Shalini Raghavan is a confident, secure and articulate marketer who can keep track of convoluted, multi-part questions and respond to each bit in a systematic, organised way. I spent over an hour with her in a hot, AC-less cabin at her Mumbai office, where we discussed the challenges faced by a cosmetics marketer in the era of the selfie and alarmingly acceptable levels self-adulation.
Shalini joined L'Oréal India as chief marketing officer of the consumer products division last year. Brands she is responsible for include L'Oréal Paris, Garnier, Maybelline New York and NYX Professional Makeup.
Head-quartered in Clichy, France, L'Oréal (a 108-year-old company) has been present in India for over two decades. India is a key market for the company, given its growing appetite for beauty products, especially those available in smaller packs and sachets.
Before joining L'Oréal India, Shalini spent 13 years at Hindustan Unilever, where, in her most recent role, she was in-charge of Dove across all Asian and African markets. Other brands she has worked closely on at HUL include Lakme, Lux and Pureit, among others. Before HUL, Shalini spent two years at Britannia.
Within a month, her 'Social Command Centre' will be ready. It's a room where real-time consumer and influencer feedback across social platforms will be tracked, analysed and used in business conversations.
The way the company structures its marketing teams is interesting - every team has a digital manager who partners the brand manager. These digital managers work with the e-comm team, manage digital plans, manage digital influencers and execute brand messaging online.
We spoke to the woman at the helm of it all.
The first few months were spent re-setting and altering some of our strategic priorities and investments as we look forward to the next four years and making sure our plans over the next 12-18 months are aligned to that. We also spent time understanding how to culturally alter the teams; this part takes the longest.
So for me it's been about taking stock. For my team it's been about re-winding and pausing. And we did all of this in a difficult year. By the time I came in, in July, it was already a difficult time in terms of sales, growth, investment and depressed consumer buying. And November (demonetisation) didn't help. It wasn't an easy year for anyone.
The people and the passion they have for the business are very similar across the two, but fundamentally, in India, yes, HUL is very process-driven. At L'Oréal, we use our instinct and gut a lot more. L'Oréal is far less process-oriented. That's good because it allows you to be more entrepreneurial and responsive.
But now, at L'Oréal, it's also about respecting data, consumer analytics and consumer research. A big ask today is consumer centricity, something I bring in. So putting all of it together has been interesting for me.
Data is in everything we do. Whether it is market share numbers, sales numbers or quantitative consumer research - that is, product testing, price testing or advertising testing - it's all data. So every decision we make is informed by data. When you have data points you use them to connect the dots. Over and above that you use your experience and intuition to come to a decision.
At L'Oréal, testing of advertising is a new thing. It's not something we did, say, five years ago. You're putting lots of bucks behind advertising and media so you need to know whether it's doing its job, that is, persuasion or engagement.
What we're becoming better at here is the timing. From testing advertising after it's already on air, it's now more about pre-testing. So now we test ads before we invest in them. Testing is done before we even shoot a film.
As far as the deployment of creative content goes, the consumer isn't thinking 'TV, digital, print'. So fundamentally, a 'TV plus...' kind of thinking is not the right way to go about it. Each medium plays a different role, for different product categories.
For makeup, yes, the moment of truth, in a country like India, is the touch and feel of it. For this segment, there's still an 'awareness job' to be done. There needs to be more 'mental reach' as we call it. But a more evolved beauty consumer is happy to go online and buy the product without needing access to it first.
Even within makeup, media choices would depend on the kind of product. For our L'Oréal Paris Gold collection, we had digital influencers talk about what gold obsession means to them; that content was right for that product. But when it comes to our regular matte lipsticks, it's more about what we do at the point-of-sale. For something like Baby Lips (lip balm) or Colossal (kajal), mass advertising becomes important because people don't need to be educated about these products; they just need to be reminded again and again.
Broadly, yes, for makeup, but not for say, hair care. In the hair care segment, it's a share-of-voice game on television. All shampoos and conditioners talk about damage, dryness and hair fall, so it's really about being top-of-mind.
It also depends on what the job is. For instance, for one of our launches last year, Garnier Ultra Blends, what we did in-store played a big role. So even for just a shampoo and conditioner, point-of-sale, if seen as media, can be a big disruptor. For this range, in modern trade, we saw a big step-up in sales, even before we did any advertising. This was by virtue of showcasing the product in a sensorial, beautiful manner. We were disruptive in a category that otherwise follows television norms.
All I can say is - it is substantial. On some of our brands, we're doubling our digital spend year-on-year. For L'Oréal Paris makeup our advertising spend has moved completely to digital. We also do some outdoor advertising which is linked to point-of-sale, like mall facades, etc. For this brand we have enough of a base on digital; we don't really need to be present outside of digital to target our consumer.
It's growing... it's doubling, even quadrupling, every year. Also, for our partners - like Nykaa and Amazon - the beauty category has been growing exponentially. Consumers who are already on that curve, of buying more than travel (tickets, bookings) and books online, are now looking to buy beauty products online.
With makeup, when it comes to buying online, it's easy to buy what one already uses. So buying your everyday lipstick or a kajal online is a no-brainer. That's why we launched a Maybelline range last year called Fit Me. We put in the colour wheel and drove a lot of education online to help people find the right shade. It did very well with respect to driving conversions to sale.
Our Make Up Genius app actually lets girls see what a colour will look like on them (like trying on makeup, virtually) and then move to an e-comm platform to buy. So taking the in-store 'beauty advisor experience' online is the way forward.
For the beauty segment, the belly of the market in India still is still very much about the 'aspirant consumer'. She's aspiring for beauty and is still tentatively entering the category, with just two to three products.
We talk to the beauty enthusiast - she's a college girl or a young working woman, who is interested in the segment, has the spending power and the exposure, and is keen to consume YouTube videos on makeup and go to a store and try out a lot of things. She'll try ten things and may be buy one product. Or she may buy more than she uses. But she knows a lot; she's the consumer who goes to the store and says 'V-face contouring chahiye'. The job to be done here is - expanding her basket.
Then there's the beauty junkie - she's a makeup aficionado, knows a lot about brands, she follows beauty bloggers and Vloggers, she doesn't need to see and feel the product before buying and is willing to experiment with her look.
In India, the entry level consumer is the 15-18-year-old who gets the 'licence' to wear makeup when she enters college with something like a lip balm and kajal; that's how they enter the category. Then she upgrades to her first lipstick and a compact. As a company, we're clear about wanting to catch them young. In developed countries, girls wear make up at 10-11-12 years.
We talk to all these types of consumers with different brands and within those brands with different portfolios.
Geographically, the propensity to invest in makeup and grooming is much higher in the North and the East. Categories like makeup are linked with occasions, so Karva Chauth in the North and Pujo in the East are huge opportunities to build the brand. On such occasions women actually go out and spend on themselves, something that's traditionally seen as indulgence.
At the end of the day, the office going consumer or college-goer with a lot of pocket money, who consumes a lot of digital content, is still a small percentage.
Today, the consumer's first response is to question and second guess. She's no longer in a place where she's in awe of either a product or a celebrity. She has so many everyday influencers - online, in her own circles, among her friends, friends of friends... as a brand, finding your role amidst all this is a challenge. Today, it can't just be about getting the TVC right, or getting one digital campaign right.
Then there's the point of ROI. It's something that has always troubled marketers and in these inflationary, competitive times, the return on your marketing investment is a question that comes back to you. There's much more to spread it (marketing budget) on today. Life was simpler earlier.
Measurement is another question. Almost everything we do online is precision targetting, but things are still not as clear with respect to the effectiveness, returns and impact of these efforts. So while we are ahead of the curve in terms of our investments, we can't attribute anything directly to it.
Also, you don't control 70 per cent of what's said about your brand anymore.
I think they struggle with being disruptive often enough. They tend to conform to what has been done before, especially in the case of brands that have a lot of legacy. Part of the problem is them and part of the problem is us. Very few clients are willing to take risks. But when pushed, with the right stoking, they do come up with good ideas. Over the past eight to nine years, agencies have come some way in being able to push back, ask the right questions and challenge the client in terms of clarity on creative briefs.
The second problem is - there is territorialism among the agencies on a brand. Agencies work in silos; there's a digital agency, a media agency, a creative agency, etc., and they are all territorial about 'It's my idea', 'They took my idea', 'Whose idea is it?' versus saying 'What's the job to be done on the brand?' They're still a little grudging. The digital agency may have an idea but the creative agency might not want to execute it... they'll have their own idea. That part is a bit of a struggle.
(This interview was first published in our fortnightly magazine afaqs! Reporter on April 15, 2017)
A Note From the Editor
"Last year, when Shalini Raghavan moved from Hindustan Unilever, where she managed the Dove master-brand across Asian and African markets, and joined L'Oréal India to take charge of the consumer products division, we carried a basic 'movement story' on afaqs.com.
That article has since received a surprising, almost shocking, number of views and has clocked over a 1,000 shares. Turns out, Shalini is a person of interest in the Indian marketing and advertising fraternity. So we at afaqs! Reporter took a data-led decision to get to know Shalini and her brand of leadership a little better.
Shalini is a confident and articulate marketer. After my hour-long interview with her, she gave me a tour of her 'Social Command Centre', a room with screens for walls, where real-time conversations about her brands - L'Oréal Paris, Garnier, Maybelline New York and NYX Professional Makeup - are tracked and studied. The last time I was in a room like this was at Nestlé's Gurgaon office, where I interviewed Chandrasekar Radhakrishnan, head of communications and eCommerce, Nestlé India, earlier this year.
One of the first things I asked Shalini, who has spent 13 years at HUL, is whether she shed the proverbial 'Unilever cloak' when she became part of the L'Oréal system. She admitted that HUL in India is very process-oriented and that her marketing decisions at L'Oréal, though guided by consumer data points, are a lot more gut-driven.
Another candid answer she gave me was in response to a question about her agency partners and the things they struggle with. Shalini, who is very involved in the agency and briefing side of things, feels creative folk tend to be a touch too territorial about their ideas.
Intriguingly, this resonates with what Nadia Chauhan, marketing head of Frooti, said to me last week - "Most agencies in India have a very 'protective' system. They don't like collaborating with too much talent. It's all about 'It's my idea'."