With over 20 years of experience, Vikas Gupta, Vice-President – Marketing, at Flipkart has had a diverse career across general management, P&L leadership, global marketing and sales & distribution around the world. His work over the years has won significant recognition – 14 effectiveness awards (Effies and AMEs), 27 innovation & creative awards (16 Cannes Lions) and 10 top Unilever awards. In this edition, Vikas speaks about the importance of a personal connection with consumers, how continuous listening can change the game positively and why the need of the hour for brands is to personalise their offering.

Have millennials and GenZ transformed the way businesses approach marketing?

The way millennials operate is insightful for us. There is a lot to learn from how they interact with brands and platforms. From spending habits to brand preferences to values; everything is different. They engage with brands far more personally and extensively and expect a mutual relationship. They consume information on the go and are eager to share their feedback – good or bad, which can further help brands understand what they are doing right and what can be improved.

They interact with technology on a daily basis and adopt new technologies fast. Brands need to be where this audience is, engaging with them on their own terms. It is important for us to keep abreast of what they are up to and for us to understand their needs and align our marketing campaigns accordingly. As the first generation that has grown up with the internet, their opinions and choices matter to a bigger circle that they hold and can help brands plan their strategies in a meaningful way. The expectations are so high, it is important for brands to continuously listen to them and keep adapting.

What are the best ways to connect with and sell to this audience?

This generation appreciates personal connect and the best way to connect with them is to be honest and genuine. Earlier, consumers would associate their identity with a brand – what they wore or the accessories they bought became their identity. Now, it is also about the experiences they get with a brand. Millennials expect brands and companies to have a comprehensive, intimate view across channels and media.

On a social media platform, you are one among their friends. You connect with them on that level, they say, “This brand is talking to me on a personal level”. In this day and age, if we are not able to personalise it for them and give a special experience, it becomes challenging for them to appreciate any brand. That is the way we operate, that is the way I believe people should be operating with millennials.

What are the specific technologies that have driven these changes?

It is several technologies. Smartphones have played a massive role in making this happen and so has social media that made content engagement prevalent. A lot of video content has made it possible for people to consume content on their smartphone. It is basically their equivalent of television. I think several technologies and factors have come together to enable millennials spending time on digital media, and that is one big piece of consumer change. The other big piece is consumer insights, and to be able to reach to millennials and consumers in a personal way, leveraging these insights in a very sharp manner. Earlier, I think it would have been very difficult to reach out to people on a personal level. Every brand had mass media to talk to consumers. Now, brands can talk at an individual level. It has come through because of an ability to understand a consumer at an individual level, leverage the data insights along with ML and algorithms to be able to showcase it to them.

What do you need to win in the marketplace – better technology or better ideas?

Both but idea is a lot more important than technology. You can have great technology, but if you have a bad idea, then it is not going to work. You might have a very good idea but if you are not adapting the latest technology, that is not going to fly either.

What makes customer experiences the differentiator of the future?

Millennials expect a very personal experience. Every experience and touch point is critical. If we need to win their hearts and get them to use a particular brand and platform like ours, we need to make sure every single experience and touch point we have with them is fantastic. Whether it is at the time of shopping, payment, receiving the order, reaching out to the customer service centre, or returning a product because they did not like it. I can talk about 3,000 touch points, and every touch point is critical for us. At Flipkart, we take it very seriously to be able to address each of these needs and make the customer very happy.

How do you bridge the gap between expectation and experience?

The best way to do that is to continuously listen to your customer. It is very important for every leader in the company to hear out different pain points of customers, challenges they are seeing, meet diverse sets of customers and meet them often, do as much user research as possible before launching a product or proposition or a new offering. And it is important to get feedback. If you are not talking to customers enough you won’t build a fantastic experience and meet the expectation. At Flipkart, we think customer-first and we take this seriously in everything and anything we do. If you are not breathing this enough, you will not be able to build a delightful and scalable consumer experience.

What does it take for brands to stay competitive in today's dynamic economy and market?

The most important thing is to understand the customer and see what they want. And through that you will be able to figure out the right market fit you can provide. If you are continuously doing this, listening to the customer, figuring out what the need is, and then addressing it with the right market fit, you will be able to stay competitive longer. Everything else will follow, whether it is the people, capital, or anything else from a resourcing perspective. Brands can stand out with messages that are relevant to the times.

What are the three secrets to successful branding?

One is to stay genuine. You have to make sure you mean what you say. Two, you have to make sure you are talking about an experience that makes more sense to a customer, by means of differentiation, where they appreciate your offering. And three, in today’s world, branding is very personal. What you may need from a particular brand may be different from another person’s need. Though the offering might be the same, you might want to articulate and communicate that with different people differently.

Can a one-size-fits-all approach work in a differentiated market such as India?

Absolutely not, you cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach, in a country like India, where markets are very different. There is a reason Flipkart has multiple brands. For example, you have Myntra serving a certain set of customers; you have Flipkart serving a very different set of customers. The fact that India has many Indias within itself is important for brands to understand. Second, the way even a single brand communicates, there is obviously a need for brands to do different things for different customers. There is an opportunity to have an engaging and mutually complementary mix of online and offline marketing initiatives, using the right technology. For example, during the 2019 edition of The Big Billion Days, we had a WhatsApp chatbot dubbed the "Big B" (Big Billion); Google WiFi stations that were gamified for deal discovery; real-time shopping experience for TV viewers; ‘marketing in the air’ campaigns and the branded Burger King whoppers – all of which were differentiated offerings for varied consumers.

Why and how should brands think local?

It is extremely important for us to talk to the consumers in their local language. In 2019, we introduced Flipkart in Hindi and are also working towards other vernacular offerings as a part of our inclusive strategy, to build on accessibility to reach out to the next 200 million Indians, where solving for language barrier is critical and technology is the solution.

How does your brand approach the southern market when it comes to branding and consumer engagement?

India offers opportunities with its diversity. In every region, the language, behaviour, expectations, and consumer needs are different. Being a platform that serves India and Bharat equally well, we look at the responsibility of serving our consumers across the spectrum with much pride. It is not about branding in a certain region but to be able to serve it with the right selection of products. Let’s say someone in Tamil Nadu is expecting Kanjeevaram sarees. The question is do we have enough of that, are we addressing their needs enough, and are they getting what they need? Are we giving it in the language they want it in? For us being close to our consumers and working with our seller partners is what makes each region and its needs different.

This article is part of a brand initiative by The Hindu BusinessLine to profile marketing professionals from across India.