Monday, April 17, 2017

Is brand Infosys pushing the self-destruct button?

It takes just a moment of carelessness to destroy the image brands painstakingly build

Before you read this piece, I would like to place certain facts on the table. I am a great admirer of the Infosys brand and its founders. I have featured the company in my books, columns and lectures, and have nothing but the greatest admiration for the founders’ philanthropy. 

Yet, I have been dismayed at the divisive nature of statements made by its chief architect and founder NR Narayana Murthy in the last several months, where he spoke to the media about issues that have the board and the investors at large concerned.

I have neither the competency nor the desire to comment on areas outside my purview, and will therefore, confine myself to my primary area of interest - the Infosys brand equity, that is currently facing a lot of erosion and dilution.
Darling of the bourses
My association with the brand spans over 25 years. I had the good fortune of handling its public issue in one of my earlier avatars and had observed the founders from close quarters - their simplicity, vision and ambition. I have had meetings at the company’s modest office in Koramangala, which has since become a heritage centre for the IT services behemoth. 

When it made an initial public offer, the issue was undersubscribed and ended up making a lot of people rich and some, like me, comfortable. The employer of choice had put India on the global software map and been prominently featured in Thomas Friedman’s landmark book, The World Is Flat. It continued to make headlines - after all, it was the first Indian company to be listed on the Nasdaq.
Media relations
The media loved the company and Infosys got a larger-than-life projection. It would be fair to say that a lot of its positive image had to do with strategic media relations, spearheaded by founders who largely shunned the advertising route. And as someone who spent most of his life in advertising, I had a grudging admiration for the brand and its ability to harness the largely unmanageable media not only in India but also globally.

But media can be strange bedfellows, and companies and individuals who wooed them have often come to grief - albeit because of their own doing. Although it may seem inappropriate in this context, let’s not forget how quickly Vijay Mallya moved from the ‘king of good times’ to the ‘king of bad times’.
Bad blood
The last few months have not been ordinary for Infosys — neither at the bourses nor in the media. There have been a number of stories about the company’s inability to meet its promised targets, bad press about expenses and compensation of its chief executive officer, and rumours about using a private jet. But the latest salvo from the founder, NR Narayana Murthy is a letter to the media about the COO’s salary.

While media lapped up the great man’s comments, it raises a number of issues not only about the way the company is being run but also about a host of issues on corporate governance, ethics and management responsibility. While social media and private discussions range from ‘Why should dirty linen be washed in public?’ and ‘Is NRN suffering from withdrawal symptoms and is unable to let go?’ to ‘Is Infosys the same company it was in the early nineties?’ and ‘Should not CEO’s be given freedom to operate?’, my underlying feeling as an admirer of the brand is one of regret that it is shooting itself in the foot. It reminds me of some of my golfing friends who play wonderfully till the fourteenth hole and then press the self-destruct button.
Brands under fire
Brands constantly come under fire, whether it is Tylenol, Maggi or Tata. This is a crisis or the beginnings of one, coupled with poor performance and possible shaky employee morale. The focus should be on resolving the issues rather than trying to assuage the feelings of an injured founder.

While it would be difficult to go back to business as usual or brush the issue under the carpet, the solution is definitely not to talk to each other through the media. To my mind, the onus is on Narayana Murthy to realise that the brand he created, championed and built is now under severe threat.

Sadly, the enemy is within. Good sense will hopefully prevail, as we have a brand that put India on the global software map and was a great source of pride to its employees, investors and customers.

Yes, brands take time, effort, energy and money to build. But like a fine crystal, it needs just a moment of carelessness to destroy its beauty.

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