June 23, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Not in Name

A friend of mine working in the education sector who landed in Nepal from the US quipped that Kathmandu could potentially have the highest density of Ivy League institutions. He was remarking on the propensity of Kathmandu’s schools to take on the names of practically all vaunted global institutions of education. But his question was, what value system are these institutions imparting? Are they saying that it is okay to lift the names of credible institutions? Are they teaching students that they should not believe in the concept of intellectual property rights? Are these institutions training people to take a shortcut to issues in life? These shortcuts could range from faking internships, plagiarising research reports or just passing off somebody else’s work as their own.

My friend had an endless number of questions that prompted me to reflect on what a ‘brand’ means in Nepal. I also started thinking of how there are so many businesses and health and educational institutions that have just decided to take on the name of other prominent ones. At times, it is the director of a certain organisation leveraging his position to use a certain name of another organisation where he may be the sole owner. So we have colleges named after banks and cooperatives named after media houses and medical centres named after educational institutions. The list is endless.

Leveraging Names

It is not surprising when a small roadside eatery names itself after a big hotel but the problem begins when companies and institutions start using the brand name for misrepresentation. There are certain companies here that thrive on registering in Nepal brand names that have become popular in India, be it brands of oil, wheat flour or snacks. In Ilam, I remember picking up a snack packet that had exactly the same packaging as in India but was made in Nepal. Nepali companies take advantage of the fact that Indian television channels, which are widely watched in Nepal, promote the brand. How many of us actually look at the details on the packaging? So one can sell products for which someone else is paying for the advertising.

In many countries, this is unethical, but in Nepal, it would not be surprising to discover the same people who conduct activities are also at the helm of the committees that make laws. Therefore, we do not ensure stringent patent and trademark laws. It comes as no surprise that these same people who sell products under the brand names they have copied from other countries talk at conferences and seminars on business ethics.

So big multinational companies who want to come to Nepal and launch their potential brands but cannot do so as these brands are already registered here are in a dilemma. Then, they try to buy out the local trademark but are quoted high prices for their own brands. And of course, due to the clout of the people who own these local versions of brands, they can make the government process difficult, adding to the expenses to obtain something that you rightfully own.

Nepali Perception

When we talk about brands in Nepal, it is limited to the ‘name’ itself and not a brand experience. You must have heard many stories of how people serve low quality local whisky in a bottle of Red Label or how spurious cosmetics are packaged as a well-known brand or how you would buy a shoe just because it says ‘Nike’. The brand is not just about the name; it is about the experience once gets out of interacting with the brand.

We, however, do not seem to be bothered about the brand experience and are just keen on the name. Therefore, there is not much brand consciousness here. We believe that just because an educational institution has the name of a global leader in education, that institution must be great. Similarly, just because the packaging on a bottle of oil has the same label as that of a popular Indian brand, we simply accept it as good. We are not looking at the brand experience we get—it is not about the label—which is about how you like the product or the service. Many people get duped by relying on the name and unfortunately, there is no recourse for the customer. As another friend told me, because of our perception of brands, words like ‘communism’, ‘Marx’ and ‘Lenin’ sell well in Nepal; it does not matter what is packaged behind these words.

What is the Experience?

Globally, as we see more homogeneity in products and services due to the leveling of the field through technology and innovation, the brand experience, delivered especially through the personality of the brand, is gaining recognition. Today, when you fly on aircraft that are similar, they might have comparable interior designs and the food may be produced from the same catering company too. But what distinguish the brands are the people who deliver the brand. Similarly, in the case of banking, cheque books are printed at the same places and everyone is using the same platform of debit cards and software. But what differentiate them from others are the services they provide.

The shift has to be a move away from just the name to a brand experience. While we need stringent laws on intellectual property, it is also important for people to start asking some key questions. What does that product or services mean to me? Will I buy or use it if it has a different packaging? What and how is the brand name assuring quality or service? There are many questions we can ask. If we start asking those questions, perhaps we will not be fooled by names that have just been picked from somewhere and used as a tool to con people. It is time to use different lenses to look at brands.

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