Posted on 25-04-2010
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

Social mores dictate consumerism. An organization not relating to social trends becomes laid back; consequently, business can shrink. The whole organization needs to feel a certain discomfort to set innovation in motion. Keeping the antenna up for the not-so-obvious is the only way to win the business game.

Organizational discomfort means pushing the whole organization towards change that leads to strategic innovation which differentiates, sells better and raises profit. Western societies have implicitly mastered discomfort in their hunger to discover the new and for better living. Stretching thought into lateral areas, they have gone beyond the obvious. Let’s look at the way we individually shock-absorb discomfort.

Of the innumerable activities outside your workplace, with family, friends or in social gatherings, something suddenly can disturb you. Your personal life has many surprises you absorb as part of the trend. You may not even notice it, as it becomes implicit; you expect it. In time, such social discomfort, so different from India’s non-liberalized days, can even convince you that you enjoy it.

Look at your 17-year-old daughter’s low-cut trousers. They’re precariously hugging her hips, the T-shirt is barely covering her belly. To establish a trend, she’s creating discomfort in the parent in you, and in the social environment. Fifteen years ago, a middle class Indian girl would think this to be immodest dressing. Will you admonish your child’s new dressing style? Wouldn’t you rather understand her new ways and become a liberal parent?

If you’re over 40, you’ll remember your young life with stringent home return timings, no grace period for girls. It was an adventure escaping parents and neighborhood spies for that secret love affair, or even to converse with the opposite sex! A 25-year-old today easily introduces romantic, even live-in relationships to parents who may feel discomfited at this variance from their childhood, but accept the change as the contemporary way to be.

In contrast, when it comes to the workplace, predictable routine reigns supreme, keeping the employee in total comfort zone. The conventional workplace has imposing dogma employees easily distance themselves from. They don’t expect or want flexibility from ‘The Company.’ They resist change, become risk averse, and refuse to go along with any discomfort in the working system.

Discomfort propels you to know that your achievement to date is not a throne to sit pretty upon, or to command the market from. Being self-righteous in business can jeopardize your long-term business existence. When know-how is easily accessible in every domain nowadays, an unexpected challenger can shake up the traditional market at any time. Apple’s iPod did just this, disrupting Sony’s undisputed leadership in the audio-video player market.

Sony may never have imagined that Apple could cross its threshold to get into the music territory. Having vibrated the mass consumption electronic market with trendy musical products these last 50 years, Sony may have overlooked creating discomfort for itself. iPod is no rocket science, just extreme consumer sensitivity in managing music. iPod’s outstanding concept of being a trendy pocket music dictionary has made it an addiction.

Following World War II, Japan’s strategic business step was very clear: The war has broken us, let’s not waste initial reconstruction time with fundamental innovation the West has already done.

Japanese products in the 1960s were perceived to be of very low quality. When they improved in the 1970s, Europeans would caricature them as ‘copy masters.’ The West failed to beware of the fact that the Japanese imitated to better the original as renovation. The Japanese innovated by establishing a marketing approach to product design. They minutely studied Western innovation, sociology and psychology, concentrating on how consumers approached and used products. Then they zeroed in on the concept of miniaturization as the consumer-friendly solution of gaining consumer proximity.

Europeans paid no heed to this ‘marketing of design,’ but consumers were clearly endeared to innovative smallness in product design. French automobile companies did attempt marketing a small car to change the American culture of bigness, but it was the Japanese who succeeded in indulging Americans with small cars, compact motorbikes and electronic gadgets. Miniaturization has tremendous universal appeal anywhere in the world. The Japanese own the concept and enjoy its proximity with the masses.

Miniaturization evolved from the Japanese tradition of minimalism, the religious Buddhist way of life, the symbolic form of bonsai art. A bonsai plant is genetically pure; in miniature format, its authenticity remains intact.

To mime Japanese miniaturization, let’s take European perfection to be akin to the palms of both hands joining, finger on outstretched finger. If this symbolizes a perfect unbreakable joint in a manufacturing process, what the Japanese have done is slightly twisted the two joined palms. So the outstretched fingers from one hand now touch the edges of the fingers of the other, enabling the fingers to fold on the back of the palm. This allows a snug hug of the two hands. This coziness is miniaturization. The Japanese have applied this principle in every Western origin product that they have miniaturized.

With spectacular renovation of Western innovation, the Japanese have now achieved global leadership in many connoisseur European businesses such as cameras, motorbikes, automobiles, electronic entertainment systems among others. As Europeans busied themselves conducting analysis after laboratory analysis, the Japanese concentrated on surprising the global consumer by breaking local tradition. It was as though Philips invented, and Sony marketed. Caught unawares by the iPod in this century, Sony may surely be working in intense discomfort now for another breakthrough marketing innovation to regain their market.

Enterprises and employees need to undergo a certain amount of discomfort in trying to connect to the latent perspective. That’s the only way to create business differentiation in the market. Your consumers may be similar to your 17-year-old belly-baring daughter. Why then must you oppose discomfort at work? Only if an organization, whether it’s small, medium or big, continuously perpetuates discomfort within the workplace, can it meet success.

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Posted on 18-04-2010
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

Nothing can stop you from cursing, it’s the only pleasure in life that doesn’t cost money. Organizations may need to pay attention to these flashpoints in society where emotions run high. They can become entry points for business. Abusive communication is the psychological, sociological and anthropological essence of human emotion. People curse in excitement or in stress; such emotions loosen their purse strings to spend money as well. A product or service offer would do well to be associated here. It is very rare for people to curse in bereavement. A curse is a sutra, a process like the Kamasutra is for sexual positions. Civilized society may want to hide it, but a curse is the most enjoyed, used and abused expression in every social level in every country. I have identified six internationally recognizable curse sutras.

1. Anger curse: People react to anger through physical aggression or use the weapon of the curse. A curse erupts spontaneously when holding the car steering wheel in a traffic jam. You cannot physically harm people but you can meaningfully curse them. A curse can convey very deep and heart rendering meanings in different countries. When a very important thought needs to be put into words, but articulation is poor, how do you bridge the gap? In France for example when a corporate meeting lengthens to become a marathon session, the topic discussed threadbare with no solution, people describe it as ‘enculer les mouches,’ meaning ‘We have tortured ourselves enough to f..k a mosquito.’

2. The extreme welcome curse: I have a fascination for the Punjabi society in India. They are frank, joyful, open. At a very serious corporate meeting one day, a senior executive stepped out of the conference room perhaps for a bio-break. Suddenly we could hear some scuffle-like loud thumping noise outside, and choice uncivil words: ‘Saale paape! Kya haal chaal hai, behen—d! Tu kaha mar gaya tha?’ (‘You so-and-so! How have you been, you sister….! Where were you dead for so long?’) Totally shocked I rushed out in concern. The scene that greeted me is indelible in my mind. Two well-built handsome men of the Punjab in ‘pucca suited-booted’ gear, back thumping, beaming, hugging each other tight, exchanging a string of diatribes in total congenial surrender.  I discovered in them the extreme welcome curse. That bosom friend you are so fond of, when he shows up after a long duration, or makes a fraternal move that brings you extreme pleasure or benefit, you will respond with an emotional curse. This is a token of love and intimacy between two long lost buddies.

3. Depression curse: It’s natural to be depressed sometimes. A curse-filled monologue is an effective antibiotic solution for despondency because any opportunity to curse gets rid of the undesired down-in-the dumps feeling. Solid cursing refreshes you out of your misery making you really feel good once again. No management theory to date has recognized that consumers love the language of the curse.

4. Socio-cultural colloquialism curse: Curse words used in normal dialogue brightens up a conversation making it punchier. I entered the cheery world of Greek curses through one of my clients in Athens. While researching consumers throughout Greece, I often heard the word malaca accompanied with great laughter and bonhomie. I don’t speak Greek, but I knew this was an important thread in their cultural fabric. I was thrilled to discover that malaca means asshole, and haga misu malaca is ‘go f..k yourself, asshole!’

In different interactions in the client’s organization, we would start in English and after sometime they would chatter away in Greek. I got fed up and shouted, Malaca! You can’t believe the appreciation I got! Coming as I did from France, they had considered me a Frenchman, somehow different from them. Malaca! immediately put me on even keel, making me an insider in their midst. When they veered off into Greek again, the salvo I directed their way was, Haga misu malaca! Tumultuous delight erupted. Now my inclusion was complete and forever.

5. Intense sexual act curse: Let me illustrate this Curse sutra by narrating an unbelievably intimate experience I perchance saw in Paris. Internationally reputed painters frequented the lithography studio I worked in. A famous French painter used to bring his model, a beautiful, slim African woman. When everybody was out at lunch, they would go to the print shop’s first floor room adjacent to my workplace. Intrigued at hearing loud shouts interspersed with whispering sounds, I peeped through the keyhole and saw them make love.  I was a greenhorn, fresh out of India, with no French vocabulary. I quickly wrote down the phonetics of their passionate utterances to find out the meaning of those fascinating words. The artist was fervently poetic; his partner would say, ‘o oui! o oui! ’ meaning Oh yes! Oh yes! My French friends helped me unscramble his groaning, rasping doggerel that was awash with the choicest sexual, swearing expletives.

During normal social interaction with us, this artist is never intense, never uses vulgar language. The worst swear word we’ve heard from him was ‘merde.’ But the sex moment inspires him to reach the heights of coarse speech. Here the curse becomes intimate articulation at a very personal level.

6. Over-intoxicated curse: When people drink more that they can stomach, intoxication makes them spiritual, aggressive or romantic. Strangely enough, these states also bolster their courage to swear unabashedly.

In a prime-time variety program on French television, Serge Gainsbourg renowned and revered singer, artist, poet and writer who over-intoxicated the French art and culture scene, came on stage to greet special guest Whitney Houston. Taking her hand, in a heavy French accent, he very softly said, ‘I wanth thu f–k yu.’ The audience gasped because he spoke English on French TV, something he’s never done. With a ‘What? What? What?’ Whitney pretended she didn’t understand him; the TV presenter tried to deviate the subject but Gainsbourg repeated himself. With a public image of being overtly intoxicated with cigarettes and alcohol, Gainsbourg imposed a philosophical abusive character to French culture, which is still minting money for the French entertainment business.

One world curse book: No university in the world has taken care to make a ‘one world curse book’ with explanations about the moment and circumstances of articulating these expletives. Such cross-country, cross-cultural insight is rich material for organizations to understand consumer sensitivity.

The Curse Sutra will help in selling durable products, automobiles, FMCG, cosmetics, fashion, or IT hardware because it has high association with human lifecycle, lifestyle and trend.

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Posted on 11-04-2010
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

The Western mind feels totally threatened by China. They think of China as a terror that will eat them up. The way they see it, the 51-starred flag may not rule the world anymore and the future drivers of the planet are likely to be the billion-peopled countries of China and India.

Last week, a French friend told me that previously China Town used to be in the 13th district of Paris, but now you could see a Chinese bank in the heart of Paris. A taxi driver in Amsterdam expressed his fear that since China is an extremely disciplined country with one ruling party, its over-a-billion population could be driven to do anything at the whim of their government. To the west, China is a country that has money power through government reserves, a highly polluting environment, manufactures counterfeit products, has low cost, high industrial productivity and is the biggest consuming society in the world.

On returning from China, a business associate of mine from Italy said he had heard of Chairman Mao’s strict regime but in Shanghai he saw skyscrapers—like in any other Western city. China, with its languages and cultural differences, is a total mystery to the West.

But the West hopes India will be China’s challenger. It’s comfortable with India because of its democracy and hospitality and it sees India at the forefront as a better alternative. But the question is whether India can take leadership of the world.

Those who have experienced India say Indians don’t like to take challenges. But it wasn’t always so. Let me recall how after the passing of the Government of India Act 1833, Lord Macaulay was appointed the first Law Member of the Governor-General’s Council to change things. He came to India in 1834 and found that it would be difficult for the British to gain control over this highly civilised independent country unless they demoralised the masses. In his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), he said, “It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

So Macaulay was instrumental in creating the foundations of bilingual colonial India. He convinced the Governor-General to adopt English as the medium of instruction in higher education, from the sixth year of schooling onwards, rather than Sanskrit or Arabic in the institutions that the East India Company then supported. He destroyed around 7,32,000 Gurukuls (schools), tortured the teachers and burnt them alive. His final years in India were devoted to the creation of a Penal Code, as the leading member of the Law Commission. We can say he was really a visionary who broke the morale of Indians so that the British could control India with few people.

Can we in India now change ourselves after 165 years so that we can take on the world? Challenge means not losing a ready opportunity. I think we have everything to give a new direction to the world. What are the challenges? Take Indian companies for example. Why do we confine ourselves to boundaries that do not exist? If a retail store selling products for the home is called Home Town, why are competing retails called Home Life, Home Stop or @home? Look at shops abroad—they are called Habitat, Ikea, Conran—and they are all different while being in the same ready-to-fit furniture market.

Global growth starts with the capacity to manage business with local expertise. Indian business houses can achieve global sustainability if they can have high localisation through adopting local customs and hiring locals. Whatever the political resistance was in Europe for Arcelor Mittal, even today it is stirring up passions among ordinary citizens like taxi drivers who say you have to be Indian to work there. Thirty years ago Europeans hated Americans. They admired the US as they gave full support for the Allies to win the Second World War but at the same time they could not tolerate American business colonising Europe. Since then, American companies have worked hard towards locality customisation of their businesses. Brilliant examples are IBM and P&G, among others, that are considered global companies today, and have high local expertise.

Outsourcing, cost arbitrage, offshore development may be devaluing India’s value image and can be scary for Western masses, but not at the corporate level. We definitely cannot do away with these drivers that have created essential businesses and contributed to our economy. But they should be used in a tactical way rather than being promoted as ‘low cost India’ as the core. A simple example is the way Swatch managed its image inspite of being a low cost watch. It’s a globally renowned high aspirational watch brand that costs $30. Yet, its reputation is not that it is a low cost watch, rather it is known to be a latent fashion statement. We have to be very careful that the growing extreme right parties of the politicised Western countries do not use ‘low cost outsourcing India’ as a strong weapon to create antagonism against India. If high resentment grows among the Western masses, that their jobs are being hijacked by India, it can jeopardise our global image. We should not forget that Hitler’s Nazi politics started from this background of instigating people Jews who had money power.

So, India in general, does not frighten developed countries like China does. It is in the hands of the Indian business community to drive business globally while being sensitive to being local in every country they operate in. Don’t ask the world to behave like Indians. Let’s take the opportunity to drive different people in the world through their own culture by being flexible yet highly disciplined and with the mentality of taking on challenges, to reinforce that India inspires.

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Posted on 04-04-2010
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit


The day after the iPad was launched, I was working with my small 4×9-inch laptop computer while having dinner at a Bangalore restaurant. Suddenly a seven-year-old girl, as she was returning from the washroom to her parents a few tables away from us, spied my computer, got distracted and rushed to our table. Her eyes lit up, and stayed glued to my Sony Vaio laptop, “Is this an iPad?” she asked. It totally disappointed her that the little computer was not an iPad. She said she had seen the iPad by going to Google. She and her friends were already chatting about it on Yahoo. She was very keen and confident about iPad functionalities and wanted to use it as soon as possible. She didn’t say she saw an advertisement or heard the news, her reference was the Internet. So iPad has done something really special, much beyond traditional advertising, that on the second day of its worldwide launch, a seven-year-old Bangalore girl was awaiting it with bated breath.

Adolescent users of mobile phones all across the world do not use them for talking but for social connect, SMS, MMS with video streaming. They have devised a new telegraphic type of text language that their generation is adept at using. With the mobile phone and the Internet totally connected, video streaming, watching movies, accessing YouTube are an important part of their lives. While on research in rural Kerala last year, a young boy wearing the mundu, T-shirt and earphones was intently watching a regional film on his mobile phone screen even as he was keeping an eye on the cattle he had brought out to graze.

Marketing departments of companies are naturally thinking of this cyberspace as an alternative media for their brand promotion. But calling this space Internet social media is a misnomer—it’s in fact social connect through cyberspace, through Internet social networking (ISN). It would be a mistake for advertisers to consider it another medium for communication without customising their connect beyond the advertising message. I would divide the cyber groups in terms of their different age groups for social connect. The child group of five to 12 years, the adolescent teenager, the 20 to 30-year-olds, 30 to 45-year-olds and the 45+ group. In addition, there are different social groups. However, the main zone of social connect is below 30 years of age. To reach out to these groups, the message has to be in a different tone and manner for each.

These cyber social platforms present a completely new opportunity to instantly deliver messages to millions of people. Its efficient use in Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign records its tremendous potential. Every company is trying to enter this space to connect to the 300 million who are active on the Internet, but these “advertisements” remain ineffective because one-on-one conversations do not happen. The brands remain faceless. Trying to give the same message to all at the same time may spell the death knell of organised, traditional advertising as we know it, because the young generation does not care about what you want to promote. You have to leave it there for them, be provocative and give a disruptive form or message. Don’t sell the obvious, make them decode what they want using their own intelligence. Internet social networking is clever as it is interactive, private and non-lucrative.

Privacy is a big issue, and of course there can be abuse too. The new generation count their virtual connections as their real friends. People are very familiar and “talk” endlessly to like-minded people they have met over the Internet. In fact, such friendships have even resulted in marriages.

In my travels, I find the mentality of a city boy either in Mumbai or Bangalore to be the same as that of one in New York or London—a big change from the 1970s, when as a 19-year-old I arrived in Paris and found nothing in common with a French boy my age.

As I was writing this column, I got an email from Bernard Offen, whose rescue from the Auschwitz death camp I had written about here. We became friends through email. He has included me in his tour to Auschwitz to explain his experience at the Nazi death camp. Writing to ensure that the horror of the Holocaust is not obliterated from history, he said Supreme Commander of Allied Forces General Dwight Eisenhower had ensured photographs and films were taken to record the death camps because somewhere down the road, someone will say this never happened.

Offen wrote, “This week the UK debated whether the Holocaust should be removed from its school curriculum because it offends a certain section of the population who claim it never occurred. It is not removed yet. However, this is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving in to it… This email is being sent as a memorial chain in memory of the six million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians and 1900 Catholic priests who were murdered, raped, burnt, starved, beaten, experimented upon and humiliated while the German people looked the other way… How many years will it be before the attack on the New York’s World Trade Centre ‘never happened’, because it offends some community in the US? This email is intended to reach 400 million people. Be a link in the memorial chain and help distribute this around the world.”

The life of Offen and others in the death camp would have been different if the Internet existed at that time. The difference is that someone then could have as easily sent this personal message addressing 400 million people across the world and things would have been different.



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