(Editor’s pick when published originally in the Branding Magazine)

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” While this shorthand definition is convenient, it completely misses the inextricable mental associations and emotional linkages that consumers create when valuing brands.

On the continuum from cave paintings to social media updates, symbols have created an infinite sensory palette of visual and verbal expression which instantaneously produces the intended perceptual recognition – belonging, love, respect, loyalty and advocacy.

Brand identity elements, from names to tags to designs, are only the material markers completely devoid of meaning. It is often the case not what the brand stands for, but what consumers perceive the brand stands for. If a consumer is intimately attached to a symbol, close examination divulges that there is actually less to the symbol than meets the eye. A wedding ring does not mean a marriage has occurred. For instance, the bride from the Syrian Christian communities of Kerala wears minnu (a pendant) to signal marital union. Should we apply principles of cultural anthropology to advance branding from mere material symbols to the realm of symbolism, a collective understanding of the plots and metaphors that spur customers’ imaginations and mental associations begin to be defined.

Symbolism is a culturally-determined activity, more as a totality than as the arithmetic sum of a group of symbols. In branding, the object of symbolism is the enhancement of the importance of what is symbolized. This enrichment to symbolic meaning occurs when brand stories are recited by various authors: Company, culture intermediaries, critics, retail sales personnel and customers.

I spent three years pursuing a ‘going native’ type of interpretive ethnographic research on customer evangelists who pompously wore a brand logo as a tattoo. Harley Davidson loyalists don’t care about the torque generated by the engine; rather, it is the Harley brand values espoused by sociocultural, symbolic, and ideological aspects that transform the casual biker into a Harley loyalist. In fact, many car buyers ignore and/or are completely ignorant of product attributes and technical specifications, such as a multi-point fuel injection system, the engine compression ratio, etc. None of the brands are found in lists of attributes, nor sets of form and function. Instead, brands can be known only by the unfolding of their unique stories within the context of the symbolic perception they create and manage for long periods of time.

When we look at brands through a cultural anthropological lens, it becomes more discernible as to why consumers tattoo themselves with the Harley Davidson or Nike logo in permanent ink to proudly claim membership of a tribe; sprinkle the rim of a Corona bottle with sea salt and insert a lime wedge to flavor the beer; never mind paying $2.59 for a cup of Starbucks when they can brew coffee at home for $0.07/cup. As we move into the consideration of symbolic perception, our concern with fields, organizations, and relationships shifts our framework of brand discourse to approach brands as vessels of symbolic meanings that evoke personalities and emotion through myth, rituals, symbolism and ethos.

Brand is a noun. It is a verb. It may be about what we do. But, overall, it is all about what is in the mind – the mind of the consumer and the mind of the employee. Regrettably, most books, articles, and practices (like AMA’s imprecise definition of a brand) approach, analyze and articulate brand as a mere material marker from a business economic perspective. It is about time that we start examining brands and branding from a cultural perspective. And anthropology can amply help.



“Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark.  You know what you are doing, but nobody else does.”  –  Steuart Henderson Britt

From a foal to babies dancing, advertising agencies were inventive to capture consumers’ attention in 2013. Take a look at these ten top commercials and let me know what was your favorite in the comments below.

10. Evian, “Baby and Me”

Agency: BETC (France)

Director: Rémi Babinet

9. Canon, “Inspired”

Agency: Grey New York (USA)

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig, MJZ

8. Prada, “Candy L’Eau”

Executive Producer: Lisa Margulis (the Directors Bureau) (France)

Director: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

7. Grey Poupon, “The Chase”

Agency: Crispin Porter + Bogusky (USA)

Director: Bryan Buckley, Hungry Man

6.  Nike, “The Jogger”

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy (USA)

Director: Lance Acord, Park Pictures

5. Pepsi Max, “Test Drive”

Agency: TBWA (USA)

Director: John Norman

4. Dove, “Real Sketches”

Agency: Ogilvy and Mather (Brazil)

Director: John Carey


3. Budweiser, “The Clydesdales Brotherhood”

Agency: Anomaly (USA)

Director: Jake Scott


2. Carlsberg, “Standing up for a Friend”

Agency: Duval Guillaume Modem (Belgium)

Director: Geoffrey Hantson and Katrien Bottez


1. Sainbury’s, “Christmas in a Day”

Agency: Scott Free Films (England)

Director: Kevin Macdonald



Marketing luxury is a paradox.  Luxury defies econometric models.  Though the processes by which consumers acquire and consume luxury remain an enigma, luxury brand names and products are highly visible in the marketplace.

I became interested in branding luxury back in 2007 when I used to frequent Dubai (UAE).  It was then I acquainted with research work pursued by Bernard Dubois, Thomas Stanley, Claire Paternault and others.  I even designed a workshop for corporate clients in Middle East and Europe interested in luxury retailing.  I taught an MBA level course on Luxury Branding at my favorite business school in India, MICA, in 2008-’09.

Recently, I promised Hult MBAs at San Francisco that I shall provide them my insights on luxury branding in my BE class.  Though a little late, I am living up to my promise.  This slide deck empirically explores the luxury sector, the status of international luxury brands, and how luxury is branded and sold to consumers.


How do you look at the world?  The world is just the same; it does not change.  Do you see it from down here, like a frog, as Spengler said, or up above, like an eagle.  Branding is the management of perceptions in the consumer ecosystem.


I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.”  - Confucius

We learn best by doing – ask any cricket coach; the only way you master a sport is by strapping on the pads and going to bat.

Of course there is value in reading and watching the game but with repetitive, unimaginative study too often those illustrative practices become little more than blunt weapons with which to beat any natural creative spark out of the student.

Education becomes little more than memorizing equations, formulae and concepts; regurgitate them in exams and valiantly keeping score.

And as we all know you can’t read the perfect game.

Involvement drives engagement; that’s why in my eight years as a Business School Professor I have become increasingly aware of the responsibility I have towards my students to prepare them for the world of business away from descriptive practices.

Conscious of the reality of the classroom, I teamed up with two progressively minded organizations, the Muthoot Group and Delhi Daredevils, to focus upon the problem of how to develop a novel experiential teaching tool.

Brand Battle Simulations took the practice of ‘war games’ a technique used by the US military to prepare their troops for the multiply eventualities of combat and applied it to the world of business.

As in a typical war game, student-teams take roles to simulate an unfolding crisis or gauge the possible reaction of competitors to a critical strategic move.

When recently teaching Brand Management, I invited the Directors of the Muthoot Group and the CMO of Delhi Daredevils to form control groups charged with presenting individual teams of up to ten MBA students with a scenario – imagined or real – about a current business crisis that they were then asked to solve.

With teams either playing the client, competition or a stakeholder I acted as the coach, guiding the student-teams to apply business theories, interpret secondary research, synthesize knowledge gleaned, and evaluate strategies.

Due to the nature of ‘play’ within a classroom environment, students felt free to think beyond the client brief to implement creative solutions to unforeseen problems while allowing clients to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses, threats and opportunities of their brand strategy.

‘Learn by Doing’ lectures make their apparent lack of formal planning their strength.  In this model, a language teacher could aid learning by getting his class to act out scenes from a play or a short story, a science teacher could demonstrate the flammable nature of hydrogen by showing its effects with a little washing up liquid and a match.

The only limit placed on learning is the limits of your imagination.

While ‘learn by doing’ lectures may be nonlinear and rigid, they are always coherent and surprising.  Beneath the seeming chaos in the classroom, there is always an underlying method that aids edification.

Like any good coach, educators are charged with getting the best from their students – to motivate and reward them through experiential teaching but too often our educational system stifles development with demonstrative pedagogic ideas.

The problems then left facing educators in this respect are familiar; students do not assimilate the necessary know-how and -why, and nor do they possess sufficient motivation to ask why these processes are critical to higher thinking.

The ominous problem remains; students know too much and do too little.

A growing self-awareness of the issue at hand has in effect crippled development in some of the premier business schools in the United States.

For instance, the Harvard Business School pioneered a case study approach to educating its students which attempted to tackle this malaise by fostering business education through a mix of theoretical reflection and deft application of the knowledge gained.

However, its modus operandi of promoting theoretical reflection became its primary value.  Students were still no closer to experiencing practical business situations.

It seems unimaginable that any other profession would prepare their students to enter the world of work without giving them the necessary practical tools in which to succeed.

After all, you wouldn’t trust a surgeon who had only perused elaborate case studies, discussed them in the classroom and written eloquently on the subject if he has no practical experience of the operating theatre.

‘Hear one, see one, do one,’ is an adage used by residents to learn a procedure.  In business education, however, the saying would be: “Hear one, talk about one, talk about another one.”

The reality is that what MBAs have to learn to be the managers of tomorrow they will have to do so within classrooms today – and how we are teaching them will only get them so far.

(Originally published by THE HINDU in Education Plus section on Monday, March 25, 2013)

Best Commercials 2012

Most advertising is kitsch; some of it is amusing; much is trash. But, those brilliantly communicated ideas that garner enormous cultural attention amply justify why advertising should not be construed as annoying legerdemain, economic waste, or cultural dross. Here are some of 2012’s brilliant advertisements made for TV and reused on YouTube:

10. Dollar Shave Club, “Our Blades are F***ing Great”

Agency: Paulilu Productions
Los Angeles, USA

9. Adidas, “Take the Stage”

Agency: Sid Lee
London, England

8. Guinness, “St. Patrick’s Day”

Agency: AMV BBDO
London, England

7. EMDA, “Alzheimer Awareness”

Agency: ACW Grey
Tel Aviv, Israel

6. Chrysler, “It’s Half Time in America”

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Portland, OR; United States

5. ETN, “Howling Football”

Agency: Ambient Advert
Berlin, Germany

4. LG, “Smart Thief”

Agency: Y&R
Amsterdam, Holland

3. Barack Obama, “Obama for America”

Agency: Bully Pulpit Interactive
Washington DC; United States

2. P&G, “Best Job”

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Portland, OR; United States

1. Red Bull, “Red Bull Stratos”

Agency: Riedel Communications
Filmed near Roswell, NM; United States (FlightLine Films)


THE POWER OF brands is undeniable. The moment we decide to buy soda, we know what brand of soda we’d purchase even before we leave our apartments to the corner store. Brands create unmatched loyalty and boundless profits for corporations. What’s it about brands that transforms people’s emotions and behavior? Why should a pair of jeans from True Religion inspire such an emotional response and commitment. Why should MBAs who graduate from Thunderbird or bikers who ride a Harley ink the logo of the brand to claim membership to an exclusive clique?

In 2007, I embarked on a journey to find out the answer(s) how brands create devotion strictly from the consumer’s perceptive. My journey took me to ashrams in India, secret consumer tribe conventions, Sturgis and Daytona motorcycle rallies, Apple stores, tattoo parlors across the length and breadth of the US, and many other exciting places. I am still collecting valuable data with plans of publishing my findings. This keynote presentation uses four iconic brands: Coca-Cola, Apple, Thunderbird, and Motorhead. I hope this set of slides helps unlock some of the secrets of how brands build emotional connections, and why branding is important.