Dr. Smitha Ranganathan, Associate Professor - Contemporary Marketing, Brand Communication and Digital Strategy – S P Jain School of Global Management

Dr. Smitha Ranganathan, a marketing strategist with over 25 years of experience, and is deeply engaged with academia and organizations in the area of marketing. She has spent the last decade in academia, focusing on contemporary marketing and branding, with a notable emphasis on strategic approaches. Her career trajectory encompasses diverse roles, including account management, brand strategy, and business development. Her scholarly pursuits culminated in a doctoral thesis in marketing, specifically exploring the nuances of brand choice. She has authored several management concepts/frameworks and published over 50 papers, contributing significantly to the field of marketing and management. Prof. Ranganathan has been recognized for her contributions with awards including the Outstanding Young Management Teacher Award, Champion of Change Award, and Outstanding Content Leader Award.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Higher Education Digest, Dr. Ranganathan shared her professional trajectory, insights on her mission and vision in patronizing Handlooms, the secret sauce behind her success, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Dr. Ranganathan, can you tell us about your professional background and areas of interest?

My background is rooted in microbiology and life sciences, complemented by a doctoral degree in marketing and strategy. I bring over twenty-five years of experience in brand communication strategy, navigating through both established companies and startups. My specialization lies in healthcare branding, where I’ve worked with brands across seventeen countries. Recently, my focus has shifted towards supporting startup founders in creating compelling go-to-market strategies for their innovations, besides of course working with senior executives in helping plot their plane of possibilities.

You currently teach Digital Strategy, Brand Communication and Contemporary Marketing at S P Jain School of Global Management. What is the significance and relevance of this course study in today’s digital age?

Marketing is perhaps one of the most misunderstood domains. I’ve observed that even senior executives sometimes view marketing as a spectrum of being merely ‘manipulative’ to fiercely persuasive. My goal is to redefine this perception by emphasizing that marketing’s core purpose is not just to fuel the revenue engine but to drive and capture value. This perspective encourages everyone within an organization to see themselves as ‘value creators’.

In the current digital era, marketing practices can appear noisy and invasive, leading to misconceptions that I aim to clarify. Our world is increasingly trigger-happy in terms of information and reaction; thus, it’s crucial for marketers to adopt a stance that is both responsive and responsible, now more than ever.

What is your mission and vision in patronizing Handlooms?

From my adolescent years, I’ve harbored a passion for handlooms, attracted initially by their unparalleled comfort, even before fully understanding their significance. Over time, I’ve come to see handlooms as the epitome of creative expression, blending the skill and spirit of the artisans who craft them. It has always struck me how there’s a notable gap in awareness and empathy towards the origins and legacy of India’s diverse handloom traditions.

My mission is to lead by example. Whether I’m lecturing in Sydney, Singapore, or Mumbai, I consistently choose to wear handloom garments. This practice, I’ve noticed, sparks curiosity and fosters a sense of appreciation among the younger generation towards these traditional weaves.

My vision is ambitious yet deeply personal: I aspire to witness a revival of Indian handlooms to their erstwhile prominence within my lifetime. I dream of a society that celebrates its craftsmen with the same enthusiasm as it does international fashion labels like Louis Vuitton or H&M.

As an expert, how do you view the changes in the marketing landscape over the last five years?

While I hesitate to label myself as an expert, my deep curiosity about the evolving dynamics between consumers and organizations has kept me closely engaged with the marketing landscape. The past five years have been particularly fascinating, marked by shifts in priorities accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to some permanent changes in consumer behavior.

Before the pandemic, there was a noticeable trend among Gen Z towards ‘experiential consumption’ over ‘ownership consumption.’ The mindset seemed to lean towards services like Uber as placeholders until achieving their dream purchases. However, the pandemic prompted a reevaluation of ‘personal spaces,’ bringing about a resurgence of ownership in categories like automobiles, gadgets, and items requiring frequent physical interaction.

Additionally, regions such as Australia and the UAE have seen a surge in e-commerce for routine purchases. The health and fitness industry has also experienced a boom, with more businesses positioning health and wellness at the core of their value proposition.

From a branding perspective, the pandemic has acted as a filter, spotlighting brands with genuine differentiation and the agility to adapt operationally. It’s noteworthy how brands now regard their online reputation with unprecedented seriousness, reflecting a broader shift in marketing strategies and consumer expectations.

How are social media and other digital marketing channels changing the DNA of marketing? How are they redefining the ways in which brands connect with customers and the attributes of emotional bonds and trust?

At its core, marketing for me has always been about navigating the delicate balance between influencing consumer motivations and alleviating their anxieties. This fundamental aspect of marketing remains unchanged. However, the advent of digital channels has profoundly altered the methods through which brands construct and disseminate their narratives. The challenge of convincing consumers ‘why us’ now requires concise messaging that is tailored to specific audiences based on their location and behavior.

The dynamics of loyalty and trust have evolved into a nuanced interplay, akin to an elastic tug-of-war, with both customers and marketers applying force from their respective ends. Brands now see loyalty not merely as a sequence of repeat purchases but as an opportunity to cultivate genuine advocacy among their customers. On the other side, customers seek brands that champion a cause, extending beyond traditional functional benefits to embody a deeper, more resonant purpose.

Furthermore, in today’s always-on digital environment, marketing teams must adapt to operating in air traffic control-like ‘response rooms.’ This setup is crucial for managing real-time engagement with consumers who demand immediate resolutions and interactions. The critical task for brands today is to ensure that their professed values and purposes are not just hollow promises but are evidenced in every action and interaction, steering clear of superficiality.

This shift underscores how digital channels are revolutionizing the way brands forge connections, emphasizing authenticity and a commitment to living out their stated missions.

While technology is helping marketing become more personalized and adaptive, there are also concerns over privacy. How can companies get around the problem?

The digital landscape has indeed become both noisy and invasive, blurring the line between personalization and intrusion for consumers, particularly among Gen Z and other digital natives. The key to maintaining this delicate balance is for marketers to reaffirm their commitment to being ‘value creators’ in their customers’ lives. This approach encourages a more ethical use of marketing tools, ensuring that personalization enhances value without compromising privacy.

Moreover, the evolving legislative landscape worldwide is prompting a reevaluation of data collection practices, particularly regarding third-party cookies. These changes are pushing companies to innovate in how they gather and utilize consumer data. By prioritizing first-party data collection—directly from customer interactions—companies can maintain personalization while respecting privacy. This shift not only complies with stricter privacy regulations but also builds trust with consumers by demonstrating a commitment to ethical data practices. In this environment, transparency becomes paramount. Companies must clearly communicate how they collect and use data, giving consumers control over their information. This open dialogue can help mitigate privacy concerns, fostering a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. As marketing evolves, finding this balance between personalization and privacy will be crucial for companies seeking to engage customers in a meaningful and responsible manner.

You have been a recipient of numerous prestigious awards and accolades over the years. Our readers would love to know the secret sauce behind your success.

I’m truly honored and humbled by the recognition my work has received over the years, and I extend my deepest gratitude to the supportive ecosystem around me that has allowed me to be unapologetically myself. These awards are not just personal triumphs but also reflect the kindness of those who choose to celebrate a path that doesn’t necessarily follow a conventional template.

At the heart of my approach, both personally and professionally, is a commitment to excellence in everything I undertake. I embrace the freedom to make mistakes, viewing each misstep as an opportunity for learning and growth. This mindset has fostered a resilient and purpose-driven path for me. In essence, my ‘secret sauce’ is a blend of relentless dedication, openness to learning from failures, and a deep-seated belief in the value of authenticity and hard work.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

“Don’t try to fit in!” Looking back, I am immensely thankful for the incredible mentors I had early in my career who helped me embrace this wisdom. Their guidance was instrumental in shaping my path, encouraging me to value my uniqueness and chart my own course rather than conforming to conventional expectations. This piece of advice has been a guiding light throughout my journey, reminding me of the strength found in authenticity and the importance of forging one’s own path.

How do you define success? What is your take on the ways to achieve long-term success?

To me, success is profoundly personal and cannot be measured solely by quantitative metrics such as ratings or the number of companies one mentors. It is about investing a part of oneself in every endeavor and finding fulfillment not in external accolades but in the continuous journey of self-improvement. Success is the ability to inspire oneself to consistently elevate one’s standards, no matter how incremental those improvements may be. It’s about setting personal benchmarks and striving to surpass them, thereby achieving a sense of accomplishment that is deeply rewarding and inherently motivating for long-term growth.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Having spent 25 years in brand building, my hope is to continue nurturing individuals. I envision a path dedicated to empowering people to establish brands that embody conscientiousness and compassion, mirroring their own ideals. My aspiration is to continue contributing by shaping individuals who can, in their essence, create impactful and meaningful brands.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring marketing professionals across the globe?

To all marketers, I emphasize the importance of humility in our profession. It’s crucial to continuously learn and unlearn the context of consumer motivation. For those embarking on the startup journey, view marketing as a valuable investment rather than an expense. And to the veterans in established companies, embrace agility and remain open to innovation. The business landscape is ever-changing, and staying nimble is key to navigating potential disruptions effectively.

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