Is marketing India’s Achilles’ heel?

India’s startup ecosystem has a marketing problem.
Here’s how it can be fixed.

Over the last decade, Indian entrepreneurs have done a phenomenal job of transforming the way India is seen by the tech world.

While our engineering and technical prowess has never been in question, for a long time, we’ve been in the shadow of global leaders. And now, we’ve evolved from being a services provider to a product nation, driven predominantly by the exponential growth of SaaS. From being the back-office for western technology and IT companies, India has expanded its scope to become the provider of top-notch products with features, quality, and innovations that are on par if not better than western products. 

In 2020, twelve Indian startups joined the unicorn club, and we have already seen ten startups achieve unicorn status this year. This is a great sign for the Indian business world, and there is no doubt India has earned the respect of the world and a seat at the global tech table. 

There’s one conspicuous gap, though: marketing. 

For some reason, Indian businesspeople simply don’t give storytelling and marketing their due. We come up with transformative ideas, put in tremendous hard work, and create great products and companies, but struggle with marketing and inevitably depend on talent from the West for marketing and branding. We have solid talent when it comes to engineering, product, and other technical aspects of building a company but fall short when it comes to marketing. 

It isn’t that we are inherently poor at marketing. Indians have historically been great storytellers and have, in fact, given the world some of the most fascinating, creative epics and works of fiction. But somewhere over the last few decades, our focus has veered away from storytelling and marketing. Indian business houses have been tightlipped about their work and journeys despite being incredibly successful in what they do. This has become culturally ingrained in entrepreneurs over the last few decades and now requires a fundamental change in mindset. 

We haven’t paid enough attention to marketing, and because of this we don’t have success stories to inspire and don’t have marketing talent to carry the legacy forward. 

Young engineers have mentors and leaders to learn from and successful companies they aspire to join. Marketers, on the other hand, end up moving to the West to learn from them. 

My fellow entrepreneur Varun Shoor, Avinash Raghava, the quarterback of Indian SaaS, and I got talking about this recently. It was gnawing at us, and we realized that this is something that requires tackling before it gets too late for the ecosystem. 

From our experiences, we noticed that even when Indian startup founders did invest in marketing, they didn’t do it right. They’re quite conservative in their approach to marketing. 

So often, I’ve had startup founders tell me they need “a marketer” to help them build their startups, and I’ve always pointed out that there’s no such thing as “a marketer.” There are different kinds of marketers for the various types of marketing activities, whether it is creative campaign building, marketing analytics, brand storytelling, social media, or any other such function. Trying to get one marketer to do everything is akin to getting an engineer to own and run the front-end, back-end, and all engineering functions. Western countries recognize this and have fostered a talent pool that has experts in each of the dozen marketing functions. That’s what we ought to do too. 

Varun and I wanted to do our bit to fix this problem and bring about a change in mindset among young entrepreneurs. Having done quite a bit of marketing for our respective businesses over the last decade, we wanted to share some of our learnings and draw attention to things that wouldn’t typically come to the fore. 

When it comes to the technical aspects of building companies, startups have playbooks they can refer to. There are standard practices of successful companies that startups can replicate and hit certain milestones.

But when it comes to marketing, it is difficult to come up with a ‘playbook,’ really. 

For every marketing campaign that blows someone’s mind away, there’ll be six damp squibs. What might work for a company today may not work for the same company the month after, even if the execution is done by the same team in the same manner. 

So, a playbook or case study documents from successful companies won’t be of much use. What is important is to understand why a company chose to do what they did, learn how they did it, and then apply those learnings to your startup. Replicating their ideas won’t do you much good, but dissecting their experiences and understanding how they executed their plans will help you formulate the marketing strategy your company needs.     

Varun and I felt that the best way to learn and teach would be to just have a series of conversations with some of our country’s best marketers and discuss different aspects of their work. We thought we should get backstage and see what goes on behind the scenes and into the making of a marketing campaign. That way, we can shine the light on how marketing is done, what works, and what doesn’t, and let you learn from the experience of marketers. Today, people don’t pay attention to how things were done or look into things that failed. We want to tackle those too and learn from others’ experiences. 

I’m happy to introduce to you SaaSBoomi’s new podcast series ‘BTS with Arvind and Varun’. The first episode with Arun Pattabhiraman from Freshworks and Noel Wax of GSG will be out next week. We’ll be talking about the Art of event marketing in the new age.

Stay tuned for more updates from Marketing BTS.

About the author

Arvind Parthiban

Co-Founder and CEO,
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