Hotline: The Crux of the Brand-Customer Relationship (Part 1)

New York

On a recent US vacation in June, two seemingly unrelated things came together – shopping and a book on strategy. Shopping – a voluntary exchange of money from consumers to buy something of greater value – is everywhere around us. Brands invite us with their products and innovations to transact in a win-win transaction. Shopping is something I see much more closely in the US because we (my wife Bhavana, son Abhishek and I) spend a lot of time in stores looking at all the new things to be bought. A vacation affords plenty of time for this. Shopping by consumers is what drives the global economy. We have needs and wants that companies aim to fulfil in a competitive marketplace.

Most of our time was spent in New York City. It is a city we have grown to like a lot – we are back for our annual vacations there every 2-3 years. The pandemic ensured there was a 4 year gap this time. We typically stay in the same place for 10-12 days – no packing and unpacking for multiple destinations. At best, there are day trips which bring us back to the city by night. My love for New York stems from the year I spent living there when studying at Columbia in my early 20s (1988-89). Even when I was working at White Plains, the city was just an hour away by train. Rarely does a US visit happen without a stopover in New York. (The Air India non-stop from Mumbai to Newark, NJ has made it even easier.)

New York’s grid layout, the subway system, the pace of life, the big city similarity with Mumbai, the diversity of people, the ability to get to places by just walking – there is something magical about the city. There are so many opportunities for everyone to spend money on! For a long time, it has been books for me – Strand and Barnes & Noble, both around Union Square. I still remember my first purchase I did with my first salary after I began working at NYNEX – a Sony shortwave radio to listen to BBC World Service for $230 from a 42nd street store.

New York also solves the Jain food constraint we have. A hotel room with a kitchenette combined with vegetarian Indian restaurants that serve food without onion and garlic are but a few minutes walk away from the midtown hotels we stay at – we rotate between Pongal, Kailash Parbat and Saravana Bhavan. This time, we discovered Ahimsa in Murray Hill. Vatan is usually for business dinners when I am visiting on my own. In the past, we have stayed at the Affinia properties (Dumont and Shelburne). This time, we were at Marriott Residence Inn (39th Street and 6th Avenue), near Bryant Park and close to Times Square. The 34th floor room afforded a wonderful view of the Empire State Building.

And so back to shopping and brands. Our usual places in New York are the stores in midtown (34th Street to 42nd Street), 5th Avenue, Broadway, Union Square and Soho. There is typically a day trip to the outlets in Woodbury Commons, and a visit to the superstores in New Jersey (Walmart, Target and the likes). Most of the world’s biggest brands have a physical presence in New York. Even as some shopping has moved online, the joy of walking around and discovering items cannot be replaced with a distant click.

So it was that I was once again in New York, with family, walking through stores, and wondering about brand-customer relationships.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.