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23 Jun

It's in the DNA, Saar!

On a terrible day, there is comfort in knowing that Rakhi Sawant, Urfi Jawed, or our Lord Puneet will be up to their usual set of antics to help me have a good laugh and destress. It could be a dramatic moment of vulnerability made hilarious by Rakhi or the ingenious ways Urfi finds ways to recycle any material to make outfits from, or just the brazen tomfoolery on display by Lord Puneet.

I am not sure if it's a team that's advising Rakhi or Urfi on the kind of antics they should pull, but the consistency of it makes me think that is who they really are.

Their brand image, so to speak, is consistent across the board.

One would call them strange, eccentric, peculiar, or perhaps attention-seeking even, but they are all of those things at all times and with all people. Our perception of them is constantly refreshed with fresh antics that seem to belong to them — alone.

We might even go as far as to say,

“Only they can do it.”


“There's no other Rakhi Sawant than Rakhi Sawant.”

But think about it: pulling of a stunt once could be done using a trick or scheme, but to repeat them regularly requires a certain level of consistency on the level of the self or the DNA. It also requires one to deeply understand how the audience responds to their brand and how they can maintain that brand image.

This is true for businesses, too.

Godrej, Godrej Nature’s Basket's (GNB) parent company, had invested about ₹450 Cr in the business in its 14 years of operation. But back in May 2019, GNB was sold to Spencer’s for ₹300Cr against an annual turnover of ₹380Cr.

One of the many factors that led to this was a curious case of confusing impressions. GNB launched as a niche, high-street grocery chain selling world food. It even operated within select city areas known for premium rents and higher property rates. The assumption was that customers who rented these properties or bought houses in such areas would naturally become an audience for GNB’s curated products.

Except, the assumption didn’t hold true for too long.

For one, it expanded too quickly from Mumbai to Delhi and other major metros. And while each city has premium property pockets, there is something crucial to learn about customers who live here.

Customers who can afford premium rents and properties are likelier to employ cooks. And the likelihood that cooks regularly use premium, high-quality ingredients is limited to special occasions. This factor is also true when you think of any other customer base. Using premium, niche-quality ingredients for a food dish is occasional.

So, other than reducing the number of customers it catered to, GNB also fell prey to the infrequent purchasing habits for the quality of products on offer. For instance, when you buy groceries, you might buy normal wheat bread for regular use and occasionally buy sourdough bread. Or you might buy Amul cheese for regular use and order mozzarella or feta for a special occasion.

Regardless, with an offline-first business model, customers' impression of the store was that it sold products and brands they didn’t hear about at your local grocery store or superstore. And between 2005 to 2014, GNB depended largely on curating the brands it sold via its stores.

In 2014, they introduced in-house brands for gourmet products and healthy food alternatives. This new business did help boost sales temporarily. GNB’s stock-keeping units (SKUs) also increased to 306. Additionally, it launched an online store, further expanding its presence to about 125 cities.

It was all going fine, until there was competition.

By the time GNB could find its feet as a business, the competition from online grocery delivery startups grew. Big Basket and Grofers were serving daily groceries to a wider audience pool. And that put pressure on GNB.

The brand had to make a choice between maintaining the gourmet grocery impression it had created, working through the ambiguity and preserving what they had built, or changing it in response to growing competition.

GNB picked the latter.

For one, it gave up its identity as a premium grocery store and took up the identity of a neighbourhood grocer, setting itself up for competition amongst players like DMart, and Big Bazaar. And in an interview cited by The Ken, Avani Davda, then newly appointed CEO at GNB, said,

“We were a great brand, but there was a lot of stiffness in it. The strategy was to become a neighbourhood store.”

While that was true, the stiffness and premium curation was the only factor that differentiated GNB in a customer’s mind.

Customers thought of GNB as a premium, quality store selling gourmet products for a limited number of categories. And this impression of the brand had been nourished over multiple years of GNB's operations. In fact, I myself remember going to a few malls then and noticing the stark difference between the brands being sold at GNB versus brands being sold at other retail stores.

By responding to its competition and suddenly transforming its brand perception, it antagonised its target customers and confused those who aspired to buy from the store. Responding to brand competition led to a lose-lose for GNB. Now, when a customer went to the store to look for a specific brand of products, they were instead offered a brand they saw elsewhere, too, making price and discounts the primary consideration for the purchase.

There was misalignment in the impression built by GNB over the years and what it had now evolved, or dare I say, devolved into.

For the business, shifting the identity might have meant an uptick in sales figures, but for the customer, it meant inconsistency.

The point I'm trying to make here should by now be pretty obvious to you:

The impression or identity of a brand can’t suddenly change for a customer post re-branding.

For example, you won’t suddenly be okay with Apple using memes and funny reels on its social media. When you think of Apple, you have a specific impression of how they communicate, what they highlight, and what you look up to the brand for.

You could say that Apple as a brand has a strong and coherent DNA. There is coherence between their products, design choices, what they market their products as, how they have marketed them over the years, the language, the presentation, the aesthetic, the price points they sell at — everything is deeply informed by this DNA.

If the coherence was lost or they changed their branding suddenly, you, as a customer, would lose trust. You would wonder why it has suddenly changed due to some external forces. And you may even feel betrayed, to an extent.

This is no different from how humans judge each other on an individual level.

At work, middle managers are often despised and considered weak if they are dominating and assertive only in front of their subordinates but are pushovers when interacting with their own managers. This is largely seen with bad managers at large corporates.

The subordinate notices the inconsistency in their manager’s behaviour — an inconsistency dictated by external factors — and likely loses respect for the person.

The subordinate sees that there is nothing their manager would really stand for, and that they would quickly change their personality and values based on the situation, as it suits them.

They now deem their manager to be untrustworthy. There is no core personality or DNA that one could consider authentic about this manager.

We subconsciously do this coherence-check even with the politicians we elect.

Have you noticed how Arvind Kejriwal spoke before he was elected and how his speech changed after he got elected? By entering large-scale politics, he had to tone down his ideas of radical reform, which were co-incidentally what made him appear smart, likeable, and an image of rationality in a world of irrational, emotion-driven narratives.

He failed to cohere.

And believe it or not, people notice these things quickly. A person who is consistently an asshole in all situations and with all people, is, counter-intuitively, trusted a lot more than someone who is a different personality in different situations, without any core underlying DNA.

For GNB, the customers were left feeling confused. And GNB ended up paying heavily for this crisis of identity.

It wasn’t in GNB’s DNA to be a neighbourhood store. All their communication and product decisions up until that point had been against that identity. And this created a lot of brand dissonance for the customer. Ultimately, this incoherence impacted sales in a way that practically wiped out the brand image of GNB.

For GNB, the confusing offers made people wonder what the store was all about. One would wonder,

“Are they even sure of what they’re selling?”

And such shifts in brand identity matter. They matter to a great extent than we might give them credit for.  I mean, GNB literally got wiped out because of a shift in its brand strategy.

Think of Zerodha, on the other hand.

Right from how they have built the product to how they hire to how the founder and top management communicate publicly, all of their actions scream

“We will do what we feel is right for the customer in the long term.”

In multiple interviews, you will notice that Nitin Kamath mentions that they didn’t pursue a certain vertical within fintech or didn’t work with influencers because it didn’t make sense for Zerodha's customers. They let go of lucrative opportunities as a business because, in the long term, it could’ve hurt their customers.

Now these are costly signals for a business to put out. Leaving money on the table may be difficult in the short term, but this level of coherence between what is stated and what is executed is what builds strong brands. It is also why people trust and revere them the way they do. The brand doesn’t compromise on customer interests, and they get the same loyalty in return.

I would say Zerodha has a strong brand DNA, and they have immense clarity on why they are in this particular business. It is difficult to sway such a business regardless of the competitive pressure.

And just thinking from an evolutionary standpoint, consistency serves as a proxy for predictability and reliability. An incoherent product or branding decision that's introduced suddenly, will impact predictability and erode trust. Because the brain is evolutionarily designed to see fundamental inconsistencies in beliefs and behaviour as threats.

As a startup, you might think of making some more money by introducing a new vertical or responding to your competitors by aping their ways. But if you're not paying attention to how coherent it is to your brand's DNA up until that point, the bargain might end up costing you dearly in the long run.

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