Azmat Habibulla

CMO, South Indian Bank

Decoding Marketing Strategies for Banks with Azmat Habibulla

In this interview between Kishan Panpalia, Head of Business at Pepper Content, and Azmat (Attari) Habibulla, Chief Marketing Officer at South Indian Bank, we explore the evolving landscape of content marketing in the BFSI industry, the role of digitalization, and the importance of staying ahead in a rapidly changing technological world. Azmat offers valuable perspectives on how banks can engage with customers beyond traditional banking services, adopting a holistic approach to meet the complex needs of modern consumers.

Here are some excerpts. 

1. After spending nearly 15 years at ICICI Bank, followed by a transition to South Indian Bank, could you share insights on your professional journey?

My professional journey commenced in the 1990s after completing my MBA from NMIMS. Initially drawn to the world of brands, storytelling, and customer insights, I had a clear vision of my career path—I aspired to be a marketer. Over the past 26 years, this ambition has been a consistent thread throughout my career. 

I've been fortunate to work across various brands and customer segments, gaining expertise in every facet of marketing. My career took off at Balsara Hygiene Products Limited, later acquired by Dabur, where I gained valuable experience and managed brands like Promise and launched Miswak Toothpaste. This phase marked a significant start to my career.

Transitioning into the BFSI sector, I spent time at Island FS Investment and 15 years at ICICI Bank. Currently, as the CMO of South Indian Bank, I've had a dynamic journey, spanning various customer segments from wholesale and corporate banking to SMEs, ultra HNI private banking, rural marketing, and inclusive banking in tier two and three cities.

My approach has always been customer-centric, driving initiatives based on consumer insights. I've had the privilege of creating iconic media properties like Emerging India Awards, NRI of the Year, Business Beyond Borders, and SME Elite 50, collaborating with networks like CNBC, ET Now, and Times Now.

Embracing digital marketing, I've upskilled myself with courses from Columbia Business University. My passion for digital marketing is evident in the digital communities I've built, like SME Toolkit and NRI Engage. These platforms have been instrumental in content marketing and even establishing a B2B marketplace.

Throughout my career, I've led critical projects and engaged with industry events and leaders, continuously learning and contributing to the industry. This journey has been both enriching and instrumental in shaping my professional trajectory. 

2. Can you give us a quick overview of how you look at content marketing as a whole?

To begin, let's explore the BFSI sector, particularly banking, and the key drivers of its content strategy. Firstly, in this digital era, digital mediums are predominant, making content crucial for communication. Notably, in banking, our customer relationship commences with a sale, such as opening a bank account. However, the true value for the bank emerges when customers use our services as their primary banking choice, necessitating continuous engagement. This differs from FMCG, where the focus is primarily on product sales.

Moreover, given that most individuals have multiple bank accounts, it's essential to ensure that our bank remains the primary choice. This is where content plays a significant role in ongoing customer engagement. Martech is also crucial in BFSI for delivering relevant messages to existing customers.

Additionally, for a bank like South Indian Bank, which has weathered 94 years and multiple transformations, content marketing is integral to brand building and establishing thought leadership. It's not just about advertising; it's about shaping what the brand stands for.

Another vital aspect for BFSI is financial education and cyber safety. Educating customers on safe banking practices is paramount, especially given the rise in cyber crimes. Ultimately, our goal is to transcend banking and become a partner in our customers' lives, supporting their growth. In this journey, content plays a pivotal role in connecting and educating customers, enhancing their banking experience, and building a lasting relationship.

3. Can you tell us about the major trends in customer expectations from banks? Specifically, how are banks perceived in terms of content delivery, digital engagement, and overall customer experience? For instance, how important is it for a bank to appear prominently in SEO or provide effective sales enablement?

In addition to the expected banking services, customers today seek more personalized product and service offerings tailored to their specific needs. Simplifying processes and enhancing user interfaces and experiences are crucial for customer satisfaction. The simpler and more intuitive these services are, the better for the customer. This approach, while seemingly making customers 'lazier', actually caters to their preference for simplicity and ease.

The relationship aspect remains significant, especially among older demographics who value trust in banking relationships. This trust is a cornerstone in banking, derived not only from the financial services provided but also from the personal relationships fostered over time.

However, the younger generation, including millennials and Gen Z, perceives banking differently. They prioritize quick, efficient, and straightforward services. Their consumption patterns favor concise, easily digestible content; if longer formats are used, they should be emotionally engaging or socially relevant. 

This generation views a bank not just as a financial institution but as a life partner, assisting in various aspects of their lives, such as career counseling or educational consultancy. Some services might extend beyond traditional banking, possibly outsourced, aligning with their evolving needs and expectations.

Furthermore, the younger demographic is notably socially and health-conscious, as well as purpose-driven. Brands, therefore, need to adapt and align with these values, moving beyond product-centric approaches to become more purpose-driven and socially aware. This shift is imperative in resonating with and catering to the newer generation's preferences and values. 

4. In the last five to seven years, the market has become highly competitive, leading to unprecedented amounts spent on performance marketing. How do you navigate this shift in marketing trends?

Absolutely, both organic and paid strategies hold significant value in digital marketing, and it's crucial to recognize that they are interdependent. Organic efforts are fundamental, primarily because they are cost-effective and can effectively generate leads. Through various organic methods such as SEO, blogging, and other content-driven tactics, you can acquire valuable customers. It’s a process that demands ongoing attention and scaling to achieve excellence.

However, relying solely on organic strategies might not yield swift results, particularly for a bank focused on aggressive customer acquisition. This is where paid marketing becomes integral. It enhances your reach and expedites the marketing process, allowing for a more immediate impact. It’s about leveraging both channels to tap into user intent effectively. 

Organic marketing might face limitations in terms of visibility, given the restricted spaces available for content to appear. Therefore, it’s imperative to support and complement organic efforts with a paid strategy. Each approach fuels and reinforces the other, creating a comprehensive marketing ecosystem that drives both reach and conversion.

If you have very strong organic channels, it largely helps you to get the maximum value of your paid marketing and lower your cost per lead or acquisition.

5. Can you share your perspective on the recent shift in attention from the initial hype around ChatGPT to a broader focus on Generative AI (GenAI)? Also, from a banking sector viewpoint, are there any notable technological implementations you are planning or currently pursuing?

Thank you. In my view, ChatGPT, or Generative AI is an incredibly powerful tool for outsourcing various tasks, particularly in the realm of service bots. When integrated with Generative AI, these bots can engage in highly human-like conversations, significantly reducing the workload. It could even serve as an independent channel for online sales conversions due to its human-like interaction capabilities.

Furthermore, Generative AI proves immensely useful in content creation. Whether it's product-related information or other types of content, it can generate substantial amounts at a rapid pace. We've also leveraged AI extensively in predictive modeling, identifying the most relevant customer segments for specific communications. This targeted approach is more effective than broad, mass outreach.

A future application I foresee, which we haven't fully implemented yet, is achieving personalization at scale. Currently, our personalization efforts are mostly directed at our existing customers. As a bank, we have access to comprehensive data - both behavioral and financial - which allows us to run highly personalized campaigns and encourage specific transactions.

AI can be a very strong enabler for personalization at scale and there are several platforms and tools available in the industry which one can adopt to do so.

For potential customers who aren’t yet banking with us, our next step is to embrace these technologies to reach a new level of personalized customer engagement. These are some of the key ways we're using, and planning to use, Generative AI in our operations.

6. Based on your extensive experience, what advice would you give to marketers to stay relevant over the next 30 years?

The only way to stay relevant is to have a pulse on what your customer is thinking. You just have to adapt and evolve.

Customer behavior and preferences are ever-evolving, with each generation bringing its own unique set of expectations and preferred mediums. The transition to digital platforms, for instance, is a relatively recent development compared to the 1990s. Understanding these changes – how customers behave, consume data, and what they seek – is crucial for staying relevant. 

Adapting and being agile are key. For instance, the use of AI tools and text tags, once unfamiliar, is now integral to our approach. This adaptability is about leveraging new tools that keep us connected and pertinent to our customer base.

In terms of product communication, the focus should be on immediacy and relevance. This means engaging with customers at the precise moment they are seeking information, employing real-time personalization, and choosing mediums that resonate with them. For brands, evolution is about being present where the customers are, whether through video, reels, memes, infographics, or other formats.

Broadly, brands should aspire to be thought leaders, establish a social connection, be purpose-driven, and educate customers, especially in sectors like finance where safe banking is crucial. Effectively connecting with customers using content that appeals to them and disseminating information through modern mediums, including new-age channels for press releases, is more impactful than relying solely on traditional methods.

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