Sami Qahar – ‘Sab Kuch, Sach Much’

Symbolizing Haleeb Foods' Brand Slogan to the T

Author: Fatma Khalil - Chief Editor

Meet ace marketer & shrewd brand analyst by profession and an avid film critic & sports fanatic at leisure, who pens downs his writings on the most renowned publications of the country that make for both emotionally & analytically appealing reads.

 Sami Qahar – Head of Marketing at Haleeb Foods is an FMCG marketing guru who brings over 15 years of experience with global giants like Nestle, Mondelez and Henkel to the table.

 Also, co-founder of Marketing Phir Say, he interestingly aims to bridge the gap between what we learn at the business school and what actually happens in the corporate world.

 An IBA grad and a keen learner for life, he is on the verge of acquiring a doctorate in Business Psychology from Strathclyde University, Glasgow as we speak. For someone as studious as this, it certainly comes across as a pleasant surprise to see how any day his dry, sarcastic humor is his strongest quotient.

 Whitepaper lately had the chance to relish in the jovial company of Sami Qahar and this is how our exchange turned out to be…

  1. What was your journey like to get where you are at this point? 

One thing I knew from the beginning is that I am going to be a marketing guy and that’s not something I’m trying to create out of nothing. I wasn’t intelligent or hardworking enough to be a doctor; engineering never fascinated me so now that I look back in hindsight I still remember the advertisements of that time! I’m sure a lot of other people do too, but my recall probably is higher than the usual. So I can safely say I was destined to be a marketer and that’s just how I ended up being what I’ve managed to be so far.

Obviously there’s a lot of design behind it, not a default setting. After having graduated from IBA, I started my first job at Interflow – was a passionate start as I believed in what I was doing and while working on Unilever account I realized that the pinnacle of marketing is still FMCG brand management and not any other.  Luckily for me, an opportunity to manage the brand Tang came about at Mondelez. They liked me apparently so I moved there. A bigger opportunity then came in Lahore and I became Brand Manager at Milkpak which back then and still is the largest UHT milk brand in the country.

Then came Henkel – 7.5 years in middle east changed my life and completely transformed my journey, more so because in 2011 I moved to sales from marketing. Those 4 years that I spent in sales, actually was a great humbling learning experience. I aged faster though. The age gap between me and my wife was one year. By the time I completed my sales assignments at Heinkel, it became 5 years! She grew younger, I grew older. The learning curve then became flatter and my urge to go back to marketing emerged afresh. The UAE and even the European regions are very sales-oriented and not very pro-marketing. Real marketing is what we do here in India & Pakistan. So it was only a matter of time that I came on board at Haleeb Foods as Director – Marketing in January 2018, up till now.  

  1. What are some challenges of leading the show in terms of brand innovation and promotion?

Multiple challenges I’d say. One would be managing the innovation funnel itself. I won’t say there aren’t as many ideas. It’s however the risk-averse brand management teams who are not very receptive to new ideas unlike the consumers who want innovation. So you see less-innovative and more me-too products coming to the market and that challenge remains. With Haleeb, we’ve tried to create blue ocean within the segments that are still very commodity-oriented and highly competitive and come up with products that can be differentiated from what we have.

Similar to what I did at Henkel back in the middle east but that was a bigger success story on a much larger scale and took a good 4 years where we could say we have hit success. At Haleeb, it has just started and is more like a project. It still is similar in a way that at Henkel we were market-driven by powder detergents and brought in liquid detergents completely creating a blue ocean segment within the laundry category. We started with 0% and got to 75% market share. So similar challenges are here – completely changing the mindset of people who are used to selling old products which have been successful in the market even though they might be declining.

Also, Haleeb is a smaller company compared to the industry giants – another similarity with Henkel. Product innovation is a long-term process and we are in the investment mode so eventually we’ll bring Haleeb back to the glory and with products that’ll resonate with the customers in the longer run. Haleeb had 52% market share back in 2005 so even if we achieve 1/3rd of that, it’ll be an achievement.

  1. Which campaigns are you most looking forward to this year?

I wrote an article for Aurora sometime back, in which I called PSL ‘the super bowl of Pakistan’. So generally, I am looking forward to what customized content companies and brands would bring during PSL as it’s just round the corner and we’d be doing something similar as well.

We partnered with Islamabad United last year and created a digital campaign; this time too we’ve teamed with Islamabad United – two times champion so we look forward to them being third time lucky. We want to obviously be on the winning side and we’re creating sports-related engagement for the consumers.

Then there’ll be Ramazan during World Cup Cricket so I don’t think there will be much content around that mainly due to the focus on Ramazan. I don’t want to see a barrage of cooking oil ads this Ramazan yet again. Hopefully something new and creative will come up. There’s a lot of excitement in the market, lots of good news, industries are growing, investment is coming in which is great for the media too as they’re going through a tough patch as of now.

  1. Which bold moves did Haleeb Foods make to beat the competition lately?

As I said we’re in the process of creating blue oceans within the same industries which are long-standing for eg. UHT milk or juices or flavored milk, so what could we do? We can only come up with a new me-too product as a marketer you have to differentiate in order to succeed or else it will be short-term.

 We’ve introduced Pakistan’s first & only Nutra Hygin Milk which is a combination of purity, quality & nutrition. Scientifically proven and endorsed by renowned nutritionists, it is quantifiable a claim of being higher or better than our competition on these parameters. Most importantly what’s crucial is to give a solid reason to the consumers to switch from what they’re currently using to Haleeb. So our idea is to offer a superior product v/s our competition. Hopefully it’ll resonate with the consumers.

 The other even bolder move was launching the 100-Rupee milk, Asli, in a record time of 90 days. Milk is getting more and more expensive. The loose milk in Karachi costs Rs.94 but you don’t know the source of it and its’ hygiene is questionable and you’re at a health risk that way. But then you can’t afford the Rs.135 packaged milk either. So we had to figure out a way to provide cheaper milk at par with any other decent milk brand in the country quality wise, if not Nutra Hygin Haleeb as that is a far superior quality. We compromised on our profits and offered a budget-friendly product to the consumer.

Asli is now 6 months old, its growing, doing well, especially in Punjab where another product called Dairy Drink is also in the market which isn’t real milk like Asli. It’s available at a very affordable price for customers to switch from the loose milk to a trusted, quality brand. It is a bold move on our part I say because of the thin margin of hardly any profit, at times even loss and in all these months of its launch and consumption in the market, no one else has introduced a product at this price which shows it isn’t easy.   

  1. Think 5 years ahead. What is the biggest, most exciting opportunity that will require another bold move from Haleeb Foods?

Our vision is much bigger now and we want to give consumers a one-window solution and industry alike for all their food-based needs. So what we are right now is a leading dairy beverage company but that’s not all as food is a much bigger industry, hence we aim to become 5 times of what we are in size, offering all kinds of food. We are working on lots of ideas; organic and inorganic gross plans and growth. There is expansion of current portfolios and entering into new categories too.

  1. Enlighten us on your recent association with Pakistan Digi Awards as one of its’ esteemed jury members.

It was quite a beneficial platform for me to be able to integrate myself back in the Pakistan market after coming back from the Middle East. It enabled me to understand the industries here and what was going on plus it was good to see emerging talents – small agencies doing a lot of digital work. The Jury of this year’s Digi Awards has been announced and I am glad to be a part of it yet again.

At Digi Awards
  1. Assuming there is only one job (leave aside Haleeb for a second) that you could apply for at this stage of your career, where would you apply and why?

My dream job would be to head the marketing department of Manchester United Football Club being a Man-U fan all my life and it’s a far-fetched dream! But it could possibly be somewhere local and I could be heading the marketing of PCB as I think they need a lot of revamp in their marketing strategy and also execution.

So my passion for sports and marketing put together is something that would make up for my dream job. Having said that, and at the expense of sounding superficial may I share how I am at a stage of my career where I am more interested in what kind of learning I’ll get from an experience. I’m acquiring doctorate in business psychology as of now and sooner or later would be looking at mentoring & training as a part of my career or probably as “the career” I’d ultimately have.

At the same time I keep writing – have recently written film scripts so that could be one way of changing my career path completely and getting into script-writing. Surprisingly at the age of 37, I’m at a very volatile stage of my career. While others are settling down and sure of what they want to do, I’m entering a very exciting phase where I can be whatever I want to be.

  1. Where do you look for inspiration to keep building the brand?

Considering my experience overall and how the industry has evolved, there are lots and lots of examples where small brands have become huge and sought-after brands. I have no qualms in admitting that some of the competition brands like Nestle Everyday or Oplers despite the deep pockets have managed to become leading household brands in Pakistan and also some of the local brands have done a great job – such as Tapal. Then there is the EBM story – where an empire of confectionery business has been created, which is amazing so I do look at all the other examples as I have a childlike curiosity to keep learning from inspirational brand building stories.

Burger King is one such example which always inspires me to do quirky eccentric work and create something afresh. Lately when I saw the work of Strepsils in Pakistan I was impressed how they have come back from a point where it was getting out of people’s minds, but its back now and doing a great job. An inspiration that brings a smile to me can even come from a team mate and I’d say “wow this is something new I learnt today!”

  1. What in your view are the three vital ingredients for a marketing campaign or a brand communication to work?

See firstly, let’s get this straight that our consumer has evolved and is far smarter than what as marketers we’d like to believe so let’s stop saying that consumers won’t understand, as its actually the marketers who’re dumb to not get it. I’m using harsh words, sorry. Hence, the first thing is to learn and understand the consumer and be open-minded towards that. Consumer today is a welcoming recipient to all kinds of newness & innovation.

Secondly, experiment. Don’t be like others. At max, you’ll fail; but consumer would still remember you for what you’ve tried.

Thirdly, let’s not forget business; we’re not here to make great artworks, we’re here to sell in the market so its important to have a clear business acumen and clarity of what we’re out here to achieve through our marketing communications. At times I see ads that may look great visually but have no idea what they’re trying to say. The main point missing is what should the consumer take home and must be relatable.

  1. The ads that has stayed with you from the 90s, the 2k and more recently? Why so?

All the 90s kids remember the Morven Gold’s ‘Rhythm of Unity’. There are lots of fathers of that communication as many people today say that they were behind it. Let’s not get into that though. That ad at that point was a grand, grand affair. And while several brands have tried repeating the formula but haven’t been able to achieve the same magic. 

From 2k, if I have to pick one I’d say the entire series of Ufone ads. Faisal Qureshi was behind the concepts, Ahsan Rahim was the director, and Shaani’s music. The best things was the frequency at which they were coming out one after the other, so to maintain the same quality and humor element, ad after ad for 10-12 years is both courageous and out-of-the-box.

  1. How did ‘Marketing Phir Say’ come about and what’s its’ stance today?

Marketing Phir Say is a product of two idol heads – my friend and I, who had spare time at hand and we kept watching all the content that was getting viral back then and said to each other, “why are we not doing something on these lines?” The trigger point was the Korean song ‘Gangnam Style’ that became all the rage and then there was another  Japanese one by the name of ‘PPAP – Pink Pineapple Apple Pen’ and I was like what are these guys doing to become such accidental viral sensations? We kept hearing how these guys have done great and we had good ideas too so we thought, might as well do something about it. 

Marketing Rapid Fire – Marketing Phir Say

Fancy classic marketing debates? Coke vs. Pepsi? BMW vs. Mercedes? Watch 'Rapid Fire' episode of #MarketingPhirSay covering age old and contemporary #marketing debates.PS: The views presented by both the participants are purely from marketing viewpoint, not taking into account any other factor.

Publiée par Marketing Phir Say sur Samedi 1 juillet 2017

 Then there was an observation as to what we are taught at business schools is very different from practical setting and how that shock value sinks in by the first 2-3 years of work life. We wanted to address this lag through Marketing Phir Say. So far we have shot 8 episodes in the first season. Time is an issue as we’re both in different cities and it’s difficult to shoot the second season.

 We’ve received overwhelming response. People have even given us some good ideas of how it can be bigger. So while we’re contemplating to shoot the next season, we’ve done small reviews such as the Azadi campaign and even collaborated with Ad Mad Dude at a point. We’re open to all the more such lucrative collaborations. In the longer run, we want to have events on ground to engage with business students and upstarts in corporate world and share our insight on how to bridge the gap between academics and real world.

  1. If you’re to deviate from your forte of years now – FMCG that is, what would it be and why?

Sports marketing as I said earlier and film marketing as Pakistani Cinema has the potential to really go big and films are what fascinate me most other than sports.

  1. What are you really into outside of work?

I am studying Business Psychology, PhD Program; that in itself is very demanding with a job where you’re working six days a week. Then I’ve recently completed a film script and am 30% done with the second one too by now. Previously I’ve written songs as well. I like keeping fit so I play different kinds of sports. I am an ardent follower of sports and cinema. I write film reviews too. My mind & body are both at high-energy and have got to be at some sort of work all the time; otherwise it’ll become a devil’s workshop and I don’t want that.

  1. When it’s all over, how do you want to be remembered?

We’re mortals and it is difficult to say that there’ll be a legacy that’ll follow once I’m gone but I’ve had this long-standing belief that selling milk and soap is not the objective of our lives so we have to do something bigger than that. My objective is that by the end of it all, when I’m leaving, if even one person outside my close-knit circle of family and friends declare how  some effort of mine managed to change their life for the better somehow, I’ll be so proud and it’ll make me really happy.

  1. Also, when’s Mani Ratnam filming your script? Kidding…

 Well, if that happens, it’ll be fantastic but I don’t think so. Also, his brand of cinema is very different from what I’ve written. What I’ve written is closer to Sriram Raghavan’s cinema or probably Anurag Kashyap’s but his films too are far darker than what I’ve written, so let’s see.

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