How Would You Market a Product if Digitization Did Not Exist?

“There is a sucker born every minute.” “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” “Without promotion something terrible happens…nothing.” These are a couple of the classic quotes of P. T. Barnum of USA who is considered a master showman and a genius that sowed the seeds of modern day marketing and publicity. He excelled during his lifetime in USA in the 1800s. But can he be labeled as the founder of modern day showmanship or publicity? Not really.

Let us take a look at two of the greatest works in Sanskrit: Ramayana and Mahabharata. These two epics have stood the test of time by the most powerful and the most enduring medium of all: word of mouth. This one medium can make or break a product, a company, a family, a community, or even a government. This medium has withstood the test of time and has been around since humans began living in groups and progressed to communities and countries. Those born in the 50s & 60s will remember the times they listened raptly to stories narrated by their grandparents (I was very lucky to have listened to a large number of stories from my grandmother and grandfather in Kollegal and we cousins would look forward to these sessions). Even visitors from nearby village or town or city would create excitement since they would bring some news which would be as interesting as a story to us back in the day, because at that time even electricity wasn’t widely available. So, there was no radio. Transistors had not been introduced yet. Well as they say, those were the days! Sigh!

Since we are talking about marketing a product if digitization did not exist, these were the forms of media in use before digitization (that still exist): print, radio, films, wall paintings, posters, lifelike cutouts, hoardings, flyers, bookmarks, etc. But there are two very enduring media forms: postal mail and telephones.

Let me narrate a short story in first person, to give some perspective on what running a business in the good old days felt like. Kick back and enjoy this story while you realize the number of difficulties we’ve overcome with digitization!

FOUR DONKEYS! Where is the fourth?

Let me modestly introduce myself: Hi, this is Chinu. I am the owner, operator, marketer, salesman, packer, buyer—almost everything possible—of the brand Four Donkeys dealing with automotive driveshaft and suspension components such as tie rods, tie rod ends, kingpins, bushes, ball joints and the like.

How this started is a long story. To cut the cackle, I had the fortune of taking over a small factory that manufactured these under the brand called Jojo. The owner couldn’t continue because his customers wouldn’t continue coming and so he sold it, bought a truck, and well…there I was, the proud owner of a “factory.”

Immediately and surprisingly, I discovered how popular I became overnight. I had more than my fair share of encou(ragers) and (tor)mentors’. “Abe tu budbak ban gaya,” “thuje topi pehna diya” “gaya tu kaam se” “goobe nan maga, topi haaksukondbita,” “aayithu, ivanu finis,” “must have been on pot when you made the deal,” and so on. But what gave me crowing encouragement was my father who told me, “You have been taken for a ride, bloody donkey. How could you give up a well-paid job and opted for this? What were you thinking? Tcha!” My mom was quiet as usual and said little. My wife was packing her bags to give the “good news” to her parents. With such wonderful words of comfort and an encouraging atmosphere, I “ad-ventured” to my newfound status: business owner! But…but…

Yes, a big but and my own butt was on the line now. Big but? Yeah, vitamin M. Money. I had to pay the joker the balance which was more than half the agreed price within the next 30 days, or else I will forfeit the amount I had already paid. My father had a heart like a lake (a dried one) and so, he wasn’t a way out. My mom only had her ornaments which was too little (my crafty father had hocked much of it for a roof above the head). Well, a wise person had said, “Having a poor father is fate but having a poor father-in-law is stupidity.” So “filla” it had to be. He liked me, respected me, loved me, for whisking his daughter away when he had made plans for her to marry an NRI. So would filla help this pilla or rather his silla?

He was rich; a moneybag. But I had underestimated his wrath and also underestimated his character. After an initial warmup, he asked me “How much?” I tell him. He says ok. OK! Just like that. But on one condition: he has to be with me when I make the payment. Ok. I made the payment the next day, signed the deed, got the keys and boom—I was an entrepreneur! It was here where my filla’s character showed its class. I asked him why he agreed without hesitation and his reply was, “I would rather have a son-in-law who has the courage to stand on his own than have one who is a glorified employee.”

Now came the harsh set of questions regarding how I planned to move ahead. Well to cut to the chase, I had a concept of how to go about it. This was in the 1980s. Branding was confined to big corporates. I knew if I did not have a brand that will have an immediate impact, I would struggle and finally end up as another “also ran.” My stint with a major automobile component manufacturer had made me realise that most companies do not go far because they had brands or rather brand names that made no impact. So mine HAD TO. So what was it going to be? In the meantime, the show had to go on. The machines had to run, raw material suppliers had to be paid, the workers had to be paid…but I could not take even one single piece of my product to the market without branding. My filla had once remarked that if life were easy, donkeys would be decorated. Whatever that meant. We were in a bar when he said that, so I didn’t quite take it seriously. But…

DONKEY. This word stuck. My dad called me that and now my filla used it. One of my close friends had called me gadha. What if my brand was “Donkey”? My factory called, “Donkey Industries”? So with this thought I went to sleep that night and woke up with a brilliant brand name and idea. Four Donkeys. The brand would be Four Donkeys but with only 3 of the Donkeys shown in the label. I would let people notice it and ask the obvious question.

A month later (day and night with the designer of the label and logo, various trials) it was finalized. The busts of the three toothily grinning donkeys would be seen on the label. Due to legal and local administrative reasons, I did not change my existing factory name. My visiting card will have my name, logo of the three grinning donkeys and in small print, my factory address. Armed with a few samples, I ventured out to the market with a “brayer” in my heart.

My visit to the first customer (who would go on to become my best) elicited the obvious question. He was a Punjabi. “Oye yaar, teen gadhe dikh rahen, choutha kitthe?” My reply, “Veerji thwadey saamne hai ga.” He broke into a guffaw and without going into details, he placed a very generous order. SUCCESS! Then he gave me his wisdom that what big speeches, facts, advertisements, cannot accomplish, humour can and that is why he had placed his order, because he was confident that this product would be well received. Now, how well the product would hold this reception depended on various factors—but the entry ticket into the market was the humorous line that I had adopted.

In the field of “need-based” products, the seller, the fitter, the user and the buyer were most often than not totally different people. I had my task cut out: I had to meet all the sellers in a town, all the fitters in that town, and as many users and buyers as possible. Trekking to garage after garage and shop after shop in whichever town I wanted to sell Four Donkeys was vital. I had to do it myself and yet I had to be in the factory to streamline the production and approve new products (cloning was not a word in existence during the 1980s).

My filla was hand-holding me financially through all this and my wife (who became the de-facto factory manager) later managed the entire production, administration, procurement, HR, accounts, and anything else that there may be, leaving only one area for me: marketing & sales. Because, according to my filla, all other work can be outsourced but marketing of a brand cannot be. It had to done by the one that conceptualised the brand and its USP. Physical travel and other things can be outsourced but what the brand communicated to the buyer, seller, and all those connected to it MUST BE handled by the progenitor of the brand.

I added a tagline to the ads that I placed through posters, wall paintings, and stickers which read: Four Donkeys…Where is the fourth? Choutha kidhar hai? Naalavadhu engey? Naalkney katte elli? This created a buzz and whoever read it had a smile on his/her face. So my brand did two things because of its name: tickle the customer’s funny bone and incite his/her curiosity.

But this was not enough. If a brand had to sustain and endure for a long time, just a humorous brand name or tagline was not enough. The product had to pull its weight in quality (which meant accuracy in fitment and durability in its endurance), price (it had to be competitive, affordable to the buyer and seller) and it had to be beneficial to the fitter. The last part borders on the unethical because it is nothing but bribing the mechanic. Euphemistically called “encouraging” the mechanic to “recommend” the brand over others. In short, act as the brand’s seller/ambassador/promoter. My competitors were all doing this. So could I not do the same? In some areas, it is not wise to furrow a lone path and is wiser to join the crowd. Here, I joined the crowd. So enter the “points coupon” system. Each component’s package will have a coupon on the inside that matched its money value and its frequency of usage. At that time, All India Radio was very popular and Doordarshan was making its entry. I opted for the radio ads. So I personally found out which program in AIR the mechanics and the drivers preferred and which program the general public preferred. Mostly, they coincided in all languages. I went for it. Then I came across a radio jockey in AIR who came to me with a proposal for a talk show with humour as its base concept. To put it short, he would run an interview with a prominent individual from a given field and he would inject or interject the interview with jokes. Good, decent, and dignified jokes. They may not make people howl with laughter but they will make them smile. He was unable to find a sponsor. I decided to go for it on a pilot run of 11 weeks (2 days a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays). Needless to say, Four Donkeys talk program was a hit. This guy knew his craft and knew his audience.

Again this was not enough. The issue was finding new business. Yes, a new business! By this time, I had a small team of five young, energetic guys and two very wizened and technically wise guys in the sales department. I had to devise two plans: one to train the two guys manning the telephone and to train the five upstarts on traveling and securing new markets. Two to have a pay package that would reward all of them for the new businesses procured during the month. This I did sitting down with my accountant, wife, filla, and my dad, but I was missing something. So taking my filla’s advice, I engaged a consultant, an old crook at the game. He came up with a nice plan and brought in the much needed change that was due. He also began a regular training program for my staff on the production floor, the dispatch section, the admin section, and so on. His advice on insurance, incentive-based pay, reward-penalty system and the like proved to be invaluable.

But his greatest contribution in this exercise was telecalling. This was an unheard of practice during the 80s and he told me that until the human populace existed on this planet, telephone would be in use in various forms and formats. According to him, the telephone was the greatest invention of all. We did not have Yellow Pages or anything like that back then and associations, unions, and forums and clubs were just getting formed. He made me purchase the local telephone directory of each and every area and made my guys hunt down business numbers that were even remotely affiliated with the automotive field and made them do the calling. He was very particular that each of my guys make at least 10 new calls a day which was well nigh impossible in those days because we had to depend on “booking trunk calls” and wait for each number to be connected. But it paid off. Each new state or territory that my field guys visited had already been “spoken to” by my two gems in the office and more than briefed about the product, quality, range, production tech used, packaging, price, discounts, transportation and the like.

Now, lets’s discuss a bit about postal mail. Each of the prospects we called received an introductory letter, brochure of each product, any other flyers, and a token gift even before they evinced any interest in our products. My field reps were no longer strangers visiting the establishment, but well acquainted Four Donkeys reps coming for a meeting. Each meeting was followed up from the office with a “thank you” mail and the most minute details/queries about the prospect. This telecalling and postal mailing had to communicate one basic idea: We Care.

Well, I had established my brand Four Donkeys. The fourth one was the smart one. The fourth one was the open-minded one. The fourth one was the willing one. The fourth one was the one that took all the risks and came out unstuck. He was on the frontline and yet stayed out of the “picture” and made sure that the brand became well known, well received, and well respected. The last one had to be earned. Most brands earn the respect of the public over a number of years or decades or more but I had it gifted to me within half a decade. I worked for it, yes. Worked hard like a donkey, yes. But I also put in a lot of smart work and in the end it all came down to two things: belief in myself and belief in my team.

In Conclusion

Digitization is a boon in this century, undeniably. But what you can derive from my story are certain key aspects about marketing that are independent of the media used—building your brand name and identity, followed by building yours and your consumers’ personas. In the story narrated above, coming up with a humorous name alone could achieve as much as it did. The marketing team and channels used cleverly built the brand’s reputation. Half of the job is done when you have the right story to share. Branding is something that still, therefore, hasn’t changed all too much.

Marketing was a herculean task before, which has thankfully been made much more manageable now (although it does come with its own issues as well). So, while you make use of the bonus technologies in place today, ensure to stick to the core values of marketing no matter what your methods may be.