Ashwini Gangal

"Outdoor is an under-leveraged medium; e-commerce segment uses it well": Vani Gupta

An interview with Vani Gupta, outgoing marketing director - Indian Snacks, Foods, PepsiCo India.

Surely a seasoned marketer, who has worked across companies like RB (Reckitt Benckiser), Unilever and PepsiCo, holds a few advertising briefs close to her heart; Vani Gupta, outgoing marketing director - Indian Snacks, Foods, PepsiCo India, who has around 20 years of industry experience, spoke to us about her favourites. She also spoke about Kurkure, the Rs.1,000 crore brand she led at PepsiCo.

Edited Excerpts

Tell me about three creative briefs you wrote and are most proud of...

So let me start from my Reckitt days. This was in 2004-05, around the launch of Veet, a depilatory cream. Back then, everything about that category was very defensive. It was in the 'embarrassment zone', and was treated like a sanitary napkin; the product would be packed in a black plastic bag and handed over discreetly. Our intent was to turn it into a 'flaunt' category and move the product from the bottom shelf of the bathroom to the dressing table. The brief to the advertising agency (JWT) was exactly that. And that's why the advertising was high on sex appeal. We got Katrina Kaif on board.

We also wanted to premiumise the category. We were launching Veet at one and a half times the price of the then category leader...

... Anne French?

Yes, it had about 85-90 per cent market share at the time. In a year, we beat them down to half their earlier market share. That was a huge win for us, because the global team had a different view on strategy, more specifically the market segment we were going after.

Why so?

Because globally, Veet was positioned as anti-razor. This was the first time we went anti-cream.

The anti-razor market, we found, was very limited, as the usage of razors was relegated to the bikini line and underarms. Hair removal on the arms and legs was where the money was. So our ad, with focus on the arms and legs, and all the skin show, was considered risqué at the time. But I feel proud that we were able to stand up to the global team and take on creams. This became a success model, a blueprint of sorts, for all our emerging markets - for packaging, pricing, merchandising, in-store display, sales girl education, leaflets, etc.

That's lovely. Now tell me about your most memorable brief at Unilever. You were based in Bangkok for 3.5 years...

At Unilever, I launched a range of hair care products for coloured hair, for Sunsilk. Quite unlike markets such as Singapore, in most of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines and Indonesia, this segment was small. It was big only for black colour - which means, all the colouring was happening for 'defensive' reasons or grey coverage. Not much of the colouring was in the fashion zone, which is what we were interested in. The psychology around both types of colouring is very different. So the brief was - to use this hair care range to get consumers to make the journey from the defensive to the fashion stance.

We couldn't do multiple advertising copies for different countries. The challenge was deciding whether to develop a copy for grey coverage or a copy for fashion. We had an intense debate about it. We made one copy (JWT) focused on our lead colour burgundy; it was all about celebrating hair colour. But because there was resistance from the marketing directors from the countries that drove volumes from black hair colour, we were forced to come up with a second advertising copy for this segment of consumers. But we did it with a twist - we created an ad that celebrated the fashion aspect of black hair colour.

Interesting. Now, on to snacks - tell me about your favourite brief at PepsiCo...

This was around the time we launched Kurkure Puffed, in 2012. It was a very difficult launch because a large part of this pellet-based snacks market is unorganised and has very thin profit margins. Many local players manufacture puffed snacks on a small scale and sell their packets within a small radius. This market was growing fast and we were losing market share. Also, all these players put a toy in the bag.

That's when we wrote a specific product brief - the product itself would have 'play values'. Our proposition was 'Khelo Khalo'. I loved the process of creating that brief because the advertising brief (JWT) and the product creation went hand in hand in this case.

The unorganised market, I gather, is only one source of competition for you. The other two are rival brands from the organised segment and local brands that are strong in specific regions. How do you tackle all three?

The unorganised market continues to grow, but we cannot play that game. Many retailers are willing to trade the quality credentials of a brand like Kurkure for a cheaper brand that will give them higher trade margins. Many consumers also make a similar trade-off and pick up a product with a bigger, shinier pack. There's no point fighting that mindset.

Kurkure, being the archetypal Indian snacking brand, is equipped to take on regional players, by addressing local preferences and palates.

So is it fair to assume advertising is your weapon of choice when fighting large rival brands... and that it's more of a distribution game when tackling regional players?

Not necessarily. Even while fighting large national brands, it's not just about advertising. If I don't put any money on air but make sure I'm available in every shop in the country, I have enough residual equity to double my sales tomorrow. I don't have an issue with consumers not recognising my brand.

Don't forget that getting to the outlet is also a challenge. After all, the retailer should want to stock my product. For this, one has to crack the right trade rates. Every retailer has to pick between strong brands that give them lower margins and weak brands that offer more profitability per packet sold.

Yes, advertising plays a role here: If I can reach a shop but don't see enough off-take velocity because consumer preference is weak, I'll end up picking up expired stock from that shop. And if I can't reach a shop where there is consumer preference for my brand, it's an opportunity lost. So distribution and advertising go hand in hand. There has to be consumer pull for your brand... your distribution machinery then feeds that pull.

Kurkure is a family brand, sure, but which member does it enter the family through? The millennial? The 'woman of the house'?

There is a difference between the consumption TG and the TG we advertise to. In terms of the consumption TG, Kurkure is pretty much everybody's brand. But yes, for the purpose of communication, our TG is the 'woman of the house' because the housewife is the gate-keeper who decides what comes into the house.

On the media front, what role does TV play for Kurkure, vis-à-vis other platforms?

TV is still the primary medium and will probably continue to remain so.

There are large geographies in India that are media dark. We are spending a substantial amount of money on boosting reach in these areas with the mobile. Our mobile spends have increased significantly in markets like Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and Eastern UP.

Not just mobile... we're also spending on other interesting platforms. For example, we're investing in 'media' like theatre and music in the North East to carry the Kurkure message to audiences there.

Outdoor, in my view, has been under-leveraged. The e-commerce segment uses it well. We're investing a lot in wall paintings in rural areas; they stay on for a long time. If I didn't need to advertise on TV, I'd spend all my media money on mobile and outdoor.

Where does that leave print?

Print is effective when we need to make an announcement, talk about a new launch or a limited offer promotion like an e-commerce deal. But otherwise, for an impulse brand like Kurkure, an 'involved' medium like print works inefficiently. So we don't spend too much on print.