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Guest Times: When stars become bigger than companies

Superstars must be nurtured and inspired through every measure possible but this is never at the cost of undoing the worth of the company brand

Shivaji Dasgupta

It is quite common to witness superstars overwhelming organisations as the primary source of value. True for the traditional services sector, including IT, consulting, advertising, F&B and recently true even for the start-up sector and most other sectors. The company brand is often at the mercy of high-profile individuals and a sustainable growth path is difficult to predict. This is largely due to the fundamental error of organisations in exploiting the badge value of superstars for short-term gains, thus dangerously tilting the value proposition. ‘Confluence Branding’ is a technique that will lead to a sustainable equilibrium drawing unique elements from both person and corporation in creating the customer experience.

Just recently I heard an example of a major hospital chain set to lose significant customer base due to a defection in management in tandem with a large section of doctors who would follow the migration pattern dictated by the key attraction. In the audit and accounting industry, big firms move big business due to the shift of a partner in spite of the mammoth organisational antecedents. As is the pattern in genius-intensive businesses like advertising, which has many such renowned anecdotes. Even the relatively assembly-line IT services industry falls prey to this pattern when the relationship is driven by a set of domineering individuals. The master chef of great renown draws customers more than the reputation of the hotel brand and has the ability to be a Pied Piper for his diners. In media, recent examples prove how the majestic news anchor does more for TRPs than any other broadcasting element.

In recent times, the syndrome of the superstar is affecting traditional ‘Product’ sectors as well. At the very least in terms of talent retention as team members often follow the path of the departing leader. Quite naturally the allegiance considered to be far more significant than the career potential of the organisation. This is also known to affect vendor relationships as preferred partnerships end up being personality-driven especially if the same set of people drives the conversation. Stock markets historically get affected when a star leaves a chair even in cases where the board room has seen more than a century of action. As an unfair corollary when a superstar individual is accused of unethical deeds, the corporation takes a major share of the brunt as opposed to a set of valuable systems and processes claiming due credit when success occurs.

‘Confluence Branding’ is a technique where the stakeholder experience is deliberately designed with defining elements of individual genius and corporate pedigree so that the best of both come together in creating a value proposition that can be profitable and sustainable. This can protect the interests of the corporation responsible for livelihood of millions as well as the sanity of the bourses already under sufficient irrational pressure from global swings, terrorism and unforeseen natural and ethical disasters. Most interestingly, it also protects the long-term interests of the superstar by creating an environment for a societally responsible yet profitable growth curve. Internal audiences can also draw a sense of critical purpose as they are aligned to a far larger whole.

The first pillar of a successful ‘Confluence Branding’ strategy is to mirror the excellence of the superstar in the transaction value chain. For a patient undergoing heart surgery, a smooth digitised engagement process, a foot massage in the waiting area, sensitive assistants and a clockwork post-operative follow-up programme will complement the value of the star surgeon. In an advertising agency network, a best-in-class servicing team can delight the client as much as the hero creative director. For a television channel, the anchor’s dominance of Newshour could well have been matched by the best digital news consumption experience. In a restaurant, the techniques of presentation can be designed by a graphic artist with genius comparable to that of the celebrity in the kitchen. Quite often, company brands become so enamoured by the aura of the superstar that they ignore or under-invest in other elements of the experience, which actually can end up being the saviour if the master ever choses to switch colours.

The second pillar of ‘Confluence Branding’ is an active plan to cross-sell. In most instances the company brand does provide a set of other products and services of interest to the core customer. The multi-specialty hospital does take care of every other body function while the luxury hotel offers a lot more than the Japanese Michelin Star restaurant. In the case of advertising, the client should be persuaded to avail of design, digital, activation, PR and every other service on the payroll buoyed by the equity of the mainline superstar. Even the financial analyst should be actively introduced to other elements of a company’s core ethos instead of just focussing on the exceptional creations of the master. Very often we under-estimate the aspect of cross-selling as we are obsessed with the glamour of the product line created by the superstar. Instead we must take advantage of exceptional goodwill to make the customer experience other offerings in the portfolio, thus creating a platform for long-term loyalty that is not uni-dimensional.

The third pillar of ‘Confluence Branding’ is to make organisation culture own the emotional relationship while the superstar is the rational lead. In a hospital, the empathy of the support staff can represent the soul of caring while in a restaurant the stewards can build personal bridges with every customer. The initiatives and practices of a media channel can create connectivity well capable to match the charisma of the superstar. Equally, from a talent management perspective, great organisations are successful in retaining through proven values thus deflecting migration due to flight of leadership. Primarily measures connected to bonding with people on a human level and to constantly re-affirm stability and continuity work very well for internal as well as certain external stakeholders. At times, the culture may be positively influenced by genius and thus get suitably tweaked in the process. It starts with a necessary sense of confidence that the vital dimension of emotional affiliation must be controlled by the company brand. As a symbol of unquestioned continuity and bearer of values that can be influenced by but surpasses even the most exceptional individual.

The fourth pillar of ‘Confluence Branding’ must be the constantly critical Plan B. Like everything else on the planet, human superstars are mortal while corporations can potentially be timeless. When boards get diverted by the seeming impregnability of humans they lose focus on what is the critical continuity formula. If a consulting company has been blessed with a genius then a larger eco-system has predictably been built for an easy takeover by a suitable successor or even successors who will bat brilliantly on a good wicket if truly worthwhile. This must be documented rigorously and constantly monitored with at any given time several candidates ready to be in the fray. An equal part of this exercise can be a sustainable downsizing programme if that is the formula for business continuity. In an ideal state, the superstar herself must be co-opted in this exercise as she often knows best what is the finest recipe for permanence.

Superstars are truly necessary for the rapid adoption of innovation and creating constant consumer delight through differentiated value. They must be nurtured and inspired through every measure possible and that is where the organisation with systems and processes steps in. However, this is never at the cost of undoing the worth of the company brand and thus endangering stability and continuity. Interestingly, he may be the biggest gainer in this process being rewarded handsomely but yet kept on a valuable leash by not being allowed to disproportionately and unethically milk his perceived worth without a sound reason. Integrating soundly with sustainable institutions thus ensuring a continuance of legacy that motivates every creator.

The purpose of ‘Confluence Branding’ is to provide a framework that is truly win-win for every constituency, especially the end customer who is the primary stakeholder. Its four pillars offer a tool for continuity and potentially ammunition for growth. For this to happen, companies must demonstrate a heady mix of vision, courage and dynamism. As we know by now, a happy blend of greatness and goodness is the proven formula for every success.

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