Sanjeev Shukla
May 25, 2018

CMO Corner: Conversation marketing – the new paradigm

In this special series, CMOs use this platform to spark a discussion and provide thought leadership.

CMO Corner: Conversation marketing – the new paradigm
India is a country of paradoxes. On one hand, a first glance at the statistics is impressive, whether it’s the growth of smart phones or Internet. But on the other hand,it also houses the most disadvantaged and disconnected communities.
So, while the country’s growing consumer segment comprises a huge middle class, relatively large affluent class and a sizeable economically disadvantaged class, the spending is anticipated to more than double by 2025. In fact, India’s robust economic growth and rising household incomes are expected to increase consumer spending to US$ 4 trillion by 2025. 
Several reasons can explain this, but the salient point is that the country is poised to emerge as one of the foremost consumer markets with an estimated ten-fold increase in its middle-class and three-fold rise in household income. In addition, the country’s economic prospects are expected to be buoyant anchored steady economic growth.
Often considered a business’ delight, India is an extremely challenging market for the sellers and marketers, who must deal with multitude of consumers. As is said, it is several countries in one. As one Hindi saying goes: Kos kos mein badale Paani; Char kos mein Vani (In India at every mile, water is different and at every four miles, the way people converse)!
Several global giants in fact, have sunk, attempting to treat India as just another country, a la, like those in Europe and because of their mindset that, what’s good for the advanced nations will of course be lapped up in this poor country, no matter what.
Clearly, there’s a massive need for those flying in the air to have their feet firmly on the ground and make a genuine effort to understand the needs, the wants, the desires and the aspirations of people in India. And how do we understand people, who are shy and simple and who tend to be so different every few miles?!
To know our customers intimately is perhaps the most critical aspect for the marketing professionals.
But, how?!
Basic stuff such as their demography and then, other jargon like psychography and so on. Market visits is one basic bridge for the same; marketing research is the other. Self-proclaimed marketing savvy corporates have several marketing research initiatives/projects going-on at any one point in time. The research tools and techniques have evolved into much larger and complex beasts. Humongous amount of time and money is invested in the same.
Corporates employ highly-paid professionals, but the bosses and the professionals themselves are wary of taking decisions based on their own experiences, knowledge and so on and completely rely on the rabbit that’s pulled out of the hat called the marketing research undertaken. It’s become so obsessive that marketing researchhas blurred the boundaries with medical research!
Various marketing research activities based on neuro research have popped up in the market! Very much like advertising, where we are still debating its efficacy, what’s the right blend of experience and/or guts on the one hand and research on the other, for making a decision, is still debatable.
I travelled all the way from the absolute North of India to join my current organisation, deep inside the Southern tip of India, which is Trivandrum in Kerala. We took off for market visit to the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where the language is Telugu. Yet, I was there, as a marketing professional, to understand needs and wants of my customers. 
We met up and chatted with a diverse set of customers. In Vijayawada and later, in the outskirts of Hyderabad we used to remove our shoes and get right inside their houses, nay homes. Mostly crammed, but full of immense warmth that we happily sat on stacks of tender coconut! We met a young guy and his family, including his mother. We met a farmer cum loader and his wife and sister. We met a meat trader cum money lender, his wife and his brother.
We met a feisty lady, whose husband – in her own words – was good for nothing and she has been running a small clothing shop on her own, including travelling hundreds of kilometres to buy supplies for her shop.
We met a frail old lady, whose husband is bedridden as she bravely runs a small provision store, working 18-20 hours a day, day after day after day. But this was, what we call, just demography.  We asked questions; used the responses to ask more questions. Sipped generously served tea & snacks; many a times tender coconut water and kept asking questions. It wasn’t a weekend, as we corporate types call it. It was a perfectly working day. One man had come home for lunch and some rest, before he headed back to manage his small shop. One lady had left her clothes shop and had come just because we wanted to meet her; the other had the bustling shop with customers standing on her head. But they all listened and responded to our questions. Patiently and mindfully.
The question-answer sessions turned into discussions. About business, about life in general, about family and many other personal aspects. There was patience and genuine proclivity to know each other, on both the sides. While Shashank bravely attempted translating for both the parties, clearly it wasn’t humanly possible to do so. We understood the context, used gestures, nods, smiles and moved on. Each of those sessions lasted for hours. Interestingly we had carried, what we marketing savvy people call, ‘unstructured questionnaires’, but the print outs never came out.
Like in the movie Maze Runner or The Inception, we went deeper and deeper into their lives. I still find it incredible as to the extent the customers opened to us alien people, talking in strange languages! One man spoke about how his relatives ditched him; the other showed all his documents, which he would be reluctant to show even to a court!
One lady spoke about her trysts with destiny; the other motored on and rattled off animatedly about her start time right at 3am in the morning and closing time at around 11pm in the night, that when we were all wondering as to how she was even able to stand through the session, so frail she was!
It still gives me goose-bumps, even tears in my eyes, recalling what the frail lady told us about her paralytic and bed-ridden husband; how she was still living life and not merely surviving. No, we didn’t use any questionnaire; nor any so-called recording instrument and/or tool.
We didn’t even have her head all wired-up! We still had hours of conversation and all the ‘data’ is still fresh in my mind. We have enough information, knowledge, insights…innermost sights…about the customers. If knowing the customer is the most pre-dominant, primary and profound aspect of Marketing…after all, you can’t even begin to market if you don’t know as to who’s your customer; and what and how would you market, if you won’t really know the customer! Then, we uncovered, unraveled a perhaps – new paradigm in marketing: Conversation Marketing. Like touch & feel is not an experience; merely interviewing or even talking, is not a conversation. Its arts as its about feelings and emotions; but, its science as its not possible to have valid & genuine conversation marketing with trying to develop into an art, like say, a raconteur, who has mastered the art of story-telling. In fact, the more you try to develop it into an art, more you try to structure it, try to channelize certain intended outcomes and so on, its perhaps some process of collecting data about consumer behaviour, but it’s not genuine Conversation Marketing.
If it’s the new celebrity in the marketing-wood, one would like to know if a marketer is born with it or the skill can be acquired in a management institute. I would say, it’s a debate for another story. But, interestingly, as you try and make sincere efforts at genuine and authentic conversation with your customers, there are various dimensions of your own personality – personal and professional – which tend to evolve; doesn’t it make conversation marketing even more amazing a concept!
The novelty of the paradigm is not about some new discovery. Am not saying here that, we were not aware about the benefits and advantages of conversing with our current & potential customers. Google is indeed replete with the whats, whys and hows of conversation as an effective marketing tool. As they say, it’s not about doing different things; it’s about doing same things differently. It’s in fact, not about doing at all. It’s about a certain attitude, a certain thought process, a certain mindset and a way of life. It is not about marketing through conversation. It is human-to-human-connect. By the way, don’t even begin to think that it’s the beginning of and/or towards building the relationship, the much-abused phrase or thought in marketing. We need to perhaps differentiate between transactional relationship and a relationship, where in two human beings begin to relate with each other, beyond a certain give and take.
Almost always, when we marketers refer to relationship, we mean the former. Point is, the moment you approach an interaction with a certain marketing agendum, it isn’t conversation any more - its marketing.
I would like to underscore that am talking, not about marketing through conversation; rather, marketing of conversation, itself!
Signing off here as a conversationalist before a marketer.

(The author is chief marketing officer, Muthoot Pappachan Group)
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