I was the Global Brand Manager at Infosys during the massive growth years – 1998 – 2003. Sure we were lifted by a rising tide – these were the heady Y2K and first dotcom boom years.  But there were other IT firms which were not able to catch that tide or stay afloat post those trigger – so clearly Infosys did something right.  The Chairman and for a time, CEO, in those years was N R Narayana Murthy (NRN).  (Nandan Nilekani was elevated to CEO in 2002.)

Over the past few years, as share prices dropped and worse, and Infosys’ sheen dulled, at ex-Infoscion gatherings there was a semi-humourous discussion that N R Narayana Murthy “NRN” should return.  But most thought that was not possible.  I was there at the beautifully scripted and emotional farewell organized by Infosys in 2011.  It was a sign of the organization’s graciousness that nearly a 100 of us former employees were invited to this dinner.  It was – as we thought – the end of a chapter.

There has been much chatter about whether he should or shouldn’t have come back.  I think that his return is positive for Infosys.  Ok, I’m biased.  I learnt a lot from my years at Infosys and have a lot of respect personally for NRN. Let me try and see how his presence might help.

One of Mr Murthy’s mandates is that to be interesting you had to keep doing interesting things.  Each department was told to come up with something exciting.  This push was what led to firsts like listing on Nasdaq (US), Nasdaq (Japan), reporting under US GAAP, brand valuation under Black Scholes model, Wharton Infosys Business Transformation Award, Internal Awards for Excellence, CMM Level 4, then Level 5 and many more.

This made Infosys very unique in a context – these achievements while not firsts at a global level, but were often the first by an Indian firm.  Coupled with the charisma and articulateness of executives like NRN and Nandan this made Infosys a PR darling.

The success of this PR, perhaps has lead to an over-reliance on this vehicle of marketing.  It will no longer be sufficient because:

a. Infosys is now a global firm and has to notch up firsts at the international level.  It is no longer sufficient to be unique in a context.  And even that has flagged in recent years as the firsts have petered out

b. The days of Indian IT being a hot story are over.  New kids on the block like ecommerce and product startups are hogging the limelight. 

c. To get disproportional media coverage you need to have a certain type of spokesperson, one who can make the topic interesting and more important, is keen to engage with the media and general public.  Infosys benefited from having 4, not just one – Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Mohandas Pai, and Phaneesh Murthy in the US. 

Mr Murthy is very marketing-savvy, and will realize this.  Am hoping that other vehicles such as advertising and thought leadership will receive an impetus in his second innings.  I advise my clients to use the full gamut – nine in all – of marketing channels.  Over time the relative investment will vary, but the focus must be equal in all.  Infosys will no longer benefit from being a small player fighting the biggies  – it is a mammoth itself and will need to pay for its publicity just like the big folks do.  

Secondly, Infosys has to relook at its differentiation.  The world around has changed and many of its old levers are no longer valid.  It is still favored by clients for its excellence in execution, but it needs to communicate reasons to buy beyond that – or risk being commoditized not just at the service level, but at the organizational level.  The new website, launched just a week ago, still falls short of communicating anything new or exciting.  Building tomorrow’s expertise requires stronger legs to stand on than the collection of innovations listed there.  A new positioning statement is a big step and requires top management to have an appetite for risk, as well as a strong grasp of market and customer realities – Mr Murthy in the past was known for this.  

Third, Infosys benefited vastly from the relationships cultivated by Mr Murthy and later Nandan Nilekani – both are very good networkers.  Each senior member was also measured on the number of new relationship generated and owned.  There are now two routes open to them – either identify another charismatic social CEO, or – and this is more scaleable – move to a model where customer relationships and the marketing programs are CEO-agnostic.  (Quick – can you name the CEO of IBM or Accenture? No? See?) 

Many detractors have pointed out that the market scenario is very different now from the heydays of the 2000s. True. But what is required to cope is a process and scaleable organization that can cope with the new environment – and that is his strength.

pic courtesy: indiatimes.com 

7 COMMENTS

  1. This is the most insightful article i have read on the subject. Thank you for a thought provoking “what next” piece

  2. Very good insights. Thanks
    NRN, coming back to Infosys will help the company in the short term. However,this desperate move , also indicates the collosal failure of the succession plan. How can such large companies , depend on individuals and not develop , appropriate and capable successors.

  3. Nice piece Jessie. Also shows how important it is for organizations to keep that foot on the pedal even when the going is great. Can’t take things easy as things can go downhill…almost overnight.

  4. Beautiful analogy – what made Infosys stand out earlier and what needs to be done now. Even those of us, who have not worked with Infosys, have always admired its growth and values. Infosys is a brand in which every Indian takes pride in. Mr. Narayan Murthy, sure will be able to bring in synergy in the new evolving environment.. Infosys, need to continue as the most respected organization ever created in the corporate world.

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