Article: What businesses can learn from the sunset of iconic brands

#ChangeManagement

What businesses can learn from the sunset of iconic brands

In 2014, legendary brands such as HMT watches and Ambassador wound up production. Lessons from their history
What businesses can learn from the sunset of iconic brands
 

All companies should become aspirational workplaces. They not only need to inspire employees, but also give them a better environment to work in

 

Guess what! HMT is going to stop production.”

I looked up from my phone. It was late night and my husband and I were settling in for the night. As always, he was at his computer and me at my mobile.

My first reaction: “Wow! Are you kidding?”

Nope, he said. “They used to make the best watches ever. It is really sad that they are shutting down.” Soon, I was looking for news related to HMT shutdown and voila, there it was. Established in 1961, the once illustrious watch company will be winding down operations as it has been reeling under losses since 2000. With manpower of more than 1,000 employees, the brand that once defined affordability and timeliness for the Indian masses has been unable to pay salaries to its employees.

HMT was synonymous with watches, like Bisleri for bottled water. “I remember that my dad always had an HMT watch. He actually had it for years.” I said in amazement, while at the same time thinking about how often we change our watches. Their tag line “Timekeepers to the nation” was pretty apt.

Soon, my husband started checking the HMT website. “You know, they had the best mechancal watches ever. All you had to do was wind the watch everyday and it would work perfectly for years to come. Of course, later they introduced the quartz and battery operated watches.” Slow decision-making and entry of new players in the 1980s along with tacky designs and old production techniques proved to be the death knell for the watchmaker. Many HMT employees eventually made their way to Titan.

Soon, we both were looking through the website for mechanical watches. We wanted a piece of history before it disappeared into the oblivion of time. Our scramble to buy the watches before they completely stopped production led me to think about how iconic the brand had become before it made the blunder of making quartz watches—something the watchmaker never really recovered from.

Management Lesson #1: Never ever underestimate competition. The history of busines is strewn with many stories like HMT and Kodak, which reigned over the market for so long that they became complacent. So complacent that they ignored all market signs, did nothing to innovate to keep the customer happy and engaged and waited for things to get really bad before doing something about it.

And the sun has set not just on this brand, but also on two other brands like the Ambassador, the Maruti 800.

Growing up, we’d always take the Ambassador if we wanted to travel somewhere within the state. Its spacious inside coupled with huge boot space and the joy of helping the driver with the gear changes were all too good to miss. Now, of course, the cars supposedly have better seats, AC, seat belts and power steering. The Ambassador was a tool in the driver’s hand and many a driver learnt their first lessons on that. They also came to be associated with politicians, as that became the vehicle with the lal batti (red beacon). Be it bureucrats, politicians, rich folks or the poorest, everyone rode in an ambassador.

From the stable of Hindustan Motors, the Ambassador was in production even before HMT was established. The first cars were made in 1958 and were modelled after the British Morris Oxford. Called the “King of Indian Roads”, it trudged upon the biggest and smallest of pothole-ridden roads in India. But like the HMT, it too got into the complacent mode and wasn’t prepared when Maruti Suzuki launched the low-cost hatchback called 800. As of 25th May 2014, the Ambassador, fondly known as the Amby, stopped production.

Management Lesson #2: The Amby never really changed its design or technology until late, so much so that it even got banned in the city where it was made, Kolkata, as it failed to keep up with the pollution norms. Not only that, it was a fuel guzzler and maintenance costs were very high. Even politicians and bureaucrats, who were among the mainstay for demand of Ambys, stopped ordering and switched to the trendier sedans. In the 90s when the markets were opened up, HMT was defined as the chunky watchmaker while Titan came to be known as today’s watchmaker because of their trendy designs. If you don’t innovate, you will not survive and that applies not only to companies but also to employees.

The Maruti 800, when it was launched in 1983, signalled a new phase of car ownership. A couple from Delhi became the first owner of the car for Rs 47,500 and the keys to the car were handed over by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Produced at a time when the Amby was going great guns, it turned out to fuel the second car revolution in the country. If Amby was the car for the masses (after politicians, bureaucrats and taxi drivers), then Maruti 800 became a status symbol. It became the most affordable car of the nienties. It symbolised the dream that many families had of owning a car that looked sleek and yet kept the mileage looking Indian happy. These brands stood the test of time and are now finally hanging up their boots.

Management Lesson #3: It is important that any brand or company should be aspirational to its employees. Every human being aspires for greater things and being in a company that allows you to explore your career, your horizons ultimately propels the company to greater heights not just in terms of revenue, but also in terms of innovation and creativity. Life is not just about taking a pay packet home at the end of the day, but also on how enriching that experience is? Are your employees properly engaged and happy with the work they do?

They were the stars of the rising Indian middle class. During the 80s and the 90s, anything that you bought was meant to last a very very long time. I remember I used to get hand me downs from my brother for text books and notebooks. We made notebooks on our own as we wanted to avoid spending money on them. The ambassador and the Maruti, in the time they were present were the best options for the paisa vasool Indian. Of course, there were other brands. But, if one had to pick and choose, the price conscious Indian would always go for stuff that is lighter on the wallet. That also translated into the employment space. If earlier people chose their education based on jobs that paid well, these days people choose jobs based on not just the pay packet and a well known company, but also the challenges they offer, the travel and the varied responsibilities. Today, employees want to take sabbaticals, go abroad for further studies or take long holidays. They want to work hard and party harder. And the companies that give the freedom to the employees to do that always score higher.

Topics: #ChangeManagement, Employee Engagement

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