Collaborate, not compete – lessons from the new normal

New Delhi, IndiaUpdated: Sep 28, 2020, 07:58 PM IST


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At first glance, it might appear almost counterintuitive that brands in times of such economic difficulty - instead of pushing harder to outdo the competitors – are collaborating with them. 

Written by: Sanjeev Roy

Before Covid (BC) brand collaboration meant that two or more non-competing brands would come together – this was often done purely for promotional gains.  

The Covid Era (CE) has, however, brought with it a new wave of not just inter-category but also intra-category brand collaborations – brands that were historically considered “competitors” are actually working together now. Consider this, rival pharma companies in India are working in tandem to ensure that life-saving drugs reach all markets even as they knowingly give up on a part of their competitive advantage. 

Or consider this, Apple and Google (both in the past, made too much effort in finding innovative ways of blocking each other’s services) decided to collaborate to create contact tracing solutions.

Examples are aplenty: AstraZeneca and GSK, arch-rivals in the UK pharma industry, collaborating with the University of Cambridge to assist the government in COVID-19 testing efforts; beverage rivals Pernod Ricard, Budweiser, Carlsberg, Remy Martin, have collaborated in launching online clubbing experience in China.

Or consider the many volunteer groups cropping up, where individuals located all over the country were working in tandem to help people in various crises such as the migrant crisis during the lockdown, or floods in Assam and Kerala, cyclone in Bengal – a group of people having never met in-person before and having no common connection except a passion and willingness to make a change. 

Perhaps it is one more of the CE paradoxes that we are now seeing: the physical coming together of people has been largely limited due to lockdowns and safety concerns and yet virtual collaborations – driven by common passion and innovative solutions, are on the rise. 

On the one hand are governments and organizations who are erecting bigger and thicker walls and on the other are the academia, businesses and individuals who are collaborating, sharing and creating innovative solutions, more than ever before.

At first glance, it might appear almost counterintuitive that brands in times of such economic difficulty - instead of pushing harder to outdo the competitors – are collaborating with them. 

Why Now?

  • For many it might simply be self-interest. With bars and restaurants closed and e-commerce on the rise, the beverage companies, a music label and an ecom site, found that together they could achieve more than they could individually. Carlsberg and Budweiser, who in any case sit in the same bar shelf, found more joy in raising a toast together than in clashing swords. 
  • The pharma companies found their distribution networks totally disrupted during the first lockdown. Cries of help from kidney transplant patients in Ranchi for the lifesaving drug of one company or a cancer patient in Dharamshala for the drugs of the other company, could only be met if they relied on each other to share costs of a chartered airplane or use each other’s distribution strengths in different areas. Not only did they save lives, but they also managed to retain valuable customers. These are big chasms that have been crossed and organisations could start seeing long term merit in collaborating on certain aspects rather than competing.
  • Homo Sapiens are social animals. For us, connecting with others is a natural urge. We have been forced into isolation and fear and uncertainty is high. At a time like this, seeking out others is natural. 
  • At Future Forward, the virtual group of scenario planning enthusiasts (who co- authored Here Today Here Tomorrow), seeking answers and trying to make sense of the future, is our way of coping with uncertainty and fear. We do it as a collective instead of individually. Instinct has driven collaboration, on what is primarily an intellectual pursuit. 
  • Consider this analogy: Onam Sadya (traditional vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf in Kerala for Onam) reimagined as a mélange of Malayali and Bengali vegetarian dishes to create a new, unique experience; conceived as one meal but cooked by two chefs specializing in each cuisine. The Malayali Chef and the Bengali Chef, looking to remain interesting and relevant in a changed market, seek each other out and create an experience that stands out. Alone is scary, together is less so.

This is a time that needs us to be together. The problem is large and those with muscle have to unite and contribute. The solutions are needed fast. This is beyond profits. Glaxo, AstraZenaca, Oxford, Serum Institute of India, WHO and a whole host of others have to pull together to solve a global problem, fast. Apple and Google have to combine resources.


Is this sustainable?

The biggest benefit is that of survival – not being a part of the solution will mean that customers will write off the brands sooner rather than later. 

Also Read | Chinese scientist says covid-19 was created by China’s military

Innovative outputs, synergies, new markets, engaged consumers, solutions at scale are the benefits that can outlive the pandemic. To keep it working though organisations and individuals have to be mindful of what has worked so far:

  • Shared purpose, the will to make a difference and common goals have never been more important. Apple and Google sit at the same table because they both share the same purpose of finding solutions for dealing with the pandemic. This is what their stakeholders want as well. At Future Forward we are united by our common enthusiasm for scenario planning and making sense of the future. We had common goals, a paper on trends first and then the book. 
  • Say bye to ego and welcome humility. If AstraZeneca were to try to steal the thunder for itself and not acknowledge its partners, the collaboration is bound to run into trouble. For corporations and nations, this is a new muscle to exercise. Individuals collaborating would also do well to remember this. The edifice of success has been built around claiming the glory and the spoils. Implicit in collaboration is sharing and generosity. The belief that as each collaborator gets stronger, the entire collaboration benefits. 

The virus while creating a distanced world, has opened the doors on many new connections. Nature has once again knocked us hard on the head, teaching us lessons that can create a more beautiful, just and happy world.

Sanjeev Roy is an Executive Coach, OD Consultant and Co-Author of ‘Here Today Here Tomorrow’ 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)