What’s in a brand after all

What’s in a brand after all

When Arati, a friend’s sister-in-law, first started whining about Gap not being available in India at a small party some weeks ago, most of those around her dismissed it as the whimper of a typical rich shopaholic. But a deeper engagement with her tossed up an interesting fact: She was a genuine fan of the iconic casual wear American brand, more specifically, of a basic, sleeveless, black top that it makes.

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Why isn’t any one bringing in Gap when brands from Mango and Zara to Zegna and Diesel are here, she asked, genuinely pained by the absence of her favourite clothing brand. India may not be a priority market for the $10 billion, San Francisco-based company that also owns Banana Republic and Old Navy. Or it may be waiting for India’s foreign direct investment norms to be liberalized further.

The possible reasons did not pacify her, nor did the fact that Gap Inc. sources both textiles and finished products from India considering she still has to be in Singapore or London to hit the Gap stores and replenish her walk-in wardrobe.

Such brand loyalty would be touching for the company and it may think that the Indian consumer has arrived. Another Indian consumer, a friend’s aunt, is a major Maybelline loyalist. The 61-year-old is famous in her extended family for her fetish for a particular rust, long-stay, stain-free lip colour. The prospect that New York-based cosmetics major may discontinue the shade makes her edgy. So she buys at least four pieces at one go priced at Rs400 each. Okay, it is not just the US brands that Indians swear by. Mala in Delhi wears only Fabindia, a home-grown Indian ethnic wear brand. The lady who belongs to a known Delhi industrialist family thinks Fabindia is a humble brand that stands out for its simplicity, cuts and fits.

These and a handful of similar examples would have you believe that Indian consumers—especially the middle-aged in the affluent class—are brand slaves. And that brand loyalty is entrenched in Indian society.

But before we arrive at skewed conclusions based on these examples, brand and retail industry experts bust the myth. They claim that the shopper segment reflected here constitutes a very minuscule percentage of the Indian consumer who has evolved thanks to its exposure to overseas brands early in life.

However, masses of upscale young urban consumers have just begun buying major international brands in India and the crowds at their discount sales should not be misconstrued as loyalty. A retail industry expert mentioned that youngsters may be loyal to a brand for a season or two. While the younger generation is experimenting and trying out new things, the buzz around brand loyalty in any consumer segment in India is misplaced.

A debate on Arati and Neelu’s (the Maybelline loyalist) consumption behaviour makes Technopak Advisors president Raghav Gupta insist that their conduct is more an anomaly than the norm. Indians may be loyal to brands but we are still not brand loyal. A gym enthusiast, for instance, may be sporting Nike shorts, Reebok shoes and an Adidas T-shirt.

Gupta says that the Indian consumers have just started shifting from unbranded products to branded ones. It’s tough to argue with him when he explains that of the total apparel market only 10-12% is branded.

While Mala may be frequenting Fabindia, it is not easy to be loyal to an Indian brand as standardization in sizes and quality control is poor. So if a branded trouser with a 34-inch waist may fit you, the same size in another shade may not. The contention is that you cannot buy a piece of apparel without trying it out, unlike, say, in the US where Banana Republic khakis could be ordered online. “We will become brand loyal once we have better individual tastes and know our sizes better," Gupta said.

Clearly consumer evolution will go hand in hand with the evolution of demand and supply.

While loyalty may be a long way off for the Indian consumer, it does not take away the responsibility of the brands to remain relevant. As consumers evolve, they will increasingly look for that emotional connect, the warmth and sense-of-belonging to a brand. Clearly, brands will need to work harder to offer this and more to hold on to their consumers.

Neelu’s loyalty to Maybelline, for instance, may stem from the product category itself. Cosmetics and health products require a trust factor (as opposed to fear factor—that is, the fear of experimenting with another brand) that drives loyalty.

According to brand consultant Giraj Sharma, great brands evolve keeping their value system intact. The essence of the brand does not change at all but the approach and appeal changes with time. Most cult brands such as Coke, Ray Ban, Rolex, Harley Davidson and Levi’s have managed this well.

Shuchi Bansal is marketing and media editor with Mint. Comment at whatwebuy@livemint.com