WATCH NOW: 5 Key Strategies Young Brands Adopt for Sustainable Growth: Observations by Sneha Ullal Goel

Ever since the lockdown started in India, there was a sharp increase in the number of live video interviews, webinars and online discussions – brands needed to keep moving, people needed to be heard and businesses needed to continue selling. Amid the chaos, one short format series of interviews caught our attention. Presented as a series of five posts on Instagram, the series offers a very raw, honest and powerful perspective of young businesses – their stories, the challenges they face, and the inward journey that each one takes to push forward.

The creator of this series, Sneha Ullal Goel, is a marketing and communications specialist with an astute understanding of design trends, architecture and sustainability. What started as a content experiment, channeling a love for local, sustainable handmade labels, is slowly and steadily initiating extended conversations for the brands she interviews. In conversation with Samira Pillai, Sneha talks about the series, why she chose Instagram and the insights she gained through the interviews. 

What is the story behind #TheFaceBehindTheBrand: A Story in 5 Posts? How did you think of speaking to homegrown, handmade, sustainable labels?

My interest in the locally, sustainably made and handmade started very young – that is largely thanks to my family, who believed in making the things they consumed from scratch, or buying from people and resources they had full faith and trust in. In this day and age, it can be challenging to still follow this ideology of being so self-reliant and stubbornly “vocal for local” – I’m still trying to stick to that.

Ever since I was in school, my mum, sister and I would scout for khadi and cotton materials, hyperlocal ingredients and ceramics from handloom exhibitions that used to be organised twice a year at Bandra Reclamation in Mumbai. That interest translated into a passion for scouting good design and discovering promising upcoming talent when I lead editorial ELLE DECOR.

Now too, in my current full-time role as a marketing communications and customer experience specialist for the flagship project at Godrej Properties, one of my responsibilities – and best part of my job – is to facilitate collaborations with small independent businesses and brands, especially those who employ and empower communities from financially challenged sections of society (this includes weavers, craftspeople, artisans and people from the supposed lower social strata, who have found a means to earn a living and support their families).

#TheFaceBehindTheBrand puts the spotlight on the passionate people behind homegrown, handmade, design skewed, sustainable Indian labels, presenting their journey, their agony, their story. Currently, it’s a short-format interview series on my Instagram (@RoneleaGybir), through posts and stories only, and hopes to present a no-holds-barred perspective of Indian entrepreneurship in India, and also hopes to encourage support for these brands in all forms – through collaboration, amplified marketing and community engagements.

#TheFaceBehindTheBrand honestly happened as a content experiment of sorts. When the pandemic broke out and we plunged into lockdown mode, my Instagram feed was cluttered with too many live video sessions that seemed intriguing at first, but some were fleeting and neither insightful nor inviting conversations – this especially at a time when there was a void for thought leadership and solutions that would help, for instance, SMEs and local brands that had all their manufacturing, orders and deliveries come to a grinding, unfortunate halt.

After speaking to a few brands about their concerns at a time like this, it is obvious that I had to start this as a simple short format interview series, that’s an open platform, easy to consume and is a ready reference for people who want to collaborate or even follow in the interviewee’s footsteps. The timing and the space (Instagram posts and not lives or videos) seemed just right.

I’ve always wanted to create non-self-aggrandising content that inspired interaction and conversation, without funnelling the focus on me. So why not share the stories of the people who need the support they can get, who can jumpstart their business because of a collaboration or a unique partnership?

What started out with featuring  hard-working friends running small authentic, homegrown businesses and passionate people who’ve I worked with, who offer unique services (and each and every service is of course tested and researched as much as possible by me), is slowly evolving into featuring recommendations from people who’ve seen this as an opportunity to promote their business, for free.

How have you utilised Instagram as a ‘blog space’ to share your conversations with them?

I chose to do this interview series on Instagram for a few crucial reasons:  

  • Instagram is such an easy to consume visual medium. To be effective, it takes appealing imagery and a compelling caption. So with the format I was looking for – a story in five posts –  my work was cut out for me.
  • Secondly, as opposed to doing Live videos or any video format for that matter, the posts are easier to plan and schedule while also working full-time, without taking up too much time of the interviewee as well.
  • Third, it’s a (relatively) better, more convenient source of information and reference than IGTV – to read the content you can either access them on my highlights or simply scroll through my feed, whenever you’d like.
  • Lastly, the interview is either captured/recorded on email or through a phone conversation with me, because the questions are very specific it’s easier for them to frame their thoughts in these five posts.

While this is currently only on my Instagram, I’m open to evolving this into a bigger, more collaborative platform outside of it. It’s only been two months since I’ve been doing this, but I know it has potential to grow into a network that can help each other in all facts – from marketing and comms strategies to operations, funding and finances.

What is the typical interview process and how do you prepare for presenting online?

The brands and businesses I currently feature usually meet the following criteria:

  • That they have an authentic story and offer a unique product or service
  • That they’re an up and coming business, who could do with the free PR  
  • That they have roots in India and follow sustainable practices inside, out
  • That they give back to the society in some way – whether it’s through employment of communities from economically or socially challenged sections or by using recycleable or biodegradable materials, to name a few

I post a brand story twice a week – Friday and Sunday – every week. After the brand stories are up as posts, I repost as stories, interspersed with crowdsourced Q&A. These are then bundled as highlights so it can be accessed at any time.

While there are no technical aspects per se, I think maintaining a schedule, following basic visual guidelines, templates and consistency always helps. All of this not only helps reduce your time in planning and posting, but also helps build recall value. And of course, the more you post and the more consistently you post, the more eyeballs and hence more interaction you will get.

You have invited your audience to put up questions for the brand after posting the introductory story. What has been the most memorable / impactful outcome of the extended engagement?

So far, with the brands that I featured, it has helped increase traction to their Instagram page. A few people who saw the stories reached out to the brands/businesses directly to explore potential collaborations. For me, any kind of interaction to the posts and the questions that come in, is always a good thing – it reassures the brand that their product/service was worth their time, money and effort, and reassures me to keep at it. 

In your experience of speaking to these brands, what is the one thing that sets them apart from the big brands?

In my opinion, and what I’ve learned from working on the stories so far, there are two important characteristics that set them apart – their unique, one-of-a-kind service /product and that their story is authentic. We are drawn to brands that are not only relatable, but have a relationship, a conversation with you – which is key, if you’re a brand in a highly competitive sector.

I think it’s also important for brands to talk about how they’re giving back to the community and the environment in some way, as consumers are becoming slowly conscious of their consumption and buying behaviour, and are asking the right questions. The conscious movement is small, but it’s gaining strength…

What is the biggest challenge / hurdle young brands face and how do they typically overcome them?

For smaller, independent brands, it ranges from consistent access to capital, to struggle with procurement of material and resources. And with every brand, the solutions will vary of course.

From the conversations and the stories featured, I’ve learned that newer brands find a steady pace when they invest in the right collaborations, through vendors, product development and even through players in similar (or vastly different) spaces. At the end of the day, in order to survive, you have to learn to build each other up.

As a marketing and brand communications specialist, in your observation, what are some of the things young brands are doing right? What more can they do to enhance their impact in the market?

I love the fact that there’s thought and investment put into brand identity design, vision and purpose – they have to all go together well. Of course digital marketing is key to spread the word if your strategy is data-driven, but it’s the personal touches that matter – a personalised note along with an ordered package goes a long way and lends better recall, than a social media campaign ever would, no matter how viral or interactive.  

What is your continued vision for #TheFaceBehindTheBrand?

I haven’t thought too far ahead with what the future holds. For starters, I hope to change the name to something more original (suggestions are welcome!). For now, I hope it inspires people to support small businesses, and think twice before disregarding a product made by a social enterprise. And for entrepreneurs in the making, hope this gives them courage to take that first step, and to always be open to collaborating, because that is the future.

Last question, but one we value the most: how has #TheFaceBehindTheBrand impacted you personally?

There have been times I’ve re-evaluated my career so far just by listening to their stories, so to feed that remorse, I try to offer free professional services in return. However, I definitely have more respect for people who run social enterprises, non-profits and small businesses from their own home, and have managed to carve a niche for themselves, through thick and thin. It takes gumption and serious focus to realise your dream – and if I have any ounce of both, then I guess it’s a good thing.