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5 Brand Building lessons from the House of Ambani’s

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Recently Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) announced the entry of Ambani scions- Isha, Akash and Anant Ambani- into the boardroom as non-executive directors. Making this announcement in the RIL AGM, Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of RIL said: “…it reminds me of that day in 1977 when my father inducted me into the board of directors of Reliance. I was only 20 then. Today I see both my father and me in Isha, Akash, and Anant”.

Though some critics may dismiss the news as another example of how ‘entitled plutocrats get privileges by default’, this move is part of a brand playbook that the Ambanis have perfected over time.

Here are 5 learnings from the Ambani brand playbook

#1 Build on the legacy but plan for the future

Mukesh Ambani took over the reins of the business after the sudden demise of his father in 2002 when Reliance was already an energy and textile behemoth. As he completed his 20 years at the helm in 2022, the market cap of RIL had expanded 42-fold to INR 1,781,841 Cr.

Reliance has of course grown its core business. But more importantly, RIL also kept a hawk’s eye on the consumer trends and timely tapped into them. The result was the launch of Reliance Jio which has been a game-changer in India’s digital adoption journey and transformed its digital landscape for good. Similarly, the company’s retail foray helped it increase its consumer, electronic and fashion retail footprint. While in 2002, almost 100% of Reliance’s revenue was from Oil, Gas and Chemicals, as per its FY24 Q1 earnings report, this segment contributes to only 54% of its top line, with retail & digital businesses contributing to the rest.

RIL has now set its eyes on the renewable energy sector and has set ambitious goals, eyeing $10-15Bn revenue from this segment by 2030. Overall, keeping pace with changing times, Ambani’s plan to transform RIL from an Oil behemoth to a diversified conglomerate with a tangible presence in future industries- retail, digital and renewable energy.
Another example of this futuristic thinking is succession planning, whose example was recently seen in the news cited above. While the jury is still out on its long-term efficacy, the relatively planned and phased leadership transition definitely makes for far better optics compared to the cantankerous family battle that broke out among brothers in full public view after the demise of Mr Dhiru Bhai Ambani. This entailed years of grooming as all 3 Ambanis- Isha, Anant and Akash- were given an opportunity to lead different parts of the RIL business to hone their leadership skills.

Recognizing trends early on and proactively changing with times without waiting for crisis to happen is a feature of Ambani’s brand-building playbook that’s worth emulating.

#2 Powerful storytelling builds power brands

The Ambanis are selective about airing their views. None of them (including Nita Ambani and the kids) have a public social media page. It’s rare to hear them speak about competition or categories they operate in. Their general public announcements are in the form of carefully calibrated PR bytes or selective interviews that are quite professional and business-like. They don’t patronize paparazzi. However, they’ve carefully seeded their reputation as masters of scaling businesses and growing categories while creating real impact due to their knack for powerful storytelling.

Mukesh Ambani is celebrated for successfully steering the troubled ship of the family business from the choppy waters of the family feud to make it one of the most valuable conglomerates of the nation. Media releases have credited Isha Ambani with the expansion of Reliance Retail business, catapulting it among the top 100 retail businesses in the world. Similarly, in oft-repeated stories in media circles, Akash Ambani is credited for the launch and stupendous success of Reliance Jio. Nita Ambani is projected as a brand in her own right- who is spearheading the philanthropic efforts of RIL through Reliance Foundation and managing its diverse initiatives ranging from Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) to Mumbai Indians IPL franchise. In 2016, Forbes named her in ‘the most influential women business leaders in Asia’ list.

Using well-crafted and repeated stories that showcase them as worthy business leaders who have earned their stripes by working in trenches is an integral part of Ambani’s brand-building playbook.

#3 Don’t just own your values; celebrate them with panache

The Ambani’s have done a stellar job in positioning themselves as a rooted and traditional Indian family unit that’s a vocal votary of Indian culture and family values. For example, there is an obvious pattern in the way the general life journey of each Ambani kid has been sketched at a macro level. Like fathers, each of them has followed the traditional and relatively straightforward path of education, degree, job, marriage and kids. Further, there are many instances where Ambani’s have subtly signalled their adherence to Indian values while effortlessly blending them with global aspirations.

Be it the traditional Bharatnatyam Performance by Nita Ambani in the newly inaugurated NMACC grand theatre under a ceiling ornated with Swarovski diamonds, the visible family bonhomie and strict adherence to customs at different family functions and festivals or their widely publicized penchant for pure-vegetarian food- Ambani’s have never shied away from letting the world know that they wear their Indian values on their sleeve.

Standing for something and confidently & consistently demonstrating it in action without coming across as conservative is important learning from Ambani’s playbook

#4 Sometimes silence is golden

In a world where memory spans are short and out of sight is out of mind, brands feel compelled to lend their voice to every cause under the sun and voice their opinion on every event. It is a common understanding that unless a brand speaks out and articulates its point of view, it will miss an opportunity. More so today, we see founders increasingly becoming vocal spokespersons of their firms and actively engaging with their consumers on social media. Perhaps the most counterintuitive norm in Ambani’s playbook is the belief that silence is golden.

For a family whose name is often dragged into a political tug of war, Mr Mukesh Ambani maintains a stoic silence and takes it all in his stride. Walking in their father’s footsteps, the Ambani scions too have so far maintained a composed professional demeanor in public space and have chosen not to react even in the face of provocations. For example, Anant Ambani maintained a dignified silence even in the face of intense trolling and body-shaming.

The curious public at large gets a sneak peek of their life and interests either through well-placed PR articles or what the family chooses to showcase. Not responding to unnecessary provocation, maintaining a composed gravitas and resisting the temptation to opine on every other event is an important learning here.

#5 Don’t just create content, create news

Despite their well-crafted, down-to-earth image and a studied silence, when Ambani’s choose to put up a show, they do so with spectacular pomp and pageantry that generates an unparalleled word-of-mouth chatter and media amplification- proving that none amps it up like Ambani’s. Indeed, Ambani events don’t create content; they create news.

From the opulent imagery and awed description of their 27-story abode Antilia to the news of A-list Bollywood stars- including Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan serving food at Isha Ambani’s wedding, there is no dearth of media tidbits that constantly keep the intrigue about the family on and amplify their every move.

A recent event that undoubtedly brought this to the fore was the inauguration of NMACC Mumbai in March- April this year. The inauguration ceremony of the building took the hype to another level. Led by the Ambani family with its trademark panache and poise, it was a star-studded affair attended by mega-celebrities from Hollywood and the Indian entertainment industry. Dubbed as an Indian version of the Met Gala, the event instantly brought NMACC into both national and international limelight. Its every detail- from grandeur to philosophy to décor- became a newsworthy item.

While of course, not every brand has the wherewithal to amp it up like Ambani’s, it is worth learning the power of amplification and the knack of creating naturally viral content from Ambani’s playbook.

In Conclusion

Brand Ambani continues to fascinate and intrigue every Indian. While one can attribute this to the sheer privilege of ‘being an Ambani’, it is important to note that over the last 12 years, once the dust settled down over the bitter family feud, Ambani’s have made some calculated moves to nurture it into a formidable force.

The playbook of how the first business family of India carefully curated a family brand, by actions that at are at times counterintuitive to the traditional norms of brand building holds interesting lessons for every brand builder and marketing enthusiast

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