Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

“Consumers want brands to have a purpose that reflects what they feel about the world.”

Sheikh Adil Hussain, Marketing Director – Hair Care, Unilever Pakistan speaks to Aurora about the the need for brand consistency for its ever-evolving consumer base.
Updated 24 Oct, 2023 11:55am

AURORA: What motivated you to make your career in brands?
SHEIKH ADIL HUSSAIN: Earlier on I was interested in history and economics, but while I was doing my MBA I started to gravitate towards marketing and ended up specialising in it. What attracted me was the human behaviour aspect, how the mind behaves when it comes to making purchasing decisions, the interaction people have with brands and how brands position themselves to become a part of people’s lifestyles. In my fourth year, I interned at P&G and that sealed it, because P&G is a marketing university in itself; they teach you about brand building from the ground up.

A: In your experience, how have consumers evolved in their consumption and buying behaviour – especially Gen Z?
SAH: Consumers have always wanted authenticity and I don’t think this is something new. Brands have always been about delivering certain quality standards. Of course, there has been adaptation as lifestyles have changed and new generations come into play. This new generation is consuming media in a different way. Their attention spans are shorter and this raises its own set of challenges for brands; they have to tailor their messaging and their creativity accordingly, and work on gathering the right insights in the battle to remain relevant. This is where the evolution is taking place. Consumers have grown with the nation. In the beginning, it was more about basics and necessities. Then new consumer brands came in and started changing habits. For example, with Pampers, P&G introduced ‘conversion categories’ by converting people from using cloth nappies to disposable diapers; these were market development jobs that the big companies, like Proctor, introduced in the early nineties. Categories have also evolved; in personal and home care, we have gone from phenyl to floor cleaners and from using acid to using Harpic, and this is due to the job brands have done. Today, consumers have moved on and want brands to have a purpose that reflects what they feel about the world. Consumers look for the difference between the brand that says it is going to deliver on a certain promise and the brand that actually does deliver – and the consistency in that delivery.

A: What about changes in media consumption patterns?
SAH: Content consumption is the big thing because internet and smartphone penetration is increasing. A lot more people are consuming the internet on the go and it is now a question of providing bite-sized content while constantly feeding in new content. This said, the brand positioning needs to remain consistent. You can have fresher content (new creative) but it must feed into the same positioning. For example, since Pepsi launched their Why Not Meri Jaan campaign, they have made hundreds of creatives and different versions of the theme. They have made songs, cricket-based commercials, TV celebrity-based commercials, and so on – but they have stuck to their Why Not Meri Jaan theme. Brand managers must never lose sight of the fact that they must always think of the consumer first.

A: Why is it so important to keep the positioning the same?
SAH: Because it takes years and years to implant something in the brain of a consumer. It is a seeding job. It comes down to mental space, and the neuroscience of it is about creating synapses that link the brand in the consumer’s brain. How many things can your brand be associated with? It is about seeing something and thinking about your brand first, and about the number of associations a brand is able to successfully build for itself in the mind of the consumer, and that is why consistency is so necessary.

A: Can consistency work across generations?
SAH: The method to create recall may change, but the recall is still the same. Take the Lux example. Historically, Lux has been about film stars – and it is still about film stars. The stars have changed and moved from a Neeli, Reema and Babra Sharif to a Maya Ali and Mahira. In the past, it would have been a big TVC; today it is a TVC plus digital content. The Lux Style Awards have been going for 21 years. It is a branded piece of content that has created a strong association between the brand and the world of fashion, style and glamour – and it has retained that space. Before, the Lux Style Awards was a big show that people went to; it is still a big show, but now it has also gone digital and although the way the message is being disseminated is different it also remains consistent. Another example is Dettol which has consistently used the mother and child along with the circle of protection and the sword as their sign of disinfection. These brands have been around for 50 or 60-plus years.

A: Taking the Lux example, do you really think the notion of film stars still resonates with this new generation?
SAH: The onus is on the brand team to find that sweet spot and decide whether the time has come to move from film stars to an influencer or an online celebrity. That is their job. They must know how to adapt the product message; is it the science behind the product that needs to be highlighted or is it the environmental friendliness aspect? The job of the brand custodians is to identify what is relevant and adapt it to the overall message and the communication space they have built (or inherited) for the brand. It is a delicate process and has to be managed in a way that the consistency of the message is retained, but is refreshed in keeping with current trends.

A: You spoke about the importance of frequently refreshing the communication. Has this changed the skill sets required from today’s brand managers and are more people needed to do the job?
SAH: Employing more people is a choice that varies from corporation to corporation, but essentially the equation remains the same in terms of having a core team, and depending on the scale of the brand and the business, whether the team consists of a category manager, a brand manager and an assistant brand manager. What has changed is the outsourcing aspect in terms of creative and media partners as well as other support functions and the skill sets that are required at both ends. However, in terms of what is expected of a brand team today, the fundamentals remain the same, although the pace has accelerated because of the sheer number and scale of technological advancements. Perhaps, earlier on, all a brand manager had to know was how to craft a communication for TV, adapt it to radio, print and outdoor, develop two campaigns a year and maybe one innovation – and job done. Today, a brand manager needs to always be on communication. They have to simultaneously manage multiple campaigns – for example, a search strategy and an e-commerce campaign.

The major change has been the introduction of the concept of a ‘beauty regime’; whether it is a skincare regime or a hair regime. It is basically about consistently using multiple products in a certain sequence over a period of time to get a result.

A: Specifically, in the beauty and personal care categories, how has consumer behaviour evolved?
SAH: The biggest change in the Pakistani context has been to move away from relying on a single type of cream and the obsession with fairness. The major change has been the introduction of the concept of a ‘beauty regime’; whether it is a skincare regime or a hair regime. It is basically about consistently using multiple products in a certain sequence over a period of time to get a result. The Korean beauty example has become a major influence in this respect. In Pakistan, we may not follow the Korean example of a six to 10 and even 16 products a day regime, but we have evolved from using just one cream daily to using three, four or even five products a day, depending on availability and affordability. Another change is the fact that awareness has reached a level where people know about the importance of ingredients and what kind of products best suit different kinds of skin or hair types, and if consumers don’t get the information they require from a product, they ask for it. People want to know the science behind the products and about the formulations. Another thing that has happened is the democratisation of the formulations themselves. Many home-based products on Instagram have access to the ingredients that make up a formula and make it themselves. Globally, there are companies that develop formulations that can be used by any brand; they can put their name to it and sell it. It has become a similar situation to the OEM (original equipment manufacturers) in the electronic market, where one person makes all the flat screens and others put their own names on the formulation and sell them. What has also changed is that it is no longer a question of producing just one product and making it available in four different variants; it is about introducing new ingredient-based products really fast, and although they may not sell in large volumes, selling them frequently to a loyal niche for a short time until you come up with something new. This is the way it is going, and it is presenting a challenge to the big companies to figure out new sourcing and new go-to market strategies.

A: What would these new go-to market strategies involve?
SAH: You need to be where consumers are going for their information – their Instagram reels and TikTok feeds. They are listening to authentic stories from ordinary consumers or from influencers, and this is where you need to put your information and you need to put it in a digestible and a memorable way; in a format that creates recall and trial for your brand – and you need to do it regularly. This is the challenge for brand teams. Customer services have become a big deal. You need to have a phone number or an email address or a social media presence where consumers can go and ask questions and get a reply. You absolutely have to have forums where consumers can interact with your brand and ask questions like: “I have frizzy hair so which product from your portfolio will suit me best?”

A: Who provides the answers to these questions?
SAH: We have trained agents at our call centres and on the relevant social media platforms, and they have to know what they are talking about, which is why we give them regular trainings. The same goes for our in-store brand ambassadors; they are refreshed every month with new messages and new information. What has changed is that we are able to use a lot more technology-based solutions to interact with consumers. For example, we use AI to carry out a diagnosis of someone’s scalp or skin in order to provide the right portfolio solution.

Take Lifebuoy Shampoo’s recent launch of its onion variant. We would not have discovered the benefits onions have on hair had we not gone to the consumers and asked them about the natural home-based remedies they use for their hair – and most of us would have expected to hear about egg yolks or yoghurt.

A: Are the brand challenges the same in the rural areas?
SAH: The base assumption is that urban consumers are more aware/informed compared to rural consumers, but the gap has closed dramatically because of the flow of information. Also keep in mind that within the rural demographic, there are the affluent rurals, who have the buying power. When we talk about rural and urban, we get this village and city visual in our heads, but that is not necessarily true in terms of consumption patterns and it is the job of the brand team to go there and find those insights. Brand managers must never lose sight of the fact that they must always think of the consumer first, regardless of where she or he lives. Keeping the consumer in mind is what leads to the solution in terms of how to get the message across and what kind of product to make. Take Lifebuoy Shampoo’s recent launch of its onion variant. We would not have discovered the benefits onions have on hair had we not gone to the consumers and asked them about the natural home-based remedies they use for their hair – and most of us would have expected to hear about egg yolks or yoghurt. Yet, when you get into the science of it, it turns out that onions contain natural sulphur which is very good for hair regrowth and strengthening. These kinds of insights only come once you make yourself uncomfortable by getting out of the office and talking to the consumer.

A: Did the insight about onions come out of Pakistan?
SAH: Although onions are used in other parts of the Subcontinent for hair care, it was a solution that we came up with in Pakistan.

A: What challenges do multinational companies face given the rise of local beauty and personal care products that are not only cheaper, but come with claims of being authentic and natural?
SAH: The biggest challenge is to be relevant – always. Although in Pakistan there were a few local brands in the market from the beginning, the generation who are now in their forties and fifties, have grown up with the international brands that entered the market very early on. Then and now the challenge for international brands is to be relevant by integrating into our lifestyle and speaking our language while still retaining their ‘internationality’. The second challenge is to provide value, and here international companies have their own pressures in terms of their financials. They have pressures to increase prices in order to protect their margins and that is when they have to come up with creative ways of providing the same value to their consumers while protecting themselves, because at the end of the day they are here for a commercial purpose.

A: The financial pressures must have been all the more apparent given the current economic climate.
SAH: This year has been really volatile. On the flip side, I think the onus on the multinationals is to keep pushing the envelope in terms of innovations. In fact, they are usually the ones that take the lead because they have the resources and the processes to come up with new products. For example, if Pampers had not come to Pakistan, I don’t think anyone would have thought about disposable nappies. They may have eventually, but it would have been an imitation of a foreign product.

A: Finally, is there a known way to brand failure?
SAH: For me a sure shot way to failure is when you mess with the product and fail to deliver on the quality. Examples that jump out immediately come from the milk category; specifically, Tarang and Haleeb. Both brands tampered with their quality and saw their sales crash as a result. Tarang was, if I remember correctly, one of the fastest-growing brands in Pakistan with a turnover that was almost equal to Sooper’s; but today, it does not exist anymore. Haleeb did the same thing – the brand accounted for half the market share in the milk category – and today it has almost been wiped out. The basic premise of a brand is the promise that it will give you the same quality every time you use it, and if you break that promise the consumer is not going to buy you next time, and trust me, once you lose a consumer, it is a tough job getting him or her back. You can eventually recover from bad distribution, a bad campaign or even a bad pricing strategy – but recovering from a bad quality perception is almost impossible.

Sheikh Adil Hussain was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: