BrandSutra: For Piali Dasgupta, it is mission ‘positive ageing’

Piali Dasgupta, Senior Vice President - Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities, one of the largest senior living communities in India, talks of her journey from journalist to marketer, and her current focus on overcoming taboos to help seniors live healthier, happier and fitter lives for longer

From journalism to marketing for fashion brands such as Myntra, Amazon and Aditya Birla Fashion Retail, to marketing senior living at Columbia Pacific Communities – tell us some anecdotes from your interesting journey that have gone on to become marketing lessons.

Out of many anecdotes and countless lessons that come to mind, let me pick a few. In my first job as a journalist with The Times of India, I was exposed to a host of fashion and lifestyle brands and understood the role of PR in building brand narratives, thought leadership, and above all, advocacy. I learnt that PR, in many ways, is more effective than advertising, as there is nothing quite as powerful as the endorsement of the Fourth Estate.

When I crossed over to the brand side with Myntra, I understood the crucial role effective and compelling content played in the customer lifecycle, and learnt to use it as a persuasion tool. Heading content at Myntra, I set up video content IPs such as the Myntra Make-overs and curated conversations with celebrity fashion influencers, much before ‘influencers’ had become trendy. The make-overs gained massive popularity with a large number of requests pouring in every month, sometimes even from outside the country. Some of the customers I gave make-overs to are still in touch with me, and continue to shop at Myntra. It taught me an invaluable lesson on customer obsession. If you go that extra mile to delight your customers, you earn their lifelong loyalty.

What do you consider unique about the market for senior living communities in India and what challenges do you face? Is the concept more acceptable to people, than it was, say, 3 to 4 years back?

Senior living as a business has a very well-defined target audience. My primary challenge is to fight the stigma around senior living as a concept. It’s still a taboo subject in our country and a conversation that a parent and a child find difficult to have, sitting across the table. Children fear that sending their parents to a senior living community would be seen as abandonment, when it is actually the opposite. There is tremendous guilt associated with this. Besides, ‘senior living’ as a concept has often been likened to ‘old age homes’ and the dreary image of the latter. This is unfortunate, because senior living communities are a lifestyle choice; they are NOT old age homes, where people live more out of compulsion than out of choice. There is also lack of awareness around the product offering itself, given how new the category is. The other challenge is a sense of hesitation among seniors to invest in an asset fairly late in their lives. Yes, things have changed in the past 3 to 4 years, and there is certainly better awareness around the concept today. But we still have a long way to go.

How is Columbia Pacific Communities coping with the current situation as the senior population of the country is worst hit by the pandemic?

Our communities have been ring-fenced ever since the lockdown was announced and till date, no visitors are allowed entry into the communities. This helped us remain COVID-free to a large extent. Our frontline teams did an exemplary job, ensuring frequent and thorough sanitization, door step delivery of essentials and almost everything our senior residents required – right from a barber to vegetable vendors and even mobile ATM machines. Strict anti-COVID protocols laid down by WHO were followed at all times. An immunity-building diet was served by our F&B teams. Equally important for us was to ensure that seniors were not feeling lonely, anxious, isolated and hopeless during these trying times. From video calls with their loved ones to hosting digitally-led inter-community talent hunt and quiz contests, we had a host of engagement activities to keep them intellectually engaged. Brand initiatives such as The Living Room, a virtual chat show on Facebook, that invited luminaries and experts from different walks of life such as Nandita Das, Kabir Bedi, Charu Sharma, Prahlad Kakkar, Dolly Thakore, Anu ensured they were positively and meaningfully engaged while staying indoors.

What will be your priorities at Columbia Pacific Communities, going forward?

My priorities include building a world-class brand and helping Columbia Pacific Communities fulfil its mission of becoming the subcontinent’s most preferred senior living option by truly helping seniors live healthier, happier and fitter lives for longer. A key area of focus would be to strengthen the brand positioning by taking the narrative of ‘positive ageing’ forward through story-telling, PR, advocacy and other consumer engagement initiatives.

Tell us about yourself – what defines you beyond the realm of business? What is one motto that you follow in life?

Beyond business, a few great interests of my life are travelling (I have travelled to 18 countries), food, books, sketching and mental health advocacy. I grew up a fairly introverted person, and since childhood, found great solace in books. I am my best self when travelling and exploring the unknown. Having lived with a debilitating mental illness - depression and anxiety - for over half my life, I am a mental health advocate and do my bit to remove long-standing stigmas around mental illness and raise awareness around the illness. I am associated with the Seattle-based Stability Network that works with leaders with mental illness to form a support group for those battling mental ill health.

As for my motto, I believe that there is no substitute for hard work. One has to go through the grind, and if you are passionate about what you do, it only seems less strenuous.

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