Anupama Sajeet
Mar 30, 2024

The CMO's MO: HDFC ERGO’s Somesh Surana on why AI and data analytics are game changers

The head of digital business and marketing at the general insurance firm gets candid about challenges in the insurance space, AI’s evolving role in garnering marketing insights, and which brand's campaigns he looks forward to the most.

The CMO's MO: HDFC ERGO’s Somesh Surana on why AI and data analytics are game changers

The CMO’s MO (modus operandi), spotlights some of India’s top CMOs as they share their marketing mantra, trends for the future, and what keeps them up at night while giving us a peek into the person behind the title. Here we chat with the who’s who of the country’s leading marketers while throwing in questions that allow leaders to shine a light on their personalities, plans, and passion projects for the year ahead. 

This edition of Campaign India’s CMO’s MO has Somesh Surana, head of digital business group and marketing of HDFC Ergo General Insurance, in the hot seat.

With a career spanning nearly two decades—over eleven of which were with the general insurance firm—Surana has extensive experience primarily in the BFSI segment. During his previous spells, he has been instrumental in developing and repositioning marcomms and digital sales channels for brands like Barclays Bank and Kotak Mahindra Bank. Prior to his stint in BFSI, he has also dipped his toes in advertising as group account manager at Ogilvy & Mather.

Surana shares his thoughts on having strong measurement matrices, the shifting role of the CMO, and growth trajectories for the insurer amidst an 'attention economy'. 

What are the three biggest marketing challenges for your brand right now?

First off, insurance as a category is highly underpenetrated. The non-life Insurance industry in India stands at 1%, which is much lower than other developed global economies. So, a lot needs to be done to sensitise the customers on the importance of insurance. With insurance being considered an afterthought and pushed down in the consideration set of customers, it has a huge effect on brands like us.

Secondly, there is the issue of the attention economy and breaking the clutter to make sure the brand stays top-of-mind for customers. With so much information bombarding people every day, it is important to stand out. Then, there is the challenge of crafting messages that set your products and services apart, especially when they are similar to what competitors offer. We have to do all this while being in a regulated environment. 

Lastly, while now is a wonderful time for marketers with the advent of so many digital avenues being opened up thereby leading to the scope of innovation, the fact also remains that with these rapid changes in the behaviour and expectations of customers today, our competition isn't just coming from other insurance companies anymore. We are up against food-delivery apps, online-shopping platforms, and even streaming services. So, our products need to be simple, services need to be differentiated and hyper-personalised, timelines need to be fast, and we need to be always relevant in the lives of customers.  

What are the three biggest opportunities for your brand?

Firstly, the name ‘HDFC Ergo’ draws credibility. It is backed by a lineage of two promoters—HDFC Bank being one of the leading and trusted banks of the country and a household name, and Ergo bring a global insurer with a presence in more than 25 countries worldwide. 

While we are backed by such a strong lineage, the core driving force at HDFC Ergo is its futuristic approach. We are a ‘digital insurer of scale’ and believe that the technology is a gamechanger that opens new opportunities for our brand to reach the last mile. 

Lastly, India is presently at a good growth trajectory when it comes to insurance, complemented by positive regulatory changes—nudging more individuals on the importance of insurance. Besides, the vast landmass and large demographics also leave a good scope for all insurers to tap new underpenetrated geographies and populations. Hence, complemented by such favourable factors, it leaves us with a good scope to foray our brand to the last mile. 

Where are you investing your marketing budgets this year? In what areas are you increasing or cutting spend?

I believe that you can’t manage what you can’t measure and therefore, we have strong measurement matrices in place. We are mindful of each penny we spend and our marketing strategy is aligned with the overarching goal of the company. While digital marketing plays a pivotal role, we believe in embracing a 360-degree media approach, leveraging both traditional and digital platforms as per the need. Besides this, performance marketing will continue to be an important focus area for us, adding quick numbers to the overall revenue and thus be a part of the real action.

Marketing maestros or growth gurus: Are chief marketing officers the new chief growth officers?

It is indeed a trend worth noting in today's business landscape. Traditionally, CMOs were primarily responsible for overseeing marketing strategies, brand management, and customer engagement. However, as businesses become more focused on driving sustainable growth and ROI, the role of the CMO has expanded beyond traditional marketing functions. For example, CMOs have been in charge of website management in past, but today’s CMOs design specific marketing campaigns to drive website traffic, build transaction journeys, generate leads and thus play an active role in revenue push. 

One such result-oriented campaign at HDFC Ergo was the launch of Here App, where our collective marketing efforts have not only increased the number of downloads for the app but also helped in improving customer engagement and retention. 

Are you tapping into Gen AI to future-proof your marketing efforts?

AI and data analytics are gamechangers. They are not only helping to track campaign performance but also helping to optimise media mix and measure target-audience reach. By leveraging AI, you can dive deep into customer data, and uncover patterns and trends that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. This allows you to gain invaluable insights into what makes customers tick, what they like, what they don't, and ultimately, how to tailor your marketing efforts to resonate with them on a deeper level. 

I believe the future will be all about AI-driven performance measurement tools, thus, allowing marketers to adopt, test and learn approaches driven by measurement of the success rate of campaigns, adapting course corrections on the shortcomings of previous campaigns, and maintaining consistency for greater retention. 

Somesh Surana

Give us one example to convince our readers that your brand is walking the talk on sustainability.

At HDFC Ergo, sustainability lies at the heart of our corporate ethos. We aim to be sustainable in our business practices and serve our stakeholders consistently. To incorporate ESG elements into every aspect of our business,we have developed an ESG framework. Our initiatives towards protecting the environment are implemented through our products and services. We also launched a one-stop solutions portal that acts as an ecosystem of electric vehicles for both existing and prospective EV users. We believe this initiative will hasten the adoption of greener vehicles which is the future of the industry. We have a product portfolio that offers our customers various covers against losses caused due to climate change.

In addition, we are also an equal opportunity employer and one of the important constituents that play a pivotal role in our diversity efforts is the HDFC Ergo diversity council. I am a core member of this council, along with the other HODs, and we have been working together on the creation and execution of the DEI strategy.  

Complete the sentence: “Today’s CMO must be ….”.

Today’s CMO must be adopting a customer-first approach and also be a profit centre. At the heart of every successful marketing strategy lies a deep understanding of the customer—their needs, preferences, and behaviours. This will help them in designing the right proposition for the customers, and thus contribute positive revenue for the organisation. 

What kind of a CMO are you? Answer using a maximum of three adjectives.

Practical, futuristic, ethical.

Tell us one personal thing about yourself that others might not know.

I find inspiration by looking outside for new ideas, whether it's through reading books like Tiger Fire by Valmik Thapar, which offers a unique perspective essential for marketing professionals. I lso like to explore new places and meet new people, as it recharges the grey cells of my brain, aiding in the development of fresh ideas.

What’s your favourite brand campaign that you participated in or wish you had?

Amul. They are consistent yet simple and trendy. I haven’t come across any advertisement of Amul over the past decades which feels out of place. As a marketer, I always look forward to what they are going to come up with next. 

Name another brand (can’t be yours) with an amazing customer experience that you really admire. Why is it great?

Apple. Any product they come out with is backed by heavy customer research, and intuitively addresses the needs of the customers. Besides, their seamless customer service and experience with the brand’s commitment to innovation make them truly stand out. 

What keeps you up at night as a CMO?

I mostly sleep well at night because we have a well-oiled machinery and a good business-continuity plan.


Campaign India

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