29th October 2008, ECONOMIC TIMES

While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort. A simple idea, supported by a simple story, could be a positive format for learning and reflection and practising managers could find that useful.

29th October 2008, ECONOMIC TIMES

While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort. A simple idea, supported by a simple story, could be a positive format for learning and reflection and practising managers could find that useful.

A recent issue of The Economist reported that 500 million people need malaria treatment every year. That is astounding because it is one out of 12 people on this planet. The UN has run a Global Malaria Action Plan for several years but, as the magazine pointed out, “history is littered with failed UN targets”. How did we get ourselves into this situation?

As early as 1948, scientist Paul Hermann Muller received the Nobel Prize for medicine for recognising and unleashing DDT’s high efficiency in killing insects that spread malaria. However, indiscriminate use of DDT in agriculture led to public resistance, and DDT was banned in 1972. An estimated 1 million people die of malaria every year, so we have had 36 million deaths since the ban on DDT.

One wonders whether a ‘safe protocol’ would have been better for mankind rather than a ban. While the chemical industry had been innovative in solving the problem, could it have done better in public advocacy? It is a moot and complex question.

Chemical industry – negative image association

At my request, the Tata Strategic Management Group recently undertook a dipstick study to find out what images people associate with specific industries. The telecom, IT and automobile industries quickly brought to mind the benefit images of cell phones, connectivity and mobility. However a query about the chemical industry invoked the image of a danger sign or a chimney bellowing smoke.

On a similar note, a recent study by a Geneva-based ethical research organisation, Covalence, ranked the chemical industry amongst the lowest on ethical reputation. Another recent pan-European survey by CEFIC showed that perceptions of the chemical industry relating to trust, acceptance and willingness to work in the industry had worsened over the years. No matter which survey we refer to, all of them clearly highlight the industry’s negative image as a major source of concern.

It was not always so. In the first half of the 20th century the chemical industry enjoyed the reputation of being a high-tech sector that improved human life. But several accidents in recent decades shocked the general public and extensive media coverage reinforced the negative image. Later, during the 1970s, as pollution rose up the global agenda, the problem was often tracked down to chemical companies, which were literally forced to clean up their act.

The challenge – building a positive brand imagery

Industries with unfavourable mental associations have always found it difficult to grow in the longer term due to stricter regulations, public opposition or shortage of bright professionals. Changing public opinion is often a very difficult task; but we need to educate the public.

Consumer good companies have traditionally been successful in creating brands that are youthful, relevant and evoke positive feelings in consumers. They have also successfully communicated these attributes to the public by continuously developing new communication channels and customer touch points. The chemical industry should take a leaf from the books of consumer companies and re-brand itself to change its image. I would like to briefly touch upon five areas to explain how this can be done –

1) Establish associations or imagery that people can relate to
Tata Chemicals today is the world’s second largest producer of soda ash. But the common man does not understand what soda ash is. But if I say, “All new commercial buildings today typically have a large glass façade and soda ash is the principal ingredient for making this glass,” he can relate to the product. In other words, we must demystify our products to establish some connect with the lay person.

2) Establish industry value – make Innovation the mantra
The industry should continue to adopt innovation and technology as future growth drivers. Biotechnology and nanotechnology hold great promise as a solution for some of the major challenges facing the world today. Prominent industrial houses in India, including the Tata Group, are investing precious time and money into these emerging technologies with a view to achieving breakthroughs with the potential to create a future.

3) Address current societal concerns
Climate change, concerns over future availability of hydrocarbons and the food crisis are critical issues facing the world today. Sustainability efforts like green chemistry, alternative feedstock and energy conservation will not only address environmental issues but also incorporate social and economic concerns.

4) Build consumer interface – Ingredient branding
Like Intel, which has made a successful effort at technology branding through the “Intel Inside” campaign, chemical companies can also adopt an ‘Ingredient branding’ approach. DuPont has effectively done this with Teflon for non-stick cookware. Such branding campaigns will help consumers recognise the contribution of the chemical industry in making their lives better and safer.

5) Reinforce industry credibility through effective communication
The role of communication cannot be over-emphasised. All efforts to form favourable public opinion will fail in the absence of open and effective communication. Recognising the importance of an open and honest dialogue with policy makers and customers will pave the way for a meaningful two-way relationship.

In this context, I propose the setting up of a body called ‘SPRUCE’ (Society for Promoting the Use of Chemicals) to promote and communicate the positive aspects of the chemical industry to the general public. This body could be funded jointly by the government, industry associations and chemicals companies. SPRUCE could run educative campaigns and even create awareness about how dependent we all are on chemicals. Let SPRUCE run a competition on “living for one day without using any chemicals.” It will be far more devastating than living for one day without a cell phone, laptop or an automobile.

In conclusion, the chemical industry needs to continually engage with its consumers and look at re-branding itself to project a more realistic image. It should vigorously pursue innovation with focus on sustainable development and address problems that plague society today. Finally it should adopt collaborative efforts, which may include setting up a non-profit society to promote the use of chemicals and communicate its benefits to the public.