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October 7, 2009

HORN ...OK ...Please!

It’s ubiquitous and yet one of the most inexplicable taglines in all of Indian communication. Virtually every truck (recommend that you read Sri Lal More Pictures
Shukla’s ‘Raag Darbari’ for perhaps the best description ever of an Indian truck) that rumbles across the country carries ‘Horn OK Please’. Yet no one seems to have a clue as to why, when or how truckers decided to brand their fume bellowing monsters with this line.

Even stranger is the fact that very few truckers or cleaners are likely to be conversant with English. Still no matter where they hail from — Punjab or Pondicherry — they stick to the branding code. We will never know what was going through the mind of the anonymous copywriter who wrote this enduring tagline.

But what we do know is that he/she manage to forge an enduring emotional connection with the target audience — the sort that commercial marketers would crave for.

A connection so strong that logic and powerpoints (not to mention articles such as this one) can neither decode nor wish away. Had this been put into research by a truck manufacturer, in all probability he would have been told that it is rubbish, means absolutely nothing and will never work.

There are numerous other such ‘unofficial’ taglines, which fly in the face of convention and Kotler, anyone of which could have been used as the column title. However, few bring a smile to your lips after all these the way Horn OK Please does, few have such a curious syntax and well this is the phrase that I like best, and as the writer I get to choose.

As for the column itself it will focus on the oddities related to all elements that go into the task of brand-building — be it by large marketers or unorganised efforts — and consumerism in India. It might occasionally stray from the defined brief, and when that happens just think of it as brand extension, no matter how tenuous the link is. If you don’t like it then just ignore it and if you do then ‘Horn OK Please’.

Up in smoke

Few brands in India have, over the last two decades, demonstrated the power of a brand as the cigarette brand, Marlboro. For years, paanwalahs across the country (in an era when there were no cell-phones or
internet) charged the same price for a packet of Marlboro (the smuggled version, since it was not legally available). The pricing that the paanwallahs arrived at was not based on a simple conversion of the dollar/pound price plus (adding the cost of procurement through smuggling.

Instead the brand was typically pegged to the most expensive Indian brand and retailed at a Rs 10 mark up to it. After every Budget when Indian cigarette brands hiked prices, Marlboro prices were recalibrated by the paanwallahs to ensure that the premium for the brand remained (even though it being a smuggled commodity, the budget had no impact on the brand.)

Strangely enough, in the last year or so ever since the brand has been legally retailed, this price premium has totally disappeared. Today it costs just Rs 2 more than a packet of Gold Flake, Rs 4 less than a pack of Classic Milds (at a single-stick level it’s five bucks for all these three brands) and Rs 10 less than a packet of Benson & Hedges (all prices are MRP in Mumbai).

Even more intriguing is the fact that while the ‘Made In India’ Marlboro pack retails at Rs 90, the smuggled ones are priced at a discount. It’s not easy to explain the transition. Perhaps the brand was far more aspirational when it was less freely available. Perhaps over the years with far more people travelling abroad far more regularly, a brand like Davidoff, which is largely of the smuggled variety, has managed to reposition Marlboro into the mass-market cigarette that it is globally, even in India.

Perhaps the MNC never really fathom e d this parallel brand valuation that it enjoyed. Perhaps it is a conscious strategy by the marketer to gain a wider audience. Whatever the reasons, one of the best demonstrations of brand equity for the last two decades by an iconic brand nurtured by unconventional brand guardians (local paanwallahs) has now finally come to an end.