Expert Zone

Straight from the Specialists

First impressions and beyond

By Wally Olins
November 17, 2011

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

If you walk down a quite narrow and almost absurdly overcrowded street in Mumbai’s former financial district, Fort, you’ll come across an undistinguished building about 100 years old. It’s called Bombay House. This is the home of Tata.

Fort is no longer fashionable as a business district and Bombay House hasn’t changed its name to Mumbai House. The building is old, respectable, dignified and, above all, unpretentious. In other words, it’s classic Tata.

So the first impression you get when you walk into Bombay House is that you are dealing with a company that’s been around for a long time, that knows who it is and knows where it’s at and doesn’t need to boast about it. You can find out where you have to go quite quickly and everyone’s office, however senior they are, is modest but workmanlike. The way Tata presents itself in its head office is the way it is. And that’s really important. First impressions matter.

How different that is from so many other first impressions one gets. In India, so many of the buildings that companies live in are half built — and, therefore, half derelict — full of barriers and security guards who aren’t sure whether they are there to welcome you in or keep you out. Overall, they make an extremely disagreeable impression. It’s only when you get past all that stuff that you can go into the building and meet with the people you are supposed to be dealing with.

We always remember the impact that something makes on us the first time. Restaurants and hotels know this. That’s why they take so much trouble to orchestrate their public places, especially the reception areas.

But, beyond first impressions, which are so memorable, the totality of the environment really influences the way we, as outsiders, feel about the organisation. Even more important, it influences the way people who work inside the organisation feel about it too. Sometimes, the offices of senior people you meet are pleasant, efficient and friendly.

Occasionally, they are vast and pretentious, with a huge Chairman’s desk – almost megalomaniac. So you think, who does this person I’m trying to deal with believe he is? When the Chairman’s office is overwhelming and the rest of the building is, by contrast, falling to bits, shabby and dysfunctional, that’s a very bad sign. The company may be falling to bits as well because the boss is so completely out of touch.

The environment hugely influences behaviour. Government offices in India, in my experience, usually look slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic, creaky and old-fashioned and that, unhappily, is the way they very often are.

Environment is a key part of the brand. Branding is not only about what you say and how you communicate to the outside world, it’s also about how you live and how the atmosphere in which you operate influences the way you behave.

So, when you think about your brand, don’t only think about the logo and the advertising and the other forms of communication, but think about where you live, how you live and how you behave.

And always remember — first impressions linger for a long time.

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