Anupama Sajeet
Sep 18, 2023

It's not only about selling books: Devish Gala on Navneet’s 60+ year journey

The head of branding sheds light on what prompted the brand to step into the advertising arena in recent years, the way forward for the education company, and more…

It's not only about selling books: Devish Gala on Navneet’s 60+ year journey

While Navneet Education books have been around for as long as most of us can recall, (the ubiquitous ‘21 most likely Questions set’ before exams being a case in point), the same cannot be said about its advertising. Founded in 1959 by the Gala family, it was not until 2019 that the brand decided to actively plunge into promoting awareness about its works. The latest in its marketing campaign line-up is a follow-up to its 'Tr. for Teacher' initiative launched in 2022.

Today, the online education space in India is inundated with more than 4,450 EdTech startups in the country, as per Assessment of India's EdTech Sector 2023 report by ResearchAndMarkets.com, and several more new startups mushrooming every other day. This, even as there are speculations of the edtech bubble in India going burst, with several of the startups facing a funding crunch.

Against this backdrop, Campaign India caught up with one of the ‘original’ education companies to find out what has changed in the space in the last few years, and more…

Edited excerpts:

How has the journey been in the last 60-odd years?

The company was started in 1959 by my grandfather and his brothers. They were initially salesmen for a distributor and they would carry books and deliver them to schools. All businesses know that the best feedback about any product or company happens via market feedback. So, because my grandfather was visiting schools, he learnt a lot about what’s the expected need from the market. That's when he and his brothers decided that they should also try and make a book and sell what is actually required in the market. And that's how in the early 1960s, they started with a book called ‘Hindi do dinon mein’, which was the start of the empire.

Cut to the 1990s, we listed ourselves publicly and started the stationery business. And around 2001 is when we actually ventured into technology. But I think we were too early at that point, India was still used to floppy disks, and not even CD ROMs. In 2008, we took a larger step into technology, where we were servicing schools with supplementary technology education. And now we are at a place where no matter what, technology is going to play a relevant role. In my mind, I'm very clear that that shift has to happen gradually. But that shift, towards more use of technology in education, will happen.

You joined the business in 2016. Until recently, we did not see any major advertising campaigns from the brand in the last so many decades. Was that intentional? Also, what led to the change in marketing strategy and the sudden spurt in branding exercise in the last few years?

Prior to 2019, Navneet was always doing well based on loyalty and goodwill. The last television ad that we must have done would have been in the early 2000s or even late 1990s. Before that, we relied on physical touch more, on having events organised locally in multiple geographies. We used to rely a lot on local newspapers and radio. We had been communicating in ways where we didn't need to spend money. Even now that hasn’t changed much.

When I came into the business, I wanted to make sure that people who are loyal to us and who are helping us with the goodwill, need to be touched and need to be given back at least in terms of what Navneet means in the market to every customer. Also, awareness on what else Navneet is doing. It's not just books, right? We don't just want to do business. We also want to show that we care about all the stakeholders, whether it is students, parents, teachers, schools, and whoever else is part of the ecosystem. So, firstly for relevance. Second, for creating a larger awareness and third, for trying not to only be a ‘business company’. We wanted to show that yes, we also do care for everyone who's involved in the ecosystem. So yes, it is very much intentional.

And being from a younger generation, having lived around technology from childhood and with the awareness of what technology can help create, it made full sense. So I took the opportunity to have a small team of three, and I think we've done some good work so far.

Last year your marketing initiative ‘Tr. For Teacher’ received a great response. This year’s Teacher’s Day campaign is also essentially centred around the same thought. What does the brand hope to accomplish through the initiative?

Like I said before, it's not only about selling products. It's also about showing the value that Navneet holds for the people who belong in this ecosystem. So ‘Tr for Teacher’ is a start. Honestly speaking, teachers are the biggest influencers for us. Without teachers Navneet would not be where it is right now.

 

This year, we are also going to tap into one more stakeholder i.e. students. And next year, we'll do something either at the school level, or for the parents, or the retailers. So we want to get to all these important stakeholders each year through our campaigns basically to show that we don’t only care about the business, but also about the person we are doing business with.

So this year, we are creating a book for students around mental health. We all know the kinds of pressures students face before exams. So we are launching a book specifically for students on ‘21 ways to cope with pressure and stress’ based on our popular book series titled, ‘21 most likely questions set’, which we hope will help them ease their anxiety. So this is where we bring the ‘student’ angle in.

You mentioned how you have been building on the technology aspect. How is the company ensuring it stays ahead and relevant in today’s digital landscape? What is the kind of investment you have made in the EdTech space?

Way back in 2008, we started with a product which was an animated form of the government textbook. Yes, adoption does take time and maybe in education it might take more time because there is not only one decision-maker. There are multiple, students being the last. Schools, teachers and parents are also important. So we developed slowly, pivoting wherever required.

Then came covid. In the pandemic, there was this massive, unprecedented boom, which made us fast forward by five years. Something that we assumed would have happened by 2025 we had to bring in 2020. So we did meet a lot of companies, invested in some, and bought some. After doing all of that it’s become very clear to us that the way going forward is going to be ‘phygital’ - physical books plus supplementary digital learning. So any new investments, any new ideas or innovations will be around the physical product with the innovation being the technology. Another interesting company we've invested in is into sports, called ‘Sports for All’. I think we are earlier than most in picking sports as a vertical of education.

Recently, the company made a slew of changes in the group structure, demerging its education technology business of ‘Navneet Futuretech’ from the parent company, Navneet Education. What was the objective behind this move?

Navneet Futuretech was set up in 2020 during the pandemic. I think in the last few years, we've understood a lot about what technology can offer in education. And we know that our core strength is in physical products. So it has been a learning. I myself have headed one of the businesses there. And it's become very clear now, that our future pathway is going to be taking our core strength, and using external partnerships to bring technology. I don't foresee us being a technology-first business, but always a ‘book ++’ business- that's what we call it internally. So ‘content’ being our king, and technology or technology services being external partnerships.

What we had managed to do was identify 20-plus verticals that come under edTech. Basically, these verticals serve as a bridge between anyone who wants to teach, and anyone who wants to learn about it.

In the post-pandemic era, India’s edtech sector is witnessing a funding crunch in line with falling demand for online education, amid rising interest rates and economic uncertainty. How optimistic are you about the future of this sector?

Most industries in this country have had a cyclical nature. Where there has been a massive boom, because suddenly everyone hears about it, and then there's been a similar crash also.

But if we know that our business is fundamentally strong, and if it's backed by good promoters, no matter what the scenario is, we will make sure that we are relevant to the market needs. And I think we're good promoters to take a fundamentally strong company and keep venturing out through external partnerships and maybe in-house too, making sure that edTech, per se remains relevant in whatever form and shape.

As I mentioned before, in the education world the adoption of technology might be slow. It may take 5, 10 or 15 years, but that is going to be the way to go. But it is going to be players like us who are going to make sure that is going to remain relevant. And we want to play that role of ensuring that the relevance of technology and education remains.

What do you see as the challenges in the space?

Adoption. Because earlier also bringing in technology created a fear amongst teachers of being substituted. Another fear is the time parents believe they should allow a child with technology.

And now, of course, with the sudden boom in 2020-2021, which made every company who's offering online services for education either a unicorn or some kind of hero overnight. But then everyone's seen the massive downfall also, so the current trust for any new company might be at its lowest.

However, for a company like Navneet which is a fundamentally strong and proven company, where everyone knows about its promoters, any pivot that we choose to take will be in favour of the market expectation and not in creating a sudden demand. So, we are going to cater to the demand and not create a new demand, whereas other companies are creating new demands and trying to be magnets which will attract customers. I think that magnetism between customers and new innovation, that magnetism has suddenly been lost.

So how do you plan to overcome this hurdle of adoption, in the mindsets of consumers?

I think there's no one better than us who knows how to deal with customers or what is their expectations. We've proven it for six decades now. So overcoming is again going to be gradual, at least for the section of the market that we cater to, which is the lower middle class, for them it has to be a gradual process while creating adoption avenues gradually.

Going ahead how's the brand looking to leverage this brand equity in terms of marketing and advertising to the consumers?

I think there is an unsaid or unwritten loyalty, which exists for the brand among consumers. So our brand focus and our communication focus at least for the near future is going to be towards keeping that loyalty intact. In the last three to four years, there has been very little brand activity done on generating business. It's more about having an emotional touch of loyalty, of making sure we care for every stakeholder, while not taking ‘emotional’ in a negative tone, and making ourselves relevant through the communication. That, I think, will be the best way forward for us as well.

And ‘Tr for Teachers’ has proven to us that communication outside books and communication outside sales channels is really working for us. And not just in Maharashtra or Gujarat, which are our strongest geographies. Through these kinds of activities, I think people who don't even belong to the education ecosystem anymore are recognising the efforts Navneet is taking.  

 

Source:
Campaign India

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