In an interview with WCRC Leaders Asia’s Manvi Sethi, Dr Alok Bharadwaj, Executive Vice-President , Canon India, shares the optical technology giant’s brand essence and plans for India
What is the essence and philosophy of the Canon brand?
Whenever I think of the meaning and the value of a brand, it always crosses my mind that if the name is removed from the product or the service it offers, what value would be left in it. Canon is in the business of technology products and in providing solutions to problems of the customers using this technology. Through this, we build a compelling desire for our products, its applications and services amongst the customers. If I were to remove the name of Canon out of everything we do, how much would it erode our business? Although we haven’t done this experiment yet, however we do know that if we were to offer our customers, products that do not carry our brand name, the entire meaning of the product completely changes. I think therefore, for any product or service across the world, the importance of the brand is extremely high as the essence of the product or service becomes the brand and vice-versa.
Very succinctly said, Brand Canon has been built on three strong offerings: the first and the most important offering is technology. According to me, this is the main essence of the Canon brand. It is the cutting-edge futuristic technology that Cannon offers that makes the customers believe that they are purchasing the best. For us, it’s almost as if we are the custodian of the customers’ future interest with respect to technology and that’s how we position ourselves. The second important brand offering is quality, and this is so sacrosanct with Canon that very often we lose the opportunity of business simply because some segments of the society do not aspire to own a quality product and their quality consciousness is not very high. However our deep level of commitment to quality makes us strive to create products that are no less than any other in that category. The third brand essence of Canon is that it is extremely progressive in its nature. For us, brands are not always for customers, they are also for people who work for it and build propositions for customers. Therefore, it is wrong to say that brands are created only for customers. Canon, as a brand, is known to be very progressive, highly people-centric, very caring and social with strong social objectives. In fact, the philosophy of harmonious working reflects in our brand tagline itself that comes from the Japanese word, ‘KYOSEI’, which means living and working together harmoniously. So technology, quality and progressive nature, according to me, form the essence of the Canon brand.
How would you describe your leadership style?
According to me, I function like a symphony conductor of an orchestra. For me, it’s extremely important to see that all the tones and tunes are threaded well together and each person works in harmony to create the perfect symphony. So this is my most important pursuit and an integral element in my working approach. This means that not only we do have to bring out the best in individuals but also enable them to come out with their best and create synergised outcomes.
It’s often not too difficult in creating the best people pool and there are two vital elements that are required for the same: energy and talent. If we are able to get people talented in terms of their skills and high on energy, then we have managed to create a great workforce. During this process, there are various kinds of people that you come across and for me, none of them exist in isolation; they are all a result partly of the environment and partly of their self-driven approach. The first set of people is high on energy but low on skills. These are inspired people but not very capable people and it’s their talent that requires sharpening that comes through the investment of the organisation in terms of their training and creating a more learning and development-oriented environment. The second set of people is not very high on energy but possess great skills, maybe the best skills on the functional and behavioral aspect but they take a step back when it comes to energy and motivation. This is where the challenge for the leader comes – to build up an environment of motivation and energy. Different individuals have to be dealt with differently but one thing that remains common for all is the desire to create something of their own. It is this switch that divides not so inspired people and high on energy people.
It’s a challenge for the senior management of organisations to ensure employee effectiveness. At Canon, how do you, as a strategic leader, ensure employee effectiveness?
According to me, there are three challenges that all big leaders in the corporate environment face today and it is this environment that ultimately impacts the motivation levels of individuals. The first and the most difficult challenge that leaders face is the task of handling change.
People in any organisation have a tendency to resist change, in any form – role change, location, strategy, process, etc. and this becomes the biggest challenge for a leader. However, there have been successful cases where not only changes have been managed but a high degree of motivation has been created for people to accept the change happily. All this is created through building the right environment and culture.
The second big challenge for leaders is managing the organisation’s time. Time is a very important factor for any organisation. However, it is seldom considered as an important resource. Money and people take priority over time and hence plans and investments are also centred around them. Time becomes as a dispensable item. Hours are lost in discussions or meetings and many other areas that happen without any prioritisation. Hence, it becomes very important to utilise time as a valuable resource.
The third area of challenge which is very difficult is the area of collaborations and how to create a mix of entrepreneurial drive and collective responsibilities. We are a Japanese company and we do understand that the entrepreneurial spirit has to be leveraged and, like I mentioned earlier, all individuals have a desire to create something. This desire stems from the entrepreneurial spirit. However, what we do not do as a part of our culture that runs across Canon’s DNA is to take the entrepreneurial spirit to the extreme as we feel that this sometimes creates internal friction and it breaks the company in different directions. So to a great extent, we try to create a balance by building a harmonious work culture along with collective sharing of credits.
How do you handle the challenge of change? Are you upfront about it with your employees or do you adopt a strategic approach to accelerate the transition?
Change comes from within and change cannot be dictated or explained. Hence, all the strategies and policies that organisations create to make the individuals realise the necessity for change, should not advocate or articulate the requirement of change. If people and teams are offered the problems at hand and are given the opportunity to bring out solutions to solve a problem, then change becomes a by-product of the solution. In other words, creating a sense of urgency and making people aware of the hindrances affecting the growth and progress of the organisation is good enough to seed in amongst the people the very desire to opt for change. We have adopted the same approach in Canon. There was a time when Canon wasn’t growing. As leaders, we understood that there were new opportunities sprouting every day and hence there was a requirement of new strategies and policies. But rather than taking decisions on our own, we found that the hunger for creating growth is inculcated and not advocated.
Apart from this, it is also very important for leaders to be a big resource themselves, both with respect to their ideas and experience. Along with this, they should also encourage sessions to blend people’s ideas with their own ideas.
Is there any social engagement activity that Canon in India undertakes?
Yes, we do. First of all, our philosophy at Canon is that social engagement should not be a charity. For us, when the people within the organisation get involved is when we can say that the company is truly involved in a social cause. One of the areas that we work in is transforming the future of people in the villages. To initiate this social drive, we have adopted our first village near Manesar in Haryana, called Firozepur Namak. It has 1,500 children and not all of them go to school. Girls are most affected by this problem and the lack of infrastructure is also stark.
So Canon has invested in the infrastructure of the school and it looks much different now. Attendance has doubled and we are still continuing our efforts because our impact on people’s lives would be fruitful when all of these 1,500 children grow up, do further studies and start earning their livelihood. This is when we can say that Canon impacted their lives. So it is with that purpose in mind we engage in social activities and work towards making them interesting. We, of course, conduct a lot of photography activities, our staff teach photography. This is what we call our way of imparting education. We are working towards adopting a second village near Bangalore.
The other thing that we do as a part of our social activity is in the sector of eye care. Being an optics company, we also feel the importance of eye care and have set up a centre to that effect. The third thing that we work towards is the environment because we are concerned about the future. This is a part of Canon’s culture or, I should rather say, a part of the Japanese culture to see things in a long-term perspective. We believe that organisations should run for centuries together. Mergers, acquisitions, takeovers and the likes is one approach of expanding business while the other is to build longevity of the organisation. Canon is a 70-year-old company and we look forward to continue to be vibrant, relevant and meaningful both through our products and work culture for both our customers and employees. Many of the green belts close to our office in Gurgaon are being developed by us.
In the global scheme of things, where would India feature for Canon?
India is an opportunity for Canon, the company sees India as a big market of the future. Even today our India business is not small. It is approximately $350 million, but in the global scheme of things this figure does not look that big because unless you touch $1 billion, you remain a small blip on the global radar. Canon India’s total revenue currently is only one per cent of its global business but there are huge opportunities. Canon sees India as a very serious driver of its future growth.
It’s often said that innovations drive a company to become a market leader. Have there been any innovations done by Canon in India to align its Indian business with its global brand vision and financial figures?
In India, our scope of innovation is relatively limited to our customer engagement and marketing and in these areas, several innovative techniques have been undertaken. One, for instance, is for digital SLR. We felt that if we have to build up this product in a big way, then it is very important for us to target women very strategically. So now women are our very important target audience. Our new campaign, the whole marketing effort and direction has moved towards creating new ways of engaging with women. Another mention-worthy initiative that we have taken is to set up our own retail stores. The way the industry works here, there were no specialty photography stores here other than the multi-brand shops. We have created 110 international-quality retail stores across India across 56 cities. These retail stores provide an ideal platform for branding, for attracting people and the ambience provides them with the trust to spend more than what they had in mind. This initiative is helping us to move up the value chain and now almost 25 per cent of Canon’s camera business in India comes out of these 110 stores. We are looking at almost 300 stores across India by the end of 2015.
The third innovation is in the area of new domains. As a progressive organisation, we wanted to look for new opportunities for the next level of growth. We noticed that the new domains have become one of the future revenue streams for us. So there are three avenues in India which we are exploring.
These are very unique to India and it is not something that we can replicate elsewhere. One area is in the Canon business services. We are asking large enterprises to outsource digitisation services to Canon.
The second area we have touched upon is the wedding album printing business. We are now using the latest digital technology to print wedding photos and have launched commercial photo printing album services. We have started with Bangalore first, moving to Kochi and then to Chennai.
The third big domain is in the medical services business. Canon has some products in this business. We gather this is a big opportunity for tomorrow and we are still studying how we can leverage this to the hilt.
How do you deal with failures?
Like Thomas Alva Edison once said that ‘If I had not failed 1,000 times, I would not have learnt what are the 1,000 things in which you are going to fail.” I share his belief. It is important for us to try out new things, regardless of how the result turns out to be. Failure remains with people in their minds and it goes with them. As a result, the organisation faces repeated failures. With respect to Canon, so far we have been able to manage this challenge as we have a reasonably good retention rate of our top management. I have been in Canon for 13 years and so most us know what not to repeat but we are working on a project of documenting every initiative and its impact, so that anyone who wants to take a similar initiative can always refer back to the past record.