Whose Canvas is it anyway?

(as appeared in Brand Equity on March 1st, 2016)

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self” – Igor Stravinsky.

And as one of the most impactful creators ever, Stravinsky will know.

An area of relevance for this quote is the world of mobile advertising. The constraints of the platform have often challenged us to come up with creative solutions. There is a reason why many of us don’t remember great mobile ads, the way we do TV commercials or digital videos. How many water cooler conversations have we had about that brilliant banner? But unlike Stravinsky, we have not been able to free ourselves. Our efforts so far have been lacking in imagination.

Facebook has now attempted to solve this problem with ‘Canvas’ – a mobile ad format that is meant to empower marketers and unchain innovation. Is this the right solution though? A few things come to mind:
The story telling chasm:

In display advertising in general and mobile advertising in particular, this has rarely been crossed successfully. However with Canvas, marketers will probably have the best opportunity up until now to create a mobile experience that the user will remember. A great example of that is what brands like Wendy’s and ASUS have already been able to achieve on this.

However we need to remember that since Canvas is post-click, it is really a solution in the advertiser’s time and not the platform’s time. Shouldn’t brands be able to tell better stories to users before they engage with the ad (and in the process increase the probability of the same)?

The user side of the story:

All great mobile experiences have one starting point – putting the user at ease. With slow loading sites and the need to leave an app environment for a browser, the mobile ad experience on Facebook has remained choppy. By having the endpoints of these ads preloaded so they appear almost instantly when a user clicks on the ad link in the news feed, FB seems to have solved this problem. And by leveraging design elements that users are familiar with – like browsing photos, Canvas will probably be the most intuitive ad format on this platform yet.

However this comes at a cost to the brand – It will not be able to create a unified ad experience across platforms. The post click world will be so different on Facebook when compared to YouTube, for the same campaign. Why should a brand relinquish consistency? Also, is this Facebook’s problem to solve? Is it taking up a task that should ideally be done by an industry standard?

The status quo:

Canvas might not necessarily cost more for planners and more importantly, it can be created without much fuss on the self-serve tool. Brands can drag around images, videos and GIFs to ‘storify’ their message. In that sense, it seems like a win for all at the moment – Facebook wins because users are spending more time; marketers win because there is more engagement with the ad and most importantly, users win because advertising got a bit more interesting. But a closer scrutiny will reveal that Facebook probably wins much more than the others.

At the end of the day, Canvas mandates brands to relinquish more campaign control to Facebook. This is OK from a Facebook POV because it wants brands to think of their platform as a universe in itself. However, I am not sure brands are on the same page yet. What is in it for them? If you think about it, for years now brands have been spending monies endlessly in driving traffic to Facebook brand pages – a traffic that has largely remained within the confines of that platform.

How can Facebook change this perception? Data could be a starting point. Historically, Facebook has not been the most forthcoming when it comes to sharing data or insights (related to consumer behavior) with brand custodians. Could that change with Canvas? Could that be leverage for Facebook to get brands to travel with them further? Possibly. If not, we might probably fall short of a few brushes on this canvas.


Ah well…

A few weeks back, I wrote this post about Indigo airlines. When I wrote it, I was not really expecting them to get back to me. May be it is because of what I have been seeing in this category on social media for many years – Indian airline brands are generally averse to sensitive conversations on this medium, perhaps for fear of making things bigger than what they already are. I was also not expecting them to get back to me because the damage was already done, in both instances.

So it was a pleasant surprise when a few days back, someone called me from their ‘in-house’ social media team and asked me for the name of the personnel, etc. I shared the details thanked them profusely for caring about my post. I promptly got a tweet from them asking for my contact details, which I shared. Even at this time, all I was expecting was just a mandatory closure of the loop or at best an apology of sorts. I had already moved on in any case.

But what happened next, did blow my mind! They sent me an email (below) on why they cannot refund my ticket. Wait. What??? I re-read the email again and it was true. They had indeed sent me an email on why they cannot refund my ticket!! Now I went and re-read my post. No, I have never asked for a refund anywhere. I have largely only talked about how impersonal and ‘PLASTIC’ their customer facing organization is becoming. And this email is…ah, well.

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Why I love an errant Meru and hate the awesome Indigo!

Lao Tzu famously said ‘A Journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step’. For me, it has always been a Meru. I cannot think of an occasion where I have not taken a meru to an Indian airport – irrespective of which city I have lived in. And not just to airports. Whether it is a loved one leaving home in the night or when a friend is stuck somewhere, it has always been this brand that was top of mind. I am not exactly sure how / when this kind of an extreme loyalty happened.


A few months back, we were brain storming for a campaign in our office. The question was: ‘what are the brands that you trust unconditionally’? There were many suggestions. Mine were Reynolds pens, Meru and Apple. The common thread here was the ability of these brands to deliver quality consistently, over long periods of time – to a point where you take them for granted. With Meru, quality for me was availability, punctuality and demeanor of the staff. The first two are operational, but friendliness and courtesy are softer skills. What differentiates a Meru driver for me from any other service provider is their professionalism, their customer-friendly communication skills and the evident consciousness that they are part of the service industry.

Over the years, a lot of the operational efficiency has been eroded. There have been occasions where a chauffeur has not shown up or the app has been erratic or card readers haven’t worked. There was even that one time when three cars drove up to our gate for one passenger, because of a system glitch. The fleet is ageing as well and that isn’t pretty. But the service hasn’t changed. A few weeks back, I was taking an early morning flight and took a Meru to the airport. Half way during the trip, I realized that I did not have enough cash and that the driver did not have a card reader. But thankfully there was that one road in between, where there were three ATMs. We quickly stopped at the first one, but soon I realized that the machine was out of order. Normally, I am a reasonably lucky person (I have gotten away with more shit than I should have, in life). But that morning, everything I touched was kaput. What are the odds that all three ATMs on the road would fail? Well, pretty high apparently. So I get into the car panicking, as I realized I had lost a good 15 min in all this and my last resort – the airport ATM, was at the very end of the building and will definitely jeopardize an on time check-in. I had never missed a flight in life and I was not planning on breaking that record that morning. And then the man behind the wheel said something: “Dont worry sir. You can pay me after you return to Delhi”. I clarified that I was going to be out for a week. He said he was OK. “You have my number. Call me when you return and when it is convenient for you”. I wanted to hug the man, fist bump, kiss him and buy him a beer. But then I got myself together, made a mental note to blog about him, renewed my love for Meru and dashed into the airport.


There is this other brand that I adore – Indigo airlines. Put simply, it takes a monumental vision, brilliant management and truck loads of chutzpah (Not to mention an absolutely killer Upma), to make a  600 Cr profit in a market where all of your competition is making thousands of Crores of losses. It is not just their operational efficiency that I admire, but also their entire branding. With great minds, everything can be a media property – the flight ramp, the bus, the in-flight magazine, the biscuit tin and hell, even the head rest. And when their ‘on time is a wonderful thing’ campaign broke out, I was definitely sure we had our own, homegrown Southwest. Only a better version!

But things changed a few years back. Flights were delayed, delays were rarely acknowledged, check-in experiences became disastrous, egg-shells started appearing in sandwiches, in-flight service went from non-existent to streaky to just plain absurd some times (There was this one time when I was served food 2 minutes before we commenced descent),  and the staff went from being generally excitable to largely indifferent and frequently rude. I once witnessed a passenger behind me almost passing out mid-flight, but thankfully doctors were on-board that day and they recommended that the man be given some food for blood sugar. When he was revived though, he was promptly handed down a receipt and was asked to pay for the sandwich they served him – with a smile, of course.

But the tipping point for me was the 27th of September. I had another early morning flight (6:20 AM) from Mumbai to Delhi and thanks to a long check out process at the Hotel and a slightly late cab, I reached the airport about 55 minutes before take off. Too close, even for my standards. I had no check-in luggage and so immediately went to the closest counter. The lady there was servicing a customer and so I politely told her that I was taking the 6:20 Delhi (which she acknowledged) and went back to my place in the queue. Five minutes passed and then my turn came. She told me I was too late and can’t make the flight. I was a bit surprised and told her to please check again. She asked me to speak to her manager. I waited another 5 mts for her to come over and told her about my situation. She immediately declined and told me that she had ‘sent the papers to the pilot a long time back’ and I had no option but to buy a new ticket. She continued to chat with me about the ‘process’. This must have taken another 5 mts and while I was patiently listening, I was also sub-consciously analyzing my options.


Then it struck me. I looked at the watch and it was still 40 mts before take off, which meant I must have been there at least 50 mts before the flight (I was sure I had been at that counter for at least 15 mts by then, but I want to give the benefit of doubt to the airline and went with 10 mts)  and so I stopped the manager and asked her to tell me what time I asked to be checked in. She asked the person at the desk, who replied “5:35 AM”. I asked how that was late (as 45 min is the legal deadline to check in and my flight was at 6:20 AM). Then she said “No sir, wait….it was actually 5:33 AM”. My tone was rapidly moving from polite to disappointed to angry, but the manager’s was consistently ‘rude’ from the beginning. Two minutes later into the discussion, I was given another time of “5:31 AM”. Now, I am not an expert on airline data systems but to put this in perspective, either this is a field that ‘is’ recorded in the system or it ‘is not’. If yes, then it is a number that doesn’t change and if not, then I am reasonably sure my watch is working. My hypothesis is that Indigo is happy to close a flight 5-10 mts before the 45 min deadline, if only a negligible number of passengers (read 0-3) are yet to check in. I am not basing this theory on one isolated incident (where all things considered, I was a borderline case), but on accounts from so many friends and colleagues. The reasons are obvious.

Two days back, my wife missed coming home for Diwali because an Indigo flight from Bhubaneswar was late by 80 mts and so she missed her connecting (Indigo) flight from Hyderabad. The treatment she was meted out by the staff at the Hyderabad airport (post mid night), when she enquired about her options was indifferent, rude and inhuman.

These incidents led me to wonder if running a tight ship meant losing the service DNA. I don’t think so. I can give you at least ten organizations who have grown in scale and trust, simultaneously – from Saravana Bhavan to Red Bus to Uber. The reason I write about these two contrasting brands together is because they make for a fascinating case study. Both are in categories where dog eats dog. Both need to analyze every measurable data point and ensure maximum efficiency to stay afloat and they do. One company seems to have its customer service DNA intact and the other seems to have lost it to some sterilization along the way. When did the ‘plastic’ nature of Indigo’s customer-facing organization set in? May be around the same time their hostesses were asked to use wigs?

You ain’t got ‘Class’!

I took my first flight ever in 2001. One of the soft benefits of choosing a niche career in Internet security used to be the paid-for trips to “cryptography conclaves” across the country – the real life equivalent of a ‘Big Bang Theory episode’. I was making one such sojourn from Chennai to Bangalore. 300 Kilometers for a crow. 45 minutes for Boeing – not exactly ‘Bon voyage’ types, but hey it was my first time ever in an airplane! I was genuinely excited.

They had me at Fresh Lime.

It was a Jet Airways flight and I had a lot of thoughts about the journey before I boarded. But a welcome drink wasnt one of them. For someone whose travels to Bangalore hitherto have been either in a ‘state transport corporation’ bus or a sleeper coach in Brindavan Express, I wasnt used to in-flight ‘anything’. So when the radiant smile asked me “orange, fresh lime or butter milk?”, I made a random choice at the time – “fresh lime, thank you”. Little did I know that it was a ritual I would end up following for years to come. It was a beverage befitting a great airline – you could almost hear it say “sit back, relax and enjoy me”. I would never ever know how their orange juice and butter milk tasted.

A perfect start to a ten year affair. I was smitten by most things about Jet Airways from that day – the yellow on white, the radiant smile, the classy magazine and even their Pongal-Vadai. It is not easy for an airline to find ‘True Love’, in our times. If you are a frequent traveler, that means about 7-8 ‘magical dates’ in a month. And thats not easy, what with the taxes, fog, terrorism, share holders and governments – ask Cinderella! But over the last 11 years, Jet remained my first choice airline, since that first date – business, personal, domestic or international. The reason was simple. All airlines screw up and Jet would as well. However, there was always a minimum service level beneath which a 9W experience would never go. Which is why it quickly became one of the brands I would trust Blindly – like Bose, Royal Enfield, Hamam, Southwest Airlines, Samsonite and Alacrity.

And I got used to the love. Many of times that I would have an argument at the check-in, an upgrade would wait for me at the gate. Every time a Mumbai flight got delayed, the Clipper lounge would make me feel at home. Hell, I even have the airport manager’s cell phone number and she would always pick up the phone and make an effort to resolve. I was a content customer. Something drastic needed to happen to shake my loyalty.

And happen it did. A few months back, I was buying tickets for my sister and four-year old nephew from Chennai to Delhi and back. As any self-respecting ‘mama’ would, I wanted them to travel business class, using my upgrade vouchers. And I planned meticulously for this (people who know me would find that completely out of character, but that’s for another day). I called Jet Privilege roughly 8 weeks before the proposed date. Strangely, they told me that all ‘voucher quotas’ were filled up for ALL days. I was baffled – 56 days, 112 flights and not two seats in business? Why were so many people traveling from Chennai to Delhi? It wasn’t even 2G season yet. Still, I gave JA the benefit of doubt and stayed on the ‘waiting list’.

A few weeks went by and I got a call from JP, claiming that they have blocked a few dates and that I can buy the tickets now. I was delighted. I booked the tickets in 5 minutes flat, beaming. Only to be told later in the day that I apparently booked a wrong class. The conversation went something like this (not verbatim):

Me: What class? I booked the ticket on Yatra. They don’t tell me ‘class’.
Jet: That blows, man. Hey, you can always book it on our site. We got ‘class’
Me: How much would it cost me.
Jet: Rs. XXX
Me: What the hell! But that’s only Rs. 200 below the actual cost of business class. Isnt this supposed to be ‘free upgrade’?
Jet: Shit happens, dude.
Me: but I am a JP Gold member and all that shebang.
Jet: That’s pretty cool, man. But it is what it is.

I was baffled. The romance was developing cracks. My family traveled ‘on time’ by Indigo and my wallet remained a tad heavier. But I did not give up. I tried many times over the next few months to exhaust my pile of vouchers – 5 days before, ten days before, one month before, 45 minutes before – but it was always the same set of responses:

“your class isn’t A,#,$,%,^,&,Y. Not even #,$,%,^,&,* or (”.

“Quota over”. “Full flight”

What I have learnt through all this are two things. One – there probably is no system behind the usage of upgrade vouchers at JA. IF there is one, it definitely seems as complex as the algorithm for building a large hadron collider out of confetti. Nobody at JA clearly has a clue. Two – The purpose of the JP program is not customer delight. It is more of ‘how can we create a perception of delight, without actually having to add value. Any value.

I started seeing others. A few dates with Indigo and even got Kingfisher’s number. And just like that, we broke up. (FYI Jet, it dint help that you changed the Fresh lime to LMN). After 11 years.

In passing, I wanted to share something that happened 5 days back. It was 12:30 AM in the night and I was supposed to fly to Mumbai early next morning on Air India. But the meeting had just got cancelled. So I called Air India (I know, right? Who the hell is going to pick up the phone past mid night in a state run airline?). Not surprisingly, the call got cut. I was about to go to bed, when the phone rang: “Hello Sir, I guess you were trying to reach us? Sorry the call got cut. This is Air India. How can I help you?”.

Airlines calls back? At 12:40 AM? What the fuck? What else have I been missing?

The Mortality of social networks (or) Why I would never use my Dad’s aftershave brand!

(Written for Futuron. Original post can be found here)

See, I am not an Old Spice guy. Its not that I don’t like that brand or their commercials. As a matter of fact, I believe that the Carmina Burana jingle is the most iconic TV commercial ever and I have always been a big fan of their marketing history – right up to the latest ‘Old Spice Man’ campaign, that took social media by storm. It is just that I am unlikely to use that brand. And that is mostly because I grew up watching my dad use it and because of that, it never fit into the ‘ten cool brands I would use when I am old enough’ list, even though I love my dad to death. Blame it on the ‘non-conformist’ college kid that was me.

Some things just do not fit into a person’s imagery for ‘coolness’ or ‘things they would like to be seen using’ – be it aftershave, gadgets, cars or Social Networks. Which brings me to the question of Facebook. Even as back as 2006, when FB had just become available to users outside universities, social networking was still a big thing. Brands were investing heavily on the ‘MySpace’s of the World, users were posting every scrap of information about them on networks like Orkut and just like now, social media gurus opined about how they were in the middle of a big, fat media revolution. Check out this story from five years back, where the author talks about the top five success stories for Brands on Myspace. Nike Soccer is being appreciated for garnering all of 43000 ‘friends’. Everybody had it figured out – especially Mr. Rupert Murdoch, who thought it was worth the $550 Million bet.

What happened in the 3 years post that is not something that media moghuls or social gurus could forecast. The user just found another network that caught his / her fancy and moved on. And how! 500 Million people moved in about 4 years. Why? We don’t see that kind of exodus in any other category. A soap or a beer brand doesn’t lose half a billion customers in 4 years. But that is because they are real products. In comparison, a social network is merely a stage. One that needs to be cool enough for a person to stand on and express oneself to their Worlds.  But that ‘coolness’ comes with an expiry date. As any designer will tell you, ‘fashionable’ and ‘forever’ don’t belong in the same sentence. Orkut and MySpace did not do anything glaringly wrong. They just went out of fashion.

In a few years from now, it is quite likely that there will be children whose parents met on Facebook. When they grow up, those children are most likely to react to FB like I react to Old Spice. Where does that leave the brands that are investing millions into their FB strategy today? How soon will they have to change course? My guess is ‘not anytime soon’. Because while it is easier to displace 30 Million from a stage,500 Million will take some doing. But it is a possibility nevertheless and if one were to go by the reaction of users to Google plus, it might be sooner than we think.

And when the exodus does happen, the brands that will be hurt the most are the ones that just concentrated too much on the numbers. The 1 Million fans that you acquired at Rupees 15 a piece will not give a rat’s behind when they move to the new network. But the fans you Earned will want to find you in their new platform as well, because they had a swell time with you on Facebook. And for all you know, that new platform might turn out to have 2 Billion users eventually! This is why it is important for marketers to ensure that their campaigns are inherently ‘social’ and not just ‘facebook’ or ‘Twitter’; And that they have a distinct social media identity and a value proposition for their community; And that the fans feel that their passion for the brand has been kept flaming and that they dint just get fed FB updates and contests.

That way, their brands will remain untouched by the ‘fashion’ cycles. After all, like they say, the ROI of social media is that your brand will exist in 5 years!