Vice President – Planning
Is disruption a necessity for brand stability?
“Relax! Nothing is in control.” Maybe you’ve seen this motivational quote. While it is supposed to be liberating – advising us to be detached from the failures and unpleasant aspects of our lives – it ends up being scary, too, by making our successes and glory inconsequential.
A similar kind of ambivalent feeling is shared by those of us in the business of building brands. We want to disrupt something in the market to our advantage, but we want everything else to be stable. Success lies in pushing past this discomfort and uncertainty to find an optimal balance between stability and disruption.
Stability and Disruption: Two sides of the same coin
Apple built its success by disrupting every category it entered – from personal computers, MP3 players, and smartphones, to its later forays into content subscription plans and digital wallet services. But all these disruptions are based fundamentally on the stability of Apple’s closed, protected ecosystem. Because its users are willing to pay for simplicity and data privacy, Apple can continue to provide more and more services at an additional fee. Even with newer technologies and VC-backed investments, start-ups will find it difficult to “disrupt” Apple’s dominance.
This is true with everyday products and categories too. Patanjali and Sensodyne rocked the Colgate boat for a while with their herbal and sensitivity-solving toothpastes, respectively. But Colgate came back eventually with its own variants, and continues to dominate oral care in India.
How should striking the balance between stability and disruption work for your brand? Here are a few lessons that we have learned working with our clients.
Identify what makes the brand stable. All efforts to define your brand’s essence should be directed at this goal. Once a stable brand core has been identified, the brand is free to disrupt other aspects of its business.
For example, when the Savlon antiseptic liquid and soap brand looked to expand its portfolio, it decided to pivot around the brand promises of providing protection to mothers, and of making healthy habits fun for kids.
With this brand essence as Savlon’s core, its expansion into hand wash was unlocked with the idea of making hand-washing fun. Ideas like “Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks” and “Id Guard” not only broke through the protection category’s typically serious marketing codes, but also led to stronger behavior change in the long run. The brand’s moves into hand sanitizers put similar tactics to successful use.
Over-invest in disruption to invest in long-term stability. Pidilite’s brands Fevicol, M-Seal, and Fevi Kwik have been adhesive category leaders for decades. To maintain this leadership, the company has had to invest in multiple new products and consumer segments, sometimes without getting results.
Fevicol struck gold with Fevicol Marine, a variant that promises stronger bonding even when wooden furniture is in frequent contact with water. Not only did Fevicol Marine unlock growth in a new segment, it reinforced Fevicol’s leadership and got the brand firmly entrenched at its core promise of “Ultimate Adhesive.”
On the other hand, M-Seal’s launch of M-Seal Super resulted in only incremental growth, despite being a revolutionary, low-price DIY sealant product with multiple applications. However, had M-Seal not invested in this innovation, it would have left empty space available to new entrants to disrupt its hold on the market.
Ditto with Fevi Kwik. While repair was once seen as the exclusive household domain of the men, Fevi Kwik risked its affinity by targeting homemakers. It urged them to try repairing regular household items with Fevi Kwik, and in the process, to try to earn family members’ appreciation. This strategy turned out to be a great success, and now Fevi Kwik is the go-to instant adhesive for a much larger consumer base, making the category even more uninteresting for competitors.
Each of these projects could have gone wrong for Pidilite, but not venturing into these disruptions would have meant putting these brands’ future stability at stake.
Similar to how you can use disruption to protect, use stability to attack. Every brand, leader or challenger, is always at the risk of being upended by new technologies, entrants, or policy changes. At such times, the very stability of big brands allows them to take risks smaller brands can’t afford.
For example, ITC’s Mangaldeep is India’s 2nd largest brand of agarbattis. This year, during the Rath Yatra at Lord Jagannath Puri temple in Odisha, it launched a special multi-layered innovation: the first-ever agarbatti with dual fragrances and dual colors, with ingredients that are special to the Lord Jagannath Puri temple (Neem, Tulsi, Kasturi, and Chandan), all in an agarbatti that’s made by women’s self-help groups from Odisha itself. This innovation was so powerful, that it got the endorsement of the Temple Trust, and every pack sold results in a contribution to the temple itself.
In the Mangaldeep example, it was the established brand’s strong, profitable core that allowed it to take bigger risks and handle larger losses. While there are agarbatti start-ups that try innovative ingredients, fragrances, and partnerships, it is likely that they will have to merge with each other to gain economies of scale (or else get bought over by an existing large agarbatti brand). Big, established brands still have strong cards to play in the competition ahead.