Can Davos create the language of balance?

The game is on!

It’s been on for a while now, and we’ve all been playing. You, me, social platform owners, brand managers, political parties and more. While our motivations to play the game of social media may have differed, we all loved the game. We shared photos, likes, dislikes, views and more on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anything else that became the latest place to hang out on.

For companies wanting to engage potential and existing customers, voters, donors and volunteers it was a field ready for picking. Instead of relying on the age old marketing methods of post-facto research, here was live data on what people believed in, expected, desired and brought. The information was gathered, analysed and then used to make focused campaign messages, video, photos and sometimes even news that resonated with the targeted customers. This helped achieve the marketing objective, i.e. product purchases, votes, donations and anything else that the campaign funder desired. The game became a self-feeding cycle where we shared our information and marketers adapted the insight to give new products and services. A win-win for all. We got appreciation, a chance to say our bit, sometimes huge visibility when a message, photo or video went viral and many times a warm fuzzy feeling of well-being and togetherness. Marketers got a new sales channel with instant feedback loops of ready and willing customers. Social platforms backed by venture capitalists raised even more capital based on the rising numbers of advertisers and users. All was well with the world!

Who cared that the data was surreptitiously aggregated, communication was at times fake and digital surveillance was raising its ugly head? Privacy was dead after all. The Google CEO had announced it to be in 2008.

Then came fake news, Cambridge Analytica and the deep inroads into Facebook data that seemingly swung the US elections. It was a strike of unimaginable proportions. It shook the world in the same way that the nuclear strike had in 1945. But why did it raise such a stink this time round, it was marketing after all? The election candidate was just a product, data that had been available anyway and campaigns that had been based on what voters wanted to hear anyway? Analytics had simply generated remarkably accurate insight and remember privacy had been dead anyway, so what was the big deal?

This time though it was different! Smart marketing driven by lax laws and a receptive audience had converted the biggest show of democracy into a spectacle which could almost be comic if it wasn’t so tragic.

It’s no longer a game now. It’s a real and present danger. Information is being captured about us and can and will be used against us. At stake is everything we stand for, the right to express, the right to believe and the right to equality. In a data centered world, the company or person who controls the data will control us. There is very real danger that unfettered data access could create monopolies, duopolies and dictatorships.

But where is corporate responsibility in all this? As global leaders congregate in Davos for the World Economic forum it is perhaps time to discuss what rapid globalisation and technological change will mean to for business responsibility in this era. The difference between the manufacturing giants that caused environmental pollution and the software companies is that environmental pollution and damage is there for everyone to see and feel, the actions of digital companies on the other hand have been hidden. Now that they have been called out the contagion is spreading fast, almost everything is under scrutiny, data laws, privacy settings, news sources and feeds and above all the big question – how do we ensure corporate responsibility in a world driven by technology? Recent events have shown that the promise of a technology driven world may not be goodness and bright, happy, shining people but something far darker and disturbing. Can we come together to create a better future or will forever be victims who did nothing when it was time to end the game? Can Davos create the language of balance?

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Data is the new oil a capitalist’s statement. Data for good is a social intent

World leaders are now congregating at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Summit to discuss the challenges of the new world driven by the twin challenges of sustainability and rapid technological changes.

The discussion around sustainability has repeatedly highlighted the need for balance.The list of things that are in excess and their consequences is a large one: excessive emissions have led to climate change, excessive consumption to waste, excessive water usage to droughts, excessive concretization in cities has caused flooding and so on. It is therefore surprising that many business models of the twenty-first century, largely based around technology, are about disruption or creating an imbalance and profiting from it. The consequences of imbalance are mostly seen in the long term and if allowed to go unchecked, disruption caused by a business at one level may lead to huge imbalances in society.

The desire for growth and human ambition are a given. The growing footprint of the corporation means that ground rules too need a refresh or a new articulation. Data and infrastructure that extends beyond social and national boundaries cannot be left with a few. Data is the new oil is a capitalist’s statement. Data for good is a social intent. The societal contract around data and very large companies must factor in intent, rapid change, the changing role of government and oversight. Balance between profit and public good.

With so much data about ourselves being available privacy and security will be a serious challenge. Your electric car managed largely by computers will know where you go and whom you meet. Your online searches and consumption of news will tell data miners about your likes and dislikes and political leanings. Personal digital assistants Smart TVs, Smart Refrigerators and personal robots who will work on voice activated commands. They will be able to listen in to your private conversations.

Your privacy will be seriously compromised with your data being available to businesses and governments. A worrying trend as this can be used to keep societies under undue surveillance. CCTV cameras are increasingly being used to record activities in public spaces, drone based cameras will certainly pick up speed too. While these are now being used to help people during emergencies, natural disasters and to keep people safe during terrorist threats, misuse is not far away. Technology such as this can easily be used to snoop around and monitor people.

AI will automate many of the tasks and while the long run may create more jobs, the short term may see huge disruptions. The 4 th industrial revolution or 4IR a term coined to represent this technological change will be a force of disruption by excluding people with less education and fewer skills. People

will constantly have to learn new skills to stay relevant and those who won’t will find themselves lost in the new age. Governments and businesses will need to up the ante on jobs and reskilling. Talent development, lifelong learning, and career reinvention are going to be critical to the future workforce.

As we are already seeing today, the economic benefits of technology and its wealth creation ability can serve the interests of small, powerful groups above the rest. The owners of the AI algorithms would gain disproportionately in such a society. According to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report the economic benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are becoming more concentrated among a small group. When talking about shaping a new market architecture at WEF Raghuram Rajan mentioned that while today we benefit from scale and efficiency provided by global platforms, will this continue to promote innovation and equity going forward?

All the more reason for global leaders, international organizations, business organizations, academia, and civil society to address these challenges and create a world that aligns with common goals for the future. Data is an important part of this discussion and is now perhaps the oil that lubricates global business. However, data is the new oil is a capitalist’s statement. Data for good is a social intent which can help address the increasing inequality and create a better world for all by providing everyone equitable access to data and technology.

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Subscriptions will drive the brand agenda in 2019

In the desire to innovate and be quick to change companies are creating disruptive models. While speed and efficiency are gaining priority, customer trust is at an all-time low. Some of the disruption is caused because a new technology comes in and the company stops supporting the previous one. Customers are forced to either invest in the new product or live with an unsupported product. Therefore, no matter what the company may do in terms of path-breaking strategy, it may not achieve the intended goals of better reputation management, risk management and better brand positioning.

Take the case of almost every gadget you own. Phones, air purifiers, washing machines, televisions, computers, it’s a long list of things where the use and discard economy functions. Obsolescence is built into many of the products, especially electronics. When the economy is booming and disposable income high, a constant re-purchase cycle may function well; not so in times of a downturn.

The other big concern is the enormous amounts of electronic waste that companies are now being asked to factor in as part of their business models. Governments and consumers are equally concerned that the perpetual purchase cycle also needs to factor in constant waste management.

Long term support models like the recent case where Apple replaced batteries of over 11 million iPhone users worldwide points to an emerging trend. The customer and brand interaction which ends after purchase, is now seeing a rework towards longer journeys. Continued service and support is a significant opportunity for the brand to stay in the customer ecosystem, build trust and loyalty.

The linear customer journey – Build, Communicate, Sell, Service, Discard
Is changing to
The circular customer journey – Build, Communicate, Sell, Service, Communicate, Take Back, Re-sell / Recycle

Take the case of printers. Printers have mostly been sold at a lower cost because companies felt that the printer cartridges would make more money for them. They further persuaded customers to buy original printer cartridges and discouraged refilling through IP protection of the printer. However, obsolescence was always in-built into the model. Printer repair was almost prohibitively expensive with parts of older printers costing as much as a new printer. This discouraged repair and customers were made to buy new printers at regular intervals with newer types of cartridges. Additionally, customers had no easy way to recycle, so the cartridges and printers mostly went into a garbage dump.

Could this change to a better way of doing business?

  • Customer buys a printer with cartridges that allow refill and re-use
  • Printers can automatically order supplies through a subscription model
  • Printers regularly serviced and repaired if needed
  • Damaged printers and cartridges can be taken back by the company and recycled

Customers need a regular supply of printer cartridges and quality printers. Can the customer journey be eased with a new business model? A simple, sustainable subscription model which redefines the connection between the company and the customer.

Subscription models which support convenience, personalisation and a constant conversation will emerge stronger in 2019.

The Best a Brand Can Be

In the recent past, the trend of connecting causes to people has been catching on. For instance, connecting hand-washing to people’s need for better health can be seen as connecting to the cause (better health). Consumers are coming to expect that the products they use meet social requirements or at the very least, that they do not harm people and the environment. Brand seem to feel that connecting to causes of a strategic nature builds brand trust. It showcases a company’s desire to stand for something more than just itself.

Why then have some cause based campaigns received such a backlash? The recent one being Gillette’s campaign against toxic masculinity.

While there are many answers to this. I believe that responsible branding is far more than advertising. It’s about understanding the customer journey’s and building authenticity and believability across the value chain.

Products are made in factories. Brands are made in hearts. And today both are important.

The growth in consumers’ access to information has resulted in products available in the market being viewed very differently than in the past. Consumers are not just interested in better quality, they also want to know how products are made. Additionally, building a brand is more than just advertising. While a brand may associate itself with a cause, customers may not readily trust it. Should a shaving product company be talking about responsibility when the product is made from plastic which never degrades and adds to the growing menace of waste? Should the company be sweeping all core consumers with the same disposable plastic brush?

When you take on the mantle of responsibility, you need to walk the talk across every touchpoint. Responsibility is not a video but the way you act. The dominant brands actions and inaction’s are noted equally by customers. They need to create a compelling narrative of Businesses actions before the story of the ads is taken seriously.

  • Products are responsibly made
  • Excellence in product and service quality
  • Dominant business should not seem to be exploiting customers by the sheer scale of their dominance
  • Social actions on the ground that take the message forward and not just ads

There is talk that business responsibility gives you a license to operate. However, it is only applicable if you operate from an area of difficulty. Business responsibility is an obligation, a belief in a better way, in a different world, a positive contribution to society. This belief helps brands in delivering on their promises not just for the quarterly numbers but for the long term. Delivering on the promise each and every time builds authenticity and therefore such brands scale up faster, whether these are consumer brands or business to business brands.

More on this in my book:
BALANCE – Responsible Business for the Digital Age

Titan and the Girl child go hand in hand: NE Sridhar, Titan

It is well known that representation of women at workplaces is relatively less as compared to men. The #metoo campaign has also highlighted harassment women face at the workplace. Gender diversity has therefore come up as an important issue for making companies equitable and socially responsible.

However, for Titan, the manufacturers of watches, jewels, eyewear and perfumes, women have always been an integral part of their business. It was 1987, well before CSR programmes took shape in India, that Titan took a conscious decision not to hire from the market and the industry (except for a few seniors) and started hiring young boys and girls and trained them to become watchmakers. The girls made a natural fit to watch assembly operations. They were good at repetitive activities and had the natural finger dexterity that helped them go about the assembly operations. At the same time, the company started working in various communities to encourage young women to form self-help groups in the community. The self help groups skilled them to be productive and today many of them have been part of this extended arm of the company for more than 20 years. Hiring young women and youth from far off schools also created a need for Titan to support education in the neighbourhood, for the needy and meritorious. So about 30 years back, the company began providing them with scholarship support for continuing higher education. Mr Sridhar, AVP & Head of Corporate Sustainability at Titan says, “Working with women in the community, hiring them in our manufacturing operations ensured that young girls and women became central in many ways to the way we conduct our business and operations.”

Sridhar believes that people mistakenly look for a company’s CSR model through the lens of philanthropy. The company works in the community and hence must do what the community wants from it not just what the company wants. About half of Titan’s watches and eyewear business today comes from women. Add to it more than 95% of the jewellery business comes from women. Therefore, the connection with women and girl child comes naturally to the company. This connection led Titan to include girls and their education as an important peg in all their CSR initiatives.

Titan’s focus in CSR is to align its competencies to do good and do right.

One of the company’s core competencies is design. This competency led Titan to think about using the design for good and initiate the Design Impact Awards. These are grant awards that were aimed to positively impact the underprivileged communities to design for the benefit of society.

Second, Titan started as a manufacturing company before it became a house of brands and hence skilling became necessary for the company. Thus, skilling the underprivileged became part of its CSR engagement.

Third, Titan products, jewellery and watches, are all about craftsmanship. Hence, working with Indian arts, crafts and heritage is the third focus area.

Titan believes that for promoting education in the society, it is essential to start with the girl child in the country. In the remedial education model, Titan focuses on improving the quality of language, English, Mathematics and Science through sessions in government schools. Trained tutors handle these sessions after school hours. Tutoring is done through innovative teaching methods using Teaching Learning Materials (TLMs). The use of TLMs enhances the quality of inputs and also ensures that the children who drop out or perhaps have poor attendance are motivated and put back into school to complete their studies till class ten. This activity has been undertaken in Krishnagiri in partnership with KCMET (KC Mahindra Educational Trust), covering about 6000 girls in government schools.

For the out of school girls, dropouts and the ones who are not enrolled in schools, Titan has a learning centre model. It brings them to a place commonly used in the community and provides them inputs on the model. This programme not only enhances the learning levels but also makes the classes interesting through innovative TLM’s by the tutors. They enter mainstream schools after learning level 5. Both these programmes cover about 13,500 children.

In both models, the education goes beyond regular classes. It also ensures that the girls participate in extracurricular activities, helps them build their talents, participate in science fairs amongst others. The consent of the community is taken for enrolling the children. The company has created a sense of holistic support for the girl child with the aim of having her stand on her feet. Therefore, Titan aims to cover all elements of a girl child’s growth till self-sufficiency.

The company also has many associates, successfully running Titan and Tanishq showrooms. They have benefitted from the relationship with the company and have a will to give back to the community. Rana Uppalapati is one such business associate of Titan Company Limited, who is also a skater. With a sense of giving back, he set out to cover the Indian Golden Quadrilateral, a distance of about 6000 kilometres. As part of the journey, he raised funds for the education of more than 18,000 underprivileged girls and, more importantly, created awareness on child safety, especially on ‘good touch and bad touch’. This activity reached to over 3 lakh adults and children.

Although most companies think about CSR as working within a radius of company premises, Titan has decided to go beyond that. Given its pan-India presence, it felt the need to spread its CSR beyond the boundaries of company locations, where about 20% of the company’s activities takes place. About 80% of the CSR activities take place in the prioritised states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. The company also contributes to non-priority states during exceptional circumstances such as their work in Kerala during the recent floods. Sridhar says, “Behaving as a responsible corporate citizen far outweighs what we want to do as part of the company’s CSR programme.”

Based on a conversation with NE Sridhar, AVP & Head – Corporate Sustainability, Titan Company Ltd.

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