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Amazon’s Ravi Desai Is Transforming The Way India Buys And Sells

E-commerce in India has never been as competitive as it is today, with the top three players–Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal–constantly jostling for consumers’ attention.

But 2016 was a standout year for Amazon, whose revenues surged as sellers flocked to the platform. The e-commerce giant has infused Rs 7,000 crore ($USD 1 billion) into its India unit and has plans to scale up operations in 2017.

Last year also saw Amazon introduce Ravi Desai as its first chief marketing officer in India. He is responsible for product marketing, advertising, and brand building. Desai is formerly of ITC Foods, where he led the confectionery portfolio and was instrumental in the conceptualisation and launch of the Bingo range of snacks.

Shifting to a digital brand has been an interesting journey for Desai, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. CMO.com caught up with him to talk about Amazon’s evolution in India and the advantages that come from customer-obsession.

CMO.com: You are at the threshold of the next phase of e-commerce in India. How has Amazon prepared for this?
Desai: We crafted an Indian implementation of the global strategy for Amazon. We have three key pillars as far as Amazon’s retail business is concerned: selection–whatever you can think of should be offered on our platform; pricing–we offer our customers the best possible value; and fast, reliable delivery, including the convenience of ordering from one’s mobile.

These are the pillars of our customer experience and, as you know, we are a customer-obsessed company worldwide. We are ideally on our way to building India’s most customer-obsessed organisation.

The ecosystem we cater to includes our customers and, most importantly, the entrepreneurs, like brand owners and shopkeepers, who are selling on our website. We have a large number of people engaged in the entire operation of Amazon in India. It is all a unique Indian implementation of the global plan, but, essentially, the plan itself remains the same.

CMO.com: What is the Amazon proposition in India, and how has it been crafted?
We have done our homework to tease out the deep cultural insights India has to offer. India has a rich culture, and our customer base is significant. We try to connect the cultural insights we gain to the three pillars–and that’s when the magic happens.

It’s always better to connect the offerings and products to the everyday reality of an Indian’s life, which always has a better impact. Indians want a plethora of choices and want to see the options available to them before they make a choice. The “Aur dikhao” [“Show me more”] campaign was based on this insight. We have 10 core products on our platform, and that’s growing every single day. There is no better platform for an Indian to see the current choices before they make up their minds.

An insight we have built upon is the essential need of Indians to trust their own kirana [neighbourhood grocery store], and that’s what we have tried to deliver on Amazon to build the trust factor. This has been beautifully captured in the “Apni dukaan” [“My own store”] campaign. This campaign is very rooted in India. Digital has really facilitated a lot of the work we are doing. One can now customise offerings for every individual. The segment size has shrunk to the needs of an individual. Digital makes it possible to leverage what individual needs are and craft a storefront according to different tastes. So what you will see when you start the app will be unique to your preferences.

CMO.com: Tell us about some of the private labels on Amazon and how they are helping Amazon the brand.
We have more than 100 million products across hundreds of categories. We have identified certain gaps where there was a need for products. We are offering personalisation at a mass scale, along with competitive pricing, for these labels. We are looking at ways to fill the need gaps. All our private labels work under the one umbrella; the idea is to provide quality products at a good price point. Certain product categories require us to fill the gaps now, and for some the need will arise when we expand our offerings in the future.

Amazon India launched Symbol, its first private label fashion brand, in September.

CMO.com: How is Amazon so perfect with execution? Everything is done perfectly to the last mile.
It goes back to the customer obsession we talked about earlier. We have mechanisms in place that ensure that before execution starts, a fair amount of homework is done based on what a customer might want from a particular offering.

Cross-functional teams work for months to craft the right proposition to be executed at the pilot stage. Once the lessons are learned at the pilot stage, we then take it into the market. That is the way the company has come to operate over many years, rooted in its customer obsession.

We first perfect it on paper. Only once it is perfected on paper do we start the pilot, and after that we scale up the project. We also monitor feedback that’s coming in, both overtly and indirectly. The journey of constant improvement is always on. We are constantly looking for signals from the customer and trying to improve on a day-to-day basis.

CMO.com: So would you say perfect execution is what differentiates Amazon in the e-commerce space, or is there something else as well?
Our customer obsession is what differentiates us. One of the ways this obsession reflects in the market is execution. Customer obsession is what ties it all together.

CMO.com: I would like you to reflect on your move from ITC to Amazon. What did you learn from the fast-moving consumer goods space that you apply here at Amazon?
I can’t really contrast the two journeys because each journey is different. The FMCG industry teaches you some theoretical frameworks, which are useful. I was lucky to have been in an organisation earlier that was expanding rapidly and trying to get into spaces that were new. Therefore, we were crafting new brand, product, and market propositions in my last few years in the food business. The transition to the digital space was not that difficult as I was used to working backwards from a customer insight to craft a product, a proposition, and a distribution strategy.

We apply some of those principles at Amazon, as well. Here we make sure that the interventions we make are absolutely rooted in what the customer wants and expects from a brand like ours.

What is different is the fact that there is data, and it comes at you all the time. Your feedback loops are faster, and that helps you in fine-tuning your strategy as you pick up data in real time. For example, you put out a campaign in the digital space, and you get a closure loop all the way back to the platform on whether it is delivering the numbers you expected from it, in a short span of time. The advantage is that you can measure now on a real-time basis. In the offline world, these feedback loops take longer to assess. So you have an advantage and can correct your course faster and focus on things that are working.

We are in the middle of fundamentally transforming the way India buys and sells, and there’s no better time to be in the e-commerce space when it is at this stage of evolution–no better time to be with Amazon as it reinvents ways to ensure execution in India. Amazon has a deep understanding of how this space operates in other parts of the world. We understand the uniqueness of the Indian market, and we’re ready to experiment and invent as we go along, so that while our execution is based on the pillars I mentioned, they are also India-specific. It’s exciting to be a part of this journey as we transform the way India buys and sells.

CMO.com: What were some of the challenges you faced when you joined Amazon?
I would like to talk about the overall challenge in this space. The challenge from an e-commerce perspective is to understand the way in which the Indian market is going to behave and pick up signals from customers as they make this transition from an offline-only buying-and-selling paradigm to going online. There have been multiple factors of interest that came up that we least expected. I have realised there is always an Indian take to everything. This market never ceases to surprise you. There is always a surprise waiting for you. We have begun to expect the unexpected. One is surprised when one is not surprised by the Indian market.

Understanding your audience, data-driven marketing, and personalization will be among the discussions at Adobe Sydney Symposium 2017

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