Industrialists usually hire public relations agencies to guide them on how to build their brands. One wonders if Anand Mahindra bills his agencies instead of the other way round. Here is a man who has broken the conventional rules of straitjacketed brand-building and written some new ones"thanks in no small measure to the arrival of social media as critical clout in the game of perceptions.
As a leading light in India-based public figures on microblogging site Twitter, he addresses a large crowd of people who matter and others who view him in awe"and the best part is that there is a spontaneity and an element of surprise in his tweets that make eyebrows go up, smiles bloom, reporters reach for their keyboards and social media users press their share buttons.
This is not your father's brand game centred around high-pitched advertising and carefully coached media interviews. This is about swimming among people, like a majestic blue whale among shoals of fish.
The latest bit of news that has added a layer of fame to the Mahindra Mystique is that he wants to "invest" in the business of a socially conscious 80-year-old woman in Tamil Nadu who sells idlis at an incredibly cheap Rs 1 per piece. By throwing his heart over the millions of hearts that made news on the woman with a heart, he had hit Twitter's equivalent of a six over mid-wicket.
He offers to buy a stove for the poor entrepreneur. He lights a fire for himself in the media. The impact: the 64-year-old group chairman's name now rubs off on Brand Mahindra and blesses everything in the conglomeration: From automobiles and information technology to holiday resorts and non-banking finance. It touches investors, would-be consumers, bureaucrats and regulators who may now be kinder to files bearing that name and mainstream media journalists who love to pounce on saleable stories.
With 7.2 million followers slurping up Anand Mahindra's tweets, who exactly needs a PR agency?
As communications guru Marshall McLuhan said in a statement that captures the power of technology: "The medium is the message." Twitter, unlike the visually rich Instagram or the chummy cafe-like Facebook, is the place where everybody from the Pope to Prime Minister Narendra Modi hang out. To bat well here is to be spontaneous, original, socially concerned and creative in a way that stands above the noisy buzz of political activists, social workers and a host of professionals exchanging thoughts, ideas, impressions and the not-infrequent bouts of trolling, arguments and abuse. You have to tickle minds and touch hearts -- and be powered by the potential of quick-fix virality.
Anand Mahindra is a towering breakout man in Twitter's rugby scrum. To know why and how he does this, you have to understand both the medium and the man who hacks it with his messages. If you go to Google's news link, Anand Mahindra is a topic in himself. The link throws up all sorts of stories, including ones about his companies and products. His prolific tweets offer grist to both mainstream media actors and the general citizenry on a range of issues. This is the digital age equivalent of a front-page story in the days when newspapers were the main medium, or the Doordarshan headline on television before private alternatives entered middle class homes in the 1990s.
Every tweet is a potential press release. The nature of the medium is such that Mahindra's old tweets can be dug up even when he is sleeping to confer him some more brand power, like it happened when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said something about Millennials not buying cars because of Uber and Ola. (Incidentally, Mahindra also invested in rival Meru Cabs).
Everybody cannot pull this off because Mahindra tweets from the heart with a global worldview and an intellectual curiosity on a wide range of things. The connection is more natural than rehearsed, but not entirely without a method. In reality, the man probably knows the few don'ts that come with the many dos in the social media game. He sweetly plugs in his corporate news sandwiched between stuff that interests all sorts of folks. Such branding is not in-your-face. This is in-your-heart.
Mahindra is not the only old-world industrialist touching millennial hearts out there. Harsh Goenka, chairman of the RPG Group that bears his own name, has his own cult following as he shares jokes, pearls of wisdom and the odd bits about both his corporate developments and things like employee motivation and workplace situations. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of the Biocon group is there to tell us about molecules, economic policy and Bangalore traffic. A Google search on these names at the time of writing reveals some indicative scores in the results: Mazumdar Shaw gets 3.61 lakhs, Goenka 5.24 lakhs and Mahindra a humongous 1.76 crore. Both Mahindra group activities and the chairman's social media savvy contribute to this.
Anand Mahindra crafts his tweets in a manner that etches out his corporate brand and does not miss the brand goal in an impulsive burst even as he engages in casual banter. A well-designed media machinery works with him, producing literature and much else to further his coctail of personal charm and corporate gospel.
Brand Mahindra has its own social character, and Anand Mahindra lives his part in the script. Also, ranging from the acquisition of South Korea's SsangYong and electric car maker Reva to the fraud-mauled Satyam Computer Services, there is a lot of genuine corporate news from the Mahindra stable that smartly blends with the chairman's fizzy 'tweetitude'.
There is a past that reveals something in the DNA.
The Mahindras instituted one of India's most celebrated theatre awards well before Twitter was born. Circa 1977, as a student of film-making at Harvard, Anand, then only 22-years-old, had shot a thesis movie on Allahabad's Kumbh Mela, showing early signs that he was comfortable telling stories on a crowd, or to a crowd. He is now a discerning movie producer as well. Legend has it that he had to be talked into switching from a studio floor role to one that fretted over factory shopfloors.
The twain meet in everything Anand Mahindra does. With a capacity to both script and act in a dynamic new medium, he reveals a mix of inspiration and method. Leadership, after all, is about storytelling to inspire people"be they employees, customers, investors or millions of ordinary citizens staring into smartphone screens.
(The writer is a senior journalist and writer. He tweets as @madversity)