Why brands in India have a long way to go

A few days ago, about ten days ahead of Designyatra 2013, Kyoorius launched #BrandsILove, inviting people on a social media platform to talk about  “brands available in India. Brands that have touched our lives, and shaped the way we think and behave.” http://www.brandsilove.in

Oh, this should be fun, I thought, as I switched from phone to laptop, ready to tweet away on a big screen. And then I paused. And then I thought. Nothing came to mind- No brand that I’d pledged my loyalty to and not been disappointed by. No brand that I could proudly claim I loved. No brand, let alone an Indian brand that had ‘touched my life’ in any way wholly positive. I thought some more. And I had nothing.

That was a sad, sad thought. I consume as much as anyone else. And I pay attention to brands. Why did no brand come to mind?

When I first saw #BrandsIlove, cliched as it is, I thought of Apple. For over seven years I’ve used their products, starting with the iPod and moving on to my Mac, iPad and iPhone. I love their products and I wouldn’t switch. I’ve had my fair share of hardware-crashing-drama and still haven’t been put off the brand. I’ve followed every keynote, researched software updates and product upgrades, immersed myself in knowing more about Apple and how it came to become what it is today. You could say it was a brand I loved. But every time I walk into an ‘Authorized Apple Reseller’ in any Indian city the love fades fast and  I’m reminded of how irrelevant India is to Apple. The Apple brand experience comes crashing every time I talk to a salesperson who’s rude and uninterested in making a sale, every time I talk to an under-confident engineer who makes me cringe as I watch him try to pry open my laptop with a sharp metal clip. And then I realize, without an actual Apple store, without trained staff,  without their famous ‘Genius Bars,’ the brand experience I get from my products is far from the promised ‘Apple experience.’

This goes for almost every international brand retailing out of India. How many times have I picked  a piece of clothing off the Zara racks and discovered a hole? How many times have I bought faulty merchandise from Mango and been unable to return it because of terrible customer service and return policies? How many times have Aldo shoe straps snapped after just a few weeks? How many times have I waited more than ten minutes for a McDonalds burger that’s supposed to be ‘fast food’?  How many times have I called Customer Service Helplines and been told to hold for ages until the line disconnects? How can I possibly be loyal to international brands that are terrific overseas but dreadful in India?

And then we have Indian brands. Sure, their jingles might remind us of our childhood and make us a little nostalgic. Sure, they might be household names across the country. But are they brands I love? Are they brands most Indians love? Or do we just have lower expectations? Do we think it’s alright if a one-off batch of chocolate is said to have worms? Or if every other pack of biscuits we buy has at least five that are reduced to crumbs? Or if, after booking twenty four hours in advance, a cab stands us up the morning of our flight.  These things happen, we say.

But these things shouldn’t happen. And if they do, they should be dealt with better. Brands need to care, and their employees need to believe in the brand in order to be able to care.  The internet is full of heart warming stories of great brands responding to customers- like this story of the seven year old boy who wrote to LEGO http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/09/luka-apps_n_2434781.html or this one of the little girl who wrote to Sainsbury’s Sainsburys changes Tiger Bread to Giraffe Bread. This kind of customer service is what creates brand experience. This is what builds loyalty.  And I have yet to see an Indian brand prove that they care.

Which is not to say there aren’t brands that are trying. A recent experience with Bhane, an online clothes store, showed they have wonderful after sales service- prompt, polite and helpful. Flipkart has never disappointed me. (although many people I know have had problems with damaged merchandise they wouldn’t take back.) OlaCabs has screwed up a few times, but has always been so apologetic and eager to serve, that I’d give them another chance. Indigo, well, I’ll always love them. By and large though, the list is short, given the number of brands I consume on a regular basis. Do I buy these brands because I love them? Or simply for the ease of availability, given their crazy distribution?

Brands in India have a long way to go. International brands in India need to get their act together- being a global retail giant needs to mean a seamless brand experience. Brand communication and brand messaging needs to be cohesive worldwide- Brands can speak in different languages but their values need to be the same. (It’s this disconnect in communication which makes me mad at brands like Dove) A great brand needs to mean a great product AND a great brand experience. Not one or the other.  And until a brand delivers both, my list is unfortunately,  going to remain blank.

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