Branding/Marketing, Writing

Managing global brands

INDIA has entered a new phase in its engagement with globalisation. We now own not only global businesses but global brands. So far the language of this reverse globalisation process has been couched in terms of having a global ambition and a global mindset. The connection with the outside world has been at a systemic business-to-business level. With the acquisition of the Jaguar & Land Rover brands, we have moved into a discontinuously new era. For now, we must engage with consumers, we must understand cultures and we must anticipate and meet the needs of change in the developed world. We have moved outside the relative safety of the board room and moved into the seething marketplace for ideas. We now have a one-to-one relationship with not just the businesses of the world but with the people of the world.

In some senses, the shoe has slithered across to the other foot. After decades of moaning about how multinationals come to India without adequate understanding of the Indian market and consumer, we are now in the boat hitherto occupied by the developed world. And unlike the multinationals, for whom India was just another country, in this case, in one single action, the world is literally our oyster. Tata will need to understand, in a highly competitive market, the mechanics of each major market as well the subtleties of diverse consumer cultures. And it will then need to use this understanding to direct the fortunes of two brands with a deep history which have been troubled for a while now.

The key to managing global brands will lie in fusing two different kinds of abilities. At one level, is the task of understanding global markets and their mechanisms. In this case, the two brands lie in different segments with their distinctive styling, technological and marketing needs. Fluency in the language of the market is a prerequisite for any manager of a global brand. The developed world has a much more sophisticated vocabulary when it comes to technology, styling and distribution. The Tatas will quickly need to learn the rules of this game which is new to them.

The other ability is perhaps a much more elusive one. It is the softer understanding of brands and people and the connection that must be forged between them. Jaguar is a brand that was strong enough in the consumers’ mind to resist the efforts by Ford to downgrade it; it revealed a stubborn resistance to being tinkered around with and yet in its original formulation finds fewer and fewer takers with every passing year. The key here is to first understand the brand in all its nuance and texture; to map the culture in which it is embedded. Existing brands, especially ones with heritage, have a source code and an implicit structure that guides as well as limits their manoeuvrability. They come to occupy not just spaces in the market but create room for themselves in the culture, making change in their positions difficult.

 For instance, Jaguar is about the world of power laced with grace. It sees speed as the privilege of nobility used to rev up the placidity of blue blood. It evokes the culture around the hunting instinct in British aristocracy, when the scent is high and the pulse quickens and it is time for some game. It is an elegant beast, purring speed and gloving libido. It is not just an expensive luxury car but provider of a very specific kind of luxury, one that is losing relevance today. Similarly the Land Rover represents a very specific kind of culture when it comes to the off-roading experience. The idea of the nobility of exploration, rooted in a time when Englishmen along with their mad dogs drove off to Bora Bora for the purest motive of exploration is again one that needs nuanced understanding.

BUT the real challenge lies elsewhere. Important as it is to grasp the range of meanings that lie embedded in these brands, the real need is to find new connections between these brands and the consumers of today. This requires a deep almost visceral grasp of what are the new configurations of articulated expectations and unarticulated needs of today. And from this understanding to evolve a possible trajectory of change wherein the old set of meanings are recast or reframed in order to create something that is both familiar and new.

If this seems like a complex task, that is because it is. Managing global brands requires us to have a point of view about the world and the people who populate it. It is about creating meaning, for that is what brands do, of a kind that is believable and valuable. At a more functional level, It is about making calls that involve judgement about soft issues — what will work and what will not, where extra investment is warranted and where it is not and what change is good and what must not be changed.

 In a perverse way, the freshness of the Indian perspective could be of some advantage. Take the case of Jaguar and Land Rover; unlike BMW and Ford which viewed the brand with a presumption of knowledge, the Tatas have a greater ability to respectfully understand the power resident in these marque labels as well as see the market with eyes free from the baggage of one’s own past actions. The Indian manager of the global brand has the advantage of having more than a nodding familiarity with the cultures of the developed world without the arrogance of believing that he knows it all.

As Indian businesses acquire global brands, they will find themselves dealing with a completely new set of questions. They will find that the language of business is far more universal than the language each brand speaks. The complexity of running global businesses will truly register itself when one is managing global brands, for then one must account for what consumers across very diverse contexts want from their lives and from the brands being marketed.

And finally, the real opportunity lies in learning how the world works and bringing an original perspective to the table. For it is only then that we truly deserve a place at the table — when we bring something of value to the global party.