May 2010

Tata — a love letter

In his blog, world famous brand expert Wally Olins shares his independent views of Tata and reveals that it is the company he admires more than any other. Wally spent much of his working life in India, he is currently chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants

It is typical of Tata, India’s most illustrious and admired brand and arguably its largest company, that its head office should be located in a smallish, undistinguished 1920s building down a side street in downtown Mumbai’s Fort district, which ceased to be the financial centre of the city many years ago.

Tata has so elevated honesty, modesty and good behaviour linked to immense courage, self confidence and the sharpest eye for an opportunity that it seems entirely appropriate that its head office should be almost ostentatiously unostentatious. Only the building’s name, Bombay House, underlines Tata’s primacy in Indian commerce and industry. Everything else about the building seems to be, perhaps almost deliberately, undistinguished.

I first came to know Tata many years ago when I was head of what is now Ogilvy, the advertising agency, in Mumbai and some of the Tata companies became our client. At that time Tata’s boss was JRD Tata, familiarly known as ‘Jeh’, a family member, a pioneer pilot, founder of Air India and like his equally great, but quite different, successor Ratan Tata, a charismatic personality and a legend in his own lifetime.

The group
I had never met a company quite like Tata before and I never have since. Tata, was and is, involved in the widest possible variety of businesses — software consultancy, steel making, cars and trucks, hotels, tea, consumer products, mobile telephones, power and practically everything else you can think of. This is pretty unusual in Europe and the US but is part of a quite familiar pattern in India — so that doesn’t make Tata all that special.

Because Tata is much more of a loosely held group than a tightly managed organisation, Tata companies vary a lot. Each of them is as much influenced by the sector to which it belongs as it is by the Tata way of doing things. Most of them are pretty good companies, a few are exceptional but I have to say that in my experience one or two are a bit below par.

But Tata has other characteristics which when put together make the organisation truly unique. In a country where bribery and corruption are an entirely accepted part of the commercial way of life, Tata companies don’t do it. I’m not seriously suggesting that nobody in Tata ever took or was ever offered a bribe, but what I am saying is that the Tata ethos is dead set against it — to such an extent that it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most organisations don’t try to bribe Tata and Tata companies keep away from contracts where bribery is expected. In India, that’s pretty unusual.

In addition, Tata behaves properly to its own people. Tata Steel (then called Tisco) introduced the eight hour working day in 1912, eight years before it was introduced in the UK; it introduced holiday pay in 1920, 18 years before the UK. And that’s just a couple of examples.

Then there’s CSR. Over the last 20 years or so, large corporations around the world have tried to project their concern for the environment, their desire to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, ill health and everything else you can think of. Most of these heavily promoted CSR efforts are regarded with scepticism by articulate critics, because they feel, in my judgement, usually correctly, that CSR is a superficial add-on with no real roots inside the corporation purporting to be involved with it.

With Tata it’s different. A very high proportion of corporate profits go into various Tata charitable foundations and have done for more than 100 years and Tata doesn’t make a noise about it. It just happens and it always has. Tata trusts of various kinds own 65.8 per cent of Tata Sons, the holding company. Tata Foundations are in everything, health, education, culture and art — the lot. And that is understood and accepted to such an extent that nobody in Tata talks about it much.

Most Tata companies make lots of money, a great deal is reinvested, some goes to shareholders and much of it to various charitable foundations. Tata people, even at the very top, don’t make huge fortunes. Unlike most heads of very big Indian companies Ratan Tata is not on the Forbes Rich List. He lives comfortably but quite modestly.

Another characteristic of Tata is that it is a pioneering organisation on a huge scale. Everywhere you look in India Tata was either first or one of the first — chemicals, commercial vehicles, fertilisers, steel, hotels. When the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay (now unhappily, widely known for the terrorist incident of 2008) was built in 1903, it was one of India’s biggest and one of its first.

Tata started building India’s first major steelworks at Jamshedpur, formerly part of the notoriously backward and corrupt state of Bihar, in 1908. It was a beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

These pioneering efforts have been sustained. When Tata went global early in the 21st century, it went in style. Tata bought Corus, formerly British Steel and the Dutch Hoogovens in 2007, and Jaguar Land Rover in 2008.

The Tata brand
I’ve worked happily with Tata and some of its various companies for more years than I care to remember. A few years ago, I worked very successfully with Ratan Tata on a major rebranding programme for the whole organisation, so I feel I know something about the Tata world.

Tata’s attitude to its brand, like almost everything else about the organisation is pragmatic. Some very important bits are called Tata something like Tata Motors or Tata Steel, others, almost equally high profile like the Taj Group of hotels just have a small Tata endorsement. Some companies with a Tata association don’t use the name at all or only use it when they feel like it.

The name
Tata — the name itself, is of course a branding person’s dream. Its two repeating syllables are impossible to forget. There is no corporate name, anywhere in the world, like it. The word Tata works however you pronounce it in any language and if Tata felt like it, which apparently it doesn’t, not yet anyway, you could play wonderful and memorable games with it — like Tatala. Put another way — the brand has huge potential, which is not yet fully explored.

As a curious example of Tata pragmatism at work, I’ve just seen that Tata Tea has announced a name change to ‘Tata Global Beverages to unite all their beverage interests worldwide’. But steel and motors are global too. So, what about Tata Global Steel or Tata Global Motors? Oh well!

On the whole though I admire Tata with all its strengths and its one or two weaknesses very much. To tell the truth, I actually admire Tata more than any other company I know. There’s something truly magical about it.