Anupama Sajeet
Jan 18, 2024

The CMO's MO: Demystifying insurance products for consumers remains a challenge for marketers - HDFC Life's Vishal Subharwal

From his admiration for Maggi noodles to the 'holy grail of a marketer'`, Subharwal, chief marketing officer and group head strategy, HDFC Life spills the beans in this edition of CMO's MO

The CMO's MO: Demystifying insurance products for consumers remains a challenge for marketers - HDFC Life's Vishal Subharwal

The CMO's MO: 9 questions with dynamic marketing leaders, insights and personalities revealed. 

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The CMO’s MO (modus operandi), spotlights some of India’s top CMOs as they share their marketing mantra, trends for the future, and what keeps them up at night while giving us a peek into the person behind the title. Here we chat up with the who’s who of the country’s leading marketers, keep the tone conversational, crisp and throw in questions that allow leaders to shine a light on their personalities, plans, and passions projects for the year ahead. 
In this edition, Vishal Subharwal, chief marketing officer and group head strategy, HDFC Life, taps into his two-decades plus experience to divulge insights on balancing both tradition and innovation in the consumer mind space, on challenges in the insurance sector and what needs to change, and, why he thinks growth is always a 'team effort', and more...   
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What are the three biggest marketing challenges for your brand right now?
In competitive and cluttered markets, every trustworthy brand must address the need for awareness, consideration and purchase. By awareness, I mean deepening a culture of long-term financial planning with products offered by HDFC Life at its core. Building consideration would mean educating consumers about the right life insurance cover to hedge against various risks. Last but not the least is the holy grail of a marketer i.e., converting non-consumers into consumers. 
What are the three biggest opportunities for your brand?
There is no shortage of opportunities in the Indian market if an insurer (a) gets the product-market fit right (b) builds distribution platforms to reach out to consumers, and (c) offers a differentiated customer experience. For us it means continuing on our journey of product innovation – we do have a rich legacy there. It also means a rapid build-out of distribution beyond the Top 100 cities of India. And also by leveraging technology to build an omni-channel service experience that would give more power to the customer.
Where are you investing your marketing budgets this year? In what areas are you increasing or cutting spend?
We continue to balance traditional and new-age media platforms. Marketing budgets on traditional media platforms would typically focus on awareness and consideration metrics. Digital media spends are more mid-funnel and bottom-funnel objective-driven. Also, to plough back into growing reach and frequency, investments are made into technology & analytics to get better efficiencies.
Marketing maestros or growth gurus: Are chief marketing officers the new chief growth officers?
With a deep understanding of the consumer, marketers can accelerate business growth through the correct initiatives and communicate the company’s offerings. Growth is a function of many complex variables, including industry structure, consumer demand, product innovation, distribution footprint, customer experience and much more. So, it’s always a team effort and no single individual or function can take credit for that.
Are you tapping into Gen AI’s awesomeness to future-proof your marketing efforts? Spill the C-suite strategy around Gen AI.
It’s still early days as far as Gen AI goes. It has enormous potential and can enable brands to build their businesses. Data and technology are the building blocks. We did experiment with AI in our marketing campaigns this year for generating creative outcomes. However, the use cases for GenAI will increase exponentially over the next few years. 
Trendjacking the metaverse train: Is it for your brand or not?
With Metaverse – we have experimented and done an add-on to our ‘Covid Batch’- bounce-back campaign. The technology continues to evolve and hopefully would sustain the excitement generated by it a couple of years back before new use cases can be tested.
Give us one example to convince our readers that your brand is walking the talk on sustainability. 
We consciously don’t like to operate with a quarter-on-quarter view. It’s always a long-term sustainable business view - our focus on environment, social and governance layers on every decision we take. For example, we have reduced our environmental footprint by implementing a paperless policy issuance option for customers. We focus on the customer’s needs, develop and nurture our employees, and build better communities, especially amongst the marginalised. Finally, the non-negotiable for us is highest focus on governance.
Unplugging from the chaos and embracing the calm: At a family weekend getaway
What do you feel separates your brand culture from others?
Very few brands can balance both tradition and innovation in the consumer’s mind space. Most brands are anchored on one of two axes. With our HDFC parentage, a legacy of product innovation and the use of technology, we can do well on both elements giving us a unique positioning with Indian consumers. It’s rare for brands, especially in financial services to achieve this positioning, but ‘Sar Utha Ke Jiyo’ is well-established with Indian consumers.
What needs to change in your industry when it comes to working culture
Demystifying insurance products for consumers does remain a challenge for marketers. Product structures that are simple and can easily fit into the ‘give-get’ structure have done significantly better over the last few years across categories of protection, savings and retirement. Customers do need customised, bespoke solutions based on their needs. This makes the role of last-mile distributors and advice critical in the insurance industry. And marketers can play a greater role in enabling distribution channels.
Complete the sentence: “Today’s CMO must be ….”
Today’s CMO must stay ahead of the curve by understanding emerging consumer trends and using creativity as a force multiplier for better consumer connections to build reach and persuasion while utilising technology as an enabler to achieve marketing efficiencies.   
What kind of a CMO are you? Answer using a maximum of three adjectives.
Well, the three adjectives would be traditional, modern and frugal. The brand values are a function of our legacy over the years, which has stood the test of time. So, tradition, in that sense, is essential to me. Modern in thought because I believe the use of data, in-depth consumer research and current socio-economic context are vital for success. Frugal in action is also critical because resources are a constraint in a business context. Therefore one must look for opportunities that can act as a force multiplier both on the creative and technology side of marketing.
Tell us one personal thing about yourself that others might not know.
While I specialised in marketing out of B-school, I spent my formative years in sales, consulting, strategy, and e-commerce roles before leading the marketing function. 
What’s your favourite brand campaign that you participated in or wish you had?
I think the campaign which established ‘Sar Utha Ke Jiyo’ in the first decade of this century was a landmark campaign. The context of financial independence was built in a light-hearted manner without dialogues. It had three generations of a family represented and had some memorable music to back it up. It still resonates with me personally. 
Name another brand (can’t be yours) with an amazing customer experience that you really admire. Why is it great?
An organisation or a product becomes a brand only if it can stand the test of time, create new categories, is ubiquitous with a category, gives the consumer a feeling of happiness and can bounce back successfully from a crisis. Maggi, a 19th-century brand that Nestle introduced to build a category in India in the 20th century, faced a crisis early in the 21st century and remains a market leader. On the financial services side, American Express does stand out as a good benchmark, although it operates in a relatively niche market in India.
What keeps you up at night as a CMO?
The areas always on the mind focus on evolving consumer trends, effective brand communication, and staying ahead in the digital landscape to ensure the company’s marketing strategies remain relevant and impactful.


Campaign India

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