Rathin Lahiri

Head Marketing & CSR at SBI General Insurance Ltd.

Unraveling the Intricacies of Insurance Marketing with a Legacy Brand

In today's dynamic marketplace, the insurance industry presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. How does the consumer's perception and approach towards this sector differ from that of fast-moving consumer goods? Furthermore, what does it take to navigate the intricacies of marketing for a legacy brand in this space? 

To delve deeper into these questions, we sat down with Rathin Lahiri, Head Marketing & CSR at SBI General Insurance Ltd., and a key figure steering the marketing helm for one of India's legacy insurance brands. From exploring the current insurance penetration in India to the pivotal role of content across a customer's journey, Rathin provides invaluable insights into the world of insurance marketing.

1. How does the consumer approach industries like insurance compare to fast-moving consumer goods? Additionally, given your role in steering marketing for a legacy brand, can you share the unique challenges and rewards that come with it? To kick things off, could you shed light on the current insurance penetration in India?

Thank you for having me. I'm honored to share my journey and experiences with you all. Reflecting on my past, I never imagined traversing through such diverse experiences, but it's been quite an adventure.

To address the question of insurance in India: We can categorize insurance into two main segments - life insurance and general insurance. Unfortunately, India is considerably underinsured in both categories. Only 3% of our population has life insurance, and a mere 1% is covered under general insurance.

One primary reason for this low coverage is our historical socioeconomic status. For a significant portion of the Indian population, every rupee holds immense value, making them cautious about spending on something intangible like insurance, which they perceive more as a protective measure than an investment.

Furthermore, the mindset of young adults, around 25 or 30, often revolves around the belief of invincibility, leading them to question the need for health or any other insurance. This mindset has been a significant barrier to insurance adoption.

However, recent events, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, have acted as a wake-up call. The pandemic highlighted the unforeseen health emergencies that can arise and the escalating medical costs associated with them. Hospitalization costs in major metros are exorbitant, with medical tests becoming increasingly advanced and reliant on imported high-tech equipment. With many having witnessed their loved ones face health emergencies during this time, the realization has set in that insurance, even at a nominal annual premium, is a safer and more economical choice than bearing exorbitant medical expenses. Today, opting out of insurance seems an imprudent decision.

2. It's been nearly two years since things improved. Do you still observe this trend, or do you feel consumers are reverting to their old habits or "bubble"?

Yes, consumers seem to maintain their current stance. I oversee marketing for SBI General Insurance, and the general insurance sector is colossal, with a valuation of two and a half lakh crores. It's experiencing a 16% growth rate, which is rare for most industries. Observing this, and considering my background in angel investing, I was astounded by the potential of this sector. India's vast underpenetration and rapid development indicate a consistent double-digit growth over the next decade or so. With increasing purchases of cars, two-wheelers, and homes, coupled with rising cyber fraud incidents, the demand for insurance is undeniable. With such growth, there's a vast opportunity for leading players to offer genuinely beneficial products for consumers.

3. Considering India has around 20-25 major insurance companies compared to over 200 in the West, do you anticipate a surge in new insurance startups in the upcoming years? How do you see these emerging companies impacting the market - expanding it or competing for the existing share?

Given the expansive potential of the insurance market in India, the consistent double-digit growth rate reflects its vast scope. Rooted in the Pareto principle, a common pattern emerges: 20% of companies generally dominate 80% of the market share. This trend of concentration intensifies when examining profitability, with a handful of companies capturing a majority of the industry's profits. This is evident across various sectors, from telecom to consumer goods. Despite the possibility of emerging players introducing innovative solutions, the fundamental challenge remains the market's low penetration rate. Success in this sector hinges not only on offering competitive products at reasonable prices but also on ensuring stellar customer service. This dual focus on product quality and customer experience is essential to navigate the competitive landscape, emphasizing the massive opportunities that lie ahead.

4. In the insurance sector, how influential are positive customer experiences, like a smooth claim process, compared to direct brand marketing? Do personal testimonials and word-of-mouth recommendations hold more sway than the brand's marketing efforts in driving purchase decisions? Which strategy has proven more effective in your experience?

Certainly. Financial services can be complex and intimidating for many consumers. Given this complexity, especially with a myriad of options like in mutual funds, customers often rely on brand trust. For instance, SBI is a trusted name in the banking sector. When they offer services like insurance or mutual funds, existing customers tend to lean towards these offerings because of their prior trust in the brand. It's both an advantage and a responsibility for us.

A brand's journey involves creating awareness, consideration, and preference. For established brands like SBI, awareness and consideration are typically high. Our focus in marketing is to drive preference. We want every potential customer to consider us and eventually prefer our offerings due to specific product benefits.

In contrast, newer brands might have to invest heavily in building awareness. The marketing approach, therefore, varies based on the brand's position in the market.

5. Building on SBI's legacy does offer a significant advantage. However, with a renowned brand name, there's a responsibility to maintain its reputation. How does SBI General balance the need for innovative marketing while ensuring they stay true to the brand's image? Is there a constant drive for creativity, or are there certain boundaries the team ensures not to cross? How do you navigate these dynamics?

Certainly, the core objective of marketing, especially for an established entity like SBI General, is to drive business growth. With three primary goals in mind: acquiring new customers, venturing into new markets or product categories, and enhancing market share, our approach is tailored accordingly. Given the vast untapped potential in our category, the emphasis is on clear, straightforward communication that educates potential customers about the benefits of insurance, especially at pivotal life moments.

Our brand promise, "Suraksha aur Bharosa Dono," combines the essence of the insurance industry, which is protection or "Suraksha," with the trustworthiness the SBI brand is synonymous with. Hence, instilling trust becomes central to our communication strategy.

Further, given our expansive distribution network courtesy of SBI Bank and a significant number of agents representing our products, internal marketing becomes crucial. By equipping our agents with thorough product knowledge and guiding them on which product suits which customer segment, we aim to make our brand promise a reality. Our digital presence and partnerships with platforms like PhonePe and PaisaBazaar further enhance our reach, necessitating the need for effective SEO, relatable content, and highlighting genuine customer experiences.

6. Given the digital penetration and access to the broader "Bharat" audience, does this diversification make the marketing process more intricate, considering the multitude of customer personas from various regional geographies? And, consequently, does catering to their native languages become more vital?

Certainly. The language barrier, with advancements in AI tools, has become somewhat more manageable today than it was a few years ago. However, the real challenge lies in catering to customers at different stages of awareness or product understanding. Presenting overly simplistic messaging to an advanced customer or vice versa can deter potential consumers. While analytics can segment these audiences, we haven't truly entered the realm of personalization despite its frequent mention. Even platforms as digital-first as Twitter haven't perfected it. So, as of now, we're predominantly in the segmentation phase, not yet achieving true personalization.

7. So, is it essential for SBI General to have content that covers the entire spectrum of the consumer journey, given the varied knowledge levels of consumers? Does the strategy focus on being omnipresent with content tailored for each stage, allowing audiences to discover and engage with it on their terms?

In a category like insurance, where products often have long-term commitments, the consumer's thirst for information is paramount. Being omnipresent with tailored content across platforms is key. Today's consumers, even when dealing with agents, will validate their choices with online searches. Hence, it's essential to have a rich tapestry of content - from detailed information to easily digestible video snippets.

For a large organization like SBI General, boosting the knowledge levels of our distribution networks, including field agents, remains a top priority. Given their extensive customer reach, even a slight uptick in their conversion rates can yield substantial results. While self-service channels, especially digital, are secondary in our strategy due to our business model, they're undeniably crucial. They ensure that when a customer seeks validation or more information, we're right there, offering clarity and assurance.

8. Given the increasing prominence of generative AI, have you had any early experiences or explorations in that domain? Do you see it as a potential avenue for SBI General to delve into for enhancing personalization in campaigns?

We're currently in the initial stages of exploring generative AI, focusing primarily on analytics. While specifics are still under wraps, many companies, including ours, are actively investigating this space on two fronts. First, enhancing customer experiences via content, cross-selling, and up-selling. The second, and especially crucial for our industry, revolves around risk management. With the digital transformation, vast amounts of data are now accessible, allowing the creation of cohorts based on shared risk levels.

For instance, consider car insurance. Presently, two people with the same car type might pay a similar premium regardless of how much they drive. However, their risk profiles differ significantly based on usage. The industry is now gravitating towards models like "pay-as-you-go." If your car isn't driven much or avoids highways, logically, you should pay less. The government is even considering mapping accident histories akin to credit scores, which would allow differentiation of high-risk customers. This would lead to more accurate pricing, irrespective of the insurer.

As AI evolves, being a conscientious customer will yield tangible benefits, not just in intangible "karma" but in real savings and advantages

9. In your experience, what are the most reliable metrics to gauge the effectiveness of brand communications and content? How do you evaluate the success of your content at SBI General?

In essence, measuring communication effectiveness is a blend of both qualitative and quantitative metrics. At a broad level, we analyze the overall brand health metrics, such as awareness, consideration, preference, and reference scores. These foundational metrics provide a long-term view of our brand's position in the market.

We delve deeper into the Net Promoter Score (NPS) monthly to gauge customer sentiment and derive actionable insights. This metric gives us an immediate pulse of our customer experience, enabling us to make rapid adjustments as needed.

Specifically, for individual campaigns, metrics vary based on the campaign's objective. Social media campaigns might focus on engagement and sentiment, while digital campaigns might be more lead-centric, measuring conversions and effectiveness.

Ultimately, striking the right balance between emotional resonance and rational appeal is crucial. Every campaign is a note in our brand's symphony, and the key is to ensure all these notes harmoniously achieve our business objectives.

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