You have won a contest!

A contest needs to capture their imagination, be honest, transparent and simple

This column was first published on 11 May 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

A favourite aunt, Laxmi Chitti, who lives in Chennai, participates in all the competitions she sees in advertisements and on wrappers of consumer goods. The ones which ask you to write slogans and win a microwave or complete the sentence and win a gram of gold. She and my uncle put their heads together and string the words to form catchy captions and witty phrases. But here’s the astonishing part: she wins several of them. She’s got herself a large TV, a gold ring and many other valuable things through these contests.

I am always pleasantly surprised at the optimism and trust of customers like my aunt who participate in such activity. I belong to the other cynical half of customers who believe that the judging process in these contests will not be fair and hence don’t think they are worth participating in. Perhaps it has to do with a childhood incident. As a child, I once went to an annual mela held by railway officers in Delhi. In a lucky dip I picked a chit and won a red chiffon saree to my mother’s delight. The next year, however, we found that the organizers had wisened up. All the good gifts went to families of railway staff while outsiders like us got only peppermints. It’s irrational, I know, to presume that all such endeavours are therefore rigged, but you know how some childhood memories can scar you for life.

There are other customers who have been scarred likewise. Customers are disappointed by contests in the following scenarios:

• Where the process of registering your answer itself fails: One customer has gone to consumer court against a prominent consumer products company that makes almost everything we use. Apparently there was a contest in 2011 where a code number would be found in each packet of diapers, which had to be SMSed to a number. The number would never work and the messages kept bouncing back. Other customers have supported this allegation. It’s likely that it was a mere technical glitch, but if the first interface of the contest doesn’t work, customers are quick to dub it a fraud. It’s important for companies to ensure that the phone number or website to which customers have to send their slogans, poems and other outpourings about a brand, functions to establish credibility.

• When no results are declared: So the contest is over. Thousands of correct answers poured in for mind-bending questions like “X cornflakes is made from a)corn b) oats c) wheat." But then there is a deathly silence about the outcome. For months. Have I won the prize of a year’s free supply of breakfast cereal or not, wonders Ram Kumar Tomar from Bikaner who participated in the contest with much enthusiasm, SMSing each option 35 times to be on the safe side. Anita Patil in Nasik tosses around sleeplessly each night, not knowing if the 50,000 worth of jewellery promised by the diamond manufacturer for completing a caption will be hers or not before her wedding. Many such customers wait for the result with bated breath, but hear nothing from the company, sometimes because the brand manager who thought up the contest no longer works there and the next person has other priorities. But the customers haven’t forgotten. Fraud! they rant angrily on numerous complaint forums on the Web.

• When the rules are not what they seem: Sometimes contests are designed to mimic the mysteries of life. Things are not what they seem. There are layers beneath layers and unexpected twists.

“You have won yourself $1,000 in our annual sweepstakes" the message will say. Just when the customer is getting excited, he will discover that he becomes eligible for the prize only upon purchase of items of a certain value from the company’s website. A media company’s sweepstakes has been criticised on complaint forums for leading customers into buying things and then in some cases not sending the correct gift or not sending anything at all.

• When the gift is faulty: A blender whose blade stopped spinning, a bedsheet which faded in one wash, a mobile phone that conked. Usually, companies have a clause which dissociates them from the quality and durability of the gift. But they ignore the fact that if there’s anything that gets customers more disappointed than not winning, it is winning and finding that the gift is sub-standard.

The recent soulless “Katrina ka number crown ke under" contest by Slice reminded me of a different, iconic contest by a soft drink company where you had to look under the crown to find something. The Gold Spot-Jungle Book contest of the early eighties. It was proof that to completely engage and draw in customers, a contest needs to capture their imagination, be honest, transparent and simple. The premise was enchanting for anyone between 5 and 20 years of age. Inside every Gold Spot crown was a picture of a Jungle Book character. Collecting a certain number would win you the book which could simply be picked up from a kirana store. Behind the book were an array of pictures of the characters and a matching crown had to be stuck on each. Once complete, the book could be exchanged for a bright, beautiful Jungle Book kit. That summer, no kid or parent could drink anything but Gold Spot. Children went into a frenzy exchanging vultures for Mowgli and Bagheera for Ka. We scoured for soft drink caps on roads. We spent all our time in school striking deals. (Of course those were simpler times. Now some rich dad will buy several crates of the drink and make his child win in a day.) And when that kit came, it felt like a monumental mission was accomplished. Now, there was a contest. It engulfed the minds and hearts of the target customers, made them obsess about it and think of nothing but the brand in that category. I saw online that some grown men still have their book and kit. It’s not easy to create a contest that becomes a precious childhood memory. Doff my hat to the Parle team which ran that one!

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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