All posts for the month June, 2016

Book Review : 6 Degrees – Game Of Blogs

Published June 26, 2016 by vishalvkale

Game of Blogs was an initiative undertaken by Blogadda , wherein teams of bloggers were created, and tasked with crafting a story around a set of predefined characters. Each member had to write perforce, and the basics of each character were also laid out. It was an interesting exercise, challenging and productive, while being educative in writing fiction, team building in distributed teams and coordination. I was part of Team Supernova, who made the cut but not the prize…
Shekhar Dutta – Stay home Dad, freelance writer, Hindu, Stays in Mumbai
French beard, bald, average height, fair, thin specs, lean, wears t-shirt & track pants generally, ever smiling.
Tara Dutta – Shekhar’s wife, Media professional , career oriented woman.
Fair, short hair, tall, prim & proper dressed, wear formals & high heels.
Roohi Dutta – 9 years girl, Shekhar and Tara’s daughter.
Fair, healthy, notorious, 2 ponytail, wear frill frocks.
Jennifer Joseph –  Photographer, Christian, Stays in Kochi (Kerala)
Dusky, average height, tattoo on right hand, wears casual shorts and tees, lots of accessories, always carries a camera.
Cyrus Daruwala – A law student, Stays in Delhi
Tall,  extremely fair, big specs, curly hair, stern face, beard on the  chin.
The book “6 Degrees” is a collection of the top 3 winning stories from competition. If you are looking for books from known names, avoid this; but if you are looking for excellent writing and engaging concepts, this is for you. The 3 stories are well crafted, and worth a read; despite  my individual opinion penned below. Only caveat is the cover price : at Rs. 349/- it is tad overpriced for new writers; but you can go for it nonetheless…
The back cover spells out the most engaging aspect : “The 3 stories in this book are a fascinating example of how one set of characters can have interesting lives with completely different dimensions”. I couldn’t put it any better than that myself. Bookaholics can read this just to see the wonder, depth and scope of human imagination, and the range the of possibilities that can be opened up with just the bare basics given above…
That apart, when you look at the fact that each story is a compilation of several authors working in tandem, one has to admire the teamwork, editing, continuity achieved, leaving no obvious gaps in the process; having been through it myself, I know it wasn’t easy getting the coordination right. This is the second major plus point of the book as I see it.
Of the 3 stories, the second – Entangled Lives – is by far and away, the best of the lot; it is a line of thought that could be developed into a book of its own. It is a rapid paced, well set-up and completely believable thriller, a page turner that will keep you glued to the pages, quite literally unputdownable. This was the only story I read in one go, such was its pull and authenticity. A chilling story and sensitive handling of the characters with a fast paced plot ensure reader interest.
I was disappointed with some aspects of this story, until I realised the constraints the teams operated under. These were distributed teams, with no guarantee that each member was equally committed; there wasn’t enough time, as well as other limitations, which meant proper fleshing out of the story, filling in plot background details, twists and turns was hard if not impossible. “Entangled Lives” scores on these as well, in addition to the para above. I will not spoil your fun – read it yourself to find out more about it!
Frankly, the other two stories pale in comparison – which does not mean that they did not deserve to win; just they weren’t as good, that is all.
The story I rate 2nd is “Missing – A Journey Within”. An excellent, nicely paced, and engaging story based on a missing girl – and the hunt for her, with a small twist thrown in; this a very  very different story, almost unique; full marks to the team of authors for imagination and out of the box thinking! It a fast and light read, and has clear potential as the seed of an interesting novel. Again, so different is the concept, that saying anything else would spoil your fun. Enjoy this very novel concept, with a clear message as well as an interesting twist. In fact, in some ways, this rivals the one above for its freshness and its light touch.
The last story, appearing first in the book, is “The Awakening”. To be completely honest, an outlandish concept, but one very much in vogue – an eclectic mix of Aliens plus Ancient secrets. These are both very much trending topics nowadays in the realm of fiction, so no surprise that this story got chosen, given that it has also been well crafted. My personal opinion notwithstanding, it is a good story, well paced and presented. The problem for me remains the overall concept, which to me is beyond my comprehension, in addition to lacking newness and freshness! That said, it is a good story – of that there is no doubt…


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Farm Gate Prices And Urban Apathy…

Published June 16, 2016 by vishalvkale

Today’s Indian Express carries an interesting article on the rural landscape of India, bringing to the fore a superbly balanced presentation of the farm gate prices issue: should farmers be able to sell as per their choice, and not just through the APMC-demarcated regulated market   yards and auctions. This raises many questions, as we shall see. But first, the article in question:

APMCs were originally established with a view to prevent exploitation of farmers by intermediaries, who compelled them to dispose of their produce at the farmgate at very low prices. By mandating all farm produce to be brought to regulated market yards and sold through auctions, the APMC mechanism was meant to ensure fair prices to farmers. But in many cases, these bodies have themselves become dens for cartelisation by traders, who control prices and charge hefty commission fees on produce transactions.

An extreme case that surfaced recently was of Devidas Maruti Parbhane. This farmer from Vadgaon Rasai, a village in Pune district’s Shirur taluka, supplied one tonne of onions early this month at the local market yard under the Pune APMC’s jurisdiction. The price he got — a little more than Rs 1.5 per kg — was itself very low. But adding insult to injury was the various “cuts” imposed on top of this.

A scrutiny of Parbhane’s patti (trade slip) by The Indian Express revealed his total revenues from the sale of one tonne of onions at Rs 1,523.20. The total cuts even on this meagre amount added up to Rs 1,522.20. That included commission fees of Rs 91.30, hamali or labour charges of Rs 59, bharai or filling-in-bags charges of Rs 18.55, tolai or loading charges of Rs 33.30, and transport charges of Rs 1,320 (as the kutcha patti issued in Shirur was billed for delivery at Pune). Parbhane, at the end of it, was left with a net earning of Re 1: “When after the auction, the trader handed me a Re 1 coin, I was flabbergasted. Maybe, he should not have taken the trouble to pay me even that!”

Traders, however, dismiss these as one-off incidents, while claiming that delisting of F&V would ultimately hurt even farmers. “The produce brought by farmers is not uniform, which is what processors want. The APMCs are tuned to handle variety. Here, we have 50-55 varieties of vegetables and 25-30 varieties of fruits arriving on a daily basis. Such variety will disappear once delisting happens. Moreover, instead of a centralised marketplace, you’ll have small and medium vehicles carrying farm produce and creating traffic mayhem in Mumbai,” warned Rajendra Shelke, a leading onion and potato commission agent at the Vashi APMC.

Besides, the APMC system guarantees that the farmer is paid for his produce, which wouldn’t be the case if he were to sell directly? “The proposed reform looks good on paper, but it will only spell doom for the farmer and end up completely destroying the agrarian economy,” he added.

Sanjay Pansare, who represents traders at the Vashi APMC’s fruit market, justified the high commission rates on grounds that the goods being handled here were perishable and prone to quality deterioration. Only around a quarter of the produce brought to the market is eventually of the best quality; the rest falls between medium and bad. The losses borne by b on this count have to, therefore, be made up through higher commission fees. Since 2002, the Maharashtra government has been issuing marketing licenses to various entities for procuring directly from the farmgate. Besides, 34 private markets have been allowed to be set up. But despite this, an estimated 75 per cent of annual arrivals of F&V in the state still take place in APMCs. The proportions are lower at 46 per cent for cotton and 25-30 per cent in oilseeds and foodgrains.

The good part of the article is for the first time in my reading at least, has someone tried to place the other side – the benefits from traders to farmers; for too long, we have been treated to articles that focus on the low farm gate prices prevalent in India. Such an approach suffers from one major disadvantage: the bulk of purchasing happens through these regulated markets; these are an intermediary reality that cannot be wished away; they form an ecosystem within the economy, have large dependencies of families as well as business connected to them.

Any change process can only be successful when both sides of the coin are taken care of; the concerns of the traders need to be met head-on and dealt with, as, regardless of the question of compensation to farmers, they currently fulfil a market function. This is where a slow and planned change can bear results – as seen in the example above, wherein the procurement for cotton and oilseeds, foodgrains are at much lower percentages. Full marks to the Maharashtra state Government for crafting a graded transition to the newer system!

It is heartening to see Maharashtra and Delhi take the first tentative steps towards making a fair and balanced system for all; this is something needs to be taken forward in all states. Therein lies the major issue- it nationwide implementation. Sadly, I have not come across more coverage, or at least focused and concerted coverage in the media on this vital aspect. While Foreign Policy, Political brouhaha, Make In India etc find coverage and deep, informed, threadbare analysis – this is all but absent in this matter. As a net result, sporadic articles spring up in the media, and the public remains mute, unconcerned and uncaring regarding this matter. While the other initiatives will impact Urban India immediately, and Rural India through the trickle down effect over time – this will have a  much faster and potent impact, given that more than 2/3rd of India is Rural…

This is a systemic change, deep and layered; it does not have the dramatic, esoteric and visual impact of  Make In India, or Digital India or the other steps of the Government; and yet, it is equally, and in some ways more effective in ensuring the development of our nation; it is also something that the internet generation, social media, mainstream media and Urban India just do not have an interest in, which is truly sad.  Frankly, this state of affairs is a brutal indictment of Urban India

The shocking example above exposes the state of affairs – that the farmer is not getting anywhere near enough; other data and proof in the for of articles can be provided; let us take Onions as an example. How much do we pay in retail? 20/- a Kg – 30/- a Kg? At times, 40/- a Kg? How much of this should the farmer take home? Prices to farmers have even gone as low as 20 Paisa a Kg. We hear a massive hue and cry when prices shoot up – so why are the people and the media silent now? Why is there total silence on such a vital matter? Because it doesn’t impact Urban India?

The bumper harvest this year, however, has left farmers in tears with reports suggesting that prices have fallen to an all-time-low of Rs. 30 paise per kg at Madhya Pradesh’s mandi in Neemuch district. “There has been surplus onion production across the country this time, and the demand is relatively low. The farmers are badly hit as they spend at least Rs. 12 per kg in the entire process of producing the crop, excluding their labour cost,” said Rajender Sharma, member of Azadpur, Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC).

In Delhi, which primarily relies on these two States among a few others for onions, the situation is equally grim. At the Azadpur Mandi, the kitchen essential is being sold at Rs. 7.86 per kilo on an average. The best-quality onions are being sold at a wholesale rate of Rs. 10.5 per kg, whereas the poor-quality and the smaller ones are being bought by traders at Rs. 4.5 per kilo. The retail prices in the city range between Rs. 18 per kilo and Rs. 20 per kilo.

Did we read much of this in  the Media? And do note the difference between retail and wholesale prices; and ask yourselves some questions on tis state of affairs. Also do ask yourself is it fair that these matters take backstage to the much more visual steps that directly impact Urban India – and also ask yourself how can we change the state of affairs?

The Brand And The Channel – 2 : A Deeper Look At The Role Of The Channel

Published June 4, 2016 by vishalvkale

How does one create a Brand? Traditional Brand Management looks at concepts like the marketing mix, brand loyalty, awareness, personality, equity, positioning, attributes etc; all these and more are admittedly  core concepts with a range of practical ramifications and uses. The difficulty I have as a marketer in relating to these is due to the excessive focus on one element in the mix : promotion, and specifically advertising.
No Marketer can deny advertising its rightful place; it is through the medium of advertising that company products reach the consumer, and make the consumer aware of the same; it also helps build loyalty, creates differential & preferential demand, builds strong associations and all the rest of it; that is pretty much beyond argument. But the problem is that, in tandem with these steps, a host of other steps are needed to provide the base from which promotion can build. Further, these other steps provide the superstructure as well as stability.
Price and Product are most often considered in this set of “other steps”; what is left out are the organisation policy framework, culture, and… Place. The distribution network and its role gets most often ignored. I shall deal with the first two at a later date; this article builds on the previous article on Brand Creation, { Crafting A Great Brand : The Channel Perspective : Crafting A Great Brand : The Channel Perspective}
 I observed in the conclusion of the above article, “in my career so far, despite having covered in excess of 2000 retail points at a minimum, I can’t really say what really makes products move from the shelves. All I have experienced is that “Brand ” is only one among a set of factors, which I may pen in the due fullness of time and experience… that is, to me – the final frontier of Sales and Marketing” The question that jumps to my mind is simply this : Why is it that in over 16 years and more than 2000 retail visits, have  few customers come demanding a specific brand choice across Telecom, Durables, FMCG in my observation?     
Rather than compartmentalise this into the regular constructs of marketing mentioned above, it seems to me that we should look at this in an entirely different light : the relevance of the customer’s experience with the company as a whole : Brand, Physical Product, Customer Touchpoints, Communication, Usage Experience, Employee behaviour and Ethical Conduct, Process Orientation as well as the Channel and its approach. The customer runs into these aspects on a regular basis, and forms an opinion of the company and its products basis a series of interactions; the sum total of these interactions is what determines the customer response to the company offering, and a continued relationship.
This is a divergent approach from traditional marketing, which does not give as much weightage to these aspects, leading to dissonance in the customer’s mindset towards the company. There do exist companies that have bridged this, and built a solid rapport with its customers spanning several industries – but they are few in number. Not all the points above will be equally relevant for all products; for example, high-involvement products typically will be impacted by most, whereas low-involvement products will be influenced more by the Channel than the other aspects, although they will still hold relevance.
When a customer enters a channel location, it is the first face-to-face direct contact with the company; and what the channel says in Verbal and Non-Verbal  communication / interaction to / with the customer is a significant influencing factor; this is further strengthened by a comparison of the actual product or offering vis-a-vis what the customer has been exposed to through Advertising and Brand Building. When I enter a store to purchase a Shirt, or a Mobile Phone, or even a bar of soap – I have a clear set of product attributes in mind – in my observation, few customers have a Brand-Centric demand.
It is usually a case of having a consideration set of Brands to choose from. Thus far, we are in established Brand Management theory; what happens next is the key. The further ongoing interactions of the customer with the organisation in the purchase process, usage, and re-purchase is the single most-ignored aspect of Marketing in the modern world in my experience. The first three Ps can only bring a customer to the store, but beyond that, lies an entirely different and little-understood world, both in theory {that I am aware of, at least} as well as in practice.
The impact of unfriendly  channel policies, lax claim settlement etc are all well understood by most experienced sales personnel; these have the power to wash out sales from entire regions literally overnight. What is lesser understood is what makes the channel recommend one product over another, given equality in the basics mentioned above. If you have everything in place, it does not necessarily mean that you have all bricks in place. Everything that happens right from the first interaction to repeat purchase in an ongoing cycle is the Brand’s core business.
The normal course of interaction in my experience leaves this most vital phase of the purchase process with zero or near-zero control or even influence of the organisation. At the most, as I have observed by and large, the focus of attention becomes After Sales Service; that, though vital, is only one aspect in a rather longish list. The modal response usually hovers around the statement that the rest is not in the control of the teams. But is that really the case? And more to the point, what are the other aspects that influence the customer decision while in the channel location? And, how does the Brand building aspect enter into it? This is the topic of the next part in this series…