Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

“More important for brands to be famous than persuasive”: Sudhir Sitapati, Hindustan Unilever

When the cover of a book resembles a detergent pack from a TV commercial from the '80s, making a judgment about its contents is easy, never mind old adages that caution us against doing so. The book is 'The CEO Factory', the author is Sudhir Sitapati, executive director, foods and refreshments, Hindustan Unilever... the detergent is Surf Excel and the ad is Alyque Padamsee's 'Lalitaji'.

Sitapati, who joined HUL in 1999 as a management trainee, has, over the last two decades, worked across the company's personal care, home care, and foods and refreshments divisions. He's also an executive director on the company's management committee.

Peppered with facts, anecdotes and wisdom, the book is a HUL-lifer's attempt at decoding the inner workings of his workplace. The book covers subjects like management training, marketing, advertising, media planning, product development, pricing, sales management, cost management, and human resources. Serving its title, the book also looks at Unilever's contribution to the corporate world in terms of human capital and leadership.

Over an email, Sitapati answered a few questions about marketing and communication.

Front Cover
Front Cover

Edited excerpts.

From 1999 to 2020 - What, in your view, have been the top three changes in the HUL way of going to market?

Actually the more interesting question is what has not changed in the HUL way of going to market and these are – the importance of the insight driven big idea, mass media driven by low cost reach and the continued drive in reaching more stores. I think the one big change though has been the digital transformation of the company in all these areas.

What are the three most challenging/memorable advertising briefs – ones you wrote, revised, approved, were closely involved with – of your career?

After the initial success of the Puddle War film in 2005 and a few of its successors, we thought we were ready to move away from the Daag Acche Hain idea in 2008. But a brilliant piece of consumer research gave us a new set of fresh insights in the area of 'what values do mums look for in kids'. The next film, which we call Dogboy, where a young boy empathises with a teacher who has just lost her dog, done by Arun Iyer and Balki, is still recalled by consumers a decade later.

The Lifebuoy Roti reminder at the Kumbh mela was an ad which I didn’t brief for but, luckily, approved. Two relatively newer campaigns I am quite pleased with are the Nirali ad on Taj Tea done by Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Kainaz Karmarkar from Ogilvy and the Knorr Karan Johar ad.

There's so much literature today about what it means to be a marketer in a digital world and what modern day marketers ought to do, read, think and worry about. What to your mind characterises an effective marketer in 2020?

Marketers should continuously obsess about consumer needs and develop brilliant, insightful products to address them. They should then build famous, loved brands because in most cases it is more important to be famous than persuasive. Finally they should find low cost media to communicate and these days digital often features in the grid. Messages need to be impactful and media needs to be at the lowest possible cost!

Name three Indian ads, old or new, outside the HUL universe, that to your mind are case studies in themselves...

I think the Amazon ‘Aur Dikhao’ ad cleverly repositioned the e-commerce category from convenience to range. Asians Paints' ‘Har ghar kuch kahta hain’ was an extremely insightful campaign. The Whisper school contact programme has been a great example of an effective below the line campaign and Ultra Tech does some great work on humble wall painting.

Among global marketing leaders across companies whose theories resonate with you? Say, Paul Polman's view is skewed towards sustainable marketing, Marc Pritchard's got radical views about agency structures, Keith Weed talks about brand safety across digital platforms; beyond corporate leaders, there's a Steven Pinker way of looking at the world, a Yuval Harari lens, a David Deutsch school, a Ray Kurzweil approach – who inspires you?

I draw most of my inspiration in marketing from the ‘problem definition’ way of marketing taught at IIM Ahmedabad. Our professor, the legendary AK Jain, would drill the question ‘What is the problem?’ into us all the time. It’s the most important question in marketing. The focus on defining a problem and solving it objectively appeals a lot to me. But two books I have learnt a lot from are 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Trout and Ries and How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp.

"I feel that medium effectiveness, while true, is over stated and there will always be some media that reaches every consumer!"
Sudhir Sitapati

Millions of viewers are giving up watching television. How then should advertisers reach this 'modern media dark' belt? What's the solution according to an executive who's cut his teeth on the medium in question?

I’m not at all sure that millions of viewers are giving up watching television. I haven’t in any case seen any such data. But even if that happens marketeers need to continue to focus on compelling messages and find the lowest cost media that reaches consumers. I feel that medium effectiveness, while true, is over stated and there will always be some media that reaches every consumer!

The CEO Factory has 241 pages and is published by Juggernaut.

Ads referenced in the interview: