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Times of upheaval create great leaders

By D Rajappa
November 07, 2008 14:42 IST
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Affluenza: A contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste, resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.

An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness, which is an unsustainable addition to economic growth, has taken its toll only on the developed world. It is now spreading to emerging economies as well. India is no an exception.

The current financial crisis has revealed many facets of top financial institutions and business leaders. With growth dreams and hopes having been hit, the emerging economy is at the crossroads today. Organisations are crumbling under the sheer pressure of over-leveraging. They are also reeling under a severe cash crunch, the result of a mercenary approach in choosing shortcuts for short-term gains.

The turmoil and churn in the markets -- and the aspirations and emotions of people -- have always seen the rise of great leaders and legendary marketeers. They are remembered for their focussed approach, their inimitable style of leadership and their pursuit of perfection.

Customers today are a confused and withdrawn lot. They have been bombarded with negative news and pessimism, which they are unable to decode. Uncertainty leads to customers postponing plans; and marketeers are unsure where to put their money in this new era of Affluenza.

This changing environment has implications for organisations -- one of survival and growth -- that present a leadership challenge to CEOs. The CEO focus will shift from managing an operation to leading marketing hands-on by focussing on innovation, brand-building and customer engagement.  Employee performance will be under the scanner, with a demand for greater accountability towards effectiveness and productivity.

Times such as these force one to make difficult choices. When the environment is one of gloom and panic, you could be paralyzed into inaction. You could crib and wait for the sentiment to change by itself over a period of time. You could listen to pontificating soothsayers.

Or you can choose to create the future, with hope, dreams and aspirations. This environment always throws up unique opportunities. It takes a visionary to see and relentlessly pursue them, despite the many odds, and achieve success.

There are many brands that have not only survived but have also grown from strength to strength and others who have created and defined the future with a new category. I would like to showcase four such brands that went on to create value and affluence for customers and for their stakeholders in the last decade.

I have been privileged to work closely on three of these brands for a significant length of time. The brands are Airtel, Maruti, and Parle. I have also studied and watched with admiration the journey of Infosys. These brands exploited the opportunities that were presented to them in a difficult environment and went on to acquire leadership positions within the industry.

While they excel in their products and services, let's look at some of the common values and the secret of continued success for these organisations:

Strong leaders

These winning firms have leaders who believe in their dreams and have single-minded focus. They don't give up even in extreme adversity. They communicate and share their dreams, not only with their immediate employees but also with the other key stakeholders, and mobilise the efforts and energies of their team in that direction.

They have cultivated enduring partnerships and made them an intrinsic part of their success story. They have not only outsourced products and services, but also bought their wholehearted passion and commitment to the success of the venture.

Innovation

They went on to stimulate the market with innovative practices across products and services and managed to institutionalise these as best practices.

Value-creation

They went on to create value for the customer and create wealth for their investors, employees and partners. They believed in the power of the brand. So they invested and leveraged their products through superior and insightful advertising and marketing communications to create a brand preference in a very short span of time.

Airtel created a completely new category and experience for consumers by consistently setting the benchmark for the industry, and assumed a leadership position. They have not only consolidated their position in the mobile service space, but are constantly evaluating avenues for growth in new domains.

Maruti, a monopoly player with over 90 per cent of the market share, withstood the onslaught of competitive brands when the auto industry was liberalised. They leveraged their well-established strength of a nationwide service network.

Maruti also came up with social initiatives by propagating the values of safe driving, road safety, car maintenance and pollution control. They did this through a series of television commercials which were aired in partnership with leading media channels.

This not only helped to communicate that Maruti 'cares' for its customers; it also prompted the government to introduce pollution control norms towards creating a cleaner environment. It took courage for the leadership to invest in a social initiative of this magnitude at a time when others were focussed on information-oriented advertisements to drive sales.

Parle has stood the test of time over the last 60 years and has been a leading player in the highly competitive FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) market. The leadership at Parle has constantly experimented to energise their portfolio with new product launches. They have strengthened their presence in the biscuits, confectionary and snack food categories by capturing the customers' imagination and palate.

Infosys focussed on the international B2B market and the software and IT services domain. They were media shy and possibly the best-kept secret till they were lauded for their achievements in the international market. Recognition followed in India. They not only became leading players in IT services but have also positioned India as a knowledge hub.

These brands and their leaders will continue to inspire many entrepreneurs to create brands that will dominate the next decade by focusing on building a strong and vibrant business model.

Times of upheaval will create new leaders who would sight opportunities and delight customers by delivering greater value. Marketing should play a key role in turbulent times, not only to differentiate and build vibrant brands but also to lift the spirits of the people and build a future on strong fundamentals, with a long-term vision to enjoy affluence and not fall prey to Affluenza.

D Rajappa is president, Everest Brand Solutions Pvt Ltd.

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