While describing his journey to becoming the head of marketing at ITC Foods—an ITC Limited subsidiary—Malik reveals that his journey has been full of both opportunities and challenges.
“I worked with the company’s tobacco division in various capacities, ranging from sales to branding. Over the years, I encountered very good growth opportunities within the company motivating me to stay on. From being the sponsorship manager for the prestigious Wills Cricket World Cup (the premier international championship for the men’s One Day International cricket) to an international stint in London for BAT (British American Tobacco), the environment in the company was a growth-oriented one.” In addition to those assignments, his other experiences include working with lifestyle retailing space, where Malik was responsible for the launch of twenty-five "Wills Lifestyle" stores throughout India.
Though Malik has worked across a spectrum of industries, from tobacco to lifestyle, he says his most satisfying experience at ITC has been spearheading the ITC Foods division since 2002. Today, his responsibilities entail juggling tasks ranging from product portfolio development to branding and pricing strategies. One of his biggest challenges is keeping the food juggernaut's six vastly different food brands on a steady and increasing growth curve.
With that goal in mind, Malik has played an instrumental role in developing the current portfolio of food brands: Aashirvaad atta (whole wheat flour), Sunfeast biscuits, Kitchens of India, Bingo (finger food), mint-O, and Candyman. “The process has definitely been a challenging one,” he admits. “Unlike many of our competitors who were multinationals, and had prior experience [testing their brands in various demographics], we had to formulate and develop each of our brands from scratch, without the support of international guidelines and past experience.”
Malik explains how his team decided to focus on consumer insights and integrate that knowledge into their brand development. “Through personal observation, focus groups, and face to face interviews we obtain distinctive information about our target audience [in each of our different product segments]."
“Linking consumer insights and making deductions is perhaps one of the most important functions of my job.” He adds, “I maintain a close synergy with the product development team and spend a significant amount of time discussing consumer trends, which might influence the creation of new products and variants.”
“Developing a brand in India," he explains, "requires understanding of regional tastes and preferences.” For example, the communication message for the atta brand, Aashirvaad, had to be tailored differently for the two consumers groups. Unlike North India, where atta constitutes a part of the staple diet, the South is predominantly a rice eating community. In South India, the consumption of wheat is a recent phenomenon, and it has gradually become a part of the diet because of doctors' recommendations. Hence the communication message for the South Indian audience focuses on wheat as a source of "active energy."
Speaking of his experience in another branding discipline—packaging, snack foods in particular—Malik discusses the launch of Bingo, a range of finger snacks that ratcheted up a 16 percent all-India market share within six months of launch. “While developing Bingo, a product development team fanned out across India to understand regional tastes and preferences. Drawing inspiration from [regional tidbits like] samosas and khakras, Bingo was launched in a combination of unique flavors.”
At a recent presentation of a case study at the Buzz Power 2008 conference in Mumbai, Malik explained that, “[since Bingo was competing with International behemoth Frito Lay and a host of other snack brands], we had to use clutter-breaking communication to create excitement around the brand. Our first campaign helped register the brand name, Bingo, and established the ‘combination’ space for the brand. Not many people understood it in the beginning, but it grew on them over time. Either people loved it or hated it, but they couldn’t ignore it,” chuckles Malik.
“[With the goal] to take all brands to the market leader position, time definitely flies when at the job.” Malik usually starts at 9:30 am and a typical day consists of lots of meetings, discussions, and laughter. He explains, “You will find me walking into a meeting where we are brainstorming the promotion strategy for a biscuit brand and the next minute, I am surrounded by an advertising agency team who is [showcasing] the launch campaign for a packaged finger food.”
Perhaps it is the daily game of squash before coming to work that allows Malik to keep himself mentally sharp and agile throughout his busy schedule.
“During the course of the day, I spend a lot of time working with a team of smart, young and intelligent individuals. Developing the right talent requires me to keep myself at the cutting edge of things through ‘learning by doing.’ I encourage youngsters to take new initiatives and not be scared of experimenting,” says Malik. Promoting an environment where mistakes are recognized as learning experiences has enabled Malik to build a team that thrives on out-of-the-box thinking.
Malik feels that for anyone wishing to succeed in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods industry, “there [needs to be] a lot of inclination at the personal level. One should be excited about coming to work and love interacting and learning about people.”