Interview with Zara Ingilizian, Digital Pomegranate Cofounder, New York City

iTechnology.am: You were born in Yerevan, moved to the US when you were young, visited back in 2002 and have now become an investor in 2013. Please share with us your observations of the transitions in Armenia.

Zara Ingilizian:  The transformation is immense.  When I lived in Armenia, it was part of the Soviet Union.  I have very fond memories of growing up in Yerevan.  The city was vibrant and so was the cultural scene.  We spent great deal of time in the parks, going to the puppet theatre, and many other activities as a child.  My mom even took us to the opera.  I remember walking home from school by myself.  It was safe.  Relationships in Armenia were important.  There was a deep sense of community.  We spent great deal of time with family and friends with many impromptu get-togethers.  Life was challenging, but there was an understanding of how the system worked and what people needed to do to live. Over all, my memory is that people -in general- were happy.

That being said, as a young child, I also recall how difficult it used to be to purchase basic goods.  So many products had to be purchased through a “tsanot”.  In English, this will translate into a “special friend” who one had to know to get basic goods such as meat, cheese, or clothing by going to the back room of the store. I have many memories of accompanying my mom, who had cultivated a network of “tsanots”, to get the goods she desired.  The mark-up was tremendous.  There was a definitely an underground economy on Armenia back then.  These were the 70’s.  I left Armenia in 1978 at the age of 10.

Needless to say, the situation had changed significantly when I returned in 2002.   “Tsanots” were no longer needed to get basic goods, but I did not find the country in good shape and the morale was very low.  There was a profound sense of despondency.  My soul is Armenian and it is always a special feeling being back home.  I went back with FAR and it was a terrific trip.  But, it was also sad for me to witness  how much the people had suffered and the sense of hopelessness, as if their spirits were quietly dying.  Yerevan was not vibrant.  Actually, at times, it felt like a ghost town.

11 years later.  Wow!  My trip back to Armenia in October of 2013 and the most recently in March of this year has been a very different experience.  The Yerevan I remember as a child is back and thriving.  There was great deal of activity in the city.  I witnessed the hustle and bustle present in any large European city.  Yerevan is a great walking city.  I love the cafes.  It was extremely gratifying to see such a remarkable transformation.  Although Yerevan is advancing at a robust pace, I think the big opportunity in Armenia now are the regions and cities outside the capital.  I would like to see Gyumri transform and thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to the transformation through Digital Pomegranate, which operates from Gyumri.  More to come on that later in our conversation.

iTechnology.am: You have an impressive LinkedIn profile, could share with our readers any advice on education and pursuing a corporate career in brand marketing.

Zara Ingilizian:  Thank you.  I studied marketing & finance at New York University and joined Kraft Foods right after I completed my undergraduate studies.  Actually, I first started my career in finance.  I eventually decided to transition to marketing, which was not an easy feat at Kraft, which is a consumer products powerhouse and only recruited MBAs from top school into its marketing function.  However, by working hard in the function that I was in, I was able to build a support system that endorsed my transition.  Also, I took an assignment that got me closer to the marketing leaders in the company and found ways to add value to the challenges they were facing.  This got me noticed.  After two years, I was able to join the marketing function and start my career all over again as an entry level marketer.  The rest is history.  I rose through the ranks across different divisions and categories.  There was always a new challenge to address and I stayed in Kraft for 22 years.  It was an amazing journey.

I loved brand marketing and the opportunity to come up with new ideas and products and very passionate about what I was doing.  I always advise young people to follow their passion and not the money.  I can’t emphasize this point enough.  My last role at Kraft was the VP of Cookies, a $2 billion business in revenue, with iconic brands such as Oreo’s, Chips Ahoy, Newtons, etc.  Earlier this year, I learned that Oreos, the #1 cookie in America, are now being sold in Armenia.  I was super excited.

iTechnology.am: Your track-record in brand building and brand restructuring is amazing. First, what is your definition of a brand? Second, can you please provide some examples of successful brand-building initiatives? What are the core elements needed to build a successful brand? 

Zara Ingilizian:  Brand equals a relationship.  It is a mutually beneficial interaction between a product and a consumer.  It offers a set of functional benefits (great taste, chocolate, etc.), but it also makes them feel a positive emotion, which leads to long term loyalty.  Brands need to have a purpose – why they exist in the life of a consumer.  Purchase decisions are emotional.  In the end, consumers buy what a brand stands for.  Its values and beliefs is what attracts consumers to the brand and keeps them engaged.  It garners the brand respect and makes it aspirational.  Many times, brands offer consumers a sense of hope.  

For example, the purpose of the Oreo brand was to connect.  The need to feel a connection or a bond is a powerful human emotion.  Parents wish to feel connected to their kids.  Grandparents wish to be connected to their grandkids by sharing powerful moments together, etc. etc.  The Oreo brand facilitated this emotion by establishing a powerful communication platform based on its core purpose, and then leveraged multiple touch points to get the message out.  During my tenure, Oreo became a $1 billion brand in revenue and also built a significant social media presence.  We were ranked in the top three with 17 million Facebook fans in March of 2011.  All consumer brands nowadays need to have robust digital and social platforms.  And for a brand whose core purpose is to connect people, I could not think of a better platform than social media.  Humans connect through sharing.

iTechnology.am: How can startups in Armenia and worldwide, that have limited resources and budgets, create successful brands? Can you provide some successful examples?

Zara Ingilizian:  When I started out in brand marketing over 20 years ago, it was all about TV, Print, Radio, OOH (if a brand can afford it), and coupons in the Sunday newspaper, for the most part.  Well, this formula longer applies as the world has changed.  The concept of an “appointment TV” is losing relevancy rapidly.  Consumers control when and how they wish to interact with a brand.  How they consume media is vastly different now.   It is no easy feat to determine how to keep audiences engaged, but the internet has also lowered barriers to entry.  For example, there are many products and services now that have entirely built their presence through social media.  These are start-ups and they don’t have the budget for a $20 million TV media-buy or $1 million to produce a TV ad. They are levering Facebook, Twitter, Bloggers, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube to generate awareness, trial, and hopefully repeat of their product or service.  These are the three basic goals of any marketer:  awareness, trial, and repeat.

Moreover, the product or service that is being sold needs to be right.  It needs to address a consumer need in a way that is unique within its competitive set.   It also needs to be priced appropriately.  These are also basic principles of marketing.   Once the product bundle is right then social media can definitely spread the message.  Little over a year ago, I came across a new concept called Birchbox, founded by young entrepreneurs.  Birchbox provides monthly deliveries of beauty, grooming, and lifestyle samples.  It is, in a nutshell, a sampling program that creates awareness and trial first.  If the consumer enjoys the experience, then he or she repeats the purchase by buying the regular size version at a retail outlet.  They had only utilized social media to get started.  Recently, I noticed that they were also deploying search.  Another good example is Dollar Shave Club. It does an amazing job utilizing YouTube.  There are many others.

iTechnology.am: I see that when you were VP of marketing for Kraft’s Cookies, Oreo had the second largest Facebook Fans of any consumer products in the world, with 17 million fans even back in 2011. Can you please give advice for readers who are wishing to build their social media presence.

Zara Ingilizian: As mentioned earlier, it starts with having a brand purpose.  Afterwards, the brand needs to have a set of clear communication goals that bring that purpose to life.  Once these two steps are completed, the brand manager working with an agency partner needs to determine the role each social channel can play to bring the communication goals to life.  For example, women love Pinterest.  It is very popular for recipes.  When I was the VP of Desserts during my Kraft days, there was no social media as it exists today.  We used to spend millions of dollars buying ads in print magazines to showcase our recipes.  Now, a brand can pin its dessert ideas and have it spread.  But, similar to traditional print, the recipe needs to look appetizing and easy to make.  We used to call them “easy-wows”.  The visual aspect continues to be extremely important.   The brand can also send out short Twitter message to remind the consumer to make a particular dessert during a particular holiday.  Additionally, a short video can be created on YouTube to show how easy it is to make the recipes (the Twitter message can include the link to the YouTube video).   You can see where I am going with this example.  In a nutshell, a channel strategy is needed to surround the consumer with the right message at the right time.  Once the strategy is nailed, the ideas will flow.  Trust me!

Innovation, Imagination and Purpose Zara Ingilizian interview for CivilNet TV

iTechnlogy.am: Congratulations on your new Gyumri startup Digital Pomegranate. What does your startup do and why did you choose the city of Gyumri?

Zara Ingilizian:  Thank you.  Digital Pomegranate is a digital agency based in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city.  We target small businesses and/or entrepreneurs who wish to launch their business on-line.  We did grass roots research and learned than many small business owners did not have a website.  Or if they did, they were unhappy with the end result and felt that their hard earned dollars were not put to good use.  Also, they were struggling with how to maintain the website – keep it fresh – on an ongoing basis.  Digital Pomegranate is the answer to all the aforementioned challenges.  We call it an “all in one solution”.  We build a website (semi-custom) with all the key features:  eCommerce, marketing capabilities (newsletters, social media), appointment or event scheduling, video production, photo editing, etc.  We also host the site for clients.  Importantly, we perform wide range of services for an excellent value.  We have a team of talented and educated young Armenians who are part of our team in Gyumri.  They are project managers, graphic designers, video editors, etc.   In many cases, they don’t even have a relevant background.  But, we train them on an amazing, proprietary tool that we have developed in the United States to service clients globally.

To conclude, our goal was to promote sustainable economic development through job creation.  The future of Armenian people rests on the preservation and prosperity of our homeland.  I am very passionate about this point as it is imperative that we have a long term view.  We don’t want young Armenians to leave Armenia due to lack of jobs after they graduate.  It was also important for us to focus on the technology sector, which is borderless.  Hence, we created Digital Pomegranate, which has been once in a lifetime opportunity for me.

iTechnology.am: As a member in the Armenian community in New York and a board member of the Eastern Region of the All Armenian Fund, can you share with us what you and others are doing to benefit Armenia.

Zara Ingilizian:  Armenia Fund USA does fantastic work to contribute to the growth of Armenia.  Our projects focus on infrastructure (i.e. highway construction), but we also invest in healthcare and education initiatives.  At the present time, we are in the process of renovating Tchaikovski Music School.  Growing up, I remember how difficult it was to gain entry into this school.  One had to possess robust musical talents at a very young age.  The school building is in poor condition at the present time and requires a massive renovation.  We are delighted to have the opportunity to create a positive environment where young Armenians can pursue their musical aspirations.  Recently, I organized a wine tasting class in New York City with our Armenia Fund USA team to benefit our fabulous healthcare program, HyeBridge Telehealth™.  Using Internet-based technologies, the program offers continuous medical education to local healthcare providers and diagnostic and treatment services to patients, especially those in rural Armenian communities.  I also love the HIVE initiative that is currently underway and will be officially launched in Armenia in July.

Moving forward, I hope all Armenians around the world will take advantage of the opportunities to partake in the growth and prosperity of our homeland.  It is an amazing purpose to have.  Waking up every day, knowing that you have made a difference, is a powerful feeling.