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Branding a reluctant dragon

The challenge of marketing authentic brands

When I was a child, I saw a movie called ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. It was about a gentle dragon, who wants to live a quiet life and refuses to breathe fire or fight knights. Although the context was comic, what stayed with me was the inherent goodness of the dragon, and his defiance to show off his might or adhere to any stereotypes. Elevar and many of its portfolio companies remind me of that story – mighty in intent and transformational in their actions, but wary of talking about themselves. How does one build such brands? Here is a framework that helped.

It was November, 2019. I was based in Bhopal, a tier 2 city in India, having relocated my business from Bangalore three years back. But I was facing a difficult time on various fronts, and had recently started looking for a salaried job that could get me back to Bangalore. There were several conditions attached, though – the work had to be exciting and creative. The organization had to be purpose driven, with people I could identify with. With a pay scale that was reasonable, if not astronomical. I knew that it was a not-so-pragmatic list for an entrepreneur who was trying to crawl back from financial and personal setbacks, and was prepared for the long haul in my search.

But if there is anything that the last few years have taught me, it is that if one has conviction, the universe has a way of listening. I got a call from a dear friend, who said ‘I have something perfect for you.’ He told me about Elevar Equity, and introduced me to Sandeep, who was looking for someone to head Elevar’s marketing function. I was unfamiliar with the world of venture capital, and had never even heard of impact investing. But as the conversation progressed, I became convinced that I had come to the pot at the end of the rainbow. Here, finally, was a tribe I wanted to call my own.

When I joined, the first brief was to leverage my past experience as a brand consultant and articulate clearly what the brand was about. It is not that Elevar did not know who they were – quite the opposite. The first step of brand building is to speak to a cross section of stakeholders to understand perceptions, and my research told me that Elevar’s intensity and intent was visceral. The 15 years spent as a pioneer in the space of impact investing, the passion to impact millions of lives, the firm belief in and admiration for the low income customer segments, the time spent on the field to understand their aspirations, the deep partnership with entrepreneurs – these perceptions came across in all stakeholder conversations, be it employees, entrepreneurs, or limited partners. All that was needed was to mine this gold and articulate it into a brand story that we could tell the world.

But there lay the trouble. Telling a brand story means being ‘out there’, and I was dealing with a painfully humble and quiet set of people. They did not want to do anything that made them appear pretentious or loud. Besides, they were too busy ‘doing’ to be ‘talking’. They did not want anything that took time away from working with entrepreneurs or spending time with customers on the field. I was left scratching my head. How does one build a brand that is reluctant to talk about itself? 

How does one attain that near impossible balance between authenticity, humility, and brand recognition?

It was then that I remembered a brand story framework to which I had been introduced by my friend and brand strategist, Ashutosh Wakankar – the ‘True Story Framework’, by Ty Montague. According to this framework, communicating a brand’s story in the hope that people will listen is no longer enough. Instead, the authentic brand must be evident in every action the organization undertakes. The framework claims that today’s most successful businesses are storydoers. It gives examples of organizations like Starbucks, Nike and Tesla, which have brought their brand story alive through memorable actions, inspiring people who experience these brands to talk about them in their networks.

The best storydoing companies can reduce their cost of paid media dramatically, according to the research done by Ty Montague and his team. They have a more clearly defined purpose than other companies, something that transcends creating shareholder value or maximizing profits. This attribute often creates intense loyalty among their customers and employees alike. And here was the clincher, as far as I was concerned: storydoing companies have a feeling of authenticity and humanity about them that has been lost in many traditional companies today. 

The framework goes on to state that all storydoing companies have a ‘metastory’ – a story that is told through action. It is not a story that you say, it is a story that you do. A metastory acts as a headlamp for storydoing companies, illuminating the growth pathway for all their business. Since the metastory is told by every action the organization takes, it is not just the domain of marketing – it is the responsibility of the whole company to understand how it works.

The metastory is articulated through an analysis of 4 pillars of the brand:

Protagonist: Who the company is, their values, competencies, culture.

Stage: The current context the company operates in – cultural / technological / business / competitive etc.

Participants: Who will be the participants that will tell the brand story.

Quest: The aspirational mission of a company / brand beyond making money. 

While I will not delve deeply into all four aspects, I would love to talk a little more about the quest. The quest (or core purpose), is the mission, or cause that the participants can feel in all the company’s actions. And here is what we found most interesting and powerful in the framework – part of the defining the brand’s quest is also identifying the enemy to defeat. The enemy need not be competition. In fact, it is mostly not competition. It can be an idea, a technology, a trend, anything that gives the brand and its participants a rallying cry to unite against. For Tesla, for example, the enemy is the mine and burn economy.

I remember clearly that we were having a series of brainstorming sessions to evolve the brand strategy, and it was the first session after a weekend of introspection by the leadership. The articulation of the enemy in our quest was emphatic – the enemy for Elevar was inequity in its many forms – be it concentration of wealth, or societal divisions due to problems of access, or misconception of low income segments as being without potential, or any other manifestation of the term. 

And from this powerful definition of the enemy and an analysis of other elements of the framework, evolved the Elevar Metastory: 

Elevar enables the underserved segments to crush barriers and limitations imposed by problems of access and inequity, by directing entrepreneurial effort and capital to solving these problems and capturing the world’s imagination around the economic resilience and vibrancy of this segment.

No matter how self aware the brand (and Elevar is one of the most self aware brands I have worked with), distilling its essence into a few words that capture it well always causes pause. It is the equivalent of showing a person a vision of what she can be at her best. An ‘aha’ moment, in which everyone stops to say, ‘This is it.’ That is one of the most rewarding moments for a brand strategist.  

A few months later, when I was pulled in to help our portfolio company WheelsEMI articulate their brand story, it dawned on me that this framework can apply to almost all of Elevar’s portfolio companies. Elevar backs transformative businesses run by passionate entrepreneurs, out to deliver essential products and services to underserved customer segments. In short, they are all businesses driven by a higher purpose, with entrepreneurs that are too busy ‘doing’ to be ‘talking’. 

With Wheels, we are still fine tuning the brand narrative. But I will highlight what I felt was a major difference that the framework made. Wheels is out to solve a massive need gap for the underserved segments in India. They provide a range of affordable solutions along the two wheeler lifecycle – these include financing to purchase new and pre owned two wheelers, access to green bikes, insurance, servicing and spare parts management and a transparent marketplace for two wheelers. 

The challenge was to articulate this powerful offering externally. As we analysed Wheels through the lens of the framework, a major realisation was that so far the company had prided itself on being a two wheeler specialist, and that dominated the narrative. However, while defining the quest and the metastory, it dawned on the Wheels leadership that the higher purpose of the brand was not about being recognised as a specialist, but about solving a problem for the customer. In short, being a two wheeler specialist was the means, not the end. And the tentative Wheels metastory was defined as: 

Wheels removes barriers that low income customers face in having a high quality mobility experience. We leverage our unique expertise to operate across the two wheeler ecosystem in order to deliver a bouquet of offerings, and build long term customer relationships based on transparency and informed choice.

The shifting of the perspective to the customer’s point of view was an important one for the company, both in terms of external as well as internal conversations. 

I feel that for authentic, purpose driven brands like Elevar and Wheels, the True Story framework is a powerful one. It has no room for ‘bells and whistles’, or marketing actions that are not in line with the brand’s overall vision and intent. Above all, it helps in distilling the essence of why the company exists and what it is out to achieve in a single line, that acts as a guiding light for all future strategic actions.