From ‘financial advertising’, to ‘financial brands’

Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer – financial services, Aditya Birla Group, shares his thoughts on the evolution of financial services advertising, the importance of agency partners and more.

From ‘financial advertising’, to ‘financial brands’

From heading the financial services practice and PR at Ogilvy to Reliance and now AV Birla, you’ve been in BFSI a long time. How has branding in the segment evolved according to you? Across banking and insurance, in particular.

I think the evolution has started and it has a long way to go before you can get any joy. Financial services came into prominence because of IPO advertising.

Therefore, financial advertising was purely IPO advertising. In that era (early 90’s), you were not actually advertising. You did media conferences. And you did the statutory IPO ads. There was no creativity or connectivity.

The change happened in late 90’s when people like IDBI, ICICI and UTI realised that they have to stop depending on the government for money and therefore were forced to look at masses for money. The more they had to depend on the masses and repeatedly go back to the retail customer, they realised something that we, at Ogilvy Financial, were trying to propagate: the word ‘financial brands’.

I still remember a visit of Sir Martin Sorrell to India, and he used to take reviews followed by a party for all agencies. At the party, someone from Fortune (JWT’s sister agency) came and asked me: ‘I heard that you spoke about financial brands. What’s that?’ I think the transition has been from IPO advertising to financial advertising to financial brands. This is the part of the journey which I feel is not complete.

Let me clarify. As an industry, we are more acquisition-focused. Every day, we want to reach out and acquire more consumers. We haven’t given enough attention, at an industry level, to what we do once we acquire the customer. Why do we then continue to chase new customers? Why don’t we have continued relationship with our customers on a parallel? While we are acquiring new customers, our existing customers are also giving us newer relationships. I think the journey is an ongoing one and we need to shift from being a product advertiser to a solutions provider. This shows in our very low penetration levels.

Our mutual fund industry has got about five per cent of retail household savings. Life Insurance has about 15 per cent. Money is possibly the only category which can never go out of fashion. 24x7, 365 days, across my life, I have only two questions – ‘I have money, what do I do?’ and ‘I need money, what do I do?’ This is the language of mass India. We, in the financial industry, have created the language of mutual funds, life insurance, etc. We have created products which sound technical. We have alienated ourselves such that mass customers do not understand the relevance we play in his life.

A category which needs no selling, a category which has the best brands in the world, a category which has been here since time immemorial, a category which is the second largest ad spend category for 2012 (The Economic Times, 10 March 2013) has yet got low penetration. The challenge remains on how we can make the customer stop thinking about this as an industry which chases him, as one which plays a very important role in his life and therefore he starts chasing us.

Advertising in this category is about a relationship. When there is a relationship, you have to find opportunities to engage with him throughout his lifecycle. The last mile journey of this industry is still about selling products. How do we start putting solutions before the customer for his/her felt or unfelt needs? Therefore, as a brand Aditya Birla Financial Services Group (AB-FSG) has taken upon itself the positioning of ‘agent provocateur’. With the penetration levels so low, we want to be the agent provocateurs who provoke customers to self-realise the role we can play in their lives.

Is the role of the corporate brand in ensuring acceptance of a financial service offering higher than it is for other categories? How does AV Birla Group go about this and leverage the strong Birla umbrella brand?

Financial service is a rare category where you sell nothing but trust. You pay money; you get a car or a pen. You pay us money repeatedly, and what do you get in return? A piece of paper which is nothing but a promise. We are therefore blessed with a brand name like Aditya Birla Group which is trusted for generations across the length and breadth of the company. In a category like financial services, where the offerer brand is far more important than the product, we are blessed with trust. We are possibly the only business of the Aditya Birla Group which goes to the market as Aditya Birla. We are proud of our parentage and that helps us open doors across the country.

How would the ATL-BTL split work? How is this changing?

Let me not talk about the mix of ATL and BTL, but the need of ATL and BTL. The need for ATL is first to make mass India aware that you exist. You can use ATL to communicate the difference in your promise. What we call BTL, is to convert this into relationships everyday in the marketplace. So, both are equally important. I need ATL more to acquire new relationships and BTL to convert and retain relationships. The ATL-BTL spends change with the size of the organisation. When you are small, you possibly need to spend more on ATL. For us, the split would be 65-35 in favour of ATL.

Consumer trust in companies is coming down. Banking and FS are the worst hit, according to surveys. What are your findings from brand tracks for different brands within AB-FSG?

I would not like to comment on other brands. But let me put it in another way. One more phase of this evolution (from financial advertising to financial brands) is that for many years we have been focusing on the word ‘finance’ more than the word ‘services’. We are all about financial language and products. We are talking a language that we understand in boardrooms but customers do not. What we need to move is towards ‘service’. In this industry, the customer unfortunately remembers us for the last transaction that he had or didn’t have as opposed to a product like chocolates where they have childhood memories. So, what we have to do is start building relationships that go beyond a product or category.

The new brand manager - how have skill set expectations from marketers of tomorrow changed?

If you look at most of the brand leaders today, I assume safely they are in their 40s and they come from an era where digital or internet is still called new media. This by itself speaks about where they are from. This new media is not their first or preferred language.

I would say brand leaders need to remember three things as their guiding mantras. One, they should always be in a mode of unlearning their past; second, relearning for the future; and, be open to learning new things because what happened yesterday is not relevant today and what is happening today will not be relevant tomorrow.

For example, I read the newspapers in print and not online. But if I deny the reality that there is a whole generation who reads it online, I will be blanking out to a large future audience.

Even for youngsters, the same three words apply. Very recently, the product head of Facebook resigned and one of the reasons was that he was disappointed that Facebook was not keeping abreast with the changing needs of the new generation. Therefore, it is not about old media or new media. Even the new media is evolving by the day. Therefore, for a marketer whose only job is to have a finger on the pulse of the customer and to create the bridge: unlearn, relearn and learn remain relevant.

Why do we not see too many ad agency hands shift to the corporate side?

Difficult to comment. Till the time I was with Ogilvy, the world of advertising and Ogilvy was the world for me. I didn’t know the world outside and to a great extent we don’t even want to know. That world is so beautiful and addictive that you don’t want to think beyond it. It is like a womb syndrome. Once you come out, you realise that there is such a big world outside, and that while you are important, you are just a cog in a very big wheel. People usually move for financial reasons, which I think is not the right reason. They should move to the other side for professional reasons. 

Do you miss being in an agency set up?

Oh yes. The culture of an agency, the informality, the bonhomie and the friendships of agency life are just unbelievable. It’s like childhood. You cannot forget it, but also cannot go back.

You’re a regular and active member of ad forums. But we don’t see too many marketers being actively involved. Why? And what can be done to change this?

It could be because of two or three reasons. One is probably because I came from advertising. But, I believe that no marketer can be successful without agency partners and agencies cannot exist without clients. You are so dependent on each other. Your common good is good for you. One, to be a partner to the agency world and be there for their highs and lows, and also to help them understand your side of expectations, it is very important to be part of such forums. It is like the example of a manager who doesn’t mingle with his team. He will always be far removed from reality. If a marketer believes agencies are vendors or execution specialists, you will not have great relationships. And, if you don’t have great relationships, you will not have a great brand.

There are enough and more specialist agencies in the fray. What, according to you as a marketer, is the right mix?

I am possibly old order where I believe that you need a brand steward and a brand custodian. An agency partner has to consider themselves as brand custodians and not brief custodians. Agency partners who live brief to brief will never be able to earn the respect or remuneration that a brand steward can. Therefore, when an advertising agency thinks only of the advertising, PR agency only thinks of PR, who is going to think of the brand? And, putting the onus on the client is not entirely fair because a client without an agency partner has no success.

We have a single agency (each) for advertising, PR or OOH and direct marketing across all our businesses. Unfortunately, I have not come across the Rajnikanth of agencies - a single agency who can deliver all the facets of communication and can meet the needs of all our lines of business. If I find such an agency, I will hug and kiss them on both cheeks.

What is the one thing that you wish you had done, or do in the next few years?

We are arguably one of the most awarded clients – not only in financial services but also outside that. We have won Effies, Echos, Midas, Abbys and Emvies repeatedly. The one thing I aspire for, and sooner than later hope for, is a Cannes Lion. The Cannes Lion is still the most lusted-for industry recognition. 


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