Marketing lessons from a Vietnamese taxi company called Vinasun

It’s 8:30 pm and starting to rain. The traffic is heavy and I’m on the other side of the road from a row of taxis. The drivers are paying no attention but there’s a girl in a green cap – very familiar by now – who catches my eye. In seconds, a man in a green cap is at my side, a green Vinasun umbrella over my head, a hand on my elbow guiding me through the mad motorcycles. This bit of service above and beyond what I require or expect is one of the reasons why Vinasun was one of two names I was given even before I arrived in Vietnam as the only taxis to take.

The others are that the taxis are well-maintained, the drivers trustworthy, the meters untampered with. And though it’s not always visible to the naked eye, the quality of the driving is actually better than the others. I experienced this first-hand the two times I had to patronise inadvisable taxi companies.

It’s a local company, begun in 2003. Their branding is impeccable, the distribution strategy something a Unilever or P&G would be proud of. But their biggest strength is consistency. It’s worthy of the Taj Group, which even now is my best benchmark for service standards. It doesn’t matter if the Vinasun rank is at the Intercontinental Hotel where a uniformed doorman holds the door open or outside a back-street dive where 57 scooters get in the way as you open the door, the Vinasun experience is the same.

Mai Linh, the other reliable taxi service, is just as good and widely available, but there’s no obvious consistency in their branding or service, so they’re less noticeable. In the service industry, it’s not enough to be good – you have to be seen doing it. Vinasun has that down perfectly.

 I’ve started to notice yellow cars with a Comfort Delgro decal on the doors. In Singapore, Comfort Delgro indicates all the reassurance of your father’s car and driver, but in Vietnam, I will still look for Vinasun. I’ve seen too many service brands travel badly and from my time in India, I know it’s better to choose a good local brand over the untried adaptation of an international one.

It leaves me with the thought I always have in India – all the country needs to transform itself is for the business of state to be run like the good private enterprises. 


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We come not to praise Casa Piccola, but to bury it

For the benefit of non-Bangaloreans: Casa Piccola is a restaurant in Bangalore that recently shut down to widespread sorrow, after decades in business.

Casa was cool in its time. They had foreign food when the earth was still big. They had ambience when we didn’t even know how to pronounce the word, and spelt wiener schnitzel right, though we wouldn’t have known the difference. There, we ordered Hungarian Ghoulash with only the barest idea of Hungary as a real place. We were introduced to different kinds of pasta, though all we’d heard of was macaroni. Casa Piccola had pizza before the chains arrived. It was the only restaurant that also had a lifestyle store attached, long before it became the thing. It was where you went on dates or to hang out with friends whenever you were flush with funds. It was there you celebrated. When new outlets opened in other parts of the city, we rejoiced.

Sadly, the hipness could not move with the times. The privileged percentile of Bangalore that were their customers moved on, the world shrunk and Casa’s value decreased. The thing with places like that is that it belongs to the affluent teenagers and when it doesn’t meet their needs, it disappears. All the kids hanging out in Mocha are the ones who should have been at Casa’s, but it was not their kind of place. Corner House and Lakeview survived, not just because ice cream and dessert have timeless appeal, but also because they did some swift footwork.

Most of the people mourning its passing are the ones who left it behind as they moved on with age and growth – as one would – to Harima, Shiro and Olive Beach. A restaurant cannot survive on affection alone, much less memories. They need long-term strategy. If I were Casa Piccola, I, too, would have chased the freshly arrived IT crowd in the “new” neighbourhoods, and gone to the emerging towns where the kids were just discovering the pleasures of “hanging out”. Those among this crowd that did discover it have consistently liked the place, but the restaurant didn’t make it easier for more and more to find them.

This is what I would have done five years ago:

1. Entered tech park food courts: I know from experience their quality and menu would have stood out. They would have almost effortlessly built the sort of equity they have with their old customers. 

2. Followed Corner House to Whitefield: This was almost a mandatory survival move. If they’d established themselves in Whitefield at the beginning, they would have been the hang-out of choice.

3. Opened branches in Mysore and Hassan: These towns are in the process of becoming Bangalore. They are at exactly the point where they need a Casa Piccola to provide a higher-quality, more cosmopolitan alternative to the Café Coffee Days of the world.

I suppose I would have also asked The Only Place if they would give me some of whatever pixie dust they’ve been using.


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Who recruits the recruiters?

A ridiculous recruitment ad from a company who should know better is seeking someone with “at least 10 years’ demonstrable industry experience in driving strategic online, mobile and social media marketing”. This is outstanding drivel even in an industry that has made an art form of it. 

Know what the mobile and social media universe looked like 10 years ago? Like the Earth before the Big Bang. As for online marketing, a microsite and an email newsletter was still considered pretty cool then. Almost brave, in fact.

Broadband was not easily or widely available until around 2005, nor was Wi-Fi. The smartphone didn’t exist in the avatar we now know. Cameras and colour screens were cutting-edge not standard features. Music phones were just  being born. I should know – I worked on a giant telecom brand in those years. The iPod was still a wonderful new invention from Apple. And here are some other things that the general public couldn’t have even imagined in 2002: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail. Social media. All of it.

Why does the HR industry seem to be unregulated by any form of quality control? For every good HR person, there are a hundred who don’t seem to know what their role is, or care. Companies that have stringent rules in all other areas seem to neglect this department. 

The other thought of course is that nobody can claim to be an expert in social media marketing. Six years is just enough time to understand a new medium and build a reasonable level of skill, not become proficient at it. As always, we confuse the speed at which our computers work with the speed of thought. 

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63rd Republic Day etc

My last two-day train journey was on an Amtrak superliner from Chicago to LA. The only significant differences between that and the Chennai-Dehradun Express were the toilets, and the dining and observation cars. Otherwise, there were only surprising similarities. The old-worldness of railway employees, for example (I wrote then that I’d encountered a service ethic on American trains that was conspicuous by its absence elsewhere in the country). There’s also the fundamental way the railway system works and the esoteric language it works in. The station masters standing on the platforms of small stations with green flags. The fan-shaped signals. And many more, less tangible, entirely ineffable things.

The feeling of similarity may have been enhanced by the scenery outside the window. In the middle of India, just like in the American Mid-west, there were long stretches where the strongest impression was of the colossal size of the country. Acre upon acre of land as far as the eye could see, vast empty skies, rocks bigger than houses, lines of trees that never ended, tunnels and bridges beyond counting, lonely railway crossings in the middle of fields (though never unmanned crossings), lonely houses perched in places you wouldn’t think could be reached without a helicopter. Hours passed by where the only living things you saw were herd upon herd of cattle. Another major difference was that the cattle in Kansas did not generally wander along the tracks, nor were they quite so gaunt.

One thing in which the Indian train trumped the American for me, was being able to stand illegally at the open door. But this was tempered the farther North I travelled by the fact that the same spirit was responsible for the iniquities I saw outside. Travelling through Indian states that I’d never seen before, I didn’t have the luxury of just enjoying the scenery. What I noticed, in spite of not wanting to, was that the fields were small, people and livestock alike looked hungry and tired. There was no energy in the air, resignation was an overwhelming feature of the faces that passed. There’s enough land there to feed a billion people, but the bread bowl only had crumbs in it. Six decades after independence, the largest part of the country, the heart of our so-called agricultural economy, remained painfully poor. On my iPod, the little drummer boy chose that moment to become reconciled to his condition because his God was poor too, having been born in a manger. And I thought some bitter thoughts about religion being used by feudal lords and corrupt politicians to keep people down. (I was listening to carols since it was Christmas week, my playlist always having a seasonal aspect).

My previous train travel in India had essentially been through Tamil Nadu and Kerala, so the sense of deprivation was rather starker than it may have been otherwise. I saw no schools when we passed through towns, no women stood in the railway stations with bags and umbrellas, on their way to white collar jobs. There were very few women in general. It brought to mind that this was a part of the country that mostly mourned when a girl was born, and strengthened the conviction that education was as urgent a requirement as food. Everywhere, large groups of young men sat aimlessly by railway tracks in the middle of a weekday. Others were in the unreserved coach behind my insulated one, carrying dusty bags and seeking employment in the cities, which would probably consist of hauling furniture for people who travelled in air-conditioned sleeper cars. There were several people that leapt dangerously on after the train had pulled out of a station and then got off at random spots when the train stopped for a crossing. You could call them enterprising but they were merely desperate. I watched them walk away down unnamed embankments, onto strange roads, and felt that whatever became of them would be the future of the country, too.

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Perhaps only the reader knows…

One of the many wondrous trends spawned by the outsourcing industry is that of hiring indifferent writers and expecting excellent writing. As I look through the recruitment ads, I see more and more of them rating a mythical quality called “domain expertise” higher than writing skills. What they mean is specialization in something else; not a particular branch of writing but a whole other subject. One ad for a business writer wanted applicants with MBAs or degrees in economics. Why, for God’s sake? Professional writers should be able to take a brief from an expert – in any subject – and write it in the language of whatever human being the expert wants to reach. That’s the whole point of the craft.

Meanwhile, the world is increasingly littered with product literature stuffed full of acronyms, incomprehensible user manuals, crowded newsletters, convoluted training presentations, press releases shrouded in jargon and white papers that read like an engineer’s stream of consciousness.

I met someone at a dinner party recently who does research in DNA nanotechnology. She explained her work in some detail, then looked at me doubtfully and asked me to repeat what she’d said so she’d know whether she was making sense. I paraphrased it back to her and she was terribly impressed. I explained that that was my job and for the first time in our conversation stopped feeling awestruck and small. But here’s the important thing: she wanted to know why I didn’t do “science writing” because “we get people with science degrees doing it and our articles make no sense to anyone outside our little circle”.

You don’t need someone with a science degree to write about science, or an MBA to write about business. You need someone who takes the writing part seriously, who thinks of that as his or her “domain” and keeps the skill sharp, current and flexible. And, not incidentally, this requires versatility, not specialization.

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It’s only words

Proactive is a four-letter word. We learn to pronounce it at the knee of the first creative director, to revere it in the train of the first creative guru. We learn to fear it in the wake of the first pitch, and hate it with a passion for the rest of our days.

Fuck, on the other hand, is a multiple choice question. (Occasionally, this may also be learnt at the knee of the first creative director.)

It is a tirade, an affirmation, a meditation. A calling upon of the Gods, a falling out of friends, a mustering of Samurais. A rant, a rave, a respite. A eulogy, a dismissal, a reservation of judgement. It can contain your anger or loose it, ruin your day or make it. Someone got fired, someone got promoted, someone got passed over yet again. The artwork’s ready against all odds. The layout’s ruined beyond repair. The account manager didn’t make it on time. The motorcycle messenger just made it. The art director’s car got towed, the MD’s got a new car, the media planner got pregnant. Fuck is our reason for being, quite literally. Within its hallowed syllables lies the history of our industry.

Fun is what clients have. Time is what nobody has. Red is the colour that everybody sees, unless it’s read misspelt, in which case it’s something nobody did. Self-respect is the thing that’s hanging outside the window to dry for seed.

“Why me?” is something you must never ask. It’s always you.

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There’s something about Ginseng

As with most people who go there, my first two years in Dubai were spent in giddy and relentlessly sociable excesses. Of all the binge temples that we favoured with our dubious custom, the one I think of most warmly is Ginseng.

I’ve never had a bad time there – whether casual evenings with close friends, unwieldy nights with too many friends of friends, misguided bonding events with colleagues or my best friend’s hen night, with all its potential for emotional disasters. I should try a New Year’s Eve there to see if the magic is strong enough to neutralise that minefield. The Irish Village has not done too badly in that respect, unlike Jimmy Dix or Double Decker – to name but two – that always turned out to be not such a good idea, any night of the year.

So many places came and went, some changed identities so fast, so many times, it made one’s head spin. Remarkably, in a city that changed almost hourly, Ginseng remained the same.

I made one last visit shortly before I left. It was nearly three years after the last one, since we moved on to the new and the trendy with everyone else. But I instantly felt myself regress, in the nicest way. The dumplings were as I remembered, the Caipirinha, divinely unchanged. Being older, more decrepit and marginally wiser, I didn’t attempt to mix it with shots of the Moon Goddess, but I’m sure that was still on the menu, ready to beguile newcomers into making inadvisable phone calls.

Boudoir taught us why free champagne was free. Zinc taught us how not to dance. Le Plage gave us important life lessons about absinthe. El Malecon made us respect the insidious Marguerita. Serai introduced us to the wondrous world of Arabic clubbing. But Ginseng forged friendships. These were the relationships that not only survived but strengthened through the disruptions of age, shifting priorities and job crises. This is a rare and wonderful thing in a transient gold-mining town.

And though we now savour red wine at the right temperature and prefer to team it with paté rather than spring rolls, the Moon Goddess still glows within us, not very far beneath the surface – yes, the relationships built there continue to flourish, even when we’re all in different countries.

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