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.
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.
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.
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.
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.