During the virtual reputation management conference ‘Spectra 2020’, economist and thought leader Rama Bijapurkar engaged Nestle India’s chairman and managing director Suresh Narayanan in conversation.
The first topic the duo discussed was about how the pandemic has changed people behaviour. Bijapurkar stated how she sees so much hype about making the world a kinder place that’s more health and environment conscious. Yet, she sees people in her city roaming around without masks, spitting on the streets and getting back to business as usual.
Narayanan said, “What you are referring to is a manifestation of a situation that is bewildering and confusing. This is the first time in our lives we are up against a pandemic. We are neither able to comprehend it nor able to fully absorb and react to it. Having said that, it’s had a deep, lasting impact on us. As a business person, there are a couple of areas that stand out for me – firstly, for businesses the equation between people, purpose, partnerships and profit have changed. Some of the old models we looked at of increasing growth, market share, profits, number of partnerships and impact on people are also changing.”
He further added, “Then there’s the whole issue globally around diversity and talent – one of the tragedies of the pandemic is that it seems to have impacted more women professionals and women workforce as a consequence of all the social impacts. There’s also been an enormous increase in issues around inequalities and fairness. The pandemic has hit those who are most economically deprived. Sadly, right now we have more questions than answers. Work from home is just one manifestation of the change that’s likely to happen. How many other changes that are going to happen in the way we live and work, still remain to be seen.”
Targets and reshaping: Who wins?
Bijapurkar and Narayanan moved on to discuss the much spoken about topics – business targets or fundamental reshaping (of organisations).
Narayanan believed that there needs to be a balance of both and stated that successful and long-lasting companies like Nestle have taken this route for a long time. He also attributed the success to the thought process of leaders of these companies. He believes that companies with longevity always have had values, purpose and culture behaviour and hard-wired into their ethos. The leadership at these companies, too, is about looking to engage the ecosystem instead of just building revenues and profits.
“I see this as a manifestation at three levels – one is of the central leadership of an organisation, number two is of a core purpose of an organisation and how it sees itself over some time. Thirdly, some businesses have been completely devastated and they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. They don’t have the revenue streams to support people and at the same time they don’t have the stomach to last till when this ends and therefore you’re finding mixed voices coming out at a time of extreme distress,” he explained.
Bijapurkar then asked Narayanan if he wasn’t to be at a company like Nestle and was instead running the show at a courier company or a restaurant business which was hit badly by the pandemic whether his answer would remain the same.
Narayanan re-emphasised the importance of purpose and answered, “We have moved on in time and the profit of a shareholder is not the single most goal of a business. Now, we are at a situation today where business, society, purpose, people, partnership and profit are all enmeshed and no company can with a straight face say that my only objective in business is to keep making a profit year-on-year. I think this realisation is also coming as far as the investment community is concerned. The whole theme around Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) is trying to bring certain features that are not part of the unidimensional profit maximisation model and making it a little more encompassing and intrusive.”
Narayanan believes that it’s in the interest of the business to take a less hard-headed view and plunge into the pursuit of whatever metric that it’s measuring itself by.
India’s journey in business impact
Narayanan stated that while the US and Europe are ahead in terms of the societal impact of business, India is starting that journey.
He said, “I think it’s fair to say that Europe and the US and their realisation of the societal impact of business is vastly better. I’m not just saying it because of the various kind of reports that they (the West) are asking companies to put out, but I think the shrill cry of climate change, inequality, societal goals and sustainability goals are coming from the West. The country that talks about Vasusdhaiva Kutumbakam cannot be now talking about excluding parts of its own family from the impact of business. We are starting that journey but we still need to accelerate and need some champions of change.”
Pause over pivot
The next point of discussion Bijapurkar touched upon was about whether companies need to pause, pivot or moat.
Narayanan said that he believes companies need to pause rather than pivot or moat. “The fundamental principles of business – engagement, relationship, output, input, impact will not dramatically change. But we need to pause, understand the changes that have taken place and which will be a permanent change and which won’t be. The fact of the matter is that no sociologist, economist or geopolitical expert can put down saying 2021 will be like this. So pausing makes sense because it brings in two things – continuity and humility. Pivoting a business is showing overconfidence and says ‘I know what’s exactly to be done’. Moat is complacency and it’s about saying ‘life is comfortable’.
Changes for the Indian consumer
The pandemic is changing people and their outlooks according to Narayanan, but, he doesn’t think the Indian consumer will be completely changing in terms of aspirations, attitudes, consumption and outcomes.
He explained, “We would still want to eat our bhel puri on the street – we may get a bit more conscious in terms of whether the plate and establishment are clean. Where I think the consumer will become a lot more acute will be on the trust that he puts on the brands – brands need to behave in the right way and do the right things both as far as the consumer experience is concerned and also the larger impact in terms of the business. People will ask questions and the kind of questions millennials are asking about brands are a lot more acute than the salary, designation, benefit questions that we had when we started our career. It’s refreshing and will put pressure on companies to build trust.”
He added that this new line of thought is not limited to the metros. “If you look at consumer seeking brands even in rural markets, consumers are asking the same questions – the safety of the product, whether it’s good for me or not. In the pandemic, a family as a unit has become so much stronger. At one level it’s a pain point for some people to spend so much time with the family versus the few hours earlier. At the same time, the focus is on the family as a unit and whether I’m a guy earning Rs 10,000 per month or whether I earn Rs 10 lakh a month I worry about the same things – my wife and kid. Just the ways of expressing this could be different.”