Ravi Santhanam on HDFC Bank’s data-driven marketing strategy

HDFC Bank’s CMO & Head of D2C Business, Ravi Santhanam talks about the bank’s marketing journey, how changing consumer behaviour has pushed them to be agile, and shares more learnings from this trajectory.

Sneha Medda
New Update
Ravi Santhanam

Operating in an industry that faces a huge hurdle of financial illiteracy, HDFC Bank, since its inception, has centred its marketing efforts on winning consumer trust by arming them with the necessary information and helping them with needed technology for a smooth service. 

Shifting gears in 2009, HDFC Bank moved from trust-building to showcasing the fast-paced urban lifestyle with its ad 'Can't Wait', emphasising its time-efficient services while still assuring customers of solutions to their problems.

While speaking about customer experience still remains at the centre of its communication, as the technology evolved and the banking process moved online, HDFC Bank also started focusing on technology and innovation in marketing. These three ingredients combined make HDFC Bank’s marketing recipe. 

One of its recent tech-led campaigns stemmed from a problem that the banking sector faces – an increasing number of frauds. Between 2014 and 2023 alone, Indian banks detected approximately 65,017 frauds, resulting in a staggering loss of ₹4.69 lakh crore. 

To combat this issue, HDFC Bank launched its 'Vigil Aunty' campaign which introduced an influencer who urged people nationwide to adopt safe banking habits, subsequently becoming synonymous with the brand's identity. The bank also utilised technology by bringing the character to Indian phones through WhatsApp, incorporating tech into their communication strategies.

Ravi Santhanam, Group Head, Chief Marketing Officer and Head – Direct to Consumer Business, at HDFC Bank says that to get here, the brand has continuously learned and adapted to various consumer habits, refining its strategies in real-time. He shares more insights on the bank’s marketing journey, which has shifted with changing consumer trends. 

Edited Excerpts: 

Can you give us an overview of the brand’s overall marketing strategy? 

There are three pillars of HDFC Bank’s foundation:

  • Technology
  • Innovation
  • Providing customer experience

This philosophy has guided the Bank's marketing journey over the past 30 years. 

Take credit cards as an example. From the start, we made sure that credit cards were available to a larger population while also ensuring that the merchant ecosystem was in place. Our target was to bring the merchant ecosystem (ability to accept card payments) and our consumer ecosystem (ability to make card payments) together and provide merchant-based offers to our customers while ensuring acceptance of card payments first on the merchant side. This is how we built our brand over a long period, providing innovative products and services. 

Our communication strategy has been more focused on word of mouth and providing a great customer experience. As technology developed, we moved away from bank teller counters to ATMs, phone banking, mobile banking, and Internet banking. We leveraged technology to provide better services to customers. This is how our brand has strengthened itself on the three core pillars of innovation, customer experience and technology. 

Which advertisement or campaign stands out to you as the most memorable, and what makes it particularly noteworthy?

Our Festive Treats property stands out for its innovative approach to festive offerings. Unlike the traditional methods prevalent before 2019, where e-commerce platforms and physical stores took the lead in offering deals, HDFC Bank identified an untapped opportunity.

We recognised the potential of connecting our widespread consumer base directly with our merchant partners. This bridged the gap by facilitating exclusive offers and discounts directly to our customers. This win-win strategy benefitted our customers and empowered merchants to reach a wider audience.

Using our platform, we gathered offers from merchants and effectively communicated them to our customers through various channels. Our first campaign was a huge success, and now, in our fifth year, Festive Treats has become a vital part of our marketing strategy. We have consistently provided value to both consumers and merchants, resulting in significant growth in transaction volumes and customer engagement.

When we first launched it in 2019, we did not know the kind of impact it would have on consumers. However, the positive response from both consumers and the industry encouraged us to continue. 

In 2020, the pandemic made us reconsider whether it was wise to continue with our campaign. We had to carefully deliberate whether the circumstances were practical given the challenges in the retail sector. Despite these challenges, we chose to be courageous and took a step forward. We believed it was important to reignite the energy in the ecosystem and tried to implement our plan.

We decided to leverage platforms like the Indian Premier League (IPL) to reach a wider audience despite the logistical difficulties posed by COVID-19 restrictions. Given the limitation of being able to have only, a few people on set, we utilised technology to carry out our campaign from our homes. Everything was handled remotely, including inputs for the shoot, pitch, creative, sound, the entire conceptualisation, and the execution process. The success of this remote collaboration was a testament to the team’s ingenuity and execution ability. The efforts resulted in impactful advertisements across various media, executed well even in the face of adversity. 

The campaign holds 10,000+ offers, out of which around 90-95% are regional offers, tailored to specific customer segments. This highlights the effectiveness of our platform in fostering collaboration between merchants and customers at the local level.

Could you elaborate on how HDFC Bank adapted its marketing strategies to remain relevant to audiences as India transitioned from traditional to digital communication channels?

Our strategy is simple; we aim to deliver the brand's message to our target audience in the most effective way possible. This involves closely monitoring and adapting to shifts in consumer behaviour and media consumption patterns. To ensure that we successfully reach our audience, we must be present on the platforms where they interact with media.

Our strategy is focused on monitoring how our audience's behaviour changes over time. We aim to have a presence across various media platforms, be it through traditional methods like TV and newspapers or digital ways like mobile apps and OTT platforms. This requires us to not only comprehend the unique features of each medium but also have the expertise to use their advantages, such as better targeting and understanding of audience demographics.

Our primary objective is to identify the skills required to operate in various digital mediums and analyse how they function. 

Digital channels offer the advantage of receiving instant feedback on campaign performance and consumer response, which is not possible with traditional marketing channels. We can evaluate the effectiveness of our campaigns in real-time and make necessary adjustments quickly based on real-time data insights. One can also analyse metrics like geographical performance and customer engagement to enhance our learning process. By adapting to feedback and harnessing digital channels' capabilities, we continuously refine our approach. This process ensures that we remain aligned with our audience's evolving preferences and behaviours. In this way, we can quickly develop and deploy assets and learn how they can be useful in real time, which is crucial for digital mediums. 

In other words, our focus is on learning and adapting at a rapid pace, leveraging digital channels to gather insights and refine our strategies in real time. 

Could you elaborate on how the bank tailors its marketing strategies to target different regions or demographics within the country?

We are fortunate to have access to a wealth of first-party data that provides us with a thorough understanding of our customers' demographics and behaviours. This resource enables us to analyse our clients' spending patterns, tastes and geographic distribution with precision. We can then optimise our efforts to target specific customer segments with customised marketing campaigns by utilising this data. 

By examining the content consumption habits of our target audience in different geographical areas, we gain a deeper understanding of their preferred media platforms and content types. This allows us to strategically place our marketing messages on channels that our customers frequent.

Leveraging the insights gathered from our data, we can craft marketing campaigns that are not only relevant but also delivered through the most impactful channels. This ensures that we connect with our customers in a way that feels natural and relatable, maximising the return on our marketing investments.

By carefully coordinating our marketing initiatives with media platforms and content types preferred by our target demographic, we can effectively engage with our customers using channels that they find relatable. As a result, we can maximise the impact of our efforts and better understand the content consumption habits of our target groups in different geographical areas. 

Recently, sonic logos have become increasingly prevalent in brand marketing strategies, including HDFC Bank. How has the adoption of sonic logos contributed to HDFC Bank's brand recognition and recall? Furthermore, how does incorporating sonic logos align with the bank's marketing strategy?

We realised that sound or an audio asset for the brand is the key in today’s changing world to establish a stronger connection through digital mediums. As a result, we created the MOGO or the Musical Logo, which is a signature tune for the brand. It was developed by looking at where the Bank brand stood, and what its future aspirations were and then creating the final tune with ragas, instruments and tones that were alignment with the brand archetypes. This was tested thoroughly amongst consumers and then implemented over a wide range of Bank’s platforms.

We started with our ATMs since they are a frequent touchpoint for our customers. We added the "Mogo" sound to the ATM's speakers, which customers would hear every time they withdrew cash. This sound became an auditory cue that reinforced their connection with HDFC Bank. We then expanded the use of the sonic logo to PayZapp to add the Mogo at the end of every transaction. This sound signifies the end of the transaction and builds familiarity and a sense of security in our customers.

It is a property that allows us as a brand to enhance a customer’s emotional connect with HDFC Bank. 

The introduction of the Vigil Aunty character has proven to be successful for the brand. Could you provide insights into how this character was initially introduced, the underlying communication strategies implemented, and how the brand has cultivated its association with her?

With the concern around digital frauds pertaining to financial transactions, we take seriously our responsibility of increasing customer awareness about potential methods of digital fraud. We cover both technological advancements and consumer awareness initiatives.

To enhance the security of our platforms against cyber threats, we invest in advanced technology and continuously improve our security measures. We have introduced mobile banking security features, adaptive authentication protocols and other solutions to make our platforms more robust. These efforts are crucial to fight against online frauds.

In addition to technological safeguards, we also advise our customers to keep their OTPs and CVVs secure. The Bank has been communicating this message for a long time and has also adapted its communication strategy to showcase how frauds happen today and what customers need to do to prevent them.

We understand the importance of consumer awareness in mitigating the risks associated with digital frauds. A year ago, we had launched the "Mooh Band Rakho" initiative, aimed at educating customers on fraud prevention measures. 

To further spread this awareness, we created our own influencer called Vigil Aunty, a dedicated character who educates the public through informative and entertaining content. She is relatable and an engaging advocate for fraud prevention. We wanted to be the vigilante and that is how we thought of “Vigil Aunty” who has a specific name and image. 

We are now in the second year of our Vigil Aunty campaign and are regularly updating its messaging to address new threats and customer behaviours. Vigil Aunty has a large following on WhatsApp, exceeding 800,000 users, known as the Vigil Army.  The Vigil Army concept encourages user participation by leveraging the power of social sharing to amplify the reach of their message. 

Which other mediums does the bank use to communicate with the audience and which one of those has been the most beneficial for the brand?

We do not have any specific channel preference. Our aim is to achieve the business, marketing, and campaign objectives of each campaign. While selecting the channels for any campaign, we consider all three objectives. We prioritise alignment with our goals when determining the appropriate media mix for a given campaign. Our marketing strategy emphasises selecting the most effective channels based on our goals. Each campaign has its own set of goals, tailored to address specific market opportunities. These goals guide critical decisions like messaging, targeting and most importantly, channel selection.

For instance, traditional channels such as the press may offer efficient reach and impact if we seek to promote a short-term offer to a broad audience. On the contrary, for targeted communications aimed at existing customers, platforms like SMS and WhatsApp may provide more direct and immediate engagement.

In scenarios where brand-building and awareness are necessary, television and digital channels offer effective possibilities for reaching a wider audience and building brand equity over time. For example, if we need to introduce a new brand, we will use television as a medium to showcase what it does and build the brand over time. However, we will use digital channels to reach the maximum number of audiences.

By assessing the unique requirements of each campaign against our established objectives, we ensure that our media selection aligns with our strategic priorities. This maximises the effectiveness and impact of our marketing efforts. 

Could you provide some insights into what the bank has in store for its marketing strategy moving forward?

We aim to drive relevance and revenues for the Bank. Firstly, we are committed to expanding our brand’s relevance to a wider consumer base, especially in India’s semi-urban and rural (SURU) markets. Our motive here is to mirror the exceptional customer experience and engagement that has been established in other markets so that our brand becomes loved among customers in these emerging areas. We seek to foster stronger ties with our diverse customer segments by ensuring a consistent “wow” factor across all markets.

The second objective is to actively work to directly contribute to the Bank's business objectives by driving revenue generation. Through our focus on “banking as a service” and “digital sales channel”, we have established specific targets for generating leads and facilitating digital transactions across various banking products, including savings accounts, credit cards, and loans (such as personal, auto, and home loans). Our streamlined approach, leveraging straight-through processing and digital marketing strategies, ensures seamless customer journeys without the need for human intervention. If there is a need, we provide on-ground assistance through our branch network and virtual channels to support customers throughout their transaction processes.


marketing strategy HDFC Bank Ravi Santhanam Vigil Aunty