The COVID-19 pandemic may have elevated digital sales, but it also exposed severe cracks in retailing supply chains globally. The winners are companies that are quick to change demand forecasting models, improve visibility into their supplier base or simply pivot. It’s a mammoth task and one that Medlife, India’s largest e-health platform offering services that enable home delivery of medicines and lab diagnostics and equip consumers to book doctor consultations in-how and online, tackled head-on. In this episode of our bi-weekly series Reimagine Growth sponsored by CleverTap, our host Peggy Anne Salz talks with Meera Iyer, Medlife CMO, who shares her smart strategy for optimal order fulfillment and customer satisfaction in challenging times. Meera recalls how her company worked with suppliers to ensure the uninterrupted movement of medicine and supplies and the role of audience segmentation and personalized messaging in shaping customer demand. She also discussed the marketing benefits, which include a boost in conversion rates and, more importantly, brand trust.
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These are the tough questions and we get the straight answers here on Mobile Presence, this week bringing you Reimagine Growth, a special mini-series on retention marketing brought to you by CleverTap. Retention of course we know is the new growth, we know that a single-digit increase in retention can mean double, even triple-digit increase in profits and that’s what marketers need in these challenging times when budgets are tight – it’s critical to connect with your customers in a meaningful way, it means rewriting the playbook, it means taking on challenges, it’s exciting…
… it’s something we can’t do alone, however, and that’s why we need good guidance, good advice and we get both from my guest today on Reimagine Growth. She’s the CMO at Medlife, India’s largest eHealth platform offering home delivery of medicines, lab diagnostics and allowing customers, consumers to book tele-consultation at home or online and before that, she held marketing and sales positions at bigbasket.com and Unilever. So allow me to welcome my guest today, Meera Iver, CMO at Medlife. Great to have you here, Meera.
MI Thank you, Peggy, it’s a pleasure being on this platform.
PAS And it’s great to have you and I’m just curious, you know, where are you coming from today, where are you based?
MI I am based out of Bangalore which is India’s Silicon Valley equivalent and I am coming out of, again, work from home kind of a situation, Peggy, lockdown hasn’t quite, quite ended over here in India although it is easing up, so this is the third month running for lockdown. It began on 21st March and today is 17th June so nearly completing three months of the entire lockdown over here.
PAS Yes, you know, it’s different paces, different speeds in different regions, a little bit more reopening in the States. India was also particularly hard hit by the lockdown, I think I was reading industry output overall down by 55%. I mean, that’s a real challenge to the supply chain there, correct?
MI Totally, supply chain in India has seen disruption – hasn’t seen disruptions of this scale ever and it is mainly because of the fact that you didn’t have people, there were no people going to factories, there were no people being able to go to the warehouses, there were no truckers. In fact, we had almost 600,000 trucks stranded somewhere midway between what was their starting point and their end destination. So, it’s been a complete chaotic mess out here as far as supply chain for all goods, essentials, non-essentials and everything over here.
PAS And of course that’s why I have you on the show because it’s about adapting to that. I mean, let’s face it, everywhere we’re hearing about supply chain but it’s very different if we can’t buy favorite foods or, for that matter in the US, when I think about it, even the toilet paper, but you’re about medicine. So, it’s not just a matter of saying, well, you can take Brand A for Brand B, it’s much, much more than that and you’re focused on finding substitutes and shaping shopping behavior, shaping consumer choice. Give me a little bit of background for that because something must have said this is the workaround here.
MI I think, Peggy, first of all it starts with you clearly assessing what state your business is at, right, and what we said is we have enormous demand because we had literally 2X jump in orders within a week. So the lockdown started and without us even pumping in any extra marketing dollars, organically we suddenly had a jump of 100% in our orders and we had, you know, customer cohorts coming back after literally lapsing over two years back. And this was a kind of panic that really hit over here in India where everybody wanted to, one, shop online because it was safer and also because of the fact that offline, there was a lot of confusion and people were generally not sure about them being able to step out.
And secondly, also because of the fact that this is – there was panic and people just wanted to hoard and online offered them visibility of what they could buy and at the price they were able to get it at.
Given that this was a kind of spike, at Medlife we had to very quickly group and take a call on, one, how much orders are we able to service and therefore who will we prioritize in this time in the order of preference of whom we are able to service, with the kind of limited capacities that we had.
And second, what will we do to maximize the serviceability of orders that are coming in at this point in time. And this was critical, Peggy, because, you know, no company is prepared or geared up for 100% increase in orders at any point in time.
So this is what we did. One, we said that we know who are most valuable customers are, these are customers who’ve been loyal with us for a long time, these are customers who pretty much make up most of the profit pool that Medlife makes and we also know very well as to what is the kind of medications that these customers of ours, these most loyal customers of ours, require.
And so, we split it into two parts. One was about shaping demand itself and saying what we are able to procure at this time and what we are able to readily get, let’s only create demand for those group of customers, let’s not go beyond those group of customers and unnecessarily both disappoint customers as well as be left with a horrible sinking feeling of not having serviced a patient properly.
And the second thing that we did was how can we possibly at this time of rampant shortages do something which the medicine category allows which is substitution. You know, paracetamol which is a common drug that’s taken and widely known, I think it’s called Panadol or over here in India it’s called Calpol, you can easily substitute one brand for the other which is also possible in some other categories, but over here given that it is medicine, it is unique in that you have one composition which basically spans across and comes out as 30 different brands being manufactured by various pharma companies.
So, using substitution as a lever to be able to help patients out, when we did not have the brand of their choice, however, we did have the same formulation coming from a different company and therefore being able to quell the panic and, you know, patients have less anxiety at this time was equally the other strategy that we followed.
So, one, prioritizing customers that we want to basically ensure get service at this point in time and we prioritize our loyal base of customers. Second is in being able to shape the demand in such a way that we only go after and market to customers for whom we know for certain that we have stocks that we can service them with. And third, being able to also use substitution as an effective label to be able to increase sales and I think all three of them happened fairly quickly, time was short and we had to get all of this done within just a couple of weeks and I’m glad to say that it paid off.
PAS I mean, it’s amazing that story and I’m going to be writing about it more elsewhere because it’s fascinating, you know, it’s not just about making certain that there is - the digital shelves are full but you had to give a lot of thought to substitution here and it’s very risky, you can’t say, well, Brand A, Brand B, this is something else and I trust you at Medlife to make these decisions. Could you just give me an idea of what kind of heavy lifting and work went into that because it doesn’t sound like something that you certainly can do overnight – you did it very quickly, to your credit.
MI That’s true, Peggy. So, I think the first and foremost thing when it comes to substitutions is to be able to map substitutable products quickly and accurately. Pharma and medicine is one category where 99.9% is not good enough, it has to be 100%, right? It is not like a detergent where you don’t have Arial, you go and take Tide, it doesn’t work that way.
So, the first and foremost task with us was to ensure that we matched substitutable products with 100% accuracy and to be 200% sure about it. So, we pretty much constituted a very large team of 50 doctors and pharmacists who were on this job and going and combing through the catalog and our catalog has – we prioritized the top 12,000 SKUs in our catalog. So combing through this entire 12,000 and matching substitutes, and we also instituted a process where there was a maker and a checker so the maker put down the composition and then the checker actually cross-checked it against the product and the product images and sometimes even if possible with the actual product itself.
So that itself for the top 12,000 products that we had with 50 people working on it took a week and credit to them that they put in so much effort and the accuracy was something that was not compromisable. So that itself took a week and what happened was the product team got into action in terms of, one, creating the whole substitution flow on the app itself and, secondly, also creating a substitution flow on voice. At Medlife, we get almost 20% of our orders on voice and therefore creating a substitution product for both voice as well as the app is something that the product team quickly got into doing and kudos to them as well that in two weeks’ time they were ready with a product.
And as a result of that, what we realized is to voice and voice has a lot of learnings for you to replicate on the app – what customers behave in the offline world, if you’re able to replicate that ditto on the app on the digital virtual world, you see success immediately, right?
So one of the things that came across very strongly is when you talk about substitution to a customer, what they want to know is, one, whether it is the exact same composition and therefore showing the composition of both the brand that they wanted as well as the brand we were suggesting as a substitution and showing them to be the exact same copy was important.
Second, they wanted to know who the manufacturer was and chances of you picking up a substitute if it came from a fairly known pharmaceutical company or an organization like, let’s say, a Pfizer or let’s say Glenmark or let’s say, you know, GlaxoSmithKline versus something which is fairly unknown, the chances of substitution increases drastically and dramatically when you say that it is from a known company. So, showing the company upfront as to which or who was the manufacturer for this particular substitute that we are recommending.
And thirdly also putting those trust markers as to saying that, you know, this has been something that’s been bettered by the theme of our doctors and pharmacists working at Medlife and thanks to being the largest eHealth platform in India, we come with that kind of trust and equity to be able to pull that off. All of those were some things that were incorporated into the product.
And, you know, at the end of the day we were able to substitute for about 20% of our orders overall and managed to deliver to patients substitutable products as compared to not delivering to them at all.
PAS Well, Meera, that’s a phenomenal story, we do have to go to a break but we’re going to come back, we’re going to talk about how you marketed this new message that you have these substitutes, that you are there for your customers and some lessons for marketers everywhere. So don’t go away, we’ll be right back.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence. I’m Peggy Anne Salz here also on Reimagine Growth and our guest today, Meera Iver, and she’s telling us about how it was the challenge to overcome shortages and serious shortages and shortcomings in the supply chain but now, Meera, we’re going to get to, okay, once you have figured out the substitution, once you have that strategy and your company did that so well and so quickly, the next step is to market that, to message that, to get that in front of your customers and that’s also shaping demand for the products that you’re offering. How did you approach this?
MI Medlife is a retailer, we sell online but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we are fundamentally a retailer and a retailer has to very clearly and carefully, you know, buy and stock merchandise that will sell fairly quickly. At this time of supply chain constraints, the problem that we had is we were not able to merchandise our store the way we wanted. We were forced to do with what was available on the market.
And so the thought that if only X, Y, Z is available in the market, let’s only go after customers who in the past have purchased X, Y, Z and not target any customer who has not bought these products that are already available in the market. That really took shape as a project which we called ‘Demand Shaping’. We said that given the constraints and given the entire shortages of stocks across medicines, let us understand what we have, what we are able to substitute amongst brands that we are not able to source and then use our marketing automation platform, which is CleverTap, to effectively create segments for whom we know for sure that we are able to service their orders and deliver on the level of customer experience that we want to give our customers.
So, it was just that one, it was about understanding what we had in stock and what we were likely to procure in the coming week. Second, it was about then saying that out of our entire base of customers, let us first create a segment of those that we consider more important as compared to the others, which means the loyal customers were prioritized over the ones that were new or fairly recent. And third, let’s now create a sub-segment within this base of customers that we want to service for whom we have ready stock availability and for whom we are able to ensure that deliveries will happen.
This was quite tricky, honestly, because you had multiple variables over here, first was a variable of stock, availability itself, second was the variable of the geography, in some geographies in India, things were far worse as compared to others, so Bombay and Bombay continues to be worst-hit city in the entire country with respect to COVID cases – Bombay was fairly difficult to service even if you had stocks because manpower was a much bigger issue over here as compared to let’s say Bangalore.
And so factoring in supply chain constraints, not just from first mile but also from a last-mile perspective, feeding all that in and then having CleverTap join out segments that we could successfully deliver to, it was quite a challenge but we managed to do that for two reasons. One is, you know, at this kind of time where businesses are going to have an awful time managing both people as well as cash flows, maximizing whatever business revenues you could get to, so that the company does not face severe losses because of fixed costs pretty much remaining there, was important. And secondly it was also important to ensure that you don’t let customer experience suffer more than what is necessary during this entire lockdown period because customers will remember you for how you really behaved during the time of a crisis.
PAS Absolutely, and not to interrupt but, you know, a very important point here I wanted to stress is that this makes complete sense because what you want to do is you have, you know, there’s an element of scarcity, it’s not the fact that everyone can have what they want so one level is substitution making certain that those digital shelves, again, are filled but you want to be able to segment to say these customers would be most likely to buy this anyway so we’re giving them what they want – then you’re factoring in all these other variables, as you said, you know, can we deliver it in this region, or are they our loyal users?
Because ultimately if people, and I saw this myself on just ordinary items, if you can’t get what you want, you’re ordering it and you can’t get it, that’s a bad experience and you’re either going to blame the brand or you’re going to go to social media and talk about how bad an experience that is and either way, you don’t want it.
MI Correct, you’re absolutely right, Peggy. So, customer experience despite all our efforts still went for a toss during this entire lockdown period and continues to be a bit of a challenge in some cities like Bombay. But it was important to ensure that we don’t go about and waste marketing dollars on customers that we can’t service as well as ensure that we spend marketing dollars where it will actually result in incremental revenue during this time and ensure that our cash burn is basically having the ROI that’s desirable.
PAS And what were some of the channels or approaches that worked very well here because of course if you make the match, then you’re going to see CTRs that are off the charts, or best conversions ever, be that email or notifications that are open – what was it that you used and what was it that you saw?
MI So, given the fact that we chose to prioritize our loyal base of customers over new customers, the best channel for us to reach out to our existing base of customers was really throughout marketing automation platform which is CleverTap. So, CleverTap allows us to (a) segment customers the way we want them through a list of attributes that we can feed in. It allows us to send across to them communication in the form of push notification if they have the app or an SMS if they don’t have the app and also through email.
So, these worked particularly effectively for us given the fact that we did not quite have to go out and look at acquiring new customers, we just wanted to ensure that our base of customers remained happy and serviced during this time.
PAS And I’m just curious what you can share, I mean, you were telling me that orders were up, you were telling me also that you’re very focused and this is what I loved about your talk as well when I heard you on a webinar recently, very focused on cash flow and approaching this in a very practical way, but what were you able to achieve?
MI So, anything that is personalized, Peggy, always does way better as compared to something which is generic and here we were literally reaching out to our customers with calling their name out, talking to them about the products that they regularly buy from us, our base is made up of predominantly chronic disease customers like diabetes, hypertension, cardiac issues etc. So therefore they pretty much buy the same medication over and over again every month.
So, calling out the drugs that they buy and talking about the fact that (a) it is available and that we would be able to deliver it across to them safely, and safety was an important aspect over here, is something that really worked and because of which I think it’s a general learning that we are anyways taking forward even in future when things resume and become normal.
But our CTRs for all of these campaigns that we ran for part of demand shaping were at least, you know, they are the highest ever in terms of any CTR and they were generally in a range of somewhere about 3-4X of our normal CTR would be and conversions with the high CTRs were also double of what normally they are for any kind of campaign. So 4X the CTRs and double the conversion, it was just adjective, you know, good effect that we had over these campaigns of demand shaping.
PAS That is incredible and that’s why I have you on the show because there are so many lessons to learn from this. I mean, those are eye-watering figures for most marketers and to be able to achieve that in these challenging times, that shows, you know, smart and intelligent best practice, very timely, very just in time, very much adaptable. We do have to adapt also to our break so I will take us out one more time, Meera, but don’t go away, listeners, we’ll be right back.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence, Reimagine Growth. I’m your host, Peggy Anne Salz, we have today, Meera Iver, she is CMO at Medlife and Meera, you’ve been telling me all about this amazing, I don’t know if I want to call it experiment, but it shows really what matters. You know, if you have a supply chain problem, a shortage, how to shape demand, how to increase consumer trust, how to do everything you’re supposed to be doing as a company in your space.
And the research out there tells us that globally, every brand, not just Medlife in India, but everybody, that means all of our listeners, all of their brands, will be remembered for what they do in these times, how they help, what their actions were. How do you hope or think Medlife will be remembered?
MI I think one – Medlife will be remembered for having taken a step up during this time and even collaborated with the government of India to ensure that social distancing is maintained and online delivery of medicines remained open and continued despite all the challenges that were there. Equally, I also think we had a lot of effort put into creating genuine positive content during this entire period of lockdown that lifted spirits rather than bog people down even more.
And so I think our engagement rates, our followership, everything soared through this entire lockdown period and I think it was because of the fact that we put in a genuine effort to make a different to people’s lives during this time.
PAS And our listeners are going to want to stay in touch with you, I know I’m going to want to stay in touch with you – what’s the best way to keep in touch with you, maybe you’re writing, you’re speaking, albeit virtually – what’s the best way?
MI Oh, please connect with me on LinkedIn and then you can message me and I’m happy to share my co-ordinates with you.
PAS And Meera has shared her journey with us today and to keep marketers and organizations help them as they re-enter the market post-COVID-19, CleverTap is hosting Reimagine Mobile Growth Strategy as a 4-part webinar series all about helping you professionals in growth, marketing, product, this is the time, this is a time of uncertainty and this is when you can tune in because you can expect to hear from experts at leading brands such as Disney Hotstar, Appsflyer, Vonage, Dineout, Times Internet and many more – that’s a webinar each day, June 23rd, June 25th, June 30th and July 20 and if you can’t make it in person, don’t worry, just register and watch it on demand, just go to clevertap.com/reimaginegrowth.
So check that out, I hope to see you there and I hope to also see you back here at Mobile Presence. And if you want to keep up with me throughout the week or find out how you can be a guest or sponsor on Mobile Presence, then email me, email@example.com, that’s where you can find my portfolio of content marketing and app marketing services.
You can also check out this and all earlier episodes of our show by going to wmr.fm or you can find our shows on iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker, Spotify and iheartRadio simply by searching Mobile Presence. So until next time – remember - every minute is mobile, so make every minute count. Keep well, stay safe and we’ll see you soon.