In a dynamic marketplace that’s rapidly changing and highly competitive, the power of a brand determines success
Brands remain top of the mind and retain a loyal following as marketers and brand owners continue to invest in impactful brand initiatives. This is more so in the case of B2C. However, in B2B marketing too, brand perceptions matter. Ahmed Javed, Head of Marketing & Communications at Expolanka Holdings Plc and EFL, discusses the importance of brand and how EFL has grown its brand presence globally, winning many accolades along the way.
You have been a part of Expolanka Holdings for a significant part of your career in a role that involves building brands. Tell us why building brands is important to you?
The recognition and success of our logistics brand EFL is one of the biggest reasons why I feel that brand building is vital for growth. In 2012, having been given the reins to rebrand Expolanka Freight to EFL, it was clear to me that this was going to be more than just a visual identity change. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and create a new set of values or messaging, instead harness our real strengths and create a narrative that could be amplified.
We never had the budgets and reach to match the competition but we could make every interaction count and that’s the main thing we focused on in those early days. Logistics is considered part of the ‘grunt work’ industry and when you’re dealing with global fashion brands, the gaps in marketing and communication were huge. We wanted to be as attractive as the fashion brands so that they would see us differently from the competition. At the same time, we were growing and needed a uniform and consistent identity that could be scaled with every new operation.
We are now among the top 50 global companies in air and ocean freight and it’s a result of years of personal selling and positioning to open up opportunities that a Sri Lankan company wouldn’t have before. Brands surpass the products and solutions you sell, the size of your operations and even individuals in the organization. It becomes the single entity that represents your entire business, its history & values, and the direction it’s going.
It gives everyone a common shield regardless of your role and position in the company. For the brands of Expolanka, the challenge is always the same, we are vying for international business against companies or countries who have better resources and/or technology; so the question is how do you compete and stand out in a non-level playing field? You have to develop and create brands that encompass your strengths in a unified manner and enable a platform where you can be heard.
We are now among the top 50 global companies in air and ocean freight and it’s a result of years of personal selling and positioning.
EFL has a brand presence across many countries, how has it impacted the positioning of the Expolanka group?
EFL’s network has been vital in our growth and one of the reasons why we have performed so well in the last year. Our footprint across more than 20 countries means that we don’t have single market dependencies. We also have a diverse mix of over 25 nationalities across our 2400+ staff and everyone is made to feel part of a family.
This has been a gradual process and we continue to work on it to ensure that no team or individual feels like they are operating on their own and cultural differences are getting in the way. One of the problems I identified earlier on was a lack of belonging to a larger cause and vision and staff feeling like they were just a local operation who dealt with counterparts in other countries to move shipments.
There was little understanding and appreciation of the fact that here is this one big team with this melting pot of cultures and diversity who shared a common goal to become something bigger.
We strengthened our internal communications and ran multiple campaigns; highlighting country-level achievements and sharing stories of individuals so that everyone realized no matter where you were or your background, you are still one of us. I recall pushing the teams to participate in social causes to commemorate the first rebranding anniversary instead of the usual norms. When we curated the digital newsletter that quarter, we had this wonderful mix of stories and images of teams who went all out in their markets.
It gave everyone a chance to see the real faces behind the operations and how they were addressing common causes that we could all identify with. We operate in a people-centric relationship business and employees are your best brand ambassadors and should be backed by a unified identity and common voice that can be replicated in every aspect of your communication.
Early last year, I also launched EFL Life platform that drives productivity, innovation and employee engagement. Being able to access a range of tools and stay connected during the pandemic ensured that remote working was an easy transition as opposed to something new.
It goes without saying that customers will work with you when they see similar visions and then culture and diversity can complement how you connect with them, so it’s important to develop messaging that covers this whilst brand principles stay the same.
Tell us about some of the most exciting and impactful brand initiatives launched over the years, and any special accolades received by the group.
The global market report platform launched right before the pandemic is one of the most impactful brand assets we have created and a first for the supply chain industry. It has become one of the most talked about and appreciated tools not only among our existing customers but potentials too as well as the competition. At first glance, it doesn’t sound like something that would add value to the brand, but this is where it’s important to understand that branding strategy is beyond advertising, social media, and PR campaigns.
It’s about looking at all your touchpoints and identifying the ones which can be leveraged to position you differently. We had access to all this information that customers were using for their decision making and yet the experience we were creating while packaged well, wasn’t hitting the mark of increasing brand intimacy. I also realized that uncertainty and lack of visibility is among the biggest pain points for clients and with the pandemic, this only intensified with airport and port closures and lockdowns etc. Global brands sourcing from multiple markets have to keep tabs on many aspects and we have successfully created a dynamic user experience that empowers decision-makers via a birds-eye view of logistics on a real-time basis.
Even now, markets have not returned to normal and our platform continues to go beyond just curating and sharing information, and instead creating a brand experience that combines the best of our ground knowledge, UX technologies and data. Users are able to stay continuously informed of all the aspects that impact their supply chains as a result of our interactive and unique dashboard.
In 2016, we were also the first company to launch a dedicated sustainability report when sustainability was still not a mainstream subject in the industry. My team and I work on multiple bids throughout the year and we saw the trend approaching with brands asking for more information. We decided to get ahead of the curve and launch a dedicated report covering all the work we do globally and that immediately positioned ourselves in a different space.
We followed this up by internalizing the launch of the UN Global goals and aligning them with the Founder Hanif Yusoof ’s values making it everyone’s responsibility in the company and that approach won accolades as well as increased business from brands that were conscious of the same. At Expolanka, I look beyond campaigns and short-term growth activations and take a holistic view of the different businesses and industry changes so that our brands can increase customer confidence and deliver on the promises we make.
In a post-pandemic phase, does branding still matter?
Yes, definitely. The world continues to be in a start-stop situation and interactions between customers are limited to emails, video calls and chats. You are no longer able to garner an advantage by traveling and fostering that interpersonal relationship to close a sale or having your customer walk into a store like they used to and be wowed by the range of your products and customer service.
The customer is deciding remotely in the comfort of their homes or in an office that doesn’t operate the way it used to; at this point, it’s the brand equity you build that plays the biggest role. Companies need to have a consistent and authentic brand voice and foster that emotional connection rather than just keep flushing out campaigns and become cold with short-term growth marketing tactics.
Consumers have access to lots of information and see beyond marketing gimmicks and this is why profits alone no longer determine the success of companies. Businesses need to take a 360 view of all their operations; impact on the environment, work-life balance and equal opportunities as much as they look at margins and costs and communicate this wholeheartedly in their marketing.
Over the last few years, EFL has established and communicated clearly what makes us different and in some instances better than others. Our customers know we are agile having worked in markets with limited infrastructure and that we leverage our relationships to get things done.
This is a result of consistent communication and showcasing of strengths in online and offline engagements which didn’t need to be ‘resold’ during the pandemic. In the end, it didn’t matter what the ground situation was or the restrictions were, we have acquired confidence that we can get it done and that’s one of the biggest reasons for our recent success.
Companies can no longer hold an advantage based on heritage loyalties, infrastructure, technology, or creative advertising.
Where do you see the future of brand marketing heading?
We need to realize that the customer persona has changed and with the pandemic, needs are more oriented towards safety and well-being rather than those of esteem. In a global consumer marketplace, this presents a new challenge for marketers and brand builders and shifts the opportunities too. Whilst this is likely to change at some point, I think we are a long way away from returning to normal.
Every business and individual now has the added expenditure on PPE, thereby reducing the average wallet size or spending that was earlier available. Businesses are also equally responsible to ensure the wellbeing of their employees, the community as well as their partners and customers which puts a strain on budgets and ad spend. At the same time, the gap between B2B brands and B2C is reducing because even if someone isn’t your direct customer, they are able to influence what the consumer feels about your brand.
In a very recent paper published by the B2B institute, a leading think tank funded by Linkedin, global experts like Les Binet and Peter Fields identified that B2B marketing is very similar to B2C; that to be effective, companies need a high share of voice, broad reach and high mental availability using a balance of both emotional brand building and rational activation.
It points out that in the long term emotional campaigns that focus on what a customer feels are more effective than rational campaigns that try to communicate information. Companies can no longer hold sole advantages based on heritage loyalties, infrastructure, technology or creative advertising. You have to invest in understanding your customers and the variables that influence their decisions whilst at the same time clearly defining your companies’ purpose and looking beyond the numbers in order to be successful as a brand.