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‘Kharab Chai’ and the art of designing pathbreaking campaigns

Did you know that a very famous tea shop in Indore has a very unique selling strategy? They sell their tea by the name- ‘Kharab Chai’ and they’re not alone. Visit the railway stations in East India and you would be swarmed by tea sellers selling wonderfully tasting tea under the jingle, “sabse kharab chai”. Now, why would any marketeer endorse their product as being ‘the worst there is’. This method of self-deprecating form of marketing is not only springing up more frequently, but is also becoming widely successful.

What is the reason behind the success of these campaigns? For one, in a world where every company is trying to become the ‘best thing ever invented on the face of the earth’, it is a breath of fresh air to see a company being grounded and not flashy. Increasingly “ad agnostic” millennials are, for the most part, sceptical of brands. They tend to give their loyalty to brands that are transparent and align with their core values. As a result, many brands are buying into self-deprecation as a way to humanize the consumer’s brand experience. This was observed more than a decade ago in a campaign by none other than Dominos.

The year was 2009 and after gaining a reputation during the early 2000s as the worst pizza chain (people in consumer tests liked a pizza less if they knew it was Domino’s rather than just an unbranded pizza), the company reinstated its new CEO Patrick Doyle, who did something people had rarely heard of. He announced campaigns all over US showcasing Dominos as the worst pizza ever. The campaign went on to say that Dominos didn’t use real cheese, its crust was terrible, its sauce was terrible, it tasted like cardboard, and it was an extremely horrible product. It even published some of the customer reviews as well.

“The sauce tastes like ketchup.”, “Domino’s pizza crust is to me like cardboard.”, “Worst excuse for pizza I’ve ever had.” etc.

Dominos then went on to state that it will improve its pizza in terms of cheese, sauce etc. and guess what? It became one of the most successful campaigns brought about by any company and went on to completely change the course of Dominos. The factor of being real, approachable and have a company that actually listens to your complaints and changes accordingly is a rare sight and yet terribly important to become successful today. At a time when an average customer is spoilt for choices and reaches out to the mute ads button with every campaign promising the same set of things, it is very important to stand out and not get skipped in a sea of monotonous ideas.

When we take both of these companies, varying hugely in terms of the scale of their operations, countries and the kind of public they cater to, we find customer reaction to be driven by same factors- curiosity being one of them. When you are used to seeing campaigns hovering around the idea of how they can highlight the best qualities about their products, if you come across a campaign deprecating itself, you want to find out more. Of course, there is a delight in trying out the product and getting to know how good they are which is always a win-win situation when compared to a campaign that promises the best of class products but delivers subpar performance.

Another example of a marketing giant revamping its public sentiment by using the technique of self-deprecation- KFC. In the October of 2017, KFC had tied up with Deutsche Post-owned DHL for its UK operations but failed miserably. The home delivery services company was unable to provide just-in-time services and resulted in hundreds of restaurants closing down due to lack of chicken.

According to data from social-media monitoring service Brandwatch, on 21 February alone there were 53,000 mentions of KFC running out of chicken, alongside hashtags such as “#ChickenCrisis” and “KFCCrisis”. With around 900 restaurants closed by the end of February 2018, and a deep-dive into its business allowed the agency to identify a vital insight, namely that nearly three-quarters (71%) of the UK population visits KFC at least once a year, and that a quarter (24%) eats in its outlets on a weekly or monthly basis. With the scale of its audience so vast, it required an efficient solution to reach them in one hit. The answer was in a three lettered word- ‘#FCK’.

It was the anagram of ‘KFC’ which was emblazoned on the side of a chicken bucket seized attention, before offering an apology written in everyday, conversational language. “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal,” joked the ad. “It’s been a hell of a week, but we’re making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants.” This form of marketing, hence almost reversed the entire damage that had been done to the brand of KFC among its loyal customers as can be seen in the attached image below which shows a sharp rise after February 2018.

And Dominos, KFC or Indore’s tea shop aren’t the only ones welcoming this trend. Airbnb, Toyota, Sony and JetBlue are among many others that have openly accepted their mistakes in public wide campaigns but it has become extremely important for today’s generation for the companies to be unique, approachable, self-deprecating and most of all, ignite curiosity among its customers. ‘Customer is the King’ is a popular saying in the field of marketing, but it couldn’t be more relevant than today when 86% of the customers are ready to pay more for better customer experience (according to a research conducted by PWC). And the most effective way to make a memorable customer experience is to listen to their concerns in a self-deprecating style. As humans, we want to be part of a community and when brands openly laugh at themselves, they break the barrier between customer and business and instead, create a very important component necessary for the success in today’s times- humanized relationships.

Hence, in the age of popular terms like ‘mass customisation’ and skippable ads, the only thing that will save companies is the ability to humanize themselves and take a joke only to be rewarded with a loyal customer base that will choose the ‘Kharab Chai’ over a Starbucks every single time.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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