The FMCG industry is a treasure trove of consumer data, and data driven decision making forms the lifeblood of businesses that build products used by end consumers on a daily basis.

Mitali Bhatia, our next pathbreaker, Consumer Insights Lead for L’Oreal (South Asia), collates consumer and market information, in order to translate the knowledge into insights that aid the process of innovation.

Mitali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how consumer focused companies are leveraging the power of data analytics to study consumer behaviour, analyze data, and decipher patterns.

For students, a career in consumer insights is multi-faceted because it requires curiosity, observational skills, an ability to analyze, synthesize and interpret large volumes of data, eye-for-detail, communication & story-telling skills !

Mitali, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Mumbai. So, Mumbai has been the hub of my education as well as my professional life. I did my schooling from a co-ed private school (secondary school certificate), and went on to join the science stream for my Higher secondary school certificate (HSC) exam.

During my school and college days, I was an avid reader and loved reading English literature classics, fantasy & mystery novels. I also took an interest in quiz competitions and sports activities like throwball, shot-put & discus throwing, etc. 

My lineage is a fusion of Punjabi (from my paternal side) and Gujarati (from my maternal side). My father’s family has roots in Amritsar. My father was an engineering graduate from REC Durgapur and was running a pen manufacturing business. My mother and her family have always been true-blue Mumbaikars.

What did you do for graduation / post graduation?

After my HSC, I changed streams and gave the centralized entrance exam for the Bachelor’s in Management Studies course. This was a new course at that time with only limited colleges providing this course, and one needed to clear the state board entrance exam to apply to these colleges. I stood 46th amongst 10-15,000 students who took the exam that year and got into the most coveted college, Narsee Monjee College of Commerce & Economics.

After completing my graduation, I decided to pursue MBA and got into ICFAI Business School, Mumbai after achieving a 42nd position and landing a scholarship. I passed out with a specialization in Marketing.

My professional journey began through a campus placement with ICICI Prudential Life Insurance as a Financial Services Consultant where my primary job was to sell life insurance. 

I changed careers after 6 months and entered the market research / consumer insights industry and joined an agency called Mode Modellers (now known as GfK).

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

When I was selling life insurance, I wasn’t enjoying the process as it would involve trying to ‘convince’ people into buying the products. And this went against my straight-forward approach to life.

I then decided to change careers and decided that I wanted to get into a market research company. I have been attracted to this career since my college days as it involves studying consumer and human behaviour, analyzing data, figuring out patterns in the data and then translating these patterns or insights into what consumers need. Finally, communicating these needs to manufacturers or service providers. This career path called out to me as I felt it would aptly make use of my observational & analysis skills. I had also got some taste of this career through my 4-month internship during my MBA days with Hakuhodo Percept where I was made to meet and interview various consumers, in order to figure out what they wanted and present these findings to the stakeholders.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

While pursuing BMS & MBA, I veered towards doing a specialization in Marketing, as Finance involved number-crunching and my balance-sheets never balanced 😉. As part of various subjects taught in these courses; Advertising and Communications were the ones I enjoyed the most. However, during campus placements, most companies that had marketing openings were coming with sales roles and I decided to try it out once.

When the sales stint at ICICI prudential wasn’t working out, I decided to switch to market research as explained before. I started applying to openings at market research companies through job portals. I got a call from GfK to give an aptitude test. Post clearing the test, I went through 2 rounds of interviews and finally landed the job. 

I started off as a Research Executive in GfK’s quantitative team. 

A market research agency like GfK typically has two types of research teams broadly viz. qualitative and quantitative. Simply put, they deals with consumer surveys / research (qualitative) and sometimes market information collection (e.g. sales / offtakes at stores, etc.). 

If one is a part of a qualitative team then one tends to handle research that is more exploratory in nature or when one is trying to form hypotheses about a client query. So, the number of respondents interviewed is very small.

In the quantitative team, one typically deals with numbers or hypotheses validation or surveys done amongst large set of respondents. 

A research agency will also have a separate field team or field department that will do the actual collection of data i.e. the field team will comprise of field managers and interviewers that interview consumers / respondents face-to-face or online and fill the questionnaires. These days many questionnaires are self-administered i.e. respondents themselves fill-in the information online through a web link or through a mobile app.

The information in the questionnaire is then converted into data in excel or word or dashboards etc. by a data analysis team of the agency and shared with researchers. The researchers will then analyze and convert the data into an insights-driven ppt report. This report will then be shared with the end-client. 

The end-clients of market research agencies belong to all kinds of industries from CPG to Automotive to Telecom to Finance to Services etc. Basically, any business that wants to know more about its consumers will usually approach a market research agency with their queries which is then answered by the agency. 

At GfK, I was primarily handling CPG clients like Colgate, Godrej, L’Oreal and also M&M, Tata Telecom, HDFC, etc. 

I spent 7 years at GfK, learning the ins & out of market research, growing from a Research Executive to a team leader / Group Manager – after which I felt it was time to venture out of this comfort space.

During my job search I was approached through Linkedin by the recruiting team of a French based market research agency. I responded and after 2 interview rounds I joined the research agency. But I moved out in a year’s time due to a lot of structural changes happening in that organization at that time which heavily impacted my work-life balance. My next stint was with a UK based research agency (Kantar IMRB).

At both Ipsos and Kantar IMRB, I was a part of their quantitative teams. My job role was similar to what I was doing at GfK except that I was in a team leader / business development role rather than in an execution-driven role handling clients like Colgate, L’Oreal, Nivea, Emami, Heinz, Mondelez, Vodafone, etc.

I spent 3 enjoyable action-packed years at Kantar IMRB successfully leading a team and growing business for the company. 

I was then approached by a client of mine to come and experience what it feels like being a research / insights person on their side or the ‘client-side’. I was initially in two minds about accepting this opportunity as I was happy with my progress at Kantar but decided that maybe it was time to pursue this new challenge.

And this led to my last stint with a home-grown CPG company called Emami. I gained valuable experience here and learnt how important it is to convert consumer understanding / insights into smart action-points for the business. 

I was the Consumer & Market Insights Lead (for close to 3 years) for Emami’s consumer goods division and handled the work related to BoroPlus, Navratna, Fair & Handsome, Kesh King & HE. My responsibilities included:

  • Driving consumer centricity across functions
  • Responsible for all the market and consumer insights work
    • Ensuring correct, timely delivery of market & consumer insights
    • Managing relations with all the research agencies / external partners
    • Enhancing quality and maximizing utility of market & consumer insights internally
    • Supporting internal marketing & sales teams on their data requirements
    • Conducting CMI inductions, ideation / brainstorming workshops and trainings on consumer immersions
    • Presenting and disseminating synthesized knowledge at various strategic forums / meetings to senior management, key stakeholders etc.

How did you get your first break?

As specified earlier, my first break with ICICI Prudential Life Insurance was through campus placement. And my foray into market research happened after applying to a job opening on a job portal.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

During each phase of change in my life, whether it was changing study streams or careers or jobs, there were some challenges 

  • Challenge 1: “Deciding to take the step” – For any change to happen, the transition from ‘thinking’ about making a change to ‘deciding’ to make the change is probably the most difficult. But if one is convinced and learns to listen to the ‘inner voice’, then the taking the risk becomes easier
  • Challenge 2: “Following through” – It is important to follow through on your decisions with actions. Break down what needs to be achieved into smaller steps and be focused and disciplined towards achieving them one by one

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently working with L’Oreal as the South Asia CMI (Consumer & Market Insights) Lead for their Research & Innovation function since November 2019. My primary job is to gather and collate consumer and market understanding, translating the knowledge into insights, disseminating it and aiding the process of innovation. This role is similar to my previous role at Emami. However, the scope is broader i.e. I look after the work for different countries here (India, Indonesia and Thailand) as opposed to only India previously. And currently all of my work aids the innovation process as opposed to the marketing process previously.

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Skill sets required for a CMI job are curiosity about humans and society, observational skills, data analysis & ability to synthesize and interpret large volumes of data, eye-for-detail, communication & story-telling skills, etc. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day will involve identifying the gaps in consumer & market understanding based on discussions with various internal stakeholders, working with market research agencies to collect consumer & market understanding based on data, and share the insights reports, as well as discussing findings and insights with internal stakeholders in context of innovations being worked on, exchanging results with other CMI colleagues across the world, trend-spotting, etc.

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love about my job is the opportunity it brings me to know more about the world and what it needs, the constant exchanges with my colleagues which ultimately helps to contribute towards the launch of meaningful products.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work benefits society by ensuring that meaningful & sustainable beauty products are launched in the market.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

One memorable work that is close to me is from my fresher days. I was working on a project for a telecom client. The objective of the project was to determine the ideal mobile phone that a rural consumer wants. Those were the days of feature / non-smart phones, and mobile phones were yet to percolate into the rural parts of the country.

I got to travel to remote villages in UP and Karnataka. What impressed me was the simple, happy quality of life the villagers enjoyed inspite of so many difficulties. And how, contrary to popular opinion, they were smart, enterprising and very articulate about their needs & wants even with respect to a relatively unfamiliar product such as a mobile phone. 

This project really highlighted to me the importance of directly speaking to consumers and figuring out their underlying needs, and how my work helps a company in unearthing these needs.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is important to build a career around what you like or are passionate about. This leads to a long-lasting and enriching professional life.

And it is ok if your interests change or evolve over time. What is important is to ensure that you adapt or mold your career accordingly.

And yes, you will meet with several failures along the way, but try to figure out alternative ways and keep hustling.

Future Plans?

(Will skip answering this question as it may have a bearing on my current job. 😊)