Neha Bareja

Exploring 13 Years of Marketing Evolution with Neha Bareja

In a candid conversation with Neha Bareja, a seasoned marketing professional with over 30 years of experience, we delve into her remarkable journey through the marketing landscape. From her early days working at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi to her current role as a content marketer at Meesho, Neha shares her insights on how marketing has evolved over the past 13 years. We explore the challenges faced by content marketers today and the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in shaping the content marketing space.

Here are some excerpts.

1. Tell us about your journey in marketing.

Hello everyone. My name is Neha Bareja and I have more than 30 and a half, 40 years of experience working in different agencies and brands. I have had various roles throughout my career. In 2009, I finished studying journalism and mass communication and got my first job with the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. I had completed my bachelor's and master's degrees. It wasn't planned, as I had studied to be a journalist and write for newspapers. However, when the opportunity to work for the Commonwealth Games came up, I thought, why not? It was India's first big sports event and I wanted to be a part of it. It gave me a lot of valuable experience.

I worked with 72 other nations in the Commonwealth. I worked with the department that controls drug use in sports. I interacted with many athletes and taught them about the negative effects of doping. I also helped create a book about it. This job involved communicating with athletes, writing, and adapting the World Anti-Doping Code for India. Every country that hosts the Commonwealth Games does this. It required understanding medical terms and making them suitable for India. This was a temporary job that ended in 2010. After that, I joined a small company that created digital content. Initially, I worked for a client called the Shell Foundation, which is part of Shell's corporate social responsibility efforts. I also worked for a defense client from Sweden called Thaab. I managed their portfolio in the Asia Pacific region. This involved serving clients, understanding the needs of five countries, considering the political situation in each country, and promoting products that suited them. I also managed websites.

After spending almost four, four and a half years with og, I decided to transition into marketing. I joined Isobar, which is part of a dense wages network, to work on B2C brands. My main clients were Ra, a fashion brand portfolio that included Roadster and All About You. I also worked with Stalling holidays and a month. I worked with media planners, art guys, and copy guys. This is where I learned about social media marketing, content marketing, performance search, and more.

In 2016, I thought, okay, six, six and a half years of agencies. Let's now move to the brand side. That's when I moved to Reliance Retail, trends to be specific, which is offline. I worked as a digital social marketer for a fashion brand. My role involved working closely with the category and design teams. We focused on understanding current trends and organizing photoshoots accordingly. I drafted communication and content for the website and social media platforms. This was done to increase awareness of these categories.

After working at Reliance, I started working at Max Fashion. It was a similar job, but I was responsible for influencer marketing at Max. I want to talk about a very interesting campaign we did at Max called the 2019 Women's Day campaign. When we were coming up with ideas for Women's Day, we noticed that a lot of fashion brands only advertise their clothes and give discounts. But when we spoke to our customers, we discovered that most of them had the same worry. They always feel concerned about how they should dress in order to avoid being judged or treated differently. We decided to do something different and empower women to make their own fashion choices. We created a campaign with a slogan in Hindi that encouraged women to wear whatever they wanted and we promised to support and cheer them on. This campaign was very successful. At Max Fashion, my role was similar to my previous job at Reliance Trends. However, I was in charge of managing social media, digital influencers, and content. One campaign that particularly stands out to me is the Women's Day campaign we did in 2019 at Max.

Max, a fashion brand, has noticed that women often have difficulty deciding what to wear and worry about how others will view them. To address this, we decided to show support for women's fashion choices on Women's Day. We launched a campaign called "Max Kehta Hai" that encouraged women to support one another. We collaborated with artist Anushka Manchanda to make a famous rap song. The song focuses on the criticism women receive for their clothing choices. The campaign quickly gained popularity and received 46 million views within a few days. After working at Max for two years, I had the opportunity to join Zoomkar, an e-commerce fashion company.

Now, let me talk about other industries. I started working at Zoomcar in 2020, just after they had overcome some difficulties. Due to COVID restrictions, we had to stop bookings from the very beginning, which resulted in many refunds that needed to be dealt with. So, my main focus was on crisis management and regaining the trust of our customers. Fortunately, we were able to reassure people by emphasizing the safety measures we had in place. We received a lot of positive feedback and managed to bring back 75% of our customers. After my time at Zoomcar, I joined Meeesho in September 2021.

It was only in July 2021 that Nisho became a D2C brand. Before that, it was a seller model. So I was a part of the founding team, founding brand marketing team, I would say at Nisho. So we came in, we set the whole objectives for the brand and how social and influencer will take that forward. Our, objectives were very something that we call as big, hairy audacious goals internally at me. So it was big, hairy, and audacious. We expressed our desire to be one of the top three most followed and engaged brands in e-commerce in India. This meant we were competing with companies like Flipkart and Amazon, which had been in the market for 10 years. We wanted to do this in just one year. That's it. Not, less, not more, but it just so happened that when I joined, we were at a 200K community size of Instagram.

In December 2022, we had more than 2 million followers on Instagram. Meta thinks this is the quickest and most engaging growth they've ever seen on their platform. We organized a big event during the holidays called a mega blockbuster. We showcased famous actors from Bollywood and the South Indian film industry. We created a simple poster that hinted at a trailer being released on September 4th, without directly mentioning our brand. This made a lot of people curious and excited, and the campaign became very popular, receiving 286 million views in just one day. We also included a hidden message on the poster, but people misunderstood it and thought the actors were starting new acting careers. When we finally revealed the true purpose of the campaign, it generated even more excitement. This strategy was particularly effective in reaching our target audience in smaller cities.

We are a fashion company that sells affordable clothes. Without content and social media, and the help of famous people, not many people in big cities and rich areas would know about us. This is what I have learned from working with various brands. Our goal is to create brands that prioritize digital platforms. This includes content creation, social media, digital marketing, and influencer marketing. That's pretty much it. It has been a long and exciting journey.

2. How has marketing evolved in the past 13 years? 

Honestly, things have changed a lot since 2010 when I started working. Back then, we only had two platforms to create content: websites hosted on WordPress or Blogspot, and Facebook for making small posts. But now, there are so many platforms available. Instagram has become very popular, and YouTube has grown a lot too, with both short and long videos becoming very popular.

Companies are now more fearless and willing to try different things with their content. In the past, I remember that certain brands were more like websites. These brands were mainly in the financial technology and healthcare sectors. Now, on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, content creators and influencers are making a significant amount of content about financial technology. This is great to see.

That's one thing, clearly new platforms. I believe that when I started doing brand marketing today, most people only thought about TV and print ads. No one thought that digital and social content could become important. The place where brands are established. Today you look at brands like Naika Sugar, they have been established on social media and that was never the case before.

So that's the second thing. Third, I believe marketing has become more focused now. It's not about sending one message to everyone and hoping that anyone who sees it will respond. Nowadays, marketing has become more precise and selective. The target audience is divided into smaller groups. With the growth of digital content, you can easily connect with each of these groups and cater to their needs simultaneously.

Many different goals are now possible. We can target specific content strategies on new platforms. Technology has made a big impact. We no longer have to wait for monthly reports from third-party publishers or channels. We can see results immediately and make changes if needed. Meta and Google offer machine learning tools that can help us reach consumers and customize our content in real time. This is something amazing that I couldn't have imagined 13 years ago.

One thing which has evolved and will continue to do so is the art of storytelling. It will continue to thrive. People still want to hear those stories. People still want to see a piece of content that strikes an emotional chord and makes a little tuck in their hearts. But with technology, it's just going to become better, more cost-efficient, and you can track ROIs much better.

3. What do you feel haunts content marketers today?

The main thing is the urge to be on all the platforms. I feel like I have to be there. That's what affects us content marketers the most every day. And if a trending moment happens, then, of course, you're like, Oh my God, I'm not there.

What if my customers can't see me? That's the biggest problem. But it's important for a brand to first decide what its main purpose is on a certain platform. What do they want to offer? Brands should consider if a popular moment can help promote their uniqueness, story, or specific product or service. If it doesn't help with any of those three things, they shouldn't try to participate like Zomato does. Zomato joins in every trending moment because food can be easily connected to various topics, and they have a great team that finds ways to include food.

But if for a category like e-com, it's not a very usual fit, then just drop it. It's okay. No fan of yours is going to come back and say, Oh, but over annexed and non participate rather than. They see that piece of content and then get confused that how is this brand related to this moment.

I believe that it's more important to avoid this problem than to simply not take part in it. One problem is that there are too many platforms. Should we use all of them or none of them? Many brands make a mistake by trying to be on all platforms and just copying their content. But we forget that each platform has a different purpose. As a consumer, I wouldn't want to see the same content from a brand on every platform. It doesn't make sense to post a sale on LinkedIn, for example. So one solution is to not use all platforms. It's okay if your consumer isn't there or if you don't have relevant content for that platform. That's another problem that needs to be addressed.

I believe the third issue is about tracking content performance. There aren't many ways to track metrics like time spent and shares, especially on platforms like Meta. It's important to have a platform that can help with tracking. The fourth issue is the duplication of audiences across platforms. If I'm targeting the same audience on meta, it would be better to reach a slightly different audience elsewhere.

Around 25 to 30% of the audiences on Google are unique or different. However, these platforms are like walled gardens and do not disclose which platforms they reach and which ones they don't. This is the fourth issue.

And I think. Nowadays, platforms are also getting better at it. I know for sure that Meta has a solution in the United States where there are more clickable areas. There are different kinds of ads or formats within the content where you can show your products, and so on. So I just hope they come to India soon so that content marketers can protect content consumption and creation with more confidence on our part too. If cost efficiency becomes a worry, which will happen more and more at some point, just measuring brand success will not help us explain the amount of money and effort that content marketing requires. 

4. How do you define ideal content?

Every piece of content that reaches your intended audience should have a specific goal. This goal can be anything from launching a new product to increasing brand awareness or converting potential customers. Even if the objective is simply to engage with your audience, it needs to be clear and focused. It's not enough to just follow what everyone else is doing. Therefore, to develop a successful content strategy, it is essential to do five things: first, understand who your target audience is.

I think it's interesting to learn that as marketers, we often make content that we like and forget that our target audience may not like the same things. I realized this when I joined Mishu, which is for tier 2 and tier 3 audiences. At first, I was surprised by the kind of content they liked, like simple topics such as color combinations. I was used to a more fancy style with deeper meanings. I tried making content in my usual style, but it didn't connect with the audience. I realized my mistake when I talked to the consumers and found out that they preferred the simpler content and wanted clear information about the product and how much it costs. Before Meesho, I had only focused on people in big cities and higher tiers, so my content always matched their preferences.

The first and most important thing is to know who your audience is. Don't assume that what you like, they will like too. Don't think that just because you like a certain coffee, they will like it too. So, make sure you understand your target audience and talk to them often.

We have this thing at Meesho, which is - Listen or die. If you don't listen to the customers, you will fail where we need to communicate with customers. Find out what they like and what they are consuming, which will help us create meaningful content. The first step in creating good content is understanding your target audience. Second, create a consistent brand story and message. You can change it, but keep it the same for three to six months so you are not saying something different every day. And what about the user, is it happening? So that's the second thing. 

The third thing is to have a clear goal, whether it's getting people interested, raising awareness, or measuring different aspects of the sales process. 

The fourth thing is to create a plan for what topics the brand should focus on and what the target audience wants to hear or engage with. This includes deciding which platforms to use. This plan is called a content strategy or a calendar. 

And the fifth thing is to continually test your content strategy, making changes if necessary, to avoid repeating mistakes.

And I will keep saying this again and again. As marketers, we get attached to our work quickly. And if it doesn't connect with the people we're targeting, we feel really sad. But I believe that in our lives and the field of marketing, we need to be ready to learn from our mistakes. It's important to stay up-to-date and use these five tools. They will help you create content that usually works well and can be produced regularly. 

Understand your target audience. Don't assume that whatever you're consuming, they will be consuming as well.

5. How does AI fit into the content marketing space? 

Content is a combination of art and science. When it comes to creativity, we need to tell a good story that makes us feel for the main character. Humans are best at this because we understand emotions from our own experiences. AI, on the other hand, cannot feel emotions and probably never will. So, humans are in charge of the creative side. However, when it comes to tasks that require scaling or targeting specific audiences, AI can do a great job.

For instance, if I were to create a campaign today and write 50 different versions of the same text, AI can help me complete the work much faster than a person would. Additionally, if the content needs to be customized in real-time, like mentioning the current weather in Bangalore...

Mumbai and Delhi are both hot. When the weather changes quickly and I need to pick out specific clothes, AI can do a great job. It's a smart solution that can be done quickly. It can target and customize content and messages on the go. Yes, AI will be able to do it. AI can handle a lot of work and do a good job. However, AI cannot replicate storytelling. The heart of storytelling, the feelings, and the art have been alive for a long time. It will continue for a very long time. Storytelling has been around since the beginning of civilization, right? In my opinion, AI will not be able to be better than human storytellers when it comes to the emotions and experiences we can share with the world.

Artificial intelligence will help us overcome what we refer to as a creative block or when we struggle to come up with ideas. AI will assist us in that aspect, but when it comes to developing a storyline that truly resonates with the specific group of people we want to connect with, humans will be more effective. 

6. What does an ideal content marketing stack look like for you?

I believe the most important thing in my collection will be a tool that regularly informs me about what my customers are buying and what they want to buy. This tool will probably provide this information once or twice a week.

The second thing I want is to predict upcoming trends in the next week or so. This is important because it helps us understand which categories, like fashion, for example, will be popular. Knowing these trends daily helps us push those categories more effectively.

The third step will happen after I get these buckets and understand what my audience does. Then, I will use a mix of AI tools, such as chatGPT, and writers to create the right content. This content will be published on various platforms.

The fourth is choosing the platforms, which again either the dashboards of those platforms can give me a basis, the kind of audience to reach the kind of engagement numbers, and then the kind of purpose that I want to reach out to. And therefore choose that platform. The fourth will be a publishing platform, which again, as of today, we either use a Hootsuite or a sprinkler to help us publish.

The fifth thing is a platform for sharing information. Currently, the reports are only created after I search for them and show how well I am doing compared to competitors. I would like a tool that can create these reports in advance or, if something goes wrong, notify me.

I want a tool that can quickly alert me when something becomes viral, instead of waiting for a person to notice it. Currently, humans are the ones who spot trending moments and decide whether we should take advantage of them. I would like a tool that simplifies this process and also gives me suggestions about whether our brand should be involved. I also want a marketing stack that tracks consumer trends. It should provide reports and measure ROI across different platforms. I don't want separate reports for each platform; I want everything brought together for easier analysis.

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