Thursday, October 22, 2009

This is the story of a simple woman, a story of an Indian girl, born into a conservative family in Chennai, who went to the US to pursue higher studies and who while studying also worked as a receptionist from midnight to sunrise to earn money. Finally, after a lot of hardships she passed out from Yale University and got her first call for a job interview. She struggled hard and somehow managed to scrape together $50 to buy herself a western suit. Not having much idea about western wear, she landed up for the interview wearing a trouser that barely reached her ankles. She was rejected. Dejected and disheartened she turned to her professor at Yale for help, support and advice, and she got the simplest, yet best possible advice – “Be Yourself”. She wore a sari for her next interview and got the job. Today, Fortune ranks her as the most powerful woman in US business.

Yes, you guessed it – she is Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo. And the Indiaborn Nooyi has been named as the most powerful woman in the US business for four straight years now. This Queen of the business world, and my personal favourite, has shown the world how if you need to survive you need to change; you need to adapt and reinvent yourself. Today, if she continues to sit pretty at the top spot, it is because she has consistently changed and reinvented herself, in tune with the times. Her secret – “being visible”. According to her, people need to know that their CEO cares about them and has a realistic vision. She feels the need to see and be seen. After becoming CEO, Nooyi’s goal was to visit 80 countries in her first five years as CEO so that she could see and also be seen. This strategy seems to be working for her. It was during her visit to China that she saw the resurgent trend of people eating according to traditional Chinese medicine. She immediately knew she had to find ways to incorporate Chinese medicine into Pepsi- Co’s products. China is such a huge market after all and one could not ignore it at any cost. Clearly, just ‘being there’ can work wonders for you and your organisation and help you choose the right path.

It is a highly wired world that we are living in today. Technology is doing all it can to help you stay connected. Be it SMS or e-mails, or Facebook, or LinkedIn, or the latest craze – Twitter – all these have made ‘staying-in-touch’ easier. Yet, while searching for excellence decades ago, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman discovered a very simple and effective trick that great leaders and companies put into use extensively to manage people and work. They called it MBWA – Management by Wandering Around. The strength of an organisation lies in its informal communications. One needs to know who they work with, what drives them, what their passions are, what are their fears, their dreams – everything. You need to stay “intimately in touch,” says Tom Peters, “if you want to manage well.” E-mails, Twitter and others of their ilk fail here.

In 2004, Peters was asked to give a talk to retailers. He talked to experts, searched the web and prepared a beautiful speech. But it took merely two hours of wandering in and out of shops, for Peters to scrap this speech and write a better one. Those two hours helped him understand the retail environment better. His advice – get out of your cubical. The ability to go out and talk and understand is the most important skill. If you are just relying on e-mail, it’s time you stopped and pondered on the importance of human-touch. Excellent companies are a vast network of informal, open communication, which is only possible when there is an environment of trust. Walk around to build that environment. When people see you, they will know you better and trust you more.

If you need to be visible to be successful, then the same applies to your brand too. You need to make sure your products are ‘visible’. How do you make your brand visible, is the moot question. Branding, after all, is a pivotal task for any company – some work out extensive advertising campaigns, while some use expensive celebrities to attract attention. Some others, however, take a different path.

In 2005, Nestle entered into a partnership with Coca-Cola. According to an agreement, Nestle could sell its Nescafe products through the world’s largest beverage makers’ vending machines and sales outlets. Suddenly Nestlé’s products were more visible and as expected in a few months, Nescafe’s market share, as well as sales revenues, increased drastically. Coca- Cola, on the other hand, used McDonald’s to increase its visibility. If McDonald’s sells Pepsi Cola instead of Coca-Cola, it would not take long for Pepsi to defeat Coke!

Lenovo too knew it had to be ‘visible’ to be seen as a successful company by the world. It went ahead and bought IBM’s PC business in 2005 and changed its image instantly. Now it was perceived as a “global brand” as opposed to a Chinese brand – because it used IBM’s distribution network to make itself visible and hence available world over. When Coca Cola abandoned its Indian operations in the 70’s, Ramesh and Prakash Chauhan decided to fill the void by launching Thums Up, with the punch line ‘Happy days are here again’. People loved it and the company soon set its cash registers ringing.

Ironically, it was the same Thums Up that Coca Cola acquired for a meager $60 million to get a one up on competition. Buying Thums Up also meant buying its distribution network and overnight Coca Cola was visible everywhere in India. Not just this, Coca Cola worked hard on its supply chain to cater to India’s vast rural market. It increased its ‘visibility’ like no other beverage company had done before and the strategy paid off. Today, rural markets account for almost 80% of new Coke drinkers and 30% of its total volumes.

This is a trick that Coke learnt from its senior – Hindustan Lever Limited – which entered India years ago and had mastered the art of being visible. In 2002, Sanjeev Gupta, Coca-Cola’s Deputy President said, “We want to be the Hindustan Lever Limited of the Indian beverage business.” Look carefully and you realise that it’s HUL’s fantastic distribution network that has prevented any competitor from even coming close to this FMCG giant in terms of overall market share. Great distribution means great visibility and great sales.

In fact, it is distribution that helped ITC Foods make its maiden profits this year. From being the tiniest company of the multi million dollar Group that was losing close to Rs.60 crores annually, it has indeed come a long way. With brands like Bingo and Sunfeast in its portfolio, the company’s revenues this year would be Rs.2,200 crores. It has indeed been ITC’s tremendous reach (through its extensive distribution network) that has given ITC Food its competitive advantage. Bingo’s marketing plan included ITC Foods’ distribution of more than 4,00,000 brand display racks at all points of sale. The strategy created such a powerful impact that competitor Frito-Lay also had to come out with their racks.

Yes, advertising gives a brand its visibility. But don’t forget the powerful impact of distribution and partnership strategies too. When Acer entered into a partnership with Ferrari, it started putting Ferrari logos on its laptops. This made Acer laptops standout and increased not just their visibility but also brand value. They began to be perceived as highly as Ferrari cars.

If you want your career to go places – you need to do similar. You need to market yourself. You must be your own best advocate – otherwise your hard work may actually go totally unnoticed. The more visible you are, the more likely you will be remembered – especially during the time of raise or promotion. A recent study found that one of the reasons why women were not occupying more high level positions was they did not understand the art-of-self-promotion. So sit up, and find ways to become visible, to make your brand visible. If you want to win, you need to get out – and get noticed!