Dr Zeelaf Munir, MD & CEO, EBM, speaks to Aurora about market leadership and the responsibilities that come with it.
AURORA: When this magazine interviewed Mr Khawar M. Butt in 2005, he spoke about the food business in terms of rizq and pakeezgi. Do these values still hold today?
DR ZEELAF MUNIR: Absolutely. In Urdu, rizq means food from a spiritual perspective and food is the business we are in. Not only understanding the concept, but imbibing and using it for institution building. Along with rizq comes the concept of pakeezgi, which is the foundation of what a quality mindset is; a mindset of excellence, allied to the principles of hygiene – all of which are very important to the business we are in. And you take these principles home as well; they have relevance in our own lives. We believe that when we grow, our communities grow and so does everyone around us.
A: Does EBM inculcate these values in their employees?
ZM: Absolutely; it is incumbent on the leadership to do so. We are human beings and we need to be continuously reminded of what is important. It is a leadership challenge. So when we describe our journey of transformation over the past five years, inherent in this transformation was the need to reaffirm the same foundations and fundamentals.
A: What were the factors behind the need to affect a transformation?
ZM: Transformations are journeys driven by a need for change. Constant change is what keeps institutions alive and relevant. The impetus came from celebrating the glories we achieved in our first 50 years, and the need to embrace the next 50 with the same kind of strength and leadership qualities. For successful enterprises such as ours, it is imperative to take stock. The natural tendency is towards complacency and hence the need to take a step back and look at what we are and what we have to do in these fast evolving times, in order to maintain what we value and what we continue to give back.
A: What did this transformation entail in practical terms?
ZM: Our organisational culture is geared towards attracting and retaining the best talent, leveraging technology for continued growth (which in itself calls for a mindset change) and nurturing a collaborative work environment where our amazing legacy is both preserved and able to lead change. The journey has been about driving change while adhering to the same fundamentals. We remain committed to giving our consumers what they so love about us and in ways that are relevant and relatable. The fact that we have consistently been the best place to work at is a ringing endorsement of what we stand for; a sense of ownership across our organisation and a thrust for innovation.
A: Turning to industry specifics, what is the share of market between branded and unbranded biscuits?
ZM: From its very inception, EBM changed the trajectory of the biscuit industry from being a tea time luxury to food between meals. We have taken ownership of the responsibility to provide affordable, wholesome and nutritious food between meals to the nation; a fact that has made us the leading national food company – EBM has a 51% share in the branded biscuit market and we continue to grow this. In terms of share, over 85% of the market is branded.
A: Is the bulk of your market urban?
ZM: The split would be 56:44 (urban versus rural).
A: Do you see the second-tier cities as a growing market?
ZM: They are high growth segments. Pakistan has one of the highest urbanisation growth rates in the world and as urbanisation increases, our market penetration will grow, with second-tier and third-tier cities having the highest growth potential. The metropolitan cities are growing as well. In terms of distribution, we are equal if not better than any multinational company.
A: Given the present economic slowdown, what adjustments were you compelled to make to retain market share?
ZM: We had some difficult decisions to make and as I always do in times of decision-making, I go back to basics. What defines EBM compared to any other competitor is our consistent high quality; hence the decision had to be made in that direction and we took the bold decision to raise prices while at the same time remaining cognisant that what makes us the market leaders is our total consumer-centric approach. The approach was to stay consumer-centric, maintain quality and yet increase our prices. We have actually gained in value and volume and strengthened our market share as well.
A: Many FMCG companies are looking at smaller SKUs as a way to overcome the current contraction in purchasing power. Are you following the same strategy?
ZM: Developing smaller SKUs was a strategy to increase our semi-urban and rural penetration and it was a strategy most FMCGs adopted. Specifically in terms of smaller SKUs, we have introduced different price points for different markets based on their dynamics and demographics.
A: From which consumer segment do the bulk of your sales come from?
ZM: We are loved by every SEC; we are the leading biscuit choice across all SECs. We are very proud of the fact that the same biscuit is consumed by blue collar workers as a substitute to lunch and served by high-end consumers to their guests. This speaks to the value we have created by fulfilling our brand promise to every consumer.
A: Is Sooper your largest selling brand?
ZM: Sooper is Pakistan’s largest selling brand. I often say that Sooper is no longer my biscuit; it is the nation’s biscuit! Sooper is everyone’s biscuit and our responsibility, day in and day out, is to keep that promise alive.
A: What ranks after Sooper?
ZM: All the top three selling biscuit brands in Pakistan are ours; Sooper, Rio and Gluco, followed by Sandwiches and Peanut Pik. The category segments are divided into plain, sweet and cream. The plain sweet segment is the largest overall; a trend that remains unchanged. Sooper is way above any biscuit that stands at number two; in fact, in that category, the number two is Gluco. In the cream segment, Rio is the market leader.
A: Have you researched what has made Sooper such a loved biscuit?
ZM: Yes, we continuously validate what we know and believe. We remain in touch with our consumers and Sooper continues to deliver on its promise; a melt-in-mouth experience and the simplicity of the joy this brings.
A: Your formula must be a well guarded secret.
ZM: There is not a single company that does not have a Sooper ‘me too’. It is the most copied biscuit in the counterfeit market as well as in the organised sector. Our recipe is the result of the investment and innovation we do in-house. R&D, innovation and investment needs to develop in Pakistan; investment in technology, in innovation and in being competitive globally is what Pakistan needs to work on; unfortunately, as a nation we are de-industrialising. I am very proud of the fact that our R&D is done in-house, and because we have kept up with the technology available in the rest of the world and leveraged that technology to cater to local tastes, whenever we have introduced our products at international fairs, we hear from everyone that they can compete with any product in the world. We are not only proud of this fact, I would love to see this kind of mindset seeping through every industry in Pakistan.
A: In terms of innovation, have you introduced new variants recently?
ZM: This has been a busy new product development year for us. It is in fact the perfect example of how an organisation that is led by marketing and innovation can engender a collaborative mindset that drives new product development. As recently as last November, we introduced Sooper Chocolate. In our chocolate segment, we have introduced Choco Lava. In the Rio range, we launched Cotton Candy, a really exciting offering for children. In Jam Delight, we have two new flavours; orange and blueberry, and in Sandwich, a custard flavour.
A: What are the key consumer insights that inform your marketing strategies? One notices that recently your communication has shifted to a more emotion-based approach.
ZM: Pakistan’s demographics make the young the focus and that is where we need to mine for insights. Insights, data, media and brands are at the crossroads of what drives our innovation and marketing. As market leaders in Pakistan, with the highest product penetration and a rich legacy, our brand awareness and equity are a reflection of what we are. You spoke of a shift; however, I would not call it a shift – making deeper connections with our consumers is what the brand needs, especially when brand awareness is at an all-time high. However, it has always been about human connections and fulfilling the promise. The channels of communication and the media too have evolved. Gen Z and Millennials are an ‘on-the-go population’; they have grown up with technology and consume information and content in different ways, so that although the message may be the same, we have to identify the best way to deliver that message in order to stay connected with them.
A: Is TV still your prime choice in terms of media?
ZM: Traditional media still reaches the majority of our consumers. At the same time, there has been a 400% increase in digital viewing over the past five years and we have to keep this in mind in our media selection.
A: Is Sooper exported?
ZM: Yes; to 30 countries.
A: To countries which have a large concentration of Pakistanis?
ZM: Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world and this is where our focus is. However, at the same time, we are able to fulfil the needs of the diaspora of people looking for alternative or ethnic tastes. We have been exporting from the very beginning; exports were then part of the sustainability strategy of the business. As the domestic market grew, it consumed most of our interest. We have started to re-focus on the international market.
A: Do you still see EBM as primarily a biscuit company or are you looking at other options?
ZM: EBM is a market leading enterprise. We had an amazing response to the launch of Cake Up (our cake range); within the first two years, it gained significant market share. Even more important was the fact that, from our perspective, this was an area that required category development and I am very satisfied by the fact that the category has grown over two-fold since we started developing it. Again, in keeping with our purpose to nourish hearts, lives and communities and be the leading food company of Pakistan, we will keep doing what we feel is best in terms of catering to the needs of our consumers.
A: Does this mean you are open to all possibilities?
ZM: Yes; I take pride in our vision of being a leading food company.
A: EBM was the lead sponsor at AdAsia 2019; how does this tie in with your overall communication objectives?
ZM: Our purpose is to nourish lives, hearts and communities. Nourishing communities is part of our DNA, nourishing the business community is also very much a part of what we believe in and do. It was very exciting to be the major presenters for AdAsia 2019. It was an opportunity to nourish ideas and help the advertising and marketing community reach the next level – and at the same time, promote the image of brand Pakistan. We believe that international platforms such as these inherently help brand Pakistan. It was really gratifying because AdAsia first came to Pakistan 30 years ago and we were there then as well.
A: You unveiled a new logo for EBM at AdAsia 2019. I understand you will also be retaining the Pied Piper logo. How does it work?
ZM: The Peek Freans Piper is the umbrella branding for our consumer products – the consumer facing logo. The logo we revealed at AdAsia is our corporate EBM logo, which embodies our purpose of nourishing lives, hearts and communities, and at the same time, it is about the human element and the connections we stand for and continue to stand for.
A: What are your goals for the next five years given the constraints of the economy?
ZM: Pakistan will continue to remain a significant market for us as we also increase our presence in other markets. We will continue to strengthen our leadership position as Pakistan’s leading food company.
Dr Zeelaf Munir was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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