Q&A: transformation and legacy with BAT’s Elaine Chum

'What excites me today is the rapid acceleration of AI tech in the consumer space'

In today’s dynamic and digital marketplace, with constantly changing consumer behaviours and more competition than ever before, is longevity enough? In this interview, we sat down with Elaine Chum, Area Head of Digital and Omni Channel (Western Europe), British American Tobacco to discuss how heritage brands can strike the right balance between tradition and transformation.

Hi Elaine, great to chat to you. In 2020 you made the move from 14 years at Philips to British American Tobacco (BAT). That’s quite the change. What was it like to move from health tech to tobacco? What lessons did you bring with you?

During my time at Philips I served the Consumer, Healthcare and the Sleep & Respiratory business. It was kind of like three different businesses under one brand. And besides, the brand and products have changed, but the industry of Digital remains the same. I’ve found that the opportunities and challenges do not differ that much either.

You’ve held the Head of Digital roles in different companies and markets, how do you ensure that your digital transformation efforts honour the unique heritage of the brand, while still embracing the opportunities presented by new tech?

My approach has always been to understand the business agenda and the opportunities or challenges that the environment presents the business with. That forms the baseline to  formulate the Digital Transformation strategy, plans and roadmap. Technology is just one of a few strategic enablers that need to all come together to deliver the business agenda.

You lived and worked in markets all over the world, including Australia, China, Singapore, Netherlands, Korea, Japan and (soon) London. How do you strike the balance between data-driven decision making and creative, cultural intuition when developing global strategies? 

Yes, I have been fortunate to have had the experiences to live and work in these amazing countries. The hands on learning on consumer behaviours, market dynamics, culture, etc, is not something that you can learn from a textbook — reading can’t replicate real life experiences. And these experiences have had a huge role in shaping me as a marketer in the digital commerce space. To your question — I see global strategy as a vision as well as a framework. For any brand to be successful, whether that’s in their marketing campaigns, digital strategy or as a whole, the brand needs to be injected with the local nuances that speak to the consumers in that country’s environment. Even missing the mark on the smallest of said nuances will impact the brand reputation.

For example, data privacy policies differ from country to country. Korea’s data privacy policies are stricter than those in Japan or the UK. Marketers managing first party databases, CRM or loyalty programs must know these rules like the back of the hand to ensure 100% compliance in crafting communication campaigns to engage with their consumers.

In China, Korea and Japan, you’ve digital platforms like WeChat, Kakao and LINE, all part and parcel of consumers’ daily lives. Any global strategy prioritising these three markets must ensure they create a fantastic brand experience on these platforms, coupled with engaging content to give consumers a ‘damn good reason’ why your brand should be part of their lives. With the last data I saw, LINE in Japan has > 90 million average monthly active users (of their 125 million population). The numbers speak for themselves. LINE needs to form part of the strategy if reach and engagement are core metrics for the Brand. Besides BAT brands, you’ll also see familiar brands on LINE from Muji, Uniqlo, Zara, to luxury brands like Chanel, Dior, and LV.

What does it mean to be a brand custodian of digital spaces? As a thought leader and mentor, how important is sharing knowledge to you, in terms of contributing to the company’s success and on a personal level?

I’ve been fortunate to have had great mentors that guided me, and hands-on experiences in how to become a stronger marketer in digital spaces for these big brands. Honestly, it’s not always hunky dory. My principles on a professional and personal level are simple; celebrate the successes and pass it along to folks that can benefit from it. If you fail, fail fast (and cheap!). Learn from your mistakes; stand up, stand tall and start again.

What does innovation look like for you in 2023 and beyond? What are you most excited about in the future of the industry? What still needs to change? 

I’ve been in the digital industry for slightly over two decades. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a few great companies’ evolutions, that in turn brought about game-changing technological advances in consumer lives and behaviours. And these impacts to consumers signalled a need for brands to step up and evolve their operandi modus and agendas to stay relevant. I still recall my first Apple phone, the first online shopping experiences, and GPS device on my car dashboard – information at the palm of my hand, getting weather details in real time, not having to park on the roadside to look at the street directories to find my destination. The best one – not having to lug heavy groceries back home with a then baby in my arms! 

In this industry, innovation comes about on a daily basis. What excites me today is the rapid acceleration of AI technology in the consumer space. I believe that many brands are in two minds on how best to tap into AI, for their business and to enhance brand experiences for their consumers. It’s a tricky one from a security and privacy POV.

Another key area to watch is the Digital Media space, in relation to tackling the cookie-less world, as data privacy compliance becomes more intense. It’s a fine balance for brands to deliver a great experience that meets the needs of the consumer and be 100% compliant.

Featured image: Simazoran / Canva

Natasha Randhawa, Editor-at-large at MediaCat Magazine

Tash joined the magazine as Editor-at-large at the start of 2023. Previously she headed comms for The Marketing Society (2018-2022). Now, as Editor-at-large, she travels around Southeast Asia, writing about culture, social impact, creativity and technology, and how these forces influence the marketing industry and wider business world.

All articles