IN CONVERSATION WITH NEIL GEORGE, MANAGING DIRECTOR, NIVEA INDIA & SOUTH ASIA
With an overall view of Brand Management and Marketing in the global stage, Mr. Neil George has been extending his expertise in the Middle East, Europe and South Asia. The Comic Book Author, Marketing genius and Global Brand Manager is back in South Asia with an admirable amount of experience. His expertise includes Consumer Goods, Media, Digital marketing, Hospitality, Business Strategy, Advertising, and Social Media. Currently the Managing Director of Nivea India and South Asia, Neil George recently made a business trip to Dhaka. During the visit, he sat for an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum and talked on his career, the FMCG industry, and Nivea’s journey in Bangladesh.
BBF: You call yourself a salesman of cream, detergent and soap. Why a salesman?
Neil George: I’ve spent 21 years of my life in consumer goods. The objective for us is to sell and for people to buy our products. You can do all kinds of marketing, any kind of HR, all the financial strategies but if eventually people don’t buy your products and if you don’t sell stuff then you don’t make any money. So, everybody in the company is a salesman.
I started my career in shampoos for ‘Pantene’ in P&G, I managed a brand called ‘Wix’, then managed ‘Pampers’, managed ‘Whisper’ and for the longest time, ‘Ariel’ detergent. Then for the longest time, ‘Mortein’, ‘Air Wick’, and ‘Dettol’. So, all my life I’ve just been selling and selling.
BBF: You worked with renowned global brands like P&G, Reckitt Benckiser, and Diversey Inc. How have those experiences helped you to be where you are today? Share some of the memorable experiences.
Neil George: In most multinational companies today, people who lead or the people who take on large positions are the people who have grown up in the industry and also have managed different products, managed different geographies. I have a good well rounded view of everything. I was previously managing emerging markets, which I could because I’ve previously worked in India, in the Middle East and eventually in Europe. They wanted me to bring the best factors in Europe back to the emerging markets. Companies want to get somebody who has worked in the industry, worked in the company and also has managed outside and inside. That’s why the experience helps.
As for memorable experiences, in one of the early years in my life I moved to Saudi Arabia and I was managing ‘Ariel Detergent’. The detergent market is known to be extremely competitive. While I was managing ‘Ariel’ for the Middle East, Henkel decided to enter the market. For P&G, detergents in Middle East is a very profitable business. My role in my first year in the Middle East was to create the defense plan to stop Henkel from getting shares. So, I was able to work in a way where we absolutely pushed back Henkel in their tracks and actually gained market shares despite of these guys coming in.
BBF: Could you tell us a bit about your journey with Beiersdorf?
Neil George: I joined Beiersdorf in 2012 while living in Amsterdam. The company had a cluster of markets that was UK, Ireland, Netherlands and Scandinavian markets and they were combining these markets to make it one market. So, I joined them as the regional director of Marketing in Amsterdam, managing the bigger region. I worked there for a couple of years and then moved to Dubai as a VP for marketing for emerging markets, from 2014 – 2017. I was in that role managing the innovation, managing the roles out of the brands in the new countries. Last year in May, the position that I’m handling now became vacant and then the company selected me to come back as the Managing Director for the Indian and South Asian region.
BBF: You have studied hotel management in the beginning. What made you shift towards the FMCG industry?
Neil George: I was always passionate about cooking, food, drinks and my natural obsession was to do my hotel administration. I did that in Bombay for 4 years and joined a group called the ITC Hotels Limited as a Management Trainee. During these times, you learn that in any business there’s operations and there’s the commercial side. As you get into a business you learn that there’s a lot more marketing in everything than you actually thought. During that time I started loving the whole concept of selling, marketing of food and rooms. I knew that I wouldn’t stay in operations forever and decided to do my MBA. So, I left hotel administration with a view to do my MBA and come back into hotels to market hotels and food. But the job then took me outside of the industry.
BBF: In your opinion, how different is the FMCG industry in South Asia from that of Middle East and Europe? What should the marketers consider while promoting FMCG goods in this region?
Neil George: First, you start with the categories, the consumers. In South Asia, what really strikes you is the large populations. Between the countries there’s about 2 billion, which is about a third of the world population. Bangladesh has more population than the top 4 countries in Europe put together. So, you’re looking at large numbers even at micro targeted certain segments. Second thing is, most categories are less developed. Another thing is, there’s low penetration. So, in these markets the role is for you to drive people to use your products for the first time. In Europe, the big difference is that you’re trying to compete with other brands and ask the consumers to buy your product, instead of others. Third thing is the trade difference. In Bangladesh only 5-7% of the business comes from supermarkets while in Netherlands, 100% comes from supermarkets. So, how you sell in market becomes very different. Then there’s the media. Here, people still consume media via television, radio, newspapers. In Europe people do consume via television but not much with radio and newspaper and also use digital media. Therefore, the way you approach the markets is very different in the two markets. But the principles continue to be the same. People have the same problems with dandruff in here and Europe, they have dry skin there and here. You find lots of similarities and differences.
You firstly need to see that it’s a high potential market for some, not all categories. So, don’t come blindly into Bangladesh. Bangladesh has certain ways in which people operate. You will find that people will buy smaller sizes, the stores are small, and the store keeper will not have enough money to keep different products. So, what you need to understand is that while it’s a large market it’s not a large market for everything. Second, they have to ensure they tailor-make the sizes, flavors, the products to suit the market here. Another thing you see is that there’s a lot of traffic. Say, if someone starts an e-commerce business here and promises delivery within 24 hours, they have to be careful. The traffic might not allow overnight delivery. The other thing is that Bangladesh does not have manufacturing capabilities in a number of categories. So, if you want to come and produce something here, you need to first import and then work with it. Then again there’s high import duty on the products. Therefore, the end price becomes expensive. Companies need to figure out the entry strategies. It’s the traditional things like looking at the consumers, looking at the trade, looking at the product categories that will succeed, the kind of packaging that will work, the pricing and communication. You can’t take a foreign AD and expect that to work here.
BBF: You have written a comic book “Building the Perfect Beast – What REALLY happens in Brand Management”. What prompted you to write the book? Tell us more about the title.
Neil George: In 2010, I was working in the Netherlands and I was leaving Reckitt Benckiser to join another company before which I had a 3 month break. During that time, a lot of people would come to me for career advice, even with their kids. I realized that I was giving the same feedback to everyone which people were taking notes of and it seemed like I was preaching the gospel about brand management. I then decided that rather than repeating this whole thing over and over I’ll just write a book, which was basically built around the dummy’s guide to working in brand management.
The writing didn’t work out as I’m not trained to be a writer. My thought of wanting to turn that into a photobook didn’t work either as there are too many photobooks in the market. I read a lot of comics so, I thought, why don’t I just write the same stories and advice in a comic book! That’s how the comic book started. I thought that if I gave straight advice like ‘don’t do this and that’ it would be boring. Hence, I decided to write it in the eyes of 5 interns, who are joining a multinational in their first year and as they grow up, how these little young innocent bunnies start managing innocent brands, and how the brands become beasts. The name of the title itself comes from the solo album of the drummer and singer of the band, “The Eagles” called, “Building the Perfect Beast”.
BBF: In one of your articles you said, employees are energized by the projects they are passionate about. Would you share a bit more on this?
Neil George: Among the youngsters, the boundary between work and life is blurry. Somebody plays the guitar and takes it from a hobby to a full time job. Unlike in the past where you had a distinct career and a distinct hobby, it’s now merging among the youth. So, you really want to kindle the people’s fire and see what they really like. If you assign people along the lines of the things they like, their passion becomes visible which is reflected in their work.
BBF: Would you like to share your observation on Nivea’s success in Bangladesh?
Neil George: Nivea is a very young company in Bangladesh. Although the products have been here for very long, we started becoming big in the last two years and our partnership with IDC really helped. So, it’s certain that we have a great partnership with IDC, they’re our distributor partner. They’ve invested heavily into the infrastructure and into the teams. They also do a really passionate job in the stores. That is one very clear success. Second is, we’ve got a very small but dedicated team that’s about delivering the right products. I think the third thing is, we have a team on the ground in India and people who understand Bangladesh as well. So, we’ve been very choosy about a lot of the products we want to launch in Bangladesh. The other element is also the fact that we’ve been really slow and focused on fixing the basics before we expand. We’re here for the next 100 years, so we want to make sure we get all the basics right. So, it’s the partner, it’s the people, it’s our understanding of the Bangladeshi consumers and going at it one step at a time. We’re just a growing company and we’re doing well.
BBF: What are some of your future plans for Nivea in Bangladesh?
Neil George: We just have a distributor set up right now, we don’t have an office here. As the business grows and if we continue to invest heavily into growing the brand here, we will look at producing some of the products in Bangladesh. We’d invest in the brands – Nivea and Nivea Men and the partnerships. We’d Invest into innovations and continue to drive our presence into a larger number of cities across Bangladesh.
BBF: Do you have any tips for the young marketers to succeed in FMCG marketing?
Neil George: First tip would be – try and join into a company that has a history of FMCG and that of training people. Wherever you join, marketing or sales, do it in a company that has a history of consumer goods. Second is, remember that it’s a career for life. It’s something you’d have to do for about 10-15 years. So, make sure it’s an industry that you like. Don’t see the glamour, make sure you’re in for the years. It requires a can do, optimist and work oriented attitude. Thirdly, try to have a good mix of analytical as well as creative skills. The other one is, you got to work with people. It’s a people’s business so you should be willing to work with every department be it sales or finance. A combination of these, certainly drives success.
Interviewed by Arshae Ahmed