Anand Mahindra: Twitter most poorly understood new tech

Mahindra is now a $15.4 billion multinational group with more than 144,000 employees in over 100 countries across the globe, with operations that span 18 key industries that include aerospace, aftermarket, agribusiness, automotive , components, construction equipment, consulting services, defense, energy, farm equipment, finance and insurance, industrial equipment, information technology, leisure and hospitality, logistics, real estate, retail, and two-wheelers.

The sheer breadth of product categories, the geographic spread of their varied businesses and the diversity of their employees and consumers make brand-building a mammoth challenge. Overlay this with the fact that, when Mahindra forays abroad, they carry with them the advantages and disadvantages of Brand India.

How does Anand Mahindra, vice chairman and managing director, Mahindra & Mahindra see brand India? How does he go about building a global brand? How does he keep in touch with the varied events and developments without being intrusive? Why does he spend so much time and energy on twitter?

In an exclusive interview, Firstpost spoke to Anand Mahindra to seek answers to these questions.

You can watch the entire conversation in the video above.


On the complexities of having a mother brand and sub-brands

"People are missing the real trend out there. The trend is, after a good five-six years of a huge erosion of trust in the corporate sector, the consumer is beginning to look for companies that he or she can connect with. They want reassurance. They want assurance not just of quality. Is this company trustworthy? Is this company somebody that's going to partner me for the future? Can they actually be somebody I can use to individualise myself? Everybody wants to buy bespoke things. They want to customise. They don't want the customisation done by some entity that they don't believe in, don't identify with. Therefore, no matter how many things you go into, if there is one brand that signifies that we are people who understand, that we are people who will not rip you off, that we are people who put quality first, that we are people who put consumer-centricity first, the world is going to recognise that there is a place for such brands."

On the challenges of building a global brand

As companies do try and build a consumer brand abroad, they almost have a cap on the brands which is like the sovereign rating of the country they come from. You are, in a sense, defined to some extent, by your place of origin. But I don't think that (the) defining is something that is necessary to build your brand, but it certainly can limit it upto a point. It can impede your brand, depending on the area you're in.

If you're going abroad to sell bidis and exotic tobacco, the sovereign rating of India is not a limitation. But clearly, if you're talking about quality or aesthetics, no matter how much I might argue with you that Indians understand quality and aesthetics, when people land in India they don't see it. The image is one of a place that is not hygienic, of a place that is dirty, of a place that has an awful urban landscape.

There is a limitation (for India) here. We try to work within the brand and leverage it and turn it to our advantage - do a little bit of judo, if you will (In judo you use your opponent's weight to your advantage).

For the area of vehicles that we're in, rugged, reliable, durable, utility vehicles, you can actually turn your place of origin into an advantage. You can say, "Well, if they can drive in the Indian landscape, where infrastructure is, if anything, non-existent, then you can drive in this thing anywhere." So, it adds to the image of ruggedness.

Selling a premium product clearly is a challenge, but selling a product that gives value for money becomes easy. With all this popularisation around the world of jugaad and frugal engineering, the Indian brand new lends itself to people who are saying, "I'm going to give you more for less."

These are just two examples. One is atmospherics, one is a kind of feature or performance-based attribute. But we are trying to work within the Indian brand and then, hopefully, the Indian brand will also evolve and we'll evolve with it.

On the state of Brand India

India is like a staircase. There are always some risers and then a little step there that you have to negotiate where things seem to plateau... at times the step suddenly seems to vanish and you go down again. But we always move in a way where you go to a higher level. We are never a 'linear' kind of escalator that's constantly moving up. We are a staircase. Sometimes the risers are longer than one would want or higher than one would want and sometimes the plateaus are too flat, but we always get to a different level.

Maybe, the more appropriate metaphor is one of rock-climbing, where you put your piton in (and) you may be stuck for a while due to inclement weather, but you never really go back down to the place that you started from. India is like that.

Starting almost from ground zero of brand perception, the first meaningful change - meaningful, positive change - in brand India came after the IT boom. Here were these people who were a bunch of very bright geeks, who succeeded despite their environment, despite the government, because they flew under the radar. So smart people who were able to cope and use their native intelligence to provide solutions for your toughest IT problems and created a global business out of it despite the government's inertia and hostility - that we were smart people became a very core element of the Indian brand, which, no matter what the Indian economy does, cannot be taken away.

One element was that we are smart, then came the element of, "hey, this could be a China." So we suddenly got the feeling of being winners - not winners now, but eventual winners. Everybody wanted to get on the bandwagon - this is one train you can't miss - that was the perception. Hey, they've finally got their act together - India's going to be the next China, India's going to be a powerhouse for growth - that became a part of the (India) brand.

What's happened in the last 12 months is that that halo has gone. I don't think that halo is something that goes irrevocably; it just needs the economy to ratchet up. But I believe that India's brand therefore is moving up, and, despite the current gloom, it's a step. I think the riser will come again.

On how Rise was born

Scott (Goodson, of StrawberryFrog), ironically was recruited by our distributor in the US, one we, in fact, subsequently entered into, unfortunately, a legal wrangle with.

Scott came down to India to understand the company for whom he was going to do ads in trade journals - that in itself was funny, but Scott insisted on coming here. He went around the company and his last meeting was with me. I said (to myself) let me meet the guy, and ask him how does he intend to sell our trucks in the US.

He (Scott) said that he had had a fascinating time. "I don't think you know the kind of company you have or understand what a great strength it has or how unique it is." Then we went into an elaborate discussion. Essentially, his point was that everybody, no matter in which area they were in, never spoke about their objectives in very left-brain, practical terms. He said, "For example, if I talk to the tractor guy, he wasn't telling me we wanted to become the largest tractor manufacturer in the world, he said we wanted to create India's next green revolution, the world's next food revolution."

He said, "If you just multiply that example 'n' number of times..."

He said that everybody here (at Mahindra) was trying to drive positive change in what they do. (Mind you, this was before the melt-down. This was before Tahrir Square. This was before Occupy Wall Street).

He just said, "I believe in movement marketing. Movements are not created by companies - they exist. It's up to companies to get identified and then to lead them from the front." He then said, "I sense a movement, where people want companies with trust. There is a trust deficit with companies." That phrase, as you know, got popularised a few years ago, but he (Scott) identified this in 2007.

Slowly, by water torture (almost), he kept after us and said what you need to do is to work on grabbing this and creating this new movement and be seen globally as leaders in this kind of movement. Finally, his persistence coincided with our need to redefine our core purpose. For many years, we had a tagline, "Indians are second to none." That was a horribly limiting phrase when you suddenly become a multi-national, when you have 4,000 Korean members and associates in your family, and Chinese, and so on and so forth. Why on earth would they be motivated to come to work to prove "Indians are second to none"? A lot of our global recruits here were beginning to feel uneasy about it - and we had outgrown it.

A lot of people said that this was almost apologetic, as if we had to prove something. We don't need a chip on our shoulder any more.

We had entered into a long exercise to find a new core purpose and he (Scott) and his presence and his message seemed to fit. Then, we got working with him. There was a core team that got into trying to define this core purpose. And core purpose, although it has to come from inside, has to be given expression. It does require words that are very inspiring. That's why it was not just an average advertising agency's slogan job, but it was somebody who worked with us, in a jugalbandhi, almost. As we were evolving our feelings, he kept giving articulation to them. That's how it came about. I credit him and his team for coming up with the whole concept of Rise. We had a number of other ways in which we could articulate this DNA of M&M, but when this came, suddenly, everybody said, "that's it."

On whether Rise has succeeded

If you talk to our brand counsel, we do have hard measurements (on the success of Rise) which can be all kinds of metrics; recall, awareness, surveys, number of hits on sites, and so on. Those are not important; they are important. It forces us to not fool ourselves and look at the real value. On the other hand, we know very well that the prime benefit, which always was the first objective that we had, was that internally we were getting a lot of convergence. Was everybody aligned? Of course not; that we be an impossible situation to imagine. Are more and more people getting aligned? Yes, and that's heartening.

A very interesting thing occurred from an anecdotal point of view. The acquisition of Satyam came along somewhere in the middle of this (Rise) process. We were just launching it around that time - and guess who came out and said, "we are the embodiment of this movement"? The people at Satyam. They said, "You don't have to explain this to us. If there's anybody who understands what it's like to be down, and understands the importance of rising, and being like Phoenix, it's us. As Satyam turned around, and Mahindra Satyam turned around, it (Rise) became an incredibly powerful force (for) integration.

Otherwise, you could have 'n' number of questions from analysts such as "what is your integration methodology and process?" Ultimately, integration of a people business like IT is about hearts and minds. How do win hearts and minds? By saying you are coming to a culture which will inspire you, a culture which will be aspirational, a culture which will tell you, "that's me", or "this is who I am" or "who I want to be".

Has it been valuable to have Rise? When you consider Satyam was our largest expenditure, when you consider the IT sector comprises more than half the population of Mahindra (which is 144,000)? Was it valuable? My God, it's laughable for me to even answer that question.

On the benefits gained by being on twitter

I think it's the most poorly understood new technology in the world as far as CEOs are concerned. Somewhere in their minds, most CEOs think this is some social kind of thing, this is networking, this is a fad.

To summarise, when people ask me, "why are you on this (twitter)", I say, "It helps build my company and the brand. How does it help you build the brand? You can use it as a broadcast channel and it is enormously useful as the numbers multiply. Say, if you have half a million followers, there are very few English language newspapers that can boast that kind of circulation. So, there is a broadcast value to get your message out.

But you learn very early on twitter that you will have no one following you if it is a one-way channel and it's purely broadcasting and only brand-building. Followers will ALLOW you to get your message out, they will PERMIT you to broadcast your messages, they will PERMIT you to build your corporate brand and identity PROVIDED you are of interest to them. They don't follow you simply because they like your brand. They follow you if you say things that are of value to them, if you share something of yourself with them, because curiosity and voyeurism is part of everybody. We all would love to know what Michael Jackson was thinking or what Bill Gates is thinking or Madonna is thinking. If they don't share their thinking, I don't think anyone would be interested - the real live following wont be there.

So there is a sacrifice. You have to be intrinsically social to some extent. You have to intrinsically trust your own ability to communicate without any paranoia about liability of doing so. If you're constantly worried about who you are, if you don't have a strong sense of who you are, and, therefore the confidence to put yourself out there, then you're never going to put out anything of value to people (followers).

It's a wonderful quid pro quo. You give, you share, of your knowledge, of your travels, of your learnings, say things that might be useful to people, then they will allow you to also tell them about your company.

Should CEOs do it (be on twitter)? Yes. Twitter, in terms of communication, is outstanding. Forget the brand value. What I find equally valuable is the network of information. If you're running a group like mine, and if you have a federation, and if you have 144,000 and you have operations in almost every continent, how on earth do you build an information system and a knowledge network without being intrusive? You can have a monstrous IT system that is like Big Brother watching everybody, or people coming in with mandated reports and MIS, which becomes very oppressive for a lot of people.

The number of occasions on which I have come to know first about an or event or some development in my company, before our people simply because I have people out there who tell me before even my own internal system can get to know. (For example) We had a fire in Nashik and I was in Boston. I was the first to know, because somebody was cycling beside the plant at some early hour of the morning (and noticed the fire and tweeted about it). My people were quite bemused, because they thought I was in Boston and I got to know before them that there was a fire in Nashik.

Look at the power of this (twitter). I suddenly have half a million people out there, from different parts of the world, telling me what's going on. I've got people telling me what's happening with a tractor dealer in Texas. If somebody out there in Peru (for example), if one of our dealers does something that's not in keeping with our values or with our customer-centricity, I will find out before my international managers. I get pictures (followers). Yesterday, I got (a tweet) saying, "I was passing through Sao Paulo and just saw a Mahindra showroom in the middle of the city." I didn't even know we had a showroom in the middle of the city.

I've had people complaining to me about bad service or people giving me good news or saying good things about what's happening.

Look at the network - the knowledge network. I could not have designed this if you had let me - and it would have cost a billion dollars. You're asking me, should a CEO use this? I'm getting that's worth a billion dollars (and it may still not have been possible) for free.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 09:12 AM

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