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Abraham Alapatt

Head - Brand | 22 Jan 2011

“If you want people to notice what you say, it has to be done slightly on the edge. Our whole perspective, is not that he is ruined or he is destroyed; it’s a mental trauma and not physical. I think we have been sensitive to that and I think we are talking to a much more mature and media savvy audience, than we were 5 years back. The fact that it is edgy implies the fact that people are noticing it. In fact, we are getting calls at our call center asking about the life ‘Insurance Week’, we have never got that kind of a response for our campaigns.”

Abraham Alapatt, who is working on making Future Generali emerge as the ‘dark horse’ in the field of insurance, has total of 14 years of experience across advertising, internet solutions, asset management and banking before his term with Future Generali. He started his career in 1995 as a management trainee and grew over the next four years to head the Client Servicing department. In 2000, Alapatt moved back into advertising and joined Ogilvy & Mather-Chennai, where he served for more than five years. As Client Services Director & Partner, Ogilvy Business Network (B2B Solutions), he headed an independent team accountable for more than 50 per cent of the office revenue. He also led the Business Development cell at Ogilvy, responsible for winning clients like Nippo batteries, Tamil Nadu Tourism and Sify among others. While at Ogilvy, Alapatt also led the team that won a personal commendation and WPP stock from Sir Martin Sorrell and the judges of the WPP Worldwide Partnership Program for helping the World Health Organisation and the Govt. of Tamil Nadu eliminate Lympahatic Filariasis in 2003. He moved to Mumbai in 2005 as Head, Brand & Communication – Reliance Capital Asset Management Company Limited (RCAM) the AMC of Reliance Mutual Fund, the largest mutual fund in India, overseeing all brand related needs including advertising, public relations, sales support, marketing support, market research and media relations.

Currently at Future Generali (since September 2008) Alapatt has brought together a Brand & Corporate Communication team that oversees all brand and corporate communication needs for both the life insurance and general insurance businesses.

In a conversation with e4m’s Shubhangi Mehta, Alapatt talks about the future of insurance and how the market is shaping up.

Q. Future Generali is one of the late entrants in this sector – how difficult would you say it has been in making a place for yourself.

We were number 19 in the field of 22 players when we started off (now 24). I think, as you come in later it’s mostly disadvantageous but there are some advantages as well. Disadvantage of-course is that a consumer may think that why should I consider number 19 when I could consider one of the top three. So we were at number 19, Future Group was not so known,Generali was a big group worldwide but in India, not many knew it. So those were big problems we had because most companies that start with India, have an Indian partner like other financial services and Future Group is actually less known than its formats. If you say Big Bazaar, more people will know it as compared to people knowing about Future Group; less people know it, so we are trying to tell people that we are the same group that owns all these formats. Those are few of the challenges that we had. On the upside, I think, coming in at the time we did which was the hardest economic year for India was a tough thing. Coming in when it’s tough is always better because you are geared for the tough times and you build your entire network when the world is not all that pretty. If you come in at good times when talent is available, you are flourishing, people are buying, there is no economic crisis you tend to have a false sense that nothing is going to go wrong. Our entry during a tough time gave us a great sense of reality and there was efficiency from the word ‘go’. The other advantage we had was our formats, such as getting insurance at Big Bazaar, this gives you access to a free database of customers coming in. You are getting a chance to speak with them free of cost. As a strategy, what we also did was to approach a customer as one virtual company. So what we did was make the customers look into their entire insurance portfolio because let us face it, at times we ourselves don’t know what we need is a pure life insurance or a general insurance. Then general insurance itself has multiple categories it can be your home, your car etc. These are some of the things we had to do differently because we were number 19 and consciously from day one we said we’ll go after number of policies rather than premium. The problem was that, a large number of people would ask for an insurance cover for less than 5 lakhs which is fine, however, what they need to be told was that, it may not be enough in today’s scenario.

Q. Your recent ad using ghosts, is an interesting idea – can you tell us more on this thought process?

I’d in fact like to share some statistics on insurance density premiums per capita, all this being in US dollars. The US for example pays $ 37,100 on an average annually per capita and UK pays $ 45,788. Even in Asia, Japan pays $ 39,790, Singapore $ 25,576 and Malaysia $ 3,218. Even Thailand, which is considered a poor Asian country pays $ 1,344, India on the other hand pays $ 549 even an Iran which is a war torn place is $ 589 (above us). So India is number 19 in Asia. This figure is for a country that is projecting itself as the next economic super power. Our penetration is ridiculously low and it means that we are getting richer, but we are not insuring ourselves. It’s also coming from traditions. Our forefathers didn’t take insurance seriously because of the joint family system since the joint family system acted as insurance, the assets were all pooled in and if there is a death in the family, the others pool in. Though, since the last two generations the joint family system is breaking apart, so now we have nuclear families but we are still accustomed to the old idea. Also, 16 per cent of the investments happen during January,
February, March, so, as long as I get a tax saving I’m ok because in my mind insurance is only for that. We wanted to make a statement and be the company that actually makes people consider the importance of an insurance plan and possibly do something about it. We knew a friendly happy message is not going to do this because all the 22 players before us have all got happy family messages and it’s not helping. So we decided to pass on a hard hitting message and for that, we had to do something out of the ordinary, we had to almost shock people and make them realise that life is not always going to be so good and at the same time, package it in a way that it is acceptable. It couldn’t be scary, but it had to be scary enough for people to take notice. There had to be a fine balance. Everybody talks about life being happy if you have insurance, but we spoke about the afterlife when you do not have an insurance cover. So in our campaign we had the ‘Karta’ which is a very Indian thought, where the bread owner has to insure himself to protect the family so it focuses on what happens if the ‘karta’ has not done it, he will not have peace of mind hence we thought we could take that insight and give a strong message. We just want to explain to the audiences that a simple act of taking up insurance can give you peace of mind, even in your afterlife.

Q. Do you think this is an idea that an Indian audience would relate to, rather not get offended by, given the beliefs of many in an afterlife?

If you want people to notice what you say, it has to be done slightly on the edge. Our whole perspective, is not that he is ruined or he is destroyed; it’s a mental trauma and not physical. I think we have been sensitive to that and I think we are talking to a much more mature and media savvy audience, than we were 5 years back. The fact that it is edgy implies the fact that people are noticing it. In fact, we are getting calls at our call center asking about the life ‘Insurance Week’, we have never got that kind of a response for our campaigns. Insurance has always been one of the boring categories and no one ever calls up and inquires about an advertising campaign and we normally have to remind customers about our advertising campaigns. Here, we are getting people to call up and ask what ‘Insurance Week’ is all about and that could happen only by getting their attention. We could get that attention by doing risky stunts or going to exotic locations as well, but here we did something that is slightly not normal and in the process, if I end up offending a few people and yet make them realise the importance of insurance, I have pretty much done my job. So we are getting people to sign white balloons and drop them at drop boxes and at the end of it, create an awareness of insurance. We also plan to make ‘Insurance Week’ an annual event.

Q. A lot of other insurance agencies are creating buzzes with their schemes and marketing spree but there has not been much noise from Future Generali. Do you have anything coming-up in near future?

Yes, our last campaign was FGSIP. What we are trying to do is create simplified products that are cost effective. One of the things about large marketing campaigns is that they have to be subsidised to the cost and the cost, somehow or the other is borne by policy holders. So what we try is that, if we bring in more cost efficient products from a customer interest point, sometimes there isn’t any margin to make campaigns. In away what we are also trying to do is build up to create the ‘Insurance Week’, the biggest campaign we have ever done. So while we did some activity in the first half of the financial year, the second half we were a bit quiet as we were building up stocks. So between now and March 31, you will see a lot more activity. The other thing I look forward to before March is the health campaign.

Q. How much of a role can marketing play for an insurance brand – don’t you think people are skeptical of what they hear anyway?

It is very important, especially for a new brand. For example, SBI needed no introduction, but everybody like ICICI or HDFC have spent the first 6-7 years explaining that they were present in the market and they offer insurance. That’s because people believe in the visibility of a brand. If you take an insurance plan then it’s not you but someone else, like your spouse or family, who will take benefits out of your policy. For this you need to have immense trust in the policy you take. So marketing helps the customers to choose and understand agencies. People do not buy insurance policies based on ads but it helps recall or probably understand the agency more. To answer your question, for new brands, first five years are critical in terms of marketing.

Q. What are the key mediums for your marketing mix? Why?

Television, print, radio, digital… Digital is big for us, what we are doing is creating a virtual balloon application, where you can sign your name on a virtual digital balloon and we get an alert here. We will finally release the balloons on behalf of every virtual balloon. Social media is also included in digital like Facebook and OOH.

Q. What percentage of your advertising spent is allocated for digital medium? What innovations are you doing in the digital sphere?

About one tenth is our spend is on digital. As far as innovation in the digital sphere is concerned, the virtual balloon application is an innovation. What we are doing on our Facebook page, is that we are not really pitching Future Generali products and services. We decided, we are going to have a community and it had to be something where we did not have to do selling, because if I ask you to buy insurance products the day you join you would probably get turned off and Facebook allows you a million options of who you want to follow or not follow. So we said we’ll make it relevant and created exciting content. Nobody goes to a Facebook page to buy an insurance product. So, we are keeping it contextual, we are also making it fun. Many people use social media to advertise and that is a bummer.

Q. How has digital delivered in terms of creating visibility for the brand?

It is hard to say. But the fact that digital is growing by leaps and bounds can be measured from the fact that today we are getting one fifth of our payments online. It effectively means that people are increasingly looking at painless, instant payment solution. Of course we have done a lot of work prior to this statistic, telling people that they can buy online and stuff like that. I wouldn’t take much credit for us having communicated as much as people themselves are looking forward to it; us informing them or them doing a Google search or going to our website and find out is our indicator of growing convenience and speed. So I think people are looking for digital solutions everywhere and our industry is not an exception and from the business point of view, I think this channel is critical, both in terms of communication and in terms of factual commerce.

Q. What are the advantages and challenges of this medium in the current scenario?

Advantages - I think it cuts through time; it goes straight to the user. Hypothetically, if I give my ad in a newspaper, I don’t know whether a particular person reads that particular newspaper but the one thing that he or she actually does religiously, is check their mail boxes, so as long as you have a way of getting into their mailbox. So the direct form and an instant way of reaching out to thousands and millions of people may be through mass emailing. Disadvantage for me is obviously PC penetration. One thing that can change that dramatically is the mobile phone. We are seeing India jump from a cyber zone access directly to a smart phone data access. The fact that in India we have the largest LinkedIn data base and among the most number of facebook applications per day, means that this generation of India is using mobile access.

Q. How does Future Generali view events as a medium?

Events are a big part of what we do. We don’t do large events but the ‘Insurance Week’ might be an exception to it. What we have tried is to go into societies, jogging parks, go where people are, so that we integrate with them and make it easy and convenient for them to interact. So we are doing all these activities almost every month, since we started. We have also created ‘exclusivo’, which is Italian for exclusive, for our high network customers. We are basically giving them privileged banking, since these 20% customers are giving us 80% of our premium. We give them fast track policy for claims.

Q. Why Big Bazaar for Mukti Campaign?

Big Bazaar is pretty much a cultural melting point. If you go to Big Bazaar today you will find a Mercedes in the parking lot and a two wheeler with four people getting off it. So it pretty much means that Big Bazaar has broken down all barriers, since everybody comes here. I think that is working for us, so what better place to run an insurance campaign than Big Bazaar?

Q. Was there some form of on-ground manifestation of this with Big Bazaar?

Yes, from 29 January to 6 February, which is ‘Insurance Week’ you will see physical media in the store helping people with their insurance need. You will see volunteers helping people sign the balloons. There will be announcements saying “don’t forget to sign up for ‘Insurance Week’.” Infact there is always a full time insurance desk in 119 Big Bazaar from Future Generali where you can actually buy insurance. They will gather your key information there and then later contact you for further formalities.

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