LAEEQ ALI wears various hats. For he is Founder-Director of Origami, a Bangalore-based coffee-serving full-service advertising agency, is President of Ad Club Bangalore, is Convenor of CII’s Karnataka Start-Up Panel, is also Founder-Director of Bloombox, a brand re-engineering company. Laeeq is also a writer, having co-authored the best-selling Your Time is Now with Frank Moffatt. It takes a pandemic to take us back to the founding essentials of humanity — that of authenticity and purpose. “As and when we go through this entire thing, authenticity and purpose will take centrestage. People will find meaning in being authentic a lot more. More and more brands will have to become more authentic rather than distant,” Laeeq tells K.G. Sreenivas in a wide-ranging interview.

[EXCERPTS]

Creative Brands:These are unprecedented times like never before in living human memory or history. Let us start with what you think the future beholds for the advertising industry.

Laeeq Ali: A lot is changing around us and a new world order is already setting in. It is going to be a tough year for the advertising and media industry at large. It would take a while for us to come out of this impact and advertising will play a good role in getting everybody into a positive frame of mind.

Laeeq Ali, Founder-Director, Origami.

All agencies need to swiftly figure out how they will stay relevant in the new normal. The sooner we adapt to the new world order, the better it is for us. Some of the anticipated changes would be that clients will be more accepting towards lesser travel and a lot meeting over video calls. So, start getting used to it.

Work from home is going to be the new norm and this also gives everyone a chance to reduce the already high real-estate spends and trim up overall costs. Most importantly, it is going to be a period of big hard working ideas and smaller budgets. Every rupee will need to work really hard for your client. So, be prepared, start putting your thinking hats on, if you have not already.

CB: Brands and communities often ride the wave of societal change. What do you think can or will emerge out of this rubble of change — in relation to brands, brand thinking, creative thinking, and advertising?

At one level, as and when we go through this entire thing, there will be even more importance given to authenticity and purpose. People will find meaning in being authentic a lot more.  More and more brands will have to become more authentic rather than distant. Yes, you may not have a lot of creative liberty — of course, you need to be creative but you need to be more concerned and aware of the consumer’s psyche that will change. For they are going to be more concerned about the essentials rather than the luxuries of life, because even the simplest of things such as going out has become a luxury today. So the mindset is going to change and there is a realignment that is happening in the consumer’s mind — that the smallest of the things is going to matter, whether it is about family, whether it is about spending time at home, whether it is about doing things together or collaborating… These are the basic things that are happening right now. This will change the mindset a lot and that is something that the brands need to be aware about. So being aware and authentic becomes very critical from now on.

Pic Credit: Forbes.com

CB: Agencies, too, then would need to seriously rethink every fundamental notion…

LA: From an agency perspective, the whole of the agency is going to change a lot because while earlier the struggle was that of a traditional agency trying to become a digital agency, today I think the biggest change would be if you can’t become a consultant and partner to your client beyond the realm of communication it is going to be a challenge for the agency. The reason being your clients also wouldn’t know what the future will look like — they themselves are uncertain. So if the agency folks don’t go in and really contribute to the strategic side of things, their relevance is going to be questioned a lot because it is an uncertain world and it is going to be uncertain for some time to come. If you don’t value add from that aspect, they won’t find value in you. In any case, if I need to churn out creatives we have so many tools at our disposal anyway — the clients themselves can employ one person there for that because if digital is going to be the new thing it’s going to be easy for the client because the life of such a creative is going to be just about 24 hours!

CB: What sort of business are you seeing at the moment and what sort of conversations do you have with clients? Or shall we say what are clients talking to you about at this point?

LA: At Origami we have seen a dip in business of about 30% approximately, which, relatively speaking, is a good thing because in a recent Ad Club survey we found that some of our fellow agencies have had a drop of 70%, which becomes a question of survival! Overall, there’s an average dip of 40% across the board, but interestingly there has been a lot of enquiries from a brand consulting perspective because people are sitting at home and thinking of how to stay relevant, they are thinking about how do we reimagine ourselves and so on… So some very interesting conversations are on, with some existing clients looking to revamp and relook their entire business model.

CB: Let’s talk about some of your works and what went into their aesthetics. Your work reflects a significant body of work in branding. In an increasingly fragmenting world of products, services, and, indeed, brands, how do you set out to tackle ‘branding’? Chai and Uru are, to my mind, works that are at once challenging and outstanding. How did you declutter your mind in re/building the two brands?

LA: My journey with brands and branding at large has been for two decades now. What branding used to be during the early 2000s to what it is now, is completely different — I mean the challenges attached with it.

In this age, I am specifically referring to the pre COVID-19 age, hyper competition has become the norm, in every category. So, standing out and staying differentiated, yet relevant is always going to be a challenge for any brand. These are better said than done. In the case of Chai Point as well as Uru, we were blessed to work with the founders, who were very much aligned with this thought process.

Coming to the fundamental change in branding. In early 2000s, branding was just a mere good looking logo, mission, vision, some ‘Dos and Don’ts’, core values, etc. All of this would be loaded onto a brand manual and slapped on the walls starting from the reception of the respective brands. It was assumed that people will understand and act on it.

Enter 2020: the age of hyper competition, the age of Millennials, and Gen-Z. How Millennials look at brands is very different from how the earlier generation did. Purpose is becoming more and more important. Whether it is a brand that you work for or a brand you consume, the new age consumer does not align with brands if they don’t find a purpose alignment.

So, whether it is Chai Point or Uru, it was important to make sure that they have a clearly stated purpose, which is differentiated, but very relevant. It becomes especially important that this purpose is articulated in the right manner to all stakeholders including your employees, who are the most important stakeholders in building the brand you have imagined.

CB: In your note on Smoor Couverture Chocolates, you say the “rebranding exercise was aimed not just to create a signature visual language for packaging but to create a solid foundation for the brand to extend to various retail formats, series of new product launches in brand stores and retail chains”. Let me cherry pick one part of the challenge you had set yourself. And that is, how do you ensure branding goes beyond a “signature visual language”?

LA: The times have changed and so has the visual storytelling from a good looking logo to visual languages. But the challenge of today is, how do we go beyond visual languages. Years ago visual languages were conceived only for a certain medium like packaging. In majority of the cases, your website will reflect a different brand in comparison to your retail experience. We need to remember that, this is the age of holistic experiences.

There is a need for brands to not just have clearly defined purposes and visual languages, it is important that the same is captured in your retail environment, in your product offering, in your packaging, to how your employees interact with the brand, and what kind of promotions are run by the brand. Brands should focus on bringing their purpose to life consistently across all touch points with their consumers.

CB: ‘Flying Squirrel Coffee’: Social media engagement. From “giving head” to “behind every successful man is a great cup of coffee” to “if you love somebody, set them free, that way you will have more coffee for yourself” to “M*%$#rF*&^%#r… instant coffee, three bad words you should never use here” to “kaapi diem” to many more. It’s great copy. It’s more than clever. What’s your social media mantra?

LA: The DNA and flavour of every brand is very different. You can’t just copy a brand in today’s age. Consumers start to see through you. Flying Squirrel was conceived as a digital first brand that was very quirky, current, fun, conversational brand. It literally had a say on anything and everything, that is happening around us. Social media is all about conversations and whether it is the coffee FS serves or the posts they do on social, Flying Squirrel as a brand is all about conversations.

CB: On the larger horizon of Indian advertising, what to your mind are some emerging stand-out trends, be it traditional or new-age? Guess, we no longer say new-age?

LA: Digital is the way to go and I am sure I don’t necessarily need to elaborate on this. But most importantly, there are sub-genres and trends emerging within the same now. Regional and vernacular content is becoming big by the day. Digital videos are the way to go. The past two weeks have seen a huge influx of video content in the form of webinars, live online meet-ups, etc. Content, at large, is surely going to be a big play. There’s high focus on measurement as well. Every rupee spent on every medium is getting questioned — is being keenly looked at from an ROI perspective.

Beyond all this, especially in the post COVID-19 phase, more changes are anticipated. Consumer behaviour is going to change. No questions asked. Priorities will change post lockdown. Every brand will have to look deep within, innovate and make sure they are doing the right things to stay relevant in their consumers’ life. Trustworthiness, being purposeful, and authenticity will be the primary aspects which every brand will be gauged on.

So, it is time brands start looking inward, with a deeper focus. A new world order has set in already. Purpose and trust will be key at one end, but being innovative in your promotions and not just your advertising, will be critical too.

CB: Any particular non-Origami campaign, or its plural, you wished you had done… Or let’s put it this way: a campaign that gave head? And spectacularly at that?

LA: Fevicol is an all-time favourite brand of mine. Actually, it would be a favourite for many ad professionals. Most of the Fevicol campaigns are something which I have always wished we had done. All of them are deeply rooted in consumer insights.

TATA Tea’s ‘Jaago-re’ is another campaign which I wish we did. The thought behind the campaign as well as the connect to the brand is nothing but brilliant. I am hoping to build a great brand on similar lines with Pure & Sure Organic Foods and the Clean Food Movement initiative which we have recently launched.

There is another one, a Cannes winner “The Beauty Inside” from Intel and Toshiba. I wish we had done that too.

“The Beauty Inside” is the story of a guy named Alex who wakes up every day as a different person. He is always the same person on the inside, but somebody else on the outside. The story line is very gripping and very much in sync with the brands too. Towards the end, Alex meets Leah, falls in love and everything changes for him as he knows he will see her again, but she will never see him.

Since Alex’s appearance changed every day, all fans — male or female — were invited to audition for the lead role of Alex. A total of 26 Alexes were cast in the film from fans all over the world including Japan, France, German, Italy, Philippines, Canada, and Spain. 4000+ auditions on Facebook. 70 million views. 96,000 likes. I guess the numbers say it all.  One of the few times, I could derive meaning out of a like. Do go through it, if you have not seen it yet.

CB: Campaigns in the digital segment have become great platforms for story-telling. From Google to Tata Trusts’ to your own Clean Food Movement (Phalada) — all tell emotive stories, something essential to connect with the values brands stand for. Do a lot of these stories hold good?

LA: Yes. It does. Google and Tata are probably two of the greatest brands which are built on emotion and backed by strong functional benefits. And our attempt with Pure & Sure also is the same.

The story and the emotion is one aspect. But if the brand is not able to live up to the well-told story, then the life of the brand is going to be limited.

“Our intent is to make this into a true consumer movement of sorts where we want to empower the consumers with nothing but clean, organic food…” 

Clean Food Movement, the initiative by Phalada Pure & Sure is one such emotional story strongly backed by functional benefits. There is no other time like today, where we are so concerned about what we are eating. There are a lot of questions asked around the real ingredients. Our intent is to make this into a true consumer movement of sorts where we want to empower the consumers with nothing but clean, organic food. 

CB: Tell us about some of your works you thought deserved the metal or metals, but didn’t for whatever reason. There is no taking away from the value of metal.

LA: Metals are an unending debate. But yes, the only thing I can say is that it acts as a big motivation for the creative team. We are happy to have produced some great work all these years and least I can say is that we have just begun.

CB: And relationships — with clients. How do you manage that beast — the relationship, that is? Do you ever so gently lay down some rules of engagement while making the client feel it was more like a walk in the park hand in hand?

LA: Your network and relationships are your key to success. It has always been and will always remain as it is. It can make or break you. Starting a relationship is quite easy, you can even fool someone to fall in love with you.

Your network and relationships are your key to success. It has always been and will always remain
as it is. It can make or break you

But maintaining a relationship is going to be the most important. Whether it is your employees, clients, investors, or suppliers, you really need to nurture every relationship and thats been the mantra with us from the time we have started our business in 2000. It is important to set expectations very clearly and make sure you are living up to those expectations. 

Michael Newman’s quote summarises this beautifully, especially from a brand’s perspective: “If your brand does not make people feel better about their lives, their relationships or their dreams, it doesn’t matter what else you have got in your special ingredients.” The same thinking applies to humans and relationships too, and our philosophy of branding is also rooted to this simple thought that ‘brands are people too’.