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The future of brands is ‘building community': Monsurul Aziz, Head of Corporate Communication, Nagad

Monsurul Aziz heads Corporate Communication at Nagad, Bangladesh’s second-largest MFS player. In this candid conversation with Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader, Mr. Aziz shares his journey to what he is doing today, discusses the nature of market and organization, building future proof companies, change as the defining nature of our time, internet culture in Bangladesh, brands in the age of internet and social media, future of communication, cultural imperatives for building meaningful brands and the critical importance of community in the future of brand building and much more. The entire conversation is full of fascinating nuggets of insights. Enjoy! 

Ruhul Kader: Can we start with learning about yourself and your journey to what you are doing today? 

Monsurul Aziz: In my current profession, I work in corporate communication at a leading Fintech company in the country. If I look back, almost 15 years ago I studied this subject. I did my undergrad in business administration with a major in marketing. To that end, I'm lucky to have the opportunity to work in the field I studied. I consider myself fortunate because we live in a fast-changing world today. Things change and relevance is lost overnight. Despite the tremendous changes around us, I'm still working in a field that I studied almost 14 years ago. More so because when we look around most people don't work in the field they studied. Having said that, the fluidity and the current of change may be the call of today's time. But I still consider myself lucky. 

While I continue to work in the same field, I would not say that my journey to where I'm today was linear. When doing my internship, I met Shariful Islam of Bangladesh Brand Forum. At the time, he left his job as a senior brand manager at Unilever and was working on the brand forum idea with a vision to establish branding ethos and culture in Bangladesh. 

I was surprised to see him leave his job, which was what I ultimately wanted to be at that time—working as a brand manager at a reputed company. And here he was leaving it all to do something audacious. I was very awestruck, and very positively impacted by that man. So, instead of joining anywhere, I started my career at an unknown company which was the Bangladesh Brand Forum. But looking back, I think that was a good decision on my part. 

I had the opportunity to stay in touch with the knowledge culture around marketing and branding. It was a multidisciplinary environment where I had the opportunity to learn from diverse organizations and people. They also had a consulting business where they worked with leading organizations and I had the opportunity to get exposure to this part of the work. For instance, we did the research for the Bodle Jao Bodle Dao campaign of Prothom Alo in 2008. So I had an excellent opportunity to learn and grow. That decision, which I would say was a bit risky and probably was not hugely rewarding financially, allowed me to learn from people across sectors, and meet people who I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet including people like Philip Kotler. Career-wise and money-wise, it is a question mark whether I got the best, but I believe it benefited me immensely in terms of knowledge, growth, and connection. 

After the Brand Forum, I did interesting work in market research with two leading private banks for the next four years. My job was to move around Bangladesh and find the next possible branch location. It took me all across the country. I traveled extensively and visited the nook and corner of the country during those days. It helped me to develop a deep understanding of the local and regional economic realities of the country, economic realities, culture, people of the different regions, and so on. 

Banks operate in a different way where every branch of a bank has to be self-sustainable for banks to be sustainable. For a bank to make a profit overall, each branch has to be profitable at the micro-level. That’s why branch locations are so important for the banks. 

For a branch to be profitable, you have to understand the dynamics of loans, deposits, and all other different things such as where and how you will collect the deposits and give loans, how do you find and access these people, and where should you establish the branch so that it accessible to people, you have to understand all these different aspects. 

Doing that job, two things happened. I came to learn how different pockets of Bangladesh's economy work, and how the country functions economically and business-wise. 

After that, I worked at Robi Axiata where I finally worked as a Brand Manager in 2014. After Robi, with Saif Kamal bhai, we started Toru. I think you know a bit about Toru. At the beginning of Toru, we went to Chennai, India to an organization called Villgro, one of the largest social enterprise incubators in the world, where we received training on building an incubator. It was an interesting experience. We returned to Bangladesh and tried to implement it in Bangladesh. The efforts taught us how the Bangladesh market and Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are different from India. I learned some interesting things during this time. Accelerators across the world are quite similar. Founders come to accelerators with some half-baked ideas and accelerators help them to grow and scale. 

Since we borrowed the model from abroad, our challenges were different. The major challenge we realized was the quality of inputs. Since our young people are not essentially groomed at a similar level like India and other markets, it affected how they thought about ideas and startups. If you look around, our accelerator programs don't have much success yet. The main reason behind this is the quality of input. Unless you have excellent input, you will not have an excellent output. 

One thing I learned is that many of the ideas that come out of accelerator programs and that are raising money are unreal in the context of the market. The entrepreneur is thinking this is a great idea, is working abroad or it is a problem in my personal life, but the market does not agree. Since accelerator programs depend on the ideas of the founders, they are also struggling. I had a major lesson here. I still believe that Bangladeshi accelerator programs should support founders more in fine-tuning their ideas, and help identify and understand the problem. Instead of the current Silicon Valley model, a deeper co-creator model would have worked better in Bangladesh. This is my hypothesis and I might be wrong. But the success rate of our local accelerator programs suggests something is amiss and I think this is one of the reasons. 

Anyways, from Toru, we helped several startups for almost two years. Thankfully, some of those startups are doing pretty well today. 10 Minute School and ShopUp are two of the companies we worked with during those early days. Obviously, many of the companies we worked with failed. Success and failure always come hand in hand and failure is often a better teacher than success. 

From there I joined a fintech startup in January 2019. It was called Third Wave Technologies at the time. I knew that something like that was in the making but things were not yet shaped up accordingly at that time. On 26th March 2019, it finally launched. I joined as a Head of Brand. Later I led Brand and Marketing and currently I look after corporate communication. 

The last three years have been an exciting journey. We are the first company in Bangladesh to introduce the D-KYC. It was kind of a revolution although very few people talk about it. I believe this is one of the biggest contributions of Nagad. Until we introduced the D-KYC, you had to fill up a three-page form, attach photos, and so on to create a bank account or an MFS account or any account for that matter. We completely digitized that process as the first company in Bangladesh where you can create an account in our app. OCR reads your information from your NID, you can take a photo within the app and the data gets verified through the Bangladesh National ID information portal, in real-time and you have an account in a few minutes. This deserves attention because there was a time when this would have taken 10 days or one week to process. You would fill up the form in a retail point, it would then come to Dhaka, go through manual data entry, manual data verification, and so on. The entire thing would take 10 days. Errors were common. Checking data and NID was not an easy thing. People had multiple accounts against one NID. In some instances, 20-30 accounts against one NID. 

Since things are digital now, errors don’t happen anymore and verifications are super simple. People can now open accounts in real-time. The innovation has transformed the entire industry. Everyone in the industry including industry leaders and banks adopted it later on. 

One of the reasons Nagad exists is to improve the financial inclusion of Bangladeshi people. While doing all these things we came across a major challenge which I think we have solved as the only company in the world. People who have smartphones can open an account online but 60% of people in Bangladesh are feature phone users, how could they open an account? Nagad has solved this problem. The biometric registration of SIM cards has allowed telcos in the country to create a database of their users along with their NID and fingerprints. We came up with a brilliant idea to collaborate with telcos to empower feature phone users to create Nagad accounts from their feature phones if they want to. 

We then entered into a win-win partnership with all telcos. We told them if your customers give consent, then can you give us access to your database and we will help your users to create an MFS account based on that database. We also proposed, hypothetically speaking, that if it takes BDT 10 to create an account, I will give you five taka from that. That's how it is a win-win, which benefits all the parties involved. 

The first is the consent of the users. If you press *167# from your bar phone, your phone will ask you whether you want to give Nagad permission to access your data with your telecom operation. If you reply yes, it directs you to set a four digits pin, and you have a Nagad account. It was that simple to create a Nagad account from your feature phone. 

It was a huge leap forward for digital financial inclusion in the country. To give you an example of the impact, there was a time when 283,000 people opened Nagad accounts in a day. There was a time when every second 3 non-smartphone users opened Nagad accounts. That was a huge technological leapfrog and it also removed barriers for feature phone users in accessing financial services. 

Another major step forward was the digitization of government allowances. During the COVID when everything was shut down, we saw the benefit of digitizing government allowances. With all due respect, allowance disbursements were never 100% successful or transparent when it was done manually. If you wanted to give 100 people allowances, it rarely made it to 100 people. When the Government started to disburse through Nagad, we came to see that in almost 20% of cases people don't get the allowances for either the wrong phone number or NID number. We returned the money to the Government. If you compare this with past history this might sound like a failure of delivering 100% allowance! But the success is that for the first time the real people who gave the right phone number and details got the allowances. That's the benefit of transparency and digitization. The marginal population who are supposed to receive these government allowances are getting the money into their phone directly. In my opinion, this is huge progress. Since feature phone users have come under financial inclusion they are now being able to get the benefits. People who truly deserve the allowances are getting them. I believe these two things have made a tremendous impact. 

Ruhul: I have a few more questions about your work. Before we go there, you have this diverse experience, you have had the opportunity to experience and see things. Since you have this experience of seeing different pockets of the market in the country, and different types of organizations, how do these things function? How does the market function? What are some of the fundamental nature of the market in the context of Bangladesh? The same goes for the organization. How do large and small organizations function? Since you have also worked with startups. 

Monsurul Aziz: Over the years what I have seen about Bangladesh is that our market has been helping companies grow faster. This has resulted in an overall positive outcome from organizations across verticals. Many organizations have achieved greater success due to the organic growth of the market regardless of their real performance. What I wanted to mean is that had we used the same strategy in a different market, we would be less successful or we would not have equal success. 

One major reason for much of our success in this market is the nature of our market. In the last 14 years what I have observed is that Bangladesh is enjoying an excellent phase of natural market growth. As a result, many marketers like us and entrepreneurs have gotten lucky. This is my observation. I genuinely believe that we Bangladeshis have, in general, got a little lucky due to this extreme advantage of population dividend that we are having. 

In terms of economic growth, although not many people speak about this, Bangladesh outshines the world. If you look at the trajectory of the world's top economies, Bangladesh grew more than that. That's the whole point. It is like you have invested in the stock market when the market is going through a bull phase and whatever stock you pick, it is giving you a good return. If you evaluate based on this today, I might look like a shining star. But this is not going to go on forever. Many countries have enjoyed this phase and are now going through a dip, which will happen to us as well. That's when it will be the real test for our local organizations when the market does not extend that hand of natural growth. 

Are we ready for the time when things will be relatively difficult and the market will not be as bullish as it is now? Do we have skills? These are some of the things that we need to think about. We are enjoying the growth, which is good but are we ready for the difficult time when things will not be this easy to navigate. 

Ruhul: That's a very good insight. To add to that, do you see any pattern in how the market behaves over a period of time since you mentioned you have observed markets across Bangladesh? 

Monsurul Aziz: Everything in life is a rollercoaster journey. Whatever goes up will come down. So this economy will also behave accordingly. So when it is going to come down, are we prepared for that change? One of the things is that we are doing very well without much effort. We have issues with management, governance, product strategy, etc. We all hear about Japanese management and production strategies. Do we have a Bangladeshi management strategy? When you get good results without much effort, you don't put effort into building strong systems and instilling best practices. Because you are so overwhelmed by the success that you take things for granted and stop trying. That's where you create an inherent weakness and you will be paying for it when time gets tough. 

Now someone has to realize this and take measures to avoid this pitfall and prepare for the difficult time. This of course must come from the top management. The top management has to work to establish proper practices such as establishing an internal auditing system, proper management practices, training employees, etc. This readiness is necessary.

This is the other side of the coin of success that you get blind-sighted by your success. Very few people have this realization, to be honest. We are doing well but are we ready for the difficult times which will inevitably come. I think people should talk more about this. 

Ruhul: You head the corporate communication at Nagad. Can you briefly talk about what your work entails, how you approach your work, how the department functions, and so on? And also what entails corporate communication? And how do you approach communication? 

Monsurul Aziz: Nagad is a very fast-growing company. So many of the things don't go with strict definitions. We have organized things around our needs. If we broadly divide communication into two segments: branded communication where all communications come with a label of the brand. In the case of Nagad, it is Nagad communication. Then there is a non-branded space where communications are not essentially labeled but maintain a connection with the Nagad brand such as an influencer video, discussion outside Nagad owned or Nagad labeled spaces, etc. I and my team broadly look after the non-branded segment of the communication. 

Monsurul Aziz: We are currently a team of 10 people. 

Monsurul Aziz: I would talk about three things here. In today's world, you have to be flexible and fluid as a communicator. That's first. You can't be like, I will only do this, not that, etc. of course you should have certain ground rules and boundaries but you have to be fluid and fast. 

Second, you have to be relevant to all of your stakeholders. Your content communication has to be timely and relevant to your stakeholders. Relevance is quickly lost in today’s world. What is trending today quickly obscures tomorrow. This tango of relevance so it is not an easy feat to achieve for brands. 

Third, you have to constantly be in front of your users. You have to be in the spotlight. I think in today's world you must be in the spotlight. Because it is easy to forget things today. Communicators must understand how to stay relevant and in the spotlight so that people remember them. 

For instance, we are a financial product company but how is Nagad different from traditional banks as a brand? As a brand, our narrative is that we are a lifestyle brand. We are part of the lives of people and we are somewhat like a friend. We make your life easier by empowering you every time you need financial service. It is not enough that people think about Nagad when they are using Nagad but they should find us relevant when they are thinking about money in other areas of their life. 

Before brands used to have a place and boundary and you didn't jump that boundary. You operate within that boundary. But not any longer. Today, brands look to maintain a constant presence in the lives of their users and be part of their lifestyle. So at Nagad, we are a lifestyle brand. We talk and communicate that way and create content that connects us with the lifestyle of our customers. 

Monsurul Aziz
Monsurul Aziz

Ruhul: That's a fascinating observation. To that end, brand communication has transformed over the last decade under the pressure of the internet and changing technology. The rise of social media, platforms such as Facebook, and TikTok has transformed how people communicate and brands communicate. Once communication for brands was broadly one way. You speak with your audience through a TVC and you had the control over the message but that's no longer the case. Today, communication is often a complex domain. Brands no longer have equal control over the message. How do you see the evolving communication landscape and how do you navigate the complexity? 

Monsurul Aziz: The transformation that happened over the last two decades that you have rightly pointed out. There was a time when brands used to dictate communication—use this product, and your life will change. From there, it has transformed into something experiential. Today brands are an experiential platform where customers come and experience something with their skillset. 

Brands might create a platform for you. But brands don’t ask you to do anything. One example of this is the recently launched Coke Studio in Bangladesh. So the brand is creating that music experience platform for you. You come and enjoy it. To sing or listen, you don't need to drink Coke. You listen to music when you want to and it has nothing to do with drinking Coke. Before it was an advertisement where you have to drink coke to listen to a nice song. That's no longer the case. 

For Nagad, what we are trying to say is that we enable you to seize the financial opportunities in your life. Before if you needed cash to do something, you probably did not have access to the cash but now we enable you to access that cash. We don't change your life. You change your own life but we enable you to do so. 

Everyone today is a model, thanks to social media. It doesn't matter who the person is, we all are celebrities today. People feel that they are in the spotlight. Our job is to enable them. This is the call of the time. If you can't do this, you will be sidelined. People will not come to you. 

Ruhul: You mentioned Coke Studio, which is a good example. But is there a general framework for doing it? 

Monsurul Aziz: By creating experiential platforms for consumers. For instance, for Nagad, that experience is not only Uddokta or Agent points, it is everywhere. It can be a coffee shop or a retail store or any other place where you need to make a financial decision. Whenever there is a need for making financial decisions in your life, I empower you. You need to create that enabling environment for your consumers. And treat your customers as your friend. Not a boss who is dictating his decisions. Rather a friend who is bonded based on a common belief. For instance, you believe that financial opportunities can change your life and we believe that too. That common belief now establishes a relationship between us. Everyone needs to have the bonding of that belief. 

Ruhul: Since we are speaking about the brand, communication, and the internet. To that end, tell us about the internet culture in Bangladesh because it is relevant to our discussion of brand and communication. If we have any internet culture in Dhaka, you are an active contributor to it. What is your take on the internet culture of Bangladesh? We are talking about a lot of things here. The Internet is a fast-medium where things go from super trendy to irrelevance in mere hours. How do you see that? There is a lot of fluidity but it does not mean that there are no defining features of this culture. How do you see the internet culture of Bangladesh and what are the common features of that culture? Where do you see the culture is going? 

Monsurul Aziz: Of course, there are some common features. You need some sort of anchors. But the challenge for Bangladesh is that our own culture or our belief system, particularly on the internet, is not that strong. This is not a phenomenon of today but for many years this has been the case. When you have a strong cultural foundation, it steadies you. Your behavior maintains an underlying unity. Otherwise, you are constantly looking for new trends and jumping from one trend to another. You are reacting to things as they come. For instance, probably some dance move is popular on TikTok, everyone tries to do that dance move without realizing what it entails. I'm not implying it is something objectionable but I'm saying it shows you don't have an anchor and you lack consistency. 

When your foundation is weak, you are easy to sway. This is also a challenge for the brand marketer because I can't stay steady when my audience is constantly in flux. There is a flip side to this as well. As a local brand, how strongly can you establish yourself as a representative of your local culture and heritage? The market is now quite open and tomorrow a foreign brand can come and change everything and you can’t differentiate yourself if you don't have your roots. 

Since our cultural foundation is weak and we have a colonial past, it has an impact on our internet culture as well. At the end of the day, brands are about psychology. It affects consumer behavior and it affects how brands and businesses operate. Since people change their tastes, you have to change your strategy as a brand. It affects loyalty, focus, and everything in between. 

The question arises how do brands respond to this apparent rootlessness. As a brand, your first challenge is to stay relevant in the market and at the same time, slowly build consistency and a common thread so that you can establish yourself as a local thought leader and build strong differentiation. 

Ruhul: The Internet has these interesting characteristics. One such character is that it is a medium of extreme. It is an impatient medium. Subtlety is often lost in translation. Things are either good or bad. There is nothing in between. Since people today spend a good number of hours every day online, how do you see these things are affecting and manifesting in our personal and public life? 

Monsurul Aziz: I don’t think brands should take the responsibility of going deeper into moral questions. Because often you can't change it as a brand. More importantly, you are a server. Yes, there are exceptions and there are questions of philosophical and value alignments. But in the general sense of the idea, brands should not take on that responsibility. 

Ruhul: Does it mean brands should not take any stand per se? For example, there are certain trends going on at this moment that are questionable but somehow trending, should brands take advantage of them? 

Monsurul Aziz: The question is what kind of brand you are. What I'm trying to relay is that for brands establishing a whole cultural foundation or influencing a prevailing one is a bit difficult. Popular culture is popular culture because it goes along with the demands of the market. Since brands have a friendly relationship with their audience and it is imperative for them to stay relevant, it is important that brands participate in the trends that their audiences like unless it violates some of its fundamental values and principles. Honestly speaking, in today's world the boundary is a bit shaky for brands. 

Ruhul: Are there any defining features of internet culture? 

Monsurul Aziz: I think speed is a defining feature. Everything is super fast. Trends come and go. 

Every medium has a lingo and you have to understand and use it as such. Every platform has its own lingo. TikTok is not Facebook. LinkedIn is not Twitter and so on. You have to understand these dynamics and play accordingly. 

The best approach is to treat your audience as your friends so that you have a common ground with moral boundaries that solidifies your bonding. Hypothetically speaking, friendship happens based on common beliefs and common goals. Once we have a friendship, we do a lot of things together. Once you do that it gets easier to navigate the relationship. You become more understanding of the needs of your customers and play accordingly. It also means you share and play along with each other. You do things together and invite each other into your home, your comfort zone. Things are so fluid these days, that it is challenging to navigate and stay relevant if you don't take such an approach. 

The other thing that people don't talk about much is that the internet generation does not value legacy as much as we used to or the previous generation used to. They don't value legacy. If you say I'm a 100 years old brand and I will do this. They don't care. Okay, you are a 150 years old brand Coke but you sell sugary drinks. Do you remember the incident where Footballer Ronaldo removed a bottle from his table and so on? This generation is asking the question right now, okay you have been around for 150 years and I saw my parents used to serve Coke on occasions but I would not do that because you are a sugar drink. If I drink something not healthy, I would take an energy drink or I would drink juice if I want to have something good. 

I think we are the last generation that thought tradition or legacy should have something to do with our decision. We did things because our parents and seniors did them. My parents used to go shopping, I would do the same. But this generation is like why to go shopping, I will order online instead. See these are the differences. That's why building on legacy is quite a challenge these days. 

Instead, you should be a friend who is relevant and constantly moving with the customers. As a brand manager, you have to create some boundaries because you create boundaries with your friends as well. That's where brands have a role to play. The days when people used to do things because their parents did them are gone. 

Ruhul: These are interesting observations. What are the forces causing this shift? 

Monsurul Aziz: Power. Access to mobile, internet, and financial empowerment has allowed this generation a kind of power that the previous generation did not know existed. The previous generation did not have this power. Our power was with the people around us. As a result, we had to obey them and we found out that obeying them and being like them was the best way to move ahead. Today, it is different. Your power is in your hand. If you move out of your home today, you exactly know where to go. In Bengali, there is a proverb that says the difference between a tiger and a goat is the chedon dontho (incisor teeth), the two teeth which help tigers to pull the meat off of bones. Goats do not have incisor teeth, so they can't bite you and get your meat. But tigers can. That's why Tiger is tiger and goat remains goat. Truly, this device has become the chedon teeth (incisor teeth) of today's generation. They don't care about anything. This was not the case for the previous generation. They could not go out of the house in the middle of the night because they did not know where to go. 

Ruhul: Since we are speaking about power. Do you see overuse or misuse of that power as well? It is both on the side of brands and users, the tendency has become to do everything more, consume more, act more, and so on? How do you see that?

Monsurul Aziz: The question is about the sustainability of everything and I don't have an opinion about it. Is it healthy or the right way? Maybe not. Because our consumption has accelerated over the years. Time is of course a factor here. But still, we have probably consumed more in the last fifty years compared to the previous two-three hundred years. Now it begs the question of whether this is the right growth or the right kind of consumption. Am I getting too busy to die or am I becoming busy to thrive? I don't have an opinion let alone an answer to that. But it worries me. I'm excited and worried. I'm not excited because amazing things are happening but worried as well about whether my children will live in a healthy ecosystem. 

Ruhul: I understand, many people don't even consider this as a valid question. 

Monsurul Aziz: Yes. Because we are not able to realize it. We are so occupied with the pleasures and struggles of our daily life. Everyone has struggles. Our life has become short-term oriented and we are living day to day. We are relieved if we can pass one more day. So we seldom get to spend time considering the long-term consequences of our actions. Whether things are sustainable or not. That's something that worries me a bit. 

Ruhul: How do you navigate that because there is a subtle conflict there as well because you have to reconcile between consumerism and all kinds of things and at the same time you are somehow a participant and actor in this trajectory as a brand? 

Monsurul Aziz: The answer to this is probably creating a community. If you can build a community based on certain common beliefs, you can address some of these challenges. One example in this regard is Apple. It is a community of people who believe in a common philosophy. They behave differently. While everyone is flexible with privacy, they took a strong position on it. There are many other similar examples. 

In the future, brands need to behave like this. With a common belief system, we become a community and we trust each other. There is a common value system. For brands, I think the future is a community where you grow together. 

Ruhul: One theme in our discussion today is fluidity and change and similarly, you work in an industry where change is constant. How do you future-proof yourself as a brand in a rapidly changing world? 

4C of future proofing
4C of future-proofing

Monsurul Aziz: One thing we have gotten right is that change is constant but what most of us have gotten wrong is the speed of that change. Since everything changes super fast, it means the future is unpredictable. In times of uncertainty, you need to do certain things to navigate and survive and possibly thrive. 

One, we have to have a common purpose or cause which binds us as a community. Constant connectivity with your users and with your backward and forward linkage. COVID has taught us that without fluidity in the supply chain survival is a challenge. It applies to communication and distribution as well. 

The third is capacity building in terms of knowledge and technology. You have to continuously evolve in this regard. So that we have the capacity such as skills, tech, and financial strength to navigate the change. 

Finally, culture. You have to have a culture that understands the reality of the market and can adapt to changes. And it needs to come from the senior leadership and the senior leadership works to instill the cultural imperatives in the organization to navigate the changes. 

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