future startup logo
Subscribe

On Personal Renewal, Open Broadcasting, Future of Communication, and Building Purposeful Brands: Jane Alam Romel, Group Chief Marketing Officer, IDLC Finance Limited

Jane Alam Romel is the Group Chief Marketing Officer of IDLC Finance Limited, a voracious reader of both books and reality, and a clear thinker. IDLC is Bangladesh’s largest NBFI and is one of its finest financial brands.

In this excellent interview, Mr. Romel discusses the polymathic nature of knowledge, learning, and personal renewal, choosing what to read, the future of communication in the age of open broadcasting, building and running a marketing operation, building purposeful brands, and much more. The entire conversation is a fascinating read, a celebration of ideas, and an invitation to pay greater attention to our mundane reality.

This was a much longer interview. So we had to break it down into two parts. This is part one of the interview. Please return later next week for the next installment. Enjoy!

Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. How are you? What are you busy with these days?

Jane Alam Romel: Thank you. I'm fine. Work has been keeping me busy as usual. I'm also doing some focused study. These days, things change so rapidly that it's essential to study and read to stay on top of things. No matter what the subject might be. I try to devote some disciplined time to reading and learning.

Ruhul: You correctly pointed out that we live in a fast-paced, constantly changing world. Continuous learning is essential to stay relevant. How do you approach learning?

Romel: Let me share the process of how I approach learning. For Example, recently I started reading MBI Deep Dive's blog. Abdullah Rezwan is the author of the MBI Deep Dive blog. In the past, I have read his pieces on RH, Boeing and Uber. I have enjoyed them a lot, just because of how in-depth he discussed the topics. The author posts one article a month. Currently, I am reading Spotify. I have yet to finish it. So far, I've read about nine pages. 

When I read something, I try to grasp the core idea. See if it has substance. I found the Spotify report interesting after a few pages. Before, I did not have Spotify, so I paused reading and downloaded it. In the following days, I began experiencing the product, learning about the company and founder, etc. I asked people around me if they use Spotify and try to understand their experiences too.

I prefer to dive deeper when I read something, whether it's an article, a biography, or a research paper. I take two approaches to dive deep. First, I read various articles and watch videos on the subject matter. Second, I speak with experts in the field to have a better understanding of their viewpoint. I attempt to evaluate any topic I want to learn about from all the possible angles so that I can be content with what I know.

Ruhul: How do you decide what to read? Do you have a framework for choosing what to study or is it more serendipitous?

Romel: Some of these are targeted, while others are not. I love Masterclass, for example. Last year, I took a diverse set of Masterclass courses, from US election strategy to design to cooking to photography to business to several other fascinating subjects taught by world-famous celebrities in those fields. These were all targeted courses. This year, I paused because I'm focusing on different things.

There are some that are not targeted. For instance, sustainability and climate change. During my morning commute, I listen to the BBC morning show every day. My curiosity was sparked by listening to BBC during COP26 and hearing too much about sustainability during those few days, which led to further research on the topic.  

In other words, it works both ways. Some are natural curiosity, others are unplanned and few are purely targeted. As an example, I read Thomas Backdel's blog on media reports and trend analysis. I read Avinash Kaushik's blog,  who encourages the pursuit of simplifying perceived complexity in the field of data analytics and web analytics. The readings are intentional and related to my profession.

By studying and learning diverse things, I am able to attain a holistic viewpoint. I can see things that others with a linear view miss. It helps me better understand things. Every problem is a design problem. Whenever I run a campaign, I have a design concept in mind. Now, when you bring diverse ideas and understanding to this design process, everything is amplified.

Ruhul: Why do you read? In my case, I read rarely for utilitarian reasons. Most of the time, I read for enjoyment. Of course, whatever you read, they come to help. For instance, I read a lot of psychology books that are helpful for personal development. With others, I eventually realize the connection. What about you?

Romel: I read for both purposes. If I am reading about marketing, recent marketing trends, and technologies, this is part passion and part utilitarian. It's important that I understand the shifts and changes in the market. Otherwise, I would be unable to add value to my work.

When I read, for example, Yuval Noah Harari or Arundhati Roy, I read them out of interest and curiosity. I don't seek immediate utility in reading these people. Nevertheless, they always enrich my understanding of the broader perspective.

I also seek out other options. As an example, I meet people from different fields and walks of life, such as those in the field of the development sector, and try to learn from their expertise and experience. My village is near Dhaka — Srinagar, Munshiganj. When I go there, I spend time with the locals. I observe the way people live and how they spend their time. I talk to regular people. The local tong shops are where I spend time, eat my evening snacks and converse with people.

You cannot find any book that offers a deeper insight into living and reveals so many gems about life.

 I believe these people are like personal Google for life, learning, and lessons. And personal Google would have opinions, insights, history, and above all intuitive perspectives that one cannot even think of finding in the digital Google.

Ruhul: Range is one of my favorite books from last year. The thesis of the book suggests that people who excel in their field tend to be deep generalists rather than specialists. We can better understand reality by taking a multidisciplinary approach to knowledge and work. While these individuals specialize, they also possess a wide range of multidisciplinary knowledge. You have a wide range of interests. How do they relate to your work?

Romel: Marketing is a rapidly changing field. Our world is constantly changing. Things, tastes, and trends change overnight. Because of this, it is hard to predict what campaigns or strategies will be successful at the end of this year. To successfully navigate such an uncertain and constantly changing world, you need a certain intuitive understanding of reality.

Second, I am responsible for the marketing of a financial brand. People in the villages make financial decisions differently from how we do in cities. Spending time in rural areas and talking with the people there, I see the lack of financial literacy and other understanding about finance and financial products. With 10 Minute School, we have a financial literacy program called the Finance Olympiad. I wouldn't have realized that financial literacy could be a challenge if I had only talked to people in my office and around. But it is. Only when I go beyond my comfort zone do I see it. That of course adds value to my work.

By studying and learning diverse things, I am able to attain a holistic viewpoint. I can see things that others with a linear view miss. It helps me better understand things. Every problem is a design problem. Let's say you run Future Startup. You have content and strategy design. Whenever I run a campaign, I have a design concept in mind. Now, when you bring diverse ideas and understanding to this design process, everything is amplified. Because of this, companies are increasingly drawing on psychology, anthropology, and sociology to develop their products and strategies. When technology meets liberal arts, users' experiences change.

Ruhul: Last learning-related question, do you have any book/podcast or reading recommendations for our readers?

Romel: A few books. Winning by Jack Welch. Good to Great by Jim Collins. Outlier by Malcolm Gladwell. Fooled by Randomness by Nasim Taleb. Political essays by Arundhati Roy.

I loved reading books by Deepak Chopra, J Krishnamurti, Who says Elephants can't Dance by Lou Gerstner. 

I loved Steve Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson and all the books by Yuval Noah Harari, books of Dr. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury and Dr. Wahiduddin Mahmud. 

Ruhul: Let’s turn to the domain of your work, marketing, and communications. Marketing communication and the media landscape have changed over the last few years. There is more noise in the world today. With open broadcasting, communication has changed. Today, in many instances, individual creators have a greater influence than many established brands. How do you see the future of marketing and communication?

Romel: In the last ten years, as you mentioned, there have been significant changes. This is thanks to social media. There has been a degree of democratization in the general media landscape, and people, brands, and individual creators have come to resemble one another. This applies to both businesses and individual creators.

I would rather consider the upsides of this change. Small brands could not compete with big brands ten/twenty years ago. When Coca-Cola wanted a street billboard, they got it. If you are a smaller player, you couldn’t compete. This is no longer the case online. Small brands can still buy ads on the internet; they may show fewer times, but they can still buy them in the same space.

With a little creativity, the internet offers even more organic and relatively less expensive communication opportunities. Smaller brands and niche players today enjoy excellent power balance in the market. One study found that nano influencers on Instagram have 10 times more engagement with their fans than mega influencers with millions of followers. In other words, influencers with fewer followers are more powerful than those with a large following. The power has thus shifted to individuals. Everyone has benefited from this shift.

Having said that, the reality is however that we are living in an ever-changing land. No change is permanent.

The internet has allowed individual creators to move up in the value chain by building direct connections with people. That is a huge change. Despite this, the fundamental questions of business remain the same.

 Ruhul: Let's talk about open broadcasting. Brands are no longer entirely in control of messaging and market responses. Consumers can and do speak up. If you don't satisfy your customers, they will tell their followers, their audiences, and the entire world. This wasn't possible before. Brands controlled the message. Does this present a challenge to brands?

 Romel: Again, I will look at the upsides of this change. If you're serious about business and think long term, this is not a risk for you. Rather, it is an opportunity for you. With social media and other platforms, you can listen to what people are saying about your brand. Customer feedback can help you identify areas for improvement, and then you can invest in those areas.

Imagine the cost of using a third-party research firm to conduct research! Now you can get direct feedback from your customers for free. If a brand is willing to do the work, this can be a huge advantage. If your intention is good, this can be a great opportunity. However, if your intention is bad and you are short-term oriented, this is of course a risk.

Ruhul: These changes have many fascinating implications. For example, Tiktok is expanding into the restaurant and perfume industries. Many food bloggers are entering the food business. Influencers are now competing with brands. What do you think of this trend? Are we about to witness a fundamental change in business?

Romel: I believe the fundamentals of doing business remain the same and will always be so. To be successful, you need to know your customers and have a genuine relationship with them. Brands need to get personal a bit because to build a relationship you need to have a personality. But that's another story. Ultimately, however, it always boils down to the question of understanding your customers. If you understand your customers, if they trust you, they will give you business. If they trust an influencer, they will go for the products from that person.

The internet has allowed individual creators to move up in the value chain by building direct connections with people. That is a huge change. Despite this, the fundamental questions of business remain the same.

I see a few developments, however. The big brands will no longer dominate every market. There will be more and diverse competition creating an overall balance. We will see greater price and service competition, and greater benefits for the customers. Just consider the competition of UBER and GRAB in the South East Asia market.

Regardless of these changes, if you can understand your customers and deliver value, your chances are always there. Of course, there are examples of winners taking it all.

Ruhul: As we are discussing the future of marketing, I would like to ask you about the overall landscape of financial product marketing in Bangladesh. How do you see the space? You lead marketing and communication for the largest NBFI in the country, how does IDLC approach marketing and communication?

Romel: Bangladesh has made significant progress in financial inclusion over the last few years. At the end of 2013, only 20% of the Bangladeshi population had access to formal financial services, which has now increased to 48%. This is a significant increase. Mobile financial services are vital to this growth. Mobile financial services have a staggering transaction volume.

However, this is not enough. There must be an understanding of how these services are used. Whether people use these services merely to send and receive money or for more. Money is a complex and layered problem. When we are talking about money we are talking about financial planning, savings, credit, investment, and so much more. It involves thinking about the future, priorities, and dreams. We need to ask whether the growth has changed our saving habits, whether more people are investing in the stock market, and so on. We should consider the quality of financial inclusion.

I do not have data to support this point, but I think a part of the marketing communication strategy for these brands should revolve around changing behaviors and lives. Great products change how we behave. It goes without saying that financial products are great products. We have come a long way in terms of reaching out to a large number of people. However, there is still much more to be done. Financial literacy still needs improvement. The whole thing will be amplified if there is financial literacy in conjunction with financial product innovation and availability.

To that end, IDLC recently partnered with bKash to launch a digital savings product where bKash users can open DPS accounts with IDLC from anywhere in Bangladesh and start saving from as little as BDT 500. We have not started promoting the product to the masses yet. But we have received excellent responses from all over Bangladesh.

We are a purposeful brand. Before we do anything, we think it through from start to finish. The same is true of marketing. Each of our products has a purpose. Take our affordable home loan, for instance. This loan enables people to own homes.

Ruhul: There are several aspects to this. The first is access to specific financial services, such as deposits and loans. A second aspect is financial literacy. With that comes positive financial behaviors such as saving, investing in the right places, and so on. These things haven't happened as expected. Do you think financial companies could have done a better job here?

Romel: If we compare banks and financial institutions with MFS and telcos, they could have done more. Banks have now reached the most remote corners of the country with agent banking and similar tools. Nevertheless, there are still opportunities for growth. It has to happen across all levels. Of course, marketing is important. Strategic decisions must also be made at the same time. Marketing has a role to play. So does the product. So does the technology to scale up.

It is imperative that financial institutions invest in research. We don't know what we don't know. If we realize this, going to work becomes easier. It will change the industry if you go to your customers, understand them, and design products accordingly.

Ruhul: IDlC has an excellent reputation in the market. You are the largest NBFI in the country. What are some things you have done right in marketing and brand communication?

Romel: We are a purposeful brand. Before we do anything, we think it through from start to finish. The same is true of marketing. Each of our products has a purpose. Take our affordable home loan, for instance. This loan enables people to own homes. It doesn't matter if you're a nurse or a teacher or from any other profession. If you have some savings and a piece of land, if it is that you can own a home with some support — that's what our affordable home loan does for you. These are products with a purpose.

You can make videos or run campaigns, but every campaign must have a story, and customers must find it relatable. Our marketing initiatives around financial literacy, investment literacy, and other initiatives reflect this understanding of value. It is in our DNA. You can call it marketing or you can call it responsible communication strategy.

We don't just do things to generate buzz. We seek meaning.

In partnership with Prothom Alo, we launched the country's first SME award. The award is given in a way that is beneficial to SME entrepreneurs in the country. We didn't do it for publicity. Instead, we wanted to empower and inspire them. Our goal was to encourage a few more million SME entrepreneurs with the award. In designing the marketing strategy, we take this into account. No one in the private sector does this — SME Awards. We will continue this — SME Awards — next year. This is party marketing, party social responsibility, and partly an initiative to build the ecosystem. 

It is imperative that financial institutions invest in research. We don't know what we don't know. If we realize this, going to work becomes easier. It will change the industry if you go to your customers, understand them, and design products accordingly.

Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based writer, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and the author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about entrepreneurship, business, strategy, technology, and culture. He can be reached at [email protected]

In-depth business & tech coverage from Dhaka

Stories exclusively available at FS

About FS

Contact Us