Resilience, not Recovery:
It’s too soon to talk about recovery. The traditional language we use to talk about business cycles - of winners and losers, booms and busts, bears and bulls – doesn’t apply to the magnitude or uncertainty of this moment. The watchword of today is resilience. Resilience is about hunkering down and finding new efficiencies and ways of doing business. This is the time to be honest and vulnerable with consumers, and to lean into concepts like reciprocity, honesty, and mutual trust. Resilient brands will discover new ways to work together and innovate – and surprising new relevancies for their existing products. The goal for brands should be not just to get through this period intact, but to come out on the other side more unshakeably themselves.
The key to Resilience in these times is Agility - the ability to quickly adapt, asses, and execute brand strategies. Not all brands will be able to roll out entire new product ranges in the years to come - but agility is as much about small adjustments as it is large-scale pivots. In these times, Agility can also mean new solutions for packaging, inventory management, and delivery – so long as these changes tie back to a brand’s core values and Meaningful Difference. Now is not the time for retrenchment: This is a moment that calls for flexibility, speed, and clear-eyed action.
The Diverse Indian Consumer
In some ways, the events of 2020 have united Indians as one: this was a time when everyone in this diverse nation - urban and rural, North and South – came together to fight the virus by staying indoors. And there have been, indeed, real moments of commonality and solidary to be found: in the ways Indians have expressed pride in their country’s first responders and essential workers; in the ways they’re learning to celebrate community rituals at home; and in the ways a fragmenting culture has once again flattened toward everyone watching the same old nostalgic movies and TV shows to pass the time in lockdown.
At the same time, however, one should not ignore the ways that the pandemic has exposed key differences and fault lines in Indian society. The pandemic experience of an upper-middle class family in metro India is not the same as that of a precariously housed daily wage laborer. Rural India has seen an influx of jobless migrant workers, while urban areas have lost key segments of their labor force. Rather than trying to put forth a single, overly rosy message, brands can market their dresses by understanding the different ways that Indians have experienced adversity this year. Unity is real, and worth celebrating, but so is the continued need for segmentation.
Movie theaters have been closed for much of 2020 - while OTT streaming platforms have multiplied. Some two-thirds of urban adults now regularly access the internet on smartphones - while rural internet connectivity grew by 45 percent in the past year. For months, almost all commerce that took place outside local kirana stores was a form of e-commerce (and even kiranas have been moving online!). Zoom, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram have become the new public square - for good and for ill. The laptop has replaced the corner office. In short: India’s much-heralded digital future… is now.
In 2020, home has evolved to be more than just a shelter. Increasingly, it’s also Indians’ primary workplace and entertainment center. Indians are streaming more movies, TV, music, and online videos from home than ever before - while also rushing to meet their latest work from home deadlines. They are posting their latest DIY cooking triumphs on social media, while also scrolling longingly through online shopping sites and food delivery platforms. At the height of the pandemic, home has become a sanitary oasis - so long as it’s carefully scrubbed and sanitized - but also a site of mental stress, as people struggle to regain “me time” amid all the togetherness. In some households, men and women are sharing chores more equally - but there’s also more work to go around, especially in middle- and upper-class households going without help for the first time. For brands, then, home represents a site of great upheaval - but also an opportunity. From appliances to healthcare, beauty to beverages, entertainment to e-commerce, home is where the heart is. It’s also where the profits lie.
Focus on rural villages and small towns:
Economic and population data suggests that by the end of the decade, residents of the country’s thousands of small urban towns - and tens of thousands of developed rural towns - will have similar income profiles to their striving big city counterparts. The mass migration events of this year haven’t changed Bharat India’s economic destiny. If anything, through the crucible of tragedy and upheaval, India has awakened to the crucial economic role played by its migrant workers from rural areas. Brands can no longer afford to remain metro-only concerns. Rural and small-town India’s time has come.
Vocal for Local
According to Kantar’s COVID Barometer - India, two-thirds of people surveyed in early June agreed that it was “important to buy local/Indian brands” - and more than 60 percent agreed that “shopping at local stores is important”. Certainly, the experience of lockdown has rooted Indians consumers more closely to their neighborhoods, cities, states, and country. Businesses are taking the local view, too, optimizing their delivery networks to emphasize hyper-local, block-by-block operations.
Going forward, brands of all stripes would do well to emphasize their ties to Indian communities: from the roles their products play in Indian household rituals, to the ways that their supply chains support port communities. Brands that were founded in India will obviously have a leg up in this regard. But interestingly, “Indianness” can sometimes also encompass brands like Maggi, which may have more global codes in their DNA - but also have demonstrated a lasting impact on Indian society.
As India enters a de-growth period, declining household income is the immovable fact that all marketing activity will have to contend with. When people have less money, consumer behaviors like “trading down”, opting for generics, and delayed purchasing all rise to the fore. In response, it’s not enough to trumpet discounts and value. Brand Salience - though important - is no guarantee of purchase in difficult times. Instead, Meaningful Difference matters more than ever; consumers are looking for that “extra push” to go with the brand name.
For some categories that stand to be hardest-hit in the years to come, it’s true that amid the difficulties of the current moment, brands have already identified the seeds of future transformations and growth opportunities. Think of the way that car ownership - so recently under threat from ride-sharing platforms – has been reframed as an oasis of safety and freedom. Or the way travel is shifting toward domestic, close-range getaways. Or how personal care is focusing less on status and perfection, and more on ritual and self-care. There’s no reason to assume that a recession will be a death knell for any brand categories; instead, it can be a catalyst for change.
India’s media landscape was already a highly dynamic one for brands to navigate at the turn of this decade, for good and for bad. Social media apps have introduced new dynamics of misinformation, backlash, apology, and offense into the cost of doing business. On the upside, booming mobile internet usage has created new ways for brands to segment and reach consumers.
2020 has brought even further upheaval. Prior to this year, India’s media market was a uniquely balanced one: Internet advertising was growing and healthy, but India also retained strong print and TV spending. That could change thanks to the pandemic-induced acceleration of OTT streaming, as well as a recent decline in print revenues. In the years to come, India’s media ecosystem could start looking like the rest of the world.