August 21, 2014

Dtac and Benevolent Intent

I recently had a conversation with Vatcharaphong Siripak, affectionately known as Kuhn Pong, the Senior Vice President Brand Communication at dtac, a mobile operator in Thailand. He shared an advertisement with me showing a young man stuck at home with a baby (obviously his child), who starts to cry. The man calls his wife on his smartphone and despite a number of antics that both he and his wife get up to on the phone the baby is inconsolable. At a point the young man puts the phone down and picks up the baby who then is consoled.

The message of the video is as clear as it is poignant. This is a mobile operator saying that there is a limit to what technology, specifically their own product, can do. It is almost anti-advertising. It is a seller warning a buyer not to become too dependent on their product. Its a self-imposed health warning. The video had gone viral and has, amazingly, been received very well by people in Thailand and around the world.

It occurred to me that another Thai mobile operator, namely TrueMove, had done something similar, trying to focus on the theme of giving:

While the advert was received very well internationally, there did not seem to be a logical link between the advert and what the company stood for. Khun Pong’s key point was that a statement that refers to benevolence will only work if it resonates with something that the business stands for authentically. This authenticity is tested by the degree to which the business is consistent in its behaviour and its message.

He pointed out that the crying baby advert needed to be seen in the context of a brand that dtac had been building over a decade, which he refers to as “the power of love”. 10 years ago dtac committed to the idea of communicating with those around you, deliberately working on the ambivalence that a mobile phone can disconnect you from those around you in the process of connecting you with others. This development lead to the “Disconnect to Connect” advert which was aired 4 years ago:

The advert was very well received at the time, although now as dramatically as the recent crying baby advert.

This experience shed light on a recent exchange I had with an old school friend on facebook. I was of the view that any enterprise that has the enrichment of the shareholder or owner as its primary objective is fundamentally malevolent.

Although he begrudgingly conceded that, he did not think that anything else was possible. I went on to the point that I once had a conversation with Raymond Ackerman about the same thing. He claimed that he started Pick ‘n Pay because he thought the South African consumer was being screwed over by manufacturers, and that profit was never his first or primary motive. My brother Jerry was in on the conversation, as was Ackerman’s wife,Wendy. Jerry got a bit cynical with Ackerman at which point his wife came to his defense quite indignantly. “Money was never Raymond’s primary motive”, she said Emphatically. There is a famous quote from Kellogg, who said something along the lines of: “The purpose of a business is not to make profit. What a demeaning description. The purpose of a business is to add value to people’s lives, and one of the consequences of this is that it makes a profit.”

Khun Pong

Khun Pong

The clear challenge to this view is that both Ackerman and kellog were the founding entrepreneurs, and therefore had the liberty to define the intent of their business. I think Khun Pong’s point here would be that a business does not really exist over and above the people who are operating in it. It is entirely possible for the executives who run a business to decide to husband the organisation.

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