"CMOs need to relook at their own jobs"

Written by Alokananda Chakraborty | Updated: May 19 2009, 08:12am hrs
Most of the books on marketing you wouldve read lately are big on theory and short on practice. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, but MG Ambi Parameswarans latest book, Ride the Change, is strong on both counts and, therefore, impressive.

And, for a bonus it is rigorous in the use of analysis and data, a critical component in understanding changein consumer behaviour, in markets and in marketing. In this interview to Alokananda Chakraborty, Parmeswaranan, who is executive director and CEO, Mumbai, Draftfcb + Ulka, talks aabout his book and about the changes sweeping India.

Your latest title, Ride the Change, is essentially a compilation of your articles on the changing Indian consumer, market and marketing. For the benefit of those who havent yet laid their hands on the book, what are the key ways that Indian consumers have changed in the last five years or so Have marketers and marketing been able to keep pace

The book Ride The Change is organised into four sections that trace the changes that I have noticed in the Indian market over the last five to 10 years. Take the first section, Changing Consumers, it addresses the key changes that have happened to Indian consumers. The articles here talk of several segments that have undergone major changes, with special emphasis on women and young Indians.

Women of India, especially, in urban India have undergone remarkable change. They are today a lot better educated, more worldly wise and willing to do a lot more for their own home and kids than what would have been expected of women, even 10 years ago. For instance, the Cogito Consulting study, WomenMood II, done two year ago found that non-working women today want to work, and the status of the working women in middle class India has dramatically moved up.

Take the other major target segment, the young adult, or people who I call the post-liberators. These young Indians, born or brought up largely during the post 1991 era, see themselves and their country differently. There are a couple of articles in the book that dwell on them and their changing desires. To the post-liberators, India is country of opportunity, they are not blindly hankering after foreign labels, they value money, but they are also willing to spend more since they think they will earn more. (In fact the economic slowdown is the first major economic shock for this generation.)

In your research, looking back through marketing history, what important marketing innovations have you identified

India has produced several remarkable brands born out of a keen understanding of the Indian market realities. Let us take Amul and the co-operative movement that brought about the white revolution in the country. Or the way Karsanbhai Patel innovated with a low-cost detergent Nirma that changed the landscape of fabric wash. Indian auto manufacturing has had a revolution with the launch and success of Tata Indica and I am sure Nano will be a world-beater. The Indian mobile marketers virtually invented the pre-paid system and pushed it at the cost of post-paid, to open up a huge market. The shampoo brands of south, Chik and Velvette, opened up the sachet concept and married it with innovative low-cost manufacturing, to create a new market for shampoos. Zee revolutionised television viewing with full day entertainment in Hindi when the global major was still focusing on English. And one can go on and on.

The section on Changing Markets and Changing Marketing addresses some of the lessons one can glean from these successes.

Organisations seem to be using new technology to reinforce the old marketing habits.

Your comment.

Intrinsically, the way consumer thinks about products, brands and the way they buy has not changed. But marketing today has innovative ways of communicating with the consumer. Some years ago, brands had to write a letter to a customer; today short messages can be sent in a matter of a few seconds. So with better use of technology, companies can open up new lines of communication. In the book, Ride The Change, I am addressing some of these new rules of engagement in the section Changing Marketing. The article Eight Steps for Eight Seconds is about the time an internet surfer gives us before clicking off.

Would you say the job title of chief marketing officer is beginning to lack lustre

I think CMOs need to relook at their own jobs and see what can be done to make it more productive for the organisation.

In the book I have included an article on the concept of Networking for Managing Innovation. I think in many companies product innovation has moved out of the CMOs office, reducing the CMO to the role of activation. It is important that marketing function in general and the CMO in particular play a more critical role in product and service innovation. They are living closest to the consumers and are best suited to drive a companywide innovation movement.

The West associates India with outsourcing. Has that changed or does India still conjure up images of a low-cost back office

Sydney Levy in his seminal article written more than two decades ago spoke of several stages that an economy goes through as it embraces the development mantra; from that of a marginal economy to that of a country with a brand power. Countries like Japan are at the top, while several countries in Asia and Africa are at the bottom. Fortunately India is now on its way up. We were a low-cost back office, but over the last 10 years many companies have started doing serious development work in India. So Indias image is changing from that of a low cost coding shop, to that of a potential innovation machine. There is still a lot more to be done and I believe it will happen, in spite of the current slowdown.

What keeps India from becoming a product giant like it is in services

We are becoming a product giant, but our success in the global arena will have to be driven by domestic innovation. The section on Changing Marketing has an article titled Massification of Luxury. If luxury products can be produced for the masses in India, we can soon take these to the rest of the world. Unlike China, our manufacturing success may have to follow the Japanese model, where products are invented or created for the local market and then taken to the world. Mahindra is doing it with their tractors. I am sure Nano too will travel the globe.

For the West, more often than not, it is a zero-sum game. For India to rise, presuma-bly it has to take somebodys place and somebodys customers.

It is not a zero sum game at all. If the global economy grows, all economies grow. Unfortunately, there could be periods where growth can be a little disproportionate. Let us take our own economy. It grew by over 8% over the last five years, not all sections of the society have grown the same way. In fact some reports say that the poor have had negligible growth. This does not mean that you bring down the growth momentum and try a different form of growth. The challenge is to see the current growth can become more equitable. Experts say that there is a trickle down effect that will take place once growth is sustained over a longer period.

You work with a lot of corporate top brass. Whats the biggest issue that they face right now Can we expect some big ideas and world-class companies to emerge from the current economic turmoil

Indian companies are looking at global markets more and more. Unfortunately the current global slowdown could not have happened at a more inopportune time, as far as Indian businesses are concerned. But now that it has happened, it is an opportunity for Indian companies to recalibrate what they see as their world. Will it be the Western countries or can we be global by not addressing the most developed markets These are some of the questions that I think are being discussed in boardrooms.

Are their any brands that you really admire What are the interesting things they are doing to ride the current downturn

I admire many Indian companies and the brands they have built. Take Hero Honda and how it has bounced back in a recession. Unlike their competitors they did not vacate the value segment, when they went for growth in the big mobike segment. Their multi-brand strategy, straddling multiple price points has really helped them in this downturn. Look at the way Titan is continuing to innovate with exciting new designs. The company, instead of getting into a shell is firing on all cylinders to tap all segments, even if the market is not buoyant enough.

Airtel and its multi-segment strategy has always been a fascinating one to study; from Blackberry for the top end to the cheap offers for the bottom end and numerous offers in between, they are a brand that we closely track.