AURORA: When did you take over the marketing and brand management function at HBL?
NAVEED ASGHAR: Ten months ago. Before that I spent 22 years working in the FMCG sector. I started my career with Unilever as a management trainee and then worked with them for 16 years in different parts of the world and in different capacities. Over the years I had the opportunity to work for a company like Coca-Cola. I was also loaned to a global joint venture partner that Unilever had in the form of Pepsi, to head and market Lipton Ice Tea in the Middle East and Africa. My last stint before coming here was with Fonterra in Dubai. Of these 22 years, 11 were spent in Pakistan and 11 in the Middle East, but looking after territories that encompassed the Middle East, Africa and the CIS markets.
A: So why the switch to banking?
NA: When one has done the same thing over and over again, one acquires a professional eagerness and curiosity to try and apply those learnings to a different industry. The fundamentals of reaching out to consumers are pretty much the same, irrespective of the industry. So, when it came to the financial industry, I thought HBL was the best proposition, given that it is the largest bank in Pakistan and a brand that has evolved strongly over the years. I saw a lot of room for growth and opportunity to further carve out this brand and make it an iconic one in Pakistan.
A: How do you propose to take the brand further?
NA: As a marketer I am entrusted to do three things. To institutionalise and implement the right brand governance model; to evolve the brand architecture and to provide a consistent, yet impactful and engaging brand experience. To elaborate further, for a bank with a footprint like HBL’s it is imperative that the brand is viewed consistently and comes across with the right DNA. We have over 70 product propositions and we have to ensure that the product identity is consistent and lives up to the expectations our customers have of any HBL product – and this is where brand architecture comes in. Finally, the kind of experience that you want to give to your customers has to be both well thought out and consistent with the messaging that goes out across all touch points.
A: Most banks in Pakistan have managed to communicate a positive brand image for themselves, yet very often, although the overarching communication is sleek, the customer experience on the ground leaves a lot to be desired – and in this respect HBL is no different. How does one address this?
NA: This is an ongoing challenge, and yes at times there can be a disconnect between what the brand perception promises in a communication vis-a-vis the actual delivery on ground and we are fully aware of these challenges. Only when you have that kind of realisation and you are not complacent, can you draw up a roadmap aimed at bridging those gaps. This is where service quality and mindset; rigour and training and the realisation of what a brand promise should deliver, come into play. Yes our customers have expectations; we built those expectations and when they interact with us, we should be able to deliver at least as per their expectations if not beyond.
A: HBL has a huge and diverse customer base, how do you ensure that your messaging resonates with each segment while maintaining the overall consistency of your brand positioning?
NA: When you have to communicate to a large and diverse audience you need to make a call. You need well thought out strategies that will help you decide which elements of the brand positioning are going to be consistent across that diverse group. HBL stands for ‘Jahan Khwab Wahan HBL’ – which is about enriching lives. So while staying true to the promise, when you are trying to push a product proposition to a specific target group, you need to be very clear who exactly is that target group. For example, if you are trying to sell HBL Rutba (a savings account targeted at senior citizens) you have to ensure that while remaining consistent to the overall message, the tonality, imagery, caption and copy resonates and connects. Once you define the objectives very crisply, you can then deliver a product proposition or a communication which resonates and delivers against those parameters.
A: Is TV by far your communication platform of choice?
NA: Absolutely; this will continue to be the case for most brands in this part of the world, because TV gives a reach and footprint that no other medium can. Other mediums have evolved and are accounting for significant chunks of the budget, but TV is not history. Digital is becoming extremely important, print has its own significance, OOH its own nuances. What counts is how you use this mix of different channels to reach out to your target groups.
A: How do you gauge the effectiveness of TV; isn’t there a great deal of wastage?
NA: Wastage is true for any medium.
A: Of course, but given the costs TV involves, one could argue that the wastage is proportionately that much larger.
NA: Wastage perhaps in terms of absolute dollars spent yes, but wastage as a percentage of the amount deployed on that medium is where I beg to differ. It is extremely difficult to determine what is effectively utilised in terms of the media mix. One tries to put in as many matrices, KPIs and indices to determine the efficacy of the spend, but it is very difficult to strip out the exact impact of any medium on the overall communication effort. All you can say is either that the campaign was relatively successful or it failed to deliver. When a campaign fails to deliver, it could be a combination of many factors or skewed to one or two factors. It could be that the product proposition was not up to the mark, or we did not chose the right channels, or failed to create the right level of awareness and hype resulting in the right level of trial and repeat. Or it could be a function of the creative which failed to resonate with the target group. No doubt tools have been developed that can be indicative and lead to reasonable assumptions about what worked and what didn’t, but so far this is an ongoing challenge that all marketers grapple with on a day-to-day basis.
A: HBL seems to have moved away from cricket, dabbled in football and recently we have mountain climbing with Samina Baig. Is this indicative of a change in strategy since you took over?
NA: The street children football campaign was successfully rolled out before I joined. However, when I came on board I questioned myself over the fact that given that our product proposition is ‘Jahan Khwab Wahan HBL’, did we have to limit ourselves to a particular area? So when we went back to the drawing board, we looked at our sports’ strategy as well as at what other spheres of life we should be open to. The consensus was that to stay true to our brand promise, we had to evolve and not confine ourselves to cricket only – because dreams can be found in any sphere of life. We decided to lift the canvas and open up more possibilities for our customers. Hence the idea of Samina Baig was conceived and fortunately it turned into a rolling success and gave us wonderful mileage.
A: Samina Baig was in many ways an obvious choice – the success of a Pakistani woman – but unlike cricket or football, mountain climbing doesn’t present the same range of faces or options.
NA: At the end of the day when you open up your canvas and start painting in that manner, you have to be open to all possibilities.
A: Beyond sport?
NA: Even beyond sport. In terms of our sports strategy we have three criteria. One, anything we do within the sports arena has to deliver on our brand promise of enabling dreams and enriching lives; two, it ought to have a social angle and three it has to deliver brand mileage. Football is one of the fastest growing sports in Pakistan as well as the most watched around the world. So we saw football as yet another platform over and above cricket.
A: Why has HBL not taken ownership of football as their main communication platform?
NA: It’s about choices. Do I want to put 100% of my energy and resources behind owning a single platform and be known for it, or do I want to own a relevant chunk of the football pie, through the street children, and still be receptive to bringing my brand to life through other opportunities? The choice we have made is that it is not about owning one sport, because then you have to invest in the same way, and no brand has infinite resources; there is always a limit, no matter how deep the pockets. So the choice was – do we as a brand want to be known as the one which fosters and nurtures football, or do we want to be known as a brand which stays true to our promise of enabling dreams and enriching lives?
A: How much emphasis do you put on research in determining your strategies?
NA: I am not too big on research per se and let me qualify this. The intent of research is to find the right insights and in my opinion there are many ways to find these. At times research is done either as a ‘tick the box’ exercise or to try and cover our backs. The real value that can be extracted from research is when you dig beneath the surface and start peeling the onion and keep asking yourself and your customers the question ‘why or why not?’ And you keep on drilling until you get to the bottom of it. Because then you are not dealing with an observation or ‘nice to know’ information; you really understand the insight. Is it behavioural, cultural, or a mindset? Only then will you be in a position to formulate a proposition in the form of a product offering.
A: How do you get to those insights?
NA: By using formal and informal ways of finding out and also by challenging the research at an early stage; where most of us marketers go wrong is at the time of conceiving the research brief; we often do not do justice to it in terms of identifying what exactly we want to extract from our customers.
A: When you took over 10 months ago, were you faced with the challenge of creating a new team?
NA: I wouldn’t say a new team; I inherited a pretty good team. But yes there was some discontinuity; in any organisation when there is a change in leadership, there will be some fluidity. We have recruited new team members both within and outside the organisation and this process is continuing. I am of the school of thought that believes that if you put in a disproportionate amount of time in trying to find the right resources, with the right skill set competencies and mindset, at the end of the day it really makes your job easy. It is relatively easy to coach and mentor and give people the mandate to run with something with the right level of delegation. We are in that process of building a team which is charged up, engaged and keen to add value. At HBL we are fortunate to have a culture where the brand comes first. We are not driven by numbers only; we believe the numbers will be far more sustainable if we have an iconic brand; one that customers can trust and experience good things from. At HBL marketing is perceived internally as a function that adds true value and helps the business lead from the front and grow.”
A: Are you contemplating making a change in the agencies you use to support your brand communication efforts?
NA: No. If and when there is a need I would be happy to look at it, but it is not a question of rocking the boat unnecessarily; of coming in and saying I am going to change everything the previous team did. You need to take into account that there are good things happening, others that are okay and some which need correction – then you work on those three elements. You build on the things that are working because you want to optimise your strengths. And this is exactly where we are.
Naveed Asghar was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org