Case Studies - Brand & Marketing - Financial Services

How Kotak Built a Powerful Banking Brand

Karthi Marshan, CMO, Kotak Bank (2006 to 2023) shares the fascinating consumer insights and campaigns that guided the bank’s branding journey

Kotak CMO with Kotak Logo and text that says Kona Kona Kotak

When Kotak Mahindra Bank launched banking operations in 2003, it was entering a tough industry. The fledgling bank needed to fight the long-standing legacy of Public Sector Banks on the one hand, and the firepower of ICICI and HDFC on the other. Ray+Keshavan, a firm at which I was a partner, carried out an extensive branding initiative for Kotak. Two decades later, it remains one of the projects I am proudest of. The Kotak team was always clear and courageous. The logo for instance, was a Devnagari ‘Ka,’ a bold move in 2003, when being ‘premium’ meant aping the west.

Karthi Marshan was CMO of Kotak for over 16 years. How did the bank build a memorable, differentiated brand? Karthi shared some incredible insights, as he took me through that journey. 

Let’s start at the beginning – what were the early challenges with building the Kotak brand?

Karthi: When I joined Kotak, the challenge was to establish it as a recognisable bank brand. We did not have the stable, safe patina of the Public Sector Banks, we were not a glossy multinational bank, and we had to contend with the private sector giants, ICICI and HDFC. To compound this, the bank carried a Gujarati surname (Kotak) and a Punjabi surname (Mahindra). We were well known as experts in corporate finance, investment banking, brokerage, et al, but not in plain vanilla banking. So our biggest challenge was to earn acceptance as a bank.

How did you go about doing this? It would be great to get examples of specific initiatives.

Karthi: We found a few novel ways to manifest strong banking associations. 

Take, for example, how we established legacy.

In banking, the age of the institution definitely influences how much people trust it. Kotak’s problem was that despite being in financial services for over two decades, it was seen as a Johnny-come-lately in banking. So, when we reached the 25th anniversary of our firm’s founding in 2010, we ran a short but sharp, blitzkrieg campaign, called “Its grt 2b 25,” celebrating the singular idea of being 25.

 We put together a series of short films, asking people what being 25 meant to them. The campaign delivered beyond our wildest imagination. Our trustworthiness scores went up by 5 percentage points, which was unthinkable for a one week campaign.

A week-long campaign celebrating the idea of being 25, raised Kotak’s trustworthiness score by 5 percentage points.

It also gave us confidence in our brand voice. We realised that being authentic, and a tad irreverent, worked for our brand personality.  That’s why, years later, when we used a celebrity for our commitment-free, 811 account opening campaign, we chose the irrepressible Ranveer Singh.

Then in 2011, RBI deregulated interest rates on savings accounts. At that time, all banks used to pay a standard 4% on savings deposits. Kotak decided to offer 6%. Savings accounts are the most vanilla product in the market, but they are also the starter product for a banking relationship. So we used the 6% offering to help create a strong association between the brand and banking. 

The first million banking customers had taken nine years to woo, but after the launch of this offering and the campaigns for it, the next million came in just three years. Today, that number is almost 40 million.

By amplifying a 6% interest rate on savings accounts. Kotak successfully created a strong banking association

In India, physical presence is critical for trust, particularly in financial services. How did you create the perception of a widespread network, when you didn’t have one?

Karthi: Exactly right. People want to see bank branches that they can walk into, in order to feel secure about their money. But Kotak, relative to its peers, has always had a much leaner physical network, both in branches as well as ATMs.

After the merger with ING Vyasa Bank in 2015, our network did double, although it was still far short of our competitors. When we pored over the combined branch locations list, we stumbled on the nugget that ING Vysya had many branches in some really remote, even exotic locations. We amplified this fact and launched a campaign called “Kona Kona Kotak”, providing reassurance that we had enough branches for customers to feel safe.

It also increased brand awareness, as people started noticing branches in their vicinity. Further, once online KYC was allowed in 2016, we found people opening accounts even when we didn’t have a branch in their pin code. 

The memorable Kona Kona Kotak campaign amplified branches in obscure locations, creating the perception of a widespread branch network

Many of our readers are founders, and they say that it’s easy to do cool marketing when you have big budgets. What would you say to them?

Karthi: If you’re smart, you’ll find ways to spend 10, but achieve the impact of 100. 

Take the example of IPL. It is a powerful reach vehicle, but it costs way more than we were willing to pay.  Instead we stitched up a win-win deal with seven of the eight teams to do co-branded cards. Team pride is a strong emotion and now in addition to sporting merchandise, you could pay with a card that had your team’s logo on it. This worked for Kotak, but also for the teams and their fans, and we were able to ride the IPL wave, without the mega-spends.

By issuing co-branded cards with IPL teams, Kotak rode the IPL wave, without mega-spends

After spending so much time in banking, where do you feel the opportunities are for newer players?

Karthi: The truth is, banks are struggling with so many things that they are spread thin. It is very hard for them to compete in niche areas, or provide significantly better customer experiences. With the advent of newer apps, banks run the risk of being relegated to pipes – you interact with your payment app several times a day, but how often do you interact with your bank?

In  many ways, the onslaught of the digital stack is a great leveller, and the fintechs are busy nipping away at banks’ lunches now. This is a white space available to anybody with bright ideas focussed on unserved and underserved niches.

One white space that is very close to my heart is women-focused financial services. Women have special financial needs and few brands are serving them. Take credit cards, for instance. Without credit history, it is hard for home-makers to get credit cards. We did this at Kotak, by offering credit cards against fixed deposits, because homemakers have always squirrelled away cash from the monthly budgets assigned to them, and usually have a secret stash for family indulgences and emergencies.

There are many more such spaces that perceptive and bold marketers could build to serve and profit from.

This has been an amazing conversation, Karthi. Last question: what is your advice for people building a brand today?

Karthi: Look for unsolved consumer-facing problems in your category, build your product or service around that, and then communicate the hell out of it with your own unique point of view.

Exactly like humans, the brands that make winning impressions will be the ones that command immediate, but also lasting attention due to relevance layered with novelty.

14 Comments

  1. I love this piece. Classic Karthi Marshan style. Sharing the story based on facts and no exaggeration. Especially when they are so successful. In a way they were a challenger brand – but they did it with style and dignity. (Much like Karthik the person). I love that.

    1. You’re too kind, Sridhar. To hear nice things about oneself from a giant of the industry such as yourself is truly a blessing.

      And if anyone is reading these comments, I recommend you head over to Sridhar’s LinkedIn handle, he’s offering a FREE 60 min chat to anyone who needs help, of any kind.

      Grab it, it’s gold.

  2. The examples of the campaigns and the IPL card concept is very interesting, but how did you create a unique brand positioning (one that towers over campaigns and stays consistent for much longer than campaigns)? Would be great to hear about that as well 🙂

  3. I wish Karthi had also spoken of campaigns gone wrong or assumptions that were proven untrue. Would be a wealth of learning there

    1. Sangeeta,

      I’m very happy to do a chat on those as well. I think this one covered mostly the good stuff, also because of word count issues.

      Lots more “oops i messed up” stories to tell, of course. So much egg on face available to feed off, as it were.

  4. Yuval Harari says in Sapiens :
    “Nonetheless, money is an effective fiction: it convinces all of humanity to agree that something is valuable and trust that everybody else will too”. This, to Harari, “facilitates mass cooperation and establishes money as the world’s most powerful imagined order”.
    Challenge to bankers, then is to get customers to learn about it and join the order in droves.

    I feel all Banks in India work within certain established order. Nobody talks to a customer in terms of inculcating in them a deeper understanding of what money actually is and how to handle it effectively. All these relationship managers and executives parrot out the same stuff about investments and so on. But there is no fundamentally different approach. Which I guess, is what a Marwari or a Telgu or a Gujarati father, shows/tells/shares with his child about money and teaches them the art of making more of it!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary, Jogi. In some ways, I fully agree with you. The subject of money is so rich with opportunity to educate and enlighten, yet most of us do a piss-poor job of it.

      I have tried, in my own small ways, throughout my working life. Maybe I need to try again.

      Thanks again for the nudge.

  5. One big thing stood out for me was the same CMO – for 16 years. Today average life of CMO is 2-3 years. Where is room for long term thinking? Founders are often intimidated by big name CMOs

    1. Are they, really? Intimidated, I mean. After all, they are the ones who had the vision to build something in the first place. We CMOs serve at their pleasure. Why should they be intimidated by us?

      On your other point, I fully agree. My role model was a former CMO of Itau Bank, who did a 19 year stint and made Itau Brazil’s biggest brand!

      1. Thanks for the reply Karthi. I was speaking from personal experience at a beauty startup. We hired a CMO ex Unilever and board and CEO felt he knew best until we had zero results after massive spends for 2 years.

        Had not heard of Itau – looking them up. Tks for sharing

  6. Loved this. Meeta & THC focus much more on brands that have stood test of time. That’s what we signed up for

  7. Fantastic interview. One big thing that strikes me is how this disproves that brand marketing is all fluff. These were brand marketing campaigns but with clear intent. Just the way campaigns were always supposed to be

    1. Thanks Dhruv. You’re so right, clarity is critical. So is courage, IMO, especially to believe that what we do impacts brands and business in the long term, provided we stay the course.

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