What I learnt from 2020 as a CEO and as a consumer

By Ashwini Deshpande |

January 13, 2021 | 6 min read

Move over 2020, 2021 is here. The year gone by was one of learnings and lessons for companies and chief executives. Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder of Elephant, one of India's largest independent integrated design consultancy firms, shares her learnings with The Drum from the year - both as a CEO and as a consumer.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard P Feynman, the great theoretical physicist

There is no point in stating how much we learnt and how we are wiser, woke etc from 2020, without accepting what a blow it was to simply be sitting at home not knowing what hit us last year. Even as technology played its role superbly and work continued from home, it was a probability even the most imaginative folks had not considered. What we all did was not our Plan B. Nor Plan C and not even Plan Z.


Lessons learnt

Companies and brands were forced to think through the business model and ecosystem afresh. So, while poster kids of the start-up world like Swiggy and Zomato started delivering groceries and much more, the corner shops started stocking up on cans of mysterious blue liquids. Liquor companies like Diageo that already had alcohol licences launched sanitisers while consumer brands like Tata Sampann reiterated the immunity properties of Haldi Doodh (turmeric latte). There was a crazy rush for stocking up and the likes of Big Basket and Amazon had to step up and control the number of units purchased for not just sanitiser bottles, but things as regular as Amul Masti. These may sound like the most logical things to do today, but each of these companies had to do large changes at their backend in no time, be it software updates or rejigs in production and logistics.

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Here are some learnings that I gathered along the way of how consumer behaviour changed.

Immunity, the indigenous way

Turmeric, Holy Basil, Honey, Pepper, Clove, Cinnamon… they were always available at the Indian home, but a new quest for immunity gave them a status like never before. Grandma’s remedies came right out of the closet and everyone started looking for easily accessible immunity solutions. Hot Kadha and Doodh Haldi became cool.

No lock-down for learning and creativity

All dormant talents and ambitions around music, painting, knitting, baking, embroidery etc exploded inside every home. Parents seemed to focus a lot more on what their children learn, what tools they use and how they make the most of their time. Amazon introduced an entire section called School from home – everything for a new beginning. Craft projects that were earlier treated as a nuisance became revered activities to be done together. Asian Paints designed TruGrip, the playful adhesive as the perfect partners to creativity in the lock-down.

Intuitive navigation in public spaces

Wayfinding and signage systems are always meant to facilitate easy navigation. However, in India, we still sought comfort in asking around for an address or a specific shelf in retail. All that needs to change with social distancing norms. Retail needs to rethink and plan for lower footfall with extremely efficient turnaround time. Almost as a precursor to this challenge, Uber planned a user-cantered service experience at high footfall places like airports and railway stations. A pilot experience was launched at Bengaluru airport a few weeks before the lock-down.

Home cooking as the newfound joy

Home cooking began for survival as the carpet of eating out, food delivery and domestic help were pulled from under our feet during lock-down. But compulsory act evolved into discovering or rediscovering the joy of cooking for many. We received many briefs in the space of making cooking more convenient. Chef Boss by Jubilant was conceived, developed and launched in a matter of a few weeks from the lock-down.

Lessons learnt as a CEO

The biggest learning for us as a company was to stay out and stand strong. A brand with a legacy of building and sustaining the business of design in India for 31 years should be able to take an odd hit. We did tide over without taking drastic steps like salary cuts or furloughs. We even honoured our pre-pandemic commitments and got three new team members to join us despite the difficult months. We had an interesting year and some quick design interventions made us feel proud as we could see them making a positive difference in the pandemic time. As we turned 31 one of the most exciting projects got paused as the Olympics got pushed to next year.

Surprising as it may sound, new business queries did not stop. They just took longer courtships to convert. The bottom-line certainly did not grow but we took some conscious calls. We repeatedly heard how tough it was to sustain for younger, smaller studios and agencies and made sure that all our 70+ team members felt secure about their jobs. That is the least an institution built with people at the core should do.

I would like to sum up with two words for the year that was and the year that will be: appreciate and repair.

Ashwini Deshpande is the co-founder and director of Elephant, one of India's largest independent integrated design consultancy firms.


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