Amitabh Pande

Consumer Insights
& Strategy Professional

Winning individually is something that the education system has historically propagated – for someone to come 1st in class, someone else has to come 2nd…and there is an in-built hierarchy in this approach. Whereas the idea of a win-win, where we could both work together and deliver together as a team, is something that is rarely taught… and that’s what works in the real world of business…

Starting out in market research at Research International India in the late ’90s, Amitabh went on to join the corporate world proper at PepsiCo India in 2000. Responsible for setting up the Consumer Insights division for the foods business, Amitabh spent close to 15 years at PepsiCo, about three of those in UK, growing brands across multiple categories (snacks, soft drinks, juices, breakfast) by translating deep consumer understanding into brand strategy and ideas. Amitabh quit his job at PepsiCo earlier this year as Senior Director, Consumer Insights & Strategy for India Region, choosing to strike out on his own as an Independent Consultant, in this discipline that he is passionate about.

What sort of formal education is an absolute essential for your profession? Also, could you share with us the kind of internship or experience that would be helpful for a young person considering this line of work?

Consumer Insights & Strategy is a specialist function that typically falls under the Marketing wing of any consumer goods company. The role of this function is to bring the voice of the consumer onto the decision making table of the organisation.

Typically this profession will have a team led by a Consumer Insights leader whose day job it is to understand what the business and brand priorities, issues, challenges, objectives, goals are… and then go out and through process of research, thinking, knowledge mining and good old analysis and deep thinking, find out what the consumer-answer for the business or brand problem is. To answer questions like – ‘What ad should we make for Colgate next?’, or ‘I’m losing market share to my competitor, how do I win back share?’ etc.

For my profession, typically you need a post-graduate diploma/degree in one of the following fields – management, brand, advertising, communication, market research… However, there are non-MBA routes to enter into this profession as well. You could do a post graduate specialisation in areas like sociology, anthropology and related disciplines and join a market research agency (like IMRB, Nielsen, TNS, Quantum, Millward Brown, Mode, GFK, Hansa, etc). Market research agencies have grown a lot in the past and are always in search for good talent that is keen on this profession. And some of the big agencies now also pay reasonably well, so it can be a valid career option.

An archetypal career path for a Consumer Insights person in a marketing organisation/corporate is: Post Graduation – Market Research Agency – Corporate Organisation.

But, apart from training and the formal degrees, the most important thing for anyone considering this line of work is to gauge whether they are really passionate about it.

If you simply had to draft that elevator pitch for your profession, what would it be?

If you like to think, if you like to figure out how things work and why they do that way and not any other way, if you have a curious mind, and if you like asking questions, and discovering new answers, if you like to understand and then use that understanding to make a difference to people and organisations….

If you love brands and the meaning they have for people in their lives, if you love understanding people around you and how the world works, if you like analysing and drawing patterns between related and unrelated events for a larger meaning, if the quest for meaning is somewhere a driver of your life…

If strategy and long term thinking towards sustainable growth and development is your goal…

Well, then this profession is for you!

What are the new trends you notice that are changing the complexion of your profession?

The biggest thing that is changing the nature of my profession is the easy access to data and information that everyone has. When everyone has access to the same information and at the speed of thought, then the value is in how you process it, how you analyse and synthesise all the information such that it makes sense to the business/brands and allows them to make a decision based on that.

Data is commodity, information is plenty, but insight is rare and precious.

Show me the money! How do you see this profession faring 20 years down the line?

  1. It will transform to more of a ‘consulting’ sphere where money will be made by those who can enable decision making.
  2. More and more companies will realise the criticality of having this function in-house and not outsourced.
  3. It will not be a specialisation for marketing, but be insights and strategy for business, and be part of the CEO’s agenda… so not just consumer insights and strategy… but business insights & strategy
  4. The “ask” from this function will be more about understanding and predicting the future through deep analytics and path-breaking thinking and creativity.

What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?

If it’s a problem that I’ve encountered before, then I try the solutions that I would have tried before and see if they work in solving the problem.

If that doesn’t work or if it’s a problem that I’ve not encountered before, then I first spend time in making sure I’ve really understood the problem.

A lot of times the problem as it appears is not really the problem that you’re solving. And getting to a clearer understanding of the problem sometimes is a good enough place to find the answer. For eg – you see that the bathroom is flooded and despite there being a trap-hole in the floor, the water is not flowing out. So, you immediately think there is a problem with it and you try to pump it out to clear the trap-hole. But if you had looked carefully, you would have seen that the trap hole is actually clearing the water fine, it’s the fast leak from the tap near the shower that is releasing water faster than the narrow hole of the trap. The problem would be to solve the leak in the tap and not the trap-hole!

If that doesn’t work, then I try to break down the problem into many sub-parts and problems and then look for a solution of each of the parts and then see if that adds up to the whole and solves the problem. To run with the bathroom flooding problem again, once you’ve identified that the problem is the leak in the tap next to the shower, how do you solve it? Do you put an M-seal and that’s it? Maybe not. You break down the problem into parts – the leak is coming from the side of the tap, the side of the tap has a screw-nut, a steel pipe, a rim, and an inlet pipe inside the wall… any of these parts could be responsible. So you check each of the parts one by one to isolate where the leak is and then fix the leak in that part.

When we’re in school, we’re told cheating is bad – ‘Don’t talk to each other, don’t discuss.’ And then as we come out of it, we begin to realize that there’s something called “collaborative thinking” and it’s not bad! What’s your opinion?

Cheating and Collaborative Thinking are two different ideas – Cheating is a one-way process, like stealing, where I take something from another person to my advantage, is often at the expense of the other. But the latter concept by definition is understanding how you can get to a win-win, which can come by discussing and talking to each other. But a more important lesson to be taught in schools and learnt by students would be that of empathy and emotional quotient – How can I truly understand where the other person is coming from so that I can contribute to him so that he wins and get him to contribute to me, so that I win too?

Winning individually is something that the education system has historically propagated – for someone to come 1st in class, someone else has to come 2nd, and 3rd, and there is an in-built hierarchy in this approach. Whereas the idea of a win-win, where we could both work together and deliver together as a team, is something that is rarely taught… and what works in the real world of businesses and professions is how you can win with your teams, because in large organisations, no one can do it alone, everyone has to play their part in the overall mosaic of skills and talents that come together for the final action plan.

How do you overcome roadblocks in your profession?

If it’s task related, then the problem-solving mode of the earlier question would apply.

If it’s a personal or people related roadblock, then I try to again first analyse the cause and then try to talk it through with someone to get to some sort of resolution.

I’m also always open to the idea that it may be a roadblock that may not have a solution, and something that I may have to take in my stride.

I try to force myself to think of changing the lens from ‘What the hell am I doing with my life’ to ‘What else could I be doing with my life?’

Did you ever want to change the world?

I think I didn’t want to change the world, but I always wanted to change my world… which is about learning and pushing boundaries… stretching my own self… I’ve always been an explorer seeking to get to the next and the next… and that’s been a big driver of change in my world.

What would your advice be to a young person at the start of his or her career and confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?

This is the million dollar question isn’t it? I’d probably say, at the risk of giving a convenient answer, pursue something that is “pragmatic passion”. When you’re young, it is not very easy to know the passion that you want to pursue as a career for the rest of your life. However, typically, a young person has multiple passion points… I would say don’t be in a hurry to narrow down on one and go after it… I’d say try to explore a couple of those areas and see which ones have the potential to convert into a pragmatic career for you. One of those may turn into a full time career and some of the other passions may become hobbies or active amateur pursuits, and you can get the best of both worlds.

What I’d definitely advise against is pursuing something that is only pragmatic and something that everyone else tells you you should be doing, but you have absolutely no interest in… Also, as advice, one must spend time actively searching and finding things you like… “I don’t know” is not an option.

If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 17, 25, 35, what would you say to your selves then?

“It was a good thing you listened to the voices inside your head more than the voices around you!” Economics, not engineering, market research, not brand management.

What I could have done more is read more kinds of books, developed the ability to read fast…that’s something that will come really handy later. Also, I would tell myself to learn a few more languages, to build alternate thinking processes, and definitely not give up on the guitar.

What are the pitfalls of your profession and how do you mitigate them? Did you have any fears when you were just starting out about this line of work, and were any of them justified?

I had many fears when I started out because this profession wasn’t a well-known one at all, the rage was all about doing brand management and marketing and sales, and here I was, the topper of the batch, taking one of the lowest paying jobs on campus!

In hindsight, the fears were not entirely justified, because the key thing that I was doing was choosing something that I felt I would enjoy doing as part of my work. And no matter what the uncertainty of the job and how much money I would make and what the career path I would choose, I felt sure of one thing, that at least I will be happy doing work through the day and how I spend my time through the day.

What is the kind of supplementary informal learning that will give you that edge on this job? Is there any specific reading that you engage in, any other resources?

Constantly reading about what’s happening around your world is critical. Being aware not only of the news, but over time trying to get to an informed point of view on it is needed.

Any source that gives you understanding on brands and businesses is a good read – Economic Times and its supplements, Business Standard, Business Today. I’m also very partial to Harvard Business Review and The Economist.

What is most rewarding about your job?

I get paid to understand what makes people tick.

If you’re a graduate working as a manager in a bank, no matter how much you write “that you have led a team of 10 people towards developing a strategic process of cash flow management to enable profitable delivery of the branch’s targets for the month”, the recruiter will still read “you cleared cheques really fast.” So, don’t go OTT (on your resume).

Do you still have days when you think, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ How do you get over that, if you do?

Of course! Whenever I get to a question like that, I try to force myself to think of changing the lens from ‘What the hell am I doing with my life’ to ‘What else could I be doing with my life?’

Invariably that question leads to a set of answers and options, which then allows me to evaluate whether those options are better than what I’m doing right now or not. Whenever the answer has been that those options are better… it has meant, it is time to consider those options as potential directions of change for my work, which is what I recently did when I quit PepsiCo and went independent.

But, whenever the answer has been the alternatives are not better, I’ve told my mind to shut up and “just keep swimming” – as Dori reminds us wisely!

What’s your advice for a resume that’s just about to enter circulation?

Make sure all the information is updated and there clearly.

Don’t let the flowery words overtake the essential information that a company is looking to see.

Don’t go over the top: If you’re a graduate working as a manager in bank, no matter how much you write “that you have led a team of 10 people towards developing a strategic process of cash flow management to enable profitable delivery of the branch’s targets for the month”, the recruiter will still read “you cleared cheques really fast.”

Don’t come across as inflexible in what you’re looking for.

If you’ve changed jobs too often, you better have a damn good reason for it and something that’s the truth.

And think about it yourself – Why should anyone hire you? What makes you, you? Whatever the answer is, make sure you write that well.

How does one network in the beginning to get that initial presence felt, in this profession?

Attending seminars related to marketing, brands, research, the consumer – there are lots that happen these days. Meet people at these seminars. Reach out to relevant people on LinkedIn, don’t spam them asking for a job… just connect to network.

Interview conducted by Pooja Pande.
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