Lost opportunities: Mahatma Gandhi and Gwen Thompson

To most people, Mahatma Gandhi stands for truth and non-violence. There is also a subtext of renunciation, austerity, simplicity and community. There was a predictable outcry when Montblanc announced a limited edition, 18 carat gold pen with Gandhi’s image and a saffron garnet on the clip. Only 241 gold pens would be made available for the price of Rs1.1M (or $23,000, €15,800, £14,400). Gandhi walked 241 miles in the Salt March of the 1930s.

Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi had opposed the auction of Gandhi’s spectacles earlier in the year. He however sees nothing wrong with the pen and his charity will receive a small sum from each pen sold. Montblanc’s CEO says the company wanted to talk about Mahatma Gandhi’s values including non-violence, peace, education and tolerance. There is now, however, a court case in India for Montblanc’s violation of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950 which specifically cites Gandhi’s image. So much for discussing Gandhian values – between commerce, marketing, image rights, blame and counter-blame.

Let’s talk about Gwen Thompson then. She is a doll launched by the American Girl Doll company in 2009 and costs $95. What’s so special about Gwen? Well she is homeless and lives in a shelter with her mother. Her deadbeat father has apparently abandoned them. Beside the obvious ‘homeless people cannot spend $95 on a doll’ argument, the doll faces other flak too such as portraying men as irresponsible, women as helpless and the fact that some people are homeless as just another reality of society.

American Girl Doll company, who will not be donating any proceeds from the sale of the doll to shelters or charities helping the homeless, says: “Our singular goal with these stories is to help girls find their inner star by becoming kind, compassionate and loving people who make a positive and meaningful difference in the world around them.”

The similarity between both stories is that companies sought – whether strategically or as an after-thought – to spark a broad conversation about certain values. And that the way they went about it backfired. The companies look cynical and exploitative and their noble explanations a hasty ex post rationalisation.

Why? In Montblanc’s case, they have misread how Gandhi’s memory is revered in India. I say this with confidence as an Indian who also recognises the cynicism which makes it legitimate for some to exploit the Gandhi name more than for others. But in the case of the American Girl Doll company, I only offer a working hypothesis. The company underestimated the conflict between the American value of self-help and the collective guilt a society feels about not helping its unfortunate members enough.

Leaving aside the question of taste, in both cases, genuine opportunities were lost for the brands to get more real, more involved with the issues at hand. With my sceptical hat on, I would not be surprised to know if both companies are secretly rubbing their hands in glee over the free publicity and dialogue generated about them and their products. Very Skokie-like. Not very smart.

So, should companies not touch some topics and some people? That is definitely not my suggestion. But it is wise to pick the person, the message, the timing, the marketing message and any beneficiaries carefully. All public conversation should not be sought or courted. Sometimes the best conversations are those that are private, low-key and purposeful without publicity.

Related reading:

Gandhi sells and how (from India Today; may require registration)

Top 10 Dubious Toys where no. 1 is Homeless American Girl (from Time magazine)

Beyond privilege: managing information asymmetries

Creativity in the time of recession

Or, why the brand should never take a back-seat (pun unintended, but why miss the glorious chance anyway?).

In June 2009, Mercedes Benz launched a related diversification. The Mercedes Benz Driving Academy was inaugurated by the F1 driver, Lewis Hamilton. On offer is an early start to safe driving. Young persons over 12 (minimum height 5′) can take  early lessons; persons over 17 can take lessons leading to a driving licence and take post-licence classes. Experienced drivers can do much more including improve skills or do AMG days.

The launch of this academy was propitiously timed with the British schools on summer holiday. Mercedes Benz World in Weybridge, Surrey is positively teeming with kids and their parents and grandparents these days. But on the whole, this is a great example of creative thinking about the strategic management of the brand in a time of recession.

The driving academy is a related diversification for Mercedes Benz into a service category where incumbents BSM or AA cannot compete meaningfully. Sure they can offer driving lessons but can they deliver the aspirational value of Mercedes Benz?

While driving lessons with the Mercedes Benz Academy cost about the same as those with a good BSM/ AA/ independent instructor, the brand association has effectively premium-ised the pedestrian (sorry!) category. Lessons take place, for instance, in a Mercedes Benz A-Class, a far cry from the Nissan Micra, Ford Fiesta or similar cars used by driving schools.

By offering children as young as 12 the possibility of driving lessons and experiences – and the promise of a finale with Lewis Hamilton for this summer’s driving experiences – Mercedes Benz has upped the ante, catching them young, in a product category that has traditionally not had much to do with children except use them as points of concern for selling the safety features in a car.

But more important from a strategic and a branding point of view is the positioning – making younger drivers safer. Catching them young could look cynical but statistics suggest that those who learn at young ages are less at a risk of accidents than those who learn at later ages. What does this do for Mercedes Benz? It scores the firm valuable corporate social responsibility points in driving stakes.

When times are tough and money is tight, brand investment must get creative, not become the sacrificial goat at the altar of cost-cutting. This is a fabulous example and some news will follow for my own business, later in the year, along similar lines.

More info: Mercedes Benz’s targeting strategy includes social media. The Driving Academy is on Twitter. Others can become their fan on their Facebook page.

Full Disclosure: In this case, I am paying Mercedes Benz Driving Academy. So this post comes with the full disclosure that I am doing track and road sessions with the Academy and enjoying my experience.

Related reading:

Leverage and strategic creativity in tough times