Wednesday, 30 April, 2008

Socialist India?

A few weeks ago, India Today (April 8, 2008) came out with a cover story on 60 greatest Indians. Here's what the magazine wrote about the public poll that produced this list: “The poll began on March 14 and ran for three weeks through the India Today web site and SMS.

A total of 18,928 votes came in, with Bhagat Singh leading with 6,982 votes, Subhas Chandra Bose coming second with 5,193 votes and Mahatma Gandhi trailing at 2,457 votes.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who forever stepped aside for Jawaharlal Nehru, has been redeemed in posterity, at fourth position with 8 per cent of the votes, compared to just 2 per cent for Nehru.

Another steely nationalist, Indira Gandhi, is sixth, with 3 per cent of the votes.”

Now, Saheed Bhagat Singh was a socialist and an atheist. Netaji, along with Panditji, was a leader of the left wing of the Congress; he was also unquestionably secular.

Was India, especially young urban India (looking the method of voting, one suspects the overwhelming majority of voters were fairly young), voting for the socialism and secularism?

Forgive my cynicism, but that's incredible.

As the Today article says, “Its (India's) marketplace has already shed all those socialist inhibitions and become the playground of the so-called wealth multipliers.”

And while secularism is widely practised (live and let live), one doubts if it is as widely believed in (conscious respect for all religions).

So what's going on, according to me? Three things.

1.First, what's common to the first four on the list, Bhagat Singh, Netaji, the Mahatma, and the Sardar? Many things, of course, but in the context of the poll, one stands out: Their heirs didn't enjoyed political power. They haven't had to pay for their descendents' deeds.

2.Second, one shouldn't be surprised if there were strong regional patterns in the voting, at least in the voting for Bhagat Singh, Netaji and Sardar Patel. More specifically, there be may be strong linguistic biases too.

No doubt, all three had pan-Indian appeal while alive. But after their deaths, they have been turned into regional idols.

3.Finally, one senses a desire to right history's wrong, of giving to one's own leader what was his due.

How justified am I in making these sceptical hypotheses, without a shred of evidence to back them?

Not much. Still, I can offer an excuse.

A list like this one probably has far more to do with selling ad space than with celebrating nationhood (no matter who writes the profiles and how well those are written). The very act of letting the public, and not eminent historians, choose - that too without any criteria - can only mean that that the list's sole possible value is as a reflection of popular opinion.

Hence, commenting on the public, without in any way commenting on the personalities they choose, is the only reaction one can legitimately have. If the surveyors anticipate any discussion and debate, they expect the arguments to centre on today's voters, not yesterday's greats.

As S Prasannarajan asks in the article introducing the list, “Is it that, as India, which at any rate is hardly Gandhian or Nehruvian in its political expression, strives for global power status, someone out there, someone disillusioned with the conformism of a smug state, is missing the romance of the revolutionary leap—and the martyr’s war cry, Inquilab Zindabad?

Is it that the mystique of the deviant, the transcontinental adventurism of the rebellious, is more alluring than the intimate humanism of the fakir? Is it that a steely nationalist like Patel and a strong, overpowering helmswoman like Mrs G are missing in an India of wishy-washy pretenders to the throne?

Is it that India is nostalgic about the moral power of a JP at a time whenthe so-called socialists, products of his ‘total revolution’, are an embarrassment to his memory?” (Emphasis mine, throughout.)

My reaction, pessimistic as it is, is perhaps valid.


Friday, 25 April, 2008

Ugly music

A big filmstar is going to host another one of those horrible reality shows where, probably, families will challenge each other in who sings most off key. The ads are up across the city. I noticed two.

Each features a Hindu family and a Muslim family.

By chance? Unlikely.

India is 80.5% Hindu, 13.4% Muslim. If you pick 4 Indian families at random, the chance that you'll end up with two of each religion is 1.16% (sq0.805 X sq0.134).

Having done this 50:50 picking, your chances of following up with a 50:50 pairing is 2/3 (H1, H2, M1 and M2 can be paired thus: H1M1 & H2M2, H1M2 & H2M1, and H1H2 & M1M2).

Combining, we find that there's only 0.78% (0.0116X 2/3) probability that filmstar & Co ended up with the Hindu vs. Muslim pairs by chance.

I have assumed there are only two ads. If there are more, and they have inter-religious pairing too, then the chances would go down further.

I cannot but see these Hindu-Muslim ads with jaundiced eyes. Ostensibly, they invite the country to make music together. Underneath, one suspects, lies a sinister if silly intent.

Monday, 14 April, 2008

Just try responding

Direct doesn't work. How can it when companies treat responses so shoddily.

What do I mean? Pick up your newspaper or open one the spam mails in your email box. Call, email or write back. And see what happens. My bet is that nothing will.

If someone gets back, it will be with zero information, intelligence or interest.

Why do they waste their money to waste consumers' time? One of those many mysteries of modern marketing, I suppose.

Why do offers work

I have searched long and wide for something on this, but found very little. Direct marketers are fond of saying that the offer accounts for 40% of any mailing's success, but don't appear to have thought too much about why offers work, and why some do better than others. I suspect the amount of testing, even in the West, is nowhere near as much as DM gurus would like us to believer. Otherwise, there would be more on this than platitudes and lists. But that's besides the point.

I was reading some interesting books lately, and a couple of them made threw light on offers. Investment expert Michael J. Mauboussin's More Than You Know discusses the principle of reciprocity. In commercial terms, it means if someone gives you something for free (say, a clothier offers you a soft drink while you are taking a look at his ware, before you have spent anything), you make it a point to reciprocate his gesture, usually by making a purchase.

This is most gratifying, because he uses the same as I did in my presentation on offers (, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini.

On the other hand, in Predictably Irrational, economist Dan Ariley talks about the amazing power of 'free', it's de-risking effect, and the way that switches off normal rational choosing.

I had included the de-rsiking bit in my presentation too, though I didn't know then about the amazing experiments and explanations that Dr Ariley writes about.

I'd very much like to know more about offers, especially about price-offs (5% off), 'bulk' discounts (buy 1, get one free) and gifts (refill free with pen). Would you know of any books, articles or research papers?

Monday, 7 April, 2008

Why do we need swipe machines for loyalty programmes?

Companies spend large amounts marrying loyalty software with centralised billing systems, so that points may be properly awarded and redeemed (though I have been told that such bridging software is easy to write and inexpensive to buy, I have no evidence of either being true). Why don't they hire a small staff of tele-executives instead?

All that sales clerks will have to do is call these back-end executives and read out the bills and membership numbers. The latter will make entries into the loyalty accounts.

Admittedly, this introduces chances of human error at both ends: the sales clerks can read wrong, and the tele-executives may hear or type incorrectly. Also, the system can be programmed to send SMSs and emails to the members, so that details can be confirmed. The proposed system should be at least as dependable as the electronic ones used now, and more flexible.

Moreover, moderately well-trained executives will be able to suggest on-the-spot offers and promotions, even hints for cross-selling, by looking at the members' profiles and shops' inventory (I assume inventory will be centrally accessible).

Of course, this will not work for shops with many customers, where sales clerks are pressed for time. But how many shops are like that? Most shops should be be able to tackle their loyalty programmes with remote executives.

Let's not forget, millions (ok, tens of thousands) of transactions are made over the phone every day, and quite a few of these are complicated.

At any rate, one can and should have some executives online to back up electronic systems.

Secretary on call

Salesmen hate paperwork. Everyone does. But salesmen's hate hurts companies, because nobody at HQ has any idea about what's going on in the field.

Very soon salesmen will get super-smart PDAs linked to HQ via satellite, and then the bosses will be able to spy on the poor souls 24/7.

Till that happens, why not try something simple: Give them secretaries.

These secretaries will not travel with the salesmen, but sit at an office and take notes over the phone. For example, a medical representative will dictate, “It's 10.45 pm and I've just met Dr So-and-so of 123 XYZ Lane, ABC city. I have him 23 samples of PQR medicine and 2 thermos flasks.” His secretary would duly note this, and update all records.

Of course, secretaries may be shared between salesmen, just as customer care executives take care of multiple customers.

This way the salespeople will be on a telephonic leash, while not having to do any paperwork.

There will invariably be some problems, but isn't it an idea worth trying out?