Curiosity skills the marketer

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons and is the chairman of Tata Global Beverages Ltd. and Tata Coffee Ltd. He is also a director on the boards of several other Tata Companies, including Titan, Trent, Tata Starbucks, Infiniti Retail, Tata Unistore  and Tata AIA Life Insurance Company.

Having joined Tata Administrative Service in 1987, Bhat has served in several senior roles and has played a key role in several strategic moves over the past two decades, including the launch and nurturing of many iconic brands of the Tata Group, the successful turnaround of the jewellery business, as well as the acquisition of Tetley. In 1997, he won the Chevening Scholarship for young managers, awarded by the British Government.  He has been a member of the Consumer Insights Panel of the Economic Development Board, Government of Singapore.  He has also represented the Tata Group on the Executive Committee of the World Federation of Advertisers.

A prolific writer and author of two books, Bhat talks to Swetha Amit about his recent book The Curious Marketer, which discusses why curiosity is important to marketers and how one should always seek to learn new things.

The Curious Marketer explores the nuances of how and why curiosity is essential for every marketer. What inspired this book?
The book was inspired by my own curiosity. I personally am a very curious person and like observing people, going to new places and learning from those places. I also love reading and am very eager to learn from the books that I read. I enjoy conversing with different kinds of people and listening to their viewpoints on varied subjects.  I am passionate about writing as well and all what I have written is a part of a column I write for The Hindu BusinessLine called The Curious Marketer. Therefore, I would say that the core of the book is a juncture of me being a curious person, a marketer for three decades and my love for writing.

Considering that marketing involves several aspects like human behaviour, design, production and services, would you term marketing as an art or science?
I believe marketing is becoming more and more as an art today. Let me put it this way. If you are a painter, you are engaging in an art. However, to engage in that art, there is a science which you have to learn such as the usage of a paintbrush and a canvas, etc. At the end of the day, the final product stems out of the painter's creativity. Marketing is similar to this.

There is a basic science to marketing such as market research, science of data analytics, understanding consumers and developing products which lay the foundation. Art is the ability to build a beautiful building on top of that foundation. Marketer should think of themselves as architects who build good buildings and require the art. However, in order to lay that solid foundation, the science of marketing has to be clear.

You have mentioned that the biggest stepping stone towards curiosity is to not have a 'know it all' attitude. But considering the fact that some people possess this trait, how do you propose they ignite the curiosity factor in themselves?
This is especially true for those who attain success in their career and reach senior positions too soon in life. They think they have done it all and this ultimately leads to overconfidence. This overconfidence can dampen their curiosity levels and stop them from pursuing their journey in life.

One way to ensure that none of us fall victim to overconfidence is to constantly remind ourselves that 90 per cent of all the knowledge in the world today has been created only in the past two years. Therefore, the fear of not being outdated with information can lead us to constantly seek information and prevent this 'know it all attitude' from persisting.

Companies should also constantly expose managers to new information, new knowledge, new data, people and programs. This enables them to understand that there is a lot out there, which they are not aware of. Learning is a continuous process and requires openness of the mind, humility and courage to admit that not everything is known to everyone. To be curious, we have to instill that childlike curiosity and be willing to ask questions irrespective of how strange they may sound to others.

Your book mentions how wildlife is often used in a brand especially in single categories to convey the key attributes of the brand such as in the case of Chevorlet Impala, Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Mustang. Why do you think Indian vehicles haven't followed this technique of naming their vehicles after animals so far?
For this to happen, I think it just requires some curiosity and the need for our marketers to stretch their imagination. However it's not just about the name. The entire concept has to reflect the name you give it. For instance, it's very difficult to call a vehicle elephant or a giraffe unless the key features resonates with the animal. There are about 7 million species of animals in the world, which are waiting for brands to adopt them.

You have spoken about how bookstores in the UK did roaring business when they introduced colouring books for adults - a product that brought out the inner child in the adult segment. According to you, what other similar products could be introduced to cater to this segment?
Let's look at the kind of activities we had as children.  Painting was definitely one of them. Besides that we used to play a lot of outdoor games as well, such as hide-n-seek, which were relaxing for the mind. One direction in which marketers can think is to bring in versions of these childhood games and adapt them for the adult segment.

Another direction marketers can steer towards is comic books. A lot of us have grown up reading Amar Chitra Kathas, Tinkles, etc. Though in the recent past there have been adult comic books, marketers can do much more with regards to this. Ice-creams and lollipops were also synonymous with childhood. There is an opportunity here to introduce a variety of ice-cream for the adult segment, which can bring out the inner child in grown ups. So there is a lot of scope for this segment if we just reflect on our childhood activities and see what can be moulded to cater to the adult segment.

You have mentioned an interesting point about how marketing is an art of storytelling, which marketers seemed to have forgotten today. Instead they tend to focus on figures and numbers instead. How do you think this art of storytelling can be revived?
I think the art of storytelling can be revived if marketers are encouraged to use their imagination. Every brand has an authentic story. Marketers should be able to go back to the roots and the core reasons why the brand was created in the first place. For this, it is essential that marketers are taught the principles and nuances of good story telling.

The art of storytelling is something which can be learnt and it's an enjoyable process. Unfortunately, no MBA program offers a course that teaches the art of storytelling, though they have case studies to analyse why some brands have failed. I feel that in every team of marketers, there should be at least one expert story teller. If you don't have a story teller, how will you create content for a brand?

You have also talked about brands disappearing and suddenly making a reappearance in a new incarnation. What are the factors that a brand keeps in mind while undergoing this reincarnation?
I think brands need to keep a few things in mind. First they need to be authentic with their original story. For instance Royal Enfield, which came back strong in the market is meant for a certain kind of segment and represents masculinity. Then it has to remain true to that. I also feel that contemporising the brand to today's consumers is very important. Brands like Levis, which are over 100 years old have managed to retain their true origin and at the same time contemporise to suit the needs of the new age customers.

A brand which has managed to do that successfully is James Bond. From the earlier movies to today, the brand has undergone a makeover right from the suit James Bond wears to the car he drives and the technology gadgets he uses. Bond is definitely a brand that has come back time and again and that's why it is so popular.

I recently read that another brand, which is looking to come back is Nokia. There is a lot of affection for Nokia. It has to leverage the nostalgia factor and yet position the brand in today's world of smart phones. It's an interesting marketing opportunity for the company. I am looking forward to see how it will recapture a market which it once virtually owned.

Learning from People, books, travel, research and publications provides excellent insights to human behaviour and lives. What are the literary works that have inspired you and that which have enhanced your insights about life?
So amongst the work of fiction, there are a few books that I go back to reading time and again. 100 years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favourites for the fascinating insights it gives about human behaviour.  Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie also tells you a lot about human behaviour. Now if I take the world of fiction to a different level altogether, I enjoy reading the works of Charles Dickens. It's an old-fashioned form of writing and it tells you a lot about people again.

 I also feel that Shakespeare was one of the greatest storytellers. He speaks about human truth, bringing to light the emotions and attributes that are a part of human behaviour such as greed, lust, ambition and jealousy. I also love Sherlock Holmes.  If I have to look at the books that encouraged me to think about human behaviour and curiosity, I would recommend a book by Professor Richard H Thaler titled Misbehaving. His theory is that most humans misbehave rather than behave as there are a lot of variables that we go through while making decisions. We don't always necessarily come to a rational, logical decision. It's a very fascinating read.

I also enjoy reading some of the magazines like Filmfare or Stardust. It tells me how celebrities behave. I like reading biographies of people as it tells me why great personalities like Nehru, Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi behaved the way they did.

Besides this, I also read books on marketing and business. I regularly read the Harvard Business Review, newspapers like the Mint, The Hindu BusinessLine and many interesting features about people, society, culture and politics in various publications.

All this feeds my curiosity constantly and I personally feel that curiosity does not have any boundaries.

Any more books in the pipeline?   
I love writing and I hope to pen down more books. However, in my current role, I don't get the space and time to immerse myself in writing books too often. I do write for publications and my Hindu BusinessLine column will continue.

I think writing also requires discipline and one must keep writing every fortnight or once a week to stay in touch with this art. So I am not sure when my next book will come out. However being the curious person that I am, I will keep looking for inputs. At some stage maybe those one or two inputs will spark an idea for my next book.

(See book excerpt: Book Excerpt from The Curious Marketer)