The Ultimate Standard- Bitopi Das Chowdhury, Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand & Marketing, Standard Chartered Bank Bangladesh

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With an impressive career spanning a decade with Standard Chartered Bank, can you talk us through how STANDARD CHARTERED BANK envisions itself to be in the new decade?

Standard Chartered has been in Bangladesh for 115 years. We are a British bank, but globally we exist in some markets for over 150 years. Globally we employ over 80,000 people. In Bangladesh our organization is almost 2200 people. We have been one of the largest taxpayers in the country, all sectors combined in the last 5 years or more. Obviously we want to continue in this decade with our streak of innovation. We want to be seen as market leaders, thought leaders, bringing in new expertise and innovation in the market; because we have that strength from our global knowledge. We operate in a lot of advanced markets. In Bangladesh, banking is still evolving and to a large extent very sophisticated financial products are still not there in this market. That is because we do not have the need for such sophisticated financial solutions yet; but the need will arise and we hope Standard Chartered will be in the position to work with the regulators, work with our clients, when we migrate to higher levels of maturity in banking.

Bangladesh is currently experiencing potential growth in Islamic banking and finance due to rapid expansion in the sector. How is STANDARD CHARTERED BANK positioning itself to its customers to make most of the boom in this regard?

Recently, we celebrated 15 years of Saadiq in Bangladesh. It is an Islamic Banking brand through which we offer a full suite of banking products, both for retail and corporate space. Bangladesh is one of the leading 6 markets for Standard Chartered bank where Saadiq is very important. In these 15 years, we have reached a large number of clients/customers; we have received very good responses from both our retail customers and also corporate customers.

The CEO of Saadiq at Standard Chartered was in Bangladesh recently, and he spoke to regulators and stakeholders as to what new products can be brought in, because we feel that in Bangladesh our customers are ready to have more Saadiq products. In the regular commercial banking space, we have been working with regulators to share the best practices from other markets that Standard Chartered operates in. Consequently, over the years we have been integral in working with the regulators in formulating many new banking regulations. We are very fortunate that our regulators feel that we have the expertise.

Through Saadiq, we have introduced innovative Islamic Banking solutions in the country; for example, Sukuk transactions were first done in 2019 by us in Bangladesh. We have a Sharia board within Standard Chartered which includes many Islamic banking experts, scholars, academics and other regulators. Hence, all our products and services are very strictly streamlined on the Islamic principles. What we see in Bangladesh, since our economy is growing very fast, banking is also growing, and we expect more and more  people in Bangladesh to be brought within formal banking channels; “financial inclusion” is one of our highest priorities. There are a lot of unbanked people in Bangladesh, but as the leading bank, our aim is to bring the unbanked people within the network of formal banking channels. To achieve that, we work with MFIs to reach rural people through agricultural lending, for example. Through MFIs if need be, maybe we can look at banking the unbanked, and especially if they have a faith based inclination to go into Islamic banking, we should be able to cater to them.

What makes STANDARD CHARTERED BANK the market leader in the banking sector? How is it different from its competitors?

Our biggest strength is the strong internal network we possess. We learn from a lot of other markets. We have got expertise and technology in many markets, which we can basically learn from and then bring to Bangladesh. A local bank will usually not have that strength.

Secondly, our people are at the core of Standard Chartered’s efficiency. We try to attract the best in the industry. We have a lot of opportunities for investment in people who join us, through training, mentoring and development for their career. Our people are actually given the chance to learn and grow with the bank. Since we are an international bank, we can provide our people the opportunity for working in multiple markets.

We can take the experiences of our CEO as an example. Our current CEO had been with Standard Chartered bank for 25 years, when he took over as CEO. He started his career in Bangladesh, worked in Vietnam and several other markets fulfilling different roles. Before he took over as CEO, he was the head of corporate banking, head of credit, he also worked as the relationship manager. So, our staff get a well rounded experience to grow and learn and be a leader in the bank. This is our second biggest strength.

Thirdly, our knack of being first always keeps us motivated. We keep on trying to push the boundaries. We have a global subsidiary  called the SC VENTURES , which is a spinoff of our bank. Their entire work revolves around startup companies and how to invest in new and innovative products and financial solutions. SC VENTURES works with different types of fintech companies, they are trying out different platforms,  like cryptocurrency and blockchains. “Innovation” is important enough for us to have a subsidiary working on whatever is going on and whatever is new in the financial sector, so we can bring in these innovations in our mainstream banking offerings, as and when needed. That is our third key strength.

What has been the most successful branding strategy you headed in your career as the Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand and Marketing at STANDARD CHARTERED BANK?

Standard Chartered is a global brand. When we are building brands, we don’t have too much localization. Standard Chartered, the way it looks and feels and what it stands for in Europe, Middle East, Bangladesh, it would all be the same. However, in each market we position our brand differently. In Bangladesh, Standard Chartered is the oldest financial institution, having been here for 115 years. Our brand here represents the trust of generations of clients, confidence from our regulators and the proven track record of being a ‘partner in progress’ for this nation. We embody our tagline ‘Here for good’ in Bangladesh and in everything we do. My key achievements in building our brand in Bangladesh have been in the areas of Liverpool sponsorship activation, introducing Bangladesh Investment Summits and designing customized Community Engagement initiatives.

Standard Chartered tied up with Liverpool Football Club, we have been the main sponsors for them since 2010, and we just celebrated 10 years of partnership with them. Liverpool has been doing very well in the English premier league in the last 2 years. This year they are poised to become the champions after many years. It has been a very good partnership. When we signed up in 2010, all the markets where we have English premier league fan following,  were given the task to translate the association with Liverpool football club into local activation. Our performance in Bangladesh has been an example that we shared with other markets. Our LFC activities have been some of the highlights of my career, because English premier league is not as big as cricket here, but we still had very high engagement in all our LFC related initiatives. What you see here at the front of our building, to all the activities that we have done with schools  activation with our clients  children, activation of our staff, the LFC legends Robbie Fowler, and John Barnes coming into Bangladesh, have all been very impactful. We have the Liverpool official fan club in Bangladesh; we have worked with them to bring this partnership to life. Every year we have been having a lot of activities, and this is something that I think has gone extremely well in Bangladesh.

We introduced the concept of “Bangladesh Investment Summit” where we started holding big events outside of Bangladesh, showcasing Bangladesh as the destination for foreign direct investment or for partnership.  The first summit was held in 2012. Standard Chartered bank  is extremely hopeful about the progress of Bangladesh’s economy. We know there is a lot of potential and if all the mechanisms, regulations and investments are right, our economy is going to go places. Bangladesh is now one of the fastest growing economies in the region, but there is a lot of work still left to be done. Other than the Bangladesh Investment Summits that were organized by Standard Chartered Bangladesh,  we’ve also worked with Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) previously known as Board of Investment (BOI)  to support their initiative in London; a 2 – day conference was held where several respected ministers, lawmakers and industry leaders were the key speakers.

At these investment summits, we engage several of our clients, especially foreign investors, so that the audience can hear directly from them about their investments in Bangladesh. The Standard Chartered offices at Singapore, Hong Kong, London also actively support us in attracting the right audience to these summits. So another key achievement of mine are these Bangladesh Investment Summits, which is a unique concept I’ve introduced for our Bank.

Community Engagement is one way by which we bring to life our tagline ‘Here for good’. It means we are here for the long term, so all our Community Engagement initiatives are for the long term. We do not do anything as a one-off donation initiative. Our initiatives usually have a minimum 3-years term. For example, our program on eye health called Seeing is Believing started in Bangladesh and became the single largest global CSR initiative for the bank. It started in 2003 in Bangladesh with Islamia Hospital; and we are still working with them. We have sponsored the school cricket for 15 years, we have been sponsoring the children’s library and British Council for about 17 years. We define our community programs as “sustainability initiatives”. 

We always have an exit strategy for the Sustainability initiatives. Whenever we go into any community engagement initiative, we know that we will do it for a finite period. We don’t want the communities to depend on us; we work in such a way that we help build their skills, and so when we exit, they are able to carry on the initiatives by themselves. That is the key principle of any community engagement that we do.

What are the mantras of effective communication with customers in the age of social media marketing?

Today most of our audience on social media  are youngsters and they consume media differently. Just in 5 years I would say what we consume, and the way we consume information and/or content is very different. Facebook has been there for quite a while; but mobiles/devices that help people consume data on the go, have  been easily available for about 5 years or so. In this time, the channels of communication have also had to evolve. Because first and foremost, we see that the audience has a choice, and they decide how and when they will consume the content. The content format has to evolve because it has to be ready for the channel, has to be ready for devices and it has to be interesting enough for the people. Nowadays in the age of social media, it has to be short, fast, and dynamic. That’s the rule that I follow. Static photos don’t attract people anymore. Studies show that people have an attention span of 4 – 6 seconds now. So anything that I want to push as a communication, or even as an advertisement, has to be eye catching in less than 4 seconds. We are going more and more for video content. Even if it is not video, it has to be animated content, where the  visuals change. Facebook/ Youtube have become a very big channel for advertisers. In the past we would be advertising mostly on traditional media, and digital platforms would be usually  the online platforms of these media . Those channels are still very important today, but we need to customize our content for our audiences who are very restless, and who have a lot of choices. We have to devise our communication innovatively.

Has it ever occurred to you that your job is demanding and might end up making you choose anyone: either your family or your career?

My job is very demanding, so even my team members have to put in their best in their roles. In my role as Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand and Marketing, there are a lot of areas that we cover. So all internal and external communications, all media relations, handling relations with public officials such as Ministries or other regulatory bodies – are handled by my team. CSR, all brands, all advertisements, and all marketing activities are also handled by my team. It’s a lot of things to do every day, but it is a fun role as well. I enjoy my job, I love the variety and innovation it offers. All sponsorships and donations also have to go through us. What happens is every day we try to find something new to do, that’s how we grow. On the communications front, we need to constantly think about what we can do more when we are engaging with media, what can we do in terms of new client events, client experiences, what can we offer that’s new to the market – all of these constantly push us to think out of the box.

So every day is new. I haven’t felt bored for a single day in all the years I’ve been in this role. We have to be self-driven. Each of us have to be passionate for this, because without passion you cannot do this sort of role. You have to be passionate about CSR if we are doing community engagement, you have to know how the education opportunity we’re providing to an underprivileged child  is changing his/her life. And you have to believe in that difference we are making and you want to have to do that day in and day out.

What is the one key advice you have for new entrants aspiring to build a career in the banking sector?

Interestingly, within Standard Chartered, more than seventy percent of our staff are millennials, people born between 1980-1996. Their way of life, priorities in life are different, but they are our future leaders. So we also have to evolve as an organization, because our customers/clients are also that age. As a bank we will not remain relevant if we only stay focused for the older generation.

In Singapore for example, we have branches that look like cafes. It’s a next generation banking system, so maybe we will also have to evolve. But most importantly, some things need to be strictly maintained. The biggest message to anyone who wants to build a career in a bank is first and foremost banking is dependent on trust. The key element in banking is trust. Our clients place their most important assets- their money, life’s savings- with us. Building and maintaining trust is the first and foremost criteria to be a good banker.

A banker has to be reliable and responsive.There is something called Personal Brand Equity; it is how I am perceived if I was a brand – am I known to be trustworthy, reliable, and honest? That is extremely important, also whether I am giving you the right information, how prepared I am to answer your queries, overall, what are my work ethics. All of this together makes up my personal brand equity. This is true for all other sectors as well, but for banking it is definitely very important. Because you represent the bank, and if somebody doesn’t feel confident talking to you, I don’t think that person will have too much confidence in the bank. Banking is all about relationships.

Secondly, you have to continuously learn as banking is evolving very fast. Online banking is the next step, so we are doing a lot with our ‘apps’. SC Mobile App was launched four years back, and it is one of the finest banking apps in the country. To learn, I would request anybody in the banking sector to move around in the bank, work in different departments. Banking is technical, it is complex. So you have to learn the majority aspect of the bank, if you want to be CEO one day. The best thing is to invest in yourself, learn different aspects of banking, and take a risk. Learn and grow.

Third is ‘Patience’. New entrants are mostly millennials, and they need to remember that in order to move and grow in the bank you have to give it time. As we move onto different aspects of banking it becomes more complex. With mobile apps, there is a lot of risk involved; cyber security is a very big risk. This is a new risk added to banking which wasn’t there 10 years ago. We have to keep up. The user interface might be simpler for banking, people are finding banking simpler. But at the bank we have to constantly learn ourselves. So we have to invest time in finding the right processes, learning it and also investing in ourselves, building our network, and then growing in the career.

Standard Chartered is a foreign bank, we are registered in the UK, but I think it is more local than any other banks. The leadership is all Bangladeshi out of 2200 people. We invest in our people, we want them to grow, and we also have a lot of focus on diversity. So we are investing in women to bring them up the curve, give them a smoother career to help them learn faster than the male colleagues if needed, and grow in their career. We are also hiring people with disabilities, as part of our Diversity agenda.  We don’t compromise on hiring standards. A fully-abled person and a differently-abled person will get the same opportunity if they have the same skill set. We have recently hired 20 people with disabilities in various functions. Overall I think in Bangladesh, Standard Chartered has had an incredible 115 years and we look forward to many more in the future. We  have invested heavily in Bangladesh because we believe in the immense potential of the country. We believe Bangladesh is going to grow very fast in the coming decade; and just like we have been a partner in progress all these years, we will be there in the forefront, partnering in the development of Bangladesh.

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