The chief group communications officer, Mahindra & Mahindra on global communications, elevating PR to the board level, and what it's like to work in the world's largest media market.
The Mahindra Group works in a huge variety of areas, from aerospace to financial services, real estate to farm equipment. In addition to this, it operates in over 100 countries. What are the challenges of communicating across such a wide range of specialties and locations?
Communications today requires a certain level of global cultural, political and social awareness. Of course a majority of your communications is still going to be designed with the local community in mind. However this does not mean that we can’t show an acceptable level of awareness and sensitivity to global issues. The trick then is to have a strong master brand communications plan where all your businesses, across borders and geographies, communicate one overarching brand message in conjunction with individual product marketing. Furthermore, the advent of social media has truly transferred power to the people. Now anyone with an internet connection has the potential to influence your brand. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for public relations professionals.
In what sense was the global rebranding exercise Mahindra Rise an attempt to bring cohesion to the Group’s communications?
Over the past few years there has been a sharp erosion in customer trust in the corporate world. In general, customers have been yearning for a different mind-set among companies, one that demands a greater sense of responsibility toward society and the environment. We saw customers gravitating toward organisations and brands that reflected this growing aspiration for social awareness and change. Through our new brand position Rise, we urged people to unify around shared ideas and values. Rise unleashed a hidden energy within the organisation, galvanising our diverse and global employee base behind the ideas of ‘accepting no limits’, ‘alternative thinking’ and ‘driving positive change’. This in turn enabled us to effectively communicate our brand pillars with one voice across geographies and industries.
With Mahindra’s global reach, is it a challenge to craft a brand message that is at once authentic to its Indian roots but which can also speak to markets around the world with very different cultures?
I believe the idea of Rise is universal. Implicit in the Rise message is the belief that anything is possible, that we can achieve whatever we set our minds to. Our Millions Against Malaria awareness campaign is a great example of the universality of the ‘Rise’ message. In 2012, GippsAero, a Mahindra aerospace company and the Australian aircraft manufacturer of the GA8 Airvan, sponsored the flight of two veteran pilots around the world to raise awareness about malaria, a preventable disease that affects millions of people worldwide. The truly global campaign took the Airvan and its crew to four continents, 16 countries and over 28,000 nautical miles! At its centre was the idea of Rise, pushing everyone to accept no limits in finding a solution for this curable disease.
India evokes vivid images in people’s imaginations. Is working from a context of such a strong national brand a help or hindrance when it comes to engaging with new markets?
That’s a very interesting question. Being an Indian company certainly has its global business advantages in certain sectors. Tech Mahindra, our information technology business and India’s fifth largest information technology firm, benefits greatly from India’s tech savvy global image. However, there’s a flip side to this as well. Ever since its inception in 1994, our North American business, Mahindra USA, or MUSA, has had to follow a niche brand strategy to battle prevailing perceptions about Indian manufacturers. Rather than trying to develop a product that could compete with well-established bigger brands, MUSA targeted a smaller agricultural niche – hobby farmers, landscapers, and building contractors – and coupled this strategy with personalised service, building close relationships with dealers and customers. Even MUSA’s corporate social responsibility activities played a key strategic role in cultivating the Mahindra brand image of an Indian company that provides value and superior performance through its affordable products. This differentiation continues today and we are noticing a marked change in brand perception and awareness among North American target audiences.
You are credited for elevating public relations to board-level function at your company. How did you make the case for this?
When we initiated Rise, the Group’s executive board was confronted with the challenge of communicating this transformation in a clear and controlled manner across more than 100 countries and 18 industries. They quickly realised the need for a strategic approach to communications for both internal and external audiences. By including public relations at the top of the decision making chain, we ensured that organisational behaviour and organisational communications were perfectly aligned. The Group’s communications head is included in key business strategy meetings as per their annual planning cycles.
India has the biggest newspaper market in the world, with over 70,000 titles. How has this huge market faced the challenges of digitalisation, and how in turn has this affected the work that you do?
The Indian digital market is growing rapidly. A recent study estimated that by June 2014, there will be 243 million internet users in the country, overtaking the United States to become the world’s second largest internet base after China. This is astounding considering that only about 16 per cent of Indians have access to the internet! Internet penetration in India is driven largely by mobile phones with more than 110 million mobile internet users. Most major media houses have started offering digital versions of their daily publications for download directly from their websites. Some have even created mobile apps that carry the latest news as they break. While Indians primarily use the internet for communication, largely in the form of email, social media is rapidly becoming an important driver of internet use. This is good news for public relations professionals as the traditional avenues of news dissemination gradually make way for a more one-on-one company-customer interface through channels like Facebook and Twitter. At Mahindra, we have made a conscious effort to make digital a priority in all of our communications. Most of our marquee products have a presence on social media. We even have a corporate Facebook page and Twitter handle to promote the Mahindra brand. Our chief executive officer, Anand Mahindra, has been noted time and again amongst the top five most active global executives on Twitter and has a fan following of over one million users.
Indian public relations is said to have begun in earnest in the early 1990s after the opening up of the economy. Is there still a sense of adventure in this field in India?
The Indian public relations industry has undergone a paradigm shift in recent times. Having worked in this field for over a decade, I have seen and experienced this transformation myself. The last 10 years have seen public relations metamorphosise into a key strategic function at many major Indian companies. We saw the advent of a new age in Indian public relations with the rapid growth of indigenous agencies and firms specialising in niche industries like entertainment, lifestyle, automotive and lobbying. We also saw the influx of international public relations agencies both through acquisitions and through independent ventures. I think India’s emerging economy is well suited for transient innovation and constant improvements. I am sure the next decade will reveal new adventures and accompanying challenges for all communicators in India and around the world.
Like so many other parts of the globe, India has recently experienced economic slowdown. In what ways does this slowdown impact your work?
Nothing brings out the best in us more than an unexpected challenge and the economic slowdown is no different. As we realigned our business priorities to circumvent the economic impact of the recession, we also noticed new opportunities which didn’t exist before. For example, our home grown hospitality brand, Mahindra Holidays, benefits greatly from the slowdown as more and more Indian families choose to vacation in India instead of travelling to a foreign location. We saw this opportunity and initiated a re-branding exercise that positioned Mahindra Holidays as the hospitality brand of choice for aspiring Indian families. Tough economic times bring with them new public relations challenges and the same has been true for the Mahindra Group.
You are also a frequent global traveller through your work. Are there major differences in the approach to business between India and Europe?
Industries everywhere have their nuances. I think the major difference between Europe and India is the level of aggressiveness among journalists which is higher here than I have seen anywhere else in the world. Media in India is very competitive and this makes it a challenge to manage expectations. I also think that India’s emerging market status encourages us to try out radical ideas especially in the digital and mobile space, something that seasoned global public relations industries are grappling with. Usually, in the global context, the public relations function resides with the marketing department. However, in India, I am noticing a ‘Rise’ in significance of corporate public relations departments across industries.
What could European corporate communicators learn from their Indian counterparts?
India is a melting pot of many different cultures, languages, ethnicities and traditions. In a way, any national communications campaign in India is the same as a global campaign due to India’s immense diversity. The challenge then is to understand how your campaign will be perceived by regional publics. Companies who used to focus on big, national publications are now looking for presence in regional dailies. I think the same is true for Europe. I also believe that Indian companies are more aggressive in the social media space. This is a rapidly growing industry here and we can expect India to set new global benchmarks in this field.
You’ve won numerous awards throughout your career: how important is this kind of recognition to you?
I am humbled by the recognitions that have been bestowed on me through the years. Accolades validate your contributions to your organisations and job function and are also a great way to keep the team motivated. Public relations by its nature is a collaborative field which depends on cross functional teams and we all often depend on others for counsel and direction. To me, awards are a reflection of the hard work my team puts into everything they do and the organisation I represent.
You credit a former boss, BI Bhambhani, for encouraging and supporting your career growth. In your profession, how important are mentors?
I was just 21 years old and working at a multinational company in India when Mr. Bhamnhani took me under his wing and helped me unleash my potential. He encouraged me to think globally and take on new challenges. His guidance had a huge impact on my career choices. He helped my personal growth immensely and gave me the courage to take risks. I think it was his lesson in mentorship that drives me to be a mentor myself. I look forward to connecting with people, especially youngsters, through social media and in person. Nothing would make me happier than to help someone make those tough career choices that so many young people face as soon as they enter their chosen fields.
Finally, you work in Mumbai, a metropolitan area of 20.5 million people and the commercial and entertainment capital of India. What is it like to live and work in such a dynamic city?
Mumbai has a special place in my heart. I was born in this city and still take every opportunity to revel in its culture. It’s a city of contradictions – aggressively liberal yet in parts verging on medieval, glamorous yet conservative, cosmopolitan yet dizzyingly Indian at its core. I have travelled all over the world from Ludhiana to Lithuania, from Jaipur to Johannesburg, but I have never felt the same romanticism with any city as I do with Mumbai. It’s a city like no other and I love it.