A new brand of celebrity

Written on 9th March 2015 

In the last few years a massive change has happened in the way audiences relate to celebrities.

In a world before social media celebrities were seen as distant, larger than life figures who could not be approached by ‘mere’ fans. As is shown in the Anurag Kashyap story in the movie Bombay Talkies  a star like Amitabh Bachchan was a god like figure and fans had to undertake a rigorous pilgrimage in order to get their darshan. Their ‘jhotha murabba’ was like Prasad with magical qualities with the power to bless. Similarly even a Shahrukh Khan was King Khan, a monarch blessing his reign of fans. In a world where newspapers, tabloid columns and other formal means of communication were the only means of access to a celebrity’s life, they were seen as unapproachable figures and autographs (a distant medium which has no closeness or intimacy) were valuable items.

But in a world where people take selfies (suggesting an intimacy by the very fact of physical proximity) with celebrities and share them on social media the notion of celebrity is changing. Stars like Ranbir Kapoor have taken a backseat and easy going and flawed stars like Ranvir Singh and Alia Bhatt have become leading faces accruing a huge fan following by openly accepting their flaws and laughing at themselves along with their fans. Celebrities are becoming more like friends – open to abuses and jokes at their expense and sharing their own embarrassing moments. They have no arrogance and no pretentions of being ‘perfect’. If until sometime ago scandal was the way to get people to talk about you, now ease of being turned into a meme is a near guarantee of popularity. Virat kohli can openly accept that he is dating and as a 26 year old it is perfectly normal for him to do so. It is important to note that he cites his age (not his celebrity) as a defining factor which identifies him as similar to any other 26 year old in the country. The more fans relate to celebrities the more friendly they become. There is no latent envy and jealousy among the fans. In fact as Deepika Padukone nearly became part of a scandal the fans defend her rather than admonishing her. Fans have, however, a low tolerance for arrogance and when Priyanka Chopra went on an ‘Ask me anything’ on reddit, people ripped her apart to the extent she had to withdraw.

Learning for brands

Brands and celebrities obviously have a deep connection and if celebrities are no longer infallible and unapproachable figures then perhaps brands also need to become more relaxed and easy going and not as defensive. In fact Flipkart after a major gaffe has come out almost unscathed by offering an unconditional apology to their customers. Perhaps this attitude need not be reserved only for times of peril.

FanDom (Fanatic + Kingdom)

On a related note it is not only the relationship with celebrities but even with TV shows and movies is changing. The ‘fourth wall’ in TV and cinema has been broken by fans themselves. Shows and movies are no longer just products to be consumed. Fans have built entire kingdoms (fandoms) around their favourite shows and movies where they share their own art work, interpretations and even their own stories and plot lines, sometimes deviating wildly from the original production (known as ‘the canon’ in fan circles). Within a fandom they appreciate the genius of the writers, directors and actors but never accept them as the final world and see them as. While sill nascent in India and restricted to cliques such a culture is present across the board existing even for Hindi TV shows on websites like India forums.

Learning for brands

A discernible insight for brands is that people want to feel like a part of something rather than just consume what is given to them. Being able to exercise a certain ownership over the things they like gives them a sense of belonging making it integral to their identity. They are not willing to accept the final word of anyone even the creator and want to engage as creative equals.

In one sentence – People don’t want to make a brand popular; they want to make the brand.

The City Grid

Written on 12th may 2015

In the village names are landmarks. One asks for directions to a name not a street. Names are also legacies passed down through land and gold. Yet the city is governed by a logic of anonymity. There is peace in not being known by your neighbours. Even street names dissolve into a blur of Patel, Gandhi and Singh. The city is all about the attraction of the abstract and the anonymous. From Donald trump writing his name across the NYC skyline to the Ambani’s marking Mumbai with their legacy – the city has resisted and fought against the realism and ugliness of size.

In the city you find your “home”//your belonging in more subtle ways. Like a Charles Dickens novel your story moves through chance encounters and unlikely meeting in bars, book clubs, drum circles – there is plot to your life but known only to the invisible author/god – and here we have entered the territory of the profound.

Bigger does not mean bigger in the city. Cyber Hub in Gurgaon is the city evolving into its future. It’s is the new spiritual centre. There are no large hoardings only one large digital screen fascinating not for its size but for the technology, for the very transient nature and constant fluid motion on the screen. A constantly moving loop of a single product which terrifies you because it might end any minute but reassures as it re-emerges. It’s the fear of impermanence, the fear of missing out on some secret.

The city is about hidden meanings and sophistication of the mind. It’s about knowing the method behind what seems like madness.

In the city belonging is based on open secrets that make closed cults. Harley Davidson advertises only on Saturdays. To a layman this fact escapes even notice but to the initiated this is what makes Royal Enfield what it is and makes them enthusiasts.

In the city we like to know that we can appreciate the hidden gems which others don’t even count (“you see what I did there”). It’s an intellectual high through a subtle drug.

In the city routine is ordinary. If white collars are the city’s materialists the flâneurs (“gentleman stroller of city streets” – Baudelaire) are its mystics, discovering the hidden meanings and histories of the city. As Walter Benjamin said he is the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. The Flaneur explores the hidden crevices of the city, its quaint meeting corners, its buried secrets and histories. He will tell you about the street corners and the broken cinema halls that make Delhi what it is. He will find for you the small hotels where the urban dwellers come for the city’s customary dishes – so well known that they escape explicit mention. The Flaneur is the philosopher, historian and archaeologist of the city.

In the city we are always asking who you are beyond your ten thousand adverts shoved in our faces, beyond your big hoardings, beyond your visiting cards ((cue Vertical Invader)). In the city we have no names.

The Indian Incompetent

A curious thing about us Indians is that we blame “Indians” for a lot of things (irony intended). Ever since I have been kid I have heard my parents say that Indians are just incompetent and now as I and my peers join the ‘workforce’, I hear the same lament from among us as well. My parents, my brother and some of my friends work in Government offices and PSUs, so such laments are neither occasional and nor free from vitriolic anger.

It would have been easy to dismiss this paradoxical self blame which is supposed to exonerate the blamer, as a mere generalization but the shock of hearing it from my friends and at some points of time even from my own mouth got me thinking that perhaps there is something more to it.

In an illuminating Ted talk Devdutt Patnaik talks about the difference between the way that the east and west think. He talks about how the west believes in “the power of one” which leads to efficiency by destroying the chaotic. The east however believes in embracing the chaos.

If competence is the result of making intelligent decisions – choices which lead to success, then is it possible that the reason why Indians often find themselves and their colleagues to be incompetent  is because we are not enthused by the idea of making choices which define and limit the number of possibilities. The idea of reducing the infinite possibilities to one seems somewhere deep in our subconscious antithetical to our mythic imagination and we resist it with the consequence of breeding in mediocrity. This is also evident in the fact that we always seek politicians who are either wise or action oriented. In recent history Manmohan Singh was replaced by someone who is his exact opposite. Not a a stronger version of him but his exact opposite. Not to be rude but we jumped from a Phd to a chai walla. Once we rejected the Indian way of doing things we jump to the western way (which presents an interesting paradox of political ideologies).

The point of this is that somewhere we are struggling to bring together the two strands of imagination – the mythic and the modern. The large generalizations about India and Indians which are often countered by nothing more than vacuous moralizing invocations to action are part of what might as well be a new stereotype of Indians. One things is for certain that if one were to characterize ‘incompetence’ of Indians as a problem then the solution certainly is not a moral one but an intellectual and creative one. It requires not a call to action but creating a new mythology.

‘Usage and Attitude’ or Behavior

UnA or Usage and Attitude is not only one of the most frequently conducted studies in qual research in its own right but is practically a metaphor for what we do in qualitative research. Most of our work is centered around what is the attitude of people in life, towards a particular activity or towards a particular category and ofcourse how they use products and services.

But what is peculiar about UnA is that it is based entirely on behavioral-ism.  Some good qual blogs and researchers will even say that dont trust what people say (because people lie) ask them what they do.

My knowledge and understanding of the techniques used in qualitative research is only as good as it should be for someone who is quite new to the field, but the idea of UnA made me wonder if there is a bias in qualitative research. Behaviorism is perhaps one of the the most objectively verifiable and well established psychological school of thought. Others such as psychoanalytic, humanistic are often accused of being to subjective and systems psychology is perhaps too new for the market to have adapted to it already.

But it would be interesting to explore the implications of these various schools on the market research industry. My hunch is that we are missing out on various possibilities by relying entirely on what consumers already know, think and imagine. The simple fact is that brands are full of possibilities and much like a novel or a poem can embody possibilities that people have not imagined before. While this job is usually left to the advertising creatives and planners market research could possibly also contribute to it. Qualitative research could look to adopt from schools beyond behaviorism and expand its scopes. FOr e.g. the psychoanalytic school of thought could lead us to consumer desires which have not found articulation yet. It could tell us what consumers want but have not yet started expecting. It could tell us things that they themselves have not yet realized yet. The cognitive school could help us understand the consumer limitations – what are the things they simply cannot relate to and hence what are the latent possibilities that exist in their minds but have not yet been exhausted. Humanistic psychology can give us a holistic picture and help us understand the supporting universe that lies behind the thoughts and beliefs of our consumers.

Perhaps these things already exist or have existed and have been rejected and perhaps my research about the theory behind MR industry a bit more. My perception may change and when it does I will change this blog post as well but as of now the industry seems very restricted in terms of it approach.  Read the rest of this entry »

‘What even does Qualitative research do?’

Date of writing: 07 August 2015 

To me it seems, there might be a fundamental misunderstanding about what qualitative research can and cannot do. Even market researchers will tell you that quantitative research tells what consumers want/like/think and qualitative research tell you the why. In a sense qual explains the quant. Perhaps this is just a rant against an overused cliche has lost its meaningHowever in the limited understanding I have gained so far qualitative research can tell you neither what the market like nor even why it likes them. The only thing qualitative research can tell you in all honesty is what are the parameters and criteria consumers use to evaluate and understand both products/services and their own needs within a given culture. It can tell you what the consumer imagination is like and what are the different strands in that imagination. Given its small sample size it can not accurately depict market reality nor definitely explain market phenomena. In terms of backing the quant data qual research can only do so in probabilities. Clients should expect that. They should know a lot of jumping to conclusions has happened if qual research is telling “backing the quant” with any degree of certainty. It can at best say this is what our research tells us is the story and the imagery in the mind of the consumer and hence this is probably why you are getting the quant numbers that you are.

Hence a nascent move has been made in qual research, globally, towards cultural analysis. What the move towards cultural analysis does do, is reintroduce the nearly lost element of subjectivity, historicity and imagination to qualitative research. What it brings to the fore is that Qual research at the end of the day needs to be heavily dependent on the one who is doing the research. Qual research has to give you an interesting perspective, a new way of looking at things, a new worldview and not just information. Looking at semiotics and cultural analysis allows you that room to play that perhaps “data” and “analytics” don’t.

What the element of cultural can do is help understand the stories that people are making in their minds in order to understand their reality. In academics it is now accepted knowledge that we think in stories. Out of the vast array of information and stimuli that humans are exposed to we only register those bits which are tied into a story or a structure that we can understand. This structure may be linguistic or visual or a mix of many different mediums – but it can often be discerned by looking at the culture of that region. A very interesting and curious analogy for this is the fact that the colour orange did not really exist until the 17th or 18th c. When people saw what we  now call orange, they saw a shade of red. What qual research can do is tell clients what the consumer colour spectrum looks like and what makes a colour exist. It cannot tell you which is the most popular colour nor give you a definite explanation of why it is the most popular. A mix of quant (the most popular colour) and qual (what makes it register as a colour) can together perhaps give you an insight into what makes the colour popular and what that says about the larger culture int hat society.

The implication of this in the day to day workings in a qual research agency is that direct research may be the least effective method of fulfilling the objectives of qual research. Projective techniques, ethnography and observation are likely to yield more robust qualitative data. Secondly, I feel that in qualitative research, a thumb rule should be that if you are asked to show a direct quote from your transcripts to justify something you have written in your report, then you should struggle. Clients should ideally not make such silly requests. Anything you say would be derived from the overlap of many layers only one of which would be the “data”. Which brings me to the final point, any qual research report should be vetted with as many opinions as possible to reduce individual prejudice and as much as possible our prejudices as individuals, agency, client, etc should be discussed frankly and openly within the report.

My purpose in writing this is not to suggest that one should be vary of qual research or take its results with a pinch if salt but rather that qual research can give deep insights but to use an oil drill to make a hole for a nail in your wall is going to leave you with an interior design issue on your hands.

Outsourcing my madness or Hello World!

This is the blog of a rookie working in qualitative market research in Delhi, India. I think a lot about everything I do. So here is where I write about  Qualitative research and what I do there and what I think about it.

The point of this blog is to help me organize my thoughts and have a better ay of evaluating and revising them as I go along. Its as McLuhan said Technology (or to be precise Media) is an extension of the human body. This blog is the extension of my imaginary conversation with myself. I am outsouurcing my madness here.
The blog reflects neither any academic knowledge nor even my own opinion to be honest. It is a sounding board. Something’s here might be outlandish or provocative, that’s because being provocative generally tends to help me think “out of the box”  (ironic is a bi*&# huh?!). Some of the things I write here may actually be interesting ideas or may in the end up becoming interesting ideas if I work on them.