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Defining Moments: Bharat Patel: Medicine man

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | February 25, 2011
Ex-P&G India chairman and managing director Bharat Patel discusses some key hallmark moments that shaped his career.

Bharat Patel, ex-P&G India chairman and managing director, highlights some key 'magic' moments of his career.

I have been with only one company after finishing my MBA from the University of Michigan in 1969, from where I was placed at Richardson Vicks in India. It was bought over by P&G Worldwide (which entered India with this buyout) in 1985.

My first defining moment was when I worked for someone else. I am a Gujarati from Alkapuri, Vadodara, and it is unheard of for Gujaratis to work for someone else. I'm the youngest in my family and was lucky to do what I did.

Action stations

In 1980, I was the first one in Richardson Vicks to think of launching a tablet for common cold. I devised the whole plan -- from its formulation, to its product shape (a yellow caplet instead of a tablet), to its brand name and advertising. Vicks Action 500 was my baby, and it grabbed 50 per cent market share rather quickly, post its launch. Back then, everyone in India used a rub, although the North Indians didn't like using them.

Just three years later, in 1983, we had to do something to counter the perception that Vicks is a 'foreign' product that isn't Indian in nature. The entire Vicks portfolio was losing market share drastically because of this.
I suggested that we position Vicks as an Ayurvedic medicine brand (this ensured we were not required to pay excise duty, or come under price control, nor did we need a license to sell it), considering that its ingredients were herbal. Ayurveda is as trustworthy and as Indian as it gets. The two concepts gelled well with our brand, and eventually, with the consumers. In one stroke, we saved the company from sinking. Vicks went on to become a Rs 400 crore brand, among the largest healthcare brands in India.

Real touch points

I have learnt from experience, never through books or seminars. My first boss, Surin Banta (managing director of Richardson Vicks at the time) always urged us to go to the marketplace, talk to customers and retailers, and not just sit in office. I remember a peculiar problem we faced while promoting our iron tonic Tonos7. We had to prove to consumers that this tonic actually increases the haemoglobin level in one's blood. We decided to do a 'free blood test' promotion wherein we asked consumers to take a blood test, sample a bottle of Tonos7 and then take another test and compare their haemoglobin count. The promotion worked as people could see a tangible difference, backed by medical facts.

Being 'Procterised'

After Richardson Vicks' buyout, I was sent to England to be 'Procterised'. Basically, I was to learn the methods of P&G there and was given the dual role of category manager for paper products (including Pampers and Whisper) in the UK, and country manager for P&G in Ireland. It exposed me to big customers, big volumes, huge scale of activities, and power in the hands of a few retailers. A handful of them had tremendously high market shares, and hence, commanded huge power, unlike the retail scenario in India.

I had to learn and handle changes in the 6Cs - company, customer, climate, culture, country and category (from OTC pharma brands, to FMCGs). It was challenging, but truly helped me experience what it is like to be accepted and elevated in a foreign land.

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