Uncertainty makes you powerful: Godrej Consumer Products’ Sunil Kataria to BrandSutra
First Person

For Sunil Kataria, CEO - India and SAARC, Godrej Consumer Products Limited (GCPL), the immediate task is to refine the go-to-market 3.0 strategy of the company for the next three years. As Chairman of the Indian Society of Advertisers, his task is to get the organisation future-ready and digital-ready. Here, he recounts in his own words the learnings over an eventful marketing career across Marico, VIP Industries, Idea Cellular and GCPL, where among other things, he practises design-led thinking and tough love.

The Godrej way of doing things…

I had just joined the company in 2011 when I was given the task ofmerging Godrej Household Products India and Godrej Consumer Products Limited (GCPL) - two companies that existed then as two separate legal entities with two large distribution networks. The challenge was to create ‘Power of One’ by merging the two systems. It took us nearly 20 months but it was one of the most exciting challenges of my career. We had to be very clear about the blueprint for a future-ready GCPL - we used to call it future-ready 1.0 - as we went about the whole task of merging people and infrastructure, and building future structures and technology which would put GCPL among the Top 3 sales and technology-driven organisations in the country. The rural network of GCPL was very strong in the North and West of the country while the other business was very strong in the South and East, and in urban areas. We were able to unleash the power of complementarity and build future-ready processes and tech capability which laid the foundation of GCPL’s growth story over thelast decade. Currently, we are in the middle of our go-to-market(GTM) version 3.0, looking at the next three years.

The second big thing in my journey has been participating in the design-led thinking of the combined entity, started by Nisaba Godrej. It created a very interesting structure within our organisation which we call ‘RIDE’ - Research, Innovation, Design and Marketing – where all teams come together. The amazing innovations over the last 10 years - be it Good Knight Fast Card or Godrej Expert Rich Crème, or Aer Pocket or Godrej Protekt Magic, a powdered liquid hand wash - all are due to this design-led thinking at the heart of our brand strategy.

The third part has been the journey of hidden talent. The way we approach talent in GCPL is very unique to us - our philosophy of ‘tough love’. We nurture talent right from the very early stages andlet them unleash their entrepreneurial streak. We nurture them with a lot of love but at the same time, when people make mistakes, we have a feedback system which is tough. It doesn’t mean we don’t let them fail – we support them through it, but if anyone keeps making the same mistakes, we’ll be tough. Thus, we have created a strong talent pool of high-calibre resources and young leaders to build one of the most innovative companies in India. I look back at the Godrej way of doing things with a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and pride.

“When you advertise, make sure that the message to consumers is transparent, fair and honest.” - Sunil Kataria

How I see the changing consumer

The consumer had a panic phase, then a ‘coming to terms’ phase and now the third phase is the ‘learning to live with it’ phase. The fourth would be approach COVID phase once the vaccine happens. The biggest change is that consumers have taken a digital leap, doing such things virtually which they never even imagined as doable earlier. The future of offices will be very different, with a hybrid emerging of physical work spaces and virtual culture. In terms of consumption,new categories which were very hyped will settle down at a certain level and become part of our habit. For example, while sanitizers will never sell at the level they sold in the panic phase, categories like hand-washes and immunity-aiding products will become a part of our daily life. Discretionary products have been under pressure but they too will come back very strongly. Consumers will check the health aspect of every product. Overall, the new normal will see a very different kind of consumer.

Unleash the Challenger within

Even before lockdown, actually in October last year, we had started this thing called Challenger​- how do we unleash that hidden challenger character within us? All of us end up achieving things which we always thought we were not capable of, be it in our personal or professional lives. So why can’t that behaviour happen more often? I believe there is a unique character lying deep within us which keeps coming to the fore at times. My idea was to ‘Unleash the Challenger’. COVID has become one of the biggest challenges of maybe the last 100 years. It has taught me that there is always something much bigger possible, much bigger potential lying within each one of us - the Challenger potential - which we are not even aware of. This adversity made it come out for me and my team. I see an extraordinary side of every individual around me. People have not got cowed down by fear, adversaries have put all differences aside and come together to collaborate and bring out the beautiful side of humanity. We are in it together as human beings and reaching out to the people whom we can help. Right from the building where I stay to outside, I have seen people helping the most needy in the toughest of times. Besides these, I realised during lockdown that we need to have a sense of gratitude to Mother Nature, that we take for granted.

Lessons learnt on the ground

During my management trainee days at Marico in Calcutta, I remember this elderly field officer who was so passionate about merchandising, that he would pick up posters, danglers, etc., and get his wife and kids to make cut-outs from them to be placed in shops. He had a brilliant relationship with retailers and the creative cut-out using the brand message would be so beautiful that retailers would allow them to be placed at their outlets free of charge. From that person, I learnt two things - the power of merchandising and the power of relationship building beyond money.

While at Idea Cellular, I landed up as the COO for Rajasthan Circle, aloss-making circle for them. I had no clue about telecom even as a big phenomenon happened with Docomo entering India - the entire industry moved from per minute billing to per second billing. I needed to up customer acquisition by nearly 5 or 10 times. I then learnt the power of analytics to understand consumer base on a real time basis, and it really helped manage the transition well. Even before the Facebooks and Amazons happened in the country, mytelecom stint taught me how to use the power of technology, how to micro-market to consumers directly. I’m a big fan of technology, and have used it a lot at GCPL.

One of my best learnings at GCPL is that when you put creative people who think design at the centre of strategy, and ask them to work along with marketers, magic happens. They bring a new perspective to product formulations, product packaging and even marketing communication.

Getting ISA future-ready

At ISA, we are getting future-ready. ISA is a strong member of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), which has recently announced that it is on the verge of rolling out a unique multimedia measurement system in the UK and US. We are going to be keenlyfollowing it. Post COVID, advertisers are spending a lot of money on digital and there is a clear ask for more transparency and a unified multimedia measurement system. That is one very big task before ISA. The second is building the profile of ISA in the industry as well as in the WFA. There is a lot to learn from our peers in other countries, and we will spend a lot of time working together on it.

Learn to live with uncertainty

In life, I abide by a philosophy given to me by one of my bosses at Marico, the late Gautam Nagvekar. He quoted this line at a very crucial time and it has stayed with me forever. Whenever the chips are down, I remind myself of the line. His words were, ‘Sunil, learn to live with uncertainty because uncertainty makes you powerful.’ There is no bigger uncertainty than COVID, but I tell myself that COVID is going to make me and everyone powerful.

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