Tuesday, November 19, 2019


Businesses made, or marred, by customer satisfaction, or lack thereof
Thursday, 21 December, 2017, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Paritosh Joshi
The humblest chai tapri vala and the glitziest fine dining restaurant maître d'hôtel both know one thing. That their business succeeds or fails based on a single paramount criterion: a happy or unhappy customer. What is more, the customer is not a one-off arrival on their premises. Loyal customers keep coming back for years, decades even, and spread word about their favourite establishment to dozens of others.

What lies at the heart of a successful customer relationship like this? In a word, trust.

Time after time, the best outlet delivers great food, great service, unexceptionable hygiene and a keen ear for customer feedback. Even the best relationship will have some downs. There will be days when the four pillars do not line up perfectly and the customer sounds off. The host who expresses real remorse and promises to make it up strengthens the bond. The one who pays no heed will soon pay a price in lost reputation and inevitably, lost business.

At the heart of all human relationships resides the social contract. This is not a contract that enumerates terms and conditions or standards of performance. You will never be required to sign it and there is no date of execution, or expiry either. The mere fact of being born human automatically enrolls you and even death does not necessarily terminate it. The social contract was created hundreds of thousand years ago when unconnected groups of proto-humans; hominids, decided to merge into larger bands that offered better safety, more success at hunts and thereby, higher likelihood of survival and reproduction. Today, this contract binds us to our community, neighbourhood, city, country and the human race at large. We learn and practice values like ‘give-and-take,’ ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ or ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is my family).

Entire governance structures, justice systems, police organisations and codified rules and laws exist to manifest and enforce aspects of the unwritten social contract. Many of these, concern themselves with the formation and conduct of business activity. The society appears to have a conflicted view of businesses. They are indispensable to economic activity but cannot be unequivocally trusted to treat their customers fairly. It is as if society has a collective memory of being mistreated or lied to, by business enterprises and seeks some command and control to mitigate the risk of being cheated again.

Businesses in several sectors of the economy took cognisance of fraught relationship and decided to act proactively rather than react endlessly. This proactive action required a comprehensive understanding of the touchpoints and moments of truth where an enterprise interacted with the customer and how it might go wrong. They then set about defining processes to report, examine, adjudicate, redress and remedy these service deficiencies and complaints. Such initiatives came to be categorised under the broad rubric of ‘self-regulation.’

Businesses of every stripe operate in a competitive environment and must canvass their consumers with benefit propositions, quality standards, lifestyle signifiers, price-performance characteristics and the like. While some part of this happens through personal interactions, in-shop promotions and word-of-mouth advocacy, the heavy lifting is often predicated upon mass-media advertising. While advertising is an invaluable source of gaining market advantage for sellers and equally invaluable for buyers in the market for goods and services, it lends itself to all manner of mischief. Just over three decades ago, a group of visionary professionals from the fields of marketing, advertising and the media realised that brand and corporate communication was on the cusp of exponential growth. Exciting as this would be for the marketplace, it would also open a Pandora’s Box of mischief and guile, as unscrupulous individuals and companies played on the consumers’ naïveté. In short order, this enlightened group established a not-for-profit company, the Advertising Standards Council of India (or ASCI as it is better known), and kicked off the era of advertising self-regulation in the country.

The ASCI needed a formalisation of the rules that would govern its self-regulatory practice. Thus was born the Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising, popularly, the ASCI Code, that explicated the principles and detailed the rules that would govern all commercial advertising in India. It is important to specify that the code deals with commercial advertising only. Advertising for political parties and programmes or activities of any government are not covered by the code. It is a measure of the sagacity of the framers of the ASCI Code that it covers nearly every conceivable area where a consumer’s trust might be abused. Given the breadth of the code, it lends itself well to in the food service and hospitality industry too. The Code is divided into four chapters and we will now take a look at what they cover.

1. Truthfulness: Nothing is more important in any communication than absolute adherence to the truth. The ASCI Code requires that any claim or statement made about the features or benefits from a product or service must be verifiably true. Whether the advertisement specifies this or not, the claim must be substantiable. If a consumer raises questions on the veracity of a claim, the ASCI can demand substantiation. In situations where the claim rests on work done by a third-party, ASCI demands that said third-party attest to its findings. This is very relevant in the foods business where many claims are made based on research conducted by academic institutions, independent laboratories, market research organisations and the like.

2. Fairness: To borrow a phrase from the Newbury Rules governing boxing, hitting below the belt is disallowed. While competitive claims are welcome, the basis of comparison cannot be chosen in a manner that bestows as artificial advantage on the advertiser. In the same vein, denigrating a competitor or a category of competition is not permitted. A milk substitute cannot valorise itself at the cost of denigrating natural milk, for instance.

3. Decency: It is unfortunate that advertising imagery or language often descends into the crass, vulgar and indecent. A particularly glaring and commonplace device is the gratuitous objectification of the female form. These portrayals are liable to cause widespread offence and are not permitted.

4. Proscribing harmful or illegal products and depictions: The ASCI Code does not stand above the law of the land but as an additional support to it. Even if an advertisement is truthful, fair and decent, it may be for a product or service that is not legal to advertise in India. This stipulation is particularly relevant to surrogate advertising. A beer might promote an identically (or deceptively similar) branded soda water. The food and hospitality industry often becomes an active or passive collaborator in such efforts. A brand of whisky may promote a tasting event at a particular hotel or restaurant.

Large segments of the F&B and hospitality industries are aware of and scrupulously follow the ASCI Code. This enhances their credibility and prestige. Customers value brands that maintain high standards of ethics and reward them with loyalty and continuity of usage.

Winds of self-regulation are now blowing through various sectors and industries. The time is ripe for the food industry to build consensus on its own self-regulatory body.

ASCI provides a comprehensive and easy e-learning course to understand the Codes of Self-Regulation of advertising content in India.

(The author is independent media advisor and former member, Advertising Standards Council of India.)
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