Industry leader | Banking | Corporate social responsibility | brand | women in banking

Pranu Singh — Head of Corporate Affairs, Branding, and Marketing at Standard Chartered Bank, Nepal
Pranu Singh — Head of Corporate Affairs, Branding, and Marketing at Standard Chartered Bank, Nepal

Interview

“We choose significant and concentrated CSR projects instead of small, fragmented initiatives”

Pranu Singh — Head of Corporate Affairs, Branding & Marketing at SCB, Nepal, explains her role, SCB’s brand imagination & CSR focus & paving the way for women bankers to climb the leadership ladder

By Pallavi Maheshwari |

15 years of extensive experience in different fields of banking, and presently head of Corporate Affairs, Branding, and Marketing department at the Standard Chartered Bank, Nepal (SCB) for the last four years.

In coversation with Pranu Singh:

 

First, can you describe your role as the Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand and Marketing at SCB by dissecting these three domains and their interlinkages?

I handle three verticals — corporate affairs, brand, and marketing. 

Corporate Affairs essentially entails external and internal communications, media relations, CSR, donations and sponsorships, etc.

In the branding and marketing domain — I am the brand custodian of the bank. My team has the primary responsibility of handling the entire branding image of the bank where we bring marketing expertise and creativity strategically and tactically to work hand-in-hand with the businesses. Both the vertices go together i.e. the brand strategy has to be brought to the table with a marketing point of view. 

But I would like to think that there are no set boundaries to my role and responsibilities. It's a cluster of many things. The common linkage however is communications. When you are branding or marketing your product, or talking to your staff, or making the public aware of your products, it’s all communication. In the role of communications, you cannot restrict yourself to a certain periphery. 

I am also the Information Officer and one of the official spokespersons of the bank. 

You have been in your current role for four years. What is the strategy under your leadership and their main elements? 

I have been in this role since April 2019. My vision is aligned with what SCB is trying to accomplish in Nepal. 

When it comes to driving the brand, it is important to have a consistent brand narrative. Being the only international bank, SCB is usually considered only as a bank for the rich. One reason could be that we strictly focus on compliance, and sometimes it doesn’t bode well with some clients and customers. Others see that we have limited brick-and-mortar branches.

Right now we are trying to break the perception that SCB is only for the creme de la creme of society. We are an international bank but local as well. We are listed in the Nepal stock exchange and have almost 30% local Nepalese shareholding. We have products which cater to the needs of different strata of society. 

We are also digital and agile now. Earlier there was a gap in taking that digital step but we have bridged them with our digital capabilities and ease in doing banking with us. 

So in the end my brand narrative is to change this legacy driven perspective about the bank. It is to tell that we are an agile bank, we have digital capabilities, we are open to people, we are here to do business, serve our customers and do good for the country being the only international bank. 

Having said that, we are here for a unique purpose, our operating model is different, and our banking strategy is different. We have a network which enables our clients to expand their footprints internationally and we can facilitate bringing in international companies into Nepal along with technical expertise like our digital capabilities and other best banking practices that we bring in from our network unavailable otherwise locally. 

As for developing a corporate strategy, the interaction with stakeholders, public, competition and businesses are the basis of forming the strategy and our inputs are valuable there, making us an important part of developing the corporate strategy. 

How do you envisage the SCB brand five years down the line? 
As to my personal vision, it would be to transform the experience of doing banking, make it agile and make SCB come at the top of the mind when anybody thinks of banking — whether it is for opening a bank account, expanding their business or catering to the young digital savvy generation who do banking on their mobiles.

A lot of re-engineering is happening in the SCB to simplify the so-called bureaucratic banking procedures and save time and paper. The best part is our awareness about the issues that need a fix and we are working on it. 

Can you share with us the composition of ‘brand and marketing’ efforts in terms of spending/budget and how do you evaluate their outcomes? 

The branding and marketing budget is correlated to our business objectives. There is a framework for making decisions. The budget design depends on previous year’s business performance, future goals and last year’s spending.

Evaluating the outcomes of branding and marketing spend is difficult in Nepal. There is a lack of necessary measurement tools while international tools are difficult to access and expensive. It's easier to evaluate digital marketing goals but it’s practically difficult to know the actual reach of print, radio, or hoarding boards. However, they are widely accepted for the purpose of branding, recognition, brand awareness, and visibility without putting a numerical figure.

Talking about digital banking, what was the reason that SCB, even after being an international bank, came late in the payment switch of Nepal?

While there have been some areas where SCB has taken time in offering digital solutions, we also offer digital products which other FI/Banks don’t have, or we were the first one to offer. In the retail space, certain digital offerings were introduced late purely because of our governance process and system controls. 

We have to make sure all our products are watertight in terms of safety and security and there is zero room for error. For every process, we are required to ensure we meet the AML compliance, ensure our Operational Risk framework is robust and are aligned to global practices etc. and thus we take longer time to integrate into these switches.

However, off late we have expedited the introduction of many digital capabilities because it was need-of–the-hour due to the pandemic. We may be late digitally but we still have an upper hand in digital capability due to our international network. 

How does SCB view corporate social initiatives? How do you make these decisions? What has been the outcome of these initiatives? 

CSR is definitely a strategic priority for the entire scheme of things that we undertake as a bank, and long-term sustainability of such undertaking is crucial to us. 

‘Futuremakers by Standard Chartered’ is our global initiative to tackle inequality by promoting greater economic inclusion in our markets. Futuremakers supports disadvantaged young people, especially girls and people with visual impairments, to learn new skills and improve their chances of getting a job or starting their own business. 

That's a global umbrella initiative and choosing a project in Nepal would fall under it.

There is also a mandatory regulatory requirement to spend 1% of previous year’s net profit on CSR work, but it has never been just about meeting regulatory targets for us but beyond. During COVID-19, we contributed around $600,000 for different relief projects, medical equipment, oxygen concentrators, and cash support, which was way beyond our CSR target.

So it’s essentially balancing between requirements of the communities in which we operate along with the global sustainability agenda. There are several overlaps and we try our best to find the middle path. In the end, it needs to be need-driven. 

We also have an Foundation in the UK called the SC Foundation which spearheads sustainability-driven projects across the group in all the markets that we operate in. For example, we run development aid based clustered or regional projects in Nepal, India, Bangladesh or neighbouring countries and even specific Nepal-focused projects. 

For instance, the Bank has partnered with Plan International Nepal to implement a 3-year project for USD 300K titled ‘Promoting Economic Empowerment of Adolescents for Resilient Livelihood (PEEARL)’ in Bardiya district. The program is focused on equipping vulnerable young people, especially young women, with “work-ready” skills and knowledge to pursue a wage or self-employment of their choosing. The immediate beneficiaries are 340 people including 120 aged 18-24.

Another is the ‘Kishori’ project with Open Knowledge Nepal and Shequal Foundation targeted towards adolescent girls across the seven provinces of Nepal which is also focused on giving foundational and digital skills and to enable them to finish school. 

Basically, we try to focus on the bigger picture with investing in projects that are sustainable and tangible. 

How are your CSR initiatives carried out? How does the partnership between the bank and the projects work? Are there any particular outcomes you can recall?

The projects are chosen and carried out in a well phased manner — with a rigorous background study, need assessment and regular monitoring and are implemented by our partner NGOs. We choose significant, concentrated and targeted projects instead of small fragmented projects. The aim is to make a real difference in people’s lives. A dedicated team of experts regulate the funding.

We also keep track of the tangible output for beneficiaries. 

We recently published a few stories on our social media of female Safa tempo drivers who went on to become tempo owners through our subsidised financial products. Another impactful project was the one we ran in Solukhumbu during the pandemic-led tourism crisis in the mountain region, where our CEO personally visited the project area to see the implementation. 

How do you find the connection between Nepali business class and sustainability?

In Nepal, usually businesses do not keep sustainability as their priorities. It is time for them to rethink their environmental impact when carrying out their business activities. If not, chances are businesses might face difficulties in getting finance from the banking industry in future.

Globally, all major international financial institutions are pledging to finance sustainable companies and businesses. Sustainable finance is one of the topmost priorities of SCB too. 

According to the National Planning Commission (NPC), there is a potential for more than $65 billion of sustainable finance. From a global scheme of things, all our efforts and commitments would be channelled towards environmental sustainability and transition to a net zero carbon emission by 2050.

We recently did a study revealing lesser female bankers making it at the top echelons in the industry. You are amongst the few who is steering an executive position. What’s your take on this?

I wish I had a magic mantra. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. Two things are important here. While female bankers and aspirants need to up their game, organisations have to make a conscious effort to develop an enabling ecosystem for females to achieve their full potential. 

On the part of female bankers, they must be ready to push the envelope, put in the hard work and take that leap when opportunity comes even when you think you may not possess the required skills. For that, self-confidence is crucial. I took roles that I had absolutely no idea about and were highly experimental. I took them because they were challenging, I had faith in my abilities, and I wanted to level up my career. 

Another important prerequisite to excel is to tell your story. 

Telling your story is your own responsibility. When you are performing, people should know. No one else is going to do that for you. In my career, I have worked with different departments at assistant level to managerial to C-Sec. I made sure to be visible and that people heard my story in the right way. Your manager, your mentor can be with you until a certain level. After that, you have to beat your own drums in a righteous manner.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the fact that there is this glass ceiling. Gender inequality has been there for hundreds of years and engrained in all societies. To uplift that section of the society that has been pulled back for ages historically, there has to be a push through a conscious effort. 

What do you mean by conscious effort?

Let's talk about succession in the banking industry. Things like succession need planning. Identifying talent early on would be the first step. At my organisation, we have a pool of female talent identified as future leaders. That's a conscious effort. 

When I took this position in 2019, I was only female and there were 13 other male counterparts in the management team. But in the past five years, there has been a conscious effort to bring in more females and it has worked out. At one point, women composition was about 25% in our management team. Presently, our Board Chairperson is a female, which is quite rare in the banking industry.

Making gender-talk and uplifting a part of general conversation and a norm is another form of conscious effort. Make the workplace more female friendly and seamlessly integrate into a work life. Adequate maternity leave is absolutely necessary. Menstrual stress is real and there is a need to make the workplace acknowledge the biological challenges for female staff.

For diversity and inclusion, SCB has an in-house dedicated team — Diversity and Inclusion Council. We believe an inclusive culture is central to enabling our diversity, and driving performance. No-one we work with should feel they have been treated differently because of who they are, or feel that their voice is not heard. Not just gender but this encompasses nationality, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and even generation.

Pallavi Maheshwari is a lawyer by profession. She is currently a researcher/writer at the_farsight.

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