11 Apr 2017 18:51 IST

'We consciously created a distinct brand identity for Saint-Gobain'

B Santhanam, President and MD - Flat Glass South Asia, Egypt and Malaysia

Speaking at SRM University, Saint-Gobain India’s B Santhanam explains the company’s brand philosophy

“Brands are all around us, right through the day. What makes us choose one over the other?” was the first question of the afternoon posed by B Santhanam, President and MD, Flat Glass South Asia, Egypt and Malaysia at Saint-Gobain. He was addressing students and faculty of the School of Management of SRM University at its vast, green campus in Kattankulathur, near Chennai.

Quality, trust, value, answered some of the students. Most important is ‘trust’, said Santhanam. “Trust and the essential attribute the brand stands for, that all those who use it want to be associated with too,” he said. “What does SRM mean to you?” he asked, urging the students to think of what their institution symbolises as a brand — qualities they themselves would represent.


‘Owning’ an attribute

While all products have certain generic qualities, each brand has, over the years, acquired a certain identity that it eventually ‘owns’, he explained. Coke, for instance, despite sugary drinks getting a bad rap and causing it some business heartburn, still has a strong association with the word ‘happiness’, the emotion connected with the opening of the fizzy brown drink.

Similarly, while the dozens of toothpastes in the market are linked to terms such as freshness, hygiene, natural, and so on, Colgate owns the term ‘whiteness’, just as Apple has always stood for ‘innovation’.

When Saint-Gobain came to India in 1996, the question was how to give it a brand identity. Never mind that it had been in the business for over 330 years already! (The brand was born in 1665, with the then French monarch granting the Saint-Gobain company a monopoly in glass-making.) Still, despite its centuries-old history and presence in dozens of countries, it was, after all, said Santhanam, a company that just made glass, a ‘low-involvement’ category at best, that had a long supply chain between the manufacturer and end user.

Several influencers

It is also, he said, a product that has multiple influencers — architects, builders, fabricators, distributors, retailers and consumers — all of whom have a say, or a veto, in the purchase decision! The challenge was to create advertising that would address all these groups and make a convincing case for them to opt for the product.

Drawing from the David Aaker model, Saint-Gobain defined itself using such brand equity concepts as awareness, quality, association and loyalty, to connect with the consumer and achieve a certain positioning. It then extended the concept of quality to innovation for the future and loyalty to mean reliability, a global presence and heritage. It was at this time that the simple, yet powerful, catchline was created for Saint-Gobain: The Future of Glass. Since 1665.

Clarity, transparency

Over the next few years, differentiation was important. The company wanted to sum up, in a word, what it stood for. It chose ‘clarity’. This was the word it would ‘own’, with the associations of transparency and forthrightness that it connoted.

In a masterstroke, the company roped in Lowe Lintas to devise a campaign that would help the company succeed in this, and quickly. The rest is advertising history. The TV commercials, made with low budgets but great thought processes, aimed to be associated with ‘internationalism’ and a sense of humour. Brilliantly executed, they won several awards at various venues, including at the prestigious Cannes festival. Played for the audience at SRM, more than a decade after they were made, the ads still had the crowd chuckling away in appreciation.

It marked the completion of a year’s operations with another classic line: “We’re a year old and have produced 1,45,000 tonnes of nothing” — seen against a sheer pane of glass. Saint-Gobain integrated the concept of clarity in all its operations, doing everything straight, being transparent with all its stakeholders and living by its brand’s philosophy, said Santhanam.

Santhanam said: “The final test of a brand — its Holy Grail, if you will — is when it becomes a favourite with users, when they recommend it to others and are willing to pay a premium for it.” Saint-Gobain, it seems, should have no worry on this count as a ‘spontaneous awareness’ survey revealed that for over 50 per cent of respondents, it was the first brand that came to mind when they were asked to name a building materials maker! When nudged, with the hint that it was a glass-maker, this number shot up to 94 per cent!


Well-being, comfort

Looking to play a larger role in the future, the company is rebranding itself, moving into the area of well-being, while staying aligned to its raison d’être of protecting its users from heat, noise, dust and pollution. Its product offerings have grown to span a wide range that includes specialty materials that keep out the sun’s heat but let in light, lacquered glass for interiors, as well as energy-efficient and fire-resistant glass solutions for contemporary needs.

Studies show, said Santhanam, that people feel more comfortable and energised when the air quality is superior, and that they work better in green building environments. Such an atmosphere has been seen to heighten their cognitive abilities and productivity. Saint-Gobain’s new focus will be to create such enabling and empowering work and living places that promote well-being. Undergirding this progression from ‘The Future of Glass’ to ‘The Future of Well-being’ are the guiding principles of integrity, evolution and relevance, that sustain an enduring brand.

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