Suraj Ramnath

"No one would have expected a brand like Paytm to become a huge threat to conventional banks": Dinesh Menon, CMO, SBI

An interview with SBI's first-ever chief marketing officer, Dinesh Menon on the brand's challenges, the changing BFSI space and competition from fintech brands.

The State Bank of India (SBI), which has 41 crore customers across 22,600 branches in India with a total deposit base of Rs 26, 51,240 crore (as of December 2017) had no marketing team or a role of chief marketing officer until February 2016, 60 years after it was nationalised. In March 2016, the bank decided to have a marketing team and appointed Dinesh Menon as CMO. Industry insiders estimate that SBI will spend around Rs 100 crore across television, print and digital advertising in 2018.

Menon started his career as account supervisor with JWT in 1998. Two years later, he moved from JWT to Lowe Lintas & Partners where he worked for three years as senior brand services and director. He got to work on some "really exciting brands like Thums Up". He also worked on accounts such as Star TV, HUL, HSBC, and Standard Chartered as well; the last two of which got him interested in financial services. From Lowe Lintas, Menon moved to American Express in July 2003, as head of marketing. In September 2005, he was promoted to business head - platinum cards.

In February 2006, Menon moved to Bharti AXA Life Insurance as vice president - marketing and communications. In 2008, Menon joined the National Bank of Oman as head - marketing and worked with the bank for two years. From March 2012 till February 2016, he worked as an advisor and during that period, in January 2014 to October 2015, Menon became the founder director of PowerEd Technologies, a venture in the area of closed loop payments, digital data management and asset tracking for academic institutions.

Isn't it quite remarkable that a professional who has spent his career in creative agencies and private sector companies went on to join a government-owned corporation? In this interview, Menon answers that question and also talks about the challenges he faced when he joined SBI, how he overcame them, the challenges that he sees in the future and more...

Edited Excerpts

What were the challenges you faced when you joined SBI and how has it changed in the past two years?

I had never worked in a PSU. So, I knew it was going to be a different canvas altogether. I came with my eyes open and ready for all scenarios. I was pleasantly surprised with the way SBI works. People think it is a staid government bank just because the government has a share in it. A lot of people in our bank are from management campuses and are young. When I discovered the sheer range of digital products we have developed, I didn't know that SBI could do all these things. So that gave me a lot of confidence in the very first month itself. Each and every senior manager I interacted with was and continues to be, open to change and progress.

The challenge I faced was how to bring in changes which are good for the bank. I had all the support - from the chairman downwards - to introduce changes to make SBI a better brand. It takes time because there is a lot of process involved, which is nimbler in the private sector. In the public sector, we have to follow documentation and processes. It makes it stronger but takes a lot more time. That was my challenge.

When you say it takes time in the private sector you can just call for a creative/ media pitch, but in a PSU, you have to float a tender?

Yes, we have to make a public announcement that we are going for a tender and we cannot use our discretion on our judgement because of the Central Vigilance Commission. A lot of people can create trouble so, we follow the process. That's the big difference.

As CMO, what are the changes you want to bring in?

Today, a CMO's job is not the same as it was five years ago. It is a different ballgame largely because of digital technologies. Today, consumers are more in power while earlier, brands were in the driver's seat. A brand cannot afford to slip-up. The acid test is how much a consumer is willing to forgive you for a slip-up. People, especially in India, vent more than they compliment.

It is not easy to have a standardised experience across 22,600 branches and different touchpoints. Our endeavour is to ensure that we try and up the customer service. So, from a brand experience perspective, those efforts are on. It is utopia actually and we can never see that happening even in a smaller scale bank like an HDFC or another bank - things are not perfect.

My mandate from a marketing perspective is how to get brand SBI to stay relevant with all the audiences at all points in time. The language and conversation that we should be having with different consumers is the most important. The storytelling has to be important to all these segments and they have to be on all media, more on digital. One measure of success is going to be how much SBI is considered as a preferred banking choice across all age groups.

The next step is that much of the word-of-mouth we generate should come out of brand experiences. When I am talking about experiences, I am talking about digital products that we deliver at all touchpoints. Only communication can't deliver that. It has to go hand-in-hand with on-ground services. We will be measured by brand recall, but that is not a challenge because we are visible - it will be more about how much are we being considered when it comes to SBI being chosen as a bank.

We can't be a preferred bank only when demonetisation happens. We should be a consumer's preferred choice without that. We were the only bank in the segment that serviced an entire segment of customers, but when things get back to normal, we should not fall out of their choice.

Who are your major competitors?

Any fintech brand that is biting into our space. They are taking away our market share. Tomorrow, any of these fintech brands can become a full-fledged universal bank. That's a big threat when I talk about Gen Y, who are digital natives.

Then you have conventional banks and peers from the private sector who are doing a lot more to make sure they don't lose market share. So, I would say all of them are competition, but talking about Gen Y, I would say fintech companies.

The BFSI (Banking, Financial Services and Insurance) landscape has undergone a lot of changes in the last five years. No one would have expected a brand like Paytm to become a huge threat which of course, the conventional banks have realised now.

Each and every traditional bank is taking steps to tackle this scenario. You can't keep quiet just because you are large. In our case, having 22,600 branches doesn't mean we shouldn't be competitive.

Very soon, with internet penetration, fintech companies will not need branches and that would be their strength. It will not be just Gen X or Gen Y or digital natives - even the middle and older age segment will have gone digital.

If SBI won't play the catch-up game with Gen Y, it will not be a brand of choice. How we become relevant to them is a big opportunity for us. We have done a lot of things which most banks have not done and people are not aware. Yono, a lifestyle and banking app, is the latest offering from our stable and is meant to target Gen Y because India is a young country and all the business comes from this primary segment.

The middle-aged and the older lot, who are already banking with us, is a segment that needs continuous reassurance that SBI should be the preferred brand of choice going forward. Gen Y is important, but so are these two segments. I will not prioritise one over the other. But if we don't talk in Gen Y's language, then we won't be their brand of consideration.

SBI re-designed its logo in 2017. Why?

Two reasons; if you look at our old logo, it was quite cluttered. A logo should be simple for usage and application anywhere. Globally, you will find that most logos are simple and easy to decipher. Secondly, we were going through a merger (with associates, State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, State Bank of Hyderabad, State Bank of Mysore, State Bank of Patiala and State Bank of Travancore as well as the Bharatiya Mahila Bank) that year and we thought it was the right time to bring everything under one roof and to refresh the logo. The new logo is cleaner, sleeker and visible everywhere.

You are calling for media and digital agencies for a pitch. Ever thought of having one media agency that handles your digital duties as well?

It is just that we want to segregate things. But we are not ruling out individual agencies for media and digital. The developed markets are moving towards housing everything under one agency because they have better control. It works well for the clients as well. That is an ideal scenario.

SBI, after so many years of having empanelled agencies, has now given a creative mandate to one agency. You have been in an agency structure as well as on the client side. Did that help in making this decision?

There is no rule, as such, that we have to work with several agencies. Before we went ahead with a fresh round of pitches, we made sure that there is no such rule. I do have an understanding of how an agency works, so I could talk to the management on merits and demerits of both. I know how a public-sector bank is viewed from an agency perspective so, to some extent, yes that did help.

How different are the challenges if you compare - since you have worked in each - an agency with the private sector and now the government sector?

Agency work is madness, but an agency is the most interesting place to be. It is the one place where you will find the most varied set of intelligent people because your mind is always working on different consumer segments and different insights, unlike people in the same industry who think only about the same thing.

The banking sector is very organised. But when you are in marketing, there is a little bit of madness you have to infuse. In the agency business, you get infused, but in this sector, you have to become a madman to make sure that you are seen as a marketing person.

The private sector is good fun and we have a lot of liberties to do a lot of things, but there are processes in place there as well. You would be reporting to the global headquarters there as well. In SBI, there is a lot of freedom along with a lot of control and processes but you are also allowed to speak your mind and do things. The bank reposes its faith in domain experts.

Miss the agency side of things?

Honestly speaking, no. When you move out of the agency you realise that an agency is just one spoke in the wheel. On the business side, there is a lot more to do.

A Note From the Editor

Dinesh Menon, the cool, calm and composed chief marketing officer of State bank of India, has traversed the unlikely path from creative agencies to private sector companies in the BFSI space to a large public sector undertaking like SBI. He's never been too far from the world of banking though; even during his agency days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he worked on a couple of brands from the banking space - Standard Chartered at JWT and HSBC at Lowe Lintas.

Speaking of agencies, SBI recently handed its creative reins to a single agency (Rediffusion Y&R), a marked change from the long-standing, time-ineffective roster format wherein multiple agencies are empanelled only to be called on separately, depending on the requirement for ads at different points in time.

For a well distributed entity like SBI, a consistent advertiser that already boasts high on-ground visibility as well as brand awareness and recall in the mind of the Indian consumer, the real "acid test", as Dinesh puts it, is actually being "chosen as a bank" by people who are considering their options... outside of extenuating demonetisation-like circumstances!

Another challenge facing him is - making a "vintage bank" relevant to the mobile-savvy Gen-Y. He likens the task to playing the catch-up game with this new segment of young consumers. After all, when it comes to popular perception, PSU banks have some baggage to deal with. For Dinesh, the means to ends like these are closely tied to brand communication.

Also, for him and his team, competition in the form of young fintech players is rife; our reporter didn't need to prod him at all before Paytm, "a huge threat", was mentioned in this context. SBI's Dinesh is the fourth brand marketer we've put on the cover since January 2018, after Saregama's Vikram Mehra, Xiaomi's Manu Kumar Jain and Paytm's Shankar Nath (along with Jaskaran Kapany).

Enjoy reading!


This interview was published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on May 16, 2018

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