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Companies need to embrace technology and creativity to grow, says HUL’s Harish Manwani

The Hindustan Unilever Limited Chairman spoke about ‘reimagining business in changing times’ at the AGM of the company

Harish Manwani

Businesses need to constantly innovate in order to grow and this requires companies to embrace technology and creativity and bring both ‘magic and logic’ into their product experience and go-to-market models, said Harish Manwani, Chairman, Hindustan Unilever Limited. Manwani was speaking about the fast changing and increasingly complex global environment at the company’s 84th Annual General Meeting.

Talking about innovating for the future, Manwani shared how Unilever’s People Data Centre analyses trends from social media, consumer carelines and digital marketing, and turns millions of ‘conversations’ into innovative brand ideas for the core portfolio. “We are now able to reach out to more consumers by capturing and analysing their digital footprint, geo-location and in-store purchase behaviour,” he said.

Manwani talked about the challenges the world faces today, namely growing inequality, technological unemployment and resource scarcity. In India, a country well poised to leapfrog into the future, the challenge is two-fold: that of employment generation and employability.  He stated that businesses will have to work with educators and government to develop skill development programmes in order to ensure that the workforce of tomorrow has future-ready skills. He stressed the need for companies to re-imagine not only their business models but more fundamentally their role in the society.

Manwani highlighted how technological advancement has the potential of restructuring not just global business models but the nature of work. He explained, “Companies will need to stimulate innovation, accelerate digital transition, reduce costs and run their businesses more efficiently to face the challenges of this new world.”

He mentioned how India is uniquely positioned to leapfrog with the technological advances and at the same time avoid the trap holes that the rest of the world has experienced in their journey from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’.

He said that India has the youngest population profiles in the world with over 65% of its population below the age of 35. “While this can become a demographic dividend for the country, herein also lies India’s biggest challenge. The challenge is two-fold: of creating enormous employment generation opportunities and raising the employability and skills of the Indian youth,” he added. He explained, “Businesses must step in to lift the capabilities and put as much emphasis on developing shop floor workers as managerial talent.”

Manwani spoke about how businesses can grow, remain relevant and at the same time earn their right to exist within the communities. “Business should be able to do well by doing good,” he said. “We have to move from the 3G model (consistent, competitive and profitable growth) to a 4G model where the 4th G recognises the importance of ‘responsible’ growth.”

A Unilever study conducted across five countries shows that a third of consumers are now buying brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. According to Manwani, organisations of the future need to be purpose-driven and values-led.

He spoke about Unilever brands such as Lifebuoy, Domex and Pureit, which are contributing towards the nation’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) agenda by promoting good health and hygiene practices. He also spoke about how Unilever is decoupling environmental impact from its operations. He also mentioned how in India HUL has been enhancing livelihoods by developing employable skills of people across its value chain.

According to Manwani, “Innovations for the changing world need to be underpinned by an organisational structure that fosters agility, connectivity and diversity.” He cited the example of Winning In Many Indias that has made the business even more agile and responsive to the evolving marketplace. He also added how Unilever’s Connected For Growth initiative has further brought the country and global category teams together to promote a culture of collaboration, experimentation and empowerment, and enable faster decision-making with speed and agility.

Manwani concluded that in order to grow, companies need to constantly innovate across their value chain, invest in new business models, create non-hierarchical outcome-based organisational structures and build a diverse talent base that has skills and capabilities to operate in a digital world. He added, “Most importantly, business needs to reimagine its role in society and commit to doing well by doing good.”

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