TD Conversations: Munnmunn Marwah, COO, Think Strawberries

The expert in destination branding and travel representation talks about creating desirability for her many clients. She also discusses the rise in experiential travel with bleisure, wellness tourism, and staycations becoming key drivers of change, and the need for companies in the sector to keep up to date, practice social listening, and constantly adapt strategies.

Maldives, think strawberries, branding, travel
Munnmunn Marwah, COO, Think Strawberries (left) and a glimpse of the Maldives (right), a destination she has helped with branding and image building. Image: Shutterstock/SvenHansche.

Munnmunn Marwah, Chief Operating Officer of Think Strawberries, a company that specialises in destination representation and consulting for the India & Middle East tourism markets, is poised to soar to greater heights. She explains that her strength lies in her roots. “My entire professional experience has been shaped in the travel sector, starting with Sahara Airlines. The journey has been my home! 25 long years, replete with learnings and excitement at every turn. I wouldn’t change a thing if I could. I have traversed across the hotel industry, airlines, cruise liners, travel technology and market representation which, in retrospect, has allowed me to have a holistic understanding of the sector,” she says.

Marwah has a wealth of experience and expertise. We engage her in a freewheeling conversation that touches on her branding philosophy, work ethic, the evolution of the tourism sector, and where it is headed from here. Excerpts from the interview.

Is there a story behind the name – Think Strawberries? Please share the brand pillars that make Think Strawberries what it is. How has the company grown?
Think Strawberries was established in 2010 with an aim to redefine the business of tourism representation and to bridge evident gaps. The name is a metaphor derived from the case of the Plaza Hotel, New York, where ‘everybody sells’. It was conceived with the driving principle of transforming business by making it more diverse and inclusive, in turn resulting in unique insight and consequently higher revenues.

Our brand pillars include domain expertise, solid SOPs, personalisation, our values, and people. We continue to ensure that the 360-degree strategies we devise and execute for our clients are tailor-made according to the specific needs of our ever-expanding client portfolio. Extremely humbled and proud to have played a part in positioning Think Strawberries as a leader that is defining the frontiers of Travel Representation.

You have worked with some leading tourism boards and brands. Can you please give us a detailed insight into what exactly goes into creating and building a destination as a brand? How do you tailor the branding process to different destinations? What are the parameters that you consider while doing this?
Creating a destination image, positioning and desire is a step-by-step process that follows a natural lifecycle. By no means is it a simple process though because every destination has unique needs. It is important to thoroughly understand the offerings and experiences of the place to be able to build a story that makes the destination uniquely stand out. After identifying the key aspects and devising a messaging strategy, our goal is to then connect with a variety of stakeholders (B2B and B2C) through different mediums and platforms and keep them continually engaged.

What sort of research about the destination do you need to do before you get started on building its brand values? What are the challenges commonly faced?
We assess the destination’s unique offerings and attractiveness down to every detail. Accessibility, connectivity, and entry guidelines are among the more basic things that we need to consider. Besides that, safety is a key aspect in the post-Covid era.

When it comes to challenges, we find that different consumer segments are naturally attracted to different things. Therefore, it is important to create effective messaging that’s evocative, impactful, and ‘speaks’ to diverse target groups. Also, certain factors like international policies, natural disasters, terrorism, economics, etc. are beyond anyone’s control and could pose a hindrance when trying to create desirability.

Can you please give an example of a success story with a brand that you are particularly proud of?
It’s definitely Think Strawberries! We were entirely new to the business of representation when we started out in 2010. Our first client was Legacy Hotels based out of South Africa. From there, the journey has been equal parts challenging and rewarding. Each account we then acquired taught us different ways of approaching the market and different ways to tap into consumer sentiments but always arriving at the same goal – creating desirability for our clients. The distance we have come in the past 11 years indicates the tremendous success we have achieved. The distance we are yet to travel indicates a world of exciting opportunities that await us.

How savvy are today’s tourism boards and how do you align your efforts along with theirs?
The pandemic has pressed on the importance of being savvy and strategic. With the world coming to a standstill in 2020, it’s commendable how tourism boards quickly developed strategies to navigate through such challenging times while remaining focused on long-term growth. We aligned our vision with that of our respective clients and adopted a robust plan to achieve 360-degree visibility through various platforms. To restore our stakeholders’ confidence in the destinations and tourism products we represent and to keep the brands alive in consumers’ minds, we ensured that the messaging is timely, relevant, and consistently sensitive.

What have been the changes in the tourism space in the last decade or so?
The evolution of the travel industry over the past decade has been humongous. Digitisation has enabled travellers to discover destinations at the touch of a button and has truly simplified the entire process of booking a getaway. Experiential travel has also gained tremendous momentum with the rise in bleisure, wellness tourism, and staycations becoming key drivers of change in the industry. That being said, the impact of over-tourism on the environment is one of the primary concerns that the industry is facing today which requires everyone’s attention.

What would your advice be to any destination that is looking to attract more visitors?
Identifying the right target audience and tailoring marketing and communication efforts basis that prospective visitor is critical for any destination looking to increase tourism. For this, it is important that it aligns itself with a local support system that understands the market and has influence there. Collaborative development is the buzzword in every successful go-to-market strategy.

What is the changing profile of the Indian traveller? How do you keep abreast of fast-changing trends in the world of social media and remain responsive to them?
In the early 1990s, travel for Indians was restricted to pilgrimage sites and exploring a handful of well-known traditional sight-seeing spots. The Indian traveller then started discovering more of the country and the world outside owing to the boom in technology, rising household incomes, affordable airfares, and travel packages. A study indicated that less than five million Indians were heading out of the country in 2000. Just before the pandemic, around 20 million Indians were setting off to foreign lands seeking new experiences. Moreover, in the past few years, travel in India has witnessed an unprecedented rise among millennial travellers who are driving significant changes in the industry.

At Think Strawberries, keeping ourselves up to date, doing social listening, constantly adapting, and modifying our strategies to deliver ‘solutions’ as opposed to ‘services’ is what has kept us abreast of fast-changing trends.

What are your own qualities that have helped you helm a team that has brought such fantastic results for the tourism boards and hospitality chains that you represent?
Each team member is different from the next. Apart from their skills, their personalities vary and so do their needs. I try and work closely with each person to try and help them hone their capabilities to their full potential. As a leader, it is my responsibility to offer a solution if a team member approaches me. It is an honour and an indication of the respect that they have entrusted me to bail them out of a tricky situation. A capable leader is one who is flexible, and also sensitive not just to their team’s professional but their personal issues as well and that’s what I continue to strive for.

Are there some dream projects that you would love to get your hands on? Tell us why these appeal to you.
Someone said if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough. We have recently fulfilled our goal of being the India market representative of Saudi Arabia. We had been pursuing the account for a while and it was a major achievement for the team to clinch it in a fierce multi-agency bid. Dreams are never just dreams, they are a reality waiting to happen. Keep an eye out, there are some more exciting developments on the horizon…

Ain dubai 1 think strawberries
Ain Dubai, one of the brands represented by the company. Image: Courtesy Think Strawberries.

Do you feel that branding as a field has got its due and adequate attention in India or that there is a lot more scope for it?
The scope of branding is immense and truly boundless. Globally, brands across various sectors are increasingly adopting innovative branding techniques, the potential of which India is yet to fully explore. With changing times, mediums that were earlier popular no longer reign supreme, and more cost-effective digital mediums are swiftly gaining pace. For instance, experiential marketing has tremendous impact and has great recall potential, OTT and other digital platforms are competing a tough fight with conventional television, while radio, which was the last mile connect with Indian consumers has now been replaced by smartphones. Therefore, the branding interface is continually changing and the brands who will survive will be the ones who are quick to adapt.

What are your predictions for upcoming trends in this sector?
There’s a strong pent-up demand for travel and statistics are proof. With countries gradually lifting travel restrictions, trends indicate that people would initially be comfortable with less time spent in transit and will therefore choose travel destinations that are close to home. Indians are travelling in huge numbers to the Maldives, a prominent destination we represent, and even Dubai, where we represent various tourism products. Another survey indicated that people are eagerly seeking normalcy and want to invest in their mental well-being. As a result, travel preferences are inclined towards indulgence in slow and immersive travel with more emphasis on local experiences and culture. Moreover, with most companies opting for remote work and other flexible arrangements for employees, ‘work from anywhere’ is also going to be a big part of the new normal.

Maldives 1 think strawberries
Indians have been flocking to the Maldives. Image: Courtesy Think Strawberries.

Please share your learning and success mantra.

One of the biggest learnings for me has been that success is not only the result of learning the intricacies of operating a business but of managing people and developing them, so they come together with one purpose. I’m proud that Think Strawberries is a result of that effort.

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