In our 'In Conversation With' series, we speak to Arpita Khadria, a serial entrepreneur and a brand expert. She founded "Barefoot Consultancy"; A boutique brand building company which started in 2012 and has successfully helped over 100+ brands get bigger and better; Arpita is also the inventor of a patented word puzzle-Signtist, which is copyrighted in 150 countries and was featured by Apple in 12 countries under best new games; Her most recent business venture - "Wastexpert" is a food waste handling brand of products that addresses the garbage issues of India. Arpita is currently writing a book on confirmation bias and behavioral economics. Srikant speaks with her on how building brands in today's times has significantly changed.
Srikant: Can you just tell me something about what you do?
Arpita: I’ve been running my own company called Barefoot Consultancy for the last 8 years. This is a boutique consulting firm which caters to small, midsize, and large brands. Our entire focus and model has been value-based and not volume-based. That is where we are filling the gap in the market. I also run a second business, which is into food waste handling equipment, called Wastexpert. It is something I’m very passionate about. There we are supplying new age equipment for handling food waste in commercial kitchens.
Srikant: Is that doing well now?
Arpita: Yeah, that is the need of the hour as food waste handling is a huge issue. However, Barefoot has also grown by 75% YOY. It is a business that is very close to my heart as well. It is a team that has made a big difference to a lot of brands because we have a high involvement approach. So, I know my clients very well, and we all have a very deep friendship. I would say that’s because there is such a high level of involvement for each project. We are well respected for our timeliness, creativity and trustworthiness.
Srikant: I understand because I used to run a digital marketing firm myself. One of the things was that you had many clients, but you knew very little about them.
Arpita: I think our model is unique in many ways. I don’t know if you know my background, but I started my career in advertising as a copywriter at McCann Erickson. I also went on to the brand side, where I was a brand manager in Fastrack, and I worked with Titan Retail as well. So I’ve seen both sides of the industry. I saw a clear gap in 2011-2012 when the startup culture boomed, especially in Bengaluru and worldwide. There was a gap between what ad agencies did and what prominent consultants were doing for brands. We noticed a clear gap. There was a need for a company to become the outsourced marketing team for start-ups. They didn’t have a full-fledged in-house marketing team, so we could become that person for them. We were using both sides of our brain, not just the creative or analytical side. Many ad agencies are mostly creative-driven, not business-driven. Similarly, most consulting firms are business-driven, not creative. Somewhere there had to be a marriage, and that is where we stepped in, and that is where our growth has been 75% each year since we started.
Srikant: There is a lot of focus on monetization and less on engagement?
Arpita: That is right. Every entrepreneur, including myself, reaches a crossroads where you have to choose if you wish to go the volume way or the value way in terms of growth. For me personally, the way I am and the way I wanted to structure our value proposition was clearly going to be the value way rather than volume. The role of a brand consultant is so much like a family doctor. The client has to trust us with such a high level of confidential information and such a high level of involvement on our part. Unless we become their eyes and ears, and we give the client the confidence that we are acting in their interest, the relationship is not effective. It can all fall apart very easily, and that’s what the volume game actually does for agencies. It puts a lot of pressure on billings and P&L’s and not on long term relationships. The tussle between involvement and billings is always on.
Srikant: This is an amazing business model, and very few agencies do this. What I want to ask is, in the pre-covid world and ongoing-covid world, has anything changed in your business?
Arpita: Yeah, a couple of things have dramatically changed. I don't know if it’s good or bad, but change is always something that takes time to adjust to. And eventually, you figure out if it’s good or bad. The first thing, purely from an approach point of view, all our meetings are now virtual. We are in the creative space, so it is a little challenging to have that kind of impact on the client. We all know how difficult it is to make creative presentations even face to face. So when it becomes virtual, of course, the task becomes that much harder. That is something that all creative players in the market would feel pressurized about.
The second big change from pre-covid to post-covid would be about the priorities of the businesses. For this, we have developed something called “Barefoot’s brand resilience model”, where we are actually telling our clients to ask themselves three questions.
1- Are you still relevant?
2. Are you still relatable?
3. Are you still reachable?
So the three R’s as we call them. This is the approach we are taking post-covid to help brands prioritize and focus. For example, if you are relevant, and by relevant, I mean your business, product, service, or people are still relevant to the covid scenario. And you are relatable; what I mean by relatable is whether your communication, tone or positioning still connects with the audience. But your issue is that of reachability, then you can focus on your distribution channels. One example of being relevant and relatable but not reachable could be restaurants, where food is still relevant and relatable but people cannot visit the premises. So, they have to deliver or find different ways of reaching people.
The second situation is you are relevant, and you have the reach, but you are not relatable. This is a re-positioning issue and needs a new communication strategy.
Brands are having to focus on different emotions post covid. There are so many emotions that brands could cater to pre-covid, like envy, greed, gluttony, jealousy. Those were huge selling points and triggers in communication. But that is something that needs relooking now.
The third scenario could be that I am relatable, I have the reach, but I am no longer relevant. And there are some clients that are facing this as well. Their product or service is no longer required. Eg: event companies. In that case, they have to pivot. We call it the “brand resilience model”because that is what resilient companies do. We have seen it for decades where innovation has rendered brands redundant. It doesn’t just take a pandemic to stay resilient. You look at typewriters or cordless phones; they’ve been rendered redundant not because of Covid but innovation. So something to think about there!
Srikant: This makes a lot of sense. There is also a process of business development. You would seek out new clients. Pre-covid, you would go to potential leads to catch up, negotiate, send proposals. The physicality is gone. How are you tackling that?
Arpita: Honestly, we have been fortunate to have a very different strategy from the very beginning. We have, in our eight years plus existence, not spent a single rupee on business development. We have used content marketing and content creation as a mode of communicating and building trust. 80% of our business is through references. What I can do is share some tips on how we went about it. So, the number one thing we did is if you look at our website, it’s very content heavy. We have blogs that give people food for thought, and we are talking about things beyond our deliverables, and it’s pretty engaging. I personally create a lot of content on LinkedIn, and I do guest lectures in colleges, conduct corporate workshops on brand building etc. So, all of this creates organic traction for us. And then, of course, our clients have been extremely kind to us, and they see the honesty with which we function and it has been a great journey so far with regards to references. Which is why that is not a big challenge at the moment.
Srikant: I would really like you to throw some light on companies that are SME’s. How should they go about engaging their employees who are working remotely?
Arpita: I can only speak for my industry, which is the brand consultancy and creative industry. What is important at this moment, for everybody, is to adapt to the new normal. Believe me, the teams are facing a lot of pressure, because so much of the creative process and ideation is about brainstorming and face to face interactions. With that gone, the employees are totally out of their comfort zones. So, we need to adapt to the virtual environment and push on.
Srikant: So in the branding industry, as it needs so much brainstorming and creative output, does the output get affected when doing that remotely?
Arpita: That’s right. And that is a huge challenge we are facing: to keep the motivation of the designers, the writers, strategists, presenters, alive and upbeat. Also, communication with clients has become a challenge too. So, even client servicing is really feeling the heat. But I think there are a few things one should do in order to stay sane and still be on the ball.
Srikant: Right, they have to be more aware at all costs.
Arpita: Yeah, more about external and internal factors. Their own skill sets and how they can adapt in order to be effective.
Srikant: So when you say brands need to humanize, can you just throw a little more light on what exactly that means?
Arpita: Yeah, I’ll give you an example. I don’t know if you remember, but recently the brand Kent launched a dough maker. And it was a very relevant product for covid times because, during the lockdown, we were all going crazy trying to make the dough. Especially if you have a family of 4 or more, making dough is a real challenge. So, the brand had a winner of a product on their hands. But when they released the product, and the ad came out, the ad said “your maid might be infected with Corona, so stay safe and healthy and choose a Kent Dough Maker”. That really got a lot of flak online, and the brand actually took the ad down. So, it brings me back to “Barefoot’s brand resilience model” that I spoke about before. You might have a relevant product, and you might even have the reach, but if you're not relatable and if you’re not humanizing your communication based on emotions people are feeling right now, it's going to backfire. So, when I say humanize, what I mean is that we must remember this entire pandemic is first a human crisis and then an economic crisis. Many people compare it to a recession. I don’t agree there. It is not like a recession year; it will lead to one, possibly, but it is first a human crisis and then an economic crisis. And that is what I mean when I say brands need to humanize.
The second thing is brands need to start prioritizing behavioral sciences and economics. They need to start understanding human behavior in order to have effective campaigns. I can again substantiate that with an example. There is a Danish company, a departmental store chain, that used an amazing pricing strategy during the lockdown based on consumer behavior. They found that a lot of people were hoarding sanitizers, buying them in bulk, which left many consumers high and dry. So, taking into account that behavior, they put a pricing strategy, which went like this: You buy one bottle of sanitizer, it's $5; if you buy 2 bottles, it’s $100. I think it was pure genius! It’s a great example of looking at behavioral sciences. Normally what we are used to? We’re used to -Buy one get one free, buy two, you get 30% off. They just turned that on its head. This is first a humanitarian crisis and then an economic crisis. So that is a great example of, again, of how brands need to humanize.
Srikant: That's an excellent example. Brands saying let’s first address the humanitarian crisis, and then focus on economic growth. I had used the phrase post-covid earlier, sadly though it’s still while-covid. What new opportunities do you think this pandemic might have brought on?
Arpita: Absolutely. There is not a doubt in my mind. Like I said, innovation actually renders a lot of businesses redundant. It doesn't just take a pandemic. So we don't mourn the death of those companies when it’s related to innovation. Do we? What it means is that brands have to be resilient, and there are opportunities on all fronts. For example, there will be an emergence of new categories of products. We are already seeing it. We are already seeing innovation in products, in processes, and in media. As brand experts, we always have to be cognizant of the new lifestyle that people have started leading. The emergence of new hobbies. As humans, suddenly, during this time, we have discovered a new side to ourselves. And that is a great opportunity. Somebody who was maybe only interested in watching TV is also cooking now. Somebody who was only immersed in his business is also playing the guitar. So, how is that not an opportunity?
Srikant: So you’re basically saying that there is a huge shift in behavior, and that shift will create Various new opportunities, and brands have to support that?
Arpita: Yes, absolutely. And somewhere I would also like to say is that, we all needed the brakes on consumerism. We all possibly needed a check on the wastefulness that surrounded us. And only the fittest and truthful will survive this. And maybe that’s how it should be.
Srikant: More truthful than the fittest, I guess.
Arpita: Yes. The ones who are in it for the right reasons, the ones who are resilient and see the larger picture.
Srikant: One last question. How should a brand position itself in these changing times? But I think you have clearly answered that in this conversation. Your resilient model addresses that quite comprehensively.
Arpita: Yeah, I will reiterate that. All brands must ask themselves if they are still relevant if they are still relatable? And if they are, are they still reachable? This is not post-pandemic advice, this is advice for staying relevant and alive.
Srikant: I would say the advice is essential more so now than before.
Arpita: Yes, because frankly, it is. You have to really give a lot of importance to relatability and positioning now. And that’s where we come in. Over the years, we have really given clients the kind of positioning that has made them successful. At the end of the day, what you say and how you say it are both important.
Srikant: Thank you so much, Arpita. It was a pleasure to speak with you. I’m quite excited to offer our conversation to our readers.
Arpita: Thank you, Srikant.