Rohit Deshpande is the Sebastian S Kresge Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, where he currently teaches in the Owner/President Management Program and other executive education offerings. He has also taught global branding and international marketing. He talks to Forbes India about the complex business of branding in a world where social media is increasing its reach. Excerpts from the interview.
Q. I came across an article that you wrote for Forbes titled ‘Branding Yoga: Good Business or Blasphemy?’ Can you talk a little bit about it?
I wrote a case study called ‘Branding Yoga’ and my comments relate to that project. The first learning objective of the case is to ask the question: Can anything be branded? The majority of the students say ‘yes’ but the follow-up question is: Should everything be branded? Now, ethical issues and moral issues come up in the debate. It is a far more difficult question to answer.
The discussion broadens into this controversy over branding yoga. What got me interested is something that I read in the New York Times.
There was a group of Indian-Americans who had protested the commercialisation of yoga and said that it amounted to the commercialisation of Hinduism. They drew a parallel between the commercialisation of yoga and religion. They said yoga is essentially Hindu and it would not exist if it were not for Hinduism.
This sparked a controversy over the history of Hinduism and yoga. Can you teach yoga without teaching Hinduism, or is yoga all about exercise? That is one set of issues that we deal with.
Q. What is the other set?
The other set of issues is that there are two different branding models. One is from Tara Stiles, who is a very successful yoga teacher in New York. She is American. She used to be a model and a dancer, and practised yoga as a way of keeping fit. She started teaching her friends. She made some free YouTube videos on this, and they went viral. Then she started a yoga studio. Somewhere along the line, she became Deepak Chopra’s yoga teacher. He is a great fan of her brand of yoga and they have a joint venture. They have made an iPad app, which has been very successful, and even a DVD.
The other branding model is from Bikram Choudhury of Bikram Yoga. Bikram is an American now, but he was born in India. He was traditionally schooled and his brand of yoga focuses on the domain called hot yoga. He has franchises and training programmes. Both are marketers—Stiles uses social media. Both are successful. But both have attracted controversy, Bikram probably much more so, despite the fact that he is Indian and more authentic than Stiles.
Q. Social media marketing is a huge phenomenon. Does it work?
If done well, it works really well. But it doesn’t work for everybody. Companies are spending a lot of money on social media. But a lot of it is experimental; they are throwing money at something, but are not sure of what works and what doesn’t.
We are at a nascent experimental stage where we are trying to figure this out. There are lots of examples of social media where the companies themselves are not sure whether the money spent is worth it. I would say that 90 percent of the companies don’t know whether they spent the money well.
It has to do with the appropriate success metric. How do you judge whether your social media campaign has worked? One of the most popular metrics is the number of ‘likes’ that you get.
But I have colleagues who have done some research on this, and found that ‘likes’ do not translate into sales. When you think about it cognitively it doesn’t take a lot of effort to ‘like’, but it takes a lot of effort, and not to mention money, to buy. Hence, click-throughs and getting sales is much harder to measure.
Q. Can you give us an example of a company that has used social media well?
I am developing a case on Dell, which is considered to be a best practice example of using social media in the business-to-business space. What works for them is that they have a business model that is direct-to-consumer rather than going through retail.
They don’t get information on their customers from some sales partners, which means when something goes wrong, they also find out very quickly. And they have traditionally done that through their telephone lines. People call on their toll-free lines when they have a problem. With the advent of social media, some customers started blogging about their problems with Dell.
Q. What did Dell do about it?
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(This story appears in the 11 July, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)