Rakesh Asrani

Global Asia Marketing Director at Unilever

An Insider's Perspective on Marketing: A Conversation with Rakesh Asrani

Staying ahead of the curve is crucial in the rapidly evolving marketing world. In the past two decades, marketing has seen a lot of ups and downs with changes in dynamics across various factors. The evolution since the past is further welcoming the new changes in today's time. 

To gain insights into the dynamic marketing landscape, check out the informative interview of Rishabh Shekhar, Co-Founder of Pepper, with Rakesh Asrani, an industry veteran and former Global Asia Marketing Director at Unilever with over two decades of experience. In this candid conversation, Rakesh shares his thoughts on various facets of marketing, from the evolution of marketing strategies to the role of AI in content creation. Let's delve into the world of marketing through his experienced lens.

1. Can you tell us about your journey in Unilever and the various roles you have undertaken there?

My journey with Unilever spans 24 years, with over 21 years dedicated to working across 20 different countries in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Europe, and Southeast Asia. During this time, I primarily focused on foods, beverages, and ice cream categories, contributing to various aspects of marketing.

2. How has marketing evolved during your tenure at Unilever, especially with the rise of digital marketing?

Marketing has transformed significantly over the years, especially with the emergence of digital marketing. When I began my career, the 30-second television commercial was the centerpiece of marketing strategies. However, digital marketing has taken precedence in recent years, and the traditional 30-second TVC has become less relevant, especially in markets like Southeast Asia.

3. How does Unilever adapt its marketing strategies for different cultures and regions?

Unilever employs a clear framework that considers factors such as the marketing objective, target audience, and brand size. We evaluate the role of content and choose the appropriate media mix accordingly. Additionally, we immerse ourselves in local cultures, working with teams that have an innate understanding of the target culture's nuances.

4. You mentioned the concept of high-context and low-context cultures. Can you elaborate on this and its impact on marketing strategies?

High-context cultures pay great attention to the context of communication. This includes where, how, and when the message is delivered. Understanding whether a culture is high or low context is crucial in crafting effective marketing campaigns. For instance, Turkey is a high-context culture where consumers analyze the context surrounding the message, making execution adaptations essential.

5. With the commoditization of storytelling, what is your perspective on the role of AI in content creation?

I firmly believe that technology should be harnessed to enhance human capabilities in content creation. The synergy between people and AI can achieve outcomes greater than what either can achieve in isolation. However, I must express my concern regarding a prevalent trend in Indian advertising. There seems to be a mindless reliance on celebrities without a solid creative idea. In many cases, celebrity endorsements lack the depth of a compelling narrative. It's imperative to recognize that AI should be a tool to elevate the power of creative ideas rather than substituting them entirely. The essence of storytelling and creativity should never be compromised.

"I'm a big believer in the power of technology augmenting human capabilities. People plus AI can achieve more than either on their own."

6. How do you choose influencers or celebrities for brand endorsements at Unilever?

The process of selecting influencers or celebrities for brand endorsements at Unilever is meticulous and strategic. It commences with a deep understanding of the brand's objectives, including consumer needs, functional attributes, and emotional resonance. We also define the brand's unique positioning in the market. Once we have a clear brand strategy in place, we consider the role of a celebrity or influencer. Ensuring that the chosen individual aligns seamlessly with the brand's values, personality, and message is crucial. Overusing celebrities can diminish their impact and dilute the brand's identity. Therefore, the selection process prioritizes the harmony between the celebrity's persona and the brand's essence.

7. Can you elaborate on the significance of the creative idea in marketing, especially concerning celebrity endorsements?

The creative idea is the cornerstone of any effective marketing campaign, and this principle holds true when considering celebrity endorsements. It begins by comprehending the brand's multifaceted role in consumers' lives, encompassing functional, emotional, and social dimensions. The creative idea is the driving force that emanates from this understanding. Importantly, this creative concept should precede the involvement of celebrities. Celebrities should serve as catalysts to enhance and amplify the creative idea's impact, not as substitutes for it. Unfortunately, in the Indian advertising landscape, we've witnessed a troubling trend. Celebrities are frequently enlisted without a robust creative idea as the foundation. This approach results in advertisements that lack resonance and fail to engage the audience effectively. It's vital to reiterate that a celebrity's endorsement should complement and elevate the core creative idea rather than serve as a standalone solution. Only then can advertising truly make a lasting impression and create a meaningful connection with consumers.

8. Can you share your thoughts on transforming marketing strategies from traditional to digital channels and how this shift impacted consumer engagement?

The transformation from traditional to digital marketing channels has been profound. Traditional marketing relied heavily on platforms like television, focusing on 30-second commercials. In contrast, digital marketing offers a wide array of channels and formats, allowing for more tailored and interactive consumer engagement. This shift has significantly impacted how consumers interact with brands. They now expect personalized content, instant responses, and seamless experiences across various touchpoints. As marketers, adapting to these changes involves mastering new technologies and redefining strategies to align with the evolving consumer behaviors in the digital age.

9. Could you elaborate on the framework Unilever employs to adapt marketing strategies for diverse cultures and regions?

Certainly. Unilever employs a comprehensive framework that considers several critical factors. Firstly, we define the marketing objectives, which include understanding the functional and emotional needs the brand aims to fulfil. We also assess the brand's positioning and competition within a specific market. Once we have a clear strategic foundation, we delve into understanding the role of content and media in reaching our target audience effectively. This approach ensures that our marketing strategies are tailored to the unique context of each region or culture, ultimately enhancing our brand's resonance with local consumers.

10. In marketing, could you provide examples of how high-context and low-context cultures influence consumer behavior and content consumption?

High-context cultures emphasise the context in which communication occurs. For instance, in a high-context culture like Turkey, consumers pay close attention to the message and the setting, mood, and context surrounding it. This means that effective marketing in such cultures requires careful consideration of all these elements. In contrast, low-context cultures may prioritize the content itself over the context. However, human emotions remain universal across cultures. Therefore, while marketing strategies may need adaptation, the core principles of resonating with consumers' emotions hold true across the globe.

"The power of the creative idea has not changed. Irrespective of which culture you go in, people feel the same emotions, which means a strong idea based on a universal human truth can travel."

11. How do you balance crafting marketing strategies that remain consistent with a brand's global identity while respecting local cultural nuances?

Balancing global consistency and local relevance is an art in marketing. At Unilever, we approach this challenge by ensuring that our teams in different regions deeply understand local cultural nuances. We believe in building diverse groups with members from the cultures we target. This approach allows us to infuse local insights into our marketing strategies while maintaining the brand's global essence. Additionally, we have a framework to guide us in adapting our strategy to suit local contexts without compromising our brand's integrity. It's a delicate balance, but it's key to resonating with diverse audiences worldwide.

12. Can you share your insights into the current state of advertising in India and what trends or changes you foresee in the near future?

Certainly. The current state of advertising in India presents a concern I've noticed in recent times. There appears to be a prevalent trend of overreliance on celebrities without the support of strong creative ideas. Many advertisements feature celebrities endorsing products or services without a compelling narrative or creative concept. This approach can result in advertising that lacks impact and resonance with consumers. To address this issue, we must shift our focus back to the power of creative ideas. Moving forward, we'll see greater emphasis on the synergy between technology, creativity, and storytelling to deliver more effective advertising campaigns.

13. With your extensive experience, how do you foresee the future of marketing, particularly in striking a balance between technology-driven approaches and maintaining the authenticity of brand communication?

The future of marketing holds exciting possibilities. Striking the right balance between technology-driven approaches and authenticity is crucial. I envision a future where AI and technology continue to play a significant role in optimizing processes and enhancing personalization. However, the core essence of marketing should always remain rooted in authentic storytelling and meaningful consumer connections. Brands that succeed will leverage technology to better understand and engage with their audiences while staying true to their values and creative narratives. The future lies in harmonizing the best of both worlds to create compelling and authentic brand experiences.

Get started with Pepper’s Content Marketing Platform.

Designed for winning teams.

Global Marketing Leaders 2023
Powered by

Global Marketing Leaders 2023 by Pepper Content is an exclusive curation of the brightest minds who have revolutionized the world of marketing. These visionaries have pushed the boundaries, disrupted the status quo, and transformed the way we approach content and marketing. Check out the full exhibit to be informed and inspired by the insights shared by these trailblazers.