighted to find the story of Mumbai city being told so enchantingly well through simple maps and exhibits, and a charming narration by our young guide. At the British Museum, there was a special exhibit on the history of Germany. Within an hour’s time, and through a few powerfully curated objects, the 600-year history of Germany had taken vivid birth in front of my eyes. When I reflected on these visits with a curious eye, I came to the conclusion that marketers can learn a lot about the art of story-telling from museums. Museums tell stories so much better, simpler and so much more powerfully than marketers generally do. In my book, I have narrated this entire experience, including the specific story-telling tips that marketers can pick up from museums.


Q] Which is your favourite chapter in the book?

Of course, the story of coloured socks, that’s my favourite. I had always worn boring brown or black or blue socks to office, until, one fine day, my wife bought me two pairs of highly multi-coloured socks. I call them ‘highly’ coloured because they had bright green, red, yellow and blue colours, all within a single pair of socks. I have narrated the curious voyage that these coloured socks led me on, and some of the very interesting learnings that coloured socks hold for marketers. To know more, please do read this chapter in my book, and I hope this inspires some new and curious ideas in your mind too!

Q] Could you share with us any interesting anecdotes, that took place while writing the book?

One curious and interesting anecdote relates to the epilogue of this book. My publisher called me sometime during the Diwali festival of 2016, to ask about the epilogue, and by when it would be ready. I was in a car at that time, with my wife and 22-year-old daughter, travelling from Delhi to BITS Pilani. I had no idea when the epilogue would be ready, because I had not even begun writing it. My daughter, overhearing the conversation, suddenly said, “Why don’t I write the epilogue? I have seen enough of your curiosity at home, and I can talk about all this very well, I think.” When I suggested this to my publisher, he surprisingly accepted the idea immediately. So when you read The Curious Marketer, I am sure this irreverent and rather critical epilogue written by my daughter will greatly interest you, even as it informs you about what curiosity can do to a family and to a young girl. It also provides you a millennial’s point of view on curiosity. Curiously enough, I also think this is the first book ever, that has an epilogue written by the author’s daughter.




While technology has not yet been able to create a working model of H.G. Wells’ time machine, perhaps brands can, says Harish Bhat in this excerpt from his book The Curious Marketer


Have you ever considered a brand of tea or jewellery or holiday travel as a time machine? The author H.G. Wells, in his book The Time Machine, wrote about a wondrous machine that could move human beings instantly from the current time to the past and the future. Other writers of science fiction have developed on this fantastical idea. Now, marketers must also learn to treat their brands as time machines.



Before you react to this statement with disbelief, permit me to quickly narrate two brand stories. Let me begin with my favourite breakfast cereal, Quaker Oats. They are now available not merely in the original natural variety, but also in exquisite diverse flavours that appeal to the Indian palate, such as Homestyle Spicy Masala, Lemony Veggie with Capsicum, or kesar with kishmish. What do these products promise me? First, they provide instant gratification on the breakfast table – a hot, spicy breakfast that can compare favourably on taste with idlis, pongal or dhokla. Second, an equally significant promise for the future – that consumption of oats will bring down my cholesterol levels, and keep me healthy for many more years. So you will note that Quaker Oats (or indeed, its worthy home-grown competitor Saffola Oats) offers me two clear benefits, one for the present and one for the future. Therefore, when you eat these cereals, you don’t have to sacrifice the present for the future, or vice versa. On the other hand, the brand, like a good time machine, transports us between benefits in both time zones. It is this unique “time machine” property that has made me switch to Quaker Oats for breakfast today. Contrast this with very tasty Indian breakfasts such as puris and aloo bhaji, or stuffed paneer parathas. Lots of instant gratification, but very little health benefit extending into the future. At the other end of the spectrum are the normal bland variety of oats or plain brown bread, which contain lots of goodness for the future, but offer little or no instant gratification on the breakfast table.



Another brand that has effectively played a similar “time machine” role is Taj Holidays. Promoted by the Taj group of hotels, the instant benefit which this brand offers for the present is a wonderful break from the routine, a place where you can pleasurably chill out with your spouse or family. You can do this on the beaches of Goa with a glass of wine, or in the jungle resorts of Madhya Pradesh chasing the sight of a tiger, or in Rajasthani palaces living the life of Rajput royalty for a few days. However, the brand also emphasises at least two future benefits of Taj Holidays – first and foremost, that the holiday will help refresh your relationship with your loved ones, leading to a more meaningfully positive life in the medium-term future; and second, that the holiday will create permanent happy memories for the long-term future, which you can always draw on even 10 or 20 years later, when the stresses of the real world are back upon you. No wonder so many of us long to get onto a Taj Holiday whenever we can, because this brand is, once again, a time machine, offering us benefits both in the now and the future.



Let me move from these specific stories to the important generic point of this article. My view is that there are several product and service categories where marketers can make their brands effective time machines. To do so, the brand has to cleverly emphasise both present and future benefits, and thus become a time machine which can transport consumers and their minds pleasurably and positively between these time zones. It is my hypothesis that many brands and categories don’t do this well enough today though they have the potential to, and are thus losing out on building far stronger appeal to their consumers.

For instance, consider the product category of gymnasiums and health clubs which are mushrooming everywhere – a market crowded with modern brands such as Fitness First, Gold’s or Talwalkars. All these brands offer a set of strong future benefits – assured weight loss, toned bodies, all leading to better future looks and health. Yet the emphasis on current benefits is sadly missing. Because a workout at the gym also provides an instant high, and often makes your day. It is such a pleasurable activity if performed to wonderful music or with like-minded friends, and therefore something that gym addicts such as myself look forward to every single morning.

Yet many of these brands do not emphasise any of these instant gratifiers, choosing instead to only focus on future benefits. Surely their appeal will be far stronger and wider if they move towards becoming time machines.



There are so many other categories where the same “time machine” appeal applies. Here are some of them, and I limit my observations to categories where I have personally worked in over the past decade. Green tea is known to provide strong health benefits, because of the antioxidants it contains. This is a “future benefit”, which has a positive impact on the drinker’s health over several years into the future. Several brands of green tea talk about this in many countries, and indeed this is one of the key reasons why consumption of green tea is growing so rapidly worldwide and in India. Yet green tea also offers instant gratification – apart from quenching thirst¸ it has a unique taste that many people get to love. In addition, drinking green tea or offering green tea to your visitors is increasingly becoming a sign of sophistication and a new-age lifestyle. Also, green tea immediately leaves you feeling very light, compared to many other sugary beverages. These are “current benefits” that brands of green tea don’t necessarily leverage today, but can profitably focus on, even while they continue to dwell on the future benefits linked to health.

Gold jewellery offers the long-term benefit of being a good and liquid investment for the family, and in particular for the woman of the house. Indian women and men are of course fully seized of this, which is why gold is such a major draw in the country, particularly during wedding seasons. However, it is only when brands of jewellery began emphasising the current benefits they offer – of specific adornment and differentiated design, of purity and therefore instant peace of mind, and how they score over unbranded players in these areas – that they began their trajectory of rapid growth in India.

Wrist watches offer the immediate benefit of adornment on the wrist, and are therefore a much sought-after fashion accessory. They also offer the instant attribute of accurately telling time. However, all wrist watches also offer several future benefits. Many watches are storehouses of fond memory, based on who has gifted them to the user, and on what occasion – and these memories remain a source of happiness for decades. Luxury watches can also be storehouses of great value as they appreciate over age, and are therefore rightfully heirlooms in addition to being accessories.

Do brands of watches necessarily communicate these future benefits with the right emphasis, to transform themselves into time machines of a different kind? As marketers scan their respective products or services, they will undoubtedly see that many of their brands can become powerful time machines, each offering a basket of current and future benefits to consumers. Of course, the balance between these two time horizons has to be drawn intelligently, based on the category and the brand. Sometimes, the brand’s time machine will have to constantly transport consumers between the current and the future, to ensure that flashes of both are always playing on consumers’ minds. While technology has not yet been able to create a working model of H.G. Wells’ time machine, perhaps brands can.


(Excerpt from The Curious Marketer: Expeditions in Branding and Consumer Behaviour, authored by Harish Bhat. Published with permission from Penguin Books India) 



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