In a dazzling recounting of his lived experiences, we have Aishwarya Pratap Singh, Head of Marketing- Snacks, Noodles and Pasta, ITC Limited. He is a distinguished alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad with over 14 years of experience in brand management, product development, consumer engagement, channel management, sales & distribution management spanning across diverse categories and geographies.
Let’s buckle up, as he walks down memory lane on his years in the FMCG industry, his takeaways from IIM Ahmedabad, the adrenaline rush of working in CoVID realities and the importance of career planning.
1. You began your journey in Management 14 years ago. What made you choose this path?
While in hindsight, it is easy to make claims about my calling for marketing during my graduation, the fact remains that I took one step at a time. Engineering was almost a given, coming from a middle-class family. It was known to unlock a bright career ahead. Studying civil engineering in one of the most prestigious institutes was inspiring. However, by the third year I realized that both from the career as well as from the interesting point of view, business management had gotten me excited. In fact, the entrance exams for CAT looked a lot more interesting to me than the preparation for civil services or a job in an IT company/ civil engineering company. Looking back, those decisions seem to have fallen into place. It would be hard on my younger 20-year-old self, if I start attributing reason and logic to every decision (right or wrong) I made then. Every step in the journey takes you closer to what you are today. There are no mistakes, there are only learnings.
2. What were your expectations when you joined IIMA and how did it change as you graduated?
I landed at IIMA at the age of 21, with no prior work experience. It was like Alice in wonderland. Everyone spoke about doing an MBA after working for a couple of years to get clear expectations from the course as well as to learn/perform better. But I was not sure if I would have been able to do that once I got into the corporate world.
IIMA is one of the best management institutes in India and I was lucky to be a part of this iconic institute. On the day of joining, I remember someone telling me that joining IIMA is easier than passing out of it. So my expectations were more from myself than from the institute; that is to clear IIMA respectfully!
Expecting academic excellence is basic at IIMA and I cannot over-emphasize on what I gained every single day of my stay at IIMA. At the end of two years’ roller coaster ride, I could say that I had received not just a diploma in management but I graduated in the course of life’s challenges too.
Some of those being:
- Stress management: From multiple courses, demanding deadlines and group dynamics to striving alone to complete the assignments, those two years of stress testing makes every future career stress a lot easier.
- Time management: Once you understood how to divide time between the delicious mess lunch and study for the surprise quiz (that used to get announced just before the lunch for the post-lunch test), you knew the actual meaning of time management quite well
- Perfection: The atmosphere drives you towards perfection; nothing but the best even if it means one more iteration by waking up till 4 AM.
- Being humble: Being taught by some of the finest brains and studying with some of the most experienced people in their fields keeps you grounded. Staying humble is not a choice, it becomes the way of life.
- Meeting amazing people: We learnt together (I mostly learnt from others. I still remember the late night session by our CA friends to clear doubts), we grew up together, we shared joys and pains together and we made friends for a lifetime.
When I look back, I feel proud to be part of the legacy. So don’t just go by the academic excellence or high profile placements, there are these intangibles that stay with you throughout your life.
3. It is rare these days to find someone who builds a committed career in one organization for 12 years and running. How has this journey at ITC been like?
Since the beginning of my professional career, I have looked at two vectors: Learning and growth.
There are many ways to grow/ learn with no fixed formula. While some prefer to keep exploring newer opportunities/ industries/ companies, I preferred to stay here.
I use a simple indicator to gauge myself. When I wake up in the morning, do I need to drag myself to my work or do I feel excited to reach the office to do or learn something interesting? I have been with ITC for the last 12 years largely because my indicator has given me a satisfying reading. No matter how clichéd it may sound and no matter how many times you must have heard this, the fact remains that we end up spending 8-10 hours physically and almost 15-18 hours mentally every day at work. So money doesn’t have the ability to impact decisions beyond a point.
Also, ITC is a conglomerate without barriers as people move seamlessly across functions, divisions and locations. The sheer scale and size of the organization gives you a feeling of many companies within one company. So you are never short of options. I kept getting exciting opportunities, newer roles and locations. And thankfully, those movements were in line my objectives. Also, ITC is an employee-friendly organization. The systems are designed to maximize productivity while taking care of all needs.
4. Can you tell us describe a typical day in the life of a Brand Manager based on your experience?
I will take this as an opportunity to set expectations right about the life of a brand manager. There are many misconceptions about what happens in a brand role. I have come across individuals who expect to be involved in just strategy-making from day 1 and end up feeling disappointed when the role gets execution heavy.
There is more to the role of a brand manager than meets the eyes and it broadly falls under 3 buckets: execution excellence, strategic mindset and innovation. I call it the rule of 70/ 20/ 10. Details mentioned in the graphic below:
I strongly believe that execution excellence is vital to the success of any brand manager. The execution experience helps you to make a strong and feasible brand strategy, and that is the difference between a good strategy and a bad strategy.
5. Talking about this dynamic industry, what kind of skills do you think future Brand Managers need to possess?
Let me start with the bais rule of Brand Management: Consumer should be at the core of every decision made/ action taken. A true brand manager is obsessed with understanding consumer needs.
As far as the future of brand management is concerned (also called as Marketing 4.0), we should differentiate between the objective and the tool. Digital marketing, social media, Print, Radio, TV, OTT- these are just mediums or tools to reach out to the consumer, while the core objective is to reach out to the consumer and influence her decision-making process.
So rather than getting worried about the upcoming tools or new mediums or new engagement platforms, focus on the core question - Do I know my consumer well? How do I reach out to her in a cost-effective manner? New tools or emerging mediums can be learnt and understood in no time.
6. With the recent COVID outbreak, how has the business scenario for the FMCG industry changed?
One of the highlights of Covid-19 is that it has reinforced the differentiation between necessities and desires. We now understand what is critical and what can be avoided/ postponed/ forgotten. FMCG products form the bedrock of consumption. There are many motivations for the existence of FMCG products. But the one thing that is common across these, are the basic human needs and we can’t be alienated from these needs even under most severe conditions like Covid-19 pandemic.
And that’s the reason the FMCG industry has experienced the lowest drop and the fastest recovery. There was an initial jolt in April’20 but not because of demand dip from consumer’s side, rather due to the supply chain disruptions ranging right from factory productions, manpower availability and vehicle movements to retail outlet closures. However, the industry quickly bounced back thanks to tremendous efforts by the frontline teams and inherent strengths in the supply chain and distribution. In fact, as per Nielsen, FMCG is back to 98% of the pre-covid level in the month of June with essential categories like atta, biscuits, noodles growing over last year.
One more thing that we all have learnt is agility. The rapid ramp-up of production while still maintaining the safety protocols, delivering under manpower constraints, use of technology to tide over work from home, understanding new consumer behaviours, coming up with relevant and winning communications while still being sensitive about the overall pandemic scenario, adapting communication to both traditional and unconventional mediums, we have learnt a lot in these 6 months.
In the words of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin-"There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen" What seemed impossible to imagine a few months back is happening day in and day out now under these extraordinary conditions.
7. You have briefly worked in Sales before moving into Marketing. Are sales the same as it was when you started? With the Post-COVID situation, what is set to change, according to you?
I started my FMCG career with sales in 2006. I still remember the 1st day of my job travelling along with the salesman to take orders. It was a methodical approach of visiting 30-40 outlets in a day, halting for a brief chat at each outlet, followed by stock-taking and then order booking before moving to the next one. This is the core of sales - the moment of truth when customer/ retailer decides to buy your product. And that core has not changed over the years.
However, sales enablers are evolving with the advent of technology. Earlier salesmen used to carry an order book to note down orders and count units physically. Nowadays he is equipped with a handheld/ smartphone app that not only helps him in taking orders but also helps him in observing the performance of the retailer, purchase history, focus products etc. This information helps him in selling the relevant portfolio. The digital transformation is improving response time and decision making even at a grass route level.
Post Covid-19, we are noticing quicker adoption of e-commerce by the consumer and it is likely to continue in future also. However, e-commerce currently contributes ~1% of FMCG sales and it’s a long way before e-commerce starts playing a dominant role in FMCG space. Meanwhile, grocery shops are adapting to the new normal with digital payments, online order-taking and innovative approaches to ensure social distancing in the shop.
8. Do you have any message for MBA students who have recently joined the program and are still figuring out what career path to choose?
MBA is a roller coaster ride so plan accordingly. There are few areas to focus:
- Focus on learning: It will take you forward in life and is only limited by your intentions.
- Focus on increasing industry exposure: summer internship, live projects, guest lectures, alumni interactions and so on. You must know more about every field before taking decision
- Focus on making friends: Don’t miss the opportunity to create genuine bonding by making friends. Your batch mates will be your biggest support in your professional journey.
- Don’t be uni-dimensional: MBA is unlike graduation. Learn anything and everything, develop a well-grounded personality and prepare yourself for the career ahead.
Regarding career planning, there is one suggestion - Plan things but don’t over-plan. Life is chaotic, information may not fully available all the time and trends change over time.
If, trying to figure out what you want to be gets difficult, filter out what you definitely don’t want to do in life i.e. areas those are beyond your comprehension and peace of mind. Between the options left, pick the opportunity that presents itself. As long as you are 60-70% sure about that decision, move ahead. And trust me, there is no career damaging or life-changing decision that you can take to harm your future.
There is always a second and a third chance (a small example: I couldn’t clear ITC during campus, but later I got an opportunity and joined as a lateral candidate). Don’t be obsessed with being right the first time. If you couldn’t join your preferred MBA institute, if you couldn’t get into your dream organization or even if you didn’t get the profile you wanted, just remember the quote from the movie Kungfu Panda:“Your story may not have a happy beginning, but that doesn't make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you choose to be.”