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Profile: Sanjay Behl -- The chaos-seeker on the go

By Sapna Nair , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | July 09, 2009
Learning consumer insights in toilets worldwide

Sharp, articulate and a 'chaos-seeker' on-the-go -- that's Sanjay Behl - group head, brand and marketing, Reliance Communications and chief executive officer, Big TV. It's been two months since Behl took over at Big TV and he's hardly had the time to admire the lake that faces his office. afaqs! caught up with Behl at the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City in Navi Mumbai.

Behl, an MBA in marketing from Sydenham College, Mumbai, attended schools in almost all parts of the country, as his father was in the Indian Air Force. He passed out in 1990 as an engineer from Institute of Technology, Benaras Hindu University (ITBH) to join Ranbaxy (production supervisor for antibiotics on the shop floor) before moving to Mumbai for a management degree.

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After completing his MBA, he joined HLL in 1993, as a management trainee in the sales and marketing function.

Behl's first four years in HLL were spent selling soaps and detergents in Maharashtra. He then went on to become the brand manager for several categories, beginning with the dish wash category (which later became home care category), with Vim as the major brand.

"Vim was the second-oldest brand at HLL and it needed a radical paradigm shift to grow, because in large parts of the country, people were still washing utensils with ash and detergent powders and cleaning floors with phenyl," Behl reminisces. This was between 1998 and 2001.

Two of the first six months in the job were spent in travelling to rural markets. Behl stayed in villages and washed utensils to understand the state of mind of consumers when they do the chores and how they evaluate a product. "I think I have visited the most number of toilets, not just in India, but in many other countries. It was a huge learning experience," he recalls.

Behl decided to tackle the challenge by redefining opportunity. "We turned every household into an opportunity," he states.

According to Behl, customer insights in any part of the world are common, although the economic contexts may be different. There is great similarity in the way consumers over the world evaluate a product or a proposition; the difference is the socio-cultural context.

For instance, cleanliness, for a consumer in the US, could mean a nice-smelling toilet or a spotlessly clean floor; while In India, it could mean germ-kill, dirt-removal and hygiene. Behl states that consumer insight is like an onion -- the more layers you peel off, the more you can see.

Behl's travel plans were a bit different from that of normal brand managers. Each of his trips always included the creative and research people, "because, ultimately, it has to result in effective communication".

All the efforts were crowned with due success. For instance, the 'Vim Bar challenge' won an Abby in 1999. It transformed the category, which was stuck at a turnover of around Rs 80 crore, to Rs 300 crore in three years and also doubled the market share from 35 per cent to 70 per cent.

Appreciation also came for Behl when HLL's Indian home care business recorded the highest revenue growth and profitability in any category in over 200 countries where Unilever was present.

Behl was then given the mandate of heading the marketing for the laundry portfolio, looking after brands like Surf, Rin, Ala and 501. "I learnt how to handle large brands and how to arrest decline and convert it into growth; how to balance the portfolio of investments between quality, pricing and promotions for an established category like laundry," he explains.

After 10 years in HLL, Behl joined Nokia as head of marketing. At that time, telecom was on the verge of a boom. He moved from Mumbai to Delhi, and was among the first few team members at Nokia, setting up the office and hiring personnel.

He also did something "rebellious". "We decided that our communication will be devised here in India and not follow the global trend," he recalls. What came out were seven Indian ads, including the iconic 'Made for India' and 'Har Jeb Mein Rang' campaigns. "The Indian market needed local contextualization of communication," he explains.

It helped. Behl declares that the brand grew from a less than 50 per cent market share to capture up to 80 per cent share. Brand preference rose from 55 per cent to 90 per cent in the two years that he was at the helm.

Another concept that he devised during his stint was branded retail via Nokia Priority dealers. More than 25 per cent of Nokia's sales take place through this chain today.

Behl states that there were two reasons for setting up the retail chain. First, customers were not sure whether they were getting genuine Nokia products and wanted an assurance from the company -- or the dealer -- even if there was a premium to pay. Second, it was important that the customer got to touch and experience the product. Behl oversaw the opening of 700 such outlets.

Then came a meeting over lunch with Anil Ambani in 2005 and he soon joined the team as the brand and marketing custodian of the Group, largely looking at telecom. "My initial mandate at the group level was to oversee the new corporate identity of the group and the transition to ADAG," he says.

It led to changes, such as those in name -- from Infocomm to Reliance Communication -- and using a monolithic architecture, whereby all brands have the prefix, 'Reliance', while the suffix would always be simplest denominator, whether mobile or mutual funds. All entertainment brands later came to have the prefix, 'Big' (Big TV and Big Cinemas).

Two months ago, Behl was assigned the additional role of looking after the operations of Reliance's DTH and IPTV operations as its CEO. DTH, he says, was the obvious platform for Reliance to venture into, given its huge telecom play and forays in entertainment. He is of the opinion that India, which has six DTH players, has the potential to be the highest pay television market in the world.

"We are talking about 60 per cent television penetration in the country today, with about 530 million households. On an average, TV consumption is about two-and-a-half hours," Behl adds, who is all set to latch on to this bout of growth.

2009 afaqs!

(Profile is a regular column, which peeps into the career path of senior advertising, media and marketing professionals, who are currently in the news.)