Abid Hussain Barlaskar

Meet Poonam Kaul, Apple India CMO turned film producer

Kaul shares her learnings from stalwarts like Shiv Shivakumar and Indra Nooyi whom she met in her over 20 years long journey through Microsoft, Nokia, PepsiCo and Apple.

From handling tech brands at an ad agency to managing key marketing roles at top tech companies, Poonam Kaul has had an eventful career. Kaul recently left a plum marketing position at Apple India, and has now donned a film producer’s hat. Between her stints at tech majors like Apple, Nokia and Microsoft; Kaul spent around three years at FMCG major PepsiCo, which gave her a deep understanding of the Indian consumer.

She was based in Gurgaon in her last assignment (at Apple) and has spent over 20 years in the marketing and communications industry.

Kaul started her career with DDB Mudra in 1996, where she handled mostly tech accounts like Ericsson, HCL, Comnet, etc. “I had almost turned into a tech whiz.”

She then moved on to Microsoft in 1999 as a marcom manager, where her job was to build the company as a consumer brand. “We did Microsoft’s first TV campaign in India and were trying to understand why consumers didn’t connect emotionally with Office or Windows.”

At Microsoft, Kaul took up her first major marketing role and took the B2B-oriented brand to the consumers. She was involved in conceptualising and working on TV and print campaigns, while also exploring media options like cinemas, OOH, in-show product placements, etc. She was responsible for Microsoft’s advertising till 2004, before moving on to head image and PR for the company.

Post Microsoft, Kaul joined Nokia (in 2006) in a top communication role. She spent the longest stretch (around nine years) of her career at Nokia, where she moved to a global marcom role (communications head for India, Middle East and Africa) at a later stage.

Nokia was approaching its pinnacle as a mobile handset brand in India. “Building the brand at time like that was an outstanding experience. We were launching a phone every month with new stories.”

At Nokia, Kaul met marketing veteran Shiv Shivakumar (currently with Aditya Birla Group). Shivakumar joined the company as MD around the same time as Kaul and was her immediate boss. “Nokia was just selling at that point. Shiv brought rigour in marketing and consumer thinking. He encouraged us to take risks. In hindsight, some of my massive arguments with him helped in chiseling me as a professional.”

Poonam Kaul (centre) with Shiv Shivakumar (right of Kaul) at Nokia.
Poonam Kaul (centre) with Shiv Shivakumar (right of Kaul) at Nokia.

“... he taught us to keep the company first, the team second and then the individual. That order will always ensure that we do the right thing for the company. The connections he helped us all develop in Nokia, continue to stay strong till date. There is a lot of family-like feeling, and it returns when I meet or interview an ex-Nokia person.”

"Shiv Shivakumar taught us to keep the company first, the team second and then the individual."

Kaul mentions how Nokia (a Finnish company) customised itself for India and was being driven by the purpose of helping Indians leapfrog from landlines to handsets. “The stories of change from consumer trips charged us up. A study revealed that a 10 per cent increase in mobile penetration leads to a 1.2 per cent increase in GDP. That was our impact.”

"The stories of change from consumer trips charged us up."

She recalls Nokia’s BL-5C battery crisis from 2007-08 when users reported heating and swelling issues. Nokia issued a voluntary advisory about it and offered a replacement. It took a different shape in India.

“I had fever and left office early that day. As I reached home, a leading media house ran a story that Nokia phones could be bombs. This was aired alongside pictures of real bombings. There were cases of incorrect usage of phones and it was being connected to the battery. But because of its transparency, Nokia became the most trusted brand (ET, 2008).”

Kaul left Nokia in July 2015, a year after its handset business was acquired by Microsoft. “When I rejoined Microsoft (at Nokia), the values were completely different. The brand that we built brick by brick, was not the same. There could have been better leadership decisions.”

“When I rejoined Microsoft (at Nokia), the values were completely different."

Kaul mentions that the values at Microsoft, with its American background and Nokia’s European ancestry, were very different. “American companies used to be very individual-oriented, while Nokia was about people and teams. That shaped us personally and professionally.”

Her next move to PepsiCo (in 2015) as VP-Communications and CSR was a major shift in her tech-oriented career. “I missed tech, but wanted to understand consumers better. FMCG is the right place for the way it puts consumers at the centre. PepsiCo had 22 brands and the consumers for each are different. Consumers in South India used to have 7Up for breakfast because of the sugar high. A Lay’s consumer was different from that of Kurkure. Again, at the other end of the spectrum, we had Quaker (oats).”

“I missed tech, but wanted to understand consumers better. FMCG is the right place for the way it puts consumers at the centre."

We asked Kaul about the conversations at PepsiCo about its archrival Coca-Cola, given the ambushes that the brands engaged in. “From the outside, it would seem like Pepsi and Coke were fighting. It actually was just two brand managers spending a few crores talking to each other, instead of speaking on the phone. We changed a lot of that and there was camaraderie between both the brands. Also, as an industry, they both came together when they were facing a lot of societal issues, especially around water balance. We told stories of PepsiCo’s water conservation initiatives, like the Second Crop Initiative for farming.”

Kaul mentions that it was also the time when PepsiCo moved away from the celebrity route to advertising and decided to ‘romanticise’ products. “We realised that the young TG needed purpose. Mirinda’s ‘Release the Pressure’ and Pepsi’s ‘Emoji’ campaigns happened.”

Recalling her experience of working with Indra Nooyi (then PepsiCo's first female CEO), Kaul says that she (Nooyi) was deeply connected to India. And, given the time zones, she would get the media alerts at around 4 a.m. (IST). “There were days when we would be in action at 6 a.m.!”

"I talked through the same plan in my head, but without the slides."

Sharing her favourite incident of working with Nooyi, Kaul mentions one of her presentation for a long-term communication. “We were sitting in a big hall along with the leadership teams. As I got up to present, she (Nooyi) called me and said, ‘Poonam, I have gone through your presentation, so why don’t you come here and talk to me about it, instead of doing slides.’ For the next hour, I talked through the same plan in my head, but without the slides. It was little unnerving to start with, but that was one of my best presentations.”

Poonam Kaul (L) with Indra Nooyi
Poonam Kaul (L) with Indra Nooyi

Another incident which taught Kaul how consumers and their tastes and preferences were central to Nooyi (and PepsiCo) was during the launch of Quaker’s upma, idli with oats. “Months of work had gone into getting the formulation, packaging, etc., ready. Early consumer feedback was also good, but the moment she (Nooyi) tasted the upma, she rejected it because it did not taste like the upma made in South Indian homes. We had to go back to the drawing board and launch it a few months later.”

"Indra Nooyi tasted Quaker's upma, she rejected it because it did not taste like the upma made in South Indian homes."

Kaul’s inclination towards tech brought her back to Apple. She joined the company as director marketing in 2018. “... but it was hard for me emotionally because I get attached to an organisation, its values and people.”

"Apple was looking for someone who had both tech and FMCG experience."

Kaul reveals that Apple was looking for someone who had both tech and FMCG experience. “The job was to drive Apple’s value and pricing narrative in India. We’ve been able to change the pricing narrative around Apple to a large extent. Since last year’s launch, there haven’t been too many of those ‘iPhone-kidney’ memes (popular dig at iPhone’s high price. One would have to sell a kidney to buy an iPhone). We also launched Apple’s first locally developed advertising campaign around cricket/World Cup.”

However, Apple, for years, has refrained from localising or Indianising itself, both in product and communication. Kaul’s response, “There are things that Apple does (and) that only Apple knows how to - bringing excellence and perfection to everything that they do. Every launch for Apple is a global launch that the local teams help in executing.”

“There are things that Apple does and that only Apple knows how to..."

Kaul eventually stepped out of Apple in March this year to play a deeper role in her film project. She transitioned from 30-60-second TVCs to 90-minute films when she decided to produce her first film (while at PepsiCo) ‘The Last Color’. It was directed by chef Vikas Khanna (with producer Jitendra Mishra) and was based on the former’s book about friendship between a 60-year-old widow (played by Neena Gupta) and an eight-year-old street rope walker in Varanasi.

“The film travelled to almost 20 film festivals across the world. It also made it to the Oscar eligibility list for 2020, and will be in cinemas in December. As the film travelled around the world, I could not be a part of that since by that time, I had joined Apple.”

“Neena ji visited us in Benaras (Varanasi) to find more about the newbie producers."

The film was a first for both Kaul and Khanna. “Neena ji visited us in Benaras (Varanasi) to find more about the newbie producers. She came to see us and a trial shot turned out to be the cover shot of the film.”

Kaul is currently working on her second film, which is very close to her heart. “When the time came, I didn’t want to miss that opportunity.” As a marketer-turned-film producer, Kaul brings in the GTM (go to market) way of thinking to production.

She is mentoring a couple of startups and has also started a voluntary initiative Ek Desh, a COVID-oriented communication platform. Supported by a bunch of startups, Ek Desh executed #ApnaDeshApnaMask campaign, urging people to make their own masks. It is also lobbying for ‘mask compliance’, instead of mask awareness.

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