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Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian

Harish Bhat,

Brand Custodian

Tata Sons

Harish Bhat joined the Tata Group in 1987, and over the course of his career has worked in many of the companies that together make up one of India’s largest and most prestigious conglomerates. Today, Tata Sons’ holdings span industries as diverse as steel, tea, jewelry, and business services.

1. Tata Sons encompasses so many different industries, so it feels uniquely pertinent to ask you: what does it take to grow a brand in today’s India?

To grow a brand in modern India, you have to develop a very good understanding of consumers’ needs, deliver products of outstanding quality and value, and then delight consumers at every touchpoint.  Develop-Deliver-Delight: that is the mantra for success with consumers.  And then, most importantly, the brand has to be in harmony with the community.  The Tata brand has grown consistently for 151 years now because it has always kept the community at its core, and it also constantly strives to be relevant to the changing consumer through its pioneering instincts.  In addition, we need to realize that India has many Indias embedded within it, each with its own consumption behaviors – so a deep understanding of these many Indias, their commonalities and differences, is essential to drive sustained growth.  

2. Are there distinct strategies that brands should consider adopting in periods of slower or volatile growth?

Yes, of course.  A brand should always be true to its core promise.  But in periods of volatility or slower growth, it should constantly feel the changing pulse of consumers and change course on its marketing strategy, as required.  Specific strategies will differ between categories, but the focus has to be on identifying pockets of growth, and consistently delivering value to consumers who are doing their best to navigate the volatile environment.  For instance, a strategy of delivering enhanced after-sales service to consumers who are living through stressed economic times helps brings brands closer to their customers, and helps build trust.

3. Could you talk a little about the emerging sectors and trends in India which has caught the group’s eye, and why?

India is a land of immense opportunity, and at the Tata Group, we are blessed to be integral part of this giant, growing economy.  Many sectors of the Indian economy will grow rapidly in the years ahead – this includes the consumer sector, organized retail (including e-commerce), financial services, automobiles, and infrastructure.  Key trends that will drive growth in India include rapid digitization of the economy, the growing desire for health and wellness, and the youthful demographics of India.  

One other emerging trend that has caught our eye is the increased customer preference for “good” brands that have a sense of purpose.  Whether it be Tata Tea’s “Jaago Re” campaign, which aims to promote positive civic action, or Croma’s clarion call for responsible consumption and disposal of electronics through its “e-care” recycling initiative, we find that purpose-led brands help do good to society, and also simultaneously appeal greatly to consumers.    

4. “Disruption” is a key word of the day in business circles. How should more established brands (as opposed to startups) approach this concept?

Established brands should disrupt themselves.  They should constantly seek out new ways of serving consumers, leveraging consumer insight and technology in equal measure.  If you have to disrupt, you have to innovate.  And if established brands have to consistently innovate, they have to develop the agility of start-ups.  That should be the constant effort.    

Also, established brands should shed their fear of failure, and experiment as boldly as start-ups do.  Try fast, fail fast, win fast.  Some of these experiments are the most likely source from where disruptions of the future will spring.

5. Relatedly, in what ways do concepts like stability, fairness, and reliability remain important to brands even in times of disruption?

Consumers choose to buy and use brands that they trust.  If brands have to earn and nurture trust, then values such as stability, fairness, quality, and reliability are absolutely essential.  No matter what the disruption, these are core, old-fashioned values which will always be at the heart of creating beautiful, successful brands.  

Just to illustrate this point, consider the most recent Edelman report titled “In Brands We Trust?”.  This report says that more than 85% of Indian consumers feel it is important for them to trust the brands they deal with. Sadly, only 45% of consumers say that they can indeed trust the brands they buy. This gap is a huge opportunity. However, it is not easy to bridge this gap. Consumers are increasingly demanding in this respect, and brands will have to earn their trust through all the right behaviors and actions, over a sustained period of time.  

6. This is an age of ever-expanding choice – for consumers, for B2B clients, and for brands seeking to make advertising buys. What are some principles that guide how Tata Sons navigates this environment?

The Tata brand believes in staying true to its ideals, which are simple yet powerful.  First and foremost, we put the community at the center of everything we do.  66% of the equity of Tata Sons is owned by the Tata Trusts.  So, quite uniquely, we are a brand that is majority owned by charitable trusts, which have been using their share of profits generated by the brand to contribute to the community for over 125 years now.  Second, we will continue to pioneer businesses that achieve sustained excellence, and strive to deliver superlative value to our customers, whether they be B2B or B2C customers.  These businesses will then make all efforts to stay relevant to the changing needs of consumers.  So, giving back to the community, and being a pioneering enterprise – those are two principles that guide the Tata Group at all times.  

The best sailors have navigated their ships by the light of the North Star.  Fortunately for us, and thanks to our founder Jamsetji Tata, the North Star of the Tata brand is firmly established, and this guides our navigation at all times.

7. A lot of business strategy over the past decades embraced a rural versus urban binary. How important are consumers and businesses in the middle – in Tier II, III, and IV towns – and are some keys to winning there?

Middle India is crucial to growth.  By 2025, this vast country will offer marketers 9 huge metros, 31 rapidly growing cities, 5,000 boom small towns in urban India (with population of 50,000 people to 1 lakh people each) and 50,000 developed rural towns (with population of 10,000 people each).  The key to winning in Middle India is reaching all these boomtowns in a seamless, cost-efficient manner.  Quality and extent of reach will determine the big winners of the next decade.

8. India is a youthful country. From a human capital perspective, how can companies harness the power and curiosity of their youngest employees to stay at the forefront of demographic shifts?

I would make a strong pitch for reverse mentoring to harness the power and curiosity of our young employees.  Every senior executive in India should have a young employee as his or her reverse mentor.  Learn from your young colleagues, all the time.  Understand their capabilities, aspirations, and dreams.  They are at the forefront of so many shifts today.  Organizations should PERM themselves – PERM is my acronym for a Program in Extreme Reverse Mentoring.  And then we should provide our youngest employees an empowering work environment that helps bring out their best.    

9. BrandZ™’s analysis shows that attributes such as trustworthiness, reliability, and corporate responsibility are increasingly linked to brand power. How does Tata Sons approach incorporating these elements into the core of its business?

Businesses of the Tata Group constantly endeavor to stay true to the ideals of the Tata brand – to keep the community at its core, and to pioneer businesses that achieve sustained excellence, and strive to deliver superlative value to our customers.  The principles by which we do business are enshrined in two pillars - the Tata Code of Conduct, and in the Tata Business Excellence Model, which are the business Bibles of our enterprise.  These pillars ensure that we stay true to our core.  

As a result, the Tata brand has earned the trust and affection of all our stakeholders, including our customers.  We are very proud that approximately 650 million people in India, roughly half of the country’s population, use some Tata product or service today.  And Tata brands are market leaders in several categories within the country.  We are grateful to all our consumers for the trust they repose in our brands.  

10. What are the developments and trends that have most surprised you over the past 10 years? How do you see role of brands in consumers’ lives by 2025?

The rapid growth of digitization in virtually every sector of the economy has surprised me.  I did not anticipate or expect this a decade ago.  Digital has transformed the way we think, interact, and act.  

Brands will continue to represent unique indicators of value to customers, in 2025 and beyond.  The sharpest and most successful brands will help solve big problems that consumers face, and will also help people make the most of their lives.  

12. With consumers having omnipresence through multiple touchpoints, how are the group companies gearing to connect with this new consumer?

Companies of the Tata Group are developing their own omnichannel strategies to connect with the new consumer, based on the realities of their respective industries.  Omnipresent consumers are the new truth, and our businesses are incorporating this truth relentlessly across various parts of their value chain.  Whether it be TCS, or Tata Steel, or Tata Motors, or Titan, or Croma, this is manifesting itself in the way we work and deliver value to our consumers.

13. In your experience, what do people get wrong when trying to understand the success of Tata Sons’ brands?

Brands of the Tata group are market leaders in several sectors of the Indian economy – ranging from salt to jewelry to air-conditioners to IT services.  The core building blocks of such success lie in the ability of our companies to deliver outstanding products and services to our consumers, at great value.  Consumers trust Tata, and such trust has to be constantly earned, over many years of consistent behavior.  I think most people who study the Tata brand understand this very well.  

However, not everyone may be familiar with the deep community focus of the Tata group in India, in particular the extensive work being undertaken by the Tata Trusts, and also by several companies.  Anyone who wishes to understand the success of the Tata group should study this aspect deeply enough, to understand why Tata is regarded so positively across the country.