Economic Times / ETRetail
April 13, 2023
There will be blood!
An all-out war has started in India’s FMCG space. At one end are the behemoths – HUL, P&G, Dabur, Marico, Tata Consumer, ITC, and others – and on the other side is the master disruptor, Reliance.
Known to change the market dynamics by venturing into new segments, Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Retail Ventures, a part of Reliance Retail, has now set its eyes on India’s over USD500 billion grocery retail market, as estimated by Euromonitor International. And the company is depending on its distribution channel and kirana partners to conquer this feat.
In the last couple of years, Reliance Retail has been slowly and steadily developing a distributor ecosystem to take on the FMCG giants. However, its strategy is different from the incumbents.
Helmed by Isha Ambani, Reliance Retail has announced its plans to go big on FMCG with the help of local brands and manufacturers. During its AGM last year, the company mentioned that it intends on launching affordable products.
To carve a niche in the sector, it is using four primary moves:
What can we expect from each of these moves taken by Reliance to take over the FMCG market?
Reliance Retail has been a few years behind in entering the retail space. It entered the e-commerce market as well in 2016. But the delayed entry did not stop it from giving a tough competition to its competitors. Reliance is perhaps planning to repeat the success with its delayed foray into FMCG business as well.
Out of the INR50,000 crore grocery retail market of India, more than 75% is still dominated by kirana stores. And Reliance is not just eyeing the 25%, it is working with kiranas, and hence, targeting the whole market and not just the organised sector.
Let’s deep dive.
Reliance’s ‘selling ecosystem’
The grocery retail market of India constitutes nearly 67% of the country’s total retail market, according to Euromonitor International. Within the grocery retail, the channels are further divided by modern and traditional retailers. The former covers hypermarkets, supermarkets, and convenience stores, while the latter consists of kirana stores.
Kirana stores are the lifeline of grocery retail in India — 75% of all grocery sales happen via this channel. A presence across this channel is imperative for any FMCG brand.
The biggest FMCG conglomerates are available pan-India across majority of kirana stores with their cheapest SKUs as well – this could be the smallest SKU, for example sachets for shampoos, or the largest to make it cost efficient and allow consumers to buy in bulk; read products like detergents.
In India, the grocery retailing is always driven by value and availability, and not just cost.
Reliance Retail Ventures started interacting with the kiranas during the pandemic the way no one had done before. The company decided to become distributors. It sold both its own products, and competitive brands.
Distributors form the backbone of FMCG sales in India. While manufacturers sell with no credit timeline to distributors, the latter allows discounts to wholesalers, who then extend a 30-day period of credit line to retailers. Retailers then finally sell the product to consumers.
Reliance is now on its way to becoming one of the most aggressive distributors in the country.
Abhijit Kundu, senior vice-president-research, Antique Stock Broking Ltd, says, “Reliance’s focus on the FMCG industry started with the distribution business. They are essentially creating an entire ecosystem of their own. They are now distributors of their own brands, their acquired brands, and competitor brands, all. And here’s the best part, they are providing one of the deepest discounts to wholesalers as well.”
Almost three years ago Reliance started its distribution business. The company is now developing that and calls it the “selling ecosystem” in its annual report.
According to Reliance Retail’s FY22 annual report, “The company has expanded its physical footprint into tier-II and tier-III markets, bringing the benefits of modern trade to consumers in smaller towns.”
“Extending its reach even further to reach India’s 200 million households, the company is building one of the world’s largest distribution platforms under its ‘new commerce’ initiative by leveraging its extensive supply chain and sourcing capabilities, as well as New Age technologies, to support and enable millions of kirana and merchant partners across the country, assisting them to modernise, provide easy access to a diverse product portfolio, become more efficient and generate revenue,” the report states.
The MCA filing of Reliance Retail Venture’s FY21 report says, “In the lockdown period, Reliance Retail established itself as the ‘preferred’ partner to kiranas by ensuring uninterrupted supply of essential items. JioMart kirana service, now active in 33 cities, launched self-onboarding application, aiding rapid merchant additions.”
Speaking of the developing distribution network of its own by Reliance, Devangshu Dutta, founder, Third Eyesight, says, “Disintermediation, that is removal of middlemen, is a natural outcome of consolidation of the market. However, even in the most developed and some of the most consolidated consumer markets, intermediaries continue to exist because they provide value in terms of aggregation of demand from smaller markets or segments, as well as providing some financial buffer for both buyers and sellers.”
Working with kiranas
What is interesting is how Reliance Retail is engaging with the kirana stores and using their strength to its advantage. The company launched JioMart in December 2019, in phases.
“Reliance is working very smartly as a distributor. Instead of giving deep discounts on all brands, across SKUs, the company is providing deep discounts on the fastest-moving SKUs. Imagine you run a kirana store, technically no one has loyalty only to one distributor or wholesaler. Now, if as a kirana store owner you know you need 10 packets of let’s say Surf Excel, 1 Kg SKU, chances are that kirana will order the same from Reliance, as RRL knows that is the fastest-moving SKU, and hence will give the deepest discount on that. The discounts offered by RRL are almost 15%-20% higher than what any other distributor is providing right now,” says Kundu.
“The same kirana store owner will probably order other things from other distributors, depending on discounts again. What Reliance is doing is focusing on the volume game, and on the fastest-moving SKUs and brands, cause as a distributor they know these will move, no matter what,” he adds.
According to a Kotak Securities report in March 2021, the average number of distributors that a retailer works with is 10-15. And foods, which include staples, dairy, packaged foods, beverages and such contribute 75% of average daily sales.
The same report surveyed at the time of freshly launched JioMart selling ecosystem kirana partners in Mumbai, the count of which was 60, and majority of these kirana store retailers surveyed mentioned that JioMart has lower pricing than other distributors and offers better profit margins. Around 37% respondents also mentioned that Reliance pushed its own private labels while having all brands in stock.
Isha Ambani during the 45th Annual General Meeting of Reliance Industries Ltd mentioned that the company now has a merchant partner base of 20 lakh partners and is adding 150,000 partners every month. The company has five-year plans to cover 7,500 towns and 3 lakh villages.
“JioMart, delivering in over 260 towns, was rated India’s No. 1 trusted brand for online grocery. JioMart works on a hyperlocal delivery model and is India’s largest deployment of omni-channel capabilities,” she said.
“The FMCG and grocery business of Reliance, back in 2021-2022, was nearly INR55,000 crore – INR60,000 crore already. And this was even before the company was involved in brand sales of its own. This was primarily driven by its distributor business,” says Kundu of Antique Stock Broking.
Acquisitions and private labels
Dutta of Third Eyesight says, “Regarding the FMCG and food/beverage brand acquisitions by Reliance Retail, while they are relatively small, they feed into a strategy that side-steps the need to create brands from scratch – both, as private labels for its retail formats and other acquisitions for its broader expansion into other retail channels.”
“Creating new brands takes time and success is not guaranteed, no matter who is behind the brand. Riding on the goodwill and awareness of existing brands provides a shortcut, and further growth can be fuelled by additional resources,” adds Dutta.
Clearly, something Reliance Retail seems to believe as well. Or maybe it just wants to shorten the process of establishing its retail brands’ presence amongst consumers.
One of the biggest acquisitions of the company was Metro Cash & Carry, the German B2B wholesale company. Reliance acquired the latter in a 100% stake sale for INR2,850 crore. This would give a huge leg-up to Reliance’s already burgeoning “selling ecosystem” business.
Speaking about this acquisition Isha Ambani said in the press release, “We believe that Metro India’s healthy assets combined with our deep understanding of Indian merchant / kirana ecosystem will help offer a differentiated value proposition to small businesses in India.”
Metro India, which entered in 2003, was operating 31 stores across 21 cities. The company was servicing nearly 3 million customers via its B2B channel, of whom 1 million (customers) were frequent buyers. As of FY22, Metro Cash & Carry generated revenues worth INR7,000 crore and losses of INR49.7 crore, as reported by Tofler.
In 2021, Reliance Retail also acquired online milk and dairy products delivery platform, Milkbasket. As per its FY22 annual report, the company integrated Milkbasket with JioMart, and there were double the number of subscriptions on the Milkbasket platform. The company seems to have dairy leadership plans as well. Reliance Retail has recently got RS Sodhi, ex-managing director of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), the parent company of Amul, onboard. Sodhi was associated with GCMMF for 40 years, out of which 12 years he held the position of managing director.
Besides, the company is also targeting the FMCG market with the help of private labels and acquiring brands. Over the last few years, Reliance Retail has spent nearly USD1.1 billion on brand acquisitions – this is across grocery and non-grocery segments.
Reliance Retail acquired Chaudhary brothers’-owned Campa Cola for INR22 crore, and relaunched the brand in March 2023. Moreover, the company has also announced its plans to acquire 50% of the 100-year-old Gujarat-based beverage company, Sosyo Hajoori Beverages.
Prior to that, it acquired 51% stake in Lotus Chocolate Company for INR74 crore and plans to take over an additional 26% of the latter eventually.
In the non-grocery FMCG category, the company has acquired lingerie brand Zivame for INR1,200 crore in 2020, 89% stake in Clovia — another more affordable brand compared to Zivame — for INR950 crore, offline lingerie brand Amante (owned by MAS Holdings) for an undisclosed amount, British toy retailer Hamleys for INR620 crore in an all-cash deal, majority stake in online furniture company Urban Ladder for INR182 crore, majority stake in online pharmacy retailer Nedmed for INR620 crore, and 26% stake of task-runner and quick-commerce app Dunzo for INR1,488 crore.
While not fast moving, but consumer goods nonetheless, Reliance Retail acquired couture fashion brands namely, 52% of Ritu Kumar for an undisclosed amount, 51% of Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, 40% of Manish Malhotra’s couture brand, and the company has joint ventures with Anamika Khanna and Rahul Mishra.
In terms of private label, the company recently launched Independence, which will have an array of staples such as edible oil, packaged atta, and packaged pulses, under its umbrella, along with biscuits. Reliance Retail also has private label brands such as Good Life, Snac Tac, Pure It, and Enzo. These brands cut across almost all grocery FMCG categories such as packaged foods inclusive of noodles, home cleaning, beauty and personal care including hand wash brands, dishwash, and floor cleaners.
The company is not limiting itself to only Indian brands – national or regional when it comes to its acquisition strategy. Reliance Retail in February 2023 acquired Sri Lanka-based Maliban biscuits, and plans to bring the brand to India, and clearly will now be targeting the biscuits category as well. Biscuits in India is nearly INR38,000 crore market, with leaders such as Parle Products, Britannia, and ITC.
The bottom line
Reliance Retail is targeting the FMCG market of India from all angles namely retail outlets, national and regional brands, private labels, and distribution.
However, it doesn’t end there. The company is also providing financial services with the help of Jio PoS terminals, which is used by kiranas for both transactions and supply chain management. Jio Financial Services is expected to become the fifth-largest fintech company in the country soon.
The company is not just foraying into the FMCG market, it is on its way to create an entire ecosystem in the FMCG market. While acquiring a consumer is obviously the end goal, it is targeting the spine of the FMCG retail of the country first – the kiranas.
The company has added 2,500 stores in FY22, taking the total count of retail stores to 15,000, covering 42 million square feet. It has also doubled its warehousing fulfilment area to 670 million cubic feet. Warehousing and distribution are at the core of its retail plans, clearly.
“Most retailers in India are small, family-run operations that operate at a subsistence level, and that receive the financial and operational support of the distributors and wholesalers. So, removing intermediaries from the distribution chain in India will take time, unless deep-pocketed players like Reliance decide to explicitly price them out of the market while also providing credit to retailers,” concludes Dutta.
(Published in Economic Times)
A few months ago, when asked to speak about value-addition at a food industry seminar, I decided, in a deviation from the usual discussion, to dissect the meaning of “value”.
Most people in industry focus on only one dimension of value-addition – the economic value added by processing and transforming food raw materials – virtually ignoring two other dimensions which are required for most of the (undernourished) population: calorific value and nutritional value (see “Perishable Value Opportunities”).
At the end of that seminar session, an agriculturist from the audience put forth a very pointed question: “What is the cost of the potatoes in a bag of branded chips that sells for Rs. 10? Or to put it another way, how much of the retail price actually goes back to the potato farmer?”
The question, of course, was completely loaded with angst on the economic imbalance between farm and factory, supplier and buyer, small and big, rural and urban. But it also underlined missed opportunities to capture economic value, which in turn accentuate the imbalances in growth.
Economic value can be added to food through improvement, providing protection, changing the basic product and through marketing. Improvement typically focuses on seeds, growing techniques and post-harvest areas for improved quality of harvests, disease resistance, better colours, size and flavour, possibly nutrition. Protection initiatives work across cultivation, harvest and post-harvest, storage, during processing, through packaging, while change is essentially focused on processing techniques (cooking, combining, breaking down and reconstitution).
There is a lot of work going on in the food supply chain to enhance the value captured closer to the farmgate. And, certainly, the “value-added” earlier is vital to maintaining and building value later in the supply chain.
However, what is striking is the fact that as we move downstream towards final consumption, the economic value captured as a price premium also increases dramatically.
So, as depressing as the multiplier may be to the farmer, on a kilo-for-kilo comparison, the bag of factory-fresh potato chips is priced many times higher than his farm-fresh potatoes. And, the maximum economic value is created, or at least captured, by the act of branding and marketing.
The Love is in the Brand
A short quiz break: can you recall the “most valuable company” in the world in August 2011, as measured by valuation on the stock market?
The answer is Apple. It is a company that physically manufactures nothing, but tightly controls the design, development, sourcing, distribution and, yes, branding of a group of products and services, whose fans seem to grow by the minute.
Of course, one can argue that Apple “produces” by the very act of designing completely new, highly desirable, products that are not available from anyone else, and that this is what provides the premium. But similar premium – which is due to branding and marketing, rather than proprietary products – is also visible in thousands of companies, across product sectors, including food. That sustained price premium is the sign that the consumer trusts and wants a particular brand’s product more than another one. There is a hook, a strong connect, due to which that consumer is willing to lighten her wallet just that much more.
In India, surprisingly, “value-addition” discussions in the food industry focus almost entirely on cultivation, storage and transformation through processing, virtually ignoring branding and marketing. In fact, branding is usually only discussed in the context of multinationals or some of the largest Indian companies. What’s more, most of the brands discussed are focussed largely in the area of processed food products that originated in the west.
Run these tests yourself. When you think of food and beverage branded companies who do you think of? And, when you think of food brands, what kind of products come to mind first?
The answer is that the brand landscape is dominated by products such as biscuits and cookies, jams, fruit and non-fruit beverages, potato chips, 2-minute noodles, confectionary products and food supplements, mostly from the portfolio of some of the largest companies operating in the market.
Of course, there are some alternative examples.
Aashirvaad and Kitchens of India present quintessentially Indian products (albeit from the gigantic stables of ITC which also has a multinational parent).
And, yes, there are cooperatives such as Lijjat, as well as home-grown mid-sized companies such as the Indian snack maker Haldiram’s, spice brands such as MTR and MDH, pickle brands such as “Mother’s Recipe”, rice brands such as Kohinoor and Daawat.
But, given the size of the Indian food market and the width and depth of Indian cuisine, shouldn’t there be more brands that are Indian and focussed on essentially Indian food products?
This is a tremendous opportunity – a gap – not just in the Indian market (among the largest and fastest growing in the world), but also globally.
The Hurdles to Branding
So, why aren’t there more Indian brands?
Let’s face it, for most companies, marketing fulfils one need: to communicate their name to potential customers. Most of them generally hope that if they do it enough, they would actually be able to sell more volume.
Of course, no one has been able to draw a straight line graph that correlates more marketing expense with higher sales.
Those are two self-destructive notions. Obviously, if marketing is an expense, then it must be minimised! And secondly, if it cannot be proven to be effective, why would you spend money doing it? For most people, branding is even fuzzier in that regard, in terms of what it is and what it achieves.
However, the picture changes when you look at marketing as an investment rather than an expense. As we evaluate any investment, there should be an expected return that should be quantifiable. Examples of Apple and other brands make it amply clear that branding and marketing, when done well, can certainly create quantifiable financial returns on the investment.
The second hurdle to branding and marketing is that they require consistency, which is not a strong point for most wannabe brands. They end up with too many messages to the consumer, or the messages keep changing and shifting. The company, the name, end up representing many things, sometimes everything, and eventually nothing.
The third, enormous, hurdle is the time needed to develop a brand with a decent sized marketing footprint and a deep relationship with the consumer. Most small and mid-sized companies, constrained as they are for resources, focus on areas that seem to offer more immediate returns, such as distribution margins or discounts, or even expansion of production capacity. Especially in the early years of the business, the benefits of branding and marketing seem to be too far in the future to be a priority for investment.
Due to these one of these reasons or a combination, many companies are unable to see their brands through to success. In fact, sadly, most companies do not last long enough to become owners of successful brands.
Even those who do achieve success and even market leadership, sometimes choose to cash-out on their success by selling their brands to larger competitors, rather than competing with the financial might of the giants (such as Thums Up being sold to Coca Cola; Kissan, Kwality and Milkfood being sold to Hindustan Unilever).
In the past, one of the other barriers in India was the hugely fragmented retail and distribution system, which essentially sapped energy, resources and focus for any company that wished to grow a brand across regions. In fact, one of the key lessons from the western markets is that the growth of brands has been closely linked to the expansion of retail chains. So, certainly, we should view the growth of modern retail in India as a platform for the emergence of regional, national and global Indian food brands.
However, there is a flip side to this retail growth. In the west, most retailers were focussed on running shops, and were content to leave product development and brand development to their suppliers, the national brands. These retailers began looking at private labels only as an additional source of margin well after they had gained scale, and even then they ventured rather carefully into the space. In India, on the other hand, private label is very high on the priority list of our nascent modern retailers, precisely because the effectiveness of that business model has been proven elsewhere and because there are such few national brands that have a strong, irrevocable connect with the consumer.
Should You Invest in Branding?
The short answer is to that question is: yes.
It doesn’t matter if you run a small company or start-up, or a more mature company. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a consumer product directly, which is the most effective and most necessary playing field for building a brand, or an intermediate product or service where you can still achieve a premium within the trade.
If you are committed to selling only commodities, where your selling prices are determined only by the tug-of-war between supply and demand, government policies and Acts of God, then you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Since you are reading this, you should brand.
In the short to medium term, if you do the job well, your customers will pay you a premium. And in the mid to long term, financial investors looking to ride India’s economic growth are more willing to put their money in a company that has a recognisable hook and a trading premium over its generic competition.
The brand can be built on any platform for which there could be a discernible premium. This can be trust (quality, quantity), simplicity and convenience (prepared snacks and meals, pre-ground spices, flour instead of grain), or even novelty (fizzy coloured sweetened water, reconstituted potato “chips” so uniform in shape and size such that they fit into a cylinder). Organic, vegan, fair-trade – you take your pick of the platform on which to build the brand.
Possibly the strongest driver of premium and brand value is a properly maintained heritage. Some brands have a past, some of them even have a history, but very few have a heritage. If your business has a history, there is a heritage waiting to be discovered, and it is worth a lot.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a brand should become anchored at a certain historical time point and expect to only milk its age. Heritage is always viewed in a cultural context and culture evolves over time, so the most effective brands maintain a link between the attributes of their past to their ever-evolving present.
As with most other things, it is good idea to start early. Take on board the lessons of branding early in the company’s life so that the foundation is strong, and the brand can grow organically. As a side benefit, strongly branded companies also have strong and cohesive organisation cultures, a fantastic defence during times of high employee attrition.
The Global Branding Opportunity for Indian Food Companies
One of the most important ingredients of a good brand is clarity of identity and origin.
Often we confuse identity with the name, the logo, fonts or colours associated with a brand. Yes, a brand’s identity is certainly indicated by these – as much as our name and our physical appearance indicate our identity. However, the identity itself is much larger; in fact, it is helpful to think of the brand’s identity as a personality. The personality gets expressed in many different ways, but is tied together in a definable manner and has some strong traits that define its actions.
There are clear statements that can be associated with effective brands, whether or not they have been expressed by the company or brand in any of its formal communications. For instance, some globally relevant Indian brands include Tata Nano (“frugal engineering”), the Taj Mahal (“timeless beauty”), Goa (“party”), Rajasthan (“royal exotica”), and Kerala (“bliss”).
(I am deliberately picking “global relevance” as a theme to keep in mind that there is, literally, a world of opportunity that we could be looking at.)
We find a high number of tourism-related brands in this list, because these are destinations that pull the customer in – as long as they are true to themselves and relevant to the context of the consumer, they will be successful.
More conventional consumer product brands, on the other hand, must work harder to fit into the consumer own context, especially as they move away from their geographical origin, their home market.
This is particularly true of food, which is widely divergent across geographies. Some products can be adopted into multiple cuisines, offering more easily accessible opportunities and potentially greater scale. Rice and generic spices fit the bill here. However, for most other food items, the context of the home country cuisine is vital. Therefore, the growth of food brands, not surprisingly, is linked to the expansion of cuisines across borders. It is partly driven by the movement of people, and partly by the movement of culture (television and movies being the most important in current times), mostly both together.
For Indian companies, there is certainly an opportunity to ride on the back of the Indian diaspora across the world. And now there is an additional opportunity: expatriates who spend a few years living and working in India can also help to carry the cuisine and its associated brands out.
Finished product brands such as Tasty Bite, Haldiram’s and Amul are good examples of diaspora-led expansion, where the original driver was to bring people of Indian-origin a taste of home. In fact, Amul has recently announced that it wants to set up a manufacturing plant for cheese and other dairy products in the US, to service the Indian-origin population more effectively. Should it be restricted only to that? Certainly not; availability, if supported well by branding, can help it to cross into other segments as well.
As the consumption of Indian food grows across ethnic lines, it is likely to drive the growth of Indian ingredients as well – a perfect vehicle for branded ingredient suppliers. What’s more, Indian recipe books could even specify Amul Cheddar Cheese, MDH Chaat Masala or MTR’s Dosa Mix as ingredients – they wouldn’t achieve a 100% hit rate, but it would certainly be significantly higher than zero!
There is an opportunity to capture economic value that branding offers, which is very often greater than any other process in the food supply chain. Remember two phrases made famous by Hollywood: “show me the money” and “show me some love”. In the business of brands, these are one and the same.
It’s worth asking: do we have the patience to live through the lifecycle of a brand, and can we commit resources to nurturing it? If the answer is “yes” to both, we are most likely to benefit from branding.
Here’s to more Indian food brands that grow within India and across the world.
(If you need support with growing brands, do connect with us.)
Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?
To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)
For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.
The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.
In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.
Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.
Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.
However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.
Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)
And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)
The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.
Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.
A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:
“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”
I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.
Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”
In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”
So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?
[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]
Just after noon, on a weekday, I bumped into a family acquaintance at one of the more successful shopping malls in the city.
The question, “What are you doing here?” was underlined by a mildly accusatory look and the subtext, “Why are you spending a week-day shopping?”
My response that I was “working” wasn’t enough; the further explanation that I was doing “research” received a dismissive smirk and ended the conversation. The fact is that I was repeating the time-honoured ritual of RBWA (research by walking around), with its seemingly aimless strolling, sidelong glances, and possibly turning over a hundred items in a dozen shops without reaching for the wallet even once. This is a ritual that is not taught in our temples of management learning. In fact, it is one of the many tens of methodologies that seem to be missed out during the course of our formal education. And very often, what we do get taught is so remote and opaque to most people that they will promptly forget it the moment they walk out of the examination hall.
I was reminded of this walk-about incident during a conversation with two members of the faculty of a professional institute on the subject of research. Most of their students, I had observed, had a narrow interpretation of research – focussed only on consumers being interrogated through a questionnaire. The students were working from the guidance they had received during the previous semesters at the institute.
Unfortunately, the students are not alone – this is also how too many people identify research, including many executives in decision-making positions. I have been frequently puzzled by the confident (brash?) statement I have heard many times: “We don’t need research.” It is only when I probe further do I, and they, discover that while they perhaps don’t need consumer surveys, there are large gaps in their decision making toolkit which can only be filled by inputs from various other kinds of research.
Sometimes the roots of that statement lie in the perception of research as an impenetrable jungle in which it is easy to get lost but difficult to find something immediately useful. Researchers, like all other vocations, have their own professional shorthand (also known as “jargon”) which they sometimes use to identify their own kind, and perhaps sometimes to exclude people who are not from the trade. Very often this jungle is created by “research-as-a-foreign-language”, which many executives are just too apprehensive or too busy to tackle.
But before you pick up the axe and start cutting away at the creepers of bi-variate analysis, quota samples, correlation and projective techniques, let me give you my very simple definition of research which I like to keep in mind when I am asked the question: “Do we need research?”
To me, research is the discovery and collation of diverse pieces of information from various sources, so that it can be analysed using multiple tools, to discover relationships, patterns and directions that can be used to draw conclusions and take decisions.
There is a purpose for which we would discover or collate that information. There may be a set of questions that we need to answer. We need to understand what are the various places where that information may lie, the different forms it might take or the different ways in which we might need to look at the information before anything useful emerges.
And, in the business context (as in many other situations), research is meant to come up with something that is applicable and directly beneficial to the business. So once we’ve got most of the answers we were looking for, it is certainly useful to stop and apply the newly gained knowledge rather than try to refine and perfect it to the infinite degree.
If this definition of research frames the context well enough for you, then you’re on the way to doing and using research well.
Despite the wealth of information available today, far too many bad business decisions are being made in the absence of good information, either because the executives have not bothered to carry out research, or have not had the capability or the time to question the research which is being presented to them.
Worse – perhaps because of the abundant data and the ease of access to it – today many business decisions that turn bad are taken on the basis of information that is presented by someone else (“secondary research” in research language), without questioning the validity of the conclusions, the structure of the study, the context in which the data was analysed. It’s almost as if we couldn’t be bothered to think, because someone has apparently already done the thinking for us – especially if it comes from a “reputable source”. (Ok, that might be smart sometimes. So let me give you a more graphic analogy – could you think of an adult bird regurgitating pre-digested food to feed the chicks? Hmm, not so pleasant an image after all, is it?)
Also, research (especially the number-oriented kind) seems too dry for most people to take in. And I think that is one place market researchers could do themselves a huge benefit if they could tell the story – especially a story with a moral at the end. That is, create the picture for the user as to what all of that information means in simple language, and also show the user how to use the information in the context of his situation or problem. Bedtime stories during childhood and good movies in adulthood work well because there is a coherent narrative, a start, a middle that is interesting and an ending that stays in the mind. You can see the relationships between the characters, and the consequences of those relationships. A good research project report could be seen as something very similar.
Having said that, of course, there are also some researchers go far beyond, who would never let boring facts get in the way of a good story! Apparently a letter to the editor of the National Observer (London) as far back as 1891 complained: “there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.” (Mark Twain famously paraphrased this in his autobiography as “lies, damned lies and statistics”.)
How many stores can you think of which are located at sites where their chances of success are exactly the same as that of a snowball in hell? How many products or brand launches come to mind, where you wondered, “what is this company thinking?!” Of course, there would have been pre-launch studies which would have showed just how successful these would be, where the stories were possibly based more on imagination than on facts.
For a decision-maker, the only way to tell the difference between bad statistics (lies) and the true story of the market is to make sure that he or she is equipped with multiple sources of information, and various tools with which to analyse them. Also, if you recall my earlier definition of research, the starting point was the definition of the objectives which a research is supposed to fulfil – if the objectives are vague or undefined, so will the research outputs be.
Numbers (quantitative research) and narrative (qualitative research) can tell us many wonderful stories about the market. Some of those stories are highly imaginative “fairy tales” because of a bad study – that shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the others which can direct us to our objectives.
In the last few months, I’ve interacted with retailers and their suppliers from a number of countries in North America, Europe and Asia and, except for a handful, the conversations have not been happy.
In November-December companies in France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom were dealing with a season where there was as much red on the P&L statements as in the Christmas shop windows. In January 2009, the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York had participation that was somewhat thinner than in past years, but the gloom in the atmosphere was thick enough to slow everyone down.
On the other side, the factory of the world, China, had been battered by a Year of the Rat that brought increasing costs, erratic power supplies, slowdown in orders, safety concerns and product recalls. All of this culminated in reports of factory closures and migrant workers at railway stations on their way home for the Chinese New Year holiday carrying not just clothing, but all their possessions including fridges and TVs. The resultant unemployment figures expected currently range from 20 million to 40 million people.
The Indian retail sector, of course, has had its share of pain. In an idle conversation on a sunny December afternoon, a real estate broker in Ludhiana had a pithy description for one of the retail chains: “Unhone apne haath khade kar diye hain. Bakee logon ne abhi tak toh haath neeche rakhe huey hain – unke bhi upar ho jayenge.” (“They have thrown their hands up in despair. The rest still have their “hands down” – but they’ll also give up eventually.”)
On the one hand you have the gloom-seekers. In the eyes of some of these people, the retail boom is over. In the eyes of others, the retail boom was all hype anyway, a big bubble of artificial expectations.
On the other hand, you have other people asking some uncomfortable questions: here’s a country that apparently has the largest population of under-25s, where millions of new jobs have been created and incomes have been growing. How can retail businesses be showing a decline in their top-lines?
I don’t think anyone has all the answers, but I can offer at least one speculation, borrowing from the title of a book that came out some years ago, named “Irrational Exuberance”. Robert Shiller’s first edition was related to the dot-com stock bubble, and his 2005 edition added an analysis on housing bubble that was developing at the time. He had, in turn, borrowed the term from the US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan who in December 1996 had said in a speech: “…how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions…?”
We now seem to be in such an unexpected (but was it really unexpected?) and prolonged contraction. Of course, consumers are feeling more cautious about spending, even if their actual income has not been affected (just as it wasn’t affected when they were feeling suddenly wealthy 12-18 months ago). Obviously, stores that should not have been opened will now get closed, or excessively large stores will be reduced in size. Companies that are over-stretched may collapse completely.
But I would label the mood prevailing now “irrational despair” as far as a consumer market such as India is concerned. From a position of over-optimism, the pendulum seems to be swinging to the other extreme of utmost misery, dejection and complete pessimism, and I think that is a swing too far.
I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the factors that make India a market for sustained consumer growth. The country looks likely to have a large under-25 profile well into the next several decades. These young people will grow older and get into jobs. They will get married and therefore expand the number of consuming households. If the policy-makers don’t really mess up, real incomes should go up. Infrastructure projects should largely remain on track, regardless of the political party or parties in power, facilitating industry, trade and wealth distribution.
So the time is right for business plans that have sound fundamental assumptions – or as the cement ad says: “andar sey solid” (solid from within).
I’d like to repeat issues that I have highlighted earlier as top priority for retailers and consumer products companies in India. These are as follows:
A number of companies worldwide that we know as market leaders and businesses to be emulated found their feet in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That should give some hope to entrepreneurs and professionals.
However, does that mean that only bad companies or unprofessional managements will fail in the current downturn? Certainly not. Does it also mean that all good companies or competent entrepreneurs will succeed? Again, the answer is, no.
Some bad companies will manage to ride through this trough, while some really deserving people will run out of cash, ideas and opportunities. Life and “natural selection” processes are not fair.
But, by and large, if we can get our heads down and focus on getting the right people together, making money to get through and having something left over to invest in the future of the business, we would have more chances of succeeding than by over-stretching, or by swinging to the other extreme and being totally defensive.
I won’t even attempt to predict how long the current downturn will last. The Great Depression lasted a whole decade, was “walled” by the Second World War, and the first blooms of real recovery only appeared in the early-1950s, or about twenty years from the first downturn. Other recessions have been shorter. In 2000, after the dot-com bust car bumper stickers in the US quoted a political satirist, saying, “I want to be irrationally exuberant again.” Within a few short years, many people were showing those very signs.
We can be pretty sure that such a time will come again. But I’m also quite sure that durable companies are unlikely to be built on bursts of such exuberance.