"The experience that our stakeholders have in other geographies would vary depending on our footprint"

Interview with Mukund Rajan, brand custodian, group spokesperson and chief ethics officer of Tata Group

Dr Mukund Rajan serves as a member of the group executive council at Tata Sons, and is the Tata brand custodian and group spokesperson. Additionally, he serves as chief ethics officer of the group and oversees all corporate social responsibility activities as chairman of the Tata Global Sustainability Council.

Previous roles at Tata include serving in the office of the chairman in 1996, as managing director of Tata Teleservices from 2008 and as head of private equity advisory and managing partner of the advisory team of the Tata Opportunities Fund in 2010.

Image: Dilip Thakkar

You are the brand custodian, spokesperson and chief ethics officer of Tata. What are the practical implications of combining these functions under one responsibility?

Over the last two years, I have had the privilege of playing the role of brand custodian that brings together the brand, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethics functions at the group centre, three fundamental pillars on which the Tata brand equity has been built over the last 140 years. These three pillars are central to the belief reflected in the statement attributed to our founder, Jamsetji Tata, that “In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business but in fact the very purpose of its existence.” This belief forms the basis for our group’s mission: “To improve the quality of life of the communities we serve globally, through long-term stakeholder value creation based on leadership with trust”. Within the values-driven organisation that Tatas represent, I see a complete alignment between my various responsibilities, and the mandate to protect and enhance the Tata brand.

How is the Tata brand upheld across the group’s many and diverse operations?

The Tata brand and the group composite mark represent the commitment of all Tata companies to adhere to shared values and to live up to the high expectations of our stakeholders. This requires all our companies to maintain high standards of quality and reliability in their products and services, and discharge their responsibilities to their stakeholders through the highest standards of ethical conduct. Tata Sons owns the Tata brand. The principal levers through which it encourages Tata companies to play their role in protecting and enhancing the Tata brand equity is by promoting their adoption of the Tata Business Excellence Model and by monitoring their compliance with the Tata Code of Conduct. The Tata Business Excellence Model, in operation now for 20 years, focusses on process and business excellence across all areas of operation of a company, by benchmarking these with global best practices. The Tata Code of Conduct, which dates back to 1998, provides the ethical guidance to all Tata companies and employees so that they uphold the group’s values. The Code is embraced and cascaded through a combination of the tone at the top, the active network of ethics counsellors across the group, significant investments in training and communication at all levels on the importance of values, and the celebration of inspiring stories that reflect the group’s proud legacy.

Europe is a major market for Tata, with companies including brands such as Jaguar and Land Rover in the UK and Tata Hispano in Spain. How does this impact your communications?

With our rapid growth in India and overseas, we now need to ensure that across all our markets, all our stakeholders, including our own employees, understand who we are and what we stand for. This requires an enormous investment in communication, through owned, earned, paid and shared media, and the establishment of systems and processes that bring our stakeholders closer together, united in their trust of Brand Tata.

Are there difficulties in balancing Tata’s identity as an Indian entity and an international enterprise?

We are India’s strongest corporate brand and the only Indian brand in the global list of Top 50 brands. Today, almost two-thirds of our group’s revenue comes from overseas markets. Therefore, it is imperative that our brand identity is established firmly in these markets. Our global brand campaign, the first of its kind in the group’s history, aims to achieve this through a focus on the following brand messaging corridors: Tata is global, Tata is trustworthy, Tata is a good corporate citizen. We expect our group companies to reinforce these messages, with the proof points each of them possess. So far as Tata is global, it hardly matters that its origins lie in India, so long as there is a shared commitment to values amongst Tata companies, and a sense of higher purpose that Tata employees share.

How does Tata use communications to set itself apart from international producers competing in the same market place?

The Tata Brand carries a brand promise of Leadership with Trust. It embodies the group‘s values of integrity, excellence, understanding, unity and responsibility. As long as we communicate these universal values consistently and credibly across the world, our brand promise will be accepted and believed. Increasingly, across markets, marketing is no longer about what you buy, but what you buy into. If businesses are willing to clarify the higher purpose they serve, customers are also willing to reward them with both mind-share and share of wallet. Some of the brand campaigns from our group companies over the past year, reflect this belief. These campaigns focus on themes of nation-building, social inclusion, women’s empowerment and doing good – all of which link back to our global brand messaging corridors – being global, being trustworthy and being a good corporate citizen – and the group’s strong commitment to giving back to the society.

Is there a difference in tone between your national communications and international market communications?

The three brand messaging corridors we have identified for our global brand campaign reflect the views of our leadership, combined with our ethos of giving back to society. While these elements remain fundamentally unchanged across markets, there would be a difference in our approach for each geography. Our current position as India’s strongest corporate brand is a result of our rich history in this market, where all relevant stakeholder audiences have experienced our brand. However, the experience that our stakeholders have in other geographies would vary depending on our footprint. Our focus in these markets, therefore, is to remain locally relevant, address issues that matter to local communities and continue to give back to them in meaningful ways. In summary, while the core messages of our communication would remain the same across markets, the approach to communicate these messages would be different depending upon our history and current footprint in each individual geography.   

In 2014, Tata was lead sponsor of the UK’s Hay book festival. Is this an example of Tata’s positioning itself as an international thought leader? Why is this important for the organisation?

We believe that as a leading corporate, we ought to facilitate or support platforms which bring forward new ideas. These platforms help in shaping the context in which society, communities and businesses can integrate. As a corporate, we also constructively participate in such initiatives by involving Tata leaders, who are experts in various fields and can share their expertise with a wider audience using these platforms.

According to the Tata website “Good corporate citizenship is part of the Tata group’s DNA”. What allows the corporation to make this claim?

Tata group’s mission is improving the quality of life of the communities we serve globally, through long-term stakeholder value creation based on leadership with trust. As I mentioned earlier, this re-articulates the beliefs of our founder Jamsetji Tata. He ensured that working conditions in his enterprises were congenial and introduced facilities unheard of in his time, such as crèches for working mothers in his textile plants in the 1880s. He left half his fortune for the creation of what eventually became the Indian Institute of Science. Jamsetji’s sons, Dorab and Ratan, built on his legacy of giving back to society. They shared his empathy and care for employees, introducing labour practices at companies like Tata Steel that were far ahead of what legislation required them to do: the eight-hour working day, leave with pay, provident fund, maternity leave – all were introduced at Tata Steel decades ahead of legislation on these subjects. Dorab and Ratan left their personal fortune and holdings in Tata to charities named after them. Today, 66 per cent of the equity of Tata Sons, the promoter holding company, is held by these charities. All dividends received by them are re-invested towards philanthropy, thereby returning wealth to society. Tata companies also play their role in supporting the communities they serve, through a variety of programmes ranging from promoting literacy and providing healthcare to offering free agricultural inputs to rural farmers. Over 55,000 Tata colleagues and their families have signed up for the group’s volunteering initiative, Tata Engage. Between the Tata charities and the Tata companies, we spend roughly 200 million dollars every year on CSR activities.

Given its own history and circumstances, is there a uniquely ‘Indian’ take on corporate social responsibility?

Today, despite over two decades of economic reform, and a decade plus of fairly rapid economic growth, a significant proportion of India’s population continues to live in abject poverty. There is visible economic inequality, with even basic resources sometimes unavailable to the population at the bottom of the pyramid. At the same time, India’s population has also become younger, possessing acute awareness of various social and political issues, and with aspirations of rapid economic growth and full employment. The inability to appropriately skill the over 130 million young people who will be joining the workforce in India over the next 10 years would result in many social and political problems; which is why skills development has been taken up as a major Tata initiative. Whereas a number of public services, such as education and healthcare, are often completely funded by the state in developed countries, in India corporates are expected to play a big role in providing these. The level of private sector involvement is only expected to increase with the recent Indian legislation, possibly a first for any country in the world, which mandates every corporate that meets a certain size and scale test to spend two per cent of its net profit on CSR. Finally, I believe many in India would be influenced by the values our various religions and cultures have often stressed upon – particularly charity, generosity, austerity and detachment from material wealth.

Finally, to what extent did your degree from Oxford in international relations influenced your career and current role?

As part of the multi-national student community at Oxford, my exposure to global socio-political trends and cultural diversity helped me build a holistic perspective on many issues. It also meant a shift from the analytical and technical world of engineering in my undergraduate degree in India to social sciences at Oxford, which laid emphasis on writing, debating and the power of ideas. The quest for new ideas is at once fascinating and liberating, opening one’s mind to newer horizons and perspectives, and I dare say this has been very helpful in allowing me to take on many new roles in my career thus far.