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Facts-based content creators are becoming celebrities: Nestle's Rajat Jain

The head of foods business at Nestlé Maggi talks about maintaining relevance with Gen Z, content creators calling out big companies and transparency being a critical point for the company

Published: Aug 14, 2023 01:15:36 PM IST
Updated: Aug 14, 2023 01:20:04 PM IST

Facts-based content creators are becoming celebrities: Nestle's Rajat Jain As per Rajat Jain, head of foods business and category head, Maggi noodles, at Nestlé India, "I believe AI is already making an impact, particularly from the perspective of marketers utilising it."

Maggi, the 40-year-old legacy brand from Nestlé India, is redefining itself at a time when technology and consumer dynamics are rapidly evolving, navigating the landscape of brand marketing that has taken on new dimensions. From creating Metaverse-led campaigns to curating meaningful recipes online, the brand is trying to stay meaningful for its target consumer base.

In an exclusive interview with Storyboard18, Rajat Jain, head of foods business and category head, Maggi noodles, at Nestlé India, talks about how transparency is critical in the company’s culture, the transformational impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on brand marketing, the changing dynamics of client-agency relationships and the strategies needed to keep a legacy brand like Maggi relevant among younger audiences.

Edited excerpts:

Q. How do you maintain the relevance of a legacy brand like Maggi among young consumers and meet their expectations?
The Maggi brand has consistently reinvented itself. Whenever external factors or changing trends have emerged, the brand has actively engaged in those discussions. Whether it's about evolving food preferences, changes in consumption habits, adapting cooking methods or embracing technological advancements, Maggi has always been part of these conversations. With reinvention ingrained in its DNA, relevance naturally ensues, as the brand stays aligned with the evolving lives of consumers. For younger consumers, who hold significant importance for our brand, this remains especially crucial. In a market like India, where over a third of the population is young and more than 40 percent of urban India falls into this category, our approach has relied on authenticity and an empathetic tone of voice, particularly in the last five years. It's about not attempting to portray ourselves as something we're not. Unlike brands that emerged just a few years ago, we can't feign a persona that doesn't align with our longstanding identity.

For instance, Maggi's Instagram page adopts an empathetic and authentic tone. We don't strive to mimic a Gen Z style, as that wouldn't resonate authentically with us, given that our brand has been around for 40 years, making us nearly middle-aged. However, the tone we employ to communicate with our Gen Z audience must ring true to our brand's values.

Q. What are your thoughts on the rise of new-age D2C brands and what legacy companies like Nestlé can learn from them?
Nestlé India has launched a D2C (direct-to-consumer) platform in major cities, a pilot that began last year with encouraging results. We have gained significant insights by observing D2C brands within the Nestlé ecosystem.

Nespresso has been built entirely on D2C principles from its inception. Our Purina pet care business also embraces D2C, particularly for premium offerings, on a global scale. Numerous markets in Asia, such as Japan and Korea, are actively experimenting with D2C approaches. The key takeaways are as follows: we must present a D2C proposition that truly justifies its direct-to-consumer nature.

Also read: Take 5: The surprising ways emotions shape consumer behavior

For instance, in India, we distribute Maggi products to over 3 million retail outlets. Attempting to sell the same product on a direct-to-consumer platform would underutilise the potential of D2C. It's crucial to determine whether a service can genuinely serve the consumer's needs directly. In the case of a culinary and food brand like Maggi, the answer is a resounding yes. Over 200 million web searches are conducted daily in India for specific recipes, spanning from lunch ideas to quick recipes like pav bhaji or paneer dishes.

This service must be offered directly to the consumer, in real time, and aligned with the consumer's intent. Maggi's current leading position emphasises this, and we have been diligently working on it. Our efforts began in January 2020, just before the onset of Covid-19, which significantly increased the demand for online recipes. This service, which involves daily interactions, holds substantial merit.

Lastly, in D2C, it's imperative to define the value exchange for the data requested from consumers. This could manifest as personalised menus and nutritional recommendations. For instance, suggesting dishes that can be prepared with ingredients already present in their fridge. In the case of a diabetic family member, guidance on adapting the same dish for them and the rest of the family is also significant.

Q. What skill sets are companies looking for in marketers and agencies?
At Nestlé, we focus on skills and behaviours when hiring, and one of the most important behaviours we seek is curiosity. We assess this through a willingness to experiment, a desire to learn, and a lack of fear of failure. This includes the ability to test and learn for the sake of experimentation and learning, rather than solely for sales and revenue purposes.

We assign significant value to this behaviour. This is particularly important today, more so than in the past, due to the limitless nature of imagination.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in discussion with some partners who were at the cutting edge of generative AI. One of the questions we posed was whether generative AI could be used to predict what people will cook in different parts of the country. While the obvious response to a question like this might have been that predicting the future is impossible, today, thanks to generative AI and available computational power, which was previously unavailable, we have a prototype that can begin doing just that.

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This tool can anticipate what consumers are likely to cook over a certain period of time. Of course, it can't predict today's cooking choices, as those are very short-term. This illustrates my point about imagination being the only limit now. Technology is no longer a constraint, as computational power is accessible and continually expanding. In my view, job losses won't be the outcome. Instead, what is likely to happen is that most professionals will spend more time envisioning the future and employing tools to help us reach those visions, rather than engaging in more mundane tasks like analysing information and organising data.

Q. What are your thoughts on working with content creators versus celebrities?
Facts-based content creators are becoming celebrities, and all celebrities want to become content creators. All celebrities merit their celebrity status because they deliver a certain kind of content. Personally, I think as a marketer, what will happen a lot is that the idea of responsible content will become primary. As the amount of content generated and consumed grows, quality content will rise to the top. And as with everything else, there will be a lot of incentive to generate quality content.

Responsible content is one that is not only supposed to capture eyeballs today but also the content that will make a meaningful difference in the choices one makes as a consumer. Whether it comes from a content creator or a celebrity, whether it comes from a marketer, the government or a non-government entity, I don't think that will matter much going forward.

Also read: 7 steps for marketers to get influencer mapping right

Sometimes it's easy to sensationalise to gain likes, comments and shares, and that's the nature of the medium. However, content creators who establish themselves as credible sources end up having a larger following, a much longer content view time and a higher positive engagement. The creators who stay true to the purpose of invoking transparency, I believe, will emerge as winners.

Q. What are your thoughts on these creators also holding bigger companies accountable, especially concerning questions about ingredients and transparency?
It's a welcome change and a breath of fresh air because transparency is extremely important. I've only worked at Nestlé, where transparency is part of our culture. We were the first ones to implement front-of-pack labelling, even when not required by law. We displayed nutritional information on the front of our packaging to inform consumers about the product's nutritional content. Many of our ingredients are listed even when not legally mandated; our nutritional tables provide clarity to consumers. This space is personally very welcoming for me because the more information consumers have, the better choices we can all make. Better choices will create an incentive for manufacturers and marketers to offer transparent and authentic options upfront. Ideally, we would want to be part of a community of marketers where transparency, authenticity, clarity and responsibility are valued. This is because we aim to exist within a system where consumers make choices based on product or content merits, rather than other factors.

Also read: 'Influencers need to become professional, organised and know the law': ASCI CEO

Q. How have client-agency relationships evolved, and what value are new-age agencies contributing?
We collaborate with a range of agencies. For Maggi, we work with multiple partners, although McCann stands out as the primary agency for the brand. I believe both sides now hold each other accountable for the depth and clarity of briefs. In a world where the media and content landscape has grown increasingly complex and attention spans have diminished, this mutual accountability for clear communication of client needs and agency understanding of the consumer's life is beneficial.

Contrasting this with earlier times, such as when I began, I recall scenarios where creating an advertisement centred on a celebrity was enough; you'd just be handed some stories. However, this approach has largely faded, and this shift is indeed for the better.

The emergence of boutique agencies is a natural response to our world's increasing complexity and the need for specialisation. Presently, we see agencies solely dedicated to fostering social media virality, not merely covering general social media strategies. Some partners specialise in topical advertising, capable of responding to events occurring just hours earlier by producing assets for immediate release.

Also read: Days of clients going to agencies with a business problem are gone: what3words' CMO

Ultimately, my team is always asked to consider whether a campaign will truly enhance the consumer's life by facilitating better choices. If the answer is affirmative, then we proceed. For instance, suggesting a hot bowl of Maggi during rainy weather, enhancing that moment, makes a genuine impact. Similarly, offering brunch recipes to homemakers ahead of a long weekend brings value. Yet, if the context is heavy rain and flooding, and discussing it in our advertising won't genuinely improve someone's life, the responsible choice is to avoid it. This ethical decision-making is of utmost importance.

Interestingly, some of these specialised firms are at the forefront of technological innovation. In these cases, collaborative efforts between the client, the lead agency serving as the custodian of the brand's essence and idea, and these agile partners with cutting-edge ideas yield truly magical results.

Q. What are your thoughts on AI and its potential impact on brand marketing?
I believe AI is already making an impact, particularly from the perspective of marketers utilising it. The real test, however, lies in its adoption on the consumer side. Given the rapid pace of adoption in India, evident from the 700 million smartphone connections, I foresee its swift integration across three key areas.

The first area is search. Especially with generative AI, and particularly when it's chat-based and available in various vernacular languages. This can lead to scenarios where individuals, such as my mother, engage in conversations with an AI engine on a variety of subjects, ranging from shopping for ingredients to finding the best paint manufacturer for home decor.

The second area of significant potential is when consumers seek answers to questions they don't even know how to formulate. For instance, crafting a balanced diet for a diabetic family member might not come with a clear question. AI's advanced intelligence could decipher such queries, identifying the underlying intent and proposing solutions for specific needs. This would open up a new realm of opportunities for crafting marketing propositions and facilitating transactions.

The third inevitable shift involves marketers realising that AI is their ally, and advertising agencies incorporating it into their strategies. This will likely lead to a surge in AI-generated advertising content, encompassing static images, music videos and even interactive content. I've witnessed demonstrations where specific emotions are input, resulting in the creation of a 10-second ad tailored to those emotions.

Q. What has been your learning so far on what it takes to be a modern marketer?
Firstly, responsibility is paramount, and it's essential not to become overly captivated by technology. Ensuring empathy, transparency and responsibility remain embedded in our communications is crucial.

Secondly, cultivating a sense of curiosity and willingness to experiment is key. Even seasoned leaders must develop this capacity and accept that some degree of failure is inevitable within the realm of experimentation. Lastly, building a network is vital. If you're not directly at the cutting edge of technology, strive to engage in relevant conversations and gain entry into forums where such discussions occur. Surrounding yourself with individuals who can share the latest developments from around the world is highly valuable.

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