Amongst the brutalized ruins of the Bombay attacks there is a hopeful tale in the response of the organisations targeted, which have bounced back with dignity, sensitivity and courageous efficiency. The swift re-opening of their landmarks (VT, the Taj and the Trident) – not to forget the prompt reaffirmation of the Chabad Lubavitch movement’s charter – signals a way forward for our city and has helped pull us out of a sentimental morass. We will not forget the victims and the pain their near ones have suffered but we will not allow these cowardly murderers to achieve their goal of bringing life in our city to a halt through fear, divisiveness and despondency.
The broad charter of this site has been to explore (and critique) the semiotics of mass communication and their connection to our collective consciousness. These simultaneous (the Taj and the Trident opened on the same day) and important events provide us a unique opportunity to gauge the discernment of our brand captains and the assumptions they make about our zeitgeist.
Without sounding insensitive to any of these organisations or to their brave staffers, I’d like to present the events as a case study in brand relaunches and crisis communications and contrast the organisational cues which emerge. I’m going to limit my observations to the two private companies effected, as it would be a fool’s errand to try and second guess the machinations of the great Indian Railways and as we have sadly come to expect a steely resolve from the Israelis.
The Taj has long been the grand old lady of Bombay – rightfully accorded institutional status and showered with universal admiration and fondness. This is why, despite half-accurate accusations of elitism, the attack on this landmark genuinely hurt hardest. A torrent of nostalgic paeans and anguished words followed. The slap-dash peace march/candle light vigil/protest mob/solidarity gathering post the events was held in the eerie shadow of the hotel. Ratan Tata was plastered across the media as First Citizen, parading around the entrance of his beleaguered palace, pointing purposefully, taking control of his troops and there were even calls for him to assume leadership of the country. Finally, amongst all this mythology, there was the horrific tale of the General Manager of the hotel, who stood fast at his post, despite the knowledge of the extermination of his entire immediate family.
The Taj organisation responded as expected – with discretion, stoicism and good sense. A tasteful full-page ad was released to express collective grief, an official fund was set up for the victims, the reconstruction was carried out efficiently and the hotel was ready to open its doors again after a suitable but not inordinate pause.
So far, so TATA.
However, this is where things took a strange turn. First came the ad (below) released to hang out the ‘Open for Business’ sign.
It would be an understatement to say I was shocked to see this ad. I hadn’t expected heavy sentimentality to mark the return of the Taj, but this piece of communication was so far in the opposite direction, the hardsell in the “new and improved” message so tactless, the jubilation surrounding the event so insensitive, it seemed that someone was playing a cruel bizzarro joke on the Tatas.
The “clink of champagne glasses” couldn’t but remind one of the none-too-distant sound of gunfire and bombs and images of shattered glass. “Impeccable butler service” called to mind the valiant sacrifice of the staffers who put their guests’ lives before their own. The “luxury Jaguar transfers” raised images of the NSG commandos schlepping their way from the airport in a BEST bus. And as for the “intrigue of the Palace Wing”, how could the writer of this monstrosity imagine that he/she could so glibly gloss over the “inspiration” that it had provided a bunch of resentful have-nots?
I know that it is a cardinal rule of advertising to stress positive images and outcomes but surely there is a measure of restraint to be exercised in circumstances such as these.
Then there was the invite-only opening ceremony – attended by the usual bunch of rent-a-celebs. I was in the area attempting to visit a friend opposite the hotel and had found it impossible to break the security cordon, which was annoyingly lifted every time a member of the invitation-card-waving elite drove in. The ceremony itself was very touching according due respect to the victims and empathy to the survivors and it ended aptly – for a TATA event – with the civility of a tea service but I think the TATAs did themselves a disservice by limiting participation to an elite section of society. Security concerns aside (after all, there had safely been an assemblage of some 100000 people at the Gateway of India just over a week ago, including a bunch of sardars who handed out free tea to all), what a great statement it would have made to have droves of Bombayites inside and outside the hotel marking their support for the endurance of one of our cherished icons.
All told, I think the response of the TATAs wasn’t in keeping with their legendary stature and brand manner. I do hope that someone takes cognizance of these uncharacteristic lapses at a time when the world’s eyes and the health of the city’s psyche settle on this institution’s considerable shoulders.
The Trident/Hilton Tower/Old Oberoi has always been a hotel with a bit of a personality disorder, stemming from years of shifting alliances, poor brand marketing to communicate these alliances and perhaps even an inferiority complex when compared to the Taj – its far grander competitor (the attached ‘new’ Oberoi was meant to set a superior standard of luxury almost as a counterpoint to the ‘old’ one). The Trident brand – a flanking and marginal corporate subbrand of the Oberois, with no connection to the hotel’s past – has almost no resonance in the minds of most Indians.
Indeed, the press corps, unfamiliar with the current status of the hotel and its ownership, mangled its identity throughout their coverage of the attacks, referring to it as the Taj Trident, The Oberoi (when referring to the Trident), etc.
Therefore it might come as no surprise that the custodians of this brand decided to take the high road – making their guests the focus of the relaunch and tackling the challenge with as much humility as elan. The reopening communique (below) was modest, almost to the point of meekness. While it, like the Taj ad, didn’t dwell on the negativity of the attack – the circumstances at least got a deserved and sanctified mention. The ad spoke of the tireless effort of its staff to get things back on track – something the Taj only referenced in their PR efforts. It even performed the courtesy of thanking customers ahead of their visit.
The doors were thrown open to all and sundry early on Sunday – and the curious and the brave were rewarded (after a thorough security check) with completely free service. There was a ceremony – held later in the afternoon (perhaps to accommodate the Taj), which was also attended by various dignitaries, but the best information I have is that this was an open event. Attendees were handed cards containing quasi-spiritual salves, perhaps betraying the emotional bearings of the group’s chairman, Bikki Oberoi. This contrasts with the more impassive, signature reaction of Ratan Tata. The official statement came from the corporate head of the hotel – its president – who also addressed pragmatic matters such as increased security and decreased occupancy. Even the feature press coverage of this event was more democratic – choosing to highlight the return visits of people who had been trapped in the horrific attack and the sad pilgrimage of the relatives of some of its victims. There was hardly any mention of the ‘new’ Oberoi, which will require another six months in restoration.
Onward and Upward
Both organisations have walked a strategic tightrope in the aftermath of these events, balancing difficult financial, philanthropic, political, historical, emotional and spiritual demands in the full glare of the world’s media. Both have successfully gauged the city’s desire to transform the hurt into something meaningful. Both have resisted the urge to gain untold mileage out of their misfortunes. Both have realized the life-affirming importance of the illusion of security. For this, they both should be commended.
In situations like this, any marketing professor will readily tell you to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. They will have a much harder time instructing you on what you should do with Mr In Between – the psychological grey area in the consumer’s mind, where brand perception is truly built, amongst a sea of ambiguous impulses. The grey area in this situation is a particularly tempestuous ocean of conflicting emotions. This is where the Taj has not measured up to its role as a beacon brand.
I am therefore left with confusion and a poor taste in my mouth over the hasty exuberance of the Taj management and will unfortunately retain the memory of their crude attempt to bury the debris of this event under acres of luxurious pile carpet.