As we begin our meeting and get done with the usual “Hello, can you hear me?” Zoom issues, I’m slightly embarrassed. While I am seated cross-legged on my couch in sweatpants and a t-shirt, Ayesha Janjua embodies the essence of fall, dressed in a flowy maroon top, complemented by a black scarf gracefully draped over her head. For some reason, I look at her and the first word that comes to mind is ‘empowered’. She knows how to get sh*t done.
In case you are not familiar with Janjua, she is one of Pakistan’s leading marketers, with almost two decades of experience under her belt and has successfully repositioned major brands for EBM, PepsiCo and Shan Foods. You could say Janjua is the marketing-focused version of someone like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) or Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice). Her stories throughout our conversation lead me to believe she is bold and has a range of problem-solving abilities, from unconventional thinking to deductive reasoning, just like Finch and Bennet.
She is also clear-minded and demanding. Apparently, she has always been this way – with her parents as a child, and her bosses as an adult (more on the bosses later).
“It used to bug my siblings that I had my way with everything. I was the first to get a CD player, the first to go to a cinema alone…” she explains joyfully. “I was the ‘Ma baap ka naam roshan karnay wala bacha’ because I was a straight-A student.” She quickly adds, “But I was not a nerd! I partied a lot too.”
After her Bachelor’s and Master’s from the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, her goal was to get into Unilever’s Management Trainee programme. She had interned there and knew it was the right place to gain experience. Unsurprisingly, she crossed that goal off her list.
After about six years at Unilever, working in different categories, in 2011, she took a “break” to join her husband’s digital agency, Getsol, as a co-founder and consultant. In 2015 the corporate world called her back when she received an offer from Shan Foods to join them as marketing director and help revamp their brand image. “I was especially interested in what the role entailed. The level was also one where I would have been with Unilever had I stuck there.”
She joined Shan and found her passion for transforming and elevating brands. She found it empowering and it built her confidence. In fact, the memory of her career’s first defining marketing campaign was at Shan Foods. This, she says, is due to the fact that prior to joining the company, they had never made ads that had an emotional component, let alone showed the human form.
“Shan Foods’ foundations are really strong as they serve a major need in the market. When I joined them, the values associated with Shan were functional. To reach the next level we had to introduce new brand values; this was when I first experienced the massive impact marketing can have on a brand.”
I ask how she manages to take such risks and convince her bosses that her ideas will work. She smiles, reminding me that she has always been clear-headed. “My bosses would say I am strong-minded. With all my transformation projects, I have had to stand my ground and work on rallying stakeholders and building trust.”
Talking about the Shan Foods revamp, she calls it a “crazy process” where they had to take the stakeholders through every step and let them know exactly what the marketing team was doing. This included pitching a long-form, three-minute ad on TV/digital, which at that time was an oddball in the world of Pakistani ads.
After many challenges, Janjua and her team released the now widely known Shan ad, ‘Khushiyan Chakh Lo’ (the one with the two brothers). It was “Pakistan’s first viral ad.” She hit the jackpot by delivering a masala ad that moved away from solely showcasing close-up shots of food.
Two years later, she joined EBM as GM Marketing. EBM had “excellent products, but they needed a marketing transformation as the messaging had gotten lost over the years.”
She rolled up her sleeves and got her brain ticking towards repositioning brands like Sooper (introducing the ‘Seedhi Saadhi Khushi Ka Maza’ positioning), and Gluco and Rio (the creation of animated cartoon characters). The process was different from the one she had adopted at Shan because whereas Shan gave her a clean slate and the freedom to experiment, at EBM she had to get into the nitty-gritty of the brand “while remaining respectful of its heritage.”
She also led the launch of Cake Up, a task that was very challenging and the “risks high”, because it was the first time in 50 years that EBM was diversifying into a new product category. She and her team launched Cake Up with a long-form, emotional ad, a format she was familiar with, but one the company had not explored before. It was “a calculated risk, as there was already a strong player in the market.”
The result? “EBM hasn’t looked back since. It has been doing well in the cake category.”
When I ask her about her favourite career memory, she sits up straight and excitedly replies, “Junoon!” One day she told her husband that if Junoon were ever to reunite, she would want to make it happen under Sooper. “I knew it was a crazy thought – what does a biscuit brand have to do with a rock band?”
Amazingly Junoon did reunite, and she made it her mission to get the band on board when she learned they were speaking to brands like Pepsi and Coca-Cola. It was a partnership that would prove a success for Junoon and Sooper.
What may have convinced Junoon to go with Sooper was an interaction that happened when she was a corporate newbie at Unilever and found herself sitting next to Junoon’s lead guitarist Salman Ahmed during a flight, where they spoke extensively about life and work. When they parted, Ahmed sent Janjua a text saying: “Keep the junoon alive, one day you will do great things and be in a leading position.” When she called him to speak about the Sooper pitch and reminded him about their previous encounter, he “was so fascinated by the cosmic connection.”
Janjua’s last role in Pakistan before moving to Canada was with PepsiCo – and invariably, the role involved rebranding the brand. She joined PepsiCo in 2020, a time when the company had decided to turn the brand around. She focused on repositioning Pepsi, along with 7Up (’Dil Ki Baat’ and ‘Maza Up’) and Mountain Dew (‘Yaar Hain Tou Paar Hain’). Essentially, she oversaw the repositioning of three major beverage brands simultaneously. How did she do it?
“The first step is to identify the problem. What will you gain, what will you lose?” After conducting research, the solution was product transformation and brand reappraisal. Hence, Janjua and her team worked to change the tagline from ‘Jee Lay Har Pal’ to ‘Why Not Meri Jaan’, accompanied by a “new, stronger taste” and most importantly, targeted towards a younger audience.
She says her three years at PepsiCo were the most challenging years due to “the sheer size of the brands and the business issue.” She admits she brought this on herself, as no one asked her to rebrand all three beverages at the same time but “I thrive on creating new positionings and launching high-impact campaigns to communicate the change.”
She says it paid off as all the brands “witnessed strong growth momentum. I got the needed business results at Shan and EBM too, but I got them fastest at PepsiCo, because of the market we were in. Seeing the results from the get-go was the biggest validation of my confidence and skills I could get.”
She is also quick to add that she could not have done it without her husband: “It is not possible for a woman to do it all. You need the support to take off some of your responsibilities. And that’s okay!”
What’s next since she has now moved to Canada? She is thinking about writing about how she does what she does, and the processes she follows when making big decisions, although for now, she wants to relax by rediscovering abandoned hobbies, like reading, painting and cooking.
But I’m not convinced. I have a feeling Ayesha Janjua will be transforming a Canadian brand very soon.
Zeenat Chaudhary is a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.