Case Study: Branded For Life
“Leadership is about taking extreme ownership. It means you alone are responsible for all mishaps. You cannot pass the blame” — Parag Kar VP, Government Affairs, India and South Asia at Qualcomm
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Ananya Rajan adjusted the passenger seat in the front for Shyamak Dalal, her friend in marketing, who she was offering a lift home. Ananya was an internal auditor at Kayplas India, manufacturers of engine oil and other solvents, and had joined the company fresh after her graduation as a chartered accountant. She would then train for a year before being absorbed in a division.
Presently she pulled up at a petrol station for fuel and oil. Except, the brand of oil she asked for was not her company's brand.
Shyamak, looked at her quizzically. “I would have thought as an employee you would use K-Oil!”
Ananya grinned as she signed the charge slip, and said, “I work at Kayplas to earn money and learn what I should not do in the course of growing an organisation. These include distrust in dishonest brands, such as Kayplas products.”
Shyamak: I do not know if we have a corporate policy that commands employees to use company brands only...
Ananya: Of course, we have such a rule, I have worked on developing that policy manual! Besides, Kayplas is just the kind of company that will demand that kind of subservience, nay, servility!
Shyamak: Is there a story? You do not like our brands, you do not think they are good, you like another brand... which one?
Ananya: All of them. ‘Like’ comes after trust. I do not trust Kayplas brands.
Shyamak: Oh! What makes you say so?
Ananya: The culture of the people nurturing the brand Kayplas.
Shyamak: Ok, I want to know. I won't betray you.
Ananya: Oh, no! I don’t swear you to secrecy. If I tell you something, you are free to go tell the world.
Ananya peered over the steering to avoid one more pot hole, then said, “JD used to be my boss before he moved to marketing. In fact, his move to marketing was thanks to me.”
Shyamak was taken aback. He saw she was cursing as she hit another pot hole. “We needed a finance guy in marketing to manage commercial…” he began.
Ananya: Rubbish. That is the corporate line. JD was my boss in internal audit for three months when I was working on financial planning. Every morning, he would call me at 9 and ask me to report what I have planned for the day. And when I would reach his room, he would speak a very potent pornographic word and ask me if I knew the meaning.
Shyamak shuddered, acutely disturbed, and looked out of his window as Ananya kept driving at a steady pace. “At first, I was taken aback but did not know what to say or even do,” she continued. “I was just 4-5 months old in the organisation. And JD was 55, senior... was revered in the organisation. Will people even believe a 26-year-old? Nope. I went to Freida Mistry, silver haired and experienced... and asked her what I should do. She was shocked. She told me to stay in touch while she would manage it. Two days later, corporate communications was ‘happy to announce’ that JD was moving to marketing. Will I trust brands that a man like him influences? No. What is the culture he will bring to the brands? Why, what is the overall culture an organisation speaks of when it engages with, why, even protects, a man of poor moral character? Can such a man be trusted with a nation? A company? A family?
Silence fell upon them as they drove through the nasty evening traffic.
Shyamak: I am sorry.... but why didn’t you resign?
Ananya: Why should I? It’s a job, not a marriage. Dealing with perverted humans is also a part of learning. You have no idea how much I have learnt in the three months since this happened. Someday I will make a great CEO. Not pride, but confidence in my learning. (Pausing…) Shyamak, I am 26, eight months in the organisation. What do I say why I left? You know….. (she struggled for words) I do not believe in running from the battlefield or making it easy for the aggressor. I fight, I trouble, I hit back. I haunt JD everyday. I am a vicious person. Our dad brought us up to fence viciously. I will learn what I need, here, and as I watch JD I know what companies do to destroy brands.
Shyamak: Which is?
Ananya: They throw a cover on such men and their conduct in the false belief that they are saving the brand. They think the brand worker is different from the brand. They do not think that a worker needs to be aligned with the brand. That is the sense I got from the organisation Kayplas. They decided to cover JD and his perversion. And they have allowed him to infect the brand. (Long pause….) I can’t trust K-Oil, anymore
Shyamak: I don’t think you can blame the brand for the sins of its workers...
Ananya: Do we not blame parentage for the conduct of children? Likewise, I blame the organisation for a culture it perpetrates.
Shyamak: What culture? Kayplas does not even know how JD wronged you!
Ananya: No? Freida Mistry? I thought she would tell CEO Desai and have JD removed. But the organisation I understand ‘reveres the many years that JD gave the organisation’ ...that he has just three years to retirement and this can nullify his superannuation! And in the same breath they said to Freida, ‘We feel there was a misunderstanding owing to the nubile age of the so-called victim.’ And sent me a message to ‘concentrate on my work’, whatever that means.
Shyamak was sick by now. He could not understand any of this. Just between Worli and Dadar, his world had changed. He did not think Ananya was lying, but he did wonder aloud if by superimposing the acts of JD onto the brand she was mercilessly penalising the brand.
Ananya: I am not penalising the brand. The brand has not hurt me. But now the brand is afflicted, infected. It is being managed by people who are infected.
Shyamak: It’s a nice metaphor, Ananya. But brands don’t work like that.
Ananya: No? When the workers at United Airlines attacked a passenger, why did the stocks of the airline crash by $1 billion? Do you think those United workers who attacked passenger Dao on the flight, while the brand was being delivered, thought they were the brand? What power operating through them empowered them to cherry pick Dao for humiliation and battery? There is a brand culture of delivering a brand, a corporate culture of arrogance, and a racial assumption of superiority that unleashed the beast.
Shyamak, as workers, do we at times forget that we are not the brand, that we owe the brand a certain deference, a respect, or do we get so arrogant that we mistake ourselves for the brand?
If the brand was able to act on its own, would it endorse what the brand workers did in the name of the brand ‘United’? Would the brand United hurt a passenger?
Shyamak (thinking…): If we had been on that plane before the event, we would think we are seeing the brand playing out, delivering itself. In marketing, we say that a service brand is but the manifestation of behaviour of people who deliver it. In other words, a service brand is experienced during its delivery. That assumes brand workers who are aligned with the brand. Hence a service brand is equal to employee understanding of the values plus engagement with the company. That is how service brands are live, real time brands. What we then saw on that video was the result of a brand manager CEO, who did not understand the brand, was perhaps not engaged with his role as custodian of the brand and so empowered a wanton delivery of the brand.
Ananya: So see, the brand was not wanton, the brand owner was. Because the brand owner was wanton, he superimposed his wanton irresponsibility onto the brand. And hence United Airlines came to be seen as ‘not nice’. I agree — can’t blame a brand for the sick head that leads the place; but culture defines a brand (like parents and home define a child), leadership defines brands, quality of work defines the brand and its outcome; and if as an employee, you know they are getting away without being restricted or restrained, I won’t trust the brand or its future either! Again, if as an insider you can see the values of the brand architects, will you trust the research or the perhaps compromised product? Er.. no! Since I am so put off emotionally, I cannot imagine why I would buy this brand or work enthusiastically to improve it.
And there is enough to show that the airline brand has an unhealthy leadership. While anyone else would have hung his head in shame, the CEO has said he is not going to resign over what he did to Dao in the brand’s name. And more mouth-foot-putting happened when he said his company ‘will no longer use law enforcement officers to remove passengers’. It gets bizarre, messed up. Gosh, I see so many parallels between parenting and brand management. I do think they should change it to ‘brand upbringing’. It is when you use a term like ‘management’ that manager-arrogance takes over. Since when did brands use law enforcement officers to ‘remove passengers’?
If United used law enforcement officers in the brand’s name to protect profits, Kayplas used its officers to enforce a self-made law that would protect them. So you see, both brand heads protect brand offenders.
Shyamak thought about it. He had seen brands skid in the past, and he had seen brands change personality. Oftentimes the change was inaudible, invisible. There would be a slow assertion of superiority that would be forced upon the consumer who believed the changing brand story. Like refined oils that told you PUFA saved you from heart attack. Or beverages that sold you ‘freshness of litchi’ as a drink which was essentially 80 per cent diluted apple concentrate.
After years of being permitted to speak an incorrect script, they became brazen. And even then, it was not perceived as brazenness but marketing energy. And what sustained them was lack of customer noise and a quasi monopoly in the industry that allowed them to exploit and abuse.
Shyamak was beginning to see Ananya’s point. He said now, “This may not have been their first bad behaviour. You see the duality in the United CEO’s conflicting messages, internally praising his team and externally apologising to the media. In this age of social media, you cannot get away being two-faced — Internet keeps you honest.
Ananya: Wow... I did not know he was congratulating his team!
Shyamak read out from his phone to Ananya: “‘I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond’, — A defiant United Airlines CEO pens ‘tone deaf’ e-mail defending staff !”
Ananya: Gosh! This is exactly my Kayplas situation. So, you see, a brand is experienced exactly how the leader shapes it. Just like Desai who subtly defends JD’s actions through his protection of his employment and refusal to take action. Instead of rapping JD on the knuckles, our CEO has promoted him! United’s Munoz did exactly that! By commending the staff, he has shifted the action of attack on to them and the aviation security, while washing his hands off as a leader.
Shyamak mused, brand management starts with the CEO, not in the brand manager’s office.
Ananya: How can a CEO lead a double life? What is the value of leadership? Is it a job, where you collect your paycheck and run off to play golf, or is it a life you choose to live? Parag Kar of Qualcomm says leadership is about taking extreme ownership. I loved that. That’s leadership. Yeah sure, I will send it to you.
Shyamak thought about Kar’s impressive definition. In his own case, he could never think of his brands without thinking about the people who owned it before him. In fact, the brand’s vision started with the work that went into it before him, through his predecessors.
Ananya’s situation at Kayplas reminded him of Uber’s PR disaster when an ex-employee blogged about sexual harassment. Unlike Ananya, who chose to fight alone and differently, Uber’s Fowler took the company to the cleaners with her blog, which damaged the brand more than the PR company must have done to build it, he thought.
When he mentioned this, Ananya said, “PR is needed by companies who do not know their brand. They skid, then cry out to PR to clean up. Fowler did what she did because of Uber’s refusal to address it, even going to the extent of saying they can, at best, warn the senior manager who harassed her but nothing more. Sounds like Desai’s close cousin. How do people get paid for delivering a lemon?”
Shyamak: But you have not given HR a chance.
Ananya: Uber’s Fowler did; Geffel Bank’s Kalpana Dixit did; in the case of a kindergarten kid raped by her school men, the principal ran away to hide. Did HR need an invitation to step in? The trouble, Shyamak, is that the law is a man, as my friend says.
Shyamak: You are very angry and caustic. But be fair.
Ananya: Fair? Shyamak, it is about culture and culture begins at the top. Read Uber’s credo. It is entirely about business; not about people, ethics or fairness to customers. It is stunning in its antiseptic business expression.
Shyamak googled it. The credo was a mere description of the company’s business. To connect riders and drivers and business... “Wow… there is no fragrance of culture, of beliefs, about ethical values...,” he said.
Ananya: I feel a credo, a mission statement and such like should communicate to every stakeholder what that company stands for..... Everyone should take away the same message. Kayplas’s credo talks about ecology, about business, macro... again nothing to do with people. I read it for the policy manual. Not a word about our people philosophy! If your mission statement does not include people, why do a policy manual?
Growing into the culture argument, Shyamak agreed with Ananya when he said, “I wonder if a non-communicative credo also points to an organisation that deliberately does not wish to dialogue with employees or vendors in a crisis.”
Ananya: Wow. You are right! When Freida showed shock, I felt she will follow with action. But she only gave me a pat on my back and said, “Honey, I retire this month-end mercifully”.
Shyamak: So, we can say, a company that does not communicate does not have anything to say for its mission or its vision. It is not a deep-thinking company.
silence fell upon them again.
Ananya: The workers at United, do you really think they acted for the brand or arising out of some inner racially divisive hatred?
Shyamak: A brand has no feelings.
Only humans have. Feelings are attributed to the brand. Often people act out of a misplaced sense of doership. I don’t think the airline understood that invoking the fine print clauses and physically assaulting a passenger would be picked up by social media.
Ananya: I knowww! But that is how it went viral.
Shyamak: So, why did you not go to the press or blog your story?
Ananya: For what? Once you know your adversary, your tools should be planned. I am not anymore insecure or offended by JD’s sexual overtures. Those days of shock are gone. Nowadays it is everywhere. You know it is a sickness. I am offended by Kayplas’s indifference. Today, the power to keep a brand up there has shifted to the consumer and the social media simply because, it has been seen that how the brand owner presents the brand to the market, is not how he makes it work for the consumer. The brand owner has been known to lie through his teeth.
Shyamak who was beginning to feel deep empathy for Ananya’s situation, punctuated her monologue with more observations about the airline.
Ananya: So, the people who dragged the passenger out were not crew? They were subcontracted thugs? Even so, who eyeballed passenger Dao as the chosen target for eviction?
And instantly she slapped the steering wheel. “Ah! I see! Dao was chosen I daresay…! I too am a minority in this organisation. JD knew he was in the majority and would be protected. Like those airline thugs knew they would be protected…
Shyamak: Thugs indeed — the company invoked a fine print that enabled them to overbook flights and throw out extra passengers.
Ananya: The culture stinks, Shyamak. Look at the business practices: overbooking to protect revenue, is akin to ‘dumping’ — an audit red herring — booking invoices to look good. An unethical practice. Why has it not been deemed a restrictive trade practice? I will tell you: Because they all stand to gain…
Ananya's anger was over how brands either guard their culture or attract the wrong people if there isn’t one. Imagine a brand with no purpose or values, thought Shyamak, no guiding beliefs or principles. A company that exists for no other purpose than to sell products. Did brand Kayplas, like Uber and United, devalue its stakeholders?
As brands become established, they are at risk of becoming overly focused on growth or profits like Kayplas and United. Growth was good, but can it substitute for purpose? Customers need to know that what is important to them, is also important to the brand. Ananya was right, he thought; culture is what takes your brand from claiming authenticity, to actually being authentic. What Kar said about extreme ownership. Or as Jon Wolske, Culture Evangelist at Zappos Insights, had said, “Why would you work so hard to put out one brand image to the world if you aren't able to really live it?"
And here was Kayplas writing credos that had nothing to do with how they did business. Culture works for a brand when all stakeholders know its values. Organisations, he said to Ananya, needed to find ways to remind its employees that culture supersedes profit.
Ananya: Unless you change the people and your toxic systems and clearly state your vision, someone who is an idiot will replace the current idiot, all else being the same. Put culture in place — then you won’t need PR managers. No image can be ‘managed’. What you are is what you are. Period!
To be continued...
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