AskmeBazaar’s Sethi: ‘Marketing Is The New Sales’

“I question every rule in the marketing book, be it buying media or spending on digital,” said Manav Sethi, AskmeBazaar’s group head of marketing and communication, India and Malaysia, in an exclusive interview with

AskmeBazaar’s Sethi: ‘Marketing Is The New Sales’

AskmeBazaar is India’s fastest-growing online marketplace. Launched in June 2014 following the merger of online software solutions company AskMe Group and yellow-page directory publishers GETIT and Infomedia, the one-stop-Web-shop provides an array of deals for restaurants, travel, tech gadgets, and even information about weddings, jobs, and education. caught up with Manav Sethi, AskmeBazaar’s group head of marketing and communication, India and Malaysia, to discuss the company’s investment in technology, how it uses celebrity and content to drive sales, and Sethi’s mantra: “In the new world order, marketing is the new sales.” AskmeBazaar is already recognized in India as a leader in the content-led marketing space. Could you elaborate on your storytelling approach and strategy?

Manav: One example is a campaign we call the “1000 Best Places to Eat with Rocky and Mayur.” It invites the consumer to share their favorite eateries, even in smaller towns. Consumers are alerted to hidden gems serving the best of local flavors in far-flung corners of India. The campaign has generated 200-plus videos with Rocky and Mayur visiting and trying out local favorites, and it is uninfluenced by AskmeBazaar. The direct result of this campaign was a 20% rise in searches in the dining-out category. We also received an additional 10,000-plus videos, which contribute to listings for these eateries.

We believe content is the driver for commerce and have integrated content creation as part of the campaign using crowdsourcing and involving end users. Video plays a very important role from both a content creation and content consumption standpoint. It provides a short and meaningful review of a place to eat, for example, by an influencer known for their expertise in that area. That means they are quicker for the end user to digest and better than reading reviews from a long list of strangers. What will you focus on in 2016?

Manav: Building consumer experiences. We are investing in technology that gives us greater insight across diverse areas, such as consumption patterns, geographical locations, and seasonality. The ecosystem is moving away from just blind discounting to improving end-user engagement. We have launched campaigns, like the “Get Real – War Against Fakes,” which got 5 million views, without spending much at all. That campaign went beyond just AskmeBazaar, addressing the industrywide concern of fake goods being sold online. It also promised incentives to consumers who found a fake on any website.

We also launched the “War on Delays” campaign, another pain point for online consumers. We are committed to addressing the issues plaguing the e-commerce ecosystem to make things a whole lot better for the consumer. Where are you going to achieve growth in 2016?

Manav: In a word, the fastest-growing category for e-commerce in India is groceries. There are a couple of factors fueling this growth. Number one is that someone may buy a high-end product, such as a television or a piece of furniture, after much research but generally only once or twice a year. But grocery items are daily needs, and the brands people consume rarely change; your shampoo or oil or tea brands remain mostly constant. So why subject yourself to long queues to purchase these items? Our new campaign with actor Kangana Ranaut is reinforcing this sentiment.

Number two is that, for e-commerce companies, this is a favorable category because it is not subject to seasonality and heavy discounting, although it has to be high in operational efficiency. Askme Grocery has ensured that the operations are tightly managed, and each of the collection and distribution hubs acts like a profit center.

We have also recently acquired Mebelkart, which will be the future Askme Furniture, and here again we want to differentiate by offering not only furniture sales but the entire package deal. Using Askme, you can get service providers like interior decorators and contractors who can vouch for the quality of the wood or ensure that your kitchen becomes a turnkey project so you don’t need to chase individual plumbers, carpenters, and assorted workers. This has already been executed successfully in Bangalore, where we have delivered about 10 kitchens.

We are also focusing on creating stickiness for our platforms. I can’t disclose many details, but we do intend to launch a form of loyalty program for our consumers, enabling them to widen the net of usage across our various categories and encourage loyalty. We also want to launch a payment system that allows users to pay for various categories of services within the platform. One example is the ability to pay for a dentist listed in our yellow pages using an Askme wallet. What is the current state of e-commerce in India?

Manav: There is a lot of data available supporting the growth of e-commerce from the high penetration of mobile usage in the massive under-30 population, who will form the backbone of the future workforce. However, the underlying question remains profitability. In India, we are currently in the growth phase, but it is also likely to be one where consolidation and stability will start coming into the ecosystem. Deep discounting will have to stop. Spending on marketing that is not differentiated will also have to stop if you want to be noticed amidst the clutter.

Customer experience and managing the value-chain will become core to e-commerce businesses. Naturally, industry infrastructure, like logistics providers and the regulatory environment, will come into play more along with technology and omnichannel marketing. Focusing on transactions, however, will still be the primary force for business growth. What differentiates AskmeBazaar from rival e-commerce sites?

Manav: AskmeBazaar is a managed marketplace for buyers and sellers. We handhold SMEs coming online and assist their SKUs and consumers looking to purchase that specific, hard-to-find-item using our platform. We are there from the point when a consumer buys a listed item until it is shipped by the merchant and the money is collected and processed back to the merchant. Time and efficiency are the key differentiators of our business. The process involves the entire platform. It is resilient in terms of cash collections, deliveries, opening storefronts, and listing SKUs. That forms the core of Askme.

We don’t influence the merchants on the selling price. We provide the guidance and know-how on the propensity to sell an item at a certain price and the volume you can sell at that price, but we leave the rest for the merchant to decide. Unlike any other e-commerce site, we don’t have warehousing, and we don’t do deep discounts. What is the biggest marketing challenge for you now?

Manav: The biggest challenge is to build trust. From a marketer’s standpoint, communicating and establishing that trust is not easy. We are saying that the customer can close their eyes, click to buy, and guarantee the item’s delivery without inventorying it. That is a very tall brand promise, and that is the biggest challenge for AskmeBazaar. That is a tall promise. How do you deliver on it?

Manav: We have grown and learnt from our mistakes along the way. We have to deliver on our promises to consumers, and we have faith that our platform can grow and scale our business.

That’s why we decided not to trust the merchant to ship the item and started investing and building relationships to create a logistics network. We worked hand-in-hand with service providers and created dashboards, APIs, and real-time triggers so that every event can be tracked. We have used technology to scale and relied on our partners to ensure that the brand promise is upheld. We don’t have the luxury of investments in marketing at the level of some of the other players. How has not having deep pockets like many other players worked to your advantage/disadvantage?

Manav: All marketers want to spend money on marketing; however, when I look back, the scarcity of funds has compelled us to be more innovative, creative, and choose more carefully where the money is spent. We did everything possible to get more juice out of our spending and return on investment. It forced us to question virtually everything.

Coupled with that, having worn many hats–entrepreneur, sales strategist–I question every rule in the marketing book, be it buying media or spending on digital. For example, we work with all affiliates on a cost-per-order basis, and I am not worried about impressions or page views. The singular goal we are chasing is transactions on the platform. Each time I spend, it has to return quantifiable value. Our parameter of success is one simple word–sales–and it has worked for us. Askme has featured actors Ranbir Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, and Farhan Akhtar in its advertising. How has using celebrities helped the brand?

Manav: I will not shy away from saying it has worked in our favor and in the celebrities’ favor as well. We were one of the earliest brands to sign up Kangana Ranaut. Ranbir Kapoor came onboard when he was riding high on his film success. We had to sell him the idea of AskmeBazaar as we were very small then and just about to launch the Askme platform and app. Interestingly, he also realized that with the onset of sub-$100 smartphones, the real estate and the memory on the smartphone would not be enough to store beyond a certain number of apps. This is where Askme offers you the option to search across merchants, classifieds, and commerce. That’s how he became one of our brand ambassadors.

We are one of the few organizations in India that has capitalized on content-driven commerce/marketing. So beyond Ranbir, Farhan, and Kangana, we also have ambassadors or opinion leaders and influencers including [author/actor] Twinkle Khanna, [TV hosts] Rocky and Mayur, and [celebrity chef] Vikas Khanna. The celebrities were all part of the big launch announcement. They do not necessarily represent the “brand promise,” per se. They were used in the campaigns to gain quick recall and break through the clutter of e-commerce platforms that were mushrooming everywhere.

The brand promise is primarily trust in the platform and is being communicated through a host of other campaigns to improve the customer’s experience.

This article was produced for by Paul Writer, India’s premier community marketing firm.

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