Meaningful storytelling

Updated on: Jun 28, 2019

Karan Kumar, Chief Brand and Marketing Officer, Fabindia

The video series of Mind your Marketing begins with Karan Kumar, Chief Brand and Marketing Officer, Fabindia, who, in his 18+ years of experience, has nurtured and led several brands to category and industry leadership positions. He is also founding member of The Marketing Society, in India.

What’s your take on the millennial and GenZ way of connecting with brands and how can brands, in turn, engage them?

Millennials and GenZ are amongst the most intelligent and well-educated audience groups we have today. Immensely interactive and ambitious, they keenly follow brands, and their stories. They actively seek out brands with a purpose – a purpose that resonates with their own values and the ones that resonate the most become a part of their consumption repertoire.

Millennials and the GenZ are also leading the charge when it comes to internet and data consumption. They are always on, always ready to be challenged and always hungry for meaningful content, with a clear preference for video-led content, be it on social or OTT platforms.  

To reach out to this particular audience group, brands definitely need to be always actively plugged into the larger internet ecosystem, creating stories that are video-led and being always available to take conversation-led engagement levels forward.  

Another trend to be aware of is that most of the internet consumption today, including OTT, is happening on portable mobile screens. That means that a brand’s content needs to be in formats that are mobile phone-friendly.

How can brands establish a long-standing relationship with the young, who are often experimental and switch between brands too soon?

The best way of connecting with this generation, and not just with the aim to sell, is via authentic and meaningful storytelling. Stories that highlight the core purpose of the brand. Remember, this discerning audience is actually seeking that and not the cotton-wool fluff that brands have ordinarily spun to camouflage what is actually their sales spiel. Millennials see through this fluff very easily and quite boldly call out brands they think they can’t trust.  

So communicate the brand’s core message to them and communicate it in a simple honest and unambiguous manner. If it is something that finds resonance with them, both the brand and the audience are meant for each other. If not, both need to and invariably will move on to attract other opportunities that are more meant for them.

What specific technologies have driven these changes?

The growing internet ecosystem is one big factor that has led to consumers looking at and engaging with brands in a very different manner from earlier times.

This internet revolution is also powered by the fact that today, in our country, high-quality data is available at relatively lower costs with various network providers competing to offer more of better quality data at less cost.

It further gets complemented by the availability of high-quality mobile devices at fairly competitive prices. So if you have the availability, combined with high-quality internet data, you can see where the consumption graph is headed.

Another important marker is that while the digital ecosystem now allows consumers to engage with brands much more vigorously than they ever did, equally it allows brands to have much more information about their audiences than before. The latter also fuels endless opportunities for brands to target audiences (and the sub-sets amongst them) with customised and therefore relevant messaging – around the brand, its products and offers.

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

Better idea, without any doubt. The better idea is what allows brands to think beyond the immediate horizon of the product and services. It is anchored in customer understanding and consumer insight and it powers brands to customise and create products and services for the future. Products and services that deliver a genuine wow and win them over, not just satisfying their basic and immediate need.  

That said, technology cannot be left far behind. It enables you to understand consumers, get copious amount of information on their attitudes and habits while also helping you target them on the basis of their interests and media consumption patterns.  

But at the core of a delightful customer experience always is an idea that is in response to the brand’s uniquely distinguished and superior understanding of its consumers – their wants, often stated but sometimes not.

‘Customer experience’ – how do you perceive it?

I think customer experience is often not given the kind of attention that it needs to get. Customer experience is the ultimate moment of truth in the engagement between the brand and its audiences. Whether it is in the physical or digital retail platforms, customer experience is everything that a brand needs to get right, mapping the entire customer journey from the pre-purchase period to purchase and finally the post-purchase period.  

Brands that differentiate and deliver superior customer experiences will be the ones that will eventually thrive in the long run. So for me, it is a no-brainer. I think an experience that delights customers while helping them make their choices is the one that needs to be consistently and diligently driven.

Karan says...

>One strategic change we plan to execute by 2020

Having a much greater play on storytelling – across formats and lengths

>My top three marketing mantras for 2019

Customer experience, brand purpose and machine learning

>Three concepts I believe define a hot brand

Purpose-driven, authentic and always on

>A powerful ad campaign I liked from 2018 

John Lewis & Waitrose "& partners" campaign, Google’s artificial intelligence campaign and, closer home, the series from Swiggy has some spectacular stuff born out of genuine behavior understanding and insights.

How do you bridge the gap between expectations and experiences?

The starting point of trying to answer that question is to actually understand expectations truly, genuinely and honestly.

Often times, marketers assume what their audiences expect from them and they use that to create product and service delivery packages. They think they already know what their customers want. My submission would be to really dig deep and truly understand the expectation that the consumer has from your brand.

And when you do that, very often you realise that your audience’s true expectation is not just about the physical product or a particular service, but it is in fact about larger things, or recognitions if you may, that brand ownership bestows upon them when what they are seemingly purchasing is only your product. Therefore what needs to be understood is that brand purchase and adoption is a much larger marker for its consumer – speaking about her and her choices – and that is what brands needs to be cognizant about.

Obtaining that understanding is critical if the brand marketer truly wants to create a comprehensive and winning overall package. It is this package that delights where the product itself is just one of the constituents.

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

Brands will remain competitive only if they have a differentiated value proposition. And this will come only if the brand very clearly and understands customer expectations – both met and unmet ones and equally, overtly stated or the ones that have been left unstated. To make this happen, I really don’t think there is any substitute to spending significant amounts of quality time with your consumers, understanding who they truly are and what they really seek.

While product and service experiences can be copied, what can’t be copied is the true essence of every brand that differentiates it from the other. To understand and develop that essence unique to your brand, genuine consumer understanding is needed.

A package that delivers on several counts over and beyond just the product is what will differentiate your brand and drive it to pole position.

Give us three secrets to successful branding.

Consumer understanding - that has to be the starting point of everything that you do. Consumer centricity should be an ethos that dictates every decision of yours.

Finding or creating your brand’s purpose would be the next to follow. It is purpose that should anchor brand messaging and its experience across every possible media and physical touch point. Crafting messages that are honest and resonate, and exchanging them using platforms that are optimal for their delivery.

And consumer engagement combined with social proofing would be last but not the least one. Consumers love to be challenged, love to be involved as co-creators, so get them onboard as early as possible irrespective of whether you are creating a new product or communication. They also love their friends and family to give feedback on products as they value that much more than a brand’s claims. So be fearless and put your product or messaging out there to welcome evaluation and critique (and change something if you must after feedback is in). Trust me, products that undergo these cycles end up faring much better when it comes to adoption.

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

No, such an approach cannot work in a market like India. India is neither one unitary mass of people nor is it one homogenous culture; it is disaggregated and the sum of its parts is much bigger than any of the individual slices alone.

There are thousands of nuances which govern various audiences across the various parts of India - likes, perspectives and points of view. Therefore, be it product or message creation, brands and their marketers will have to be very conscious about creating core products and messages and their versions – each of which need to find resonance with targeted but disaggregated audience groups.

It is pretty counter-intuitive to say that messaging and sometimes the product itself needs to be customised, needs to be personalised, and that is an absolutely essential need when you're working with a society which is as economically, culturally and demographically diverse as the Indian society is.

How important is it for brands to adopt the hyperlocal approach?

Brands need to think local because you're speaking to audiences that are in not just very diverse geographies, but come with very different cultural lenses. For brands to be relevant to audiences as diverse as they are, you need to have a great sense of appreciation of what those local sub-cultures are. That is what decides how you custom-create your product and messaging portfolios to ensure they strike the right chord with the right audience across all the sub markets and geographies with the overall Indian market.

How challenging do you find the Southern market for Fabindia, in terms of brand and consumer engagement?

South is a very interesting market, and in the South there are again multiple markets within what we call South India. Be it product or core messaging, Kerala responds very differently to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu responds very differently to Karnataka and to Andhra and Telangana. So I think it is super-critical for you to understand the environment and the context of your audience. To understand what that market asks of you in terms of the product that it needs across attributes like climate, per capita consumption, choice of colours, preference for materials, attitudes towards consumption, indulgence and definitions of value.

We try to make sense of at least some of this and let that guide our decisions on key elements like portfolio, pricing and retail experience, keeping them as closely mated to local market expectations.

According to you, why is the South Indian market unique and special?

I strongly believe that even with South, there are several expectations and attitudes that vary. That said, I would say that, overall, with average levels of literacy and education being higher and with average predisposition for branded products being stronger, most consumers across various southern markets are highly objective, intelligent and discerning about the choices they make. Their attitudes towards consumption and value are slightly more nuanced and significantly more challenging. And that is great for brands who are up to that challenge – brands that are able to demonstrate their intrinsic value and proposition.

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

Published on June 27, 2019
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