AURORA: Prior to joining Reckitt Benckiser (RB), where did you work?
TAHIR MALIK: I have been in the FMCG industry for the last 17 years or so, and prior to joining RB, I was with P&G, which I joined straight after graduating from the IBA (Institute of Business Administration) in 1995. I spent 10 years in Pakistan, rising to the position of Marketing Director, then moved to Brussels in the mid-2000s and finally to Geneva in 2008. In 2011, I decided to make a switch and joined RB and that brought me back home.
A: What made RB see the eagle in you?
TM: At RB, we look for individuals who are high achievers, entrepreneurial in nature, work well in teams and truly ‘own the business’. Working for RB is like doing your own business, with no matrix organisation and a totally local P&L, decision making and execution. This is the kind of atmosphere where a particular breed thrives. People who think big, boldly yet simply; people who are not afraid to take risks and even fail, work with their hearts and minds and play not to have fun, but to win. That’s what connected me with RB.
A: Simple in what way?
TM: I have read strategic plans that are so complicated that it takes 30 minutes to understand what they are trying to say. So clarity and simplicity of thinking and communication is as important as boldness in thought. A good plan is one where the thinking is ‘bold’; big goals regarding where you want to be, ‘simple’ in terms of strategic choices and ‘inspirational’. The difference that separates a winning proposition from the rest is the ability to ignite fire in your heart and then winning becomes an obsession.
A: What are your goals for the company?
TM: Everything has to start with the vision and ours is a Pakistan where people are healthier and live better and our purpose is to make a difference in the lives of Pakistani people by giving them innovative solutions for healthier lives and happier homes.
We have deployed ‘Pakistan Vision 2015’ for RB that focuses on ‘outperformance’; outperforming our competitors and outperforming the industry within which we play. We divide our portfolio into health, hygiene and home, and within each one there are multiple brands; brands which play in big market size and need to ‘outperform’ in share growth; or brands where we are the market and we need to ‘outperform’ our own performance in terms of market conversion.
####Chief Executive, Reckitt Benckiser Pakistan, speaks to Aurora about the challenges of his job and what makes his company different from other FMCG multinationals in Pakistan.
A: Could you give an example of an innovative solution that works for the Pakistani consumer?
TM: We are changing the game in most of the categories we play in. Take pest control for example; in the old days people used coils, then came the aerosols and now we are setting the trend with electrical LEDs.
A couple of months ago we launched an innovation whereby people can control the quantity of LED electricity they generate depending on the number of mosquitoes around. However, innovation is not only product driven, we look at it in terms of how we can reach out to more stores more efficiently and in terms of thought and system processes. So innovation becomes a way of life.
A: Do you have plans to introduce new brands in this market?
TM: Yes. We split our portfolio into the base business, new innovations and new brands. Our thrust will remain on all three. Last year, we added two new brands, Durex and Moov, extended the Strepsil range into kids, introduced new sizes to reach out to low end consumers and this is just the beginning.
A: Does Durex require a different marketing strategy?
TM: It does and it is very challenging but this is where the fun sets in. You have got to be culturally sensitive and stay within the norms of the society.
A: How do you push the product?
TM: Very simple, de-taboo the category. It starts with bold displays. Before we came in, retailers did not want to display the product, preferring to keep it under the counter. So we engaged with them on de-tabooing the shelves. Today, when you walk into a store there is a lot more Durex displayed on checkout counters, even in the smaller kiryanas, compared to a year ago. This is just the first phase and the process will go on. But this is not going to happen overnight. There will be lots more coming from Durex, which probably has not been done in Pakistan before.
A: Does the recent introduction of Domex by Unilever as a competitor to Harpic indicate that the market is ready for yet another category of hygiene product?
TM: Yes. A lot of consumers are still using acid, so the potential is huge. We educate them by demonstrating how a branded toilet cleaner like Harpic will give them cleaner toilet bowls and at the same time improve their quality of life. We did a ‘mohalla programme’ whereby we went to the smaller towns, put up tents, invited consumers to ask questions and get educated. It ends up being a two-way education process. We engage in a dialogue, do a demo and all this helps explain the value proposition. It’s innovative marketing.
A: Using Harpic is a more expensive proposition than traditional cleaning agents, how do you convince consumers at the lower end of the pyramid to make the purchase?
TM: Pakistani consumers are very smart and they will not settle for low standards, because it is part of our culture to provide our families with the best. Secondly, and this makes our job a bit more challenging, they are cost conscious.
So, yes there is a premium on Harpic, but it is our job to convince them that this is a better value proposition. You go to them, understand their mindset and their challenges and then come back with a proposition. In this case, Harpic in a smaller size allows them to try the product, see the results and then be convinced. Similarly, there was a myth that Veet was a luxury item; the reality is that it is a necessity and a hygiene item. However, as you go down the pyramid, some consumers probably cannot afford it, which is why we recently launched a sachet to enable these consumers to try it out. If you have a strong proposition, consumers will reward you by using your product. With Harpic, we set the trend, others followed; Veet is another example where we lead the category. All you require is to be clear headed on strategies, excellent in execution, consistent in your plans and obsessed with winning, consumers will choose you.
A: Who is the main decision maker in the average Pakistani household?
TM: The housewife. As you go up the pyramid she also ends up doing her own shopping; as you go down, she may not do her own shopping but she is still the decision maker. The husband is a mere executor; he may have a written or a verbal shopping list, but he does not have the authority to switch brands.
A: How much emphasis does RB put on research?
TM: A lot. Since we are a company where innovation is in our DNA, the consumer is the final decision maker. However what is unique to RB is our ‘speed to market’. We believe that perfection is a journey and not an end state. Hence while others are debating in boardrooms, we launch products with speed. We learn as we go along. This is the RB way of doing things. There has to be something that we are doing differently, because globally this company has outperformed the industry for 10 plus years back to back, and we keep on doing it year after year.
A: Does product innovation happen within Pakistan or at the global level?
TM: At RB, innovation is a way of life. The ‘big’ product innovations come from our global headquarters because innovation has to be scaled up. Commercial innovations come 100% from the local markets. Even on big product innovations that are HQ led, local teams are involved and they are tested with local consumers.
A: Why is it that last year, despite the overall economic climate, a lot of FMCG companies did well?
TM: Let me give you my favourite speech about a beautiful country called Pakistan that has two sides to it. One which has been overly exposed, is of a country with a very poor infrastructure and a law and order situation that remains a challenge. That is the negative side. The other side is that we have a very strong, emerging middle class which has more money today than it did five years ago. This middle class has money, is young, vibrant and most importantly, resilient.
A: At what percentage of the population would you put that middle-class?
TM: Different people quote different numbers. I am not an economist so all I can say is that it is sizeable enough for companies to see solid growth. However, an emerging middle class alone does not help. Pakistan is also very resilient.
A: How does resilience affect the economic climate?
TM: It’s the energy level.
If people are down in the dumps, even if they have money they will refuse to engage with life. This is where resilience comes in. Life goes on in Pakistan and as life goes on, consumer goods continue to be part and parcel of people’s daily, weekly and monthly lifecycle regimen. If you have strong brands and clear plans, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do well in Pakistan.
A: How would you sum up your personal philosophy?
TM: Think big, think beyond and think with your head and heart. And all the rest will fall in place easily. When I was growing up, I was told that every now and then one should thank God for giving us this life and a healthy body. Over the years, I have noticed and added one more prayer to this one, may God give us the ability to use all the qualities that we have been bestowed with as human beings. To win in the consumer goods industry, one has to have a very clear head – to make bold but simple strategies, strong eyes to have the ability to look at the future, strong ears to hear what our consumers and customers are telling us, a thumping heart that should infect the entire organisation with a passion to win and a very well developed gut to take risks.
Tahir Malik was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org