Business Today

The reclusive brand

This book offers plenty of clues to the sort of person Ratan Tata would like as his successor, writes Gita Piramal.

Print Edition: September 5, 2010

Brands are created to shout, "Buy me! Buy me now!" In today's media-blasted world, brands are vigorous and aggressive, jostling to gain recognition among picky customers. The 140-year-old Tata brand seems out of sync with the times. With its simple 'T' and temperate blue colour, the brand is muted and gentlemanly, like its reclusive owners working out of a small brownstone building tucked away in a quiet bylane of Mumbai.

Not surprisingly, this book on the Tata brand is also quiet, muted, gentlemanly - and reclusive. There are no colour pictures of advertisements, just a few black & white photographs. There are no accounts of brand wars. Even the description of Ratan Tata's gritty effort to force group companies to accept the inoffensive blue 'T' as part of their logo, is mild. The 1990s were the heydays of powerful satraps who liked to refer themselves as heads of the Tata Commonwealth. Tata, as the newly-appointed head of the Tata Group, was equally determined to build a single group identity. He won.

Victors often get a book published, especially when they are about to step down. But, being confident and reticent by nature, Tata commissioned a history of the brand stretching from Jamsetji Tata to the birth of the Nano. Witzel had unprecedented access to Tata managers, the companies and its archives. A trained and experienced business historian, Witzel also knows everything there is to know about management theory. [Full disclosure: I am one of his many co-authors in The Biographical Dictionary of Management.]

Witzel's book is long on trivia and short on drama. But the importance of the trivia should not be downplayed. The Tata brand's global presence is one example. Tata is present in 80 countries and earns $70.8 billion or 65 per cent of its revenues outside India. Tetley Tea is one of the UK's most loved brands. The Jaguar acquisition was as much about the brand as buying technical expertise. The Brand Finance Global 500 March 2010 Report ranks the Tata brand as 65th, valued at $11.2 billion.

Not chicken feed. Yet Witzel tellingly devotes an entire chapter to the role philanthropy plays in building trust in the Tata brand, but allocates a mere five pages on how the world sees it. The smart way in which the group uses history to foster trust in the brand is another Witzel insight.

"In terms of product and service quality, Tata does the expected … But when buying Tata cars, or jewellery, or watches, or salt, or tea, or mobile phones, consumers are also doing something else: they are attaching themselves to the Tata myth, and making themselves part of the story," he writes. Myth is not a derogatory word; it is the holy grail of advertising gurus as it enables an emotional connect between a brand and its target segment.

Witzel explores the fascinating relationships between Tata leaders and the brand. G.D. Birla refused to put the Birla name on Birla-run companies (with a few exceptions). The Tatas did the opposite (with a few exceptions). I'm not sure I buy Witzel's premise (and by extension, the Tata official line) that a brand is shaped by the leader's character.

I'm disappointed that the book does not analyze how individual Tata companies influence and are influenced by the corporate brand. On the other hand, if you are trying to decipher Tata's achievements and the characteristics he wants in his successor, look no further. This book is full of clues.

- Dr Gita Piramal is a business historian and best-selling author

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