Grab’s Asha Gourinath on why it’s time for brands to re-evaluate their messaging


Asha Gourinath, Grab’s lead for digital marketing, CRM and growth markets in South East Asia, who is set to be the chair for The Drum’s Digital Advertising Awards APAC, discusses how she’s led her team through the recent, difficult months of lockdown and recession.

What’s it been like running the digital marketing team at Grab, while dealing with all the sudden changes of recent months?

These are quite challenging times. The business has had to evolve, given changing consumption and demand patterns. There are also always debates about how we go about creating savings and efficiencies; should we cut marketing expenses or something else? Should we go ’dark’ or should we continue spending?

It’s important to be present for your customers. It’s also a good time to be spending on advertising; if your competitors are ’going dark’, you can get premium ad placements and slots they might otherwise have taken. It’s a good time to figure out how to get the most from your spend and it’s a good time to increase your extra share of voice.

By maintaining or increasing advertising budgets as your competitors ’go dark’, I also feel like it’s a great time for brands everywhere to evaluate how we reframe our messaging. How do we still stay relevant to our customers? Maybe there needs to be more empathy in our communications, given that there are so many negative news stories about – they’re the only thing you see while you are gorging on media.

Has empathy featured in Grab’s marketing strategy of late?

It’s in the small things. For example, our USP has always been ride-hailing or food delivery. It’s about how we also adapted and evolved in time, right before the pandemic came into place. I don’t think we ever had contactless deliveries or hygiene precautions before – but providing your passengers with hand sanitizers or ensuring that your drivers feel safe is important.

Another example was the huge rush for restauranteurs who were, like all of us, forced to work from home in the first weeks of the pandemic, alongside their kids. We tried to marry the two business problems for our consumers, as well as our merchants on the restaurant chain for food delivery.

That’s why we partnered with Google on an AI solution where we got kids to start doodling food items. We had 10,000-plus drawings, which we would then upload to train the AI to come up with a system to recognize the things on our menu. And then we made a campaign out of it, even with the limits on shooting. We selected kids from within the scheme who then came up with our first advertising campaign. It was all done in-house. It was a great way of seeing how we could, via media consumption habits in real-time, solve that problem and come up with one of our most cost-efficient ad campaigns. We got a lot of word of mouth and PR out of it.

We were simply saying: ‘So if your kids could draw anything, you draw this, and we will get it for you.’ They would then draw and upload it, and then it gets delivered. At the same time, it helped us shape-up demand even for the merchants, who were struggling. It‘s about trying to marry data insights and at the same time, find a solution to the question: if this was your main brand messaging, how do you reframe it to be relevant at this time?

So where did the insights come from that actually drove that campaign?

The insights for this particular campaign were actually from the partnership that we had with Google. It was a Google AI product that highlighted that this was a business problem after we shared out data with them. We needed a tech partner with whom we could collaborate, and that’s how the partnership came up.

We’ve seen such a sharp rise in the use of online and e-commerce strategies, what are the longer-term lessons you have learned?

We were looking at our marketing and at our vertical for groceries and item delivery. This was an area which was growing in certain markets, even before the pandemic, but when the pandemic hit, it became even more relevant [to the business]. And that’s when we had to speed up our operations and try to see how we could help cater to that particular user base.

Logically, I’m sure all of us have been talking about mobile marketing or mobile-first for years now. That’s what we talk about. Probably this pandemic has actually become the year where mobile and internet trading finally arrived.

Historically, when people experienced the internet for the first time, it was probably on a desktop. This is probably the first time, because all of us are stuck at home, that we’re spending more time on a mobile screen. In the past when users did research on mobile, it was never the place where conversions would happen. Businesses like us nowadays are spending so much screen-time on mobile as people are stuck at home. It’s a great alternative.

You have to innovate and adapt. So say, for example, if the restaurant was in one corner [of the city], maybe the customer was always restricted to a three-kilometre radius right? The delivery would only happen there. Right now, even if you were 15 kilometres away, the delivery can still happen from your favourite restaurant, because earlier, you could just drive over or just go. But now, given the restrictions, maybe you can’t. So you have to readapt the way you’re working and the way you’re thinking to reach that last mile. These are more-or-less the changes that all of us have adapted to, in terms of how we’re working to be relevant during this.

What would you offer as one takeaway as to how you think digital advertising is evolving, especially when it comes to the use of data?

There’s a lot of emphasis on data, right, because there will always be this pressure where they want to understand ‘What’s the ROI reading?’ That is huge when there is a surge in demand in some verticals. Maybe in some verticals, it isn’t right, depending on the market and the dynamics and the regulations. Data does give you a directional sense, not just from a business perspective, but even from the media ad slots you’re buying or in terms of the consumption patterns, or the customers, or what is their interest that they’re looking into.

We do have to look at the life cycle journey of the users and at the same time marry that with the data points on how we want to tweak or come up with a particular campaign or business idea to ensure that we are headed in the right direction. When it comes to digital marketing, it’s very important to then experiment and test out things to figure out what’s working or what doesn’t work, because what probably worked earlier may not necessarily work in the current scenario. It’s about adding data and having a clear use-case, which is tied on to your business objectives to ultimately see how we are reaching the right mind to then prove your ROI and work.

Do you think the data what was relevant six months ago before the pandemic is still relevant now?

It really depends on the business and the data points you want to use, especially in digital marketing, data points are evolving on an ongoing basis. It’s not just about historical data.

A customer has different likes; maybe I was listening to a particular band, which was heavy metal. Last month, I was totally into it, but probably this month I’m only listening to hip hop. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t listen to heavy metal anymore. It really depends on how we slice-and-dice the data. And ultimately, what is the key takeaway or input or action that you want from me? I’m maybe listening to hip hop, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in food. So, it’s multiple varieties of options, right? Be-it cuisine-related or entertainment-related because many times we, as marketers, have these assumptions that he-or-she likes this particular cuisine, maybe they’re not going to try this, or maybe let’s try showing them the same thing.

It also depends on your creative strategy. Maybe you could show multiple options and let the customer decide rather than us zooming by data patterns. Data helps us in coming up with a great manifesto and curating certain testing strategies, but ultimately it’s about how great or brilliant your campaign messaging was and how relevant your brand is. And ultimately, if people are loyal to you, if your customers keep coming back, that is a great thing, which stays long term.

As finally, as chair of The Drum Awards for Digital Advertising APAC, what will you be looking for when casting your eye over the entries this year?

First of all, it’s an honour to even be part of this jury. I’m quite excited because this will be quite challenging and dynamic versus any other year and it’ll be really interesting to see what kind of submissions or entries we received from advertisers and brand marketers within the region. How they have innovated, and what have they done differently to still be relevant during those times and all of those amazing results. It’s a great forum to learn and share and replicate those ideas with a broader audience. Many people might say; ‘Okay, this has been so challenging.’ A lot of people might say; ‘we don’t want to be associated with any awards’, or ‘there’s nothing to show’, but the ones who do, we should appreciate them. To see those out-of-the-box ideas, what have they done so differently? Why not share it with the rest of the world?

To enter The Drum’s Digital Advertising Awards APAC, visit the dedicated website.



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