No brand is bigger than the society in which it operates: Ravi Santhanam, HDFC Bank

In this edition of 'Beating All Odds', Ravi Santhanam, Chief Marketing Officer, HDFC Bank, speaks to exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 20, 2020 9:15 AM
Beating All Odds

These past weeks, we have been bringing you insights from agency heads, who have been doling out sage advice about what marketers should do during this time of crisis. In today's edition of 'Beating All Odds', we speak to Ravi Santhanam, Chief Marketing Officer, HDFC Bank.

Yours is an essential service. So how are you managing your business from home?

I would first like to thank all my employees and staff who, in spite of the situation on the ground, have had the courage to open 5,500 branches every day, and all the back-end staff who ensure the cash reaches the ATM, all cheques are cleared and the banking system continues to work. Around the world, along with medical staff, the police and law enforcement authority, the bankers are also doing a great service to the country and this is a time for me to acknowledge their contribution, not only from HDFC Bank but also the other banking industry personnel.

Around March 15th, we were clear that things were not going to be the same because we had seen it happen in various states and countries, so we were a bit prepared. The first thing we all did together was ensuring employee safety. We were sure the bank branches were going to be the operational majority of the time. So the company kicked off its business continuity planning framework. We came together to ensure employee safety and communication were given the top-most priority.

Thankfully, we have had no incidents so far, even though we have been operational for over the past 25 days. Our admin and infrastructure teams have learnt a lot in trying to figure out where to source supplies such as masks and hand sanitisers from. We have also reached out to our counterparts in other countries to know what all they have done. What we have done as a bank is in service of the nation without compromising employee safety.

Can you tell more about what was actually done on-ground?

For instance, in order to make sure that sanitisers reach the branches, we empowered branch managers to procure them along with training people so that they don't react to every piece of information that is being spread. The HR team also swung into action to train people. The branch management team took the lead in terms of getting the message, putting it together and ensuring that there is one source of information to the employees. So there was channelisation of all information to the employees so that they know what needs to be done. We also had multiple calls and video calls to make sure everyone was on the same page.

For us, the most interesting aspect was how to handle teller cash. One of the areas we touched and handled a lot was money. So we took the help of some of the country’s top doctors to ensure that the teller counters were protected. There were a lot of logistical challenges that we needed to overcome.

The staff were working on a rotation basis so that even if there was an incident, protocols were set to deal with it. For example, what do we do if one of our employees fell sick or if we find out later that one of our customers who visited the bank was tested positive for COVID-19 later? Accordingly, if I know that an incident happened on a particular day, then I can quarantine the rest of the people from that day. So we have to keep learning, work on the ground and do everything to make sure things go smoothly.

Tell us more about the recently launched ‘Safety Grid’ campaign.

As a bank, we were looking at what we could do at this stage of the situation. For many of us, including myself, this is the first time that we are experiencing such a crisis. Although we saw the dotcom bubble bursting in 2000 and the recession in 2007, this is the first health crisis that we are experiencing. So no one was really prepared for this even across the world with most learning on the fly about how to respond to this.

We have carried out a lot of initiatives for our customers. Firstly, we have kept the branches operational so that customers can still go to the bank to get their things done. Luckily, we had invested in advancing the digital technology on our platforms, so most of the things that you do on a regular basis can be done on our digital platform. We also have more than 13,000 ATMs, and we made sure that they were functional with cash being loaded on a daily basis.

We have also started mobile ATMs across Mumbai. With municipal authorities creating containment zones, people in these areas cannot venture out but since they still have to pay for groceries etc., we have brought in mobile ATM vans, which go inside housing societies to facilitate cash withdrawal for the residents. These are operational in Mumbai, Chandigarh and Coimbatore, and we will soon have them in more places.

We have cancelled, for now, charges on withdrawal for customers of other banks and done away with the minimum balance requirement for these three months. We have ensured that the RBI mandated moratorium be extended to all our customers, even corporate, SMB and retail. We were the first ones to ensure that the 'opt-in' for that moratorium was relatively easy with a web-enabled or a digital form. Hence, we have done a lot to make sure consumers are taken care of during this time.

We are also thinking of what could be done outside the financial services space and what assets we have to leverage on -- how can our brand be empathetic and relevant to what was happening on the ground?

We could say everything is being done digitally, but for the purpose of buying groceries, medicines, etc., you still have to go out. So what can we do? We can enable digital payments but people are still going out and there is a risk involved. At this point, people were talking about social distancing, and there were these circles coming up in many places. Then somebody in the agency had a brilliant idea to make this circle our logo. So if standing the circle is about being safe and HDFC's logo - the grid - is all about safety, then why not put them together?

There were lots of debates on this. We spoke to a number of seniors within the bank about the pros and cons of this as it involves sensitivity, particularly from the employees and consumers as well. Also, no brand is bigger than the society in which it operates.

We are operating in a society that is having a health issue, and my brand stands for safety and security. And if there is a way in which I can take what my brand stands for to another sphere -- the social sphere -- and help the society overcome or at least manage better, then why not? We all liked that thought. We are not bigger than our consumers or the society in which we are operating. Since people are going out to get groceries, medicines, etc., then why not put our logo on the ground to encourage social distancing, where people can stand on the logos and feel the same sense of security that they feel with their money when they bank with us.

When we did this as a pilot first in Kolkata, we approached the local authorities and they agreed to send people with us to implement it on-ground. We received a lot of cooperation and so far have implemented this in eight cities. We're covering 4,000 outlets across eight cities and have been receiving a lot of help from the police to help implement it. So we're happy with the response and that in our small way we are aiding social distancing. According to the response, we will implement this in other cities as well.

What advice would you give to other marketers at this time?

I think this is one of those situations when I don't think you should listen to anybody because nobody has seen this. Everybody is learning on the fly, and trying to see what they can do. Consumption is down, so there is no point in trying to communicate at this time but what is also important is consumers are available and it is time for us to be empathetic towards them. I am sure people are all home with "work from home" being the new norm. This is a time for you to engage with your customer and get the connect right. We knew people would be spending more time on social media and on OTT platforms, so using this opportunity, what can we say to them? From our perspective, it is all about digital security because people have gone back to digital modes of transactions, so we want to make sure our consumers are safely doing their transactions.

We have continuously invested in making sure that there are enough social media campaigns and we have reached out to a lot of customers about what should not be done during this time. We have put in a lot of effort in making people understand what to do and what not to on the digital mediums. So if you extend this to any other industry I would advise others to think about these but not to listen to anybody as no one has seen something like this before. So everybody is thinking about what is best from their brand's perspective, what their brand stands for with their consumers and how they can communicate with their consumer, be empathetic and relevant.

People are feeling very anxious at this time. Are there any other initiatives you are undertaking with your employees to boost their morale?

We had a very clear directional view on what we would do on a daily basis. For example, we start with a daily video call across HDFC Bank where every employee can talk on a video call starting from the top to bottom. So every morning I have my video call and in the same way, my team members do this directly with theirs. So that way, we are sure that someone from the bank has gotten in touch with you as another colleague and if there is anything you need, we can be of help. We are also learning more about how to use this medium and also the work from home set up. Certain functions and areas are relatively easy for us, while others are difficult. Some data, as a bank, cannot be accessed from home so we have to go to the branch to get it. That requires a lot of data-related work but compared to where we started off from a month ago, I think we have progressed a lot as a bank in enabling more people to work from home.

What have these unprecedented times taught you as a professional and as a person?

As a person, don't take anything for granted. As an individual, this is one thing I never thought will happen. Given the science and technology that we have, I never thought we would be cowed down by some unknown threat like this. And I have personally experienced swine flu. So this is the first time we are seeing something like this, so it makes you realise not to take anything for granted.

We're also figuring out on a personal level that there are many things we can live without. It is also a great time to reflect in terms of what one has done in their career, in life and in work. This is what we've been encouraging people to do, telling them to be in touch. Also, reskill and upskill yourself. I see a lot of my team members doing a lot of innovative and interesting things to upskill themselves. I also think respect for women has gone up. We say a lot of stuff but we never did it, but now I know I would never buy a house which I can't sweep myself. I know that for every working male who has been doing some household work during this time, the respect for working women would have increased phenomenally and it would be great if that continues.

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