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Lata Subramanian

Vice President - Marketing | 30 Oct 2013

The consumer purchase decision process has transformed and has become more dynamic as communication is no more one way. For a brand to be successful on digital platforms, a relationship based on credibility and trust has to be formed. That means listening, responding, engaging and acting – in other words, the power is shifting to consumers. This dynamism can be seen in the purchase decision process, which is being powerfully impacted by the digital world.

Lata Subramanian, Vice President - Marketing, Sterling Holiday Resorts India, has over three decades of experience across a range of service-related industries such as hospitality, civil aviation, advertising and publishing. She has worked with companies such as Jet Airways, East India Hotels, Lintas (now Lowe) and Trikaya (now Grey) and has scripted the conceptualisation and execution of several successes, including the Change Management programme in 1999 for Jet Airways, ‘Operation Revitalise’, the introduction of Johnson’s Baby Gift collection and the successful countering of P&G’s Whisper by marketing a higher order consumer benefit for Johnson’s Silkydry. The advertising campaigns she spearheaded for Lakme, Cadbury’s and Canbank Mutual Fund, amongst others, won several awards, including the Ad Club ‘Campaign of the Year’ for Lakme Colours.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Simran Sabherwal, Subramanian speaks at length about Sterling’s new digital campaign ‘India Unveiled’, growing importance of digital platforms for the travel and hospitality industry and much more...

Q. Could you tell us the insight behind your latest digital campaign – ‘India Unveiled’?

The insight behind ‘India Unveiled’ was – travel planning and the expedition or holiday itself becomes more exciting when you are armed with knowledge that is not readily available on the beaten tourist tracks. Couple this insight with the fact that India is a country with a rich heritage and many amazing facts about India are known only to the intelligentsia and academics. India Unveiled was a concept born from this line of thinking, leading to a campaign designed to unveil one amazing story a day about the nation’s amazing diverse culture, geography, history and achievements, amongst other aspects.

Sterling believes that this campaign will showcase India’s rich heritage, which makes India a destination where the more you explore, the more there is to discover. This initiative is in line with Sterling’s mission of delivering enhanced holiday experiences to our Vacation Ownership members and one-time Leisure Holiday guests. A vital aspect of delivering memorable holiday experiences is to share knowledge about India and the destinations we operate in, and this campaign communicates aspects of India that will be of interest to travellers and Indians everywhere. Social media is the right medium for such an effort, especially since travel is a category which sees a great deal of community sharing.

Q. What is the fundamental strategy and objective of your digital campaigns?

Sterling follows a four-pronged approach towards the digital landscape – member and prospect engagement, customer acquisition, and online reputation management:
Member Engagement: Sterling has a large base of over 67,000 Vacation Ownership members. We use digital platforms to regularly touch base with our members and disseminate important information such as the opening of new resorts, new membership features and special offers. Once a family acquires a Sterling membership, they become part of a larger family circle and develop a relationship with the organisation, resort staff and other members. The engagement that ensues leads to members readily sharing their travel experiences on social media and even on YouTube, which leads to further engagement.

Prospect Engagement: The objective is to go beyond just commercial messages and develop a relationship where a prospective member or one-time leisure holiday customer is engaged through knowledge sharing of travel and relevant company related information.

Customer Acquisition: To generate quality enquiries, we invest in campaigns across specific publishers and brand alliances, which cater to our target audience. These campaigns, with special promotion offers, are targeted both for prospective Vacation Ownership members and One-Time Leisure Holiday guests.

Online Reputation Management: Sterling listens to what consumers are saying on social media and interacts with such consumers both online and offline. The feedback is analysed and taken on board in a continuous effort to live up to our member and non-member expectations of a great holiday.

Q. What are the trends that you are seeing in consumer purchase decision and how is digital platform impacting this?

The consumer purchase decision process has transformed and has become more dynamic as communication is no more one way. For a brand to be successful on digital platforms, a relationship based on credibility and trust has to be formed. That means listening, responding, engaging and acting – in other words, the power is shifting to consumers. This dynamism can be seen in the purchase decision process, which is being powerfully impacted by the digital world. A brand can drop out of a consideration process at any time or be brought into a consideration set mid-stream merely by reviews on digital media. Today, consumers are turning to the Internet and reaching out to a much wider circle of the consuming public to gain knowledge and make informed purchase decisions. In such a scenario, brand reputation and likeability have become more vital than ever.

Q. The travel industry as a whole has taken to the online platform in a big way. How do you differentiate yourself from your competition in such a scenario?

The key to successful marketing is relevant differentiation – be it in the offline or online world. The brand positioning does not and should not change across offline and online platforms. Currently, Sterling is working towards differentiating itself from direct and indirect competition in the travel and tourism world through meaningful and rich initiatives such as India Unveiled or concepts such as Holiday Beats, which has become a brand property now. Everything we do, we ensure that it’s related to our business and based on strong insights and concepts, which the target audience will find interesting and meaningful enough to respond to.

Q. As a marketer, what are your expectations from your digital agency?

The digital agency segment is an evolving one and all parties, be it an organisation, marketing, or digital agency, are still grappling with understanding consumer behaviour in a digital world and how to address it. The digital medium is a demanding, 24x7 one and to date, digital agencies have not really geared up to be proactive. Most digital agencies prescribe generic principles of digital marketing, but either don’t have the resources or a true understanding of digital brand or marketing strategies. Many have technical knowledge, but lack brand and creative skills. The digital agency that succeeds in marrying the two will succeed in growing rapidly as companies increasingly divert marketing budget to digital media.

Digital agencies also need to understand the brand not in the digital world alone, but also in the offline world, so that there is true integration and delivery of a cohesive brand strategy. At Sterling, we are learning to largely manage digital marketing and communication strategies independently and our agencies are tasked with execution.

Q. What is your content strategy for social media?

We have a multi-layered strategy, comprising:
• Knowledge – Interesting facts about India and the destinations that Sterling offers. This knowledge is shared through social media platforms such as Facebook, Google+, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and our own
• Culture – We celebrate local (our destinations)and pan-Indian festivals and traditions
• Resorts related – Information about celebrations at our resorts and special holiday activities
• Fun and Engaging – From time to time, we run holiday-related contests such as Holiday Beats, Monsoon Holiday Beats, Romantic Holiday Beats, OMG! Holiday Moments, etc.
• Pictorial – It is always good to use vivid imagery. It involves people much faster. The learning here is that very few people these days have the time or patience to read lengthy text. So, we use visuals to attract with pithy text highlighting the main message.

Q. Could you tell us about a successful digital campaign?

We measure success relative to the internal objectives we set first and then against available industry norms. When we launched Holiday Beats, we had a minimal presence on Facebook and had just around 15,000 fans. The first round took us to over 100,000 and the next two rounds (Monsoon and Romantic Holiday Beats) took us to over 200,000 fans.

We think this burst of India Unveiled is an unqualified success judging by a simple parameter. At the start of the campaign, we had defined the ‘desired response’ as “Hey, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that about India. It feels good to be an Indian”. We have received comments identical to the defined desired response on so many of our daily India Unveiled stories. We are, therefore, really happy with this campaign and post this success, hope to do much more to unveil India further to our members and guests.

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