Mainak Dhar: Marketer by day, author by night

General Mills India managing director Mainak Dhar’s latest non-fiction book on marketing, ‘Brand Shastra’, will hit the book stores this month


Mainak Dhar says social media converted the old-school, one-way marketing into an open and interactive space. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Mainak Dhar says social media converted the old-school, one-way marketing into an open and interactive space. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

New Delhi: From helming a consumer products company to keeping the writer in him alive, General Mills India managing director Mainak Dhar has a lot to juggle.

At the Indian unit of General Mills Inc., he is busy charting ways to expand brands such as Pillsbury atta, Häagen-Dazs ice creams and Nature Valley granola bars; by night he is a writer who already has 15 books to his credit.

His latest non-fiction book, titled ‘Brand Shastra.’ which hit the book stores this month, distils some of the core principles of marketing he follows and shows how their application in everyday situations can bring about transformation.

This is Dhar’s second book on marketing after ‘Brand Management 101.’ which he wrote almost a decade ago. He’s also dabbled in fiction.

“Brand Shastra revolves around how the core of marketing is people, evoking emotional reactions and influencing them. It is not strictly a business book,” Dhar said. “Marketing is actually a fairly sophisticated science. Done well, it is about creating consumer connection and if done badly marketing is just a hustle to sell something.”

Marketers are continuously trying to change consumer behaviour—either pushing you to brush twice a day or asking you to start using disposable diapers, said Dhar, who has been with General Mills for over two years.

An Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad alumnus, he started his career with Procter & Gamble Co., where he spent 15 years handling different markets and product categories.

Dhar has worked on brands such as Head & Shoulders, Rejoice and Pantene, among others. At one point, he was handling every market in Asia as well as Australia. This diverse experience helped him in understanding various cultures and how people think in different countries.

Dhar recalled how the Pantene’s best-selling variant, hair fall control, was created because consumers in markets like India and Indonesia tend to oil their hair regularly which leads to accumulation of dirt and leads to hair fall. The formulation of the shampoo had to be different in those markets.

“This taught me to scale the company by finding local opportunities,” said the 42-year-old marketer, who is fascinated by how social media has disrupted marketing.

Social media, he believes, converted the old-school, one-way marketing into an open and interactive space. Consumers are now empowered and can react to a brand’s advertising in real time. Marketers have to now look at conversing and building a relationship with them.

“Social media is a big equalizer, it gives the same voice to a young consumer as well as a multi-billion-dollar enterprise,” he said.

His advice to brands dealing with a crisis is to stay authentic as an evolved, digital-savvy consumer can easily see through a standard corporate message. Speed and agility are of utmost importance in such situations.

“Champion brands in a digital age are those who own up, respond and are not defensive in their attitude,” he says.

For somebody who has spent a long time building international brands, Dhar’s personal choice for the most iconic brand is Brand India, which he feels is also extremely under-leveraged. It is for this reason that he chose to return to the country and contribute to putting India on the world map by building a strong company, connecting to the local community and honing talent.

Talking about emotional connect with brands, he recalls having grown up with Old Spice, an American male grooming brand, introduced to him by his father.

“During my college days, I remember going to a shop to buy Old Spice and the shopkeeper tried selling me some other brand. My reaction was so emotional. I only wanted Old Spice. I believe the strongest brands are those which can evoke such emotional reactions and memories,” said Dhar who is also a fan of Taj Group of Hotels, known for its personalized service.

With a demanding career in marketing, Dhar has to struggle to find time for writing, a hobby which he claims brings him “absolute joy”. He started writing books regularly to honour the promise he made his mother when she was diagnosed with cancer.

To him, she was not just a pillar of support but also his first ever literary agent. “She used to take me to different publishers when I started writing. I lost her to cancer in 2001 and made her a promise that I would at least write one book a year,” he said.

As a student of economics at Delhi University, he wrote a couple of books on economics. His first novel ‘Funda of Mixology’ was published in 2008 after which he continued writing thrillers—Zombiestan, The Alice in Deadland Series and The Chronicler of the Undead.

Along with Brand Shastra, Dhar’s new thriller novel 03:02 has also been published and he’s busy promoting both books. At work, Dhar is busy with portfolio expansion in categories like choco spread, food mixes, and innovation in cake mixes, among others.

His larger focus is on getting the right talent and reinforcing marketing capabilities at General Mills India. One of the initiatives that the company has introduced is Chalo Bazaar, which sees each employee across departments go to the market to help the frontline sales force. Clearly, Dhar doesn’t just write about marketing, he walks the talk.

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