"Career walk" with Karun Arya of Oriente: Your marketing is as good as your last customer review

Updated: Apr 14

What’s it like to be a fintech marketer? In our “Career walk” series, we’re revealing the career stories of some of the most inspiring and successful marketers in the sector. Subscribe to the Fintech Marketing Monthly Digest here so you don’t miss any of our future stories.

Career walk interview banner with Karun Arya of Oriente

I think what’s unique about fintech marketing is that it helps make traditionally boring ‘financial’ concepts interesting and helps educate and convince communities and various stakeholders about the impact that technology has.

In this edition of our “Career Walk” interview series, we chatted with the VP of Group Corporate Affairs, Karun Arya, about his experience as a Fintech head of marketing.

Oriente is a Fintech company based in SouthEast Asia that focuses on building financial products for underserved consumers and businesses. They build digital solutions such as digital banks, financial identities and BNPL products - all bespoke to each market and purpose-built for a specific type of consumer.

They use world-class technology and data-driven, mobile-first solutions, built by a team with experience working in Uber, Skype and LU.com.

Read Karun's complete interview below, where he offers some amazing insights, such as:

  • “Fintech has a unique opportunity to build the future of finance for generations to come, and in emerging markets, the potential socio-economic impact of doing this responsibly is undeniable.”

  • “In marketing, you’re really only as good as the last customer review.”

  • “The financial services infrastructure in emerging markets is simply not designed to cope with exploding population growth.”

  • 3 top Fintech trends: revenue based financing, innovation in payroll services and BNPL

  • What he wishes Fintech marketers would do less of: using “financial inclusion” as a marketing gimmick

Let’s go!

Tell us about your career start? How did you end up doing marketing for a fintech company?

I studied communications in university and thought it served as an interesting and versatile springboard to explore various other areas of business, strategy, corporate development, marketing, and more.

So almost naturally as you do, I started working with a PR agency in Mumbai, India – the world’s largest independent PR firm – Edelman.

It was a great first job and experience as it gave me exposure working across sectors and really understanding and appreciating the process of building narratives and understanding the integrated marketing and communications mix. This included both the individual and collective contributions of PR, marketing, content marketing, social media, etc.

It was still very early days for social media, but you could already understand how important digital communications/ marketing was becoming.

I would say my foray into fintech actually began in 2014 when I started working for what was a truly disruptive company that most wouldn’t necessarily associate with fintech: Uber. Uber was an amazing company in the early days and continues to be. Travis Kalanick and Garret Camp the two co-founders had a simple idea: to make transportation as reliable as running water.

What made that consumer experience so transformative (and disruptive) was that the entire customer journey was designed to be as seamless and friction-free as possible – essentially the origins of embedded finance. With payment being fully digital and integrated into the experience, it quickly became something you didn’t even have to worry about.

At the time there was both a lot of support for this and in markets like India/ Southeast Asia where credit-card penetration was low, a lot of education was required regarding this new innovation.

After a few years building and protecting Uber’s reputation across Asia, I left to work for Discovery Networks. But the desire to build was too strong, so I decided to come back into the start-up ecosystem, an environment I usually thrive in. At Oriente, we’re deeply committed to helping millions of underserved consumers and merchants harness new economic opportunities that come with digital and financial inclusion. It’s a problem that hasn’t been addressed for decades and as a result, over 70% or over 400 million people in this part of the world exist outside of the formal financial systems.

The opportunity for Oriente and for the wider fintech industry here in Asia is huge, and something I was excited to be a part of. It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to build a company from the ground-up with amazing founders, the most talented colleagues in the world, and transform lives.

Fintech now is similar to ride-sharing 5-6 years ago: it’s disruptive, at the cutting-edge of regulatory change and transforming consumer experiences. It’s one of the most exciting sectors.

It was one of the easiest and most fulfilling decisions I’ve made and the problems we’ve solved at Oriente continue to motivate and challenge me daily.

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What’s unique about marketing a fintech? Can you define the term “fintech marketing” in a few words?

I think what’s unique about fintech marketing is that it helps make traditionally boring ‘financial’ concepts interesting and helps educate and convince communities and various stakeholders about the impact that technology has.

Defining fintech marketing is not easy because the space is evolving so rapidly. Brands, businesses, and marketers working in the space need to be actively listening, learning, and agile. While the onset of new technologies is aimed towards making historically complex financial concepts simpler, for me fintech marketing will be driven by the ethos, values or vision a company is built on - because that specific ‘value proposition’ cuts across products, geographies, and outcome.

The biggest challenge for marketers today is finding your own unique voice in an increasingly crowded landscape where there is a lot of similar noise. How often have we heard the saying over the last year or so that every company wants to be a fintech company?

Understanding where, how and to whom your adding value is key and making sure you build trust with that community. Marketers are always fighting between the pressure to meet short-term targets or build lifetime value (LTV). I think the latter is actually more important because that’s where you are able to both extract and create the most value for all stakeholders.

The other point I would add is understanding the importance of integrated marketing and communications. So not looking at marketing, digital marketing, content, social media, and PR as individual silos, but strategically designing a narrative and campaigns that complement to extend and expand the potential LTV.

As a Head of Marketing, how do you manage to keep the balance between short-term performance tactics and long-term brand building marketing strategies?

I think experience teaches you that a balanced approach from the get go will pay greater dividends than leaning too heavily either way. The important thing to remember is we’re not playing a short-term game. In fintech and brand-building/marketing, “trust” is crucial and isn’t something that is built or earned overnight. It is something that companies need to work at and deliver on every day.

In PR there’s a saying that you’re only as good as the last news story. The way we look at it now, in marketing, you’re really only as good as the last customer review. At Oriente, we’re really focused on the entire customer journey and constantly innovating and improving to extend the lifetime value of our stakeholders. For us, it’s really about driving incremental value over the long-term. This only happens by prioritising business outcome over marketing output.

As a brand develops and matures, the correct marketing mix will evolve. But it’s important to be open to feedback and be agile enough to adapt to the long-term objectives.

What has had the biggest impact on your career as a fintech marketer so far?

I have a deep appreciation for not just the problems we are trying to solve but how our technology, solutions, and services will potentially impact the communities in which we operate.

Uber, for example, wasn’t envisioned to disrupt the livelihoods of taxi companies and other transportation providers, it was envisioned as a solution to helping make transportation fair, reliable, and affordable. Taking the time to listen, understand and appreciate the views and opinions of all stakeholders including riders, drivers, regulators, taxi companies, and more was key to being able to improve the product so everyone could benefit. Having a clear and distinct strategy of engagement to build trust with each of these stakeholder groups was critical. It’s also why markets in Asia (Philippines, India) were the first globally to pass new ride-sharing legislation.

It's important to understand that one’s role as a marketing or communications professional is not just about how many users you can add in the shortest amount of time. It’s about how many lives we can meaningfully transform over time. Fintech has a unique opportunity to build the future of finance for generations to come, and in emerging markets, the potential socio-economic impact of doing this responsibly is undeniable.

That’s really been the core of our mission at Oriente is taking a long-term view to improving the lives of people in the communities we operate. The majority of consumers and businesses in our markets have been undervalued, ignored and underserved by traditional financial institutions for decades. As a result, millions exist and transact outside the formal economy with no recognizable base of financial literacy and understanding.

Developing a deep appreciation for these nuances, which are bespoke to each market and consumer segment, and investing in the time and resources to educate various stakeholder groups around financial fundamentals is critical in driving widespread understanding and adoption to build resilience and eventually, financial agency.

What is the main driver of the lack of financial inclusion in Asia? How is Oriente fixing the problem?

I’m tempted to say capitalism. The harsh reality in emerging markets across Asia is there has really been no focus on building a scalable, workable, and inclusive infrastructure that works for everyone. These markets are also beset with deep-rooted issues like poverty, corruption, complex and archaic regulations, education, healthcare…the list goes on.

Forget the financial infrastructure, but the general infrastructure isn’t even designed to cope with the exploding population growth in these markets. Unfortunately, this means that each critical infrastructure pillar is playing catch-up with the other, and some are prioritised and receive more immediate and long-term funding than others.

The financial services infrastructure in emerging markets is simply not designed to cope with exploding population growth. In markets like the Philippines and Indonesia, for example, there is no formal credit bureau or national identity system.

These markets/ governments are learning from neighbouring markets that have been able to kick-start major national initiatives. In terms of designing a robust national identity system, for example, India’s Adhaar programme and biometric system is used as a benchmark for many countries including the Philippines which is set to introduce its own national ID system based on it in the next few years

So, financial access for a vast majority is a major issue as the infrastructure just doesn’t allow it. Banks don’t have the infrastructure or risk appetite to reach every citizen.

Another major issue has been financial literacy. In these markets, financial literacy levels are alarmingly low – ranging between 5-20%. This coupled with various other factors means financial exclusion is almost guaranteed for millions who don’t have an alternative.

Oriente is committed to empowering underserved consumers by expanding financial access through digital and economic inclusion. The end goal is to improve the financial health and ensure financial agency for millions who are ‘credit invisible’.

We start by enabling previously underbanked consumers and unbanked consumers to create a financial identity using our fintech platforms through which they can then also gain access to various financing products (cash loans, BNPL, working capital financing, supply-chain financing) and other services (insurance, eCommerce, etc) through our expanding partner ecosystem.

Our thesis is that by building a robust infrastructure and ecosystem that is inclusive, scalable and sustainable, we are able to have a long-term impact that unlocks new opportunities for all stakeholders (consumers, merchants, partners, investors, industry, and government) and helps foster responsible financial activity and over-time financial agency.

We’ve also designed a powerful financial literacy initiative that launched in 2019 and that we’re hoping to refresh and elevate this year.