Abid Hussain Barlaskar

"Real estate advertising has been standard and templatised": Karan Kumar, DLF

We interview the marketer about the key shifts in the gears as he moves. He reveals unique traits of the categories he has touched upon.

Karan Kumar, former chief brand and marketing officer of fashion retailer Fabindia, recently joined the real estate sector in India. Kumar joined DLF as senior vice president, marketing and chief marketing officer. Prior to Fabindia, he had spent over 15 years at ITC, leading many of the company's FMCG brands. While marketing executives moving across categories is general industry fare, what caught our attention was this: Kumar's venturing into real estate – a sector, which by our own confession, has been covered scantily on afaqs! This, mainly because of limited marketing and advertising initiative, and templatised style of communication across brands in the category – the age-old sq. ft.–BHK–INR–building shots-possession story – in print dailies and on billboards.

The only addition to the list in recent times is probably the 'RERA certification'. It is possible that the work, works in this sector and is something that is needed. But, isn't all marcom conversation incomplete sans the part about stretching boundaries?

Also, with heaps of undelivered promises across cities, the real estate sector has earned itself a bad name, being in the news for all the wrong reasons. We take Kumar's joining one of the leading real estate companies in the country as an opportunity to peek into what's right, wrong and needed in the sector when it comes to communication. We ask this seasoned CMO about the tricks he's about to try.

Edited excerpts:

From FMCG to premium fashion to real estate – what are the main shifts when it comes to marketing, and the key differences you've witnessed so far?

Each of these categories and industries have very unique challenges and I have attempted to navigate these by keeping the consumer and her needs at the core.

The fundamental differences is – in CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods), you do research and create a product, say a pack of chips or biscuits. If it proves to be successful, your interventions are sporadic and minimal in nature. What you are doing is trade marketing and a little bit of consumer marketing – say changing packs every two years to refresh the brand and keep it contemporary.

In retail (like at Fabindia), you have a new product in the floor every 3-4 months – new line, new selection, new design story. Therefore, you have to market something or the other every few months. Also, visual merchandising is critical here, as that's the only way you can showcase new merchandise.

In real estate, it is a rather long-drawn process, given the size of the ticket value and seriousness of the intent of purchase. The ability to generate and nurture leads, and to give them sufficient factors (rational/emotional) for decision-making to arrive at a sale closure situation, takes a slightly longer period of time.

Also, every time I have changed industries, I have tried to go back to becoming a management trainee. That is the only way to understand a new category, its context, challenges and the opportunities it presents.

"Every time I have changed industries, I have tried to go back to becoming a management trainee."
Karan Kumar

Real estate has always been sales heavy. What are your mandates and what encouraged you to join the sector?

Like in any other category, the role begins by identifying specific target segment or audiences, understanding their requirement, understanding the existing offerings in the market and creating propositions. So, market, segment and product research is a big one for us. It is also critical to have an extremely strong go to market strategy.

If real estate has been touted as one of the biggest challenges because of the industry sentiment or the large ticket value, as a marketer, there cannot be a bigger and better chance to prove the worth of marketing. You can do things incrementally, or enter a new environment and challenge the status quo.

Sales and revenue are critical, but marketing is that element which actually drives demand creation that, in turn, leads to sales. So, if marketing is considered important to sell a bag of chips, I don’t understand how it could be considered less important when it comes to a product whose average ticket value is infinitely large.

"Unfortunately, there have been quite a few examples where players have been untrue with promises..."
Karan Kumar

Speaking of industry sentiment, the sector, especially housing, has been in the news for the wrong reasons. How do you plan to change this?

Unfortunately, there have been quite a few examples where players have been untrue with promises, and this led to consumer confidence being shaken up. At the same time, we have delivered all the commitments that we have made. It is the responsibility of the people who have done good work in the industry to speak more about themselves, the industry and rebuild the customer sentiment. At DLF, we already have a high level of trust.

One attempt will be to consciously try and build trust and ensure that everybody in the real estate industry isn't painted with the common broad brush.

Second, it is the constant engagement cycle with the TG, not only about individual projects, but also telling the brand story, about communities and other options (lifestyle, leisure, club) that we have provided in each project. All other developers speak of only one project when they do so from time to time.

Tell us what goes into creating and selling a big-ticket product like a house.

Given the investments that go into product development, it is very important to ensure proper understanding of customers and their requirements - before commencing the investment journey. It is also important to understand key drivers for investors, as well as channel partners, who will help us to sell the product, once completed.

Lead generation and nurturance is of critical importance – the latter even more so given the extended consumer journey to purchase. Also, being one of the most considered purchases, marketing needs to play a fundamentally stronger role in product discovery, besides convincing the consumer with arguments, both rational and otherwise. Actual product experience and engagement-led marketing interventions also play a key role. They help consumers to verify a marketer’s claims, build conviction and make informed decisions.

Deep consumer understanding anchored in data analytics, combined with an ability to create relevant propositions which are communicated through evocative storytelling - I believe is the only mantra, irrespective (of) and across all B2C businesses and market constructs.

"We'll have story pegs beyond buildings."
Karan Kumar

How does advertising work in the sector? Unlike most other categories, we see very limited innovation in the area.

Whatever advertising has happened in the real estate sector has been from a very standard and templatised mindset. Print and outdoor advertising provide the lowest cost per reach amongst all media and come in handy for building awareness about a new project.

Digital is also used, but in performance marketing and lead generation. It has to be complemented with nurturance. What is missing is content marketing and storytelling about other pegs on social and digital. The former has been better leveraged, with there being enough opportunity for the latter to contribute towards engaged and informed decision-making.

We have great engagement on our social media pages from residents and community members. The objective is to create more such community groups and anchors, which go beyond the conventional lead generation-performance marketing approach. We'll have story pegs beyond buildings.

What is the key marketing challenge you are trying to address, apart from the bad reputation?

The challenge is to demonstrate marketing effectiveness - the impact of marketing on demand generation and business. Not just impact of communication and engagement, but also the role research plays in getting the product design and proposition right.

But, given the stakes involved and average ticket value of the product, both - the ability to convince and create consumer demand and the ability to demonstrate impact of adopted marketing mix in doing that - are challenges that are often more severe than (the same) in some other industries.

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