This interview was done with Meera Harish when she was Vice President-Sales & Marketing at Tata Coffee Ltd.
Meera Harish is a senior management professional with the Tata Group having spent two decades with Titan Industries Ltd. She is presently Vice President, International Business & Brand Extensions with Hidesign. Her core competence lies in global brand building which she has done successfully, launching the Titan brand into countries of the Asia Pacific. Meera’s passion for catering to the needs of the discerning Indian woman led her to head Marketing, Design and Category Management at India’s largest jewellery brand – Tanishq in 2004.
Her current interest lies in Innovation and she speaks in India and globally on Cross Pollination Innovation and how organizations build a culture of innovation. The co- author of a Harvard Business case study, among the top 100 managers in the country, guest faculty at Oxford University, on the Boards of two social organizations, panel member with AIMA and CII, a hands-on mother of a teenager, Meera wears multiple hats and wishes she knew how to juggle time a bit better!
Having managed various roles at Tata, what has been your mantra when moving from one category to other to remain agile yet align with the needs of the category you are heading?
When I move to a new role, I immerse myself completely in the category or the subject. I read up extensively on the category, talk to colleagues, consumers and retailers, attend conferences on the subject, digest all the HBR and McKinsey material on the category and start `living the role’. It’s almost like an actor who gets into the character…I suppose like actor Daniel Day-Lewis known for his obsessive preparation and for remaining in character through out the filming of the movie! In just a few months, I begin to absorb the new role and its challenges. As my mind is constantly connecting dots, I start evolving new ideas which might work for the business and start experimenting and putting them into action. I also find that often, unconnected dots start connecting in my mind which is how I have become a huge proponent of cross pollination innovation. I stay in character.
You have played a key role in entering new geographies, over the years what is the kind of change you have seen overseas towards Indian brands?
In the late 90s, it used to be a huge struggle to launch an Indian brand in any of the overseas markets. India was not known for consumer electronics and hence, watches was a particularly difficult category. No retailer or distribution house was willing to work with a watch brand from India. In fact, there were only a few things India was known for those days – silk, jewelry, yoga, handicrafts and so on. Anything that was remotely tech was frowned upon. In a category like watches, it is important for the brand to be globally recognized and to come from a country known for precision – like Switzerland or Japan. `Made in India’ was not a worthy calling card!
Things have dramatically changed since then, thanks largely to the efforts of the IT industry which led the way, especially firms like Infosys, Wipro, TCS and Mindtree. The other contributory factor was the opening up of the Indian economy post liberalization that lead to a heightened interest in India and Indian brands. Suddenly, India seemed to acquire an enviable status in global markets. There is a perceptible difference in how the world views India today v/s how it did in the late 90s and that made it easier for brands like Titan. The brand is now present in over 30 countries globally and in some markets, has double digit market share in retail.
What are few things to keep in mind when entering new geographies especially international territory?
There are two main aspects to consider while entering a new international market. First, it is always important to spend time understanding the maturity and nuances of the category and industry that one is entering into – the competitor landscape, maturity of the industry, consumer preferences, brand loyalties, retail scenario if applicable, regulatory frameworks etc. My favourite example of not reading the consumer habits well is of a global automobile company which misread Indian driving habits in the passenger car segment. In an attempt to reach their targeted price point for India, owners sit in the rear seats and drivers sit in front and it is the owners who would need the roll down window option!
Second, it is always important to understand the culture of the country and how they like to run their businesses and their perception of other nations. For eg, when Tata Motors acquired Daewoo Motors in Korea, the Korean workers and management initially did not want an Indian firm acquiring them, they wanted a European firm with technological prowess and financial resources to acquire them. That was because of the perception they had of India. Tata Motors due diligence team that was in Gunsan for the acquisition launched a structured program to educate the Koreans about India and the Tata Group, its values, ethical management and good corporate governance. What followed was that Tata Motors acquired Daewoo in 2004.
What according to you has been your biggest challenge during your professional years?
My biggest challenge over years has been time. It feels as though I am perpetually on wheels; and I never have enought time to do all the things I want to do!
Could you share your mantra to succeed especially to women professionals?
I have been deeply inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s quote- Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe.
I have always believed that life responds to deserve and not to need. It doesn’t say- `if you need, you will reap’ instead `if you plant, you will reap’.
Try to be intellectually curious. Be interested in experiences and always grab opportunities and challenges. I struggle with time only because I don’t say no to any experience that comes my way because that’s what enriches me, teaches me something new and motivates me. It’s important to move out of your comfort zone and your core circle of influence. Don’t stay within the narrow confines of your job but do more. We women sometimes tend not to be bold and courageous. We should never live life paralysed in fear of anybody or anything. Most importantly, be compassionate, this is important in life. Compassion doesn’t mean social service or a cheque to an NGO – it could just be compassion towards the people who work in your household, but show that compassion.
This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Marketing Booster magazine, her title has been updated on 14th September 2017