The summer of 2010 was an incredible experience for me. I was interning at a leading agro chemical manufacturer and they sent me on a blitzkrieg visit to cover all their major markets in South India. The poor souls were labouring under the misapprehension that I would somehow discover what was going wrong with their flagship product, a 25 year old insecticide that was showing distinct signs of geriatric breakdown as far as sales were concerned. “Fresh perspective”, is what the industry euphemistically calls the interns, who more often than not are greenhorns with absolutely no idea about what they are doing. In this case, the company had enticed me by sugar coating a desperate situation with the magic phrase, “Strategy development”. I started work with wild fantasies of coming up with a magic pill that would metamorphose the “decline phase” of the product into “accelerated development”.
First Stage – Base lining
All good strategy development projects start with a lot of secondary research, to get to know as much as possible about the situation at hand. The idea behind this is very simple. When you go for your first client visit, you do not want to ask them the reason why they want to cling on to a product which is naturally dying a slow death. For all you know, the insecticide might have been named after the founder’s ex-wife. Marked similarities between the two might have led to emotional attachments. So I found out a consultant in US who had done some work for an MNC on the same problem. He seemed amused when I informed him of my assignment. “Mr. Nair”, his email reply read, “I have had to change companies twice after I worked on this case. All the best.” So the problem was universal. But I wasn’t about to be disheartened. After all, I was an intern. I had fresh perspective. And of course, it was always possible that the US consultant had made the faux pas of suggesting that the MNC change its product’s name.
Second stage – Market research
I toured 4 states in South India over 4 weeks, visiting 39 villages, 200 farmers, a landlord who wanted to marry his daughter to me because he thought I was an IAS officer and an amateur film producer who wanted me to preview his magnum opus (which also happened to be his first work). I travelled in the luggage compartments of trains, and shared a berth with an elderly woman who ended up stretching her 5 foot frame to cover the entire berth at night. I covered villages which had escaped the 2010 Census drive. Everywhere, I hounded farmers and retail shops with clipboards holding questionnaires. I had taken a course on Research in Marketing Design at IIMB, which was all about how to create questionnaires using scientific techniques and decision making insights (like how to avoid double barrelled questions) and conduct analysis on their results. But the questionnaire I prepared for real life application took shape over a bottle of Black Dog and a nightout. This was one of those moments when one realises that the twelve lakhs of tuition fee might have gone down the drain somewhere in between. I could have bought over a thousand bottles of Black Dog instead.
Third stage – Enlightenment
The next stage is crucial in any consulting assignment. It’s that time of the project when the presence of a solution or the lack of it dawns on you. It usually comes slowly over time, feeding upon a steady diet of myriad observations, irrelevant theories, insufficient field research and unshakeable prejudices. But rare cases of sudden enlightenment have also been reported, after having which, you usually race off to establish new religions. In this case, yours truly discovered the reason for low sales after fortuitous discussions with a few farmers. It turned out that while the insecticide was a huge hit with the farmers as well as the pests (for exactly the same reason) at the time of its introduction, 25 years had elapsed since then. What the company failed to realise was that the farmers as well as the pests had been replaced by their second generation, who obstinately refused to acknowledge its usefulness, having seen better products. I was in a fix now, for the emotionally charged clients who had sponsored my dinner dates for nearly a month would not be pleased to hear that their product, which they so obviously loved, was close to kicking the bucket in the market.
Fourth stage – Plated service (also called Windup presentation)
Then came the fourth and final stage, called so after the catering tradition of dressing up dishes and presenting them to the diners in a mouth watering format. True to training, I conjured up over 20 Perception maps, BCG matrices, two 50 page reports and a green formatted presentation. After all this effort, it turned out that the VP – Sales of the company, to whom I was supposed to present all this, was a hard talking, paan chewing ex salesman from UP who spat at perception maps, hadn’t heard of BCG matrices, disdained thick reports and was colour blind. Believe me. You can’t make this shit up. To top it all, he was a giant of a man with a huge booming voice. “Tell me what to do about this product.” It was a command, not a statement. To my credit, I tried honesty first. “Well sir, taking into consideration the fact that this product has been a cash cow for the company for the past 25 years, with the first 15 of them seeing a high growth phase and the rest 10 a maturity phase, we need to realise that the product is inevitably going into the decline phase as of now and will continue to show decreasing ROI until it finally goes into red. Meanwhile, as I have shown in my report and as is evident from the perceptual maps, the customer demand and perception of quality is showing huge gaps in the market, which can be filled by introducing new products that will give us first mover advantage in at least three product categories, thus effectively nullifying any loss of brand value we may face if we pull out this insecticide at this juncture.”
The VP’s face, which had progressed from a wheatish hue through a pale pink to a florid red by this time, betrayed signs of apoplexy. “Are you telling me that we have to withdraw this product?” It was a threat, not a question.
I weighed my options. This guy seemed old enough to have been the product manager at the time of launch of the insecticide in question. He seemed close to retirement now, and probably looked upon the damned thing as his legacy. Compared to his old age, I was young, smart and had a long way to go in life still. No sense in getting strangled by him unnecessarily.
“Of course not, sir, just change the name of the product. We can re launch it gloriously.”