This norm may sound pretty obvious—and familiar, because it is an inescapable one these days, given the socio-political climate, not just in India but in many countries across the world. Recall the Donald Trump’s MAGA ideology that almost demanded a nationalistic fervor from business (the integrity of that ideology is another debate altogether), Brexit has asked Britons to view business from a non-EU lens first. Even in something as critical as a Covid-19 vaccine, the US wants to favor the one developed by an American company (Pfizer, in this case) while India has its predilections towards the ones where Bharat Biotech or The Serum Institute have a hand.
So, will local geo-politics influence businesses & will brands start being vocal about showing off their nationalistic credentials and make that a key strategic pillar in their playbook?
To answer this, we have an expert who has straddled the line between both local and global. Our guest expert today is Geetu Verma from Unilever, a global marketer and business leader, part of Unilever's global Foods and Refreshment team based out of Rotterdam, Netherlands.
We also have insights from Vikas Vasal, National Managing Partner - Tax at Grant Thornton Bharat on conducive government policies that give impetus to nationalistic brands.
Narayan Devanathan: Welcome to Episode 18 of storm the norm, fortnightly podcast where we pick up norms that come in the way of businesses succeeding in a disruptive world. I am Narayan
Anisha Motwani: and I'm Anisha Motwani.
Narayan Devanathan: As you might have caught in our last episode, Storm the norm is now brought to you in association with one of the leading consulting companies in the world, Grant Thornton Bharat. So in addition to the STN hacks we bring you each time with every episode, you will now also get GT insight, a three minute capsule by a GT expert on the stormed norm. On to today's episode Now, Anisha we've explored shades of today's norm indirectly in past episodes with the libertarian, we look at how politics and business mix in contemporary contexts Mohit Malhotra, from dabur, we looked at how Indian brands can go global,
Anisha Motwani: I think I know where you're headed with this neuron.
Narayan Devanathan: I'm sure you know me enough. When I state the norm it is going to sound pretty obvious and familiar, because it is my most capable one these days given the socio political climate, and not just in India, but in many countries across the world, including the US. Although things are beginning to change, there a bit. The fact is the politics of business is such that regardless of globalisation, as long as national boundaries exists, local geopolitics will influence local business, whether it's in conducted by local businesses or global businesses, and today's now prevails in that sense. Let me state it for the record. nationalistic brands will have an edge over global brands in the post COVID era.
Anisha Motwani: These signs have been there for a while, haven't they? China has always been an exception that proves the rule because of its politics. But Donald Trump's MAGA ideology Make America Great Again, almost demanded a nationalistic fervour from businesses. And of course, the integrity of the ideology is another debate altogether. Brexit has asked Britains to view business from a non EU lens first, even in something as critical as a COVID-19 vaccine. The US wants to favour the one developed by an American company Pfizer in this case, well, India has its predilections towards the ones that Bharat biotech or the Serum Institute have a hand? Isn't it true?
Narayan Devanathan: I mean, on the surface, it rings true Anisha. But even in that most contemporary example, there's more to it than meets the eye. The Pfizer vaccine was actually developed by two Turkish immigrants in Germany by biontech. And the one that the serum Institute wants to supply has been developed at Oxford. But the norm still seems to hold true. I mean, if you look closer at India, the anti China sentiment throughout this year, or potentially his rise in the past few years, have been a different part of that section, the emphasis on Ayurveda currently, all these seem to reinforce norm.
Anisha Motwani: If this norm were to be here to stay, as those signs indicate narayan, it feels like we will have to do one of the two things throughout the entire playbook for how businesses are built by being customer centric, or include nationalism as the number one strategy in the playbook.
Narayan Devanathan: You are direct always. I mean, I have a feeling though. The consumer is smarter and more disturbing than media headlines and trending hashtags. Tell us though,
Anisha Motwani: So in which case, why are some brands being so vocal about showing off their nationalistic credentials? Is this norm unstoppable?
Narayan Devanathan: I'm glad we have somebody else answering the question. I'm very glad you asked that question. But instead of answering you, I'm going to conveniently pass it on to an expert who is better suited to responding to it. And someone who has straddled the line between local and global. Our guest expert today is Geetu Gidvani Verma from Unilever here with us today all the way from the Netherlands. Neetu is a global marketer and business leader at Unilever's global foods and refreshment team based out of Rotterdam. Welcome Geetu. And thank you for joining us today.
Anisha Motwani: Welcome Geetu. It's a pleasure to have you with us.
Narayan Devanathan: We'll start off with asking you this in the context of India, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi is called to be vocal about local brands is experiencing a resurgence of national identity that you've probably not seen since our independence from Great Britain in 1947. Back then, Swadeshi, was a political tool more than anything else. Whereas now this is more economic and it has a tinge of nationalism. It's obviously experienced, and expressed in the popularity of foods, traditional flavours, strong local Indian brands, and maybe influences a lot of opportunities and challenges that brands face today. So what's your take on this norm to begin with?
Geetu Verma: Firstly, Thanks, Narayan and thanks Anisha, for having me on your podcast and i think this is a great topic. So I'm delighted to be here to speak on this and to discuss this with y'all, you know, to win in the marketplace, you know, you need to earn brand love to win consumers minds and hearts, you have to get your basic marketing piece, right? The product price place promotion that we all know about. And that needs to start with the right shop insight. So for me, it is immaterial if you are a transnational brand, or an only one state based brand in India, you know, you could have a micro local state footprint, you could be a Gujarat only brand, you could be a South Asian brand or a global brand. But it's how you get this piece together that makes ultimately the difference between, you know, winning, with people becoming a winning brand.
Anisha Motwani: I believe there were three kinds of eras, you know, I mean, they were, of course, the era where the pre independence where the likes of Unilever and all came to the country and those brands have become more Indian than some of the Indian brands. And then there was the 1990s reforms when we had lots of the Hyundai, the Korean brand Samsung, and they entered India. And that was when India's economic scenario was opening up. And those brands actually leveraged the soul, India suddenly opening their doors to the world with with liberal economic reforms. And then there are the new brands now, like the world likes of IKEA, and you know, Amazon and all that are now coming into the country. And at this point in time, India is also ready with its own set of brands, now Indian brands, and companies have learned how to create strong, powerful businesses, which wasn't the case earlier. So in today's context, when I when I talk about some of the new age companies that are coming into the India, and at the back of this whole nationalistic fervour, that is going about there is something different that global brands need to do to make a place for themselves, isn't it?
Geetu Verma: So I hear you Anisha. But I don't know, again, whether it's about doing things differently, or it's really, you know, going back to the basics. So let me let me take the point that I shared earlier further, right. And, you know, I said to win in the marketplace, you've got to get your basic piece, right, you've got to start with the right shop inside. Now. Let's take a category like tea in India. Yeah. I mean, you would agree with me, it's so personal. Yeah. It's so local, in terms of its taste preference. You know, the Punjab likes, it's tea strong and milky. In East, it's the long leaf lighter, flavour full. It's the dust based format in the south strong as well. And tell me how many well entrenched successful players do we have in the tea category. And it's a good healthy mix of, you know, state based players, which are household names, or you've got players which have originated in India and been able to take their brands abroad. And you've got, you know, a global players like us, like Unilever, and we have loved brands, like Brooke bond, Red Label, Taj Mahal in the space. Now, tell me does the consumer think of any of these brands is either desi or pardesi, right? We consume our favourite Chai, because we love it. We love the taste, we love the idea behind it, we believe that this delivers the perfect value for me. And when I say value, it's not just the right price, but the right value, which means I get the right product, the right cup, ah, the right experience at a price that is worth paying for me. Yeah. And what is it that's enabling these brands to deliver this, you know, this right product, the right taste experience? It comes down to the depth and the quality of insights. You know, as you rightly said, Our country has a lot of diversity. Yeah. You know, when you take categories like foods and beverages, which cannot, you know, you can't get more local than that. You need micro insights. Because these preferences change, not merely by state, they change by topography. They're influenced by historical factors, by ethnicity by affordability. So the winners are the brands which can get beneath the skin of the obvious. They're able to sharp shoot their offerings based on a true understanding of what people are consuming. Why? how?
Narayan Devanathan: I'm going to pull that thread a little further. It's really interesting how you've kind of broken it down into into a fairly simple principle. But what I'm also hearing is you're saying it's horses for courses, there is no one rule that fits all one size fits all strategy, if you will, as long as you understand the consumer and deliver to them. That's what matters is what you're saying. Having said that, but then the interesting ones that are stirring this debate are brands like Xiaomi, which is purely a Chinese brand and then we've seen the boycott against Chinese brands this year. But as of last week, Xiaomi was the number one selling mobile device brand in India. But on the flip side, you know this, this nationalistic fervour also saw the birth of something called Twitter as an alternative to Twitter. So it can be a little confusing to navigate these loads, if you will. How should multinational brands be ready to win local and yet keeping their global identity if you will.
Geetu Verma: I just go back to some historical campaigns and some of the catchphrases that you know,of brands that we've grown up with so whether it's boost is, the secret of my energy or AMUL, taste of India, or its, 'Buland Bharat ki yehi tasveer', or 'lifeboy hai jahaan tandrusti hai wahaan', tell me across these lines, are you able to tell if any of these are not Indian and not close to the Indian consumers heart?
Anisha Motwani: So that how do you explain some of these Indian very Indian categories, you know, which are based on Indian rituals and Indian consumption habits, whether it is masalas, or whether it is hair oils, where Indian companies have succeeded far far more than global companies? How do you explain that,
Geetu Verma: I would actually again, challenge the hypothesis or the statement that Indian companies have done better than companies, you know, which are global. I would actually restate that, and I will say Indian companies have a huge opportunity. So, you know, you you pulled up some great examples. And, you know, let's talk about Dabur. And let's talk about Ayurveda. And let's talk about Chawanprash, or, you know, Hajmola, let's talk about snacking and haldiram. And these products are incredible capability and capacity to travel transnationally there is a fair amount of respect, you know, given to the land from which yoga came in Ayurveda is the twin sister of yoga, you know, there is nothing stopping our own grown, you know, companies to take these offerings abroad beyond the Indian diaspora.
Narayan Devanathan: But I want to circle back to where we started from, if you will, you know, again, Swadeshi was what it was called, whatever, 20-30 years back. And right now we have an English phrase for it 'Vocal for Local', and while it maybe a phrase that's caught on in India, I think there's kind of I don't want to call it anti globalisation that will be pushing it too far, I think. But this level of jingoism, I think is visible, not just in India and multiple markets. But what I'm hearing you say is, don't focus too much on the nationalistic undertones over there. But I would rather that every brand focuses on what is the best way to be relevant to the consumer. Having said that, is there a political risk? Or is there any kind of other risks to ignoring that sentiment,
Anisha Motwani: once it is linked to that, so therefore, nationalistic pride, it doesn't play a role in in purchase consideration.
Geetu Verma: Let's just take a couple of examples. I remember, you know, creating a campaign on Lay's potato chips several years ago. And, you know, you and I have worked together on the business Anisha. So you would remember the you could call it a very vocal for local campaign in the sense that you were cheering for your Indian cricket team who doesn't right. And that whole communication with Beto Carney just won with Steph and calf in the World Cup, you know, being played in South Africa, the finals cheering for India? You know, would we say that lays being a global brand didn't have the right to whip up that fervour for its local for the Indian cricket team? Of course not. Right. So, you know, let's, let's talk about another example. Let's talk about a, you know, a big global cause and you know, which is LGBTQ inclusion. And if you bring it closer home, you know, there are more than two and a half million members of this community in India and brooke bond in India has led on this, you know, the larger idea of the brand in that the hospitality extended by a great warm cup of tea can melt all hostilities. It's been translated into so many heartwarming stories of inclusiveness of being good neighbours. And you would have seen the Brooke bond, you know, six pack transgender band or the latest communication at the traffic light, you know, bringing this cause to life. If you care if you're genuine, if you're authentic, irrespective of who you are. Right, irrespective of your race, your gender, your ethnicity, your country of origin, you fight for that cause you bring it to life.
Anisha Motwani: So well summarised Geetu, thank you so much.
Geetu Verma: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to chat on the subject.
Narayan Devanathan: As promised at the beginning, we now have our special segment with a GT Bharat expert offering their take on the norm. This time around, we have Vikas Vasal, head of tax and Marketing Communications at GT Bharat. Thank you Vikas for joining us today. Now, the specific question for you, how can policy reform specifically help strong this norm? And is there something of special relevance for the MSME sector?
Vikas Vasal: I think the media and press in general have created an impression that probably the focus of the policy is to promote nationalist brands. Whereas when we look at the fine print and the intent of the larger policy initiatives of the Government of India, there is no distinction being made between a foreign brand or a domestic brand. Government policies actually aimed at encouraging manufacturing and ease of doing business in India. They are not distinguishing between whether it's a foreign investment or domestic investment policy. To take an example, if you look at the reduced corporate tax rates for the manufacturing or the new manufacturing setup, which is 15%. And one of the most competitive rates across the globe. It actually applies to all the companies, whether it's a foreign company or Indian company, it sets up a base in India makes the necessary investment and follows the policy. Another good example of this would be the recent labour reforms, which to my mind is one of the biggest reforms with the government has ushered in. 29 Central labour laws are being merged into four labour codes. Now, does that benefit only the Indian brands, not the foreign branch, not the case, it benefits everybody and the country at large. So I think to my mind, a policy does not distinguish per se, between a foreign brand and our national trend, it basically encourages to do business in India. Now, having said that, there has been lot of push from the government for micro small and medium enterprises that is MSMEs to scale up their options and contribute to the overall GDP growth, and also the employment generation. Traditionally, if we look at, there have been many reasons why msme businesses have preferred to remain small. This could be for lack of funds, various labour issues, or the incentives with the government used to offer that encourage them to remain small. Now, one big change that the government is trying to bring in is a shift in the overall mindset of the businesses, especially the MSMEs to scale up their operations. That's the reason recently, under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat programme, the government has increased the overall turnover and investment limits for MSMEs, to help them grow, and still enjoy the benefits of being classified as MSMEs. Thank you.
Anisha Motwani: Thank you so much, Vikas for that policy perspective on storming this norm, it brings a real world application that I'm sure many businesses can use so Narayan what's the single most important insight you're taking out of Geetu's perspectives.
Narayan Devanathan: To respond with a few examples, actually, a lot of these will be familiar to a lot of our listeners also. Bata the shows that many generations of Indians have grown up with thinking it could be undoubtedly Indian, are actually from a Swiss company, to Taj Mahal tea, is one of the most popular brands of tea in a country that is addicted to Chai, founded in Dutch and now hold the British company makes it, Maggie that most ubiquitous of instant food items across the length and breadth of country is again made by a Swiss company, and dairy milk, arguably the most popular and most consumed mitha in the country, is made by an American confectionery company. Oh, and that car that is most Indians first and sometimes second. And third cars is made by a company that is majority Japanese owned. So what it seems to me is that consumers are Vocal for local. Alright. But what they actually mean, is Vocal for what is locally, right, not merely locally made?
Anisha Motwani: Absolutely. I think you've just captured it so well.
Narayan Devanathan: So what's your take on it? And can nationalism be a strategy for businesses? So is this something they should avoid altogether? I mean, is there an opportunity at all in this for Indian brands,
Anisha Motwani: it's not about whether it can be a strategy. It's more about whether it can be an opportunity. And brands now find themselves at the cusp of an opportunity caught in the crossroads of political Economic and philosophical shifts that has made the homegrown proposition more attractive than it has ever been in the last decade. And we heard Vikas talk about what the government is doing to make the MSME segment attractive, you know, give them the SOPs that will make them scale up their business, the biggest challenge with Indian businesses have been that not too many have been able to achieve the scale that they truly deserve. So I'm offering these hacks in this context
Narayan Devanathan: I am all ears
Anisha Motwani: So the first one that Indian brands need to do actually, to make it big on the global stage is to shun the Adjust jugaad or the setting mindset. When India talks of vocal for local, it's not about isolating from the rest of the world. India has a bigger opportunity to play a key role at global stage and emerge as economic part to reckon with. To do so requires that Indian industry goes through a transformation of both mindset and priorities. In India, the word adjust is critical to the cultural philosophy in business context. jugaad or the phrase adjust curling your means a wide range of things from turning a blind eye to rules being clouded to finding a unique and inventive solution to a seemingly unsurmountable problem. Actually, it is this attitude that is both the cause of misery as well as the most important aspect of the mushrooming MSME industry, but with increasing regulatory oversight, those days are over. A critical factor today for succeeding in India is to legitimise this Jugaad and turn it towards a strong and sustainable innovation pipeline. In a sense, jugaad is all about the can do attitude that helps them push the boundaries and break down the social barriers. But how do we use this whole jugaad mindset to bring in a little bit of structure plus science and professionalism behind it is what will be a win win of this mindset being put to use in a structured manner.
Narayan Devanathan: I love this. You know the West has only woken up to a book phenomenon the last few years. But they've systematised it. And I think what you're saying is don't let it be an ad hoc thing. How can you make it into a set of applicable replicable principles?
Anisha Motwani: Absolutely, you know, legitimise it, put science instruction behind.
Narayan Devanathan: Okay, what's next?
Anisha Motwani: Many companies actually think and we've seen that more so now that they've made Indianess as a strategy and we heard Geetu also refer to it you know, in so many ways. Indian nationalism typically does not drive purchase decisions. consumer is much, much more smarter than this. Marketing Indianness as an advantage is a short term tactic that can never replace the importance of a strong strategy. Patriotism is a positive emotion, but it will not be the most relevant. The truth is people care about you only if they resonate with you, if they fall in love with your story. If your offerings adds something to their life, give them that value. And not just in terms of flies or the jingoistic line.
Narayan Devanathan: It's a hard call to stated so bluntly, but I think it's a it's true that we must confront and overcome this we have to hack this
Anisha Motwani: The third hack for me is, Indian companies do have an advantage when it comes to consumer intimacy and their understanding of what India is all about? We all know that India is a very, very unique country, and local brands must leverage the innate agility and consumer intimacy to rethink their brands, their strategies and the action. We all know that the complexity and diversity of India is not just limited to demographics, religion, income strata, but also includes behavioural nuances, current and emerging aspirations and social norms. Global companies take years to get that understanding, right. That brings me in many ways connected to the next point about workplace culture. Actually, the today's situation if you if you take in stock is that MNCs have an advantage as they are significantly ahead of Indian companies as preferred place to work. Nationalistic brands have the opportunity to catch up and be as good if not better. MNCs is are appreciated for their processes and professionalisms. While Indian companies are valued for job security and appreciating people rather than profiles. India's always been a traditionally collectivist community, where loyalty and familial paternal protectiveness were historically necessary to survive, and even to date persist in Indian businesses and relationships. So they have a unique advantage of creating a family culture of trust and care to bind employees and earn their loyalty.
Narayan Devanathan: Love that point about how to marry the advantage of trust with discipline of methodical systems.
Anisha Motwani: And that brings me to the last one mould your technology to the market and not the other way down. Everybody is talking about technology today. But local brands have an advantage in the sense that they can create success with a better understanding of Indian supply chain challenges by customising the technology to modernise logistics, but in a way that adapts to on ground realities and who better than Indian businesses to understand those on ground realities. For example, the case of really go a trucking company that's headquartered in Gurgaon. I mean, they transformed how trucking and delivery can be done in India, adapting both digital systems and the physical construction of its trucks to improve efficiencies and quality of life of its drivers. Hunan is another Indian startup connecting last mile retailers using technology. Now, in only Indians understand our last mile retail network, only they understand our truck ecosystem. And this can apply to several categories. So moulding your technology to the market, and not the other way around is the advantage that only Indian companies and Indian founders have, which they can put to great use to scale up their businesses.
Narayan Devanathan: Insightfully hacked as always Anisha and I'm going to try and stretch things a little bit, because I think you're kind of underplaying the hacks that you've outlined over here, because I think add up to something fairly big. I mean, it might seem like a stretch given globalisation and geopolitics that intertwine so closely, that storming today's norm is also tied to the highly visible conversations around social justice and equitable distribution of resources and the fruits of globalisation. But the point I wanted to actually make what it all added up to if businesses could use these hacks. Well, is, you know, I saw this headline just yesterday, this century is going to be the century of Asian dominance versus the previous ones that were dominated by Western cultures. And I can't help feeling you know, Indian businesses took the natural advantages that they have, and combined it with the systematic, you know, hacks that you outlined here. That could well be the roadmap for something much bigger, like you said, opportunity.
Anisha Motwani: Indeed, Narayan the implications of storming this norm and applying these hacks go far beyond just solving the immediate context.
Narayan Devanathan: A provocative non apathy just perspective, a policy perspective hacks to storm the norm, that's a full plate to wrap up Episode 18 of storm the norm now powered by Grant Thornton Bharat insights. As always, there are multiple places you can catch us on Spotify, apple podcasts, SoundCloud, and jiosaavn. All by just searching for storm the norm. and we're also on saregama Carvaan 2.0 devices on channel 453. This is Narayan
Anisha Motwani: I am Anisha,
Narayan Devanathan: Signing off for now. We will be back with a new episode shortly. Thank you and talk to you soon.