Saturday, December 5, 2015

Vartalaap - in conversation with Mr. Prashant Parameswaran || Marketing Manager || General Mills || Vinay Jain || Cheena Pasrija || IIM Shillong || November 2015 edition

Mr. Prashant Parameswaran, Marketing Manager - Convenient Meal Solutions, General Mills is an Experienced Marketing professional with over 15 years in Consumer Insights in leading MNCs spanning areas such as Innovation, Brand Marketing and Business Strategy across markets in Asia, Middle East and Africa. He is an expert in the field of getting consumer insights and has given direction to many programs in his organization to make innovation systematic.

Markathon : Considering your diverse work experience with FMCG, we would like to get an understanding from you, what are these firms doing to penetrate into the rural markets and what better could they do?

If you really look at rural India, it is first of all very important to understand from a ‘need’ point of view what works in rural villages or small towns in India. If I have a product that sells well in the urban India then I need to understand whether the same product will work well in rural India or not, because a rural consumer is ready, they do have aspirations and emerging needs and we need to find out is ways to fulfill those needs. Another big challenge for marketers or in fact the biggest challenge that every FMCG company has to face, is how to reach these consumers and to tell them about your products. 

Raising brand awareness amongst this consumer base is another challenge in itself because the media penetration in such areas is very low. Most of them either don’t have radios & Televisions or satellite connections. But one thing that is changing is the mobile penetration and I think different companies are and should take advantage of this shifting scenario because marketers at the end have to send across their message to the consumer. They should come up with as innovative campaigns as possible to reach their customers. They can come up with mobile campaigns or could leverage upon the ‘melas’ that happen in or around these villages. 

The third and the most important thing to take care of, is the distribution network. Your products should be available to the consumer at the end and I think all companies that are successful in the rural markets have a strong distribution channel.  So I think these are the little things that the companies usually do to enter the rural markets.

Markathon: What is your take on the changing digital marketing space? What new marketing initiatives is  General mills planning to take on this medium?

Couple of things that we are doing: -

Number one, we are actively observing the conversations and engagement that happens on the digital platform. As there are a lot of conversations that happen on the social media, there is currently huge need for something known as ‘social media listening’. It is currently very important for marketers to follow what is trending in social media.

Number two; marketing on the digital space is way different than other traditional channels. Digital space is an altogether different space and unlike other medias, consumers more or less have the option to skip advertisements and that is why you need to focus on content. You need to generate content, which the consumers would be interested in watching.

Lastly, Another thing that you need to understand is how to advertise on different medias, now if we talk about Google Display network (GDN), which includes channels like twitter, Facebook, YouTube and what not. This enables you to have different campaign on different mediums and at the same time allows you to integrate your brand on all these mediums. We are using Google tools like SQL tools and trying to retarget our consumers with the help of ‘adwords’ and ‘adsense’. For E.g. If someone is searching on YouTube ‘butter chicken’, our advertisement in relation to that product should display on his screen. We are emphasizing on targeting our customers in such ways. Although we plan on taking Baby steps for now, as digital marketing is an altogether new media and unlike the traditional media, all of us are trying to learn from our little experiences.

Markathon: How do you think should companies motivate their marketeers to innovate constantly, considering you have initiated & led many programs in your career to drive innovation?

I think it’s not just about motivating the employees; it’s about the excitement to uncover something, which is a lot more powerful. For e.g. in general mills what we do differently is the way we interact with our customers. It is not just a simple step but an entire process that can’t be easily replicated by others. So we start by identifying ‘jobs to be done’ and ‘needs’. So if I want to start something in a field of says ‘snacking’, then I  go out and understand what are the different needs of consumers in this space. And out of these, which is that particular need I want to fulfill, or which is that need that has the maximum opportunity. Accordingly I work on that one particular need. So I think as far as innovation is concerned, you need to understand what is that you really need to work on rather than going out in the market and figuring out what should I make new.

The second important thing is to engage with the consumers. In today’s world it is very important to talk to your consumer and we ‘at General mills’, do a lot to ensure we engage and understand our consumers. A lot of the innovations for our products came because we understood, how our consumers cook , what goes on in their kitchen and what kind of products they use.

The last part, which is very important, is that it is not just the responsibility of a marketer to come up with new ideas. It can come from any department or domain of the firm and I think it is our duty to create a platform where all employees of the firm can contribute.

Markathon: You have said that your professional goal is to build a “Consumer First” culture in organizations, please elaborate on this goal and it's significance.

 We believe that whenever you want to take a decision, see if it makes sense for your consumer. I think every organization should build an intuitive ability over the time, to answer what will work and what will not work and we shouldn’t always rely for all our answers on insights from a market survey. For every marketing problem that comes our way, our approach shouldn’t be just go and do market survey. And that intuitive ability would come by continuously interacting with the consumers and knowing them so well, that at a point of time you will be in sync with their thought process. An organization needs to ensure that the only interaction it has with its consumer is not transactional. You need to talk to your consumer on continuous basis, not only when you need something out of them.

Markathon: You have also worked with Nielson’s and since startups are the next big thing in India, what market research techniques can startups use to get consumer insights as they don’t have big budgets like MNCs for such expenditure?

It is not always necessary to have that kind of money to really try and understand something. It could be done at a very basic level by engaging with your consumers, interacting and even observing them. As a startup you can always go stand in a mall, observe what people are buying etc. I think first and foremost is seeking information is very very expensive, you need to understand what are your challenges? Say you have some limitations when it comes to investment but that doesn’t stop you from getting the information that you want. Yes, it might be limited and might not be as much as you want but you will get information that you can use, that is point number 1. 

Number 2 is that there is so much information available on social media space where people are talking about their needs, talking about what they want and people are monitoring that. Today you think about any startup, say Uber, it became big not because of only information right, it became big because the founder experienced some problem and thought that there can be a solution to this problem. He uncovered an unmet need without any market research at all. This was the information that Uber worked upon, you don’t always have to do conventional market research to get valuable information. 

However, as you grow as an organisation you do need a lot of information but it is a gradual process. I am not of the belief that you need a lot of information to uncover a need.

Markathon: Are there any newer technologies that organizations are using for market research other than the traditional surveys and interviews etc.?

Technology is picking up and even usage of technology in collecting information is picking up. Today, people not only want accurate information but they also want faster information. A lot of investment is going on technologies which help collect the information faster. 

Number 2 is that there are also evolved techniques, a lot happening in the neuro-marketing space where people are trying to understand the impact of various stimuli on the human brain. These technologies are expensive and hence they will take some time for becoming the technique used by everyone but the good thing is people are looking beyond the traditional methods. Surveys are going to be there, they are important. 

The questions is how much we will use the other techniques as well. As an industry, Market research has been investing a lot in technology thinking about how they can get better information at a faster pace. 

Markathon: Since you are an expert on consumer insights and like the subject, I would like to know what would you give more emphasis on Product R&D or market research?

If you see market research as an industry, as lot of money is invested on what I call as scorecard research which includes questions like “is it working or not working?”, “am I doing well or not?” I think now what is happening is that a lot more money has been invested in trying to develop things at work place. Simply put, more emphasis is put on developing the right product rather than spending a lot more on testing later on. 

Today companies, General Mills for example follow a practice called launch and learn where beyond a point we just launch the product and learn about it from the market and develop the right product. The second thing that is happening is that if you look at R&D and the market research, they are coming a lot closer. There is a lot more engagement and interaction that is happening between them rather than both of them working in silos. 

We have done that in all our products that we have developed. Where it’s not been such that something is done at the marketing and then we go to the R&D and tell them to develop a product. Instead both the teams went together to the consumers and uncovered their needs. I am of that philosophy and that’s worked very well for us.

Markathon: What would you suggest to all the budding marketeers who want to make a career in this field?

I can talk about my experiences, the most important thing that has helped me is listening. It is important to observe, listen to what is happening around you rather than forming a particular bias in your mind. You should learn about the environment with respect to engaging with the consumers. Talk to consumers, look at what is happening in their lives, and look at how they are living. I think it is important that you spend a lot of time interacting with the consumers and putting that extra effort to know your consumers in and out. 

The second thing that has helped me a lot is looking at some of the other brands which have made it big. What has been their approach, what did they do, you might see some patterns which you can follow as a marketer. It is important to have that thirst to know more about the things that other brands are doing. 

Also, I always am more interested in the how than the what. I like knowing how they uncovered something rather than what they did after uncovering it. From a competitor’s point of view you should always ask yourself that what you have done, can that also be done by your competition? Can you do something which your competition cannot? 
It is always important to ask these questions and never should you follow your competitor blindly. The last thing I would suggest is that everyone should push their limits and go that extra mile to make yourselves stand out.

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