How To Build Brands That Last

How To Build Brands That Last

An Interview with S. M. Didarul Hasan, Brand Marketing Manager, M. M. Ispahani Limited

The job of building and managing brands is getting progressively more challenging. That is one of the reasons why it is so important these days to invest in building a lasting brand. 

A strong brand sells, drives growth, helps sustainability, but building a brand takes time. It is often a long-term investment that most companies in Bangladesh shy away from.

S. M. Didarul Hasan, Brand Marketing Manager, M. M. Ispahani Limited, spoke to Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader about his passion for brands and the very act of building brands, why investing in building and managing brand is critical for any company in the long run, how one can start from scratch, why we don’t have that many global brands from Bangladesh and how can local brands win against MNCs.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.

Future Startup: Have you always been passionate about brands?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: Interesting question. I started loving the work of marketing since my days at the University of Dhaka as a student of marketing. Back in 2005, I was a Bachelor student, we used to organize workshops, job fairs, and events on marketing and advertising. 

We had the opportunity to meet and come across and listen to some of the luminaries in the field of advertisement and marketing in Bangladesh.

It gave us the chance to learn from the leaders of top-notch marketing firms in the country. It was intellectually stimulating. That’s when I fall in love with marketing and brand building.

After my BBA, I tried to manage an advertising internship but could not. But I was relentless. Instead, I joined NotunBangla.com, a tech startup trying to build a social networking site for Bangladesh, as a marketing generalist. Although, the company had to close its operation later but I learned a lot about the practical application of marketing, advertising, and brand building thinking from there.

The time between 2005 and 2008, I read a number of books on strategy, advertising, marketing and used to work at a marketing research agency during my MBA. The feeling that “marketing is the thing for me” grew stronger and stronger in me during this period. After MBA, I directly went to Grey Advertising Dhaka and asked the lady in reception desk that I want to work here as an intern and need to speak to someone here who has got the authority to make the decision! Sounds aggressive! This was, in fact, the power within me.

When I was talking to the receptionist, one of the account managers standing there overheard our conversations. And there I was approached by that Group Account Head for GSK-Horlicks group for an interview. He liked my attitude and approach to the agency job. Eventually, I was appointed as an intern after a formal interview with HR Department.

During my internship at Grey Dhaka, I learned about the basics of advertising from the experts in the field of marketing including Mr. Wasi Ahmed, Senior Strategic Planner and Mr. Gousul Alam Shaon, one of the most influential creative directors in our country.

After this period at Grey, I decided to join Unitrend Advertising Limited. I directly approached to the Chairman and Creative Chief of Unitrend through email and showed my interest. After some back and forth emails in December 2008, Unitrend called me for an interview with their Chairman and the General Manager. They liked me and gave me an assignment of profiling the aluminum industry in Bangladesh and then to develop a launching plan of an aluminum brand.

I had to present my idea in front of the top management of Unitrend in 3 weeks. On the day of presentation, there was everyone from the top management of Unitrend. I was supposed to give a presentation for 20 minutes, but it took me around 40 minutes.

They liked the presentation. They told me that they are so convinced that they have no question to ask. They also mentioned that they would let me know when I could join them. The very next day they confirmed through email and thus I started my career as a brand executive.

Initially, I was assigned to manage BSRM brand account and Rahimafrooz IPS was added later. I was closely working with the-then general manager Mr. Tushar Das (now the Chairman of Fahrenheit Communications) and strategic planning head Ashiqul Azam Khan and Uttiya Mukherji, Creative Director at that time. They were very experienced in their fields and I was blessed to have them as mentors.

Working there about one and a half year, I started to apply for opportunities at other big companies because I was craving for the real challenges of corporate. Later on, I joined Prime Bank LTD.’s marketing division where I handled marketing and communications of retail banking, SME Banking and Islamic Banking products periodically and led several projects, including re-developing the Prime Bank website, Prime Bank-BPL 2013, and Prime Bank Foundation-led CSR initiatives and many more.

After working there for 4 years, I realized that I was not doing anything new and not learning new marketing approaches. You know, the scope in a bank when it comes to brand marketing is limited or I can say that differentiation, positioning or innovating something was quite slow under stiff managerial spheres. 

But I wanted to do more and I wanted new challenges in my work. I was thinking of getting into a FMCG brand because that’s where brand marketing is comparatively dynamic in nature. M. M.Ispahani Limited was hiring a brand manager at that time.

I applied and got selected after specific assessments. I started working with the tea category first and now I look after both tea and foods category. This is a quite responsible position at Ispahani where I work directly with senior management and report to managing director.

Working at Ispahani presented me comparatively real opportunities to work in the process of managing a brand. We tried to reposition Ispahani Mirzapore soon after my joining. For the last couple of years, we have been trying to create a seamless experience regarding superiority of teas to our consumers. As an organization, Ispahani is a wonderful place to work if you are looking for opportunities to innovate, experiment and learn.

To build a strong brand, you need to start with a great product, promote it effectively, create a scope for building the brand association and evaluate performance from time to time and never stop learning.

FS: Why building and managing brand is so important?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: Branding today is something that drives a company purposefully. It is an asset for a company in the sense that when the brand equity of a company is higher, that particular brand can drive more demand, can acquire more customers, ensure greater profit margins, and attract more investors. 

Strong brands eventually lead to more revenue and investment in a company.

Brands, you can see, give customers some sort of comfort or social approval or peace of mind or a sense of security of buying a product. 

We buy branded products because we trust in the quality and/or performance of a brand. And it is historically true that brand sells because people trust a brand. 

A brand is not a commodity. A brand is something that has already graduated from the status of commodity and people treat it differently. That’s why it has become such an essential part of any lasting business.

FS: How do you think a company can build a brand from the scratch?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: “Rome wasn’t built in a day” goes the saying; and, likewise, brands are not built overnight. It is built upon the time. To build a strong brand, a company needs to develop a winning product first.

I mean, a winning product is supposed to deliver the desired benefits to the consumers which will eventually convince them to make repeat purchases and spread the word-of-mouth for that particular brand. That’s how a loyal customer base is built.

Keeping that customer base in mind, a company needs to position itself next. Positioning can be done either from day one or companies can identify the image that exists in consumers’ mind and capitalizes it.

Many people think that only communication and advertising build brands. But that’s a gross misunderstanding. 

Communication does one part, of course, but there are other essential components as well; it starts with right product designing, intriguing packaging, adding value in the factory and later throughout the journey till reaching to consumers’ hands and to experience it.

 All these components need to be in sync with each other to deliver value. Otherwise, brands will fail in the long run.

Brand is not commodity. A brand is something that has already graduated from the status of commodity and people treat it differently. That’s why it has become such an essential part of any lasting business.S. M. Didarul Hasan

FS: What we can gather from your conversation is that building a brand starts with a mindset. Can you please elaborate what type of mindset one needs to build a brand and a checklist to start with?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: As I have mentioned earlier, you need to develop a winning product first and prepare for a planned journey, if you are into building a brand. The product needs to be well-defined in terms of catering the needs of the target consumers, draw their attention and has to deliver benefits.

It is helpful to have a catchy name and an “aesthetically sound” logo by which customers can easily identify it and make a memorable bonding.

Next thing is integrated communications. Design a strategy-led communications plan and promote the brand in order to drive awareness among the customers and consumers. Effective communications efforts will result in people preferring that brand to others.

In such cases, a catchy and creative brand slogan works like a charm. It helps customers to relate the products and associations to it. For example, Ispahani in Bangladesh has a brand association with a richer blend tea; BSRM has an association with safety. It always takes time to build the right association which is very necessary across categories.

Failing to create a scope for such associations can lead to low customer acquisition and retention, as it has happened to many banks in this country; many FMCG products too. If a well-running bank does not tell anything specifically it lacks differentiation. Like Prime Bank, people perceive this is as a good bank; but they cannot find any further differentiation or cannot connect with any clear association. It does not inspire and engage customers. Awareness is there but the right association is missing; which is a long-run strategy trap.

So, suffice it to say, to build a strong brand, you need to build a great product, promote it effectively, create a scope for building the brand association and evaluate performance from time to time and never stop learning.

We’ve to analyze our media data in a more methodical and precise manner, like- which TV channels are getting more viewers now or where our consumers are spending more time in conventional or digital media. We should devise and implement our marketing programs based on what data tells us. This, in turn, is an opportunity as well to make better decisions powered by data.

FS: What metrics are important to you as a brand manager?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: We start with looking at the brand awareness. We use a tool call brand awareness mapping; Top-of-mind-awareness (TOMA), spontaneous awareness, aided awareness and total awareness. With this tool, we determine our current percentage of awareness, make plans to increase it and finally compare the campaign results against our objectives set.

We also use First Choice Brand Consideration metric to determine how many consumers think of our brand when they feel the need for this particular product in the category. We also see media terms like SOE (Share of Expenditure) versus SOV (Share of Voice).

We also look into average trends of trial rates, retention rates, and lapse rates. We have some other distribution parameters like weighted distributions, numeric distributions, and share among handlers. There are a couple of others, but these are the primary metrics we look at through the year.

FS: In the past, reaching out to your customers was quite easy, given that there were only a handful of communication channels. But, now we have innumerable channels of communication. It is hard to get attention. Moreover, the market has grown extremely noisy with people having a disdain for intrusive advertisements. Which means it is becoming increasingly challenging to reach out to your customers. How do you think about and deal with this problem?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: You’re very right about this point. Communication has become extremely challenging due to media fragmentation. There are endless options now.

The number of TV and FM radio channels and newspapers in the country is on the rise. Then there are virtual platforms and social networking sites. Making decisions is now way more complex.

One way, I think, we can try to handle this problem is by relying more on data for making the right decisions.

We’ve to analyze our media data in a more methodical and precise manner, like- which TV channels are getting more viewers now or where our consumers are spending more time in conventional or digital media.

We should devise and implement our marketing programs based on what data tells us. This, in turn, is an opportunity as well to make better decisions powered by data.

FS: How do you think this space is going to change down the line, say, in 7-8 years? What challenges do you think brand marketers will come across?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: Technologically, things will be a lot different in the coming years. The way we communicate and consume will be affected significantly. But, I believe along with challenges it will also offer opportunities.

The proliferation of social media, if dealt sensibly, will prove an advantage for us. Because, as you know social media platforms now offer you enormous amount of data about your users and let you target very sophisticatedly.

But I’m still doubtful about our current approach to it. I think we don’t fully understand social media’s potential in our perspective yet and neither the approaches are proven. We need to invest more of our time and efforts to understand the effectiveness of the new platforms and technologies.

Market is an extremely dynamic space. You can’t survive if you are not paranoid about constant improvement. Stagnation, complacency, these are killers. Brands should keep learning and should always look out for opportunities to grow.

FS: It’s often very hard for local companies to compete against multi-national brands (MNC), largely so because they often have deep pockets and can outspend competitors. That’s why maybe we don’t have many successful local brands in the categories where MNCs also exist. Why do you think that’s the case? And, from your experience and understanding, how a local company can compete and win against an MNC brand?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: I don’t fully agree with you in this because local companies don’t invariably fail to compete against MNCs. There are several local companies with amazing visions, such as – Rahimafroz, Ispahani, BSRM and Square to name a few and they have been doing great work.

Ispahani has been the leader in the tea market for many years now. Yes, MNCs have some competitive advantages. They have exposure to the international markets, R&D, and expertise of building brands. That’s an edge that local companies often don’t have.

Investment in capacity building and resources is also a matter here. But, even then, there are local brands that are doing quite well against MNCs.

I think having a vision is the most important thing for our local brands in order to compete against an MNC. You can’t build a brand out of thin air. Only promotion and advertisement does not build a brand. 

Brand building starts with a vision first and adhering to innovation over the time. It’s a journey to create a total experience and build on further.

In today’s world, a brand should have a purpose to grow. An organizational vision provides that purpose. If a company can set a vision that is relevant to a society’s welfare as a whole, that particular brand can hope for making a mark in its field.

Another problem that persistently troubles our local brands is the lack of expertise and market knowledge. Jui, for instance, was a market leader once here. But, when Parachute entered into the market, Jui lost its leadership for a number of reasons. Local companies need to invest in R&D and talent development.

Market is an extremely dynamic space. You can’t survive if you are not paranoid about constant improvement. Stagnation, complacency, these are killers. Brands should keep learning and should always look out for opportunities to grow.

I think having a vision is the most important thing for our local brands in order to compete against an MNC. You can’t build a brand out of thin air. Only promotion and advertisement does not build a brand.

FS: It is hard to find Bangladeshi brands doing good globally. There are a couple of companies doing well now but the number is still very insignificant. From you experience, can you tell us why don’t we have that many successful global brands?

S. M. Didarul Hasan: I think our entrepreneurs didn’t have the ambition to take their brands abroad in the past. But, you can see a change is happening now. Some of the local brands like-Apex, Beximco, PRAN RFL and Ispahani are trying to build international brands.

I hope that these companies will eventually gain more experience, learn to identify real opportunities, and develop their visions. I can see a number of companies from Bangladesh building successful international brands in the future.

Note: Interview by Ruhul Kader | Transcription by Rahatil Rahat

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