Posted on 27-04-2014
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

A chilly wind was caressing the skin on our faces under the clean Italian winter sky of Venice. My wife and I were visiting the spectacular Piazza San Marco, about 200 meters from the mouths of Po and Piave Rivers where the famed St Valentine’s mask festival runs for a week in February. To profess true love, lovers use masks as a ritual to surprise each other with.

The romance of Venice is its 118 small islands separated by canals, linked by bridges. The peculiarity of ancient Piazza San Marco is you can sometimes walk nonchalantly there, at other times the tide raises the river almost a metre making the Piazza a lake. Some 3 million tourists from around the world come to celebrate St Valentine’s carnival when Venetians and Italian men and women dress up in traditional period costumes especially available on hire at this time. The festive atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve returned to the Middle Ages. Masks went through periods of celebration or being banned since the 12th century in Venice, and were officially revived from 1979 to encourage tourism.

Particularly spectacular is the outstanding way women’s faces are designed with the refined art of Italy. Painters paint delicate tendrils, decorative motifs to beautify women’s faces to accentuate the city’s ancient beige stone architecture. Sometimes you feel it’s a Hollywood studio set for historical films. On these gala nights people wear various expressive masks embellished with soft feathers, glitter or colourful gemstones to charm the night with an unreal, glamorous touch. Savouring this theatrical flavour, my wife and I joined the festivity in Piazza San Marco surrounded with musicians in front of cafes and restaurants. The specialty was waltz music with the grand piano, counter bass cello and of course the Italian accordion. When dressed in a sari, people would give my wife admiring glances from a distance, but when she wore Western clothes they’d embrace her as a Latino because being of Assamese origin she’s naturally crafted with high cheek bones. She was in fact in high demand among the crowd of artists in Piazza San Marco who were keen on painting her face. When she happily agreed, she was told the session would last upto 2 hours during which time the artists asked me to move around here and there, promising I’d be in for an incredible surprise.

Just a few meters away I took a seat in a musical cafe. The air was filled with different music groups playing tunes which from a distance seemed like a cacophony of music. In the middle was the face painters surrounded by dressed sophisticatedly women, vivaciously appreciating one another’s face designs. The Piazza was indeed a place of beautiful human festivity. In many open air bazaars and places of gaiety in the world you will find artists painting portraits on-the-spot. Such artistic activity originated in Montmarte, in northern Paris where painters with their brushes and colours are busy at work. But here in Venice the artist painter works not on canvas or paper, but painting women’s faces in Italy’s typical, dramatic culture.

Sitting just in front of me was a tall, graceful woman of perhaps 50 years. Indicating my wife, she started talking to me, saying how marvellous it was that we’d come from another culture so far away to enjoy artistry in Venice. She enquired if I knew anything about the mask festival. Obviously, with my habit of doing consumer research continuously, I played the role of being an innocently stupid observer in the hope that I may learn many things from her. This elegantly poised woman had strong burn marks on her face, giving her a scary image. Explaining the origin of masks, she said using them in rituals or ceremonies was an ancient human practice across the world. She said the mask game started in Italy’s Sardinia before 2000 BC.

She then turned philosophical, relating how important the human head and face were in identifying a human being, the rest of the body merely enables execution. She revealed her personal experience. She was returning to Venice to enjoy the mask festival after almost 30 years. Originally from Florence, she had migrated to San Francisco after marriage. The mask festival is a game she said where you discover different individuals through the expression of different types of masks. Yesterday she’d gone to a mask party where she found the man she’d fallen in love with. Both of them were wearing masks and talking for nearly 3 hours, so they didn’t see each other. The man was sadly reminiscing how he was madly in love with a girl from Florence, they’d meet year after year at this mask festival when he was very young, but he suddenly lost her.

The woman then understood she found her Alberto again. She silently remembered this love of hers, but she did not dare to reveal herself and her burnt face to him. Jumbled images and emotions ran through her… how can she go back to her old lover who remembered her as a beautiful young person when in actuality she is now old and physically tarnished? Slowly she was discovering she’s going deeper into dangerous mental territory. She wanted to escape, to not expose her burnt face to kill his beautiful memories. So in that swaying crowd she quickly exchanged her mask with another woman. When he turned back to talk to her, he could not recognize he was addressing another woman who was wearing her mask. This is the way she hid herself from Alberto whom she’d lost after her fire accident long ago when she’d badly burnt her face and lost her memory. Having recovered that terrible trauma, a kind American soldier she met loved her as she was, married and carried her away from the masks of Venice to a new American life.

How mysterious is the mask she said that she regained this lost memory of Alberto on returning to Venice and wearing the mask after 30 years. In the meantime my wife’s face was incredibly designed, we started to walk to join a masked gala.

To download above article in PDF Mysterious mask

Financial Express link:http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/from-the-discomfort-zone-mysterious-mask/99/

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Posted on 20-04-2014
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

The resemblance between staple food and mobile phones that I wrote about last week spells a red danger signal for manufacturers. How long can manufacturers continue the version strategy in the hope of sustaining their business?

New model versions every quarter is the name of the game now. Global companies bring out several price categories; inside each category there’s some tinkering with the software. This becomes the new version with inhuman digits like Nokia Lumia 1320, 1520, 1020 or Samsung Galaxy note, 2, 3, s, s2, s3, s4, S5; then there’s Apple’s iPhone, 2g, 3, 3G, 3gs, 4, 4S, 5, 5c, 5s. Such insensitive acts are done robotically to generate revenue without understanding the customers’ subconscious mind. What is the distinctive change the mobile device design brings?

Sooner than later, the handset is becoming commodity. The huge number of new handset buyers getting added everyday is more intelligent than the buyer of reputed brand mobile phones. The masses either don’t have money to waste, or consider it foolish to spend extra on a brand’s value. The mobile is like commodity rice and bread where no brand has yet established its pull nor tangibly shown any better benefit. Similarly, the large community of unbranded mobile phone buyers find negligible, untenable distinction between different branded handheld devices in the market. The branded handset buyer will shift to unbranded categories because as there’s no functional distinction, why specially choose a brand, why pay more?

The mobile phone industry is lagging behind in understanding the parameters of differentiation vs distinction. Everybody knows that digital technology brings cost down. By altering colors and digital icons to prove premiumness and brand distinction, digi-tech mobile phones are struggling. Perhaps there’s technological engineering differentiation in the software, but the consumer eye that chooses the instrument, gives that differentiation no credence. Steve Jobs was driving Apple like a fashion designer. After the death of this sultan of design, everybody has realised that the mobile hand device is generic.

Big mobile brands are destroying their brand value by frequent launch of new versions bearing heartless code names that nobody can mentally register. I was using Samsung Note 2 without any problem when suddenly I was provoked to buy Note 3 within 6 months. According to my requirement, I never did figure out why I needed the new one, it showed no extra purpose. Making such versions, brands are losing consumer mindshare in the product’s human touch. Here local or pseudo-Chinese handset manufacturers get the opportunity to commoditize the global brands. Actually if we see the frequently changing versions manufacturers make we can easily detect there’s been no radical or disruptive change in user interface in the last 3 years. So as a victim, I consider it all as eyewash to change for the sake of change.

But as a designer sensitive to the human touch, let me take my readers’ permission to narrate my ideas on the quality customers want:

  1. No version model can ever overcome the conclusion I’d arrived at that the handset has become akin to staple food, whatever may be its digital mathematics.

  2. It’s impossible for digi-tech users to emotionally bond with the digital interface. Only when the device is held in the hand can it play a role of sustaining emotional attachment.

  3. It’s the upper portion of the human body, the head and face, that identify and define emotional cues in different individuals.

  4. The recognition of love, affection and sexual inclination all start with the face, that’s the real connecter. The rest of the body enables generic enactment from the brain’s command.

  5. Using this analogy, the mobile phone device performs the body’s work, making it like generic staple requirement. It’s missing the human face and head that reflect aesthetics, emotion and brain command over the body.

  6. The brain or face of mobile phone is devoid of digital dogma that enslaves some digi engineers in the world.

  7. The handset is the only object that can become the face. It can be made to have strong human connect. It’s the only way you can break its staple character in the generic market.

  8. If an automobile body styling has to sustain minimum 5 years in the market, why not a mobile phone device? Lasting emotional connect can be created on the mobile device itself. It’s not the size or quality of a canvas that defines its distinction and a painter’s emotional connect with its admirers, but the content of the painting. In the same way, designing a handset requires an involved vision. The design should sustain for 3 to 5 years like a visionary artist whose painting sells beyond a price.

  9. Once the user gets used to the physical design of the handset, its digital aspect cannot be the frivolous reason to change the brand or product.

  10. The mobile handset manufacturer needs vision that’s totally missing today. Like quarterly account handling for shareholders, manufacturers view the short-term, not the long-term. While keeping the same handset, continuous digital interface upgradation has to become the new trend, even as changing the handset’s internal circuit panel should be put in practice. I’m sure if new digital changes become user advantage centric, people will pay for digi upgradation while keeping the same device for a long time. I believe this is the right direction to change the buying behavior of mobile phone device.

When Swatch was launched in 1981, the vision was to create a Swiss marquee to go beyond the digital dial wrist watch that was signaling watch market commoditization. This vision led to the incredible sustaining business success of Swatch. Many companies copied Swatch but nobody could create another Swatch-type brand in the vulnerable low cost watch market. Mobile phone companies should hire people who invent the substance that makes addiction happen in cigarette companies. Creating addiction to retain their customers is every cigarette brand’s challenge.

Mobile device design needs bigger ideation to make it distinguished and prevent its becoming like commodity staple rice. The human hand with 10 fingers has so many sensitive areas to connect to the device. You can’t imagine the kind of sustaining emotional connect that can be established before the mobile phone turns into a commodity.

To download above article in PDF Mobile phone is a commodity

Financial Express link:http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mobile-phone-is-a-commodity/99/

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Posted on 13-04-2014
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

“Electra telephono! Dmitri telephono! Theodore telephono!” These were costly international calls. They used to come to the only general land-phone in the basement corridor of Fondation Hellénique inside the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris campus. Greek students would get calls from parents and friends in Greece. Whoever was in the corridor would lift the receiver then knock the door of the relevant person.

I lived my early years in France inside this hundred-acre unique park for students and academics in southern Paris where the French Government gave 40 countries space for residences. I had no official scholarship, so India House refused me a room. But Dr Georgoulis, a kind-hearted Sorbonne University professor in charge of Greek House, liked my paintings and accommodated me, a part-time art student. I paid 300 French francs rent per month from my 500 francs working as a sweeper in a printshop. I could afford nothing else, so getting 10ftx8ft space within four walls, a 5ftx6ft bed, wash basin, chair, reading table, shared toilet and kitchen outside, was a godsend. From my basement skylight I could see people’s legs walking on the garden. Weekends were boisterously busy for our corridor public phone. I could never expect a call from my parents in their underprivileged economic situation. Moreover, it wasn’t easy to call from India then. Only the affluent few had phones at home. For an international trunk-call booking you had to visit the telephone exchange, a call could take hours or days in mid-1970s. Happily, I learnt several Greek terms of endearment and swear words listening to continuous telephone chatter outside my room.

The idea of personal calls enamored everyone except inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first practical telephone in 1876. He considered the phone an intrusion and refused to have one in his study! Science fiction writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke, most well known for the screenplay of Stanley Kubrik’s film, 2001: A Space Odyessy, actually predicted in 1959 that "the time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on Earth merely by dialing a number" and this will be through a "personal transceiver, so small and compact that every man carries one." In fact his vision included global positioning so that "no one need ever again be lost."

Since Scotsman Bell’s invention, different scientists have taken this technology forward. Originally you held two parts, for talking and hearing. Subsequently came the single talk-and-hear phone. In 1891 French engineer Ernest Mercadier invented in-ear headphones. Red public telephone booths on England’s streets have become iconic since 1920s, a few such kiosks still exist. I’d barely used a phone before I left India in 1973. France showed me phone model evolution from dialing, touch phones to different colours. Street phone booths for public use soon attracted vandalism. So the Government introduced tele-carte, an embedded chip smartcard you could pick up from tabacs (tobacco shops). Initially spaced apart, these phone boxes soon erupted in every street corner, were always occupied, had big queues. All French Cafes were equipped with behind-the-counter special phones that you used by paying for a geton (phone coin).

India’s PCO (public call office) started in 1988. That’s also when I installed a phone in my parents’ home in Kolkata as I could afford the calling cost then. Using a phone was a pent up demand; rapid PCO growth, from 197,000 in 1994 to 2.38 million by 2006 made that evident. But the advent of the mobile phone, first introduced in India by Modi Telstra in Kolkata on 31 July, 1995, made PCOs lose their sheen. As per TRAI data India already has 900 million mobile phones, almost everyone seems to need it, like staple food.

Mobile as staple: My first mobile phone in France in 1989 was Motorola brand, about 6”x2”x2” with a huge, low longevity battery. I had to carry 2 extra big batteries and sizable charger. It was awful putting the mobile phone in the pocket. Later when I got the 3-inch vibration mode flap-top Motorola phone, I’d paste colourful stickers and place it on the table during corporate meetings in India. It would vibrate in front of me, becoming a welcome distracting toy everybody made fun of.

Big screen staple: In 2005, having done consumer research for a Silicon Valley client, we recommended big size screen as the future trend. Nokia, market leader and a benchmark since 1995, had small screens, so the client chose not to take our big screen suggestion. In 2007 I had the chance to work for Nokia in India. I’d mentioned it’s difficult to recall mobile types segmented as numerical series. My market learning was that many alphabets in the same button and small screen were not customer friendly. When Indian managers said convincing HQ Finland was impossible, I understood their nonchalance for customer sensitivity. Late 2007 saw Apple iPhones mesmerize the market with a big screen. The last 2 years have had Samsung with big screens become market leader.

Emptiness sans mobile staple: Immense desire to possess it has made the mobile phone like staple food. No other individual gadget has been more craved for by people across the world. International Telecommunications Union says the number of active mobile phones will reach 7.3 billion in 2014, more than people on earth. Compared to other daily requirements, only 4.5 billion people have access to working toilets, and 1.1 billion globally have no access to clean, safe, drinking water. It’s so coveted that as per 2012 San Francisco police data, 50% of all robberies were mobile phone thefts.

It’s happened. Almost everything converges on it, talking, writing, drawing, playing, watching TV or films, ordering food or travel needs, escort girls, supply chain coordination, among others. The mobile phone is the world’s unique staple today, higher than any single staple food. Proliferating like wildfire, it’s touching every human being. Without this 21st century’s staple, we are lost.

To download above article in PDF Mobile phone is staple food

Financial Express link:http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mobile-phone-is-a-staple-food/99/

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Posted on 06-04-2014
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Jhanjat (mess)!” is how Akash, a 35-year-old Delhite, described his family living composition. He was narrating his rigmarole family life, from his joint family to nuclear family, back to joint family which broke up to become a neo-joint family, his brother’s home then turned into an extended nuclear family.

Akash’s father was in the Railways. His mother joined Government service in Delhi where Akash grew up with his younger sister, brother and grandparents. Ten years ago they arranged his marriage to Sunita who was from a large joint family. She fitted in like a glove in his family, managing the home under directions from her mother-in-law. His sister subsequently got married and left the home, while Akash’s unmarried brother had started to earn. That’s when Akash’s office transferred him to Mumbai.

Initially Sunita was extremely hesitant. Who will cook, clean and look after the joint family she was managing? Moreover, she was nervous about unknown Mumbai city, she had never lived alone before. What would she do when Akash travels on work, as he frequently does? She procrastinated for a year, then joined him. Within 8 months she started enjoying her nuclear living style. A son was born and she passed 4 happy years in Mumbai. When Akash was transferred back to Delhi, it was somehow obvious that they would return to Akash’s joint family home. In the meantime Akash’s brother had married, his wife worked in a travel company. Akash’s father asked his first floor tenant to leave so Akash could move in. In a few years Akash’s brother was blessed with 2 children.

So theirs became a big joint family, 2 married brothers with wives, children, parents and grandparents under one roof, one kitchen. Having lived independently for a while, Akash and Sunita had become used to the Mumbai lifestyle with late night outings. Sunita was now pre-occupied with her child’s welfare and meeting her friends at daytime kitty parties. This seemed to upset Akash’s mother who expected the same docile service from her older, non-working daughter-in-law. The younger daughter-in-law evoked different expectations as she was career-oriented. Moreover, she had entered their home when the parents had become used to managing the home without Sunita. So the younger couple lived resourcefully and displayed no untoward ways his parents found unacceptable.

Returning home at untimely hours was starting to become the loosened hinge, especially as Akash’s brother’s wife was continuously reporting their late hours to the in-laws. A cold war developed between the 2 bahus (daughters-in-law), a Mumbaiwali (from Mumbai) with new attitude, the other exhibiting unstated superiority of her money earning ability, which put her in her in-laws good books. Sunita fell from grace because of her independent outlook. The 2 brothers were compatible, but Akash being the elder had to play the prophet’s role although the cold war made him uneasy. The axis finally unhinged when Sunita ordered a refrigerator for their room, not the common kitchen, and she took no one’s permission to do so.

Within a few days, Akash’s parents, wounded by the broken protocol, asked them to run their own kitchen. This severance started the neo joint family, same roof, separate kitchen. Leaving the joint family house is unimaginable, but separate kitchen is accepted nowadays. When I asked Akash why he did not move out totally, he paused, then frankly admitted he wanted his disposable income. Saving on house rent was a great advantage, even Sunita did not want quit the in-laws house.

Later Akash’s brother’s wife bought a personal room refrigerator too. She cleverly bought the smallest one, justifying the children’s milk needed it, so she faced no adverse situation with her in-laws. Her money-saving strategy was clear: share the in-laws kitchen, get them as trusted baby sitters for her children, and enjoy high disposable income. Ten years of this arrangement changed when she changed jobs to a far-off office. She convinced her husband to buy an apartment nearer her workplace, they had enough savings to do so. She got her in-laws’ empathy by explaining the sad necessity to move out. That started another nuclear family with both husband and wife working. So the 2 children alone at home would get extra pampering of material goods from guilty parents who could not spend quality time with them. Soon Akash’s brother’s wife brought in her aged parents to stay with them. According to Akash, it was her clear idea to bring her parents to stay with them, which is why she shifted her workplace and moved far away from her husband’s joint family home. This converted theirs into an extended nuclear family. That means, the house is run solely by the couple, where her parents have come to stay.

No marketing book in the world has written about factoring in this kind of Indian social jhanjat for companies to get better business revenue. The bone of contention in Akash’s joint family, the refrigerator, multiplied into 3 units. So it’s clear that identifying the fluidity in family structures and connecting to their new needs is imperative for FMCG, white and brown goods, consumer electronics, real estate and kitchenware companies, among others. India’s changing family compositions is not fiction, family splits from spats or otherwise is the way our society moves. These are real pockets of consumption.

Just consider the immense scope for product development concept to marketing: a joint family has one TV set, a neo joint family will have more depending on the number of brothers with independent kitchens, a nuclear or extended nuclear family can have TV sets even in different bedrooms. This totally non-stereotype social context cannot be handled with statistical Excel sheet data. To get unending business growth, you as the marketer require a disruptive approach; you have to sleep amidst the market’s social breath.

To download above article in PDF Family jhanjat

Financial Express link:http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/from-the-discomfort-zone-family-jhanjat-mess/99/

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