About the episode
For our first episode of On Call with Insignia Season 2, we had a chat with Manisha Seewal, Group Chief Marketing Officer of CARRO, Southeast Asia’s leading car marketplace. Our call was quite jampacked so we split it into two episodes — this first one covers her journey from corporate to tech startup, her philosophy when it comes to leveraging technology for marketing, and a case study on CARRO’s most recent initiative as Singapore’s first contactless car service. Our call was recorded 21 July 2020.
(1) [The reason] why I joined Carro was the way cars are bought and sold has not really changed much in the past 10, 20, 30 years. The way my parents bought their car is pretty much the same. But the idea is now with so much technology, how can we use the data that we’re collecting to really make this whole space more transparent and give the power back to the customer and come up with innovations?
(2) That was like my first hands-on experience of working with a startup company, seeing how tech can be used to acquire new customers, to shape the brand as well. Because Tokio Marine, as a brand, was feeling a little bit older compared to the rest. But a project like this suddenly made it a younger brand. We acquired a lot [of] younger customers. The customer acquisition costs came down significantly. We even use a chatbot to hire younger insurance agents. So the cost of hiring agents also came down.
(3) I actually looked up and I read about Carro and what they’re trying to do here. It just spoke to me. And I said, “Well, okay, if only Carro was there when I was changing those 10 cars, I wouldn’t be as frustrated as a customer as I was back in the days.”
(4) Marketing was really a luxury in the multinational world, but when I come to a startup…instead of feeling like you’re an employee, which you are in a multinational, in a startup, you have to run it like it’s your own, which it is…so I think the sense of ownership really changed for me, drastically, when I joined Carro.
(5) Another big change was that budgets are not pre-approved in a startup. But results are approved. It’s the reverse…”Can I achieve the same “wow factor,” the same business results without spending a single dollar or maybe spending as little as possible?”
(6) Okay, so technology is an enabler, but it’s great to keep a pulse on the ground to see what’s working, what’s not working…But to be honest, tech can only do so much. That’s what I’ve realized…In 2011, there were 150 MarTech tools available worldwide. This year from 150, it’s grown to 8,000 MarTech tools…Now my question is MarTech tools have grown 53 times. Has the efficiency of the CMOs grown 53 times in the past 10 years?
(7) Being at a startup is whenever we launch something brand new, which is like a first of its kind in the market, it’s almost like being thrown off an airplane with a parachute, but you have to assemble the parachute as you’re falling down. So I just realized that things cannot be perfect from the get-go. And I think as a marketing leader, it’s also a challenge that I face regularly where I have to empower my team to believe that it’s okay if you don’t know something when you’re launching it, just make the best-educated guess and let’s just roll with it.
1:00 Manisha Intro;
2:09 Manisha introduces Carro;
4:23 Manisha talks about her journey from corporate to startup;
11:07 Manisha talks about adjusting to startup culture (and budgets);
14:22 Manisha shares her philosophy when it comes to technology and marketing;
17:12 Manisha talks about launching Singapore’s first contactless car service;
Paulo: So for those who are not familiar with Carro and what you do, perhaps you can walk through, your role in Carro and what you do as a group CMO?
Manisha: Sure. So Carro is a five-year-old tech startup, Singapore based tech startup. And now we’ve grown the company to be Southeast Asia’s largest car marketplace. We’re already in four markets. So Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, as well as Malaysia. And, what sort of sets us apart we are actually using tech to enable the entire ecosystem of car ownership, which means everything from anybody wanting to sell their car, to buying a car, finance, insurance, workshop, maintenance, almost everything that you can think of. So that’s for the retail customers.
In certain markets like Singapore, we also operate in the private hire drivers space, where we give out cars for sale or for rental to the likes of say, Grab and Go-Jek drivers. So it’s really building the entire ecosystem for automotives that is really built on tech and some of the things that you mentioned earlier, Paulo, we’ve actually launched — we’re very thankful for this. We actually launched some of the leading innovations in automotive space.
I mean, the reason why, the reason that — I know you come to that question a bit later is why I joined Carro was the way cars are bought and sold has not really changed much in the past 10, 20, 30 years. The way my parents bought their car is pretty much the same but the idea is, now with so much technology, how can we use the data that we’re collecting to really make this whole space more transparent and give the power back to the customer and come up with innovations?
So I’ll speak a little bit more about some of the innovations that are done, but the ones that you mentioned like Netflix for cars, which is a car subscription service, usage-based insurance. And very recently we launched a contactless car purchase as well in Singapore, which is again, the country’s first.
So overall, as you can see the basis of the business is really tech-enabled. And we’re really here to change the future of car ownership.
Paulo: Yeah, thanks for that introduction. And I really think it’s interesting, you know, looking back at your career, just going through your LinkedIn, right? Like it’s, mostly been, insurance companies and then now you’re going into the car industry, right. So I mean, you alluded to it a bit earlier and maybe you can tell, like the bigger story, what’s the story behind you joining Carro and how was the adjustment like industry-wise?
Manisha: Sure it’s not a story I often tell, but I am happy to share it with you. So what happened is my last multinational that I was working at was in Tokio Marine. And I raised my hand for a project that I wanted to do, which was to launch the first chatbot. Now, interestingly, it was a project that nobody wanted to do. So when we asked IT — you know, in large corporations, right, it will go from IT, who wants to lead it, then customer service, who wants to lead it? Yeah, and everybody’s like, “Oh my God, what the hell is this project? And what if it fails?”
I could tell that you know, multinationals are not like startups. Their failure does come with its ramifications if I can say so to a certain extent, right. People do remember that. And I think I was bold enough to raise my hand to the CEO and I said, “Okay, you know what? I will do it,” because I could see that there was something interesting about taking something absolutely unknown and using it to acquire new customers.
So the business problem that we had was as an insurance company, we had a lot of older customers on our books and we were trying to attract the younger customers. I mean, the insurance business is all about risk management, right? So we wanted to balance it off to get the younger millennials or even people in their thirties or late thirties is also okay.
And this project came about where we had to tie up with a local startup company, a Singapore based startup company to launch this project together. And we launched it within three months, which is very, very fast for a multinational. I’m sure you can appreciate — Exactly. It was very, very fast. I mean, if I say that now, I think three months for Carro is super slow, but yes, for a large organization, it was very fast.
And I think that was like my first hands-on experience of working with a startup company, seeing how tech can be used to acquire new customers, to shape the brand as well. Because Tokio Marine, as a brand, was feeling a little bit older compared to the rest. But a project like this suddenly made it a younger brand. We acquired a lot [of] younger customers. The customer acquisition costs came down significantly. We even use a chatbot to hire younger insurance agents. So the cost of hiring agents also came down.
Yeah, and I loved this sort of a multi-disciplinary, or you could say a multi-department team. So there were representatives from somebody from customer service, someone from operations, product development, IT, and it was sort of my first hands-on experience on working with a tech company on the side, while also leading this sort of slightly old school bunch of — you know, group who wanted to launch something quickly and really go into the unknown. And when I did that project, it was very fulfilling for me, personally because not only did I grow professionally, but also I saw the team members getting a bit more comfortable with being uncomfortable, asking questions a lot more than they used to.
And when the success was measured, because, with any project of such limelight, it would be bound to have certain scrutiny that, “Okay. Yes, we launched it. Yeah, so what?” And that’s when I got into tracking the results very, very closely. So customer acquisition costs, you know, we also started gamifying within it, in a way to start simplifying a topic like life insurance. Life insurance is a very complicated topic. But we started to make it a bit more relevant, easy to understand, and create personalized reports for customers on their own protection gap, [which] means how much insurance gap do they have?
And that was [a] very interesting project for me. And, and I think from there — so that is where I had my first sort of experience in, “Oh, this is what it’s like to work with a tech company,” but on the other side is my love for cars. So that goes to something that speaks to my heart. So I have loved cars since I was a teenager.
I grew up in India. I learned driving when I was 13. So in India, as long as your legs, as long as your legs are long enough to reach the accelerator and the brake and the clutch, because everybody drives manual there, you are given the keys and, “Yeah, okay, you can just drive around and you can learn. And I learned it at a very young age and I loved it.
So I’ve genuinely had [a] love for cars. And when I came to Singapore, I don’t know whether you are aware of the Singapore car market, but cars are the most expensive in the world. So suddenly I could feel like all my dreams of having a nice car were sort of shattered, but then I — but I didn’t let it go. And I actually changed 10 cars in thirteen years. This is in Singapore.
So yeah, one of my — one of my very close friends, she had a joke [about] me. She said, “Manisha may not have a place to stay, but I think she will always have a car.” No matter, you know, what car it is, but it will be a car. Give me the cheapest car on the road, but it will be a car. So I always loved cars.
And because I changed 10 cars in 13 years, I went through a lot of, you know, experiences of selling the car directly to somebody. So I put up the car myself on the e-classifieds space. I would go from dealer to dealer trying to get the best price for my car. So I went through a lot of pain points. You can imagine, right? 10 cars in 13 years, how much […] I have gone through. And also being a woman, your experience is very different so I could feel that even though, you know, Singapore is so developed and so modern, but somehow this used car marketplace is just very backwards still.
You still have the same profile of people that you meet, they speak to you a certain way. You always feel uncomfortable going to dealerships. You always feel like “Am I getting conned?” And I felt that if only we could use more data to make this space more transparent, more trusted then I wish something could be done about it.
So when this opportunity came, I actually looked up and I read about Carro and what they’re trying to do here. It just spoke to me. And I said, “Well, okay, if only Carro was there when I was changing those 10 cars, I wouldn’t be as frustrated as a customer as I was back in the days.”
So yeah, that is really the absolutely true story of why I joined Carro. One is the experience I had with a tech startup in Tokio Marine towards my last couple of months there. And second is really my genuine love for cars since I was a teenager.
Paulo: Yeah, that’s a really great story. I mean, two things I took away from that is one Carro isn’t really your first sort of startup experience. You had that with Tokio Marine, and then two like you really came into Carro from a user perspective already, like you had experienced all of these things, you know, buying and selling cars yourself.
So going back to your experience with Tokio Marine and working with a tech start-up there and then transitioning to Carro. So was there any adjustment for you going into Carro, like being in a startup culture?
Manisha: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So, I mean, in a big company, the way marketing budgets are assigned, it’s a very regimental process. So we have X number of revenue we want to bring in and marketing is usually a certain percentage of the revenue that is assigned as, “Okay. This is my marketing costs,” and the budgets are pre-approved and then the onus is up to the head of marketing or the person who is leading marketing to figure out how they’re going to run certain campaigns to meet certain business objectives.
So the budget is pre-approved at the beginning of the year. Everything is good. In fact, I’ve had instances where I was questioned why I did not spend the marketing budget entirely. Yeah, because I would feel that it’s a waste, even if I spend it, it’s not going to do anything for business, but in a multinational, I would be questioned.
“Manisha, why didn’t you spend it? You know, you are given these — ” and money was quite a lot, a lot, lot more than a startup. You run millions of dollars in marketing budget.
But yeah, so marketing was really a luxury if you asked me, Paulo, in the multinational world, but when I come to a startup, I would say the mindset first has to change significantly. Instead of feeling like you’re an employee, which you are in a multinational, I think in a startup, you have to run it like it’s our own, which it is.
You should always think that. It is your company. The money that you’re spending is really your money. Would you really spend it if it’s yours? So I think the sense of ownership really changed for me, drastically, when I joined Carro and another big change was that budgets are not pre-approved in a startup. But results are approved. It’s the reverse. Exactly. So that was another big switch that happened. So I had to really keep on track with what are the results that you’re going to get and then see how much do we need to spend to get those results.
And the more we started doing this, the more everything — because everything that we spend is pretty much digital, a lot of real-time learnings that were coming in and we had to tweak and tweak and optimize and optimize. So really it was about speed, agility, having attention to detail, all about real-time tracking, things that I didn’t really have to worry about that much in a multinational.
Plus in a multinational, we would hire an agency on record. So, that agency will create these expensive marketing campaigns and over time, you know, you go and hopefully you would have been called for marketing awards if you did a very good job. If not, yes, we did a very good marketing campaign, I believe that and that’s it.
But for a startup, it’s the other way around. For me, it’s about, can I achieve the same “wow factor,” the same business results without spending a single dollar or maybe spending as little as possible. So again, that’s a huge sort of mindset change that happened when I joined Carro. So it has been a very interesting transition from an MNC to a startup. And it really starts by believing that every dollar that I spend is my own.
Paulo: Right. Right. And that sort of leads me to my next question. This mindset of trying to optimize, you know, get that “wow factor” as you mentioned from as little money as possible, where does technology come into that equation and what’s your approach to it, to marketing?
Manisha: Okay, so technology is an enabler, but it’s great to keep a pulse on the ground to see what’s working, what’s not working, are our customers responding, not responding, which messages are doing better, worse, which audience is converting, not converting. But to be honest, tech can only do so much.
That’s what I’ve realized. I mean, let’s look at MarTech platforms, right, or say MarTech tools. In 2011, there were 150 MarTech tools available worldwide. This year from 150, it’s grown to 8,000 MarTech tools. That is a 50 times growth. Now my question is MarTech tools have grown 53 times. Has the efficiency of the CMOs grown 53 times in the past 10 years? I don’t think so. What do you think, Paulo?
Exactly you see, so that’s my point. So technology is great as an enabler. Yes. It helps you slip certain things that are happening, but it can also confuse us very easily. It can also very easily deviate us from looking at things that matter. And that’s something that I also build a habit with my team is don’t look at the flashy charts and the fancy charts and the colorful things. Please look at your numbers and make sure that the numbers make sense. So technology is an enabler to get a pulse of how we’re spending, what’s working, what’s not working. But at the end of the day, it has a lot to do with how we connect the dots.
It’s a lot to do with the integration of different mediums of the different platforms that we’re using. And really Paulo, it’s really about using a bit more common sense, which I’ve seen sometimes marketers lack because we get so lost in looking at those fancy MarTech platforms and those MarTech platforms, they don’t even talk to each other. They’re not even integrated.
Yeah, very fragmented. Then you waste time. You’re logging into this. I’m logging into that. Sometimes their definitions are different, then it’s just confusing us a little bit more. So, I will look at technology as — or Martech with a pinch of salt. It’s an enabler, yes. It helps us get to market in speed, fast we can track, but the common sense still prevails.
Paulo: Yeah. Even in marketing using podcasts, right. Even within that small space for example, like just trying to keep track of everything, they use different metrics and, you know, you have to, as you said, login to different platforms. So I can definitely relate to what you just mentioned.
And maybe, could you concretize this mindset that you have that you’ve shared with your team when it comes to feeling really the pulse and getting on the ground when it comes to learning if a certain marketing strategy works or not, can you concretize that into like a specific campaign that you’ve run with Carro or this specific initiative that you’ve had with Carro?
Manisha: Sure. So, I can just give you an example of something very recently that we did. So we just launched Singapore’s first contactless car service which means essentially because of the COVID, customers do not want to meet anybody. And our whole challenge is okay, how can you rebuild the experience, such that if need be, the customer doesn’t have to physically meet a salesperson, a car salesperson ever again. So we actually re-engineered the entire customer experience.
So you go online, you browse the cars. Whichever you like you schedule a test drive. If you really like it from the time you schedule a test drive, until the time you’re browsing, we can get in-principle loan approval, even insurance can be settled. So when you do come over for a test drive, all the paperwork is taken care of.
So when you come for a test ride, the customer will receive an OTP on that very date due when he is in premise, which is triggered by the salesman who is sitting somewhere else. He is nowhere near the car. So you go in, and then there’s a lock there near the car and then you just key in the OTP. The lock will open up — it’s a digital lock — and inside is the car key.
So what the customer does is he takes his phone and then video calls the salesman. And then through a live chat, they will go through the specifications of the car. So be it the interior, the exterior, any questions around the mileage, who was the previous owner, your road tags, when is it expiring, et cetera, et cetera.
So they can do that. And then if they like the car, and the paperwork is approved, they can just drive the car away for three days, no questions asked, 150 kilometers or up to 150 kilometers, whichever is earlier. They can test drive the car. And if they like it, they get to keep it. If they don’t like it, they can return it to us, no questions asked. You can get another car from us.
So essentially we are making the test drive last for three days, which is unheard of, and these are all used cars. And within used cars, every car has its own inspection report, which you can find online. Again, very transparent. Plus all the cars come with a 30-day guarantee. Again, this is Singapore’s first. So if you look at this proposition, right, and I’ll come back to your question in just a little bit, if we look at this entire proposition, because it is so brand new, my team was very keen to start putting in, start using social listening tools. I will not mention brands, but yeah, I’ll leave it to you.
I was very keen to have. Exactly. Yeah. Social listening tools, because they were saying, “Yeah, but Manisha you know there’s so much noise happening around COVID and what if you know, we are not touching on the right pulse of the customer. We need to know what buzzwords people are using. Once we launch it, what if it backfires? What if some blogger writes something about us and then we don’t know about it?” And then I just told them, “No, this is unnecessary.” So they wanted to go back to the whole MarTech tools right that will help them navigate this uncharted space better.
I mean, they were coming from a good place, but again, back to the philosophy that I shared, right, technology is just an enabler. We need to keep a pulse on the ground. So what we did is I told them, “No, of course, we are not going to sign up for any social listening tools. Instead, there are two ways that we can do it inexpensively.
A, if you want to know, if Carro is mentioned, just set up a Google alert, right? It’s free. You will know that…” then they were, “Ah, okay,” they were quite disappointed. “Two, if you are really so interested in knowing what the customers are saying, just either listen to their calls, right? Customer calls, you can listen to them.
When they’re speaking to the customer service rep [or] when they’re making an appointment. You can listen to the calls and you can figure out what is their apprehension to come for a test drive and we can create content around how to overcome that plus we can tweak the experience, so they have more confidence in seeing the car.”
So we did that. We started listening to some of the customer calls. Plus we also started logging into our own CRM system. To see where the tickets are, where the leads were coming from, because you must understand we were not spending — almost nothing on marketing.
Cause when we launched — yeah, it was purely earned media-driven. So it was purely public relations that was driving it. So we were still keen to see, okay, what is the volume of leads that come in? The moment it drops to a certain level is when we will go and push out a little bit more on maybe Facebook or Google, whatever social media marketing you want to do.
And again, they were keen on using certain tools to see what works, what doesn’t work. I said, “No, if you want to know which proposition works. Just create three different images of the proposition. Okay. And just push it all out together. It’s inexpensive to do your AB testing.
You can just figure it out. If not, push all three together, the Facebook Business Manager, the insights will tell you which performed, which didn’t perform. Why do you need to spend?”
And then they were, “Ah, okay.” And then eventually that’s how we learn. So one of the things I’ve learned, also in being at a startup is whenever we launch something brand new, which is like a first of its kind in the market, it’s almost like being thrown off an airplane with a parachute, but you have to assemble the parachute as you’re falling down. So I just realized that things cannot be perfect from the get-go.
And I think as a marketing leader, it’s also a challenge that I face regularly where I have to empower my team to believe that it’s okay if you don’t know something when you’re launching it, just make the best-educated guess and let’s just roll with it.
So I think back to the example that I shared, right? So again, technology is an enabler. And it’s just about using existing tools, smartly, not always paying for things that create fancy charts and B, if you really want to know the pulse off the ground [or the] pulse of the market, listen to the customer’s phone call, ask them for feedback after they have, you know, visited us, you can do that very easily.
Go to the CRM system, figure out where the leads came from. If you’re spending everything as a UTM tag, just look at it and you’ll know what’s working and what’s not working. I’m somebody who is very diligent when it comes to spending on marketing. As much as possible. If I can get traction and the wow factor by earned media, or by the virality of the topic, I would rather go with that because anyway, there’s more word of mouth that it generates compared to advertising.