Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

"Marketers must have the attitude of an editor-in-chief": Royal Enfield's Shubhranshu Singh

Marketing musings with Shubhranshu Singh, global head – marketing, Royal Enfield.

It all began when he called me few weeks ago to object to the use of ‘cult’ as a descriptor for brand Royal Enfield, in an article we published about bike personalisation. I asked him to explain why that was a problem. He did, and then before I knew it, I’d chatted with Shubhranshu Singh, global head – marketing, Royal Enfield, for over an hour, about all things marketing, because – “I’ve done nothing except marketing since 1999.” That was the year he joined Hindustan Unilever.

Edited excerpts of a conversation about brand marketing, geared towards separating the “puffery” from the real thing:

Why do you avoid the word cult, in the context of Royal Enfield? What’s the difference between cult and community?

There’s community, association, tribe, and then cult.

The more ‘cult’ one goes, in terms of mindset, the more rigid one is. From a sociological perspective, communities that evolve around brands must have elements that are extempore, voluntary – with that comes an accommodation of change.

When one thinks of cult in terms of dogma, something central and messianic, with a fixation on an in-group and an out-group, one starts becoming exclusionary, prescriptive, self-serving. Then it’s no longer about the brand.

If people perceive a brand as cult, then so be it.

Offline is a big part of community building for your brand. What happens to the concept of community when the offline element – organised rides, tours, etc. – shrinks like it did during the pandemic? Does something fundamental change when community shifts online?

I sincerely believe the world will come back to the old normal. But yes, how does a brand, which is essentially about exploration, being on the road, riding out, encounter this reality? Quite clearly, when people are recoiling from a shock, in a cocoon, withdrawn, they go to the things that matter the most – music, cooking, reading, painting, motorcycling… motorcycling is more than just riding the motorcycle.

We have between seven and eight million people on social media; that’s a large community. We did things like ‘do it yourself’ videos, tutorials about to take care of your motorcycle/how to use the GoPro camera, things on apparel, an ‘Art of Motorcycle’ contest that got them to send in illustrations, we asked them to tell us about their bullet stories, we did eight to ten episodes about shops that customise motorcycles… so we became more publisher-like, in a sense. We used to rely a lot more on user generated content. This time we had to step up to the plate and put out more content.

Across industries, we saw interest in accessing brands digitally. The degree of interest was higher as one came down the pop strata; so in tier II and III towns – we get normalised trends from Google, we also do our own listening – people came back to search (for brands online) faster.

When things are restricted physically, the degree of involvement online becomes higher. This makes the community more sensitive to nuance, subtlety, voice, and more receptive to content and communication.

Also, we’re seeing the growth of ‘riding cocoons’; instead of going with 20 people, people go riding with few close friends/family.

Shubhranshu Singh
Shubhranshu Singh

You regularly write columns in English and Hindi, across publications. When I study your social commentary, I feel like you’re really trying to right some wrongs, through your essays. What are these wrongs?

I’m no knight in shining armour. My articles are part musing, part blog, part experience.

Yes, I believe the right messaging and the right relationship with brands, can, to an extent, solve problems like over-consumption, ecological distress and erosion of values. Brands can create great platforms – look at the superb work Dove has done around the concept of beauty, or what Under Armour and Nike have done around athleticism, or what Apple did in the area of rebel creativity. Marketing is a lubricant, catalyst, fertilizer…

Coming to my grouses, well, trends that are getting crystalised are: an over-reliance on ‘datafication’, looking at the world through ‘brand bureaucracy’ - that takes marketers away from consumer reality - and reductionism or the need to explain everything in one line... it doesn’t work in a world in which everyone who has a phone is a content producer and every IP address is a broadcast station.

Branding in India is dominated by the engineer-MBA type, of which I am a proud specimen. They think numerically, algorithmically, iteratively… they over-emphasise economic sense and outsource the ‘art and flair’ creative aspects to the agency. The agency cabal has, in turn, over-emphasised the psychology aspect of branding. There’s a deep gulf between the two, in which the social relevance of the brand is neglected.

Interesting. So what type of marketing professional will run the top brands, say, a decade from today?

Generally, brand and marketing people have done a disservice to their profession, but there is still a lot of bedrock professionalism and attitudinal correctness in marketing. I hope the CMOS of 10, 15, 20 years from now will be people who choose a career in professional marketing, and people who are business minded, not just people who want to spend media money and make great campaigns.

All marketers, even the smallest assistant brand manager, have to have the attitude of an editor-in-chief. They need to think editorially. Their creative instincts have to be geared towards ‘What am I publishing?’

Speaking of campaigns, what does the agency buffet look like to you today?

Look, when I started life at Hindustan Lever as a brand trainee, I used to live at Express Towers half the time, because Lintas was my agency; I used to sleep in their conference room, I even had a toothbrush there. So much work got done at the ad agency.

That classical ‘big agency’ model has changed, in part due to technical disruption, creative entrepreneurship, new skill sets… and the cost of complexity lies at the client’s end – they have to manage many specialised agencies.

We will see more partner specialisation, hereon; agencies will have mutant forms that may not last but will create value.

For me, I like to have (agency) associations that last for long. We are investing in content, insights and analytics… We have a set of partners who’re working well for us. That doesn’t preclude us from reaching out to potential partners. We’re not necessarily in pitch mode but are open to exploring all options at any point in time.

Agency partners Royal Enfield works with presently include Dentsu, 22feet, PHD, Interactive Avenues, Kantar and 20:20 MSL.

Also Read: What makes Royal Enfield special?

Product shot: screengrab of Royal Enfield website.