Living the Journey

Neeraja Kale — Brand Steward, Farming Enthusiast

A passionate brand steward, entrepreneur, farming enthusiast — these are some of the words that describe Neeraja Kale. An accomplished marketing and communication professional with an experience of over 20 years, Neeraja has worked with some of the India’s best marketers and advertising agencies in designing, developing and executing solutions required in today’s rapidly changing markets.

Brought up in Pune, she did her masters in marketing management from the University of Pune and started her career in 1995 with Ogilvy & Mather (now known as Ogilvy).  She says advertising teaches a lot if you have an open mind and good listening skills. She feels Ogilvy was her true learning ground and also the time when going deeper into human truths and decoding behaviour and minds became a passion.

Neeraja currently works as an independent consultant through her own firm — Neeraja Kale Consulting Services, helping marketers and agencies in the strategic space of building brands and communication.

High point in career

“There have been a couple of high points in my career, not just one. The first was my tenure with Ogilvy itself where I got the opportunity to think and manage brands independently, despite being an amoeba in the system.

The second was my stint with McCann Erickson where under the tutelage of Santosh Desai, I learnt a different way of looking at brands. I learnt how all of us as individuals and consumers look at brands and categories through an invisible cultural lens and understanding this lens was the key to making brands relevant to consumers. I found this period extremely enriching at a personal level.

The third was when I consulted for Project Sunlight, a sustainability platform of Unilever launched across five global markets. This was when the seeds of social responsibility as an area of interest were sowed.”

Most challenging assignment so far

“The most challenging assignment was the consultancy engagement for Project Sunlight for Unilever. However, along with the challenge it was also the most inspiring and fulfilling project that I have worked on. Sustainability as a concept is not very well understood in India. People confuse it with CSR. But the Unilever platform believed that if social responsibility was not truly integrated with business, it would never work. How do you get people to start thinking about responsibility? Parents are currently are worried about basic areas like education, jobs, career advancement etc for their children. How do you get them to think about the kind of future they want to create for their children and for society at large? Changing mindsets and behaviours is a long drawn process and it needed an approach which understood both to really start making a difference, one step at a time. Project Sunlight was challenging from this perspective and it led to a lot of questions like ‘Is this the right time?’, ‘Is this the right approach?’ but at the same time when you see something working albeit at a small, initial level, the sense of fulfillment was really great.”

Greatest inspiration

“I hadn’t really thought of this till now. But If I look back, I would have to say Santosh Desai. He’s been an inspiration at a professional level. Santosh, I think is the pioneer of semiotics and cultural decoding in the Indian consumer space. His thinking was not based on tools but was a more fundamental approach of looking at brands which was really inspiring. On a personal level, he is a sensitive person, a keen listener and believes in upholding values even in business – a fading breed of people.”

Most important milestone in life

“For the last few years or so, I have been thinking about having a small farm and growing my own produce. I don’t know if it’s a mid-life crisis, but for the last few years, I have felt the urge to do something ‘physical’, something where it’s not just the mind that’s employed, but where I can hold something in my hands and shape it. That is what started my search for a piece of land where I could work the land, grow my own produce and self-sustain. I found my perfect piece of land, next to a river, two years ago and am currently in the process of building the house and the farm. This small farm makes me really happy.”

Women are the better halves. What does it mean?

“I don’t know if women are better halves but women definitely bring a perspective to this world that’s unique. There is a sense of grounding and realism that women have which adds something unique to the mix. Be it halves at a personal level in terms of family, community, children or at a professional level, women bring qualities which are different. Am not sure if they are always the better halves but if you look at them as a gender with special traits and dimensions (sometimes not possessed by men) like strength, empathy, passion etc, they definitely make each journey more interesting.”