Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Ha Ha Designation

In the beginning there were just two breeds of people: the Masters and the Slaves. As life got more complicated, the Master species realised that the only way they could extend their perpetual reign was by doling out designations by the dozen. Thus was born the corporate hierarchy that carved out the Slave species into an illusory pyramid of glorified executives who were essentially suits from outside but serfs from inside.

By labelling even flunkeys as Associate Deputy Assistant Vice Presidents, the Master class somehow cunningly managed to inflate egos and extract better performances. In times of recession, when the top management had only peanuts to offer to the monkeys, this Creative Designations Strategy worked like a charm.

Retrenchment Managers fired away to glory when they were re-designated as Change Magicians. Systems Supervisors were willingly chaining themselves to the computer when handed out the Digital Overlord business card. HR Heads forgot about bonuses when they were called Chief Happiness Officers.

But the bubble burst when a humble receptionist was tagged as  Director of First Impressions. At that tipping point, the Slave class realised that the joke was on them. They retaliated by creating a whole new sub genre of ‘Job Title Humour’ which successfully dismantled the farcical mask of designations.

Let’s explore the ludicrous practice of up-titling (grandiose titles for menial jobs) by applying it to our little world. Imagine re-labelling your cook as Stomach Delighter, would that butter her up or cheese her off? Try Vigil Ninja instead of Watchman. Would your Gurkha take it as a racial slur or a compliment? Would Mobility Director drive your driver mad or make him reach the destination faster?

My wager is that the cup of woes of the chaiwallah will only brim over if he’s called the Refreshments Honcho. Your friendly maid servant is not going to be impressed with Home Beautician. She will still kick up a ruckus and take you to the cleaners if you don’t give her a raise. By rebranding the peon as Micro Operations Manager, your electrician as Power Surgeon or the plumber as Liquidity Supervisor, you’re not giving him a promotion. You’re just calling him names.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Red Indian Brand

The problem with young civilizations is that they have very little history and almost no mythology to play with. So one is forced to spin yarns and invent stereotypes to inject a sense of drama into bedtime stories. The American narrative of the Red Indian as a perpetually buckskin-wearing, feather-bonnet-donning, war-paint-sporting noble savage riding a crazy horse, is a rather one dimensional profile of a proud race. It’s as demeaning as reducing every South Indian to a Mehmoodian caricature.

But the good news is that despite the best efforts of Western Dime Novels and Hollywood B-grade movies to pigeonhole the Native American as the anachronistic wild guy, marketers have managed to create an aspirational halo around him, albeit serendipitously.

Pontiac, the automobile brand from General Motors, was the earliest attempt to make the Red Indian cool. Named after the Michigan city (which in turn was named after the legendary Chief Pontiac who was famously brave), the car with the arrowhead emblem, never tried to underplay its moorings. On the contrary, Pontiac celebrated its valiant heritage with a series of tributes. The launch of the ‘Chieftain’, ‘Aztek’, ‘Montana’, and ‘Star Chief’ models just go to underline the company’s macho credentials.

America’s first motorcycle ‘Indian’ (yeah, the real hero of the movie The World’s Fastest Indian) had as many fan boys in its heydays as Harley Davidson. ‘Indian’ was initially baptised as ‘American Indian’. The dropping of the American prefix made it even more saleable in global markets.

The cutesy kiddie brand ‘OshKosh B’Gosh’ is an indirect nod to the Ojibwe Indian Chief Oshkosh who fought alongside the Americans in the Black Hawk war. Likewise, ‘Sequioa Capital’ – the big daddy of venture capitalists – draws its roots from ‘Sequoyah’, the silversmith who made it possible for the Cherokee tribe to read and write.

Talking of Cherokee, who can forget the iconic Jeep Cherokee? The first ever modern-era SUV that conjures up memories of the finest adjectives. Add Kickapoo (the joy juice born out of a comic strip but owes its name to the wanderers of Oklahoma) and our own TVS Apache (inspired by Arizona’s most fierce tribe) and you’ll realise that the ‘redskin’ is no longer a pejorative.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Know your onions.

In an era when Apple is viewed as a computer, Ginger as a hotel, Onion as a satirical newspaper and Broccoli as a film maker, you do tend to forget your beets, shoots and leaves. In such moments, it’s good to pause and reflect on the salad days of vegetables.

Onions (possibly the oldest recorded vegetable) were treated like gods in Ancient Egypt. Some say they were worshipped because they provided all the energy to the slaves who built the pyramids. The Greeks used onions as a primitive form of steroids for preparing their athletes for the Olympics. In the middle ages, doctors everywhere were prescribing it for relieving coughs, curing headaches, healing snake bites, and solving infertility! The profound coexistence of many layers in one bulbous blob inspired some Romans to coin a Latin word unionem (meaning ‘the one’) which later morphed into the humble Onion.

Likewise, potatoes were the most precious things for the Incas. They fought for it, prayed with it and even buried their dead with it. In 1565, when explorer Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada didn’t find gold, he took the potato in lieu, as he found it as treasure-worthy. If not for Sir Francis Drake’s generous act of planting the wonder tuber in Ireland, the world would never have got to taste the French Fries, the aaloo paratha, the bonda and the samosa. Curiously, the name potato (derived from the Spanish ‘batata’) was originally invented for the sweet potato!

The linguistic origins of some other vegetables are as intriguing. The cabbage draws its roots from the French word ‘caboche’ (meaning head). I suspect a Sanskrit origin as ‘kapishaka’ has identical connotations.

Carrot comes from the Greek ‘karaton’, thanks to its horn-shape. Ginger from Greek ‘gingibris’ which in turn is inspired from the Tamil ‘Inji ver’. Gooseberry from German ‘krausebeere’ or ‘crispy, curly’. Yam from the West African 'nyami' (‘to eat’). Radish from Latin for ‘root’. The big fat pumpkin from the Greek word for ‘cooked by the sun’. And zucchini from Italian for ‘little pumpkin’.

So the next time you say grace before your meal, thank the green gods from all continents.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Animals on Wheels.

There are sound reasons why the alpha man is attracted to a car more than a woman. A car has curves, by design. It’s easier to turn on. It doesn’t mind being horny. You can ride on it for years and it will never get pregnant. And the best part is you can junk it at will without ever having to fork out a hefty alimony.

I, for one, believe that the carmic connection is a natural outcome of the bestial nature of the man and the machine. Which is probably why, automobile marketers have shown a marked preference for naming motorcars after animals.

The Swallow Sidecar Company set the trend by labelling its 2.5-litre steely beast as Jaguar Saloon. The cat fetish found an echo in the sixties when Mercury launched Cougar, Bobcat, Pantera and Lynx in quick succession. Chevrolet kept apace by unleashing the sports car Cheetah. Meanwhile, Buick added one more to the feline stable with Wildcat. Many years later, Ford let loose the Puma on unsuspecting auto enthusiasts. Polish entrepreneur Zbyslaw Szwaj ended the cat lust in 2005 with the Leopard Roadster.

The clowder of cats was evenly matched by the herd of thoroughbreds. Ford Mustang (a nod to the North American wild horse), Ford Bronco (untrained equines), Ford Pinto (patchy skinned white breeds), Dodge Colt (male horse below age four), Subaru Brumby (free roaming Australian horse) and Hyundai Equus (latin for horse) have graced the roads with their horsepower.

Birds have managed equal attention by possessing the exact attributes desired from the car model. Studebaker Sparrow (a sub-compact range), Reliant Robin (small three wheeled wonder), Buick Skylark (initially used for the convertible), Ford Thunderbird (a nod to a mythical bird) and Nissan Bluebird (in blue shades) have taken wings from time to time.

Off and on, snakes have been celebrated (Dodge Viper and Shelby Cobra come to mind). And sometimes, antelopes (Ford Impala is a great example). Fish have caused a splash too (think Corvette Stingray, Plymouth Barracuda and Opel Manta). There’s even been a case of a dinosaur car (Campagna T-Rex). Now you know why they call our cities, concrete jungles!