Your entire career has centred on analysing consumer behaviour. But what first got you interested in data?
My background is in economics, and what drove me there was a deep curiosity of what drives consumption behaviour. In the process of learning my craft I was very intrigued about how most decisions are fundamentally driven by trade-offs, and human behaviour is best understood when one dives deeper into what optimises these trade-offs. Needless to say, behavioural data is the only way to get to this understanding.
Tell us about your educational journey – from Hyderabad to NYC – and your key career moves from New Jersey to Minnesota to Brussels.
I was born in Hyderabad, India, but grew up in East Africa (Kampala, Uganda). We relocated back to Hyderabad when I was in my 5th grade and remained there till I completed my bachelor’s degree (in commerce) where my interest in economics was whetted. I did my master’s degree at the University of Bombay (now University of Mumbai) and was particularly interested in international trade theory. I completed my PhD under Prof. Dominick Salvatore’s mentorship and that is what got me to NYC. While there I was looking for internships during the summer and happened to score one within the market research group at AT&T. I got hooked and decided to take up a full-time offer from AT&T and stayed in the New Jersey area for about 10 years. Eventually I switched my industry from telecommunications to CPG (FMCG) as I wanted to remain in market research/data analytics but broaden my ‘tool kit’ across multiple industries. Nielsen hired me and I stayed with them for a couple years before General Mills hired me from Nielsen and we relocated to Minneapolis. I worked for General Mills for about 13 years before Mars Inc. recruited me to head up their Global Advanced Analytics & Measurement practice and this role is what has brought my family and me to Brussels, Belgium.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in business during your career?
There are couple things that are stand-out learning over my 23 years in market research and consumer behaviour. This is fundamentally a ‘human’ business and knowing what the consumer wants and giving them what they want is key. Those who can crack this more accurately and sooner than others is what determines success. Often business leaders, with the best of intent, act with a ‘profit first’ mind-set while they should be motivated by a ‘consumer first’ approach and that is where breakout success lies. If one were to take this approach long-term growth and profit is all but assured.
How did you first get into analytics and who have been your key role models/mentors?
There have been many. When I joined AT&T I just tumbled into market research to be honest; I was just mail bombing local companies for a summer internship. They hired me just because I had SAS programming on my resume and they wanted me to come in and run SAS code to run reports that the consumer insights group was using. I had no clue what consumer insights was or what market research was. My first key role model was my first manager at AT&T who was managing my internship. Phil Jackimowitz, who was Consumer Insights Manager B2B, was the first one who mentored, provided me guidance, and got me to understand that the closer you get to the front and understand what people are looking for the more effective and efficient you become in the back room. I had two other influential mentors – both bosses at General Mills. When I got promoted to director, Vivian Millroy was my VP and one of the key things she taught me that I needed to know about business is it’s all about people. Never forget that fact. Whether it’s external from the consumer or internal with your network, it’s always about people and what motivates people. It’s about understanding your stakeholders, meeting your stakeholders halfway and always being open without judging; it’s what will make you the most effective. I continue to use this every day and it’s been the most valuable teaching I have received. The second was Gayle Fuguitt, who has been very influential on my career. She was Senior VP of the Consumer Insights function and promoted me to director. She would say to me that being savvy and understanding the organisation is paramount but also knowing that you are not operating your environment is important. Just know that when you influence and when you are seeking impact be aware that there’s politics around you. She was a visionary but would very quickly come down to execution plans; she would let you fly in the sky but very quickly focus you on ‘ok that’s all great; now tell me how you’re making it happen’. It was a good discipline.
What single achievement are you most proud of – in business or your personal life?
There is one solution we delivered recently at Mars I would single out. We needed to solve a media effectiveness measurement issue; Mars has a growing challenge that we are very good at evaluating what we spend on TV but we are moving from TV to other platforms so how do we create good and robust ways of measuring our efforts? One of the things I led and developed in China, and we are now beginning to partner with Amazon and Google on, is creating an ecosystem that allows us to do a lot of randomised control trials, or A/B testing. We have created a solution in China, working with Alibaba using their online video delivery system, where we can air content and follow sales behaviour. We can do this on demand and in a way we get the results back in two to three weeks. The reason this is revolutionary is that we can do a range of isolated tests before we air. So with this system you can do a lot of testing before spending advertising dollars.
What is the toughest problem you have had to solve in your career and how did you tackle/overcome it?
When I was promoted at General Mills one of my responsibilities was to centralise and scale a key metric tracking system. Everyone was creating metrics and tracking them on their own, so there were multiple versions of the truth. There were some very significant stakeholders who did not have any willingness to change or revisit things that were obviously not working. So I had significant barriers to navigate through and I was a new director and I didn’t have the network. That was my toughest problem. So how did I fast forward my credibility? For the first six months as director I started showing up to my key stakeholders at their desk and walked down to have a coffee with them. Those 30 minute very casual interactions started giving me a sense for what their priorities were, what kept them up at night. I decided that the best way to build credibility was to be transparent and be very upfront about what my purpose was. What started happening is that they slowly felt comfortable picking up the phone to call me and sound me off on thinking and ideas that they had. I was starting to make inroads in being able to influence them in terms of thinking I was bringing forward. That slowly started chipping away at their resistance. It didn’t happen overnight; it took me about two to three years before I really felt I was in the inner circle.
What are the key drivers for food and drink consumers and how has purchasing behaviour changed over the past 20 years?
In the past 20 years there have been significant shifts. There are two, which are not trends but which are embedded, systemic, here to stay with us for the foreseeable future. These are: i) People pay attention to what they are consuming with an increasing sense of purpose. It’s a very mindful thing that they are doing in terms of what they are buying, what is in it, who is making it, how are they making it, where are they sourcing it from? Companies, no matter what they are making or selling, need to understand this. ii) How consumers are sourcing products. It’s like night and day from when I started in this. When I needed something 20 years ago as a consumer I had to make a list, cut my coupons, go to the grocery store, buy my stuff probably one day a week, and I’d usually be the primary grocery shopper for the household. I’d get my stuff, pay by credit card or cheque and I’m done. Fast forward 20 years and it’s unbelievable. I’m not the only primary grocery shopper in the household. All members of the household are potentially doing it simultaneously with our mobile devices. We don’t pay with our cheque books any more, we are primarily using some online payment method, we are not buying just from the grocery store but from a bunch of channels and we are not just buying it one day a week. Some things are arriving directly to my refrigerator because of smart devices and services like Amazon Prime etc. That’s completely changed the dynamic of how we speak to, understand and influence consumers.
Given your unique insight are you a really tough customer? How do you choose goods and services when you are making purchases?
I do view myself as a tough customer. Like most consumers I try to maximise my “value equation”. That doesn’t necessarily only mean the price of a product. Everything I am purchasing, whether it be a low involvement item like groceries or a high involvement item like a car, I am trying to maximise my “value equation” which is a constant trade-off between the quality, price, convenience, taste, etc. If we took the time to understand this about every consumer I think we’d get to a better place in understanding what is motivating their purchasing behaviour.
What sparked your interest in human rights and decision to take on volunteer roles?
Someone close to me was a survivor of domestic violence and, when she came out of that relationship, as a family we tried to support her in any way possible. I experienced things I never could have imagined. When she passed away 12 years ago quite suddenly, I wanted to do something in her memory. That’s when I reached out to the Domestic Abuse Project (Minneapolis, MN) and served on their board and it was very satisfying to me personally. I was able to bring a very unique capability and perspective due to my background in business and market research and realised voluntary organisations needed that kind of support and continue to contribute in any way I can.
Outside work what else do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love food! I love cooking, I love eating, I love baking. Every Saturday when we can, my daughter and I bake stuff, like cookies and cakes. We have so much fun. My wife Shivani and I also love cooking – Indian, Italian, Mediterranean, Thai, you name it. We also love travelling. We recently had a train trip across Spain – Barcelona, Madrid to Lisbon. We have also recently been to Switzerland and travelled quite a bit in India and the US. One of our favourite places we love being in is southern Spain.
What motivates you the most in your role at Mars in terms of challenges; what achievements give you the greatest satisfaction?
Being able to collaborate as partners to find solutions for entrenched problems, either things that are not easily solvable or that have not been solved for years. The ability to bring in fresh eyes to a well-entrenched problem is highly motivating to me.
What do you think is/are currently the biggest single challenge(s) for global FMCG leaders?
I think the biggest challenge for global FMCG leaders is to not think of the two big shifts in consumer behaviour (mindful purchasing and sources of purchasing) as passing fancies or fads or trends. They’re not; they’re things that are absolutely real. The fact is that they are here to stay and acknowledging that is the biggest challenge.
What do you expect the key advances in technology will be over the next decade that will have the biggest impact on consumer behaviour?
The ability to order things using just your voice. That’s the next biggest advance in technology and I think it will impact every single supplier and seller out there. No doubt about it because imagine, in the old days when you had to buy stuff all you had to do was make sure you were a brand that advertised enough so people would remember your brand when they were making their list. Fast forward that to today if your brand is not tagged well enough in the digital platforms so that it doesn’t appear in the first three search terms when you go on Google then your brand never gets picked. With voice it has to be the first one. How do you get yourself situated where your offering or product is the first thing that gets asked for? Today 80 to 90 per cent of all searches happen on your mobile device via typing. In a few years’ time my prediction is that 90 per cent of your searches are going to happen on a mobile device or some device via voice. I think it’s going to change everything and turn everything we know and understand on its head.
In terms of market research what do global FMCG leaders need to do now to keep ahead of the game?
The way we need to stay ahead of the game is being linked to three pieces: hindsight, insight and foresight. Twenty years ago if we had hindsight to business we were good. You sell stuff, run the numbers, measure the results and a week or two weeks later you find out ‘oh I had a market share of X%’ and that market share improved or dropped by half a point. That was good enough to know that. But then very quickly we needed to be in the world of insight, so take all that hindsight data and then understand from it why did my market share drop or increase half a point. Where we are being pushed now and where we absolutely need to be to be ahead of the game is we need to take the hindsight data, take the insight that comes from it, use them both and predict where the consumer is going next. That’s foresight.
What targets have you set yourself for 2019 – both personal and business?
For business I will continue my journey at Mars to expand my network. That is going to be a big one for me in 2019. And all the big business challenges I have already outlined. On the personal side, because we are living in Belgium now in 2019 my wife and I want to learn French. We feel that if we have not done that in the time we are here we will have wasted an opportunity.