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Leapfrog Strategy Consulting on Brand Identity – Can “Brand” Tehelka survive the public falling from grace of Tarun Tejpal?

An often asked question in these days of celebrity brands and sponsorships is whether scandals attached to celebrities will destroy their sheen of glamour and whether this will damage the brands that they endorse or are associated with.  If their personalities are more strongly associated by the public with negative traits than positive traits, then these would extend more easily onto the brands they endorse, than their positive qualities.  Thus, the “sponsorship” fortunes of celebrities grow and decline depending upon their maintaining a “clean, unsullied and positive” image.

However, an emerging question that is worth exploring in new India would be around celebrity entrepreneurs  and the enterprises that they start up and grow around a central idea or concept.  When the entrepreneur is a flamboyant journalist like Tarun Tejpal or a liquor baron like Vijay Mallya and their enterprises are built on a powerful starting brand concept (Tehelka) and (Kingfisher Airlines) respectively, it is natural to expect that the brand is doomed by the death of the business (Kingfisher Airlines) or by the demise of the public persona (Tehelka).  But is that really so?  Is the brand concept resilient enough?  If nothing else, it is an interesting thought experiment to carry out, for students of branding and semiotic thinking.

Let us first consider the case of Tehelka, as it is the most current topic.  The brand Tehelka is built on a promise of free, frank and fearless investigative journalism.  How does this promise become relevant in a democracy?  And how does the brand build its credibility to deliver on the promise?

Journalism in any democratic society  has a “watch-dog” function to play, reporting upon the mis-demeanours of those in power and thus being part of the “checks and balances” in the overall social system to keep power balance at a healthy level.   In terms of its function, therefore, Tehelka can perhaps be categorized along with other publicly appointed regulators such as the Election Commission and SEBI.

To gain credibility with the reading and viewing public whose support it relies on for purchase, readership, endorsement and loyalty, such a brand needs to have high integrity and independence.  It must have values that it lives up to – that it is uncompromising and cannot be ‘bought’ easily by the wealthy and powerful.  At the same time, a watchdog journalist brand like Tehelka is likely to have a slightly uneasy relationship with the law.  If it were completely law abiding, it might not be able to carry out the “exposes” that it needs to, with regularity.  Thus, its journalistic ethics may be a bit grey although its ultimate goals are framed in black and white.  The public may be willing to overlook the brand’s ‘grey’ zone with the law, provided it performs its function with integrity and sincerity and maintains its ideal of public service.

The personality of such a brand (often represented as inseparable from the public persona of the founder) will have many characteristics of a crusader – unswerving belief in the rightness of the mission, aggressiveness in getting into fights with the ‘establishment’, daring and risk-taking.  Other recent examples of  the crusader personality that come to mind are Maheshwar Peri, an ex-publisher, who has set himself up as India’s premier education counselor, providing independent assessments and reports on various educational institutions and their quality.  Arvind Kejriwal prior to entering politics was another pure crusader for the cause of public welfare via good governance.

The current charges against Tarun Tejpal for rape and molestation by a junior journalist in his organization, the way they were handled by the management as well as media investigation into its financial affairs have hugely undermined the credibility both of Tehelka as a well-run organization and  the founder’s credibility as a leader, watchdog and crusader for the good of the citizens and public.

Does this mean that brand Tehelka cannot be resurrected?  In my view, it can be.  The brand promise of free, frank, fearless investigative journalism continues to be relevant, the brand personality of a crusader for public welfare is attractive.  The name is known to stand for these things in the minds of the more aware and knowledgeable readers and thinking public and the intelligentsia.  If Tarun Tejpal, the tainted current owner and promoter can be separated from the brand and its personality (he has recently resigned), I believe that the brand can be turned around.

What Tehelka lacks today is a strong organization with capable and professional management.  And an editor who builds the organization culture to support the brand, rather than grab the spotlight for himself, while running the organization like a warlord.  A group of investors and financiers who want to build this brand could use the opportunity to pick up a potential asset at a very affordable price and search for the leadership and management to rebuild the brand.  That would make for a powerful  turnaround business and brand story.

What might the new management need to do to protect the brand and get back some of its lost sheen?  Some initiatives could be to do with launching a set of investigative stories into the pressing concern areas of the public.  Others could be to do with engaging more actively with the public and providing the public a platform through Tehelka to share concerns and opinions as well as hold public officials to account, for their performance or lack of it.  A third would be to host events that are less about dazzling celebrities that the public will come to watch and more about engineering stimulating conversations between the public and the powerful on issues of concern to them.  Finally, advertising campaigns that engage the public with the mission of Tehelka could also contribute to the brand rebuilding agenda.

On the other hand, coming to brand Kingfisher, would there be brand resilience for the Kingfisher Airlines brand?  Can it be revived today?  Would the brand promise of Kingfisher of the ‘royal flying experience’; ‘flying like Dr. Mallya’s guest’ still be relevant in the present aviation context?  On-time efficiency of Indigo, good quality flights of Jet Airways as well as new cut-price airlines such as Air Asia…these mark the flying experiences of today.  Whether there are sufficient ex-customers and brand loyalists of Kingfisher Airlines who would want to fly the Kingfisher way again needs to be investigated.  In this case, as every year goes by, the brand concept/promise stands eroded and might become irretrievably irrelevant.