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Are You From The Future Or The Past?

Are You From The Future Or The Past?

June 04, 2012

Where Indian advertisers looks ahead to a fast-paced future, New Zealand looks back to simpler times.

I find press releases from major companies fascinating. Of particular enjoyment are the press releases that accompany a massive rebranding effort. They pluck overextended concepts from thin air and beat them awkwardly into the brand's shape; they make statements so outlandish that their intent can no longer be ironic, it must be what they actually believe. The pinnacle of this particular subset of PR goodness was PepsiCo's logo redesign document, a gargantuan sleight-of-hand opus which appropriately suggested the new logo was the pinnacle of human achievement.

PepsiCo's CEO is Chennai-born Indra Nooyi, and her group's efforts are in good company among her fellow Indians. In 2010, Indian telecommunications giant Bharti Airtel changed their logo and CEO Sanjay Kapoor praised “more liveliness, more celebration, more youngness in that manifestation which has come out now,” alongside more such more-more-more statements. It used to simply be the word 'Airtel' on a red-and-white background, reminiscent of the Canadian flag, and it had a pleasing functionality and recognisability about it. Well, not any more. Bharti Airtel did away with the high-contrast logo of the past, replacing it with a new font and a... a swirly thing. From the Airtel website:

“Our unique symbol is an interpretation of the ‘a’ in airtel. The curved shape & the gentle highlights on the red color make it warm & inviting, almost as if it were a living object. It represents a dynamic force of unparalleled energy that brings us and our customers closer.”

Move over, Tesla and CERN. The energy of Airtel's logo is unparalleled.

Airtel's big telecom rival Reliance, which itself is built on an internal dynastic rivalry and for which telecommunications is only one division of many enterprises, had rebranded back in 2006. Again, out went the plain functionality of the old, replaced by a kind of digitized sleekness. I can't find a press release from Reliance on this but at least Jakant kept it real in the comments:

“Logo is very important to us without logo man can’t find where is your office or company.”

Can't say this has ever been a problem for me, but fair enough. The point is that Indian companies want to be seen as cutting-edge and of the new. It extends from the very top, with the Airtels and Reliances who have crores to splash on convincing the aam aadmi that they come from the future, right down to the local barbers in Kerala who name their 'saloon' 'Modern Hair Dressing'. Branding is intended to assure consumers that they are up-to-date with current trends and should remain so -- at least until trends change.

Branding trends have changed in New Zealand. In fact, we've gone so far past the point of desperate modernity that we've circumnavigated the marketing globe and come back to where we started: old-fashionedness. Or, at least, a pale imitation of the past. A blog post by Christchurch-based Stephen Judd about the packet of potato chips had me nodding, chuckling and gnashing my teeth along with him:

“The package has been printed with a fabric-like texture meant to evoke, I suppose, old-fashioned values, or the goodness of natural fibres, or something. I think so. Can you imagine how soggy and crushed your chips would be if they were really sold in hessian bags instead of gas-filled plastic? If I remember what Mum told me correctly, in the old days “crisps” came in sealed wax paper bags, with a sachet of salt, so this is actually a nostalgic gesture towards a past that never existed.”

Potato chips are probably the worst of a long list of manufacturers on whose products you can find similarly romantic falsehoods. Tui beer has been brewed in Mangatainoka since 1889 and is still made “the way it should be”, despite TV advertisements suggesting it is brewed by women in bikinis and hot pants. Irvines pies, like Tui, employ the 'since [year x]' technique (in this case 1922). This is because age implies legitimacy -- never mind that the company and its production methods between then and now are virtually unrecognisable to each other. Mainland cheese, meanwhile, actually has an imitation hessian print on its thick plastic packaging! Just like with Copper Kettle Crisps, Mainland cheese, which is produced by massive dairy co-operative Fonterra, is unlikely to have gone anywhere near hessian in its nearly 60 years of manufacture.

Judd goes on to suggest that these sorts of deceits reduce one's enjoyment of a product, regardless of how enjoyable it is in itself. I totally agree. It's all very well for something to hark back to an earlier, simpler time, but only if it actually bears a resemblance to the former reality. Amongst the shelf stock of an average New World supermarket in Wellington, very few products are actually 'made the old-fashioned way'. Ironically, the particular subset of goods that seems most afflicted by this trend – snacks for quick consumption – are about as far from the good old days as you can get.

So, in different parts of the world, the same collision is happening between old and new. In India, a roadside 'bakery' shack comprised of plywood and corrugated iron is covered in flashy Airtel and Reliance branding, transporting lungis into the digital age; in New Zealand, large, air-conditioned supermarkets with digital price displays for each product are full of small packages designed to place you in a moment of wistful nostalgia.

To my mind, the faux-romanticism of New Zealand's potato chips and more is far more offensive than the idealistic faux-futurism of India's telcos. If you mess with the future, the worst outcome is that you will look silly (as a lot of brands ultimately do). However, if you mess with the past, the chances are good that you will denigrate that past by tying it to a modern corporate agenda. There's also all the unpleasant barefaced lying entailed in suggesting mass-produced goods were dreamed up and manufactured by Old McDonald on his farm.

Of course, it's perfectly possible that I myself am being unjustly romantic for Reliance and Airtel as I reflect on my halcyon days in Kerala. But I don't think so. 

1 Comment

  • stuartnz
    05.06.12 07:01 AM
    An interesting article, thanks. Personally, I think Judd overstates the negative effects of the "nostalgia" button. NZ advertising has always used it, and not just in commercial applications. I was amused and surprised when I learned that NZ reached "urban majority population" in 1910, but the myth of the agrarian society still became adopted as the the national ethos. Yes, some of the attempts are crude and clumsy, but if done with a sense of humour, they can be entertaining and effective. Tui, for example, has NOT been brewed at Mangatainoka for a long time, other than quarts and kegs, but since it's clearly obvious that the ads are not to be taken seriously, by virtue of being ridiculously OTT, most people laugh them off.

    Perhaps it's because I've worked in market research for 20 years, but I really don't have the sort of visceral reaction that Judd has. I *do* find the inane psychobabble that accompanies ludicrously overpriced logo re-imaging hilarious and almost always pointless, but ads that evoke a nostalgia for a past that never was can be both effective and even transcend the product - eg the Toyota "bugger" ad.

    The other thing to consider is the target market. In general, Indian audiences seem to WANT to look forward - try having a conversation about a film from the 50s, or even the 00s. NZ audiences, on the other hand, seem to like to indulge in the "I remember when" sentiment. Since the aim of marketing is to sell whatever it is being marketed, the best approach is the one that works best in that market. There is just as much "unpleasant barefaced lying" involved in the "the future is now" style of advertising as there is in the "ye olde fashioned goodness" style.

    The market researcher in me would also like to see data for the contention that snack foods are "subset of goods that seems most afflicted by this trend". I have an unhealthy fondness for potato chips and have not noticed the majority of them following this trend, but I would not rely on my personal observations. My experience does suggest to me that the trend is endemic, used whenever possible, and has been ever since I can recall - ads of the 70s were evoking a mythical 50s long before ads of the 00s were evoking a mythical 70s.

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