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July 19, 1999


The Rediff Business Special/Shobha Warrier


Imagequity's Bonzer session in progress at Pizza Corner Industry comprises companies, good companies, bad companies and "reputed companies". Bad companies strive to become good, good companies strive to become better and build a reputation for themselves. But what will reputed companies do? "They will have to manage their reputation which is a tough task indeed," says Avis Viswanathan of Madras.

In 1996, Viswanathan set up Imagequity, the only TRM firm in India (TRM=total reputation management). "The reputation of a company is its asset. Building it takes time. But managing it takes all your life."

He describes his venture as "a cool, cool company with loads of common sense and a great sense of humour". At Imagequity, all are "cool dudes" who live in the office and go to work in funky designer shorts and golf shirts. They call themselves creatively different and "wear their attitude". "We're like the 'humble mint' which is cool, refreshingly different, and leaves a 'zing' in the mouth. We want to leave a 'zing' in the lives of our customers," says one of the team-members.

Email this report to a friend There are no managers or executives in Imagequity, only a "chief dreamer, a candoman, a mothergoose, a sunshine-provider, a little genie and a money-monitor".

The idea to start a TRM company struck Viswanathan, the "Chief Dreamer", when he was browsing Fortune's cover story on the world's most admired companies. He realised how companies build sound reputations and how America was shifting its focus from public relations to reputation management.

Viswanathan, one-time business journalist, teamed up with his wife Vani to realise the dream of "doing something different".

"We didn't want to get into PR and advertising. But we didn't know how differently we could function," he recalls.

Fortune inspired him to start a venture that would manage reputations. They called it a TRM firm, a la TQM (total quality management).

Lectures in an informal setting make the difference "We told companies, 'Your image is your equity. Build it, protect it'," he recalls. But companies did not readily buy the idea. Imagequity spent months and money on visits, lectures, presentations and several question-answer sessions, in its bid to sell the idea to corporates. " 'When we have a good reputation, why should we bother?' That was the reputed firms' usual reaction," Viswanathan recalls.

The break came from a healthy company, Apollo Hospitals. Apollo's managing director Preeta Reddy appreciated that a company's image needs to be protected and managed. Imagequity was in business.

"We help companies to understand their business and reputation goals. We also conduct perception surveys among all their stakeholders, analyse the findings to target messages for key stakeholder groups and try to bridge the perception-reality gap using events and activities aimed at building a good name.

"We look at the soul of the organisation. We want them to see reality and mobilise the appropriate response. We want to realign and, at times, redefine the company's core values.

"TRM works on whipping up a rare energy, an enthusiasm within the organisation that can transform it and help it to perform on an exalted plane. TRM peps up, quite like the zing that the 'humble mint' leaves in your mouth," says Viswanathan.

Bonzer session at Pizza Corner Imagequity seek to works as a mirror for its clients, helping them to see reality. "Looking at the mirror can revitalise any organisation, though it's a difficult proposition initially."

Agrees Sumir Anand of Pizza Corner, one of Imagequity's very visible clients in Madras. "Imagequity can be best described as mirror holders to the decision-making team at Pizza Corner. We, like most organisations, sometimes fail to pay adequate attention to minor details -- which is necessary in most businesses, especially in the service industry. This is where Team Imagequity, blatantly highlights our follies, deficiencies and slip-ups.

"I said 'blatant' to emphasise that feedback -- negative or positive -- is not sugar-coated or a figment of imagination but a well-researched, studied truth to better our abilities, both in office and restaurants. Yes, sometimes the truth hurts but since it is only for our betterment, the reaction to it is critical and thus has to be accepted with an open mind."

As the first step towards building a good image for Pizza Corner, Imagequity chose the launch of Adyar branch. They decided to do away with a formal launch involving ribbon-cutting by a minister and speeches by luminaries. Instead, they decided to use the opportunity to invite all the children from the neighborhood schools, including those from a spastic school, and have a "make a pizza contest".

The launch party overflowed with children; the novel inauguration received good publicity and earned goodwill of prospective patrons. Pizza Corner soon came to be considered as an "aggressive organisation with a soft heart that feels for the people".

Imagequity's Viswanathan explains how to dream In order to protect their "soft heart" image, they have a "food for good" programme. A fraction of proceeds from pizza sales is earmarked for community initiatives like feeding the children at various orphanages, supporting AIDS-affected children. The fast food joint's patrons "feel good" whenever they buy a pizza.

In Bangalore, Imagequity adopted another novel approach to strengthen Pizza Corner's "soft heart" image. They selected 20 children from the streets and offered them Rs 100,000 if they went to school and completed tenth standard. The kids were encouraged to paint whatever they wanted to on the walls of the shop, which was lacquered and preserved.

"This is what we call building and protecting the name of a firm. Good reputation builds credibility and trust. Ultimately people do business, buy products, work for a company or invest in their projects only if they trust the company. TRM helps build a good name."

The most challenging task so far has been the management of NEPC Airline's reputation which got besmirched due to its closure. Imagequity organised high-profile Aaj Ki Naari contests at various places. Attempts are on to change the image of NEPC as a company that cares for people.

Imagequity runs a unique and highly successful programme called Bonzer aimed at "the individual and not the employee or the boss". Bonzer is an Australian term for an excellent, wonderful human being, a jolly good fella.

An early morning Bonzer session involving employees of Pizza Corner is a sight to behold. Viswanathan chats, lectures, and then, questions them. Some of them seem reluctant to answer. But the moment Viswanathan starts the games and music session, the class comes alive: youngsters vie with each other to win, they tap their feet, sing along in chorus and are in sync with the music. By the time the session draws to a close, the Pizza team is all smiles.

Mallik, who completed his first week at Pizza Corner, had this to say after attending his first Bonzer session: "I was feeling tired in the morning. I didn't feel like getting up at all. Then I thought, let me go and see what it is. But now after the session, I feel it was worth attending. Avis made me rediscover the jolly good fellow within me. I guess this will help us to get over our inhibitions, unwind and come out as confident and happier persons."

Pradeep Philip, Deputy Inspector General of Police and principal, Police Training College, has his own module for creating a better reputation for the police force. Imagequity conducts Bonzer sessions for the police force at the sub-inspector, deputy superintendent and additional superintendent levels. "It has created better morale, motivation and balanced approach. I would say, the Bonzer sessions were quite effective to enable the participants to get a wider perspective of not just their own profession but life itself," says Philip.

Imagequity conducts Bonzer sessions at all organisational levels for corporates. Sessions are held at the workbay / hallway / canteen, on the beach, in the car park, in the conference rooms and even in the loo!

"Bonzer packs a lot of fun at work. We continuously churn out incredible ideas to have fun for enhancing productivity and happiness. We are not training people. We are encouraging folks to journey with a song in the heart. We drive people nuts and actually they enjoy turning nutty," says Viswanathan.

Photographs by Sreeram Selvaraj

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