C.K. Venkataraman, 60, the new Managing Director of Titan Company — who cycles to office every day and is a regular marathoner — thinks that age is just a number. He loves to sing and has many a times unknowingly entertained his co-passengers on flights as he hummed (loud enough for others to hear) while listening to old Bollywood classics. Venkatraman’s friendly demeanor is probably something that is best suited for the ₹20,000-crore lifestyle major, which is trying hard to break out of its legacy image.
The company’s biggest challenge today is to resonate with the aspirational Indian millennial, who account for close to 65 per cent of the country’s population. Though Titan is the most loved and respected, it is not considered aspirational enough. A 25-year-old prospective bride may buy her wedding jewellery at a Tanishq store, but owning a Titan watch may not be part of her style statement. She would in all likelihood dismiss it as fuddy-duddy. The lifestyle major may be one of the favourites in the stock market by virtue of its impressive financial performance, but brand Titan definitely needs a makeover.
Venkataraman took over from mentor Bhaskar Bhat, who hung up his boots in September 2019 after being at the helm for over 30 years. Bhat was the classic nuts-and-bolts leader who had an eye for perfection and meticulously crafted strategies. In 2018, under his leadership, Titan was among the most-valued companies of the Tata Group. From jewellery to eyewear and later sarees, Bhat had the knack of entering commoditised businesses and converting them into branded play. He retired with a dream of growing Titan into a ₹50,000-crore company by 2023, which would touch the lives of 50-million Indians (Titan currently serves 18 million).
Though their leadership styles may be different, Venkataraman considers himself an extension of his mentor, Bhat. “Our values are the same. The value of taking care of multiple stakeholders, empowering and trusting your people and the criticality of ethics are among the things that have always been dear to me too. My respect for Bhaskar is so high because what I deeply care for is what he deeply cares too.”
The Pandemic Shocker
Venkataraman may have taken over a fairly stable ship, but months into his new role, the economy came to a standstill due to the lockdown. Titan being a lifestyle company, had to pay a heavy price. It’s operating revenue declined by 62 per cent in Q1FY21, the revenue of its flagship jewellery business, Tanishq, dipped by 71 per cent, while revenue from watches and eyewear dipped by 90 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively.
Venkataraman and his new team’s priority was to fire-fight the situation. “The greatest challenge staring at me and my team was how do we encourage people to dress up and celebrate occasions staying at home,” he says. Taking forward his mentor’s dream of building Titan Company into a ₹50,000-crore entity had to take a backseat, as the priority was to keep the business afloat.
As if fighting the Covid crisis wasn’t enough, the lifestyle major was also rocked by controversy for an online ad campaign it did for its jewellery collection, Ekatvam. The narrative of a Muslim mother-in-law’s love and acceptance of her Hindu daughter in-law led to a backlash and the brand pulled down the campaign within hours of going live. Though the narrative was termed as misogynistic, many advertising and marketing professionals felt that by pulling down the campaign, Titan Company had gone against the bold stands that brand Tanishq had always taken.
Its campaign on second marriage a few years ago, which showed a man accepting his wife’s daughter from her earlier marriage, was a bold one and took its progressive brand imagery to a new level. “It was really sad that a company from the Tata Group felt the need to backtrack on a socially positive issue — a company known to be non-sectarian and deeply humanitarian. Tanishq could have pulled down its shutters for a week or so to prevent vandalism instead of stepping back from its stand,” says Alpana Parida, Founder, Tiivra Ventures, a start-up that specialises in creating designer helmets for two-wheelers.
However, Ajoy Chawla, CEO, Jewellery Business, says there was no point being on a high horse when the campaign had created so much polarisation. “We are a progressive brand and we would like to carry people along with this. Since the ad was creating polarisation and putting staff and our teams at risk, we thought it was better to withdraw,” says Chawla. Since then, the company has increased its investment on social listening. “We run our campaigns through a diversity test to understand how people are interpreting it,” adds Chawla.
Opportunity In Crisis
Though doing business was tough last year, the pandemic put Venkataraman’s vision of creating an agile, younger and digitally savvy Titan (which he had co-created with his mentor, Bhat), on an accelerator. Titan had invested ₹150 crore in 2016 on its digital transformation, which reaped fruits during the pandemic. Digital contributed an estimated ₹800 crore to the company’s overall business last year.
During the pandemic, Venkataraman and his team trained the store staff to sell through video calls. The company also launched the ‘endless aisle’ concept, through which customers can choose from the inventory of the various formats of Titan Company from the comfort of her home. A Bengali customer in Bengaluru looking for traditional Bengali wedding jewellery could browse through the inventory of Tanishq stores in Kolkata. They could place their orders online and once the jewellery is shipped to Bengaluru, one can either go to the store and complete the sale, or get it delivered home by paying online. Chawla of Tanishq says his wow moment was when a family in Bengaluru bought wedding jewellery worth ₹8 lakh through a video call.
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