Adspends don’t make a brand big : Suman Srivastava
Updated: Nov 12, 2021
Veteran advertising professional Suman Srivastava, who is vice-chairman and Chief Strategy Officer at FCB Ulka, has authored a book entitled ‘Marketing Unplugged’. In this interview with Pradyuman Maheshwari, Srivastava talks about the changing demands of marketing in India, and how the world’s biggest brands were not built on huge ad spends
You’ve dwelt on the changes in the way marketing is practised today. Would you say this is because of changing needs of consumers, or have organisations and their stakeholders gotten more demanding?
Change is a cliché. The drivers of change are equally clichéd — technology, social media, consumer sophistication. My perspective, though, is that marketers seem to think their profession has reached maturity and doesn’t require further innovation. Or that innovation needs to come from doing the same things as everyone else, but only better. This book is really a cry for innovation in the way we approach problems, and in the tools we use to deal with them. These days everyone doing well is referred to as a ‘brand’. From cricketers to film stars to even political parties or even our country. A lot of the attempts to treat products, services and people is not well-strategised or executed by trained practitioners.
Would you say marketing is no longer the preserve of trained B-school graduates?
Marketing was never the preserve of B-school graduates. One of the great things about marketing is that the lead is often taken by practitioners in the field and then academia catches up, rather than the other way around. I would say that the key problem may be that too many trained practitioners are trying to manage brands. They are all doing it in exactly the same way as the next guy. This is a recipe for disaster. I have always maintained that the best B-schools train you how to think and approach a problem. That is the valuable bit. The tools they teach you are outdated by the time you step out of class. If you cling to those tools, then you are unlikely to succeed. Huge ad spends are often mistakenly considered to comprise smart marketing, as evinced by the approach adopted by big retailers and some flush-with-funds e-commerce players.
So what is your view, and recommendation, to marketers?
The strongest brands in the world today are Google, Apple, Starbucks, Facebook, Tesla, Red Bull – and none of these was built by huge ad spends. The big e-commerce players are not really brands; they are just great deals. Brands command a premium. These guys are discounters. Perhaps that is a lesson to all of us.
You’ve written on how Apple has succeeded in generating a buzz without using social media. As competition gets stiffer for Apple from the big and small device players, do you think the company will need to influence opinion via social media?
What I have said is that Apple does not have a direct presence in social media. But it already influences social media. It is a brand that is obsessed with word-of-mouth and is quite skilled in handling that. Look at the way it leaks information about products, creates Mac events and uses its fan base to advantage. The company does use social media, but it doesn’t do posts.
It’s interesting that you write about brand experience. But in India, while attempts are being made to have smarter packaging and design, attempts to improve the experience are generally considered an unnecessary addition to overheads. Like it happened with Kingfisher. Would you say that brand experience is a casualty, given RoI presssures?
The problem in India is that brands think it is cheaper to get a new customer than serve an existing one. It certainly is simpler to get a new customer. The market is growing and mass media still works. But creating a brand experience is hard work and the results are not instantaneous. Still, I would argue that this is a short-term view; If you take a lifetime-view of the customer’s interactions with the brand, then it is far better to improve brand experience than not.
Kingfisher was a marketing success story that was undone by one bad business decision (to buy Deccan). Even today, there are many customers (including myself) who yearn for that brand and would love to fly the good times again.