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Thursday, October 5, 2023


With a mammoth conglomerate like the Bengal Group of Industries and so many brands to promote, you have to take the marketing work seriously. That is perhaps the biggest testament to Aftab Mahmud Khurshid’s ability and skills.

Currently the chief marketing officer at the Bengal Group of Industries Mr Khurshid is a veteran in the field of business marketing and branding. His vast experience and forward thinking inform his views and he is never afraid to walk off the beaten path. His diverse experience across many different industries was perhaps what made him the best candidate for looking after a number of reputable brands and companies.

Our long and engaging conversation with Aftab Mahmud Khurshid is reproduced below for readers.

FINTECH: Tell us little bit about when you started and your journey leading up to this point.

AMK: My career started at ACI, which is their consumer brand currently. I was a product officer there. So, my career started with product management and product branding. I looked after ACI Aerosol, Johnson & Johnson and other brands there. My academic background was actually in finance and banking. After that I did an MBA in marketing.

I joined a British export marketing company after ACI. After that I joined Siemens, the German electrical giant. There we emphasized on business planning and business development. At that time, we were the first to launched energy saving light in Bangladesh. Later on, I looked after business development and corporate communications at Siemens. It was called ‘Marketing Services’, so I ran two departments. That’s when Siemens brought mobile phone. I also worked with home appliances, power, telecom, medical equipments etc. this was from 2001 to 2006. They have medical equipment and power, and they appointed distributor for home appliances. After that I moved to Trust Bank, it was the army rum bank. They had also been looking to broaden their scope and wanted to get out of the welfare trust. Since I had the finance and banking background, I took this opportunity. So, I worked for rebranding and on products there. As a result, I later joined the City Bank. I was involved in its rebranding process and I worked for branding the American Express card. Later on, I joined Standard Chartered as the country marketing head and led whole “here forgood” brand transformation process.

I had also been doing consultancy work here and there for branding. I worked for Radio Today, the first FM brand radio in Bangladesh. I did the branding and marketing strategy for that radio station. I did the launching and branding for Banglalion Sure cash. These were during gaps between my jobs. After SCB I joined NRB Bank, which was work from the scratch as it was a completely new bank. After that I worked at SSG, which was a typical local company. I did work for its total rebranding and product portfolio. It was a huge success for them. It was a successful rebranding endeavor that we achieved there without spending much. After that I joined here. We are trying to develop a marketing strategy here. The portfolio I’m looking after includes Romania food and beverage, electronics – Linnex Electronics, Linnex mobile, there are some apparel products, we have RTV. So, the Bengal Group is conglomerated.

FINTECH: This is certainly a vaster area for you compared to the past and the scope is much broader, isn’t it?

AMK: Yes. The whole marketing area is in need of nurturing. That means the scope for that is very wide. And with nurturing you have the scope for growth, business development, international market development, as well as scope for local market penetration. You could go for further diversification too, obviously enhance brand equity.

FINTECH: You have good amount of experience in the banking sector. How does that inform you?

AMK: Yes, I have worked in four banks. When I joined SCB that was when they were hiring marketing heads in 70 countries throughout the globe to run their project and to become a real consumer oriented bank. That’s why they rolled out more customer friendly layout at that time. The vision was to make the branches look like attractive shops, making a total customer friendly environment.

FINTECH: How much that contributed to its successful since then you think?

AMK: I think it has been tremendously successful. SCB had 29 branches then when I was there, with 48 percent consumer market share. Whereas there were 56 other banks with vastly more number of branches. SCB is still continuing that success. Local banks don’t really work on product development, service marketing and as a whole corporate branding like foreign banks. SCB is a corporate brand. I don’t think local banks understand corporate branding well. They lack vision. They do have a vision; it is written in their annual report. Most of the cases, from MD to board members, knows it. Global brands put their vision, brand values before anything else.

FINTECH: Why we are stuck in this orthodox way of thinking?

AMK: Because we are orthodox in many ways especially in thinking level and mindset. We don’t want to change.

FINTECH: There seem to be a deep distrust or mistrust about straying from convention.

AMK: Well, in my experience I have seen the CEOs in the banks lean toward profit maximization instead of thinking about the brand vision. But they don’t’ go after growth maximization. So, brand marketing gives you growth in the long run. Whereas, they want current profit maximization. As a result, they never achieve the reliability of the customers. You can’t build a brand in a year or two; it takes decades. Management boards are actually failing to achieve this.

I have done some work, what you can call branding for boardrooms I suppose. The board has to be brand oriented first. Then you can expect the management down the line to adopt that approach.

FINTECH: We have interviewed a lot of bank MDs, so we heard from their perspective a lot. From a pure marketing perspective, what is the state of financial service marketing in our banking sector currently and how much does branding of financial services matter?

AMK: A bank or company mayn’t grow if its MD or the CEO doesn’t understand marketing. You see in multi-national global companies there are two brand custodians – one is the CEO and the other is the head of marketing. Because the CEO is selling the brand. He or she is responsible for its image. And the work of the head of marketing is to feed the CEO about the market mechanisms, customer insights and market insight. He is informing the CEO how to strategize on these fronts. And that’s how these get shaped into corporate strategy, transform business. Marketers work as growth driver which at the end of the day adds value to the business growth. It’s like what Peter Drucker said: “The two most important functions of a business are Innovation and Marketing. All other are expenses” – if I remembered that correctly.

If you don’t innovate you will be stagnant and someone will replace you in the market. Marketing is updating yourself as per the market condition, as per consumer demands, and on the basis of future wants and needs.

There is no product or service innovation for financial services. Everyone is copying what the others are doing and there are no distinct products, it’s all vanila product. The management probably doesn’t understand its young generation customers. So, there is a huge gap between the next generation and the old generation. Many banks still don’t understand online banking. I have seen head of credit card working as the IT head. And in some places the credit card division handles branding.

There are many mismatches. If a company wants to be successful in the twenty first century, then it has to put emphasis on corporate branding and then on getting the right human resource. If you get your branding done by the IT department then that will not work. Because IT can only provide the technical support, but marketing can give you the intellectual support, creative support, as well as market related support. There are exceptions, but generally you need marketing for marketing work. You need a good brand image, then you need smart and well-trained sales people. You also have to work for achieving the vision and mission as they have been written down on paper. Only then you can achieve growth in the long run.

FINTECH: Why we have this shortcoming?

AMK: Our companies are being run by the owners. That has something to do with it. You will saturate sales at some point inevitably. But if you do marketing then you are developing the market, developing products, expanding your market horizon, thinking about diversified marketing and thinking about going beyond the border. So, you create many scopes which you don’t create if you focus only on sales.

Another bad practice I see in the industry is that sales people are being made head of management sometimes. The problem with that is mostly sales people don’t have the holistic vision and the maturity. They don’t have the managerial capability. They might be good sales people, but they are often not good leaders in that position or might skill set to run the show. You need these qualities in a management head, just sales skills won’t cut it.

FINTECH: Could you go back to owners running companies and elaborate on that a bit?

AMK: Yes. When a business gets established by people from a previous generation and they weren’t very educated. They had become successful and they now sit on the board. Many of them are  thinking from the point of view of factory orientation. They think of every person as his worker. But a management executive is not a worker. Workers do a routine job within the framework of fixed office time. The management employees do a strategic job, they are the planners, thinkers and executers. There is also the perception that you only do work if you put in long hours that they can see. That’s a great mistake or problem in the country like ours where professionalism is still far cry.

The important thing about marketing that you need to understand is that without marketing you will have difficulties selling a good product. But with good marketing you will easily sell a mediocre product. Look at Unilever or Apple. Every product they come up with sells. It is because of who they are, not what they are making. Brands need to be nurtured like a child before they can grow bigger. Branding is not just advertising. It is everything from forming the concept to the completion if starts before the product is actual. If you go to our banks you will see that they employed a PRO and that’s it. If you survey, I believe you will find out that these PROs aren’t even members of the management committee. Then how can he or she can give their insight to the management to strategize in their business. This is why we are not developing.

FINTECH: Wouldn’t be easier for banks to reach the unbanked through proper branding?

AMK: Yes, of course. If you don’t communicate then how will your customers know that there is a product for them to buy? You have to develop the strategy for this communication. Whoever figure out this communication first will reach those customers first. And there is always certain benefit for the first time entry.

Look at what bKash did. They communicated by using modern thinking and methods. That’s why they easily attracted everyone. We call this ABC – ‘attract, build and capture’. DBBL didn’t do it to that extent. bKash invested in brand development and channel development, whether or not that yielded them immediate profit. If you invest strategically in the brand and you will proceed through careful planning, then it will be successful. You have to have a functioning product and effective management too. Brand is all about trust and convenient. People would build factories, buy cars and spend money in everything else, but they are reluctant to do branding the DNA of a company. That’s why there is no sustainability. That’s why Coca-Cola’s brand value is around 90 percent more than its physical asset.

FINTECH: What essential qualities a well-developed brand should have?

AMK: Brand is not just an identity or a message. It’s a total DNA. You can see it through your eyes and sense it through the other senses.

FINTECH: Lego recently went for big content generation, which took on a life of its own.

AMK: Yes, we saw a similar thing with Harry Potter. You could milk a lot out of one brand. Think about James Bond, and how they place products through it. We get stuck in the conventional ways and people just go through the motion. There is also no necessary separation of digital, online and offline. You have to integrate these into each other and deliver through them seamlessly. You can’t have just digital or just offline. You need both. It is up to you to strike the proper balance and that’s where the marketers come in. That’s why successful companies are led by marketing people. Look at the telcos. They send cost cutting people when necessary but they put in marketing people when you need that kind of strategy. Obviously, a garments company will not run like a telco company and vice versa. So, you have to create you market strategy according to the proper function.

There is also employer branding and employee branding. If you do not have a good company image you won’t attract good employees. If you don’t have quality employees, then you won’t have quality structure or quality teams. Sometimes we don’t hire the right people to save money, but you become a loser in the long run if you do that. At the end of the day the business loses.

FINTECH: When you design a campaign what are the indicators you look at and what are typically your primary considerations?

AMK: My indicators are my TG (target group). Now, the aim is the affluent class then my communication design or marketing strategy will be fitting for them. If it’s a mass product, then the branding will, and if it is in between these two segments then my approach will be made considering that.

If it’s a single brand strategy, then I emphasize on image building. And if it’s product branding then it will be segmented, because one product is not for everyone. The branding can be regional. In the global market the strategy differs from region to region, even country to country. Local companies don’t think like that. They just make advertisements. You have to think about ‘mind share’ before market share. You have to win the customer’s mind. You can’t get into the market without getting into the customer’s mind.

For digital platform, that is the future. I have to educate the market for that future. It is not really for now. The reason I say that is because the decision makers are not very much into the digital realm. For instance, baking customers are typically over 40 years of age, if you think about customer group. The young generation is only becoming bank customers. It will be another 10 to 16 years before they become decision makers. So, the digital platform needs to be developed. Marketing is ultimately a creative engineering and strategic business science. You have to engineer and re-engineer. If you look at Lux, they change their packaging every six months. You have to stay new all the time. Otherwise you become invisible to the consumer.

How many banks have separate department for service marketing? How many banks are highlighting a day to night call centre service and getting professional people to do this job? I revamped the Standard Chartered contact centre. I introduced a service called ‘eight-minute pledge’. If a customer waits for more than eight minutes, then the bank will pay you Tk50 to your account. We had a customer token for this. We would look at that at the end of each day. At the City Bank there was a policy that if a customer waits for more than seven minutes then he has to be offered tea. The bottom line is that you have to benefit the customer somehow. You have to think about promotion in all possible avenues. CSRs are big opportunities for marketing. In fact, it is nothing but marketing in disguise. People think they can donate one time to a relief fund and that is good CSR. But it has no rippling effects.

FINTECH: How can the banks strengthen their brands?

AMK: Banks should start to revamp themselves. I won’t say re-brand. They need revamp or structural change. There is a misconception, re-brand is changing everything. Revamp is like a face-lift. People here say ‘we re-branded’ after they change the logo. That’s just a face-lift. If you want to rebrand then you will have to change the DNA, mission, values, structure, mindset, application and delivery. That is rebranding. Restructure, revamp, re-brand all are distinct and separate in their functionality.

FINTECH: What is your own research method like?

AMK: I think I rely a lot on my gut feeling. You may ask where the gut feeling come from. It comes from the long experience, knowledge and training. Everyone has to do proper research. There is no alternative. I won’t call it a market research necessarily, but you have to do basic feasibility test. If you have good confidence level, knowledge and experience then you can rely on your gut feeling. Marketing is part creative, part scientific.

FINTECH: But data and analytics is very important now.

AMK: Yes, of course. Data and analytics are important indeed. The story behind the data is also important. We have lacking in this. Altogether it’s marketing intelligence or business intelligence.

FINTECH: The banks are sitting on huge pile of information. Why are they not using it?

AMK: They are not using it at all. They don’t know that there is something called marketing analytics or business analytics, which will show you how many clients you have at a particular branch who are worth say, Tk 5 lakh. We can also figure out who needs what and what product you should offer to specific customers. What is the lifestyle of customer segments? That is the basis for Standard Chartered priority baking and preferred banking. These two types are separate because everyone has different needs and priorities. GP, for example, has ‘Star Customer’ and they provide special offers to sustain the ‘Star Customer’. So, you have to make these connections and build strategic alliances.

FINTECH: What are your thoughts about big data?

AMK: I think we should learn to use small data first before thinking about big data. Analyze small data first.

FINTECH: Software is very important of course in trend analysis. What kinds of software you have used in different companies? What are your thought about our local software market and developers?

AMK: At NRB we used an Oracle based software. Many think of software not as an investment but as a cost. It doesn’t have to be branded software either. We have a lot of IT graduates they can produce software, make ERP solutions. Then where is the problem? How many software company do branding in this country like Kaspersky did? They are not business oriented. All of these IT guys are technical people and they don’t know how to market it. They don’t know the business mechanism. If you don’t have business knowledge, then you should hire one. What I’m seeing is that naturally the founder of these software companies are technical people and they become the CEO of the company. he doesn’t hire a business or marketing person. I know many such companies. That’s why they are not going to the next level. You can only go so far with your personal charisma, but if you want to go to the next level you will have to hire business people. It’s that simple.

FINTECH: Thanks very much for speaking to us

AMK: You are welcome.

Saqib Sarker


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