“Coming from my background with Indian parents, there’s a saying: you can either be a doctor, an engineer or a failure…I was a failure,” Raj Kumar, Aviva’s brand and reputation director, reflected wryly last week.
The Financial Services Forum’s Marketeer of the Year made the tongue-in-cheek comment during a career-spanning interview with Incisive Media editorial director Adrian Barrick ahead of his keynote at the FS Martech conference on 21 April.
“I didn’t fall into marketing as a lot of people seem to do; I actually wanted to be in sales and marketing, and at that time it was sort of hand in glove,” he said.
After graduating in economics from Delhi university, he stepped “out of his comfort zone” in several ways, including by working in different countries and by moving from the telecoms industry (with stints at Nokia and Siemens) to financial services in 2011.
Asked where his motivation comes from, Raj characterised it as “a desire to drive improvement in what I see.”
“I don’t like the status quo”, he said, explaining that he continually considers the ways he can “use [his] imagination to do something better.”
The ripples of Covid
Evolution has of course been catalysed by the Covid pandemic, and Raj reflected on a number of trends that have impacted both marketing and the wider world in the year since the Covid lockdown was introduced.
These ranged from seemingly minor changes – the decline of the commute as a moment to time promotions, for example – to macroeconomic trends such as an increase in savings and a decline in credit card debt.
“The ripple effects will take time to work themselves through.
“My view is that all of those savings will go on big holidays; I don’t think we’ve become a nation of savers.”
Raj said that larger businesses have had to respond to the crisis by speeding up decision making.
“There are connections and pipes [between different parts of the business] where none have existed before.”
This enables Aviva “to be agile and quickly learn from things.” The realisation that people can productively work remotely will also continue to have an impact for the industry.
The inner Elon Musk: tech and data
Adrian asked how marketeers can ensure that new strategies could survive the end of the pandemic, once the “fierce urgency of now” in Martin Luther King’s words has gone.
“Overall, I think the biggest thing is setting the vision and strategy and having…as many conversations as it takes and then some more,” said Raj, emphasising the importance of ensuring everyone in the organisation knows the vision and their role in achieving it.
“Too often the strategy seems to be something ethereal and far away.”
This strategy of course needs to be informed by the voice of the customer. In terms of the practice of marketing, Raj said Aviva has a programme which constantly scans customers’ attitudes and behaviours. He says that this needs to be a broad view – companies can’t become too “obsessed” with one particular score.
“There’s no one silver bullet,” said Raj, citing a combination of commercial and brand health metrics being relevant.
In his view, data is important but it should be a “base point” rather than the whole strategy, and cautions against collecting data “just because [you] can.”
For one thing, people can have differing interpretations from the same data point.
“People get too tied up in getting numbers right; don’t be a slave to it.”
He likened it to a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno: “all strategy goes out after the first punch to the face.” One example is the pandemic, where many people were ready with campaigns in March 2020 but were hit by an event they could not have predicted.
Exhorted by Adrian to “channel his inner Elon Musk” and reflect on the most important emerging technologies marketers should be using, Raj highlighted one particularly valuable use case for data in Aviva. This is a piece of AI called SONAR which can look in real time across all complaints coming in and combine to give real-time insights about potential issues.
Brand building in a crowded market
Discussing branding, he highlighted how financial firms can often appear very similar and services to some extent commoditised. This means that being aware of the market context is critical.
“Very quickly by looking at the world you can see what it would take to stand out.”
He says there are three contexts firms operate in: the marketing context, the competitive context and the industry context.
The “privileged position” Aviva has, Raj explained, is reaching across different areas of financial services, including general insurance, life insurance and health, savings and investments so that it is always able to support customers in whatever they are doing.
Raj said it is the “smallest” of emotional connections he is trying to make.
“I don’t want [the customer] to fall in love with me. It’s about the emotional benefit, a bit of peace of mind when going on holiday.”
He talked about the importance of internal culture in supporting marketing messaging – marketing and communications serve the company’s link to the wider world.
“You build all of that inside out; the culture is the heartbeat.”
The personal side
Raj had some words of advice to younger marketeers who might wish to follow his career trajectory.
“Get a bit uncomfortable, move out – that’s how you learn. Too many times, I just wanted to impress my boss, do a good job and not move out because I could be a failure.
“People don’t talk about or go over failure, but that’s how you truly learn and reflect on it.”
This willingness to take risks should ideally extend to the practice of marketing itself: he said that smaller companies with lesser budgets can achieve good results by being “a bit guerrilla”.
Raj concluded by sharing some insight into his life beyond marketing: he was spending the evening making chocolate mousses and cookies for his children’s scouts session.