What can CEO’s learn from Amitabh Bachchan ??

On the occassion of Big B’s Birthday, I am pleased to post this article I wrote sometime back for the benefit of CEO’s.

We have few hundreds of them but they are always too short in supply in a billion peoples’ country. They come in varied stature, represent different genres or life’s spheres and, command loyalty. Yes, we are talking of brands. Brands that eat, sleep and drink like us, the mortals. The brand called celebrity. Most Indians can be seen aping big and small celebrities from filmdom to sports (read cricket). Growing long hairs. Speaking with an accent. Keeping a similar goatee or moustache. Maintaining an inspired wardrobe. Tattoo being one of the latest fad. Just so many of them. But, have we really ever tried to learn a lesson or two from them? Good or bad? Of success or failure? Of excellence? Of emergence or, waning?

The cases of Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are some of my favorite and most-quoted ones. I use these examples in both the workshops, training sessions as well as mundane business or day-to-day activities. However, the curious case of the legendary Big B remains my most favorite story. A case study just so fitting in management and day-to-day life and covering so vast dimensions I can probably write chapters.

This piece seeks to draw lessons and learning from his life’s highlights, incidents and trends. Despite being termed as a management case study the lessons would encompass more perspectives, hardly limited to just business or profession. They can help us in managing our lives and, more so, whenever we are in the middle of sorry state of affairs.

Amitabh Bachchan was born in a prominent family and attended education at best of the places. Worked briefly for a routine job before landing in Bollywood. The initial years were tough as he worked hard to make himself worth counting on. However, he got himself noticed with his first appearance. It was after a disappointing array of films over 3-4 years that he was spotted by the viewers as a star material. Yet, the first couple of years of this newfound identity helped him cement and consolidate his position. Then he saw the best time of his life coming as he seemed to have got Midas’ Touch. Amitabh became the most sought after star India had ever seen, ruling in literal sense for almost a decade. Until, he succumbed to a severely fatal injury. It appeared as if the God had to give in for the prayers of hundreds of millions. Politics followed taking him to stellar heights and, then throwing him out with the similar ease. With a bad name, lost reputation and, tangled in a legal battle. Country’s worst and most high profile, Bofors scandal took him to the brink, ushering a new era in his life even if he came out clean. His comeback film Shahenshah was a hit but could not do much to reinstate him in a decade that looked lost. His loss was probably bigger loss for the entire Bollywood which looked marred by a vacuum. Big B tried several ways. Made several apparent comebacks. Some films worked at times. More didn’t. he had landed in a no man’s land. Bollywood and the audiences were both fatigued with too much of clichéd plots, most of which looked alike. Though he still managed to give some memorable performances and win awards for the likes of Agneepath but, nothing to substantial gain. During yet another brief retirement, he put his company in place and launched himself as a wannabe entertainment & media conglomerate of India. Great hype. Big speculation. Bigger disappointments. Films produced by ABCL crashed in a row. The much talked-about Ms. World stint almost scripted the final rites for ABCL.

Amitabh Bachchan was in deep waters. Bankrupt. Insulted. Humiliated. Written off. On the top of everything, Banks stopped him from even selling his bungalow for recovering some of the losses and prestige. A man who heralded and commanded so much power could be made to see such times, was beyond everyone’s imagination.

Much of the faults were to his credits. Much was destiny. He was still remembered as the superstar. He still evoked so much of sensation every time we talked of a Sholay, Zanzeer or even Shahenshah or Agneepath. But, he was not bankable. He was a setting sun. Thanks to some of his old friends who did the hand-holding in tough times to let the hopes keep afloat.

Boom time. Come circa 2000. Big B is here to stay again. KBC happens. Amitabh is in news again. No, he is not in news anymore. He is The News again.

How come a man who was almost being forgotten and completely written off, could spark everyone’s imagination once again? A legend whom banks had almost abused was writing cheques of One crore. Gosh!!! It was big money those days. It still is but, in those times, it was unheard of on telly. How could television make such a big star out of a sun almost set? All of a sudden, everything seemed to be not just alright but incredible. Producers were making beeline at his doorsteps. His cash boxes were ringing like never before. Amitabh was the most expensive and the busiest star again.

The second coming has not faded for a moment. As a matter-of-fact Big B is the busiest star today, with one of the highest appearances in films, advertisements and a strong TV presence. His presence is not limited to films, entertainment and culture anymore. He is now a recognized leader to speak on a plethora of issues of larger, national, international, developmental, social and humane importance. Controversies have still not spared him. But, he has outgrown almost everything and is the Numero Uno among Indians, without an official status.

The latest feat being an incredible performance in his home production Paa has set things right for his long-lost company. ABCL has not just regained its pride but, seems to have made a comeback with a bang. Life comes full circle.

Volumes can be written tracing his graph. But the purpose of this piece is to draw inferences than to chronicle him.

I’ll start with some lessons, learning and clues, covering diverse perspectives.

The first and most important lesson I draw from his days of ignominy when he was down and almost out. The learning is change becomes inevitable if you are resolved to turn things around you. No matter how much intimidation you face but, persist till you have the last laugh. You will (have the last laugh). And, whether or not you think you can achieve something you are actually right. A lesson for every individual.

Second I draw from his early days. The simple learning substantiates the old saying that most of the accomplishments in this world are credited to some tired persons who kept trying in spite of streak of disappointments.

The third lesson relates to Marketing Management and refers to Product Life Cycle. Amitabh Bachchan’s life substantiates the PLC theory at times. At other times, it totally defies them all. The bottom line, however, is that if the product is dynamic enough, it can give the competition a run for its money. Such an old brand, Big B had his rough and tough times but has remained competitive for so many decades and has seen almost 4-5 generations (taking 10 years time frame for a new batch of actors entering). When he arrived there, it was the times of likes of Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna and Dharmendra. His arrival on the scene was followed by the generation represented by Rishi Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty. Then came the time of Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol and Govinda. Then came the Khans. And, now we have the new blokes like Ranbir, Imran, Neil etc.

It was only during the times when a product re-look was required and he failed to match with the times, the sun started fading out for Amitabh. He went for bad films that didn’t either suit his aging persona or, were clichéd or, looked desperate to match with the new competitors at different times. He was mostly not being himself.

By the late 1980s Big B was at the peak of the Maturity stage, in terms of the product life cycle theory. Like most other products, defending market share was a very difficult task by this stage. Not only that the new entrants had entered and occupied a lion’s share in the market but our product (Big B) was also exposed to the hilt. It was losing its sheen and aging. Amitabh tried several strategies to resurrect things as a marketer does in a bid to help his product survive this decline. But, a mere tweaking in his characterization would not help. That is why, his bid to re-invent himself did not work wonders for the next 8-9 years between Shahenshah and till the launch of ABCL. Some of the well-chiseled characters worked but its impact remained strictly limited on the entire prospects of the product in the market.

Agneepath, Shahenshah, Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan and Suryavansham were only some of the examples of this. Both offensive as well defensive strategies can be seen at work in the promotion planning of his films in this stage as compared to films before this. The larger-than-life positioning was normally made ostensible at this stage than before. Just like in history when kingdoms started getting diluted, the feudal lords as the remnants of those kingdoms started flaunting titles bigger than ever.

The problem with ABCL also had its root cause in the same market positioning of Big B. If it would have been a fresh startup or an unknown entrepreneur, maybe it would not have dwindled so much as ABCL was made to. I can safely cite the example of Satyam. Suppose, in its bid to regain its pride and positioning, if Satyam launches a new milestone venture in the near future, it would attract more cynicism than support. At the decline stage, if one has to diversify, the new product or venture is ideally preferred to belong to an entirely different domain and not have a direct connection with the existing product/brand that is declining. This is generally done with two objectives in mind: 1.to create alternate means of business and income while the previous product/brand is dying, 2. different domain/sector is suggested even preferably with a different brand-name so that the evils of the previous brand do not harm the nascent venture/brand. However, in the case of Big B, the biggest base was the goodwill of the name Amitabh Bachchan. His entire positioning at that point of time had no residual value, other than his name. It was an unavoidable decision he had to make if if he would have thought not to. Still, somewhere, he needed to draw a line and decide. He would have probably done better for himself. The evils surrounding the brand Amitabh Bachchan marred the prospects of his new ventures.

His entrepreneurship failed for a multitude of reasons. My take is that he was probably bit early, and initiated corporatization in Bollywood before Indian cinema was prepared for that. Though he was proactive, he also suffered for lack of earlier management experience and, more so, because he was individually on a downside. He was not bankable. Had he been bankable, his enterprise could have been saved. What was termed as huge debt could well have been prided as “credit line”. Further, as he was entering multiple new domains of production, events and lifestyle etc., it would have been better if he went little slow both in terms of the range of activities and also capital at stake. The markets were opening up, no doubt but, India was yet to see the kind of corporatization he was eying.

But, for Big B though, the best was yet to come. A product that has been leader for decades in the market knows the customer better than any new entrant. It’s only a matter of right initiative at the opportune time. He lagged. Was jolted. But, resurfaced to never fade again.

At the lowest ebb of life and time a superstar of his stature could have seen, Amitabh realized some of these nuances harder way. He realized that after so much of trauma and experiments, the older product wasn’t left with a future anymore. That the existing product must be killed and make way for a new product. TV was the right route. For, it helped him change his domain and positioning both. We saw Amitabh with grey beards that he didn’t prefer to dye but, flaunted with pride. It became his signature that he still carries. Maybe as his lucky charm.

For TV, he was the biggest star Indian television could ever have seen. This positioning he might not have got on the bigger screen. It was like when a product is old and trashed in the United States, it is launched in India with a huge success. Everyone lapped him up and watched him in awe on TV. TV was also born again, thanks to the Big B. It helped him regain his charisma and an altogether new positioning. The markets realized that the product had not died, only changed to a more effective and efficient version to suit the requirements of the time. With this new positioning, it was time again for him to mark his re-launch (in true sense) on the big screen. This time not as a shadow of yesteryear’s star trying hard to be what he used to be 20 years back. But, as a product that combined all the earlier features and was still the best in the marketplace. This was like the product phased out in the US, launched in India, then manufactured in India and, subsequently exported to US, albeit at a lower price (due to lower costs) and much of value addition. Amitabh, however, beat the marketing theorists here as this time he had got value additions but commanded an even higher price.

While his old fans were gleaming with joy again, the new fans were being born everyday. Amitabh was reborn. Scripts were again being started to be written exclusively for Amitabh. He was the lead actor in films even if where had just 5 scenes. His silence in many films sounded more powerful than the howls of Gabbar Singh in Sholay. Amitabh was a new product, in a new package, combined with the strength of the old. Like Surf Excel.

In this phase, however, he had learnt that this was the age of McDonalds and fast food joints. That this was the age of the “impatient”. That he must maximize his business, visibility and gains because, you wink and someone else may be at the helm of affairs. Competition was there as never before. And, he was oddly pitted against actors half his age. Unfair. But, who said business was a fair game! Amitabh meant business. It was coming his way more than he would have even anticipated in the 70s.

Marketing and Product strategy again at play. Amitabh preferred the strategy of “rapid skimming”, common to markets with high competition. This strategy suggests high promotions and high price. Had it been the same old Amitabh, he could not have been able to command a price higher than the most of the top stars of this time. But, it was a new Amitabh Bachchan. Suddenly, he was everywhere. It was in this phase that Amitabh did the higher number of films per year. And, he featured in the highest number of TV commercials at times. Events. International tours. He still is the busiest of the celebrity brand ambassadors and would endorse from a chocolate to the cement and cosmetics.

Having seen and been on the top and also bitten dust, Amitabh became tough enough to sustain the second coming and surmount any challenges. He has not aged, just become seasoned and weathered. His eyes look ripe but still gleam like a young man at the sight of sunshine and rain. We are sure to see him giving us too much to learn and implement in our lives and profession.

The award on his debut also whispers the “early signs” saying about him.

Hope you enjoyed this learnings useful which you can apply to your life and business.

Deepak Singh,
Young Turks Media

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