S.M. Didarul Hasan, Deputy General Manager of Marketing, M. M. Ispahani Ltd. is an accomplished marketer with decades worth of experience in diverse industries. His passion for business and entrepreneurship made him pursue business degrees from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and University of Exeter, United Kingdom. A true example of meritocracy, he reveled in both academics and the pursuit of his career alike.

Bangladesh Brand Forum had the opportunity to talk to S. M. Didarul Hasan about his personal journey towards becoming one of the leading marketers of the country, future of the FMCG industry, product innovation, coping up with changing consumer behaviour and much more.

BBF: Over the decades, Ispahani has become a household name for its consumer brands. How has the brand evolved over this time?

S.M. Didarul Hasan: Ispahani has been a responsible brand all through. When a brand becomes a household name, it must, before anything, deliver and sustain its promises such as keeping the top quality of the products or ensuring that products come in suitable forms and packaging so that consumers can truly satisfy their functional needs first. Then a significant popularity comes up with further responsibility to make the products omnipresent wherever consumers want it. Once the brand keeps delivering these consistently for long, it actually goes beyond the transaction-based relationships to a brand relationship. The patronage leads to the developing of trust-bonding and consumers started showing patronage behavior for the brand. Then this brand loyalty keeps converting a single transaction into multi-period behaviors.

The answer for the other part of the question is, acknowledged as a pioneer in the marketing of tea, Ispahani introduced to the Bangladesh tea market the laminated pouch, the double chamber tea bag, the “stand up” pouch, the food-grade jar, the three-layer pouch, the 10gms easy pack, the “bag-in-bag” tea bag, and the zip lock packet. While doing all these, there is a strong work process in the background. The Ispahani Tea department selects, blends, and packs the finest Bangladeshi teas for both the local and international markets. These bring together the aspects of innovations. In tea markets, Ispahani has been leading the path to make this category available to all and affordable to all when they want it. After many years of serving our consumers, we are still dedicated to ensuring that they enjoy a fresh, aromatic, and exquisite tasting tea. I think this is a recurring journey.

And in recent years, Ispahani has diversified its product portfolio in consumer goods segments such as biscuits, bakery items, powder drinks, chips, crackers, and aromatic and regular rice variants. While doing all this Ispahani prioritizes “quality”. Ispahani never compromises with quality. That is the reason why Ispahani Tea Limited has been awarded the First Position in the National Productivity and Quality Excellence Awards in 2021 in the Large Industry Category (Foods) by the Ministry of Industries.

 When a brand evolves, these factors are the bare minimum or the fundamentals that should not go wrong. While communicating and conveying the promises to the mass consumers through adverts and other forms of ATL & BTL communications over the decades were instrumental as well. Having said that, advertising and communications become secondary when you have a winning product and physical availability is also there parallelly. 

When it comes to developing new products, how does Ispahani innovate to stay ahead of the market and delight more customers?

Developing new product ideas mostly comes from consumers’ needs. For example, in recent years, we have found rural households or people like sweetened items more than urban households. While urban consumers like toasts (some people call it rusk) with tea, semi-urban or rural households love sweet toasts equally or more. Combining these two aspects, the Ispahani Foods team developed a sweet toast that is softly sugar-coated. And, this has become one of the highest selling products under our Bakery Fresh brand.

 Recently we noticed that while consumers are buying 10gms of tea which costs Taka 7 as MRP they have a discomfort. They don’t prefer this 7 Taka or 13 Taka odd price-points. Rather they prefer to be in note sizes – it means Taka 5 or Taka 10 etc. Observing this odd-pricing fallacy, we come up with two products of Taka 5 for 7.5 gms and Taka 10 for 15 gms packs.

Other issues are, we constantly do research, look for new opportunities, develop products, do trials, we do fail and we innovate in terms of tastes, preferences, pack sizes, and different packaging options. Even a number of ideas of innovations have come from our channel choice. We try to delight consumers by understanding their preferences. But this part is not so easy and is the result of constant trials and improvements.

What role does innovation play in the growth and evolution of a brand?

To me, innovation plays a key role. To add further, innovations help relating the products and the brand well with consumers’ expectations. One simple example, perhaps consumers might love the taste of our premium tea brands but some of the consumer segment may not be able to afford a 400 gms pack size always, so we had to bring it in 200 gms and 100 gms pack sizes. This innovation is democratizing the buying power with affordable pack sizes! This is a minimal form of innovation. But the other part is, when we found, only Bangladeshi tea can be just a regular thing to some people who look for better and improved version, we combined African tea which gives good aroma with the highest quality teas of Bangladesh, these together give a superior and exclusive blend for Blender’s Choice.  They don’t bother to spend a bit more to taste better products, some people are also variety-seeking. For those who look for classy and different teas, we recommend them to try this brand. So, innovation is vital for the growth as well as for the evolution of a brand. Like the famous saying, you can’t bore the people buying your products. Innovation keeps adding interesting bits.

How has Ispahani adapted during the pandemic in response to changing consumer behavior?

During the COVID-19 period in June-August 2020, we launched an immunity-boosting campaign. This core idea of the campaign was to drive consumer behavior towards drinking tea adding ingredients such as ginger, lemon, honey, orange, or malta considering that this helps to boost immunity. We followed the same strategy and launched a recipe competition adding the ingredients later to propagate the idea of immunity boosting to be interesting. We launched two other TVCs as well targeting to drive consumer behavior of drinking tea while working from home using Zoom and other video meetings platform which has become a new normal. The third TVC was aimed at spreading positivity and hope. We believed that we should go back to tea stall chitchats once the COVID-19 situation would get normalcy. Millions of consumers were missing chitchat and adda at hot tea shops nearby.

Other than these campaigns, we also helped the people by providing sanitizers, soaps, and masks. We gave rice, lentils (chal-daal), biscuits, and dry foods just after initial covid-hit lockdown days last year. We helped tea-stall owners and retail shopkeepers with food relief so that their families can survive. We have given mentionable assistance under CSR programs. In 2021, we did a “Free Mask” campaign with Ispahani Mirzapore tea bags. Whoever bought a teabag received a surgical mask inside. We distributed 25 lacs mask under this campaign. People loved this idea. We have distributed food relief before and during Ramadan this year as well. We spent a large amount to provide masks, oxygen cylinders, high-flow nasal cannula and helped several hospitals to set up central oxygen systems.

What shift has occurred during the pandemic in terms of traditional and digital commerce for Ispahani and the evolving customer journey?

Considering the nature of the product, nothing much. On a positive note, last year during the first lockdown and general leave notice of the government, our regular tea sales went up in April and May. People bought in bulk as well as news stories, word-of-mouth, and viral marketing helped to push tea consumptions (hot water/drinking tea was assumed to be beneficial). This benefit was there for all tea category brands. However, as mentioned above, we also carried out some immunity boosting campaigns, traditional and digital tea recipe campaigns in digital, and we pushed e-commerce sales through Daraz, Chaldal, and others. We did some hyperlocal campaigns with superstores etc and tried to be responsive to consumer needs. Last, we enjoyed phenomenal growth (at some point 300% growth) in our Blender’s Choice Green Tea sales. During covid, initially like other brands, we have faced challenges to distribute and deliver our products countrywide. No one was ready or knew how to react but gradually normalcy set in. However, the consumption of tea and biscuits by SEC C and D and the outgoers or travelers have been hit, as we can observe in our market trends.

About media, we can notice the rise of digital than ever before. People have nothing to do at home other than browsing the internet – Facebook or YouTube. Our television contents are also weak in the country. So, we promoted our brands heavily on digital. Our media data shows, we reached almost 80% of the active digital audience last year! In terms of affinity building and salience, we are at the forefront of the tea category.

How should Bangladeshi FMCGs plan to evolve and penetrate the newer generations of consumers?

It sounds a bit theoretical, but I strongly believe there are some practical implications of it. One research data is popular by now that 65% of our total population is below 34 years old which gives a clear indication about where the future market lies. Before telling what FMCGs should do, let me share what we did. In 2018, we launched a usage and attitude study to understand our youth better; what do they think about tea consumption, and what role does tea play in their lifestyle. Accordingly, we are in the process of developing new tea products. Also, we have been doing ‘Ispahani Mirzapore Banglabid’ since 2017, targeting the youth. We want to build a good connection with Gen Z. We are one of the first brands who are targeting Gen Z purposefully. We wanted to be top of their consideration and we have been trying to reach them intentionally. They are one of the priorities of our future product innovations. We are also trying to understand their snacking behavior in and out of the home. We are in the process of launching a usage and attitude study for snacks and biscuits.

Now about the FMCGs, I think companies or brands should prioritize the newer generations’ needs – Gen Z and Generation Alpha. They are the future consumers and future workforce. This has been discussed well around the world that they are fickle, their attention span is less than a goldfish, they consume two screens at a time! However, the main point is, it is vital to understand or try to understand what drives them. From our research, I can share three secret findings that ranked to the top that money, power, and freedom drive them more than anything. Education, values, and status come relatively later! They prefer family but do not want to stay at home. They said, “if Facebook is not there tomorrow our family bonding will be stronger.” They love friends, they want fame, they love food and outing. Now, what should be the implications for marketers, then? To the brands and companies? Can we align our product innovations, communications, brand relationship programs accordingly? I want to leave this up to the readers.

You had worked extensively with the much-adored Tea category at Ispahani. How was that experience?

My experience at Ispahani was phenomenal. I would humbly give this credit to the Chairman and the board of directors of the company,  they built a culture to foster anyone who likes to contribute and flourish. I sincerely respect my co-workers and colleagues in Sales and Marketing, Tea Trade, Supply Chain, Factory, and other departments for their endless support. I can remember the initial days as a brand marketing manager back in 2014-15. Our then managing director, whenever I had the opportunity to meet him, would ask me “What’s next?” This used to challenge me immensely and encourage me simultaneously- to craft new brand building campaigns and sales activations to convert the awareness into sales performance. The company has invested a substantial amount to refresh the consumers’ memory structures, create awareness and wide mental availability. We did this with newer advertising and integrated campaigns every year. We have been able to build strong salience and brand equity as well.

Moreover, we had outstanding media support through Mediacom and creative agency support from Adcomm. And we have had the privilege of using all the research firms for retail audit, household panel data, and utilizing brand tracking studies. We also evaluated advertising campaigns for years. At one point in time, we received brand tracking data that Ispahani and Ispahani Mirzapore jointly reached 72% of top-of-mind awareness in 2017-2018, in the tea category. Being an iconic brand for decades, Ispahani’s brand salience and brand relationships have always been excellent. It was the best and most trusted heritage brand of the country even before I joined. Having said that, we observed gradual improvements in awareness and salience from 2014 to 2018.  In Bangladesh Brand Forum’s ‘Best Brand Award 2018’, Ispahani Mirzapore Tea was awarded the best brand in the country surpassing all local and multinational brands. Besides being no. 1 in the hot beverage category, in 2020 it was able to secure the 2nd best brand position again. I am extremely thankful and happy to be a part of Ispahani Group for countless reasons. Providing me with the wide learning opportunity I have had and getting the scope to experiment with new ideas, are two I have to absolutely mention. Now, we look forward to making positive progress with powder drinks, biscuits, and rice categories besides the tea category.

What are some of the key learnings from your career that you would like to impart on the next generation of professionals?

To me, learning is a moving target. I still am not complacent with what I have learned. I study articles, news, and books on an everyday basis to serve this purpose. I collect contact numbers of marketing managers, heads of marketing, sales managers, and even territory managers in different companies and call them in the same pursuit of knowledge. I am not obsessed with hierarchy at all. Also, due to the privilege of having access to research, I read a lot of research reports, market observation data every day to keep me grounded.

I also feel that hard work has been a catalyst in my career. Being 100% passionate about my job makes me constantly want to tackle challenges and it has yet to wear me out.

Furthermore, resilience is another major factor. While facing disappointments at times I think we must know how to move on. There is no point in ensuing negativity with a decision, a colleague, or any downturn. The tenacity to follow through with a plan or strategy is crucial.

The last point I want to share is that we must remember that organizations are a complex system consisting of strategy, work, people, formal structure, and informal structures. We must remind ourselves to stay humane – talk to people, listen to others, make friends who help move the formal structures informally, and execute your responsibilities at any cost. We have to become better communicators; here, ‘integrity’ is a given, you have to attain it to win colleagues and people around. Believe that “If you want to go fast, go alone; and if you want to go far, go together.” Let’s remember, our career is a journey, not a race to win in a jiffy.  

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