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Anna: Why Brands Fall

Anna: Why Brands Fall

Jul 30, 2021

To those familiar with the craft of managing successful brands it came as no surprise that Anna Hazare found no place in the India Today’s 2013 compilation of the most powerful people in India, even though the social activist had topped the list for 2012. The brand turned out to be a short-lived fad, a fallen hero, it appears in hindsight. A careful analysis would throw up many factors that are responsible for the brand's failure. In the first place, those who promoted the brand (Kejriwal, other media, corporates) and crafted a halo around him had their own agenda which did not match with the philosophy of Brand Anna. In the event, they gave up on him. Lesson: without support a weak brand falters.

Incidentally, before Brand Anna was catapulted onto the national market, he had very limited regional aspirations confined to the constituency of Maharashtra. And there to his record was not exactly crowned with glory. Yet suddenly he was elevated as a pan India brand with mass appeal. While his commitment to the cause cannot be doubted, one needs to admit that he exhibited limited leadership skills and proved incapable of steering his own team. The brand could gain the mind space of the target audience, even if for a while only because the need gap did exist: the moment was opportune, providing an apt backdrop to the launch of the brand. The need, sounding a bugle against corruption and steering a movement against it, was manifested in national frustration particularly among the middle class, the most eager consumer. In its desperation to pin responsibilities on someone for their globally induced economic miseries aam aadmi was willing to trust the unbelievable promise from the brand Anna: a Jan Lokpal will make all the corruption go away, and as if by a magic wand, this would mean an end to their miseries. This was a naïve belief in the brand similar to the myth that place trust on ayurvedic remedies for corona in 2021.

The Anna campaign was never a movement; it soon petered out. Those who fanned the fire included media personalities on one hand whose limited agenda was to get a TRP booster shot for their channels and the corporate bigwigs providing advertising support on the other – notwithstanding the fact that many of them were themselves embroiled in corruption cases, or was it precisely because of this reason- who wanted a limited jugalbandi. So it was not very long before those who had responded to Brand Anna’s clarion call could see through the game, became wiser, and gave up on the brand. They became cynical about the brand’s ability to meet their aspirations. The Hazare sales pitch was predicated on the target audience’s weakness for seeking magic potions for a terminal disease, something that had proved to be the undoing of even a wise man like Steve Jobs. Merely manufacturing a halo around a man and prop up his personality but lacking much substance can work in a Bollywood flick, not in real life. Such campaigns can create only false prophets. To be sure the energy and frustration that sustained Brand Anna and all that was linked with him have not disappeared, but the sober thinking of the high involvement purchase kind has returned; the customer is no more an impulsive buyer and can see through the sales pitch behind the strategy that promoted brand Anna.

In the beginning brand, Anna worked because it was perceived to be an honest offering. Indeed building brands and communicating with the public at large needs this singular trait most of all. He was seen as the simple, honest, old, frail man who owned nothing and was only asking for public support. He was fire, light, hope, most importantly he was ‘me’. He inspired the target audience.

 Moreover, the brand focused on a single issue, corruption. If a brand hypes ten good things about itself, the target buyer remembers none. But if it talks about only one thing that satisfies people’s needs, it is etched in the buyer’s memory. Of course, this was also ensured at least partly due to manipulation of public emotions and mass hysteria through media support. In the first half of August 2011, the Jan Lokpal bill hogged 77% coverage on the top 10 TV news shows. In the beginning, it appeared that Anna had built a good team by taking in people whose skills complemented what he lacked. Of course, soon it turned out to be untrue. The brand seemed to be imbued with passion and purpose. It used social media networks very effectively to reach out to the younger generation. And the brand sounded authentic. Alas, the reality turned out to be starkly different from the initial perception about the brand.

The brand managers for Anna also used Gandhi-our national sacred symbol for all things puritanical- to market his movement. The strategy is somewhat akin to the one used to market Bollywood sequels, wherein an initial successful brand (say, Golmaal) is used as a springboard to attain success for the subsequent launch. But once again he was no match to Gandhi. Though he tried to rebuild and reenergize the Gandhi brand while building and strengthening himself, he could hardly eschew violence in his thought and word, nor was he devoid of a feeling of animosity towards those who would not subscribe to his cause or disagree with his strategy. Finally, he also lacks the humility of Gandhi. As Mahesh Bhatt says, he has the greed to become God. He is obsessed with the need to become an Anna avatar. The final nail in the coffin was hammered when his campaign managers started calling his campaign the second freedom movement.

This is a classic case study of branding where a purpose instead of a proposition was sought to be marketed. The campaign was enormously successful too since it was based on a larger cause, a purpose that was both current and real: it promised attainment of an immediate milestone- the Jan Lokpal; it was woven around distinct symbols, role models, and rituals; it was an integrated campaign, online and on-ground; and it chose media as the target audience too. And yet, the brand seems to have faded into oblivion because the campaign was manufactured around an unreal brand personality, a fact that was revealed before the target audience not before long. The cause is not to be doubted, but the promoter must surely have the capabilities to steer the cause and deliver on the brand promise. This was missing.

Three things make a great brand: a compelling idea, a need gap, and convincing communication about the brand’s capabilities to bridge the gap. Anna was definitely a compelling idea as projected by the media. He represented something-angst and anger against corruption and economic misery- that whole of India was up in arms against. With no resources and nothing to lose, he was an anti-hero. And he promised to fill a need gap-rooting out corruption. He was supposed to be an enabler. But this is where he failed.

From brand promise to brand action. From what a brand says to what it actually does (because it has the capability). Anna gave a call for action. Alas, he failed to convert his promise into action. The brand failed to deliver what it promised. The problem was that as a brand, he was packaged to perfection. In real life he had a persona riddled with many shortcomings. Contrary to the initial hype being created, he could never emerge as a sustainable solution to fight corruption. The champion failed the cause.

Brand Managers, you have many takeaways from the case study, numerous lessons to learn, as also about accompanying pitfalls to avoid when you wish to market a sustainable brand. 

(K.K. Srivastava works with Astute Analytica)