What Sri Sri can learn from Coca Cola

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has lately been a branding disaster. He seems to be going the Baba Ramdev way after making all the right noises all these years.
Every brand has a story associated with it. Ramdev’s story was “practicing yoga can cure any disease”. Those who have seen his yoga DVDs will recall the line “karte raho, cancer ka rog bhi theek hoga”.
This story helped him build a huge yoga empire whose turnover ran into over Rs 1000 crore. The story was working well, until Ramdev decided to diversify, like all big brands do.
He wanted to start a political party and launched a campaign to bring all of India’s black money lying in foreign banks back to India. His story changed from being a yoga guru to an aspiring politician who is also a yoga guru. And that clearly did not work.
Or let’s take the case of Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, the biggest guru of them all. His story was he could do miracles, basically small tricks like creating ash, necklaces, rings etc from thin air. This was perceived as a sign of divinity in India and he soon developed a mass following across various sections of the society.
He never changed his story, stuck to it and his followers took pains to keep talking about his miracles, thus ensuring sustained followership.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s story is that of spreading happiness and is targeted at the upper middle class segment of the society. Sri Sri is not a mass market guru like Sai Baba of Puttparthi was. In an interview he was asked why doesn’t he go on fast like Baba Ramdev had? He replied “I have so many followers outside the country. If I go on a fast, it will become an international issue. This is our problem and it should remain in India.”
Some mumbo jumbo has always been a part of his forte and it seems to impress the upper middle class that is prime target. Like the only time I have seen him from close quarters he said something like “jeevan ka matlab jisne batlaya usne samjha nahi, jisne samjha usne batlaya nahi“. Now go figure what that meant.
So even though Sri Sri thinly associated himself with Ramdev’s campaign against corruption, he didn’t go all the way with it. Clearly, associating himself with a mass market guru on a market issue would have spoilt his story of being an international guru promoting peace and happiness to the upper middle class. But now by making this comment on government colleges producing naxals he looks to be going the Ramdev way, trying to get into an area which is clearly not his comfort zone. (You can read the story here)
Great brands come to be associated with stories that get built around them. When these brands try to change this story, chances are the new story just doesn’t work, like has been the case with Baba Ramdev. The latest comment by Sri Sri also looks like that he now wants to be more than just a lifestyle guru who has a cult like following.But that might not just work. Big brands like Sri Sri come with stories attached with them and after a point it becomes difficult to change that story.
Take the case of the Bhartiya Janta Party(BJP). After years of projecting the soft Hindutva story, brand BJP tried to move to the “India shining” story before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
A huge telemarketing and internet marketing campaign was unleashed in line with the changed “story”. I still remember that while travelling in a bus in Hyderabad I got a call from an unknown number and on picking up was told “main Atal Bihari Vajpayee bol raha hoon”. For a moment I did not know what had hit me. The recorded voice of Vajpayee went onto elucidate how India had been shining under his five year rule.
Of course this new story did not work. And the party had to go back to its soft Hindutva line.
Another good political example is of the Left Front in West Bengal (or Pachimbanga as its now called). The front under the leadership of the then Chief Minsiter Buddhadeb Bhattacharya abandoned the tried and tested principles of Karl Marx in favour of the “invisible hand” and Adam Smith. They probably thought if China can do it, why can’t we? The voters clearly did not like this new story being projected by the Left, and threw it out after 34 years in power.
Fair and Lovely, the fairness cream from Hindustan Unilver Ltd has been sold on the “kale ko gora bana de” story for years now. Faced with constant criticism on the racial tones of the story, the company tried to change the story. It tried to associate the “achievement” story with the brand. The new advertisement showed a girl achieving her dreams of becoming a cricket commentator and finally meeting Krishnamachari Srikanth, a former India cricketer. The “achievement” story probably did not work and the company went back to its old story.
Donald R Keough, a former president of the Coca-Cola Company, has an excellent example in his book The Ten Commandments for Business Failure on what happens when the story associated with a brand is changed.
A slew of research and consultants told the top brass at Coca-Cola that people were looking for more sweetness in the product. This made it launch the ‘New Coke’.
What followed was a disaster that went totally against what the consultants had predicted. People did not like the tinkering. And some of them started to hoard old coke, before the stocks ran out. The consultants maintained their stance that people would eventually come around to drinking New Coke.
Keough relates an example of an old woman who called the company call centre and that was what made them drop New Coke and relaunch Coke as it was. “It was an eighty-five year woman who convinced me we had to do something more than stay course. She had called the company in tears from a retirement home in Covina, California. I happened to be visiting the call centre and took the call. “You’ve taken away my Coke,” she sobbed. “When was the last time you had Coke?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know. About twenty, twenty-five years ago.” “Then why are you so upset?” I asked. “Young man, you are playing around with my youth and you should stop it right now. Don’t you have any idea what Coke means to me?””
This made the top brass at Coke realise that they are not dealing with a taste or a marketing issue, but the idea or the story behind Coca-Cola. It was the “real-thing” and the consumers did not want any fiddling around with it.
Immediately a decision was made to bring back the old Coke as “Coca-Cola Classic.”
Sri Sri needs to take this lesson from Coca Cola and go back to his old story of being a yoga guru and give up any plans of being a politician. As marketing guru Seth Godin writes in All Marketers are Liars “Great stories happen fast. They engage the consumer the moment the story clicks into place. First impressions are more powerful than we give them credit for.”