Inside Runner’s Communication Strategy: An Interview With Salehin Chowdhury, Head, Brand And Communications, Runner Automobiles

Inside Runner’s Communication Strategy: An Interview With Salehin Chowdhury, Head, Brand And Communications, Runner Automobiles

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Salehin Chowdhury is the Head of Brand And Communications at Runner Automobiles Limited. Prior to joining Runner, he worked at City Bank, Premier Bank, Bengal Foundation in various brand and marketing positions. Since his appointment as Head of Brand and Communications of Runner Automobiles Limited, Salehin Chowdhury has been instrumental in spearheading the launch of a host of campaigns and a consequential communication strategy for Runner.

In this fascinating interview, Ruhul Kader sits down with Mr. Salehin to learn about his journey to what he is doing today, his passion for marketing and communication, and lessons from his long career in marketing, his work as Head of Brand and Communication at Runner, and to pick his brain about how marketing works at Runner, the state of marketing and advertising in Bangladesh and the art of designing a marketing strategy that works, the changing landscape of marketing and advertising in Bangladesh and the challenges it poses to the marketer and the major trends in the space going forward.

This story is made possible in part by our friends at Thinkpool, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Thinkpool helps brands to maintain seamless digital presence, please go to Thinkpool to know more.

Future Startup

First off, tell us about your background and then your journey to what you are doing today. You studied Computer Science and now, you work in Brand, how did that transition happen?

Salehin Chowdhury

I started my professional journey back in 2005 as a software engineer at a software company called Cention Limited. If I go a little back, I studied computer science at University.

This was back in 2000 and computer science was one of the most in-demand majors. Many people had that aspiration to become a software engineer because of the prevailing perception that it would offer better career opportunities.

That was more of a perception than a reality; of course, I did not realize that at the time. So I went with the flow. I got admission at AIUB. Education-wise, it was a good time because a lot of things were happening and we used to participate in different programming contests and all that. I graduated in between 2004 and 2005. And that’s when we came to see the reality.

The market was already saturated with CSE graduates and there were not enough opportunities for everyone.

Because it didn’t pick up the way people expected, I – including many my friends – had to look for alternatives. Many of my friends got into telcos, setting up network tower for Grameenphone. A lot of them joined new software ventures of Akij group and others at a salary of 4000 or 5000 taka – as low as that.

Eventually, I got into Cention. I was lucky because Cention Limited was a Swedish based Software Company and we used to work on a programming language called Ferite, an object-oriented programming language. I used to work for the person who invented the language – Mr. Christian Stamgren if I can recall.

I worked for 4 to 5 months at Cention before getting the impression that the programming thing is not my cup of tea.

I’m an extrovert person. Focusing hard on a problem for days, staying in a room for two-three days, smoking and drinking tea was not working for me. I expected more out of my life at that time.

I left Cention and joined an English Medium School teaching O Levels students while also pursuing an MBA on the side. It was a difficult decision. There was constant social pressure – people want you to take a corporate job – as if what I was doing was not normal. I wanted to build a career in marketing, so I needed an MBA.

In 2007, I left my teaching job and joined Abdul Monem Limited in their then newly launched BPO business called Service Engine Limited. Service Engine continues to do well even these days. I was a team leader there and used to work under a Filipino boss and Mr. Mainuddin Monem, son of Mr. Abdul Monem, who used to directly supervise the project. It was a pleasing experience.

While working there, I got an offer from Bangla CAT, which is largely known for caterpillar goods. They are the number one brand for industrial machinery, commonly known as CAT, and in Bangladesh, they are very strong in power sectors, they have been in gas generators and other related business for a long time. It was more of a B2B operation.

I joined Bangla CAT on their marketing team. It was and is a very formatted and well-structured company, sort of the company where people work for their lifetime.

I worked there for about 5 years, then I joined City Bank. City Bank was one of the fastest growing banks at that time and was a happening organization.

I always admit that whatever I have learned, the versatility (if I have any), the credit goes to my time at City Bank. Because my boss believed in putting people into different formats and roles. He used to make us work in different responsibilities.

As a senior executive or an assistant manager, you would feel bad at times, because of the inexperience, but in the long run, it would boost your confidence, you would learn more and perform better. So what happened was that I ended up working in PR, outdoors, in events, brand management, infrastructural development and so on.

While at City Bank, I had the opportunity to work on some very interesting projects including City Touch, City Gems, and American Express Platinum Card launch.

My boss would put me a variety of responsibilities and finally, he gave me the opportunity to work on taking American Express – a great premium segment brand – to its next level.

I was given the challenge of launching American Express Platinum Card in Bangladesh for which I got a global award from the American Express President at that time.

After that, I moved to Jamuna group. It was a challenging decision after working in a bank like City Bank. But I was given the privilege of launching a TV channel which I thought might not come in the future. I was part of the team that launched Jamuna TV.

I had a good experience at Jamuna Group working in a variety of fields.

After working for a while at Jamuna Group, I went back to a second bank, which was Premier Bank, a completely different kind of organization compared to City Bank. Naturally, banks don’t offer much marketing work. Moreover, Premier was a rather conservative bank at that time. However, I continued working at Premier bank because sometimes you have to take a back foot.

Then I made the boldest decision of my career to join a university, Canadian University Bangladesh. By that time I became a father of my first child, so it was a challenging decision from different aspects. But when I joined, we had the ambition to build a global university brand.

This was exciting to me because universities in Bangladesh usually don’t invest much in branding and similar things. I was happy to get such an opportunity. The management, particularly the Chairman of Canadian University Bangladesh, was very helpful and visionary and he gave me the opportunity to experiment with the university brand.

Long story short, we had these disruption sessions to get the positioning of the brand right and we followed through. We had worked really hard and the result was beautiful.

It was a challenging job for me because I had joined there from a bank, where I had multiple agencies working for me, including a creative team, but at the Canadian University of Bangladesh I had to do everything by myself, everything from design to execution to procurement and so on. In fact, I knew a bit of illustrator and designed all the collaterals by myself.

It was a wonderful opportunity for me to apply myself and work really hard and learn and give everything. When I left the Canadian University of Bangladesh, we had everything ready and a relatively well-established brand in our target audience.

After the Canadian University of Bangladesh, I joined Runner Automobiles Limited, again another completely new industry for me. Before joining Runner, I had a very little understanding of the industry and it was a challenging pursuit. But I have always loved taking challenges and it has been a fulfilling journey so far.

This is a fast-growing industry in Bangladesh. And it is always exciting to work in a fast-changing industry because it offers a lot of challenges and opportunities to experiment and learn.

In the automobile sector, particularly in 2 wheeler category, there are a number of pretty established brand such as Yamaha, Hyundai, Bajaj, Hero, TVS and many others. The thing is many of these brands have pre-confirmed frameworks that they follow to get things done. There is little room for experiments.

Contrary to that, Runner has had some experience, now we are writing a definition for ourselves. We started right away with the positioning. First of all, we checked what the perception of people; they have a perception that it’s a Chinese bike, they related us with Dayan, Freedom but this is an association that is no more valid. Because many of those collaborations don’t exist anymore.

Today, we are purely Bangladeshi brand. We have a 300-acre proper manufacturing plant in Bangladesh. We have 10 models of our own and our price range starts from 64,000 to 1 lakh 56 thousand taka. We are now in the process of building a new identity. An identity that tells a story of our own.

Recently, we launched ads for our scooty brand Kite Plus, KnightRider which are very popular products, which tells that it’s a new generation bike. If you see the communication you will notice that the features and the products and everything else is colorful and youth-oriented ad which is unlike Runner of the past.

We are breaking the barrier, you will see a lot of stuff which will somehow give you a glamour effect in your thought process, which was the missing link. That’s what we are building now.

Runner has been a market leader for like 15 years now in some specific segments. We have this very super hit product across the suburb areas that is the deluxe ad80, what they call it. That is how the runner brand was positioned. But we are now going in a different direction. We are building an intimate brand that people can connect themselves with. We are now trying various new things including stunt shows, reviews and many more.

Not only we are playing around mere communication and we are also planning alternative sales and distribution channels. We are working on a distributed but branded online platform called Runner Express where our users will be able to order products online. We are working with ecommerce platforms to have dedicated corners and then we are also building our own platform.

Our ambition is high and we are just getting started.

An automobile is an expensive product. This is a kind of product where people invest their years of savings and dreams. It requires a lot of decision making. We understand this and weight of this responsibility. We are mindful of expectation our customers have from us. That’s why a brand is critical for us- a brand that our customers can have faith on without thinking twice.

Future Startup

It means people will be able to buy your products online and delivered to their place?

Salehin Chowdhury

Yes. We are considering an umbrella strategy as I mentioned. Our own dedicated website as well collaboration with other ecommerce platforms.

Future Startup

What else are you doing at Runner?

Salehin Chowdhury

We are aiming to create community and build clubs of bikers where they could come and mingle and have a feeling of community. This is a quite standard strategy for many bike brands across the globe and we see we can apply that in Bangladesh.

At the same time, we are doing a lot of product diversification. We are getting into the racing segment and cruiser segment and we plan to do it very differently.

2018 is going to a revolutionary year for Runner in particular, as well as for the automobile industry. I can already say that a lot of things are happening. For instance, we are already exporting our motorcycle to Nepal and we are eyeing for a couple of other countries as well for expansion.

One of our distributors in Nepal is really big; called Raman Motors, they are one of the leading construction companies in Nepal. They are very optimistic about the future of Runner Motorcycles in Nepal. We have received raving reviews in Nepali magazines and we are super excited.

An automobile is an expensive product. This is a kind of product where people invest their years of savings and dreams. It requires a lot of decision making. We understand this and weight of this responsibility. We are mindful of expectation our customers have from us. That’s why a brand is critical for us- a brand that our customers can have faith on without thinking twice.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your work as head of brand and communications. How do you approach your work and as a well how you work as a team and department?

Salehin Chowdhury

First off, I believe that you must have a good team and then work with them beyond the professional relationship. Professionalism is fine, but that does not help build a great team. In order to build a great team, you have to build a personal connection with your people based on compassion.

It is important for me to understand whatever happens in the lives of my teammates and challenges they are facing. Because it affects their work and team productivity. We try to understand each other and help each other to overcome personal and work-related challenges. That’s one of my principles.

Advertising is a mind game. If you are not in the same frequency as a team and if you are not at your best, nothing will get delivered and what matters is on time deliveries with accuracy.

Now, the point is if you don’t know your people, their passions and weakness and their strengths as a person, then you cannot motivate them and get best out of them. That’s very important. That’s the transparency I maintain with my team.

We try to help each other when there is a challenge, personal or professional. As a result, everyone feels closer. They stay overnight when it is required and we also consider when one of my teammates need to leave early to do a medical checkup, he/she should have that flexibility.

I report to our CEO and I maintain that transparency with him in terms of my personal life and how I am as a person and what my future vision is and where I want to take this brand to. He appreciates it, as I do with my junior colleagues, he understands my past, my strengths, and weaknesses and it makes easier to get things done.

As a team, we work overtime a lot and it’s because we have a bigger vision. We have this passion for the product and passion for a brand of this country.

Team-wise, we have brand managers for each of our product line. For the racing segment, we have a brand manager; for cruisers segment, there is one; for commuters section, there is one and so. Brand managers take care of the each of the segment and responsible for smooth running of the segment including looking at the portfolio, managing campaigns and communications and then collaborating with the team on behalf of the segment. We spend quite a bit of time in finding the right fit for these positions as a result once they are set, they perform very well.

We have also a copywriter, an in-house creative team who take care of our creatives. We have an event activation expert who has been working in this area for 10 years, and then we have an outdoor guy who takes care of our outdoor activities. In total, we are 8 people in brand and communication.

We all are passionate and we are always learning -what’s happening in the industry and applying that knowledge in our work. The good thing for us is that our boss was the Product Head of HERO for a long time. He is research and data-driven, and cost-conscious. But not that everything has to be cost-effective. if your research and data show that your cost is justified you can go on with an ambitious project.

We are data driven and believe in the adage that anything that can be measured can be improved. I love this approach because at the end of the day you should not spend based on hype and your wish.

In terms of strategy and plans, we consciously try to go month by month due to the fast-paced nature of the market. It is a dynamic industry and things are happening daily. It is ineffective to stick to quarterly or half yearly or yearly plans.

First off, I believe that you must have a good team and then work with them beyond the professional relationship. Professionalism is fine, but that does not help build a great team. In order to build a great team, you have to build a personal connection with your people based on compassion.

Future StartUp

How do you reach out to your audience, what channels and mediums you regularly use for communication?

Salehin Chowdhury

We started with orthodox newspaper ads, then we started to invest in Digital. Now digital is our biggest channel in terms of spending. We are experimenting a lot in digital. The response is good as well. However, we will see the result in a few months and then probably new strategy will emerge based on the data.

I believe digital is more effective than ATL. It’s cost-effective, more effective for recall and top of mind domination.

After digital, BTL takes second place. Activation genuinely helps and it also connects directly with digital. We are going rather conservatively in TV and other mainstream Electronic media.

Future StartUp

What are some of key metrics that you look at to evaluate a campaign or a strategy?

Salehin Chowdhury

I had a fascinating discussion with my MD recently about setting KPI and all. He is my guru in the Automobile sector. I asked him about his expectation and how should we set KPI for communication. He has given this very simple diamond strategy where you have a base part, you have this edge parts. It’s connected edge to edge to a point and you have a base. The vision is simple. Two lines are activities that you do that leads to sales and your base is your backup such as services and products and when you put these things together you get a diamond.

Activities bring us to leads. Now, what is a lead? For us at communication, lead is footfall. My object with communication is footfalls and my key metric too. It is a simple equation. Conversion is not my forte. There is an applied sales team.

We have established other mechanisms to get to our customers. Facebook is a touch point, I have a call center, a good one, and we have other touch points covering majority of our activities. We are getting feedback through these channels.

Through all these activities our goal is to increase footfalls to our shops and other destinations and increase queries for our products. As I said- that’s the key metrics for us.

You have to decide where you want to reach first, then you design how you will get there.

Future Startup

How do you design, as you mentioned, you design monthly plans and strategies, an effective communication strategy? What are the things you need to be mindful of?

Salehin Chowdhury

There are many ways to designing a strategy and it depends on your objective. You have to decide where you want to reach first, then you design how you will get there.

For instance, you can play with emotions or offers or apply some other strategy that is your priority at this moment. At the same time, you have to be mindful of your competition when designing a strategy. It is more appropriate for a highly competitive market like ours.

Then there is individual product approach. The range is there, the emotional part is there and you go by individual product.

A strategy is like harvesting. You have to give time, try different things and then make a decision based on what works and what does not.

Future StartUp

Suppose I’m designing a communication strategy for my brand, what are a few steps that I should be mindful of? Or is there any formula?

Salehin Chowdhury

As I said, what you are doing is important. Similarly, what your competitors are doing is also equally important because it has a certain impact on your business. So you should be aware of what’s happening in the market and make sure that your strategy does address that reality.

For instance, a lot of automobile companies are using teaser ads nowadays. This is a relatively new thing for the automobile sector. It is hard to predict the result of such an approach but it might help you stay on top of mind of your TG. Now as a player in the market, you have to consider this reality while designing a strategy.

On the other hand, we are a manufacturer and while doing communication, we also need to be mindful of matching our demand with the supply. Because if we can’t meet the demand in the market, it also causes a negative impact.

The automobile is a growing industry, there is no book that you can emulate. You have to be analytical, you have to be aware of the market and dynamics in the market. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have a long-term fixed strategy. The strategy is not to have a strategy, to have the dynamism and flexibility to deal with the ever-changing market.

Future Startup

You started your career in 2005 and you have seen a lot over the past years. How much has the marketing and communication industry evolved?

Salehin Chowdhury

One of the significant change is, of course, the rise of digital. From an obscure idea, it has gone mainstream and it continues to grow.

I’m part of the generation who saw the very early days of the computer. Back in 2000, the computer was just entering our households and we are probably the last generation who lived without a mobile phone and now can’t think of a minute without our smartphone. Things have fundamentally changed in every possible way.

Digitization is, as I mentioned, is one of the biggest shift in how we reach out to consumers. It was never a part of the communication plan before, but it is an integral part now. Apart from TVC, we are now investing heavily in the video. In fact, we have a part-time videographer at Runner who makes videos for us.

Website and every digital presence have become very important for brands. In fact, we are rebuilding our website.

We understand that there are a lot of works to be done on the philosophical side of the brand. The community feeling of the bikers is the future of our brand. Our ambition is to get there – building a brand with which bikers will be able to identify themselves.

There is a huge market for bikes in Bangladesh. Let me give you an example, one in 16 people use a bike In India, it is one in 20 in Pakistan and in Bangladesh it is one in 160 which means we have a huge room for growth.

There is a lot to be explored. We are at the right time but in order to get things tick, we have to experiment. That’s the phase we are in now.

The automobile is a growing industry, there is no book that you can emulate. You have to be analytical, you have to be aware of the market and dynamics in the market. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have a long-term fixed strategy. The strategy is not to have a strategy, to have the dynamism and flexibility to deal with the ever-changing market.

Future Startup

What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?

Salehin Chowdhury

It is important that you give time to your team and you help them excel. You take time to understand your teammates and build meaningful connections with your team. My boss at the City Bank Nazmul Karim bhai used to do this a lot.

He would spend time with us in counseling and I saw that it works. So, the first lesson would be building a meaningful connection with your team so that you understand them and they understand you. Once this connection is established, everything else becomes easier.

I believe in the combinatorial nature of knowledge. Having diverse experience, diverse reading habit always helps. We take a multidisciplinary approach towards our work here. That’s how I approach my work. And that’s how a team approaches their work.

Team is the most important component of any organization. We work as a team and try to support each other when required. Everyone does everything whenever it is required. If someone is working late, everyone stays. It’s not that one individual stays alone. Everyone is connected to each other. The event guy is connected with the creative, the creative is connected to the brand manager. This creates a welcoming environment for work.

One of the significant change is, of course, the rise of digital. From an obscure idea, it has gone mainstream and it continues to grow. I’m part of the generation who saw the very early days of the computer. Back in 2000, the computer was just entering our households and we are probably the last generation who lived without a mobile phone and now can’t think of a minute without our smartphone. Things have fundamentally changed in every possible way.

Future Startup

What do you think about the digital?

Salehin Chowdhury

Let me give you a practical example. My boss is a lot senior to me and is a veteran in this industry. The other day we were having a meeting with one of our agency partners regarding GDN and a few other digital channels that we might use to reach out to our target audience. My boss popped in in the middle of the meeting and he was intrigued seeing the data.

We came to see that IMO is one of the leading messaging platforms that a lot of young people use. My boss was not aware of IMO, he is into Viber and WhatsApp, but not IMO. Now he came to know about it and he got interested.

The point I’m trying to make is that awareness is growing in the market and the mindset is changing.

Digital is the future, I can add very little to that understanding. Everyone understands this reality now. But the challenge is that there is a lack of understanding about the medium. A lot of people, probably, does not have this knowledge of where to invest and where not. Once you fix this knowledge gap the entire game would be different.

Respect people regardless of who they are. It’s a small world, everyone knows everyone. If you are doing something that you are not proud of doing, people will get to know it in no time. Be responsible.

Future Startup

I think the TV is much easier medium to deal with because it’s very straightforward, but in digital it is difficult because consumers have a lot of power. They decide whether they will attend to your advertisement or not. If they don’t want to attend, you cannot force them, which is feasible in TV. You can make them, in the middle of a serial, if there is an ad you have to watch it. But in digital, people can ignore it. Given this nature of the medium, what are the challenges in digital?

Salehin Chowdhury

You have to be mindful of your audience all the time while preparing your communication. It has to be credible and authentic and something that your customers would like.

The upside of digital is that you can get feedback from your customers for almost free. In many instances, your audience does offer their feedback. This is a huge favor for a brand that is willing to engage with its customers.

The lacking is that many of us don’t spend enough time in going through these feedbacks and analyzing them and then coming up with ideas based on these feedbacks. The challenge or opportunity whatever you may name it is that you have to better understand your audience and prepare your content and communication accordingly.

The other point is that there is no point of doing gimmick in this market. You simply can’t afford it because people already know enough and they don’t hesitate to call it out when you are doing something wrong.

Future Startup

A few major trends that you see are going big in digital in the coming days.

Salehin Chowdhury

I think authentic communication is going to be a major trend in the coming days. It has already started. An increasing number of companies are now using testimonial as a material to establish a credible communication with users.

Reviews play an important role in digital. People often look at the number of five-star ratings of a product and go and order that. In fact, in many ways, it makes the purchasing decision easier for a customer.

I think testimonials and getting real when it comes to communication would be next big trends.

You have to be mindful of your audience all the time while preparing your communication. It has to be credible and authentic and something that your customers would like. The upside of digital is that you can get feedback from your customers for almost free. In many instances, your audience does offer their feedback. This is a huge favor for a brand that is willing to engage with its customers.

Future Startup

Marketing wise, what are the plans for 2018?

Salehin Chowdhury

Marketing wise we have a certain benchmark number for growth which is our main focus now. We are pushing our sales to get there. Once we get there then we will have even more room for playing big time with our brands and building emotional resonance of a local brand.

We are ambitious here and we want to build a local automobile brand that resonates with our culture and inspires our people. Because that is the ultimate win. But before getting there, we are building our foundation solid. Then you go beyond.

I think authentic communication is going to be a major trend in the coming days. It has already started. An increasing number of companies are now using testimonial as a material to establish a credible communication with users.

Future Startup

What tips and advice would you give to marketers and people who want to build careers in marketing and brand communications?

Salehin Chowdhury

Think out of the box, not as a slogan but in reality. Apply yourself and your creativity in day to day works. Don’t limit yourself, and give your 100% all the time.

Seek experience, seek diverse experience. Because every experience counts. I have worked in a host of different industries starting from tech to education to consumer electronics to banking and now I’m working in the automobile industry.

The silver lining of working in diverse industries is that you get a lot of different ideas and then cross-pollinate ideas and design better solutions, you just need to Pay attention to and value your every little experience.

For instance, while working at mobile phone industry, I experienced the price war first hand and I took the lesson. Now when we are seeing a growing price war in our industry, we decided not to respond with price cuts rather by price cuts but by doing something interesting.

Every experience counts and has value in it. A lot of people might discourage you, but if you believe in what you are doing something right and with integrity, with passion, so go across it. If you don’t cross the bridge you will not see the other side.

The other day I was having a conversation with my CEO, who has been working in automobile for like 25 years, and I consider it as a compliment when he said “you know Salehin, what you did, you’ve wasted more of your career in things which you are not great at but what you are doing now, you are great at it.”

Probably I have found my ultimate work where I fit in, maybe automobile is my thing. Probably I have just arrived and this would not happen if I was not experimenting and seeking and exploring. Explore and find somewhere you can park yourself. You will find your place only if you keep exploring.

The risky part of working in marketing is that there are a lot of scopes where you can go wrong. It is sometimes hard to maintain your honesty. But that’s where honesty is needed most when staying honest is a challenge. Young people who are interested in marketing should remember this. Because honesty pays off. At least, you will sleep in peace.

Respect people regardless of who they are. It’s a small world, everyone knows everyone. If you are doing something that you are not proud of doing, people will get to know it in no time. Be responsible.


Notes

1. Interview by Ruhul Kaders, Transcription by Shabiba Benta Habib

2. Further reading on the future of communication here.

This story is made possible in part by our friends at Thinkpool, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Thinkpool helps brands to maintain seamless digital presence, please go to Thinkpool to know more.

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