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Brands need to look at digital differently; it is much more than just performance marketing, says Group M’s Ashwin Padmanabhan

In a conversation with, Ashwin Padmanabhan, President, Partnerships and Trading, GroupM India, says brands and agencies need to understand that digital is a very vast medium with distinct subsets that can be used for different objectives and not just performance marketing

Ashwin Padmanabhan

Brands are already spending big on martech and performance marketing but they must realise that digital as a medium offers much more than this, said Ashwin Padmanabhan, President, Partnerships and Trading, Group M.

“The way consumers are engaging with digital media, brands need to look at digital beyond media and performance and see how it can help in building brand engagement with consumers in a more meaningful manner. We need to shift the way we look at digital and what we call digital,” he told 

Talking about the trends that are likely to dominate 2021, he said social commerce is going to be big. 

“Fashion, home decor, food, fitness and lifestyle are going to be the core categories for social commerce,” he said. 


What is the biggest challenge that brands have to face in 2021 and how prepared are we for it?

The challenge is not just for brands but businesses. While we are seeing a rebound in the economy and advertising, the environment will continue to be dynamic and evolving. Both challenges and opportunities will pop up, and they will not be predictable. Within this environment, the brands will maintain their threshold so that they have market share and customer consideration is taken care of. The strategy that the brands will have to adopt has to be a mix of long-term planning and a room for adding and changing right from supply, distribution and marketing plans in real time. The brands and agencies will have to work very closely together on long-term plans. They will have to build skills and tools to manage the instantaneous requirements that will keep popping up. 

In 2020, we have been tested immensely on reacting depending on what the environment is. A lot of accelerated development has happened in terms of tools and skillsets within brands as well as agencies to respond to immediate requirements. The brands have adopted a lot of agile business frameworks. I am emphasising ‘business’ because there is no point in doing branding without having products and services available. It has to be an end-to-end solution. Coupled with a long-term vision, if we are able to deploy agile business frameworks, the brands will be in a good place in 2021. 

According to several reports, social commerce has the potential to be worth $20 billion by 2025. Can social commerce completely transform how consumers shop online and is it a threat for platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart? 

Social commerce will grow. A lot of influencers are being on-boarded on GroupM’s own influencer marketing platform, INCA. They are heavily into commerce right now. As a trend, it is going to grow, but I am not sure about it going to become a $20 billion or even $60 billion in 2030 if reports are to be believed. I understand the challenges that ecommerce went through to reach the stage of $30 billion number in GMVs. They had to cross the barrier of trust. On the flip side, the influencers have built trust with the audience. Social commerce needs to answer basic commerce-related questions in terms of payments and returns to really start booming. There is a huge opportunity for platforms that can provide such a safety net for consumers. Such a platform currently doesn’t exist. These features are still being added on the platforms as we speak. 

The other trend is that somewhere social commerce and ecommerce are merging. For example, Myntra. They have moved to social commerce in a big way. They have on-boarded influencers on their platform to run their own channels, styles and designs on the platform. To say that ecommerce and social commerce are going to run on parallel tracks is not going to happen. 

Which are the categories that can’t do without social commerce?

There are certain categories that lend themselves naturally to social commerce. Fashion, home decor, food, fitness and lifestyle are going to be the core categories for social commerce. But to buy a car or any other automobile, I would probably read a review but not buy online yet. Although we have seen dealerships go online in 2020, experiences have gone online and people are doing demos online. From that perspective, the shift is happening. 

Which are the themes around which we will see brands mostly communicating this year?

Given the environment, the brands will continue to look at health, both physical and mental. As time is going by, mental health is becoming very important. A lot of people are suffering from the stress the pandemic has brought on to us. Therefore, physical and mental health, hygiene, confidence-building, fighting back will be a few themes that the brands will focus on this year. As a society, we are very fragile right now and brands can play a huge role in giving them confidence while offering products and services in day to day lives. 

Which are the areas where we will see brands investing in 2021?

The brands have already started investing in performance marketing or martech system, where the brands use first-party data to reach out to the consumers. Therefore, the big shift has already happened. The decision to invest in technology has already happened. It’s just that the brands are in different stages of their life-cycle. 

What is one thing that you tell all the brands for them to grow business, especially this year?

Brands first need to ensure product and service availability. We have still seen challenges that the brands are facing in the supply chain, production, sourcing materials, etc. Secondly, brands must try and build distribution and marketing in local terms and don’t just dip into a national strategy. 

Do you think that it’s the right time for brands to be aggressive in their marketing activities or one should still wait and watch?

Brands need to be ‘always on’ dynamic strategy. They can’t be ‘off’ ever. The demand exists. It’s not that people are not buying anything and are locked up at homes. If the brand is not visible and engaging with the consumers, it is letting go of the business. The brands have to invest in marketing the way they were doing traditionally. 

On the digital side, which is the most important aspect that brands need to focus on? 

Just to even use the word digital is wrong because it has become very vast. The brands and agencies need to recognise digital as distinct sets with a different objective. For example, commerce and social as a set and performance as an objective. The trap that the brands are falling into is to use digital as a commodity or only for performance. Digital has a lot more power than doing these two. The way consumers are engaging with digital media, brands need to look at digital beyond media and performance and see how it can help in building the brand engagement with consumers in a more meaningful manner. We need to shift the way we look at digital and what we call digital.

Do you think performance marketing will overpower the conversations around jargons such as martech, automation, data and AI?

Performance and brand-building are the two outcomes that we are trying to drive. Performance comes in when a brand wants to increase downloads of its app, grow subscription of its service. The brand-building comes in when it wants people to remember the brand and act on it when they walk into a store. Martech, data, automation and AI are all tools that enable us to achieve these outcomes in a better, faster and more intelligent manner. Using tools and outcome are two different things.

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