Synergyzer: Please walk us through your journey in the field of marketing and your career path.
Waqas Azhar: To be brutally honest, it wasn’t a planned decision to be in marketing since childhood. While the innate capability, or let’s say, tendency, existed, I wasn’t a marketing person from an academic standpoint. I was a science student during my initial years of education.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, back in the day, people weren’t aware, and they followed a herd mentality. Many people of my age and experience landed their jobs and careers by chance as opposed to by design. One’s mentorship must be done based on aptitude: this is what you should be doing. But it didn’t happen this way. Once I did land in marketing, I realized that this is something that I really enjoy and where I can add value. Because many think that marketing entails content development, communication, and advertising. The key role of marketing is to drive sustainable business growth and recruit consumers in a way that they stay with the brand. So, I think when I focus more on growth, that is something I enjoy because one can see the results. Now, it has been more than 18 years that I have been associated with marketing.
Synergyzer: FMCG is really fast-moving. And, of course, we are talking about technology, data, and AI. How does technology fit into the puzzle of marketing?
Waqas Azhar: In marketing, wherever the intent is to build a brand and focus on sustainable growth, you will need technology. In the tech field, there is tactical Performance Marketing that takes center stage. It is important to strike the right balance between building Equity, building a Brand, and driving Conversions at the bottom of the funnel. In terms of pace, having worked in the FMCG sector for quite a number of years, nothing matches the pace of a tech company. Nothing matched the pace of Foodpanda when I joined. I used to think that because I work at a faster pace, I enjoy speedy work with competing deadlines.
But here, I feel like I am still lagging behind. Foodpanda offers dynamism owing to the data-driven nature of work, which makes decision-making extremely time-sensitive. We work in real-time at all times. For example, you have decided on something in the morning and have to implement it in the evening, watching its results. Either you’re building on it or reversing it, but the pace is unprecedented.
So essentially, I also push my team members to create an environment where people are enjoying themselves because if you go towards a work-life balance, it needs to be an immersive thing. If you are stuck to 9-5, you’re probably not enjoying yourself and only focusing on the clock. But if you create a culture and work environment that we enjoy, you enjoy yourself. We don’t enforce any specific time. People sometimes check in late and stay till late. Many times, they work from home, but we ensure there is no compromise on our work.
Synergyzer: There are a lot of food delivery services today. How does Foodpanda differentiate itself from other delivery services that we have in the market? How does marketing play a role in pushing the brand forward?
Waqas Azhar: In Pakistan, if you look at the region, there are quite a few delivery services, and they’ve been able to establish themselves as strong brands too. The competition is very stiff. There are regional players, but none have been able to match our scale, the length and breadth that we enjoy. Some restaurants offer their own delivery services, but Foodpanda enjoys a national scale in terms of the number of riders, the number of restaurants we have on board, and the customer base. We don’t have that level of competition. This is a bit risky too.
Not having competition means that the entire burden of building that habit and developing the category is on us. And in the current economic crunch with stifling inflationary pressures, one is faced with the challenge of limited funds. The corporates and the consumers both do not have the kind of budget that one used to have three to four years ago. So, now you can’t burn the money. You can’t invest as much in brand building as you used to. So, not having real competition sometimes puts us at a disadvantage.
Synergyzer: How does Foodpanda measure its success? There are a lot of marketing campaigns. For example, the recent PSL campaign. How do you scale its impact in terms of quantity?
Waqas Azhar: Like most of the FMCGs and the big brands, we focus primarily on research. We have a continuous brand tracker that gets pre-testing and pro-testing done. In this way, we get the results of every single campaign in terms of the impact on brand equity. In terms of technology, we focus on attribution. Its impact on business is generated from various channels, customer recruitment, and its result on growth in a certain time zone. We also work around vertical growth areas, where we can attribute it to the channel that we’ve introduced, and then, based on the data available, we can make that discerning differentiation in terms of the growth challenge. With an immaculate research mechanism, continuous monthly brand tracking, and a thorough attribution model on Performance Marketing, we can easily measure our success drivers.
Synergyzer: Speaking of data, you told us about how important data is to implement those campaigns. How critical is data analytics in planning your campaigns – predicting consumer behaviors, predicting demand and supply situations, etc?
Waqas Azhar: Immensely critical. I have a simple point of view. The extent of access to data that we have is unprecedented. A lot of companies have partnered with us because of the data available to us. In this way, they can also make informed choices on the basis of data that we have, especially FMCG companies. I also look for collaborations and partnerships. Many brands working with us want to build an association with meals to drive up their transaction with meals and groceries. The data we have gives in the type of consumer, the type of customer, the city, and the zone, all of which allow them to drive growth for them. We take the decisions accordingly.
The important thing is that data on its own is meaningless – they are just a lot of numbers. The game-changer is the insight that you draw from that data, on the basis of which you then plan your strategy and execution. Data tells us that lunch and dinner are our peak hours, no surprise there. You might have also noticed it as a layman.
The idea is, what if we want to establish new day paths, new micro-moments, and occasions during the day? Because our service is 20-23 hours and we want to avail our resources. One cannot rely only on peak times as the crowd increases and riders get too busy. We want it to spread across the day. Based on the data we experimented with, we eventually initiated the breakfast hour, and as a result, we’ve seen significant growth during that time. We made some decisions where we played a little with the delivery fee and worked with the comms department. Foodpanda onboarded a few new restaurants, and now it has become a habit. We are hoping that we will be able to sustain that growth and retain the consumers who are now ordering at breakfast hour as well.
Synergyzer: Basically, AI has enabled you to tap a market that otherwise you weren’t catering to.
Waqas Azhar: I’d say this is a step before completely implementing AI. While there is predictive modeling and insights through technology, to be able to fully leverage AI, I think we still have some constraints. Although we are working on it globally owing to its efficiencies and granular insights, Pakistan faces some challenges in terms of data privacy and data accuracy. There is still some time before we can fully implement it and leverage it.
Synergyzer: Pakistan has generally lagged behind in adopting any technology, whether the internet, ChatGPT, or design trends. Do you think that it’s going to replace a lot of jobs because writers, in particular, and artists, in general, have been quite insecure? Are there jobs that are not replaceable?
Waqas Azhar: To be honest, none of the jobs are in danger. As I said, there has to be a balance. We’ve had the technology before. I am an enthusiast of Aeronautics and planes. So, I watch a lot of videos, and I will read up a lot on the planes and the evolution of modern-day commercial jetliners. So the time of takeoff is about 3-5 minutes into the overall flight. At the time of landing, it is another 5-6 minutes. So let’s say, give or take 15-20 minutes. From a Dubai flight to New York, which would be about 15 hours, the total flying time that the pilot does is not more than 15 to 20 minutes or 30 minutes at best. The rest is all done by the machine; they just take off, leave it on autopilot, and then disengage it – normally. If there is some challenge, they don’t do the same, of course. What I am trying to establish is that all airlines are automated. Hydraulics has been replaced by computers and electronic signals, but the pilots are not redundant. Human resource input is still ongoing.
For example, our helpline plays a huge role when customers reach out with their issues regarding delayed orders. There are resources to address that. We don’t have chatbots yet because people feel they have a lot of grievances, and they want to be treated exclusively and quickly. We face several challenges but imagine if we completely shift to AI without the extent of data that it requires to function efficiently. So, customer satisfaction will be significantly impacted.
Similarly, while some of the efficiencies are AI-powered, predicting a better understanding of consumer offerings is important. I believe machines cannot completely replace human resources or the intelligence that humans bring because humans are the ones designing them. It will be a mix of both, and I don’t think it’s as bleak as we think.
Synergyzer: Do you see Foodpanda investing in any technology as of now? If yes, in what technologies? What are the tools that the team is already using? And what are the ones in the pipeline?
Waqas Azhar: Being a tech-driven company, we can’t survive without technology. So globally, whatever we have, it’s a complex business. You place an order at a restaurant; the restaurant receives the order in real-time, and all the riders in that area get the notification of that order; one rider accepts it, goes to the restaurant and picks it up to complete all of that in less than 30 minutes. This cannot happen without technology.
There are many restaurants visible on the app; which restaurants should top the list? We use predictive modeling with audience targeting: should we show you the restaurants that you’re interested in, where the probability of you placing an order is higher; or whether we should show you other similar ones; what is the delivery fee you are shown; which cuisine is shown to you, so on and so forth. Technology enables us to customize our offers too.
Synergyzer: For example, a person is ordering KFC four times a month, so will KFC be at the top of their app at all times?
Waqas Azhar: Yes, so the difference in technology versus human input is that the technology would predict that X is ordering ABC cuisine from Y restaurant four times a month; let’s push this more. The human intervention comes in when they recommend two more restaurants offering the same cuisine type to support them and offer more choices to the consumer, which benefits both the restaurants and Foodpanda. And customers could get more choices – a clear win-win for all. That’s where a combination of human intervention, data modeling and predictive indexing from machine learning comes in handy.
Synergyzer: In Pakistan, we adopt the latest technology, but then the interest dries down. A lot of our corporates fail to implement it effectively. The latest trend enters, disrupts the industry for good, and it stays here. But the corporates are not aligned with it. For example, when Covid happened, everybody was working from home, and then the same companies that offered WFH are now calling the employees back to their offices. The interest died down, right? How do you think Pakistan is going to receive this?
Waqas Azhar: To be honest, I think Pakistan has its unique challenges when it comes to sustaining technology or methodology. We face consistency challenges. So, while we have a nation full of a young population of early adopters, we will probably adopt something much earlier than other countries. But are we able to sustain it and be consistent around it? We also have external challenges. Our business is dependent on internet connectivity. We still face challenges when we plan to execute a large-scale event. Hypothetically, we want to do on-ground stadium activation, such as PSL. Internet connectivity is a major challenge: when the load increases, the apps stop working, despite mobile towers installed by the Telcos.