Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Appraisals get people thinking about upskilling: upGrad's Arjun Mohan

The CEO of upGrad sheds light on the precise timing of the edtech brand's campaigns coinciding with appraisal time, moving to the next phase with vertical based marketing, and more, in this exclusive interview with Storyboard18

Published: May 4, 2022 03:29:21 PM IST
Updated: May 4, 2022 05:14:08 PM IST

Appraisals get people thinking about upskilling: upGrad's Arjun Mohan
Arjun Mohan, CEO, upGrad

After having spent the past year and a half building awareness about the brand, upGrad is now entering a new phase of marketing and focusing on verticals.

Arjun Mohan, CEO, upGrad, tells Storyboard18 that rather than trying to communicate everything to everyone, they will now have a sharper way of segmenting and targeting their audience. “For each audience we are targeting, we'll have a sub brand that we will use to talk to them,” he says.

Some of its latest campaigns like Khud Ke Liye, upGrad Abroad starring Amitabh Bachchan, and the recently launched campaign on Doctorate of Business Administration, are steps taken in the direction of vertical-based management.

Mohan tells us they are looking at coming up with at least two to three campaigns every quarter, and the rise in marketing spends is planned accordingly. 2022 for the edtech startup saw a 130 percent increase in marketing spends compared to the previous year, and the scenario is similar in FY23, Mohan says.

Mohan also talks about getting Bachchan on board, timing campaigns in sync with appraisal seasons, the growing focus on upskilling post the pandemic, and much more.

Edited excerpts.

Q. Tell us more about vertical based marketing. What is it that you are doing as a part of this new phase?

We embarked on building brand upGrad very seriously from a business perspective two years ago. That's when we really started the repositioning exercise and doing brand campaigns. So, the objective in the first one and a half years was to create awareness about the brand and talk about what it was and what it wasn’t. Now, we have reached a stage where our target group knows what upGrad is. It is now time to tell them what is in it for them. And that's where phase two of upGrad’s branding started.

We decided that rather than going on about saying what all upGrad can or cannot do, and in the process, confusing the customer, we should look at the sub brands, and talk about those instead to target customers. That's how we got into phase two of our marketing playbook. It started last year with our MBA campaigns and then we continued with our study abroad vertical and created a campaign with Bachchan to add a credible ambassador to our offering. The campaign is still running, it has a good reach and the ROI looks good. Along the same lines, we are launching a doctorate program campaign and a technology-based campaign targeted at coders, and talking to them with the product, which they will immediately connect with, and discover what upGrad has to offer to them. 

Q. Can you help us understand how getting Amitabh Bachchan on board helped exactly in terms of ROI?

The impact has been massive. upGrad Abroad became a brand in itself with Bachchan coming in. We started seeing organic growth in queries and in traffic. We saw a 773 percent spike in overall traffic on the upGrad Abroad homepage during the week of March 23, when we launched the campaign, as compared to the same period during February 2022.

Q. Moving on to innovation in campaign content, sometimes even in a bid to be funny, ads show a lot of violence and vandalism. What are your views on that?

You only get some seconds to grab the customer's attention. So, when you shock the customer, you succeed at that. However, you can only have such shocking elements in the beginning of the ad to get the attention because if you don't bring the ad to an end where it leaves a smile on the face of your customer, I don't think you're being effective.

Q. Coming back to the campaigns, please help us understand about the timing of these new campaigns. You have been releasing one new campaign after the other since mid-March.

We just completed the appraisal cycle. This is the time a lot of people who are not very happy with their appraisals, start thinking about what to do next. What we have observed in our segment is that a lot of times people don't take up education very proactively. For a working professional who is busy all the time, higher education or upskilling is maybe their fifth priority in life. Typically, this guy or girl starts thinking about it and starts signing up for upskilling when a shock hits them. Now this shock could be a hike they expected that did not come their way or a promotion they wanted which did not finally happen. So this is typically how people start thinking about upskilling. Hence the post appraisal season is a great time for us to start talking to our customers because they immediately connect to it, and that explains the timing of these campaigns. 

Q. People have utilised their stay at home time in the first two years of the pandemic to take up education and upskilling. But with offices opening up and people being back on the road, do you think upskilling will take a back seat?

The demand is not coming down. What happened during the pandemic is that more than the shutting down and opening up, it was all about the times in which the life of our consumer changed. Once, initially, their offices shut down, then there were some that started opening up. Then the second wave struck and we reconsidered all the decisions. No one was sure whether they would have jobs. But things started becoming better again which is when the third wave started. So we have all gone through three cycles of going online and offline. Meanwhile technology has changed and expectations of an employee have also changed by leaps and bounds. The salary packages of people who have been able to successfully navigate have gone through the roof. So basically, people have seen a lot. Most importantly, they have seen that the only thing constant is change.

And the only way you can survive is upskill. So I agree that coming back to the office and traveling has added more complications in their lives but they do understand that this is essential today. So we have ensured that our entire product works on a mobile phone and on slow internet connection. What we tell the customer is that you're spending one and a half hours on the road traveling anyway so why not finish your daily MBA studies in that time.

Q. We understand you are focused on vertical-based marketing at the moment but what are the other key areas you are looking at to drive growth this year?

The focus is on customer acquisition. We always focus on customer acquisition, retention and absolutely delighting our customers. If you delight the customer they will take care of the new customers coming in. If you want to acquire customers, you need to be telling your story all the time. The new product innovations are nothing but gaps in the market which you realise when you start reaching out and trying to acquire more and more customers. So I would say the focus is always the customer. Everything else is innovation designed to get to that customer.