Being aware of what's happening shapes one's perceptions and makes for a smarter manager, says Neel Chowdhury, CMO & VP, Obopay Inc

 As the Marketing Head and Vice-President of mobile payment company Obopay, Neel Chowdhury's task is to make people aware of the power of the mobile wallet. Chowdhury is responsible for Obopay's overall marketing campaigns, sales channels and so on. But for the on-the-go marketer who has straddled assignments in the telecom and media space, the convergence of technology and reduction of the go-to-market time is all par for the course.

The polo playing Chowdhury has had a chukker with media with stints at Network 18 and Times Global Broadcasting Ltd as Marketing Head. In the telecom space, he has worked with Bharti as its Mumbai Head Marketing, and has also been the COO of Tata Teleservices in West Bengal. The Berkeley educated Chowdhury had his marketing foundation at PepsiCo. In his spare time, when not playing polo, Chowdhury loves to cook.

My most memorable marketing initiative  

There have been a few good ones but my favourite has to be the aggressive multi-format marketing campaign for Times NOW in 2008. It saw Times NOW become the leading English News channel in India and the most recalled English News Channel brand — which still holds today.  

A digital marketing campaign I found groundbreaking

 It has to be Barrack Obama's first election campaign. Brilliant planning and great execution; it's been well documented that social media was a huge part of Obama's election campaign, and that can be backed up by some fascinating statistics on what the campaign achieved:

5 million ‘friends' on more than 15 social networking sites

13 million e-mail subscribers

8.5 million monthly visitors to (at its peak)

3 million online donors

The sheer magnitude of online conversations, not only in the US but around the world, was overwhelming and it will be very difficult to replicate the ripple effect caused by this campaign.

My first product launch

My first product launch was Sierra Mist for PepsiCo in 2000 in the US. Sierra Mist is a lime-lemon drink, much like 7Up and Sprite, which were the leading lime-lemon drinks at the time. ‘Storm', PepsiCo's offering in the lime-lemon category at the time, was reformulated to create a flavour more like the market leader's.

There is an interesting anecdote behind how we named Sierra Mist. The name was selected from a list of over 1,000 recommendations, based on market research involving 2,000 people. Interestingly, ‘Sierra' was also the previously proposed name for the original Slice in 1984, so it reiterated our belief that consumer sentiment about the lime-lemon drink hadn't changed much in all those years. As a result, it was easy to replace successfully Slice with Sierra Mist in 2003.

In terms of marketing campaigns Sierra Mist's ads were aggressive, funny and tongue-in-cheek. This was highlighted by our 2003 Superbowl ads that aimed at garnering eye-balls by tickling the funny-bone. Success followed when in 2004 the beverage had surpassed 7Up in terms of annual retail sales, making it the second most-purchased lime-lemon soft drink in the US (Sprite being the first).

A great idea that never took off

This was my own brainchild in the mobile VAS space. It was a little ahead of its time back in 2002, which is why I never did manage to raise the capital to make a successful business of it. But the idea went mainstream five years later, and though I didn't benefit from it, it felt good to see the principles in play and the fact that it was finally being seen as a viable business model.   

A setback that I have learnt from

I'm lucky to not have had any major setbacks. I see setbacks as more personal when audacious or ambitious ideas do not receive the kind of acceptance I'd like. However, hindsight is always 20:20 and you learn from those ‘mistakes' too.

My marketing idol

Definitely, Steve Jobs. I believe all great leaders are partly superior marketers. They are able to create a level of excitement about their products/ services that makes them iconic and aspirational. And while not all products lend themselves to such marketing wizardry, it only stands to reason when you consider what Jobs did with mere music.

Where I get my insights from 

From the ground up. I believe in shaping my personal growth through a habit of voracious reading, studying consumer behaviour, etc. For instance, I like observing customers in stores across formats and their shopping habits. Being completely aware of what is happening around you largely shapes your perspective and in my opinion helps me to be a smarter manager.

The challenges of marketing for Media versus FMCG

I think FMCG and media have more in common in terms of marketing strategies than you would normally think.

One of the biggest common challenges in both sectors is being able to make a dent in the market if you aren't already an FMCG or media giant. Another commonality is the fact that both are consumer facing and, therefore, need to adjust marketing strategies very quickly to changing consumer sentiment. An interesting counter-point, however, is that the bigger you are, the more cumbersome it is to stay current and dynamic and that's where the larger companies stumble.

Also, when it comes to managing crises, both have to implement damage control swiftly. Whether it is product recalls/ contamination in the case of FMCG or an errant TV host/ anchor on a TV channel.

Sure, their businesses differ widely, but the audiences are quite alike and, therefore, marketing strategies tend to have similar challenges.

How much has B-school helped me in my career

Business school definitely helps you gain a new thought perspective on the same business principles. A strong business mindset is about being able to quickly adapt to a changing market place and making decisions under ambiguity. It provides analytical frameworks that one can apply to possible business scenarios when you encounter them. Also, having studied and spent over 12 years in the US, primarily in NYC and Berkley, has helped me develop a global network which is crucial in today's connected world.

Future gazing into the life of a marketer in 2015

 The world is increasingly going digital, and I believe that traditional marketing will be overshadowed by its digital counterpart in the years to come.

In fact, it is already happening, where social networks exert huge influence on the masses as well as on public perception, Governments, etc. 

Having said that, traditional marketing as we know it will flourish and grow given the last mile reach that only traditional methods can achieve. That said, it will need to keep reinventing itself as the nation grows its digital footprint.


(This article was published on June 13, 2012)
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