Ashwini Gangal

"Marketers are artistes": Koshy George, CMO, Marico

It's been six months since former Hindustan Unilever hand Koshy George took over as chief marketing officer at Marico India. An interview.

Spending an hour with Koshy George is like taking a deep dive into the complex world of FMCG marketing. After spending close to 15 years at Hindustan Unilever, during which time he worked extensively across the home care, and more recently, personal care categories, Koshy moved to Marico India as CMO around January this year.

At HUL, he cut his teeth on the soaps portfolio and led brands like Dove, Lux, Lifebuoy, Pears, Hamam, Liril, Rexona, Breeze and Moti. His last role at HUL was global marketing director, skin cleansing, which entailed global leadership of Lifebuoy and Pears. Before joining HUL in 2004, he worked at Marico briefly in the early 2000s.

"Marketers are artistes": Koshy George, CMO, Marico

Marico is stepping up its digital marketing capabilities, to market to a new set of Millennial consumers. This includes re-looking the content game and leveraging e-commerce as a channel.

Presently, Koshy is leading some of Marico's core businesses, including hair care (Parachute Advansed, Livon, Nihar Naturals, Hair & Care) and foods (Saffola).

His personal brand of marketing leadership is defined by curiosity and creativity. "One needs to enjoy the art of marketing... it's as much a craft as it is a business. Marketers are artistes," he says.

Edited Excerpts

HUL to Marico - what's the biggest difference?

The pace at Marico is much faster - we launch fast, iterate fast and if something works... scale up fast. Also, the appetite for risk is higher here.

You are tasked with 'premiumising' Marico's products. What does that mean - is it about pricing or perception?

Pricing is a strong lever, yes, but premiumisation also comes in when consumers' needs evolve. For example, today consumers don't have time to oil their hair, sit for six hours, wash it off twice... so in the context of our Parachute Advansed Coconut Crème Oil (oil in cream format), though the base benefit is nourishment, the premiumisation comes from the higher order benefit of convenience.

The need for coconut nourishment has not diminished. In the context of beauty, coconut is one of the highest Google-searched ingredients, globally. Just that, the format it is delivered in is inconvenient.

Some consumers use these lighter oils as post-wash hair serum; in fact, globally, in the premium segment, the oils market is bigger than the serums market because oil is often used as a post-wash product. In India, oil is used pre-wash.

Another vector of premiumisation is about meeting needs that are otherwise un-catered to. For example, most people use hair colour to hide grey strands, but True Roots (hair tonic by Marico) prevents greying.

Premiumisation also has to do with sensorials - for instance, 'lighter' oils with more fragrance. As trends change, consumers want different benefits from the same categories. For this, we've partnered with Google, Amazon, Nykaa... they have data that helps us catch trends.

In your book, what characterises the 'Millennial', a cohort marketers are collectively chasing after?

Millennials want to be recognised and spoken to as individuals; they don't want to be talked to in the way TV ads talk to people. They detest propaganda-type ads with 'doctors' or celebrities telling them what to buy. They need personalised, authentic conversations.

They don't mind discovering brands online; they can easily spend on a new brand they've spotted on, say, Instagram. Previously, unless you saw a brand advertise on TV for many years, you wouldn't risk picking it up.

They research almost everything online; even 20-year-olds read about the ingredients that go into the products they use.

They're also cashback brats with little loyalty to spare. How does that affect the FMCG space? As your predecessor Anuradha Aggarwal once said to me, 'the Indian consumer is going through an amazingly flirtatious phase'...

Come what may, the root of loyalty is great products. So the nightmare is not lack of loyalty; the nightmare is relying on just advertising and marketing to drive loyalty and choice, without the right product innovation.

What's the biggest agency gripe these days?

The biggest challenge is adapting to the new 'content needs' marketers have. We need newer models and structures of working and creating. We are waking up to the challenge, but a lot more needs to be done.

Earlier, we'd give the agency a brief, they'd do one good TVC that would last for a year, and some print, and we'd happily roll it out. Today, the quantum of content that marketers need has increased. The pace at which brands need to create content is also very high.

Marketers are dealing with multiple cohorts. A brand like Parachute, for example, speaks to eight to nine different cohorts in the market at any given point in time.

Given these content needs, brands end up with one too many custodians, don't they?

That's the nature of the beast today. The reason we look at multiple agency partners is they all have different areas of specialisation: influencer marketing, content... within content - webseries, blogs, technology...

The way an advertising agency understands the audience and the medium is very different from the way a content partner does.

There's a strong global narrative around marketers struggling with ad fraud, brand safety, viewability - which of these concerns you most?

The one I really worry about is ad fraud. It's not spoken about much in our circles, but reality is... about 20-30 per cent of any money we put on digital is up for fraud.

What's the solution? Marketers have been talking about 'taking control back' from agency partners...

Unfortunately, I don't think there are too many credible solutions and platforms on the table to curtail ad fraud.

I don't think it's about whether the control is with the marketing company or the agency. One gap is in terms of agency models; they really need to evolve, because what one wants from an agency today is not the knowledge of making advertising. You want them to be equipped with making more content, working with influencers, etc.

Agencies have not reinvented themselves to what is required; there's a vacuum in terms of the core agency's ability to remodel itself. So some of the control has 'gone out' because what worked earlier - making ads, something ad agencies excelled in - is no longer relevant with consumers. That's why you find marketers 'taking control back in'...we're seeing models where it's easy to create a content team in-house versus trying to work with an agency that doesn't have the skill and expertise to build these assets long-term. That's where the disconnect has been, globally.

Today, a brand in a developed market needs around 1,000 pieces of content a year. Given the agency remuneration model, that sort of requirement will just blow up the cost.

What's your lead medium of communication?

It's TV first, even today.

Lastly, name three advertising campaigns closest to your heart...

The 'taste challenge' campaign we did with Vikram (Tamilian actor) for HUL's Rs.700 crore tea brand 3 Roses (Brooke Bond), in around 2007-08, is one.

In 2011-12, when I was on Vim (HUL), we were struggling with the dishwash liquid category; it was seen as very expensive and its usage was not known. The barrier was - people would take a whole lot of it and put it on the sponge. So we created an educative campaign called 'Bartan dhoney ki recipe': we told consumers to take a spoonful of the liquid gel, dilute it in a bowl of water and then wash a huge load of dishes with it. The big insight was - the average housewife sees value in anything that can be mixed. It gave us huge business results and unlocked almost 300-400 bps of penetration in two years. We got this idea when we saw someone selling (unbranded) dishwash liquid in 50 ml polythene bags in a wholesale market in Mumbai, telling people to dilute it in two litres of water.

In 2017-18, we created a campaign around our awards property Lux Golden Rose Awards (HUL), created to felicitate female actors. While Lux had enough stature, we hadn't managed to get a big property for the brand, like Lakme and Fashion Week. That year we almost touched the TRPs that Filmfare usually does.

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