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BW Businessworld

The Need To Guard Against Hubris

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Two nights ago, I am returning home from Mumbai on India’s favourite airline. It is an evening service departing at 7.30, and I was dreading the idea of consuming that horrendousrange of ‘deadlicacies’ that they refer to as tasty delights. As a practice, my office pre-books a meal for me under what the airline calls the corporate programme. So once we are cruising, the nice ladies usually walk down the aisle checking our boarding passes and offering us a bite and a drink of our choice from the menu. After which they continue to offer food at a price to people who might decide to eat something on the flight itself.

But then the airline figures that they are losing cash sales if they can’t complete all rows in good time. Then someone obviously realises that the pre-bookers have already paid. Why can’t we get them to wait while we finish collecting some cash? So, on Monday evening’s flight, I find that they are offering and selling to non-bookers first. Then they come to us poor sods, who have already paid up. So yes, I landed on time. But tired, hungry and belittled. Not good for business. Unfortunately, the punctuality theme is now so deeply embedded in our system that these infractions tend to miss the eye. I have a sneaky feeling that if Air India had done this, someone might have put it on Facebook and every other form of social media available. However, with an Air India, that would be merely reinforcing what we are prepared to believe about a beleaguered brand.

In the case of the sacred cows, the infallibility rendered by a powerful and pervasive positioning allows ample room for any licence that you then want to take under it. Religions tend to be the worst offenders. Since they are literally holier than thou, even the law doesn’t apply to them (as we have often witnessed). Now it is certainly not my case that there is pre-meditated intent behind each of these infringements. I remember meeting the global commercial director of a leading service business many years ago. I berated him for diluting what was positively one of a handful of truly world class brands that India had created, through a series of inexplicable decisions that belittled its loyal customer base and trivialised a brilliant positioning. His response was pitiable in its helplessness: “My hands are tied, the ‘lala’ has told me to get on the street and sell more somehow.”

Is this true only for some kinds of business? Probably not. Retail and product businesses are as susceptible to this contagion. Starbucks and Dell are good examples of amazingly single-minded propositions which so lost their way that their founders had to step in and reclaim the original notion of what they came to represent to their customers.

As you have probably figured out by now, these are not exceptional examples. Ever so often you run into a business that has contracted hubris. Believing that it has the licence to avail of every opportunity for increasing revenues or saving costs. In the end, the firm bears little resemblance to its original charter.

One of the reasons why companies are exposed to the hubris virus is that there is no active protection from the disease. In real terms, most businesses have neither constitution nor custodian for their charter. An essential combination which ensures that everything the company does is not in contradiction with the painfully built goodwill generated by the brand.

Which is why someone as senior as Mukund Rajan has two interesting mandates. Not only is he the custodian of the Tata brand globally but doubles up as the chief ethics officer. This is no coincidence. The Tata brand is nothing if not the adherence
to its articulated code of conduct. Will this eliminate the risk of brand hubris altogether? Probably not. But you will know certainly of its onset very quickly and contain the risk to the health of the business. I have almost an hour for my next flight. I wonder why they’re announcing the final call? Would you know?

The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory

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