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Key lessons Marketing Heads learnt from 2020, a year of upheaval and challenges

Rajesh Ramakrishnan from Perfetti Van Melle India, Shashank Srivastava from Maruti Suzuki India, Duroflex’s Smita Murarka, K. Ganapathy Subramaniam from Dabur India Limited and Parle Products’ Mayank Shah share their learnings from 2020 and how they are implementing them in their business decisions

World over, 2020 has been a year of upheavals and challenges because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The year has also brought with it a great set of learnings, phenomenally changing the way people think and work. As we begin a new year, these learnings have transformed into actions. The Marketing Heads of some major brands in the country speak to to share their learnings and how they have implemented them in their business decisions.

Dilen Gandhi

Dilen Gandhi, Sr. Director and Category Head, Foods, PepsiCo India

2020 will be marked as a landmark year for marketing that was authentic, empathetic and purpose-driven, as was seen across the sheer breadth of engaging and insightful work done by brands across the spectrum. Our own campaigns at PepsiCo India are winning examples of the ‘power of purpose’ in not just building brand equity but also resulting in strong business outcomes.

We kept these learnings at the centre of all our campaigns in 2020, right from the Lay’s Heartwork campaign – which was an ode to unsung and unseen heroes for their continued efforts despite the challenging times, to the Kurkure Chatpata Shukriya campaign – where we expressed gratitude towards the millions of Indian families for their continued support towards each other during these tough times.

Going forward, consumers will continue to reflect on the role that brands play in their lives and the value they bring to the community. In 2021, brands need to be more agile, gain deeper understanding of new consumer behaviours and their evolving expectations, as we will witness consumers shifting towards brands that they trust. Keeping this in mind, we at PepsiCo India will continue to build campaigns with a redefined purpose and a high-level of authenticity in storytelling.

Rajesh Ramakrishnan

Rajesh Ramakrishnan, Managing Director, Perfetti Van Melle India

2020 has been a very interesting and enriching year in many ways. These have been some of my key learnings:

Firstly, 2020 has been a destructive and yet a creative year. Destructive because it has shattered many myths, busted several paradigms, and broken many rules. And yet amid all this destruction, there has been creation of new ways of working, learning, and living.

It has also been a year of discovery—of our self, of our family, of friends and inner peace. During the lockdown, many of us reached out to long-lost friends and forgotten cousins via Zoom calls and Facetime chats. We discovered new passions and in many cases, rediscovered old passions: cooking, painting or pottery. We spent more time on taking care of ourselves.

And it has been a year of moderation. We have been forced to cut down on travel, on holidays, on socialising, on dining out. It has made us realise that we can get by with much less than what we think we need. The collateral benefit of this is a cleaner environment.

These are learnings that I would like to carry forward to 2021. In terms of work—break paradigms, leverage technology and create new ways of doing things in the organisation that make us more effective and efficient. Contribute to building an organisation culture that enables people to discover their potential and continue work in the organisation on reducing water consumption, carbon footprint through various initiatives. On the personal front: complete my coaching certification and positively impact people around me. Further progress on my journey of self-discovery through my yoga practice. And, moderate my personal consumption at all levels and support a cleaner environment.

Shashank Srivastava

Shashank Srivastava, Executive Director, Maruti Suzuki India

The biggest learning for me has been that nothing can be taken as a given. We make assumptions in business and in our personal lives assuming certain things as given. But this was very unprecedented. So I have reset my mind that nothing is really a given. I think that makes you more alert to possibilities.

For me personally, another learning was the understanding that human resilience is really strong. I remember in the first quarter it was really bad on the business front and otherwise as well with no travel, staying at home, doing everything ourselves and not meeting people. But the human resilience surprised me.

Thirdly, in all forms, communication helps, whether with consumers or with colleagues, family or friends. So we have to find ways to communicate. The importance of communication was starker in this pandemic. So to positively keep in touch with our colleagues, we had yoga sessions for fitness on Webex. We are continuing that.

We have strengthened our communication channels. As far as consumers are concerned, we have learnt to take their feedback very closely and we have digitalised a lot. We have seen the buying behaviour dramatically changing towards digital and we have strengthened our digital platform. So even when the pandemic is over and things are back to normal, I don’t think this is going to be reversed. We believe that it has sort of accelerated our work on digital and has given us very good results. We have realised the power of communication with the consumers through social media and we are continuing to harness that power. We were always doing it, but this has really accelerated it and it will remain one of the major pillars in our communication.

Smita Murarka

Smita Murarka, Vice-President, Marketing, Duroflex

My personal learnings from 2020 would be to have a positive attitude, be patient and calm along with being agile. I learnt to be resilient. The way you reacted to the pandemic as an individual and towards the family had an impact on how you handled the business. For us, it was about whether we see the pandemic as an opportunity or as a crisis. While it is not an opportunity as such and it should not have happened, but now that it has, our attitude was how do we take the right decision in making sure we are safe. At the personal level, making sure that our finances are in place, we stay sound and we are mentally occupied as a family. When it comes to your spouse, how do we communicate and give each other more support. That's the same thing we did with our teams also— accepted the reality, shared concerns and made sure we came together.

While on one side we were regulating costs, we were making sure that we have a safety net to last us for a good six months. We also took some bold decisions to make sure that we were planning for growth for the next year. Even on a personal level, if there were some milestones that we couldn't achieve because of our hectic daily lives, we looked at how we go about them now and close those pending processes. There was also a lot of focus on health and fitness, including taking care of mental health and sleep, which we also talk about in the business. I was resilient as a family member and that's something I brought to the table even in the business: getting the family and teams together and sharing what each other's feelings are and motivating and planning for the future.

K. Ganapathy Subramaniam

K. Ganapathy Subramaniam, DGM Marketing, Dabur India Limited

The learning graph for all marketers, including me, in 2020 was near vertical, especially starting March. Our financial year is April to March and the lockdown happened just at the verge of the closure of the financial year. We usually have hectic activities during that time. We learnt a lot and at an accelerated pace. The secret to success was that the speed was accelerated so everything moved from a conventional pace to a far higher accelerated pace.

People make contingency plans that come into play after the main plan doesn't seem to be firing in the right direction. Here we made contingency plans simultaneously because we were in a very uncertain world. We didn't know whether the exception which we planned for would happen at any level or not. Everybody was making contingency plans at every step.

We have seen the technology impact on FMCG working undergoing a drastic change. We work with client chains that are huge and complex. With Covid and with restrictions in place, it was a complete transformation. This entire network requires that you move into areas that not all people in the spectrum are comfortable and familiar with. So the learning is not just having people with expertise but also accelerating the learning of your team. You got to translate this personal learning into systemic learning. You have to ensure that even the system learns at the same pace.

We are implementing these learnings with the deployment of technology and shortening the timelines. Now I see people taking initiative irrespective of their earlier learnings. They are willing to challenge their own areas of expertise and come up with newer ways. There are no holy cows in terms of timelines or resources and even bigger enterprises have started to look at initiatives from a start-up lens.

Mayank Shah

Mayank Shah, Category Head, Parle Products Pvt. Ltd

The most important learning is to never take things for granted and think that you have envisaged every possibility. Covid is a classic example. Companies normally engage in an exercise of scenario building. But nobody ever thought of a situation like this. So a big learning is to factor this kind of unforeseen situation while building scenarios.

Secondly, if you didn't think of a situation like this, then when the situation comes and you feel that things may not work the way you have thought, start working towards it. A classic example is food companies. There were companies that rose to the occasion and went all out to see really good sales. They were able to overcome their problems to grow compared to the previous year. But there were also companies that were not able to take the benefits of the situation and grow because they never thought that they can really work in the given situations to take control, work around the problems and be ready.

Third, never underestimate the power of the digital. Most of us always thought that digital medium would grow eventually in a period of time. We were talking about having a 10% contribution of FMCG over a period of the next one decade. But we saw almost 3x to 4x growth in less than a year during Covid in ecommerce.

How I’m implementing them? For the first two situations. It's about agility. You can't be complacent and say that I'm a big company so I can't do it. You have to be as agile and nimble as a start-up and work around your strategies accordingly. There's no scope for complacency. Going forward, we need to have a lean organisation and be very nimble. 

Secondly, on the digital front, given the shift that has happened in media as well as in consumer buying, we have reoriented our strategy to focus more on digital media— in terms of advertising and on digital selling as in ecommerce and other channels.

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