Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Brands need to stop using 'Make in India' as a marketing tool: Realme's Madhav Sheth

Sheth talks about the company's advertising strategy, changing consumer behaviour and the overused 'Make in India' marketing ploy in the smartphone category

Published: Apr 27, 2022 05:06:28 PM IST
Updated: May 11, 2022 01:07:16 PM IST

Madhav Sheth on company’s advertising strategy, changing consumer behaviour.Madhav Sheth on company’s advertising strategy, changing consumer behaviour.

After being elevated as president of Realme International Business Group, Madhav Sheth’s goal is to make Realme the go-to brand of choice for millennials. The company relies heavily on building a loyal community of its users instead of pumping money into celebrity-led advertising, which has become a mainstay in smartphone marketing in India.
As it keeps an ambitious goal of achieving 100 million global sales by 2022, Storyboard18 spoke to Sheth about the company’s advertising strategy, changing consumer behaviour and the overused ‘Make in India’ marketing ploy in the smartphone category.
Edited excerpts.
Q. Tell us about your advertising and marketing strategy in India that has worked for you?
Realme is not about marketing. We didn’t do anything innovative in marketing as such. But we did create a Realme community with a dedicated app—currently 4.5 million strong. Here, the users give real-time feedback on our products, features, colour and design. Every day we see around 300,000 to 400,000 active users on the app.
What also worked for us is that we brought products much earlier than anticipated after hearing the feedback from our community. One might consider building community as a marketing tool, but for me, it is more of a feedback tool where we engage with the consumers and understand their aspirations for the future. That’s how we decide what product should be launched, when it should be launched, how it should be launched, and what’s the current sentiment of the market. For instance, during the pandemic, we needed to figure out whether the market was looking for a bigger screen or better battery. So, the product portfolio needs to be changed according to the situation.
I think Realme has been quite agile in doing that. If I’m completely convinced about certain feedback for a product, we can roll out the product as quickly as in the next six months. Real-time feedback mechanism and at the same quick action to the feedback mechanism have helped us.   
Q. How has your consumer changed? Is he/she more demanding? What kind of expectations do they have?
From an industry perspective, the replacement cycles have increased—first from 18 to 24 months and then from 24 to 30 months. Post-pandemic, we have seen that consumers are looking for phones with innovations and disruptions rather than just upgrading the phones as a matter of lifestyle. Consumers are asking questions like—Is the phone giving me the usability or the functionality? More importantly, consumers are not looking to buy any logos. They are looking to buy phones with durability and innovation in a particular price category. Realme has always hinged itself on performance and design, so we are constantly looking to deliver on that front. Smartphones are not just about giving people another hardware device, it’s about understanding and fulfilling the aspirations of the user in the next 12-18 months since the market is so dynamic. Every day there is a new innovation coming out from one brand or the other, then how can we keep up with that particular technology and ensure that consumers are getting updated devices from Realme is what keeps us on our toes and hence the real feedback mechanism is extremely important to us.
Q. How has your association with KL Rahul helped the brand? Are you looking at more celebrity associations?
Probably not. Honestly, we believe in performance marketing rather than celebrity-led marketing. We do use celebrities when we are launching products targeted at the masses, but for our premium range of smartphones under the GT series, we don’t prefer using celebrities.
Q. Is influencer marketing critical for you?
Yes and no. Realme is an online community brand, therefore influencers become important. I also believe that every home has an influencer and we are targeting them. A millennial in a household will guide the device purchase of the family so he/she becomes an influencer, and they will not rely on a celebrity’s advice. Our aim is to educate this millennial population about what we are offering.
Q. How do you tackle image management and keep brand value intact when anti-China sentiment has been on the rise?

It’s a pity to hear such comments from a few people. The worst part is not about the people, but the brands who promote themselves as an ‘Indian brand’ wherein any of the foreign brands are more Indian than they are. Some of these brands do not have their research and development (R&D) centres in India, so they are completely dependent on countries such as China. How can they call themselves an Indian brand? Using ‘Make in India’ as a marketing tool is not the right way of doing things. The best part is the government knows about what is Indian and what is not very well.
Around 95 to 99 percent of our phones are manufactured in India. 100 percent of our TVs are manufactured in India. Components, of course, we have to import. We have our own R&D centres in the country. There is a fundamental disconnect right now that people try to use ‘Make in India’ as a marketing tool to promote their brand which is not the right way of doing things. It is not ethically right. You have to be fair and honest about how far are you Indian. People are not fools. On a short-term basis, brands wish to get visibility. A brand should not mislead consumers. Misinterpretation of the facts using ‘Make in India’ as a marketing tool wasn’t a good experience for me, but I also believe most consumers have understood it by now.
Q. Where's your next area of growth coming from?
It will come from the ecosystem products and there’s a huge opportunity. At Realme, we believe that everything around you, which is the convention, will move to smart. Our goal is to make the smart products (could be a TV/laptop/refrigerator) connected to the hub (smartphones).