Q&A with StarHub CMO Howie Lau: A marketer’s most important quality is the ability to listen

Howie LauHowie Lau is just over a year into his job as the chief marketing officer of Singapore mobile, broadband and pay-TV firm StarHub, having joined the company after a long spell at Lenovo in the summer of 2015.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Lau, who is giving a presentation at the All That Matters conference in Singapore this week, talks about how StarHub is working to improve the customer experience, how his marketing budget is being restructured, and the biggest challenges he faces in the year ahead.

You’ve been with the company for one year and two months. How have things changed from where you’re sitting since then?

From a customer stand point, I would say that over the last year, the speed of change has continued to increase. A year ago we didn’t have Pokemon Go, and the likes of [online delivery brand] Deliveroo and [cab-hailing app] Uber were not as prevalent. With that in mind, it’s important for us not just to be able to keep up, but find new ways of engaging customers.

What do you see as your biggest challenge as CMO of StarHub?

Keeping the relationship and conversation going with the customer, as expectations change rapidly. The way we engage with the customer has to continually evolve and we have to keep exceeding those expectations.

As consumers, we now have more information than we can process, more options that we can choose from, and less time. So in that scenario, how can StarHub ensure that we know our customers enough without being creepy and yet being able to engage them enough without being intrusive? That’s a fine balancing act.

What KPIs do you have for the end of the year?

There are two broad areas – the effectiveness and efficiency of [marketing] spend, and making sure we have the right mix. We look at it like a golf grip. You shouldn’t hold it too tightly or too loosely.

You need some level of connection to business results, but not to the point where you’re saying, for example, this event has generated 200 leads for me, can you prove that every one was effective? That would be holding the grip too tightly, as we know it doesn’t work that way.

Reception desk as StarHub

StarHub’s reception desk

Singapore is not exactly famous for its customer service, as a recent study by Accenture found. But StarHub has been among the frontrunners for customer service delivery in Singapore. How has the company been working to improve the customer experience?

The good thing is that the focus on customer experience is something that has been ingrained at the company. I’m one year into this job. One of the deciding factors for me joining was when I went to the StarHub shop to get a line renewed, and the customer service lady said, ‘would you mind if I took a look at the rest of your account?’ She gave me a recommendation that saved me about S$15 a month. I walked away happy because I spent less than I originally planned to.

As I joined the company, I realised that there was a lot being done behind the scenes to improve customer service, and as you and I know expectations for customer service in Singapore continue to rise.

It wasn’t long ago that if you sent an email to a company and received an automated response saying they’d get back to you in five working days, you were pretty happy about it.

But today, that doesn’t work anymore. When you post a comment on Facebook, you expect to get a response almost immediately. For us, to focus on the customer journey is not just a differentiator, it’s a necessity.

If someone comes into the StarHub shop looking for broadband, they’re not really looking for broadband, they’re looking to stay connected, and they’re looking for news and entertainment. When you understand that mindset you can start thinking about how to improve the different touch points to deliver what the customer is looking for and, at the very minimum, give them a pleasant experience along the way.

What’s your sense of how healthy brand StarHub is at the moment (StarHub recently released its second quarter earnings report, revealing single-digit revenue growth)?

We track brand health and it’s been positive – and very much in line with what we’re hearing from customers. As a local brand – we’re a Singapore company, and our mandate very simply is to be hyper local to serve Singaporeans. And that keeps us very focused on what we need to be.

The brand has not been built over night. Over 10+ years the brand has developed a certain persona. There is an association with happiness, and supporting the less fortunate is something the company does well naturally.

Every time we do something CSR related, the amount of enthusiasm we get from StarHubbers to participate is overwhelming. It’s never a case of having to prompt people to volunteer, for instance for 120 people who volunteered to shave their heads for [children’s cancer charity] Hair for Hope. It’s a natural energy that comes from our folks that is part of the company ethos.

StarHub hair for hope

So what is StarHub’s brand purpose? And can that be measured and tied to a business objective?

This is an interesting question marketers have been asking for many years. Everyone intuitively knows that a brand is important, but how do you measure a brand against a business result? What’s most important is that there’s a fundamental belief that it’s not just about going out there and delivering a P&L. It’s also about what the company represents to the community. A lot of people ask me about ‘Majulah Moms’ [the film StarHub launched around National Day last month] and what we got out of it, as there’s just a small red logo at the end of the film.

My response is, being a local company, it is natural for us to want to celebrate National Day, and this is us just saying, we’re here to celebrate with the rest of Singapore, and we’ve made this film based on an insight we had into Singapore mothers.

Can we measure in a straight line that the little logo is generating ‘X’ ROI? No. But the film generated 2.6m views – more than last year’s 2.5m views for Home by Homes [StarHub’s SG50 National Day film].

And also more than the 2014 National Day film, which celebrated local businesses.

We simply believe that making films like this is fundamentally important for the business.

The theme behind ‘Majulah Moms’ was inclusivity and racial harmony. Can you give us some insight into the brief that you gave to your agency, DDB, for this project, and what you wanted to get out of it?

We work very closely with DDB, they’ve been an excellent partner for about a decade. We appreciate not just the work they do, but the heart they bring to it. The work is the result of our teams coming together and thinking about what we need to do more of, how we can improve, and which products we need to focus on.

At the same time, we’re looking for new insights. For instance, we ran a joint TVC with Apple around the iPhone 6. The idea came from an article about dementia being a growing challenge for an ageing population like Singapore’s. We found that this was an insight we could use to explain what technology really is for. The ‘Memories’ ad [which is about a man called Kevin who recreates memories for his father Philip, who has Alzheimer’s disease, with an iPhone 6] is not about connectivity or even the phone, it’s about creating memories.

A few weeks after Kevin and Philip shot the video, we hear that the father didn’t recall any of it. So if you think about it, it’s this sort of stuff that really makes a difference.

The ideation for Majulah Moms was around inclusiveness; how do we celebrate inclusiveness in Singapore, because so many people in Singapore come from somewhere else. We have a very creative team inhouse and they work well with DDB. Somehow when they come together, they gel and the music is right, the pace is right and the tone is right.

What are the things that you expect most from your agencies?

An understanding of the business, and sharing the passion we have for the customer. It’s not easy to measure, but that’s what we look for. As a company, we believe a lot in partnerships. Having a partner is not just about a contractual agreement, it’s having someone who truly understands who we are as a business, our culture and what we are trying to represent to the customer.

When we write a brief, they need to understand the short-hand of the brief, and understand its implied meaning and context so there’s no room for confusion. Marketers always want to have a good honest conversation with the agency, but that doesn’t happen all the time. I think we have that understanding with DDB because of the years we’ve been together.

What areas of the StarHub brand need strengthening? What are its areas of weakness?

There’s still a lot that needs to be done. The brand is build on a relationship and if you neglect it, it drops off very quickly. The brand is in good shape, but it’s about what else we need to do to continue building it, and sustaining it.

It’s not about blasting out a messages anymore, it’s about creating a conversation. ‘Majulah Moms’ and ‘Memories’ started a lot of conversations, and we want to start more, backed by the overall brand theme of happiness.

It’s a tough economic environment out there. What are your plans for your marketing budget?

A marketing budget is not a function of quantity, it’s how and where you spend it. The good part is that we’re fortunate enough to have a strong data foundation to give us insights into where and how people are consuming. It allows us to be more targeted compared to some brands that need to buy data in.

We actively measure the effectiveness of spend. The struggle is that technology moves so fast, and there’s a risk that marketers get bamboozled by technology as there are a lot of fancy tools and terms thrown at you.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in playing with tools and mucking around with data. The most important skill a marketer needs is the ability to listen. If you don’t listen, then you don’t understand and you can’t engage.

The real test of marketing is, is it reaching the customer with the intended message? Singapore is small country, so we know very quickly whether or not a message is cutting through, whereas regional players have to look at reports coming out of India or China to see what’s happening. Even then, they don’t get a really accurate sense of effectiveness. In Singapore, if a campaign works it works.

How is your marketing budget changing?

We have been moving more money to digital, but not all of it. Singapore is a unique market. We still get a lot of reach from the Saturday [print] ads [in the Straits Times] and out of home. We take a mixed approach with our spend.


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