In less than a decade, Micromax Informatics has established itself as the second largest smartphone company in India and the 10th largest in the world. caught up with the company’s chief marketing officer, Shubhajit Sen, who recently joined the plucky telco after 21 years at Glaxo Smith Kline Consumer Health.

With numerous industry awards to his name, Sen is the brains behind some of India’s most highly respected consumer initiatives. We found out how he’s managing the transition into this new industry, as well as where he sees opportunities for differentiation in a rapidly maturing market. What has been the biggest challenge in your new role, and how does the telecommunications industry differ from your previous role at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Health?
 There is very little similarity in anything that you can compare in the FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] world to this world. It’s so different that you don’t even know where to start. The single most important area to cope with is that in the FMCG world, the past is a really good predictor of the future. There are disruptions, but they might come once in three years or so. In consumer electronics, especially in mobile phones, the past is a terrible predictor of the future. How do you see the Micromax brand today?
Sen: Micromax is a young brand and, more importantly, a brand for the young. It is a brand that resides with the youth and cuts across various socio-economic levels. The brand has been consistent in its positioning and its promises right from its genesis–and that’s what appeals to the young of the country. We are irreverent as a brand and always question the status quo, albeit with humour and in a nonthreatening tone. Our attitude is mirrored in our business model, too, where we are known for disrupting the technology space. We are pioneers and pride ourselves in doing new things, trying new ways of doing things. Again, from a business-model perspective, it translates into bringing innovation through our products.

In our advertising, too, we tend to break new ground. There is a sense of anticipation among our consumers, and they wait to find out what Micromax will do next. As we move forward, I really don’t think that overall we want to change our brand ethos at all. One of the reasons, of course, is that India has a young population, but, more importantly, the first adopters of technology are the youth, and the edginess associated with the brand resonates with them. With the business expanding, how does your communication vary across products?
 A big part of our business now comes from laptops and tablets. Those, by definition, are bit more purposive and not as frequently used as a phone; with LED TV we move to a family category. So far the brand has shown the elasticity to straddle various categories. There will be executional changes as we move into different categories, but the basic personality and what the brand stands for will not change.

The fountainhead of everything we do comes from a vision or philosophy of our company, where we believe that many of our competitors and rivals want to give a sense that innovation will always be expensive. As opposed to this, our philosophy is to democratise technology. How can we get best-in-class available anywhere in the world, but bring it at a price that mass Indian consumers can afford? This thought is the starting point of our business, and it translates through our brand personality and drives our business. Irreverence, questioning the status quo–that’s the kind of tone adopted by many Indian brands targeting youngsters. What is the rationale behind using this tone, and does it really appeal to the Indian youth?
 Many brands today are centered on the youth. I can think of Sprite [soft drink] and Mentos [candy] that are also in this zone. But then there are other brands that are youth-centric, too, and have established a very good footprint without taking this tone. I don’t think you need to adopt one tone of voice or philosophy to talk to the youth, but the only way to be a genuine youth brand is to maintain authenticity. So is Micromax a cool brand?
 We are not cool. We operate in a category that’s aspirational and high-involvement. However, we certainly don’t want to be seen as very worthy and with a mission to change the world. Some brands do adopt that. We don’t even want to be seen as a brand that says we are the cheapest in the category. We want to say that we, as a brand, understand you, we understand your life, we understand the little challenges and the simple opportunities you get day to day, and we will develop products that will meet those needs at a very accessible price point. Let’s talk about the association with Australian actor Hugh Jackman. How has it worked for the brand?
 Our association with Hugh Jackman started in 2013. At that point, where the brand was and our need were different from where the brand is today. At that time, even though we were doing extremely well, the difference between us and some of the local Indian players was not that much. We were the first among equals, but we were still part of the much larger set. There was a need to pull us away from that pack and closer to the market leader. And in a moment of genius we decided, why not get Hugh Jackman? That advertisement was fabulous, pumped up our sales, and catapulted us immediately as an international player, and our brand premium went up. At that point in time, the brand probably needed him a lot.

Over the two years since that promotion, the brand has become much stronger in terms of equity and footprint. As we go forward, not just with Jackman but any celebrity endorsement, the question to ask is how can we leverage their personality and match with our brands? It is now about a big brand walking with a big celeb as opposed to a big celeb helping a brand to establish itself.

Now we have a roster of celebrities including [film director] Anurag Kashyap and [TV presenter and cricket commentator] Harsha Bhogle, but the role and the relationship of each celeb is different depending on the product they are endorsing. How do you match the brand credo with your product offerings?
 If you see our product portfolio today, we have developed products that are geared towards consumers’ needs. We have a range of products: Micromax Canvas Fire, which is specifically for music lovers; and a range of phones with probably the best battery for people who are always on the move. Our Doodle range of phones is for creative people, offering big screens and giving them freedom to draw. We understand that every person is not the same; we understand their needs and translate that into a product portfolio that is technologically advanced. We add a nice brand personality that is both quirky yet approachable, and, put together, this creates magic. How do you use analytics within your organisation and leverage it?
 To be honest, we are starting on the journey of analytics. This is one category where you have an incredible amount of data. We are trying to bring together various data sets and have now started an early-stage analysis of what all decisions drive through these. My sense is that in six to nine months’ time, we will probably get more embedded and use analytics more meaningfully. What we haven’t got to yet, and there is a lot that we can do, is to match offline marketing to the online data that we generate. Right now these two worlds exist in a parallel universe, and we are not really able to map these together. With big ecommerce players experimenting with the app-only model, what is the potential for handset players, such as Micromax?
 Mobile-first, I think, is a bit silly as it’s pretty much becoming mobile-only; 70% of our searches on Google are on mobile devices. It is equivalent for even first-time buyers. So a guy who doesn’t have a mobile phone is searching for a mobile phone on a mobile phone probably borrowed from someone else.

I think what is happening in ecommerce is interesting. One of the players we work with has both a Web and an app version, and what we find is 70% to 80% of registrations come from mobile, but 45% to 50% of the sales are on the Web. That’s an interesting dynamic, and we are trying to understand why it is happening. Our hypothesis is that it’s something to do with the security on both of the platforms. The infrastructure around mobile is not a perfect environment for the sale, whereas the more wired connection of the Web is seen to be more conducive for a financial transaction. It is baffling that the search, registration, and interest are all happening on the mobile environment, whereas a lot of financial transactions are happening on the Web. Shopping during festivals is big in India. What is the marketing plan for the upcoming festival season?
 Festival buying is big in India; during festivals like Onam and Diwali, we see a 100% rise in purchases. We are still working on the creative leading up to Diwali. However, this time we have been able to break it down to a more coherent festival calendar strategy that until now tended to be extremely localised activities where sales guys will do something and send us the report. We now have a more stitched-up strategy, and we’re looking at ways to leverage this from one state to another. How do you view competition both from Indian and international players?
Sen: Our clear vision is that we want to be No. 1 in the country, and from being No. 10 in the world we want to be No. 5 in the world. That’s clearly where we are headed, and so far we are bang on, if not ahead of, the target. Our view of the competition is that they are a bit of a benchmark. Techies who know the pulse of the consumers and can create products that will be in demand six months from now, and distribution and ecommerce stakeholders are much more critical.

Our view of competition is not about let’s kill them or let’s get killed. There will always be a new kid on the block who will have investments and take that market from you, so you need to constantly make sure that you hold on to the base while you constantly upgrade your product with new flagship models as you go up to scale. That duality of our existence will continue.

This article was produced for by Paul Writer (//, India’s premier community marketing firm. Published with permission.


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