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Could Discontinuity Be Your Next USP?

You've always done it this way. All your competitors do exactly the same thing. And your customer has drop a discontinuity that discounts all these. And frees trapped value. A rule-breaker's guide.

IllustrationBy Nanda Majumdar

  • Suddenly, India's pioneer compact-detergent brand, Procter & Gamble's Ariel, dispenses with the classic end-user-the female home-maker-in its advertising, and depicts a man, using the vernacular in English dailies.
  • Suddenly, PepsiCo India stops positioning its mango drink, Slice, as a beverage that competes with other soft drinks, and changes its value-proposition to turn it into a snack-albeit liquid.
  • Suddenly, Consolidated Coffee takes its upmarket, strictly-urban coffee brand, Tata Kaapi, into the hinterland, trying to convert rural tea-drinkers and using a sachet packaging as its entry vehicle.

R. Bakshi, CEO, Cadbury India

"Where a discontinuity is involved, asking the consumer for preferences does not always work."
R. Bakshi
CEO, Cadbury India

Suddenly, companies are prising open established paradigms and introducing discontinuities into them. Suddenly, brands are breaking away from the very expectations that they have assiduously built up over the years. Suddenly, marketing strategists are reworking the product-propositions, introducing new value, new genres of benefits, new usage-occasions-in short, demolishing the entire context of consumption in which the brand operated, and creating a new one.

As Thomas Puliyel, 43, Managing Director, Research International, puts it: ''A discontinuity questions the consumer's ingrained beliefs and attitudes towards a category or a brand.'' That's the objective with which Oriflame and Avon stole into a market fettered by traditional over-the-counter retailing systems, and introduced the customer to a new way of buying cosmetics. Not having imagined before that she could purchase global quality cosmetics right at home, the user began to attach value to the convenience of purchase, tilting the scales away from brands to buy which she had to travel to the store.

It was for this reason-introducing a new dimension of value, instead of merely claiming to outperform competing brands on the traditional parameters-that Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL) introduced, with Surf Ultra, the hitherto-unknown concept of a detergent that removes stains. Once again, customers found their assumptions about what a product category-in this case, detergents-can do for them being shattered by a new brand.

What these companies did was to effect a discontinuity that moved either the customer, or the brand, or both, out of the existing paradigm. Questioning ingrained beliefs-those of the company as well as of the customer-they reconfigured the brand's identity, thus releasing enormous hidden value. This extreme form of differentiation is not about rewriting the rules of the game; it's about changing the game itself.

What Is A Discontinuity? How Do You Define It?

L. Bawa, Vice-President, Marketing, Oriflame

"A discontinuity can stem from addressing a different audience, or conveying through a different channel."
L. Bawa

Marketing, Oriflame

A discontinuity concerns the revolutionary-not the mundane: it is the big idea that rebuilds the brand, the new technology that enables the company to deliver an all-new product-offering, and the unusual marketing mix that sharpens market-penetration. Explains M.S. Banga, 45, Senior Vice-President (Strategy), Unilever PLC: ''A discontinuity is anything that shifts the current paradigm of business-essentially, an orchestration of products, marketing-mixes, and delivery mechanisms. When any of these is changed substantially, a discontinuity occurs.''

Only, it does not happen everytime a marketer tinkers around with any of these elements. At the core of a discontinuity must lie unmatched insights into the customer's needs. Agrees Asit Mehra, 38, Director (Strategic Planning), Ammirati Puris Lintas: ''From the consumer's perspective, the revolutionary discontinuity is where she gets a benefit that she wanted, but wasn't getting.'' In effect, the concept of discontinuities is closely allied to the Boston Consulting Group's theory of breaking compromises.

Write the firm's George Stalk Jr., David Pecaut, and Benjamin Burnett in a monograph on the subject: ''A compromise happens when an industry imposes its own operating constraints on the customer...By focusing on compromises, a company can continuously uncover fresh opportunities and, thus, sustain growth over time.'' Growing by breaking compromises restricts companies to overcoming operational and regulatory constraints to offer customers products and services that they always wanted; leveraging discontinuities for growth requires companies to cater to customer needs that are often latent.

Catering to unexpressed needs, though, is just a bit more difficult than catering to expressed ones. Seconds Harish Manwani, 46, Director (Personal Products), HLL: ''Any change that satisfies the consumer is good, but evolutionary. But a revolutionary that delights the consumer is a breakthrough. Conveying a superior brand-benefit through a current brand or a new proposition is a discontinuity.'' But doing this isn't easy.

Why do you Need A Discontinuity? And When?

A. Mehra, Director (Strategic Planning) APL

"For the customer, a revolution is where she gets a benefit without changing her habits."
A. Mehra
Director (Strategic

Planning) APL

The allure of the discontinuity is strongest for the marketer trying to break into an already-crowded product-category. Akai, for instance, needed to orchestrate an entry that would help it hog mindshare and create a positioning it could call its own. The discontinuity it used: get the customer to view buying a new TV as a deal, not a purchase. It worked.

Another TV brand, Onida, used a discontinuity to extricate itself from a trap of its own making: an advertising property that had, through the repeated use of the Devil, become the brand's core property. Ad agency Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), which inherited the languishing brand in 1998, revisited its core identity using a proprietary brand audit system.

The finding? The use of the Devil to highlight Onida's premium positioning lacked conviction in a market whose contours had been redefined by transnationals. Details Sumanto Chattopadhyay, 32, Associate Creative Director, O&M: ''The Devil was increasingly becoming an irritant for most consumers; they would switch off when they saw the Devil, refusing to absorb any further communication about the product.'' The recommended solution: bury the Devil.

Onida's discontinuous advertising strategy appears to be working: the brand had increased its marketshare from 10 per cent at the beginning of 1998 to 12 per cent at the end of the year. But the new-look advertising was just part of a larger strategy. Mirc Electronics (the company that owns the Onida brand) revamped the brand's advertising only after it was ready to launch 4 new models. Thus, while advertising created a discontinuity and revived customer interest, the new range gave customers enough reason to buy the brand.

But a discontinuity isn't just a technique to position or reposition a brand. It may well be the vehicle that can provide the brand a way out of a strategic cul-de-sac. After years spent in the belief that a breakfast cereal is a breakfast cereal is a breakfast cereal, Kellogg India altered the paradigm with a discontinuity. A breakfast cereal, the company told the consumer, could now be a biscuit.

The obvious benefit? Volumes, as children prefer biscuits to breakfast cereals. The not-so-obvious benefit? The company now had a strong enough basis to claim the breakfast nutrition platform as its own. Says Denis Avronsart, 48, former Managing Director, Kellogg India: ''By transplanting Kellogg's values of nutrition and taste into a popular delivery form, we can latch on to a much larger customer base.''

Agrees Kamini Banga, 44, Managing Director, Dimensions Qualitative Research & Strategic Consultants: ''A brand should be wedded to a set of transferable benefits or values-not to a product form.'' The caveat: the discontinuity needs to leave the brand's core values intact, but can reconfigure almost every other element of the marketing mix.

Discontinuities are easily recognised; but not quite as easily created. And the typical customer may not really be able to help. Points out Rajeev Bakshi, 44, CEO, Cadbury India: ''Where a discontinuity is involved, asking the customer for preferences does not always work. A typical customer will play back her existing sets of beliefs.''

Monodonic research can play a role in helping a company identify a discontinuity. Traditional research requires companies to offer consumers paired options. Monodonic research just tests the absolute for negatives. The marketer identifies an attribute or a set of attributes which can, by offering an all-new benefit, create a discontinuity. In the next step, the consumer is asked whether she likes these attributes. Or not. The tenet: decide what's good for the customer, but just check with her once.

How Do You Manage A Discontinuity?

Once a company has identified a discontinuity, it needs to identify a vehicle for it. This could be an existing brand, an extension, or a new brand. Marico Industries' Parachute Hair Oil first responded to the threat of contemporary offerings, like Dabur's Vatika and HLL's Clinic Plus, through extensions like Parachute Amla and Parachute Herbal. Both flopped; in the mind of the consumer, Parachute stood for coconut oil, nothing more.

To overcome this problem, the company decided to use the mother-brand as the vehicle for discontinuity. An advertising campaign tried to ally the brand with the benefits of coconut; a design initiative bestowed the brand with a contemporary logo; and subsequent extensions like Parachute Lite and Parachute Nutrisheen reinforced the discontinuity. The brand had successfully dissociated itself from the oil-tag without hurting its core property: the goodness of coconut.

But all discontinuities need not begin with the mother brand. When Cadbury India wished to widen the market-canvas for its mainstay, Cadbury's Dairy Milk (CDM), it sought to do so through a discontinuity which used a brand-extension as its vehicle. The result was Cadbury's Gold, a chocolate whose premium perch was reinforced by a quirky advertising campaign (and supported by the Rs 15 price-tag as opposed to Rs 10 for CDM) that featured a female voyeur.

In both cases, the companies had clear objectives. Marico's objective was to fight competition through contemporary offerings; Cadbury's was to increase marketshare by using a brand-extension. Advocates Rajesh Jejurikar, 34, General Manager (Marketing,) Marico Industries: ''A discontinuity must be guided by clear objectives. Only these can provide a roadmap for execution.'' And, whatever the objectives, they require the brand to strike a different relationship with the customer.

This could take the form of product attributes, delivery systems, or even sales and distribution mechanisms. Explains Lajinder Bawa, 37, Vice-President (Marketing), Oriflame: ''A discontinuity can stem from addressing a different target audience, or by just conveying your proposition through a different channel.'' In the traditional business model for cosmetics, advertising generates the interest and desire and in consumers, who find the product in retail outlets. Oriflame followed the first step of this process, and advertised. But the company, then, engendered a discontinuity by using multi-level-marketing to target individual consumers.

To work, a discontinuity needs to be supported by product cues. Traditional detergent powders do not remove stains. HLL tried to build a discontinuity around this by creating the famous Dhoondte Reh Jaoge ad for a brand-extension, Surf Ultra, but the company was not able to back the claim with any product cues. So, when it launched Surf Excel, HLL backed the communication with palpable product add-ons, like the perfume and the tub-packaging.

What Are The Limitations Of Discontinuities?

Granted, for every brand that has successfully leveraged a discontinuity, there is one that has failed to do so. Warns Ammirati Puris Lintas' Mehra: ''At the core of a discontinuity lies continuity. The marketer needs to give the consumer a distinctly superior product, as well as a distinct benefit-without forcing her to change her habits.'' Thus, when marketers in the US launched shower gels-a discontinuity that was based on a delivery system-they didn't take off. Only when the marketers offered lufers-sponge-scrubs-along with the gel did the consumers evince any interest.

Nor does every discontinuity deliver. After all, the change it offers may hold no value at all for the customer. Arvind Mills, for example, had launched Ruf-And-Tuf Ready-To-Stitch (RTS) jeans-kits which were targeted at rural consumers-introducing an all-new way to look at a product which was, in its very essence, an off-the-shelf, high-cost apparel.

The ploy ran into heavy weather on 2 counts. One, the RTS jeans failed to sport the same look as the readymade jeans that the urban youth sported. Two, a slew of low-cost imitators entered the market. But, instead of destroying the brand's equity, Arvind Mills ported the core values of low cost and rural reach into a readymade version. And because the brand had planted those propositions in its earlier avatar, it is thriving today.

Admittedly, today's discontinuity may become tomorrow's de facto standard. Once customers have become used to the post-discontinuity proposition of the brand, even as competitors jump in to imitate the trailblazing leader's improvisation, the first one in will have to ensure that the gap isn't closed. Warns V. Ravi, 38, Executive Director, Indica Research: ''The real issue is sustaining the advantage created.'' That may mean stepping onto a treadmill of bringing about continuous change.

And, yet, brands that want to stay ahead of the others may have no choice but to do so. The time when a brand could draw its strength from the sheer immutability of its value-proposition may be gone. For, their world is changing so rapidly that customers are being forced to change their demands of the products that they consume equally rapidly. That's why, spotting the opportunity for introducing a discontinuity-and then taking the lead in creating it-may well be the only road to longevity for a brand in the future.


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