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Pulling Rank

Numero Uno? No. 2's better

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First is over-rated. It is the underdog who has nothing to lose, and everything to win.

Being No. 1 is highly overrated. Too much is made of the first, or No. 1, of anything: the first achievement, the first anniversary (which, of course, is also an achievement of sorts). Everyone knows the No. 1s, the firsts. The first person to run the mile in under four minutes. The first man on the moon. The first full length feature film made in India. The answers, respectively, are, of course, Roger Bannister, Neil Armstrong and Raja Harishchandra. Sure. But who was the second man to run the mile in under four minutes ? The second man on the moon? The second movie made in India?

Few hands will go up to answer those questions. A great pity. For the truth is that the first of anything, the Numero Uno, is only too often a flash-in-the-pan. Not even a nineday wonder but, sometimes, a ninehour wonder. No. 1 knows that No. 2 is close on its heels, hell-bent on overtaking it.

In a race, the runner in the first position, afraid that any moment the runner just behind will overtake him, carries the load of his fear. He keeps fighting the urge to turn around and see just how far behind - how close behind! - the other guy is. The fear of losing saps his strength and stamina. No. 2, on the contrary, has no such problems. He's got nothing to lose, and everything to win. All he has to do is get past the person in front of him. All his energies are focused forwards, not backwards. Instead of fear and anxiety weighing him down, hope lends wings to his feet.

In the field of marketing, the most famous case underlining the importance of being No. 2 was that of the US car rental agency, Avis, which for long had played second fiddle to its larger competitor, Hertz. Having done a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat), Avis launched an advertising campaign that turned a perceived negative - its No. 2 position - into an assertive positive: We're No. 2 - that's why we try harder.

The ads turned Avis's Weakness into a Strength, its Threat (from Hertz) into an Opportunity. The message was that the market leader, Hertz, being No. 1, had become complacent and lazy in providing customer satisfaction. While Avis, the underdog at No. 2 position, was eager to go that extra mile to win over new customers with the promise of better service. So, did Avis overnight overtake Hertz? No, it didn't. But it showed the dynamics that give a competitive edge to No. 2 vis-a-vis No. 1.

Perhaps the biggest and most widespread example of this is contained in the great Indian diaspora, the global spread of people of Indian origin. By and large, wherever Indians have gone, they have - willingly or otherwise - adopted the Avis motto: We're No. 2 - so we try harder. Knowing that they are second-class citizens in their adoptive countries, Indians have, in many if not most cases, worked harder, studied harder and scrimped and saved harder than their indigenous counterparts. The result has been that in many parts of the world - most notably in the US and the UK - in terms of economic clout Indians have outstripped not just other ethnic minorities but also a sizeable segment of the local populace. The Indian diaspora is perhaps the world's greatest tribute to the importance of being No. 2.

In any democracy, the crucial role of the No. 2 is played by the Opposition. It is the Opposition - the No. 2 - that keeps the government of the day on its toes with the threat of replacing it in the next elections. In a volatile democracy like India's, where the anti-incumbency factor is increasingly in evidence, the No. 2, the Opposition, is in fact at times even more powerful than the No. 1, or the government in office, in that it can stymie any move that the current regime might wish to make. Think UPA-II and the BJP (not to mention the Left, and sundry regional parties) on any issue from FDI in retail to concessions on Kashmir. Ask the PM. He'll probably be the first to tell you just how overrated being No. 1 is.

So, even as I wish Crest a very happy first anniversary, I'm already looking forward to the second. There is going to be Anniversary No. 2, isn't there?

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