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As originally published in Synergyzer Annual 2020.

I was once asked to define a brand in three words. After struggling for a few days what I proposed was, “Consistency of Trust”. At the core of this definition is the promise a brand makes to its consumers and vows to live up to it consistently. Advertising is what helps convey this promise effectively. Or so it is supposed to.

Many a times I ask marketing students to evaluate an ad and hear the familiar comment, “We love it”. Five minutes later you ask them to name the brand and they struggle. The brand promise is lost amongst the ‘multiple messages’ the ad is trying to convey, the ‘glitz’ of the production values or the ‘celebrity’ overpowering the brand. Or the brand seems to have lost sight of its target audience – trying to appeal to everyone usually means the message resonates with none. A simple litmus test is to replace the brand in the ad with its competitive brand in the same category. If the message still makes sense, there is a crisis. If you can replace the category with another category and the message still makes sense, you have a catastrophe.

Conversely I have worked on many campaigns where the ad was criticized for its poor production values, but emerged a roaring success in terms of delivering its objectives and the core brand promise. Very recently we ran an ad for a rice brand and social media was abuzz with critics on ‘finer points’ such as “Why was the main protagonist not moving her lips and was instead conveying her thoughts as a voice over?”, or how the hidden meaning of the size of rice after it was cooked could be related to something they usually relate size with etc. Yet the brand grew seven times after just one week of airing and the ad had to be stopped to gear up the supply chain to meet demand.

What makes advertising effective? Does making a brand promise got anything to do with delivering the promise as well? Can consumers be made to believe a promise which in reality does not deliver? And should the ad convey many ‘brand promises’ or stick to just ‘one core promise’?

I met a cosmetics manufacturer recently and we were discussing how most of the ‘fairness creams’ fulfill their promise of making our women ‘fair’. He claimed that he had tested almost all brands for harmful ingredients, and most of the famous brands have the element Mercury as an active ingredient, which was harmful for the skin – according to him the higher the mercury levels, the more instant the results. Some brands added dangerously high levels of mercury which would actually peel the skin and to counter the resultant boils and skin damage, the brands added steroids so that the skin could heal. He claimed that he frequently gets requests by brands to increase the ‘masala’ – a trade term for mercury so the results are instant and consumers buy more of these creams. The levels according to him are so high that they can cause skin cancer.

We see most of these brands advertising freely on famous TV channels claiming how their brands make their users ‘gori’ and bring out the ‘glow’ in them. To this effect, the advertising is very effective in delivering the core brand promise as some of these brands are valued at billions of rupees. And yet they are not subjected to any controls or checks by any regulatory body to assess the harm these promises are causing and how our susceptible consumers are falling prey to these in order to look ‘gori and beautiful’. Other than the physical harm, the emotional social turmoil this is causing in objectifying women is in itself reason enough to take these ads off air and ban these products.

Another category in which advertisers exaggerate brand promise is beverages, foods and snacks: Sugar-filled biscuits are supposed to be good for kids providing them nutrition and health, energy drinks full of sugar, caffeine and taurine are supposed to bring us alive and give us an energy buzz; goodness of life can be found in sugary cakes; savories and nimko are supposed to be substitutes for nutrition and candies will make us giggle with good health and happiness. A decade or two ago I saw a doctor in a cigarette commercial in a cinema telling consumers it is harmful to smoke but till they give up the habit, they should switch to his recommended brand!

Some disturbing themes are also being witnessed, championed by well-known brands which really should try harder to uncover deeper consumer insights. These include swearing after having a spicy meal, lying to a friend to impress a girl, song and dance routines in almost every category from mobile phones to food items and misrepresenting the benefits of a brand to compel consumers to buy it are some of the prominent features of advertising today.

Should a brand promise be allowed to advertise if that promise is false? Is the role of advertising to police brands in making verifiable claims? And who will determine if the claims are true? Should the channel of communication broadcasting these ads have any responsibility in this?

Let’s revisit the core purpose of advertising. Professor Google gives us plenty of answers– ‘to inform, persuade and remind’. ‘To promote or sell a product, service or idea’. ‘To generate increased consumption through branding, which associates a name with certain qualities in the minds of consumers’. And so the list goes on.

For a classic old-school marketer like me, marketing has to sell. Advertising then, has to deliver the brand promise in the most effective way – differentiating the brand and resonating with consumers. Sadly, most advertising in Pakistan falls prey to the pitfalls highlighted above and fails to deliver its core purpose.

It was not always like this though. We can all still recall the glorious campaigns of yester years which are etched in our memories for all the right reasons. “Aye Khuda Meray Abbu”, “Bhool Na Jana Phir Pappa”, “The Legend Leads” are just some of the memorable ones. The target audiences were well defined, the brand promise conveyed in a memorable way and the core message differentiated the brand and resonated with the consumers. Somewhere along the way, and the last decade being possibly the worst, we have lost sight of the basics and resorted to cheap and frivolous ways to convey our [mostly irrelevant and off target] brand promises.

Even more so with the digital disruption we are witnessing, we have seen many businesses focused only on functional promises. Consumers expect more and brand promises also have to evolve from just functional ones to ones with purpose. As Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit puts it, “A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is”.

Millennials expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship and there is a distinct shift in consumers choosing to buy more from purpose-led companies. Brand promises thus have to evolve into an eco-system where purpose is not just a slogan but a promise brands can live up to. IKEA’s “ThisAbles” campaign is a great example of delivering a purpose filled promise tied to its vision – “to create a better everyday life for the many people”.

Brands have to connect with people at a deeper level than they have in the past. Advertisers in Pakistan are just waking up to this with some advertising incorporating social messages. “baron ki Izzat karna”, “not haggling with daily wage earners” and “meal sharing” are some of the recent themes. The key for these brands would be to link to these social themes across all their communication and marketing collateral and not just restrict it to one ad. A strongly linked brand purpose to the core brand promise would ensure that the positioning is strengthened and loyalty grows with every endeavor.

Here’s hoping that 2020 heralds in a new era of advertising which is purpose based and effective. After all, hope’s eternal.

About the Author

Qashif Effendi has over 24 years’ international experience of working at CEO, Director and General Management positions in top multinationals in the MENA and South Asia regions. He has worked with Chevron, Philips, Unilever, Tetley, Abu Dhabi National Industrial Projects Co., UAE and currently as CEO at Reem Rice Mills (Pvt.) Ltd, a 100% multinational JV of Al Ghurair UAE and Al Mohaidib KSA.

Brands like Philips Whirlpool, Dalda Cooking Oil, Brooke Bond Supreme, Tetley and Reem achieved tremendous growth during his stewardship. He has also consulted for various companies such as HELM Medical (Hamburg, Germany), Simply Sufi, Shan Foods, KESC, Adamjee Insurance, Dollar Stationers, Liberty Books, Hilton Pharmaceutical, PharmEvo and PSTD (Pakistan Society for Training and Development).

He is an alumnus of IBA with a great passion for learning. He has been a visiting faculty at IBA, Szabist and CBM for over 13 years teaching Brand Management, Export Marketing, Advertising, Consumer Behavior, Strategic Marketing and Technopreneurship.

Voted as one of 100 top performing company CEO’s in 2017 by CEO Club Pakistan, he is an advisor to the Board of WE-NET (Pakistan Women Entrepreneurs Network for Trade) a World Bank funded initiative and has conducted several capacity building sessions for trade development bodies such as USAID funded PREIA (Pakistan Regional Economic Integration Activity), NIC Karachi & Lahore, TIE and Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce.

Under his leadership, Reem Rice Mills (Pvt.) Ltd has become the first rice miller and exporter in Pakistan to implement SAP Business One System of ERP.

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Qashif Effendi has over 23 years’ international experience of working at CEO, Director and General Management positions in top multinationals in the MENA and South Asia regions. He has worked with Chevron, Philips, Unilever, Tetley, Abu Dhabi National Industrial Projects Co., UAE and currently as CEO at Reem Group, a 100% multinational JV of Al Ghurair UAE and Al Mohaidib KSA. Brands like Philips Whirlpool, Dalda Cooking Oil, Brooke Bond Supreme, Tetley and Reem achieved tremendous growth during his stewardship. He has also consulted for various companies such as HELM Medical (Hamburg, Germany), Simply Sufi, Shan Foods, KESC, Adamjee Insurance, Dollar Stationers, Liberty Books, Hilton Pharmaceutical, PharmEvo and PSTD (Pakistan Society for Training and Development). He is an alumnus of IBA with a great passion for learning. He has been a visiting faculty at IBA, Szabist and CBM for over 13 years teaching Brand Management, Export Marketing, Advertising, Consumer Behavior, Strategic Marketing and Technopreneurship. Voted as one of 100 top performing company CEO’s in 2017 by CEO Club Pakistan, he is an advisor to the Board of WE-NET (Pakistan Women Entrepreneurs Network for Trade) a World Bank funded initiative and has conducted several capacity building sessions for trade development bodies such as USAID funded PREIA (Pakistan Regional Economic Integration Activity), NIC Karachi & Lahore, TIE and Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce. He is also the Module Leader for Technopreneurship program at Chaudhry Muhammad Akram Center for Entrepreneurship Development in Lahore.