DURING a trip to Kenya in the late 1990s, Bharat Avalani had an encounter with a Masai which affected him deeply.
The Masai stopped his car and asked him if he had water. Bharat gave him two bottles of mineral water, and the Masai was so grateful that he wanted to give him his spear.
Bharat did not take the spear, but it did make him realise the value of water when one doesn’t have it.
“Even today, my family does mandi kerbau. When we brush our teeth, the tap is closed,” he says in an interview.
Last year his view on the preciousness of water was reinforced when he met Hungarian photographer Balazs Gardi in Kochi, India.
Gardi had followed the US Marines in Afghanistan in 2004 as they hunted Osama bin Laden. As they were about to leave their camp, a helicopter dropped the water supply there. The water supply was too heavy to bring along, so the commander blew up the pile of water to ensure it would not fall into enemy hands.
In his talk in Kochi, Gardi mentioned that the estimated cost of each water bottle, which was flown from Abu Dhabi, was between US$25 and US$50.
Bharat recalls Gardi’s ominous words: “He said that in the future, people will kill each other over water.”
Water is an issue close to his heart. The other is children. And Bharat counts himself lucky to have spent 24 years working for a company whose social mission gels well with his personal values.
Bharat, 49, is a Unilever veteran and a well-known personality in the local marketing industry, having served as International Advertising Association (Malaysian chapter) president and Malaysian Advertisers Association vice-president, among others.
Hailing from a small town (Selandar) in Malacca, Bharat did his MBA at the University of Poona, India, where he unsuccessfully applied to do internship at Lever in India. He was, however, accepted as a management trainee at Lever Brothers (later Unilever) in Bangsar where he rose to head of marketing services.
Bharat, who turned independent consultant last month, spent the last eight years overseeing 65 countries as Unilever’s regional integrated brand communications (IBC) director for Asia, Africa, Middle East and Turkey.
As consultant, Bharat continues his relationship with Unilever, now working with the consumer product giant on a project-to-project basis. “As for the rest of my time, I will do some marketing training; and if any company needs my help from a marketing consultancy point of view, I’ll be more than happy to share what I’ve learned,” he says, noting that he will not take a client that competes with Unilever.
Bharat got his international post following some major breakthroughs in Malaysia. The two campaigns that made the country famous in the Unilever world were for Rexona and Sunsilk.
In the days when a TV commercial could not show armpits, Unilever Malaysia and its agency came up with the Rexona No Sweat Challenge TV contest show in 1994.
Then, in 2002, Unilever introduced a shampoo variant, Sunsilk Limau Purut, to cater to the needs of women who covered up their hair. Bharat says Malaysia was the first country to produce a shampoo TV commercial without featuring a hair shot. It starred the then-popular actress Wardina Safiyyah Fadlullah, and Sunsilk rose to become Malaysia’s number one shampoo. This success was followed by the hit teen-targeted TV show sponsored by Sunsilk called Impian Illyana.
In 2006 Bharat was appointed as regional IBC director for Unilever’s homecare category, responsible for brand activation (now called brand experience) and market development.
It had been a gratifying eight years where he saw firsthand how Unilever’s products and projects had helped people all over the world.
Even in the early days Unilever, which began as a soap company Lever Brothers in 1895, had a social mission: to make cleanliness and hygiene commonplace.
Today the two things are a given, so Unilever’s mission has changed to making sustainability commonplace. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan was launched in 2010.
Reflecting Bharat’s own value of conserving water, Unilever make products more water-efficient through technology, meaning less rinsing and less foam.
“But there is only so much that Unilever can do as a company. As consumers, we have to be responsible enough to use water sparingly,” he says.
He shows StarBizWeek two international campaigns that he is proud of. One is Lifebuoy’s Help A Child Reach 5 campaign, and the other is the Dove project to promote self-esteem among girls and young women.
On the first campaign, he notes that 2 million children die each year from infections such as diarrhoea and pneumonia – deaths that could be prevented by simply washing hands with soap.
Unilever kick-started the campaign with a three-minute film showing a man in India who walked miles to the temple on his hands, followed by a horde of joyful villagers, in order to celebrate his son turning five. The child was his first who survived till age five.
Lifebuoy took its life-saving mission to villages in India and Indonesia, sponsoring the villages where there was high incidence of diarrhoea. Unilever also worked with the United Nations to do a global handwashing day.
On the Dove campaign, Bharat says most girls want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, which affects their self-confidence. Dove has since done self-esteem workshops and Dove Self-Esteem Project targets to improve the self-esteem of more than 15 million girls and young women by 2015.
Another global campaign that fills Bharat with pride is Unilever’s campaign called Dirt Is Good for its laundry detergent brands Breeze (Malaysia), Surf (India), Persil (UK) and Omo.
It was rolled out in 2000 before Bharat became regional INC director, but Bharat had the opportunity to bring the campaign to life on the ground.
Many parents wouldn’t allow children to get dirty, preferring to keep them indoors and safe. The campaign’s message was: allow the children to experience life outside the classroom. Let them get dirty because Unilever’s products are there to wash their clothes.
In many parts of the world, Unilever worked with the local councils to set up parks for children to play in. “We did that in Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, and most parts of Africa,” Bharat says.
He finds the case in South Africa “very interesting.” The parents there actually want the school playground to open after school. “They said they were happy when children were at school but they were concerned when the children came home where they would be exposed to a lot of things that children shouldn’t be exposed to, such as drinking.”
Under the brand Omo, Unilever did some coaching camps. “So the idea became much bigger − it’s not just about play but experiential learning.”
Sponsoring the playgrounds was the easy part. “The more important part was helping change the mindset of the society,” Bharat says. “We did radio talk shows, and brought up the issue for public debate. As a brand, we provide a platform to shape the opinions of the stakeholders. And in the process, we guarantee a better future for our children.”
Bharat, who is today also the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations chief knowledge officer, says he is very passionate about experimenting and making things happen.
“My message to people entering the industry is that if you do good work and focus more on developing yourself and learning, promotion will happen,” he says.
On marketing in the 21st century, Bharat says it is no longer about making some claim or promise and then giving consumers a one-way message.
“I was so obsessed with my brand that every time I saw a consumer, I looked at him as a number. I thought, Wah! I can sell more shampoo. Then it dawned on me that it (the one-way message) did not hold true anymore. Today’s marketing is all about finding the truth and sharing the truth, and the power today lies with the consumer.
“In the past it was about anticipating the future, but today, if I (a marketer) can even cope with changes around me, I think I will be a good marketer,” Bharat says.
He quotes Marc Mathieu, Unilever senior vice-president of marketing: “Marketing was about making a myth and telling it. Now it’s telling the truth and sharing it.”
Bharat’s job as regional IBC director took him away from his wife and 5½-year-old son 20 days a month. But he found gratification that his job would ensure a better future for families everywhere.
“When I look at children (in the course of work), I see my own child. When I look at the housewives who use my products, I think of my aunts and my wife,” he says.
On taking on a part-time consultancy role now, he says he wants to cut down on his travels, not wanting to be away too much physically from his wife, young son and friends. And he also feels the need to take better care of his health.
Bharat has three messages to marketers. “The first message is you got to genuinely love the people you serve. You got to love your consumer as much as you love your wife and your son. You must have empathy. And this will not happen in a vacuum. Being a marketer, sitting in an office is a very dangerous approach to do marketing because you get only a mirror (second-hand) view. Go out and seek the truth.
“The second message is that you must create brand love. Get them to love your brand. The Lifebuoy and Dove ads would make you love the brands. The brand love actually goes to the consumer, not to the marketer.
“And the third message is, magic will happen. Once you put people first and generate brand love, you’ll unlock the magic.”