Two years ago Indians were lifted on a wave of optimism. They believed that the election of a new prime minister heralded the end of stagnation and the start of a rapid rise to a future of greater wealth and equality for both urban and rural citizens in a connected India. Today, people are hopeful but impatient.
More Indians than ever are enjoying a better life. India’s GDP outpaced all large industrialized nations, expanding 7.3 percent in fiscal 2015, in part because low oil and commodity prices controlled inflation. But for the urban middle class, transformation did not happen as quickly as expected.
The government has aimed immediate economic-development initiatives at small town and rural India. Its most recent budget designates nine “pillars” of economic transformation, with the primary emphasis on supporting agriculture and farmers with measures like electrification and crop insurance. In addition, an especially severe monsoon season interrupted progress across the economy.
Indians are preternaturally patient, however. Change rarely happens quickly in this country of 1.25 billion people with a 5,000-year-old civilization, significant cultural variation across regions, religions, and 23 official languages.
Reaching diverse audiences
Facing India’s multifaceted complexity, brands identified at least one clear demarcation: between the India of people who are aspirational and ambitious, willing to experiment and try new things, and the more conventional India, which is often called Bharat, an earlier name for the country that today refers to people, usually from rural areas, who adhere more closely to ancient traditions while also living a contemporary life.
Brands communicated differently to these two groups. For the more future-focused middle class, some brands produced short videos that set the brand story in the context of recent cultural issues, such as gender identity. To reach the broader audience, brands communicated in more traditional category-specific terms.
Some brands attempted to adjust products and advertising for cultural distinctions that varied by region and even state. A local India bottled-water brand based in the state of Tamil Nadu modified the mix of minerals from city to city to accommodate local tastes.
Paper Boat, an Indian soft-drink brand, recognized a counter-trend to the nation’s accelerated forward motion, a growing nostalgia for the India that appears in the rear view mirror. Paper Boat revived interest in formerly popular but difficult-to-find flavors, creating beverages customized with various fruits and spices for local tastes.
Other brands developed products, such as dating apps, positioned along the fault line between old and new. Intergenerational contention is less fraught in India than in many other cultures. Even though in dress and mobile phone use Indian young people resemble youth elsewhere, their commitment to tradition often runs deep.
Even the practice of arranged marriage persists, although it is changing and brands are finding opportunity in that transition. The dating app Truly Madly has become popular, with the number of downloads in both large cities and more rural areas suggesting that cultural change is not restricted to the major urban centers.
Rise of local Indian brands
Most Indians experience life as a confluence of traditional and modern tributaries that they constantly monitor, adjusting the mix to fit the particular occasion. Wedding rituals can evoke ancient spiritual connections, for example, while the afterparty will rock.
This dynamism in part explains the rise of certain local Indian brands, such as Patanjali, which offers a range of consumer products influenced by Indian heritage and Ayurvedic ingredients. Many Indian consumers also believe that local brands better understand rising aspirations and local tastes.
Other factors influencing the growth of local brands included: a rise in the quality of local Indian brands as Indian entrepreneurs meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated Indian consumers; better pricing to meet the expectations of India’s value-conscious consumers; and the nationalistic sentiment resulting naturally from people’s improved circumstances and also encouraged by government programs.
The popularity of local FMCG brands also reflected skepticism about larger corporations, whether multinational or Indian, and reaction to the food safety issue that hurt a widely trusted brand of instant noodles last year. Local brands also benefited from the ease of access to consumers and relatively low communications costs facilitated by social media.
The structure of the Indian market provided consumers with wide brand choice not only from local brands, but also primarily from multinationals and from Indian family conglomerates, such as Tata and Reliance. With so much choice, a consumer’s purchasing decision increasingly depended on the level of innovation and disruption that a brand introduced, and the perception that a brand existed both for commercial reasons and as an agent of social change.
A growing sense of Indian national pride has emerged, evident in movie theaters in Mumbai where audiences sing the national anthem before screenings. Of particular importance for brands, this patriotism crosses generations and is encouraged as part of the educational curriculum.
Many brands introduced purpose-led communications. Unilever involved Lifebuoy soap and other brands in campaigns to promote better hygiene in rural India. Unilever’s Brooke Bond Red Label brand dramatized tea drinking as a shared human moment with a commercial showing Muslim and Hindu neighbors crossing a religious divide to sit around a kitchen table and connect over a cup of hot of tea.
The “Rise” campaign of automobile brand Mahindra supported entrepreneurial aspiration. To remind people that LG devices add happiness to people’s lives, the brand conducted a study to learn what makes Indians happy and in what parts of India people are the happiest (Chandigarh and Delhi). In a campaign called “Feeding Dreams”, Kellogg’s pledged to feed breakfast to a disadvantaged child for each call made to a special phone number.
Ultimately, Indian consumers increasingly were inclined to select brands that offered the promise of good functionality, local market understanding, honesty and a sense that the brand was also a participant in the effort to improve life for individual Indians and build a more prosperous and equitable India.
Brand Building Action Points1. Be relevant.
Provide a product that is meaningfully different, that consumers need and want, and that reflects genuine cultural understanding.
2. Be personal.
Communicate in a personal way that recognizes the individual consumer and the level of sophistication that Indian consumers generally have achieved.
3. Provide convenience.
Indian consumers traditionally seek convenience, which is often achieved today with mobile apps that make it easier to shop, pay and receive delivery.
4. Forget one-size-fits-all.
There are many India’s, each quite different from the next. Prepare to modify global templates for local activation, region by region, state by state, or even city by city.
5. Target the individual to sell the community.
In India, a communal society, the selection of a particular brand by one person sometimes influences other members of a community to purchase it too.
6. Have a conversation.
Consumers expect a dialogue, not a brand-led monologue. Ask consumers how the brand might help them before telling them why it is better.
7. Be inspired.
See India not only as a vast market for selling products and services, but also as a place for finding the talented people and creative ideas for launching new products.
8. Be current.
India is changing so quickly that even last year’s research about India could lead to false assumptions. For the best return on investment, keep up to date.
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