Today's marketers are certainly not curious enough: Harish Bhat, Tata

Bhat, Brand Custodian at Tata Sons, on the importance of curiosity in today’s times, which or rather who he thinks is the most enduring brand, and his new role as author

e4m by Priyanka Mehra
Updated: May 5, 2017 8:54 AM
Today's marketers are certainly not curious enough: Harish Bhat, Tata

“In my view, today’s marketers are certainly not curious enough.  They tend to rest on their laurels all too easily. Often, many experienced marketers think they know it all, and hence do not search in interesting new areas.  They don’t spend enough time with their consumers, who are of course changing beneath their noses,” says Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian Tata Sons Ltd.

Bhat is a veteran marketer himself, having spent over 25 years within the Tata Group,  talking about his recently launched book “The Curious Marketer”, he shares his views on why today’s  marketers and brand custodians need to revive, their innate natural curiosity for better RoI, his pick of today’s curious marketers and more…

Edited excerpts :

Which are the brands besides the ones from the Tata stable you consider have been good examples of constantly re-inventing themselves and stay ahead of the curve? (could be Indian or international)

A brand that has constantly reinvented itself (or should I say himself), and has done so brilliantly, is James Bond.  This is a brand that is over 50 years old, but see how different and contemporary Daniel Craig’s James Bond is today in the recent movie “Spectre”, compared to Sean Connery in the very first Bond movie “Dr. No”.  The essence of James Bond continues to be the same (fearless, flirtatious British spy with a licence to kill), but note how everything else has changed – the technology, the settings, the cars, the gadgets that Q makes for Bond, and even the dapper modern suits that James Bond wears today.  Because James Bond has been reinvented, he remains so very relevant to today’s audience, and hence virtually every Bond movie delivers a hit and makes a fortune. 

I know this is an unconventional example, because it is not from the world of products and services, but 007 is surely an example that should inspire marketers to reinvent their own brands.

Do you think marketers today are curious enough? What are the real challenges they are facing today, in times when the role of a marketer itself seems to be undergoing dynamic changes?

No, in my view, today’s marketers are certainly not curious enough.  They tend to rest on their laurels all too easily.  Often, many experienced marketers think they know it all, and hence do not search in interesting new areas.  They don’t spend enough time with their consumers, who are of course changing beneath their noses. 

Younger marketers mistake digital surfing and data analysis for curiosity, which unfortunately it is not.  Curiosity requires marketers to search, to observe, to reflect on these observations, and to internalise relevant insights and learnings from this voyage.  How many marketers do this in today’s times ?

The biggest challenge that marketers face today is that their consumers are changing much faster than they are.  When this happens, marketers will end up being sadly outdated.

Does this innate natural curiosity seem to take a back seat with the pressures of ROI, taking on a whole new meaning ?

Curiosity can deliver fresh new ideas to marketers, which can trigger new growth opportunities and fantastic Return on Investment (ROI) as well.  An excellent illustration of this is a nice story about Steve Jobs that I have narrated in my book – how his curiosity led to the brilliant designs of Apple products, and this has eventually led to the creation of one of the most financially successful companies of our generation.  Would anyone argue that Apple does not have good ROI, or acceptable market capitalisation, because it was born out of curiosity?  Of course, the ideas that curiosity generates have to be validated, because each such idea may not yield acceptable financial returns.  But without curiosity your starting point becomes that much weaker.

What is the insight behind Curious Marketer, what prompted you to write a book on this subject? What does it aim to do? When did you start writing it? What helped you write it?

The simple insight behind my book “The Curious Marketer” is that marketers who are curious have a far better strike rate at being successful.  And every marketer can increase his or her curiosity quotient by following seven simple and practical steps, which I have explained in my book.

 I wrote this book because I am a very curious person.  I am curious about the places I visit, the people I meet, the food I eat, the teas and coffees I drink, the things I see around me.  And for the past three decades, I have also been a very keen marketer in the Tata Group.  So this book stands at a natural junction of my curiosity and my experience as a marketer.

 The only objective of this book is for readers to get a glimpse of what a wonderful thing curiosity is, and how they can become more curious than they already are.  All the fifty odd essays in this book try to nudge readers towards this goal.

 It took me a little more than three years to write all the essays contained in this book.  The Tata Group has a very supportive environment that implicitly encourages employees like me to embark on constructive initiatives such as this, in areas of our interest.  I think this was clearly the single most helpful factor in the writing of the book.  And then of course, since I write primarily over the weekend, it also helps greatly that my family always provides me the space and time that is so essential to good writing.  I consider myself very fortunate that both my professional home (the Tata Group) and my personal home (my family) are both very encouraging of my desire and urge to write. 

  In your many years as a marketer what is your biggest learning ? In hindsight which is that one campaign/marketing decision you would take differently today given a chance?

My biggest learning is that any brand, any product or service, should be built on a sharp consumer insight.  This consumer insight should reflect a key consumer need, or a problem in the consumer’s life that our brand can help solve.  Sometimes, the consumer may be aware of the need, and sometimes she may not be explicitly aware.  That does not matter.  The brand should still discover the need, and one good way of figuring it out is to be intensely curious about people, because people are our consumers.

There are many judgemental errors I have made over the years, and many marketing decisions I would have taken differently, with the benefit of hindsight. One of these stories comes from early in my career as a marketer, over 25 years ago, when I helped launch a brand called “Brahmaputra” Tea.  Unfortunately, this brand was not based on a very strong consumer need or insight, and so it does not exist anymore.  On the other hand, other brands of tea that we launched, such as Tata Tea and Chakra Gold Tea, which were based on strong consumer insights, have gone on to become strong market leaders in India.

Who among contemporary marketers of our generation, lives upto the title of a ‘Curious Marketer’ in India and globally as well?

Many great contemporary marketers are “Curious Marketers” too.  Steve Jobs of Apple.  Xerxes Desai of Titan.  Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.  Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy.  Howard Schultz of Starbucks.  Darbari Seth, who inspired the creation of Tata Tea and Tata Salt.  Jeff Bezos of Amazon.  Aamir Khan, whom I consider the marketing guru of Bollywood.  All of them have been very curious marketers in their own spaces.  I have had the privilege of seeing Xerxes Desai and Darbari Seth at close quarters within the Tata Group, and I know the restless curiosity that drove them, and helped them create world-class brands.

You have explained in a very interesting manner, how markers can learn from museums, can you explain this briefly for the benefit of our readers who haven’t accessed  your book?

Around two years ago, I visited two famous museums within a month of each other.  The Dr. Bhauji Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, and the British Museum in London.  At the Dr. Lad Museum, I was delighted to find the story of Mumbai city being told so enchantingly well through simple maps and exhibits, and a charming narration by our young guide.  At the British Museum, there was a special exhibit on the history of Germany.  Within an hour’s time, and through a few powerfully curated objects, the 600-year history of Germany had taken vivid birth in front of my eyes.  When I reflected on these visits with a curious eye, I came to the conclusion that marketers can learn a lot about the art of storytelling from museums.  Museums tell stories so much better, simpler and so much more powerfully than marketers generally do.  In my book, I have narrated this entire experience, including the specific storytelling tips that marketers can pick up from museums.

Which is your favourite chapter in the book?

Of course, the story of coloured socks, that’s my favourite.  I had always worn boring brown or black or blue socks to office, until, one fine day, my wife bought me two pairs of highly multi-coloured socks.  I call them “highly” coloured because they had bright green, red, yellow and blue colours, all within a single pair of socks.  I have narrated the curious voyage that these coloured socks led me on, and some of the very interesting learnings that coloured socks hold for marketers.  To know more, please do read this chapter in my book, and I hope this inspires some new and curious ideas in your mind too.

 Could you share with us any interesting anecdotes, that took place while writing the book?

One curious and interesting anecdote relates to the epilogue of this book.  My publisher called me sometime during the Diwali festival of 2016, to ask about the epilogue, and by when it would be ready.  I was in a car at that time, with my wife and 22-year old daughter, travelling from Delhi to BITS Pilani.  I had no idea when the epilogue would be ready, because I had not even begun writing it.  My daughter, overhearing the conversation, suddenly said – “Why don’t I write the epilogue ?  I have seen enough of your curiosity at home, and I can talk about all this very well, I think.”  When I suggested this to my publisher, he surprisingly accepted the idea immediately.  So when you read “The Curious Marketer”, I am sure this irreverent and rather critical epilogue written by my daughter will greatly interest you, even as it informs you about what curiosity can do to a family and to a young girl.  It also provides you a millennial’s point of view on curiosity.  Curiously enough, I also think this is the first book ever, that has an epilogue written by the author’s daughter. 

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