Ramanujam Sridhar

Leaders as brands

Updated on: Apr 20, 2011
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Sticking to what they believe in despite everything — that is what makes a good leader.

When we talk about a leader as a brand, the only Indian example that used to come readily to mind was that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He was an undisputed, undeniable brand in every sense of the term. This is not to undervalue the contribution of other political leaders like the simple but effective Lal Bahadur Shastri or the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru, both of whom had their followers. Suddenly the Indian leadership stakes have a new entrant in Anna Hazare. What a leader! If someone can actually move our government and even the normally sluggish Manmohan Singh to action, he deserves nothing but the highest praise and the eligibility to enter the top brand management stakes. I shall carefully desist from breaking into eulogistic rapture about his actual achievements and attempt to stay with the leadership brand, its characteristics and the learnings therefrom for young aspirants. What can we learn from the Annas of the world about leadership and branding?

Leaders stand for something

What sets apart truly visionary leaders is that their point of view does not change with the view. They adhere to and are passionate about the causes they espouse. Gandhi was the greatest exponent of non-violence while Hazare is certain that the country and its people should not put up with corruption of any sort. Leaders too are instantly recognisable by their appearance. What comes to mind when I say “Winston Churchill”? Most certainly it would be his obdurate expression of defiance in the face of adversity and his trademark bowler hat. What comes to mind when I say Gandhi? It would have to be his beatific toothless smile, the loin cloth and his stick and his absolute determination to ensure that the British left the shores of this country.

It is also pertinent to remember that while leaders might have several achievements, they are revered and recalled for one singular achievement that usually outshines the others. The same principle extends to the corporate world as well. While the late management guru C. K. Prahalad had multiple achievements, he is perhaps most respectfully remembered for his ‘fortune at the bottom of the pyramid'. Thomas Friedman is remembered for his ‘flat world'. I am sure Anna will be remembered for his fasting strategy which has often been abused by lesser mortals.

Leadership is about results

In all the hype and glamour that leaders often inspire, it is possible to lose sight of the basics. Leaders are revered for their results. The same applies to the corporate world. The truly great long-term corporate leaders such as Steve Jobs and Jack Welch are characterised by their ability to inspire results in good years and bad. As Jack Welch used to say, anyone can make money in the long run or in the short run, but it took real ability to make money in both.

Leaders inspire followers

How can you call someone a leader if he has no followers? Perhaps the greatest achievement of our latest leader Anna has been his capability to inspire millions of Indians who have been galvanised into action. For a lot of time now, people have been frustrated and even angry at all that is happening around them and yet barring a few angry posts on the Internet or jokes in cocktail circuits, nothing tangible had emerged. Thanks to the power of the Net and media that realised the value of this movement, the movement became a tide.

For me, the most satisfying part is that the senior citizen was able to get so many youngsters to take to the streets of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai to join the protests. It augurs well for the future of the nation that youngsters are not as apathetic as some in my generation have been and I make no apology for myself. I am sure, too, that the actions of this leader will have long-term implications for the actions of every single Indian in future. For it takes two to tango. It is equally important that the bribe-giver too desists.

May Anna's tribe prosper and may his detractors get to face Lasith Malinga's shoe-crushing yorkers without pads on!

New heroes, new strategies

The IPL is on and I have mixed feelings about it. Let me say upfront that I had actually advocated that it made better sense for advertisers to look at the IPL instead of the World Cup. That was, of course, based on my own pessimism about India's chances. Having dared to hope and having my hopes dashed for a small matter of 28 years I had been understandably cautious as I had seen ratings drop directly with India's exit in earlier World Cups and most definitely the last one. Well, I was wrong and India had a dream run and outplayed every other team that it came into contact with and humbled every team and emerged triumphant victors to the absolute delight of the nation and the sponsors who, I am certain, despite early jitters, must be laughing all the way to the bank. But this has, I am sure, thrown a spanner into the IPL sponsors' plans. After the dream run and India's triumph will people watch club cricket, particularly with so much churn in the teams? Thankfully the first game between the Chennai Super Kings and the Knight Riders had fantastic viewership and Shahrukh Khan was seen dancing to Tamil songs at Chennai's M. A. Chidambaram stadium. But some of the other games have been fairly ordinary and one wonders if the cricket is overkill. The World Cup winners seem to be tired and going through the motions, though, thankfully, some Indian youngsters are seizing their chances.

What must sponsors, advertisers do?

Perhaps the greatest downside to the World Cup win could be the fact that some of the stars such as Dhoni, Sachin and Yuvraj, to name a few, would cost even more, leaving sponsors and celebrity-hunters searching for options. The options, as always, will not come through the tried and tested. If it is an obvious strategy, you can be sure that your competitor will come up with a similar strategy. In the world of celebrities, brands such as Timex had looked at Brett Lee in the past with success. When Virendra Sehawag burst on the cricket scene, he did look a lot like Tendulkar thanks to his height but cost a fraction of the little master. The joke was that he was Sachin Tendulkar at 90 per cent discount! Other companies such as Britannia went the mini-celebrity route and signed on cricketers such as Robin Singh, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Sadagopan Ramesh in the hope that if these cricketers came good, the biscuit brand would strike gold.

The challenge

The challenge almost always is that companies never have the money to pursue their plans. They must look for options. The problem in India too is the country is one-dimensional in its following of the game of cricket. No other passion exists. So brands realise the value of the game as a unifier and often a leveller. Sadly, they do not seem to have resources. And yet they need to take on the brands that sign on a Dhoni or a Yuvaraj. So what do they do? An interesting example is the case of Indigo Nation, a brand that signed on Manish Pandey. Manish is one of India's young brigade, who must fancy his chances of playing for India once the giants of Indian cricket decide to call it a day. While one has no real idea of what the young cricketer charges, one can safely assume that it will be a fraction of what his more expensive team mates would cost. He is young and is representative of what Indigo Nation's customer would aspire to be. An interesting move which might result in windfalls for the sponsors if the young batsman hits his stride in the IPL and thereafter.

How to be different?

The biggest challenge brands face is how to stand out from their competition. Most brands are similar in offerings to their competition.

This is particularly true of apparel brands. What sets them apart is their imagery. People buy fashion brands for what it does to them and celebrities bring awareness and recognition. If brands can constantly look for ways by which they can heighten the association and engagement of consumers with their brands and their celebrities, I am sure they will succeed.

Here is hoping that the IPL succeeds, at least for the sake of its sponsors and the team owners, some of whom seem to be saddled with white elephants.

Published on November 17, 2011

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