Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mordern Day Mir Jafers Wear A Suit

Yesterday a routine shopping trip ended in McDonald’s. The kids love it and it is quick and convenient for us too. Even if the meal is indifferent at best. Whenever we go out an internal war erupts as we try to do the right thing by steering the family away from a fast food place while the loud and inviting advertising does it’s pulling act. Yesterday was no different and it is no surprise that McDonald’s won. It usually does. Happy Meals are quite popular with the kids and was the default order for them. More than the food, if you think the regular food served is indifferent you have to see the Happy Meal, it a cheap plastic toy that is the star of this order. We indulge our kids, like most parents do I guess, and if a plastic toy makes them happy so be it.

The toy that came with the meal was, as expected, a plastic made in China comb set. Halfway through the meal it was opened and to our horror the comb started losing colour. Pinkish red stains were all over those little hands that were still eating. The first thought that came to mind was ‘that’s got to be toxic’. That is how little we trust the restaurant we end up eating in at least once a month. So, immediately we asked to see the manager. The poor man had no answer to our queries about the toy and best he could offer was ‘I am very sorry, we will replace it’. Of course he missed the point totally.

Now I can only imagine the scenario that must have played out in getting this offending toy into our hands.  Happy meals are well-established Kid magnets.  Some manager, probably a really bright person, maybe one of India’s best business managers of his age, must have been entrusted the task of reducing cost and increasing profitability of every Happy Meal sold. A KRA like that can lead one very quickly to making marginal decisions.  

This little incident got me thinking. How often does this happen? How often do we put our trust in large companies, most of them global giants, multinationals with huge reputations, and how often do they abuse that trust? How often do we come across products sold in India that are inferior to the same brand of products sold in developed countries? Take for instance a Cadbury’s milk chocolate or an Oreo cookie or frozen deserts from Unilever. Very rarely will they match up to the quality standards of the same product in UK or USA.

It is my argument that none of this is accidental. Most of these companies have different standards for different countries. Every step in the product development cycle is carefully studied and worked upon by the same kind of diligence that put man on the moon. So, when the content of a packet of chips goes from 50 grams to 45 grams you can be sure that it is the work of a well thought out strategy. Or for that matter when the same packet of chips has more air, pumped in to make the packet look fuller, than chips you can be sure that the quantity to air ratio has been decided on by a committee of marketing & product managers and cost accountants.

How often do we find the aforementioned products to be sad imitations of what the same companies sell in the developed world? For instance would NescafĂ© taste as insipid in Toronto as it does in Delhi?  And these are just examples of B2C brands. The difference of quality standards in every sphere are glaring. Take the case of pharmaceutical giant Ranbaxy that has been in news over the last couple of years and it shows up the rot in Indian healthcare businesses.  The invisible loot by the banking industry is quiet and, like carbon monoxide, quite lethal and all pervasive.

A few years back when the multinationals were entering India we were all very excited. Surely competition will be great for the consumers we thought. The multinationals went about their work by hiring some of the brightest minds to work for them. They flocked to IITs, IIMs and other premier institutions and hired the best brains available in India, some might say the best brains in the world. Everything pointed in the direction of consumer nirvana. But the script has played out differently.  These brightest minds have then been used to circumvent every regulation, every quality standard in order to squeeze out that extra ounce of profit. Every manager is expected to find a new way of making more money for his company.  And s/he does a great job of it. In the process an ice cream that kids love becomes a frozen dessert. It can no longer be called ice cream because it doesn’t contain any dairy.  But then why let a silly fact like that come in the way when a cleverly worded ‘Frozen Dessert’ can bail you out?  

I would like to remind these managers of the cycle that they too are a part of. The McDonald's manager’s kids buy from Cadbury’s and the Cadbury’s manager’s kids buy from Unilever and the Unilever manager’s kids buy from McDonald's. This cycle makes sure there is a perverted justice built into the system.  What goes around does indeed come around.

So the question is how will history judge these Indians? These bright Indians, many of whom I call my friends, who are actually decent people in real life outside of work. They have the same issues that I have with compromised quality standards. I suggest, at the risk of alienating half of my friends, calling them Mir Jafer wouldn’t really be wrong. They, in their defense, may claim that they aren’t doing anything wrong. They are following the law as best as they possibly can and still making money for their companies. It isn’t their fault if the law or its implementation is lax. They are only playing to the field they have been set.  But then I am sure Mir Jafer too thought that he was doing the right thing and it was in the best interest of those around him. I don’t for a moment believe that Mir Jafer would have thought ‘Let me do the wrong thing, let me f@#k up this country’. Neither do these managers.