Every business, successful or otherwise, is rich in stories which never fail to astonish or inspire. And the book on Titan by journalist Vinay Kamath is all the more intriguing as it chronicles the brand's remarkable journey for the first time since it was launched 30 years ago. The author has privileged access to many senior executives of the company, and hence, he has collected the best stories (well-researched, of course) and told them most engagingly. Brand Titan from the House of Tatas was an instant hit and then overstretched itself and later diversified into new segments such as eyewear and sarees where it is doing well. Kamath's narrative covers all that and more, starting with how the new-age consumer brand was minted in the first place.
The late Xerxes Desai was given the task of turning around Tata Press. The turnaround went well, but Desai got bored and wanted to tackle a fresh challenge. The group considered various projects, from shipping containers to chemicals to carbon black and, finally, watches. At the time, watchmaking was reserved for the small-scale sector, and hence, the Tatas could not get a licence. Luckily for them, Tamilnadu Industries Corporation had one, and a joint venture was formed, one of the front runners of the current public-private-partnership model. In fact, the name Titan was coined from Tata Industries and Tamil Nadu, and Desai became its first CEO.
The JV started with a licence for mechanical watches, but post-liberalisation, the company changed tack and decided to operate in the quartz segment alone. Quite soon, the brand's success was cemented in the domestic market, thanks to excellent products, reliable guarantee, great service and a first-of-its-kind retail experience much before malls came to India. Interestingly, Titan saw the smuggled watch market as its key competition instead of HMT and Allwyn which were market leaders at the time.
The business hit rough weather, though, when it tried to replicate its India success story in Europe and APAC countries. European consumers did not like the Indian range or styling and Titan did not get access to distribution. It incurred huge losses, had to rethink strategy and withdrew from global markets, where it has only a small presence even today. But it has been different in India where Titan has grown from strength to strength by entering the gifting space, looking at the bottom end of the market and launching youth watches.
Unlike many, one of Titan's core tenets is to disrupt unorganised consumer markets lacking a clear player. Consequently, the brand turned to jewellery, a business traditionally dominated by 'family jewellers' and a handful of regional names. Titan introduced Tanishq, with the guarantee of the Tata brand behind it, and introduced the Karatmeter in every Titan outlet for checking the purity of the gold jewellery owned by consumers. Many of them were aghast to find out that their long-standing family jewellers did not deliver the quality promised. Tanishq converted this knowledge into opportunity by asking consumers to exchange jewellery that was 19 carat and above to a 22-carat Tanishq piece at the brand's cost. This turned out to be a huge success in terms of bringing consumers on board and building trust.
There were hitches as well. At times, the Tanishq business was not fully supported by the Tata board and Ratan Tata had once famously asked, "Is Titan a watch company with a jewellery business or a jewellery company with a watch business?" But the Titan board was unshaken and Tanishq delivered.
As I have said before, Titan is an intriguing story and could be a lesson to corporations. The brand has done well by picking the right segment and resolving consumer pain point through its focus on quality. Plus, the CEOs got long tenures; the board was firmly committed to the leadership team, and the parent company acted as a trust multiplier - stuff that can help ward off turbulence before success can be achieved. That the author has captured the nuanced tale with flair and insight certainly makes it a must-read for those keen to follow the journey of Indian titans.
The writer is Group Executive President, Corporate Strategy and Business Development, Aditya Birla Group