Where is your Bucephalus?

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Around 336 BC a very young Macedonian rode east to conquer much of the civilized world. He rode on Bucephalus. Most historians note that Bucephalus served Alexander the Great right up to one of his last big battles – the one he fought against Porus by the banks of the Jhelum. 

I do not propose to write about the many strengths of the historical Bucephalus as I am no expert on horses, however much I love them. I want to examine the metaphorical Bucephalus that brands ride on to gain consumer love and market share. Importantly I want to pose a couple of questions. Has the time come to reimagine the Bucephalus that brands have used for so long? Are there untapped opportunities that we can explore to refresh the way we think about consumer engagement?

For most of the 26 years that I have been in advertising, Bucephalus came in the form of two big-budget campaigns every year and got a well-earned break in between. What drove these campaigns was the much researched, highly fussed over, carefully crafted television commercial. A television commercial that mostly spoke about how the brand in question was better, faster, sexier, offered more value, or how it understood consumers a whole lot better than other brands in its category. 

Brand thinking that drove such communication efforts mostly involved uncovering an ownable insight and crafting a compelling proposition. Some of the questions that were answered in this process were:
What is the big trend that we are tapping into? 
What is the cultural angle that we are exploring? 
Is there is a socially relevant cause that we can identify with? 

All of this – the choice of the vehicle and the thinking behind the message – was relevant given certain constants:
A more or less homogeneous target audience 
Non-fragmented media
Manageable levels of media investment 
Slow pace of change 
An easily identifiable product differentiator that is also easy to define 

Thankfully these constants do not exist anymore. Thankfully, because it favored incumbents more than new entrants, leaders more than challengers, big bucks rather than big ideas. But unfortunately, brand thinking and consumer engagement efforts have yet to come to terms with the new communication ecosystem that has been purged of these constants.

The challenges that brands will have to deal with are many. Some of the more obvious ones are:
How do we manage and strike a balance between existing consumers and new consumers? 
How do we account for heterogeneity and nuances without diluting what we stand for? 
How can we ride the change and not be swamped by change? 

Meeting these challenges involves two steps: 
Finding your Bucephalus 
Learning to ride your Bucephalus

How to find your Bucephalus

The ultimate aim of all communication and consumer engagement effort is to impact consumer behavior. And to do this traditional brand thinking asks us to understand everything there is to know about the consumer and how she interacts with the category, what her thoughts are regarding the brand in question etc. The next step is to layer this understanding with the relevant cultural mores of the day and then top it off with a layer of the relevant trends. This kind of thinking can be best illustrated by a simple pyramid with consumer understanding being the base layer, culture being layer two, and trends being layer three. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is by nature short term. Consumers, culture, and trends are by nature dynamic. Everything from technology to economics constantly disrupts all three layers of this pyramid. The only way out of this is to dig deeper. 

Look for the coding beneath the surface – the human software

Beneath every trend and culture there lies a deeper layer that acts as a platform for all cultures and trends. It is this layer that shapes and guides our thinking, outlook, and aspirations. One could look at it as a sort of ‘human software’. The ‘human software’ is not dependent on ethnicity, religious beliefs, or political views. It is what gives us a sense of what is right and wrong, it is what makes us seek meaning and purpose, it drives us towards progress, makes us want to see what lies beyond the horizon. It makes us believe that we are special, urges us to make a lasting impression. Encoded into this human software are themes that are timeless and universal. It is amongst these themes that you will find your Bucephalus. 

In the emerging communication ecosystem that will be diverse, fragmented, and subject to rapid changes, it will be these fundamental and timeless human themes that will help brands ride on to consumer love and greater market share. It will serve as the true north for brands, help brands maintain continuity, and more importantly forge real and human bonds with consumers. Bonds that go beyond functionality. Bonds that do not need the crutches of celebrities or big budgets.  But finding your Bucephalus is only the first step. The next equally important step is knowing how to ride your Bucephalus to win consumer love and gain market share.

How to ride your Bucephalus 

The story that has been passed down by the scribes of yore talk of a proud, strong horse that refused to be tamed or yield to a rider. That was till Alexander, barely into his teens and not yet Great, hit upon why Bucephalus behaved the way he did. For some reason Bucephalus was afraid of his own shadow, realizing this Alexander moved the horse in such a way that he stood against the sun. Bucephalus could no longer see his shadow; he was no longer afraid and Alexander became the first person to ride Bucephalus. To tame his wildness. Unleashing the power of the metaphorical Bucephalus will also call for equal amounts of knowledge, understanding, and skill. Here is a rough guide to make your Bucephalus work for you. 

1. Start by visualizing your brand as a person.
Not just from a purpose or personality point of view. Go beyond the usual brand jargons. Start thinking of your brand as you would think of a real person in your life. What is the defining quality of this person? How does he impact the lives of others? What kind of relationships does he seek? What do people who interact with him expect from him? What are his virtues? What are his talents? What does he care about deeply?
Questions like this will help your brand break the category trap and engage with consumers at a deeper, more human level.

2. Commit to the human core
Once you have identified your Bucephalus and defined your brand as a person, stick to the core and invest in the person. Let every action of yours be guided by how you have defined your brand. Spark conversations that would come naturally to this person. Associate with social and cultural phenomenon that this person identifies with.

3. Be Agile 
Adapt your Bucephalus to address different sets of consumers. Refine it so that it stays current. 

4. Engage Continuously
The new communication ecosystem will not tolerate the two big campaigns a year approach. Brands need to be conceived as content creators. And this creation and engagement need to be persistent. The metaphorical Bucephalus unlike the historical one gains in strength with constant use. He abhors rest. 

5. Embrace Speed 
In the new communication ecosystem ‘done’ is always better than ‘perfect’. When you’re exploring multiple opportunities across multiple consumer segments speed will be the difference between spectacular success and abject failure. 

About the author

Suresh Mohankumar

A seasoned strategist with 26 years of experience conceiving, launching and growing some of India’s biggest brands, Suresh, has worked as the head of Strategic Planning in large advertising agencies.

He is known for breaking down complex situations to bring meaningful insights to the surface in order to arrive at a water-tight strategy.

He has handled a variety of categories like Automobiles, Jewelry, FMCG, AlcoBev, Leisure, Food, Fashion, Retail, Technology, New Media, etc.

By Suresh Mohankumar
© The Strategy School 2020