Suresh Balaji, APAC CMO of HSBC will be chairing the Sustained Growth category of the 2022 WARC Awards for Effectiveness. Here he talks about the triple bottom line, and what he’s looking for in this year’s entries.


Suresh Balaji, APAC CMO at HSBC

When it comes to building brands in the long term, what is the key to a successful long-term brand-building initiative?

The key ingredient for any successful brand-building initiative is unearthing the customer insight that creates the impact that the brand has had on its customers. If the brand has had no impact on customers, then the brand is just either talking to itself or talking to other organisations. The ability for a brand to create sustained mental availability and physical availability with respect to customers is probably the number-one outcome of successful long-term brand-building.

Have current conditions made it difficult to invest in brand impact work, when you're under pressure to push out more performance-based or performance-focused campaigns to get that conversion for short-term sales impact?

People conflate brand work and demand work. People also conflate brand and product marketing. Many marketers think that brand advertising and the product experience are two different things. Back in the day, brand product experience and the aftersales service were all siloed. Marketing Science tells us now that the brand is the sum total of all of those. The brand is across everything – from when you walk through a jet-bridge and see the HSBC brand poster; to how a contact-centre agent responded to your query; to how easy it was for you to access your funds when you are travelling abroad. All of these go into the creation of what we know as a modern brand.

Has the pandemic made it more difficult for us to reach customers? Yes. Has it made it easier for us to reach customers? The answer is also yes.

Most brands have seen a change in customer behaviour, especially when it comes to migration to online or digital channels. As customers get more comfortable with digital channels, the ability for us to reach them becomes easier.

We are seeing that the pandemic has actually enhanced our brand, because we were there for customers at the right place and at the right time when they needed us the most. The key is to stay responsive to these changes in customer behaviour.

The pandemic hasn't killed brands, it probably killed non-responsive brands.

Marketers are now looking at a more holistic and integrated understanding of brand product and customer experience. How does that translate to internal discussions, especially the finance and procurement functions, when you are articulating the need for sustained or increased budgets?

The conversation around the CMO-CFO collaboration has been an ongoing one. The three parts to this journey are better measurement, better targeting and better experiences. This is fuelled by increased digital media spends.

Measurement is getting better, as better attribution tools are available. Gone are the days when marketers said that they didn’t know which 50% of their marketing budget worked.

With ubiquitous data availability, we are also able to target better. And the best way to do this is to have a philosophy around fulfilling customer needs. The starting point should not be “let's try to sell more” but more like “let’s be relevant to customers” or “let’s try to solve their problem”.

Then, the martech stack’s purpose has to be improving overall experience – reducing friction in the purchase journey – from the number of clicks to ease of navigation. Tools like the Net Promoter System also help create the burning platform around experiences.

Finally, working for an organisation that’s inherently customer-centric helps. The finance function is attuned to the customer story through data points across these areas. Customer data always tells the right story and creates a common purpose for the CMO and the CFO.

When you think about the notion of sustained growth, what does that mean to you?

There are two ways to look at this. The first way is sustained growth from a P&L or a business growth perspective, which is you continue to grow your customer numbers and continue to grow your revenues.

The other way is creating growth that is sustained from a sustainability point of view. This is about the move that brands are taking towards what we call the triple bottom line, which is not just about profits, but about prosperity, people and planet. The triple bottom line was an idea mooted many years ago by Porter and Kramer – the core of this thinking is that organisations shouldn’t create prosperity for themselves by harming the planet or impacting people.

The broader thinking around it nowadays is all thing ESG – Environment, Sustainability and Governance. Organisations are committing to how they look at their own value chain, measuring the seemingly intangibles, and looking at having a sustainable positive impact across the value chain.

So sustained growth would mean doing just that: putting ESG at the core of the brand.

How do you then cultivate internally that culture of sustained growth and effectiveness in your work at HSBC?

From an organisation perspective, the biggest ambassador for sustainability has been our Group CEO. He is in the frontlines talking to the industry, economies, governments, clients, regulators, and employees on the role of the industry, and particularly financial services organisations and not just HSBC, in helping drive a sustainable future for the next generation. And as we all know culture change is always top-down. HSBC also hired a Group Chief Sustainability Officer recently and we've had a Corporate Sustainability function for over a decade, in every market that we operate in.

From the brand perspective, our regional Brand Council consists of the Chief Communications Officer, the Chief Marketing Officer and the Chief Sustainability Officer for the region. The three of us decide on what we do from a brand narrative perspective across the board in every market that we operate in. So brand work is not devoid of any of the sustainability core. The core messaging needs to emanate from our purpose, and our purpose of ‘Opening up a world of opportunity’ links inherently to sustainable growth.

When you look at sustained growth from the context of an award scheme, why do you think this category is important?

The first question is, why are awards important?

Firstly, marketing awards continuously set the bar high for the world of marketing to follow – in the areas of insight, creativity and innovation. Increasingly, awards have promoted better use of data, better use of technologies, better outcomes. This is what awards do – show how far boundaries can be pushed.

The second thing that they do is they create recognition for people who have done things differently, who stuck their neck out and said, “We want to do this differently”, or have gone against the grain. To create something truly meaningful, they probably had to fight uphill battles. So as an industry, awards give us an opportunity recognise these people.

The third one is show the true value of marketing to the business world, proving that creativity and effectiveness are usually linked. There is now science to show that there's a positive correlation between creative programmes and the impact that they have on the businesses.

Now, beyond these, we need to look for the sustained impact the brand has had on the entire ecosystem it operates in. It's important to reward brands that help raise the bar. We can shine a light on organisations and brands who've set new benchmarks, zigged when everyone else has zagged. Brands that were purposeful about building their brand, created long-term value for of their shareholders, stakeholders and customers, had an impact on the planet and people by putting ESG factors at the core of their work.

As Jury Chair for the Sustained Growth category, what do you hope to see from the entrants in year's submissions?

Firstly, I want to start with evidence – true impact cannot just be qualitative. There has to be a quantifiable impact.

The second thing that I'm looking for is simplicity in the narrative. You're looking at dozens of entries – a great insight or an idea usually stands out quite simply. If it is not a sharp idea, it has no clear impact – it cannot be told in simple words. Long-winded narratives point to a lack of clarity. So I'll be looking for a simple, straightforward story. It doesn't have to have huge production values.

The WARC Awards for Effectiveness are now open for entries. The deadline for submission is 2nd March, 2022.

Entry is free. For more info on how to submit your work, visit the Awards website.