Kendi's lessons from 20 years of building firms


Absa Bank Chief Marketing Officer Carolyne Kendi poses for a photo during the interview at Muthaiga Golf Club on March 08, 2023. PHOTO | KENNEDY AMUNGO | NMG

Carolyne Kendi is a brand builder, an Afro-optimist career nomad and a lover of life. The chief marketing officer at Absa Bank Kenya is currently surfing a giant wave of freedom in life and career.

For more than 20 years, Kendi has built and positioned different brands in a highly mobile career straddling different industries.

She has worked at Diageo, East African Breweries Limited (EABL), at Safaricom PLC for five years, and for two stints at Unilever.

Kendi who studied marketing at the University of Nairobi and strategic management at the United States International University says that branding in the age of social media is a different ball game.

‘‘The theory of marketing and its practicality is different now. The fundamentals have remained the same. Branding is about how you position products. The goal is to persuade customers to give you their money. This never changes’’.

What also does not change is the need to understand the customer’s thinking, preferences and spending habits. How marketing is done, though, has changed.

‘‘How you talk to and connect with the customer has shifted a lot. The customer’s exposure and access to information is higher today. Before, an ad was all you needed.’’

These days, simply publishing one is not enough, she says. ‘‘I have so many places to fact-check. Customers want conversations. They want to give feedback. Before, we had to commission research to gauge the market perception of a product. This would take up to a month. With social media, feedback is real-time.’’

Nothing gives the marketer as much joy as branding a product from the ground up. ‘‘I am a builder. It is always an exciting opportunity to [create a buzz] around a product. It is through branding that major international brands that started as local products built with local insights went global.’’

It is at EABL that she learned to be ‘‘audacious with goals’’ thanks to big budgets and multiple projects.

‘‘I was involved in Tusker Project Fame for three seasons. I was the brand manager for Tusker at the time.’’

Any lessons about money that she hopes to learn while working in the financial space? She reveals that learning was one of the biggest motivators for the move to Absa.

‘‘There is so much I want to learn about how money works. Ultimately, I want to help other people understand the rules and language of money.’’

The most consistent lesson from these experiences is that organisations, their culture and operations ‘‘are like people’’ and that one can only be good at being themselves.

‘‘You must be authentically you across [board]. That is the best version of yourself. Be better. Do better. Get better.’’

In marketing, some lessons are learnt the hard way. This is especially so when feedback from the market is negative.

‘‘I have had my graph in deep red after a survey. At that point, you need people around you who will remind you who you are and support you. This is where family and friends come in,’’ she says.

‘‘Feedback is feedback. Whether from the market or your team. You must be open to it to work with people.’’

In what ways has she built her own brands? What values have got her here?

‘‘I am a bit of a stickler for excellence. I push my team to be better. I like to be the first to do something. I like to do things differently. I like to position my skills in a way that drives value for the business.’’

She admits, though, that one may sell other brands but forget theirs. ‘‘I only started being conscious about my brand during Covid-19. Now I am more intentional about it.’’

Brands, she observes, cannot exist just to make money and they must have a life beyond profits.

‘‘You need to have a purpose. This is what connects you to human beings. We make decisions emotionally and then justify them rationally. Do you believe in something more? What do you stand for? This relationship cannot be merely transactional.’’

It is also a good time to be a woman. Is she celebrating any specific milestones in womanhood?

‘‘I am celebrating options. I like a world where women can make choices. Choices in career and motherhood. We are not there yet, but we are obviously better than the generation before us.’’

Are there times when she has been unable to choose?

‘‘I have always known what I do not want even when I did not know what I want. This makes it easier to [sift through] options. You learn to listen to your gut. Everything is hard but you always have to choose your type of hard.’’

It is for this reason that Kendi cannot touch what she is not passionate about with a barge pole. ‘‘If I do not believe in the product, I cannot market it. It is difficult to make sense of it.’’

Ultimately, she says everything has ‘‘a bit of context’’ at this stage in her life and the future is easier to predict.

‘‘I do not know what it holds. But I can feel it is amazing in many ways. It is a good time to be alive and to be African."

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