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India 2015: Brand Building: Social Media

Deceptively familiar, social media in India is distinctively Indian

Brands need to understand how Indians communicate online 

Divya Khanna
VP, Strategic Planning Director
J. Walter Thompson

J. Walter Thompson is South Asia’s leading and most admired marketing communications agency that offers a truly integrated network across South Asia. It provides powerful 360 degree total communication solutions to its clients across India through: Mainstream advertising, Hungama Digital Services, Social Wavelength, Encompass, Thompson Social and J. Walter Thompson Rural.

It’s an old story, dramatized in a 2008 HSBC campaign. When washing machines were first introduced in India, they were slow to pick up because of the irregular electricity, limited water and cheap domestic labor. Except in the state of Punjab. Noveau riche farmers, it seemed, were eager adopters. A market visit revealed little cause to celebrate. The machines were being used to make the yoghurt drink lassi, not to wash clothes.

The campaign illustrated the potential for misunderstanding when the subtleties of local market communication are ignored. This lesson is especially relevant in India where people have distinctive ways of socializing. And today, with the rise of social media, those distinctive behaviors happen both offline and online.

The washing machine legend is often invoked in marketing discussions as a warning to those who would seek to lead Indian consumers. Much like our sacred cows, we go our own way. Any questioning into the whys and wherefores always results in our infamous half-nod-half-shake with a “we are like that only.” As Rama Bijapurkar says in the preface to her book with this name, “...India and Indians aren’t going to become like someplace else or someone else, but will continue to march down their own road to their own future destination.”

So why would social media be any different? Granted that the Internet population is still a drop in the Indian demographic, but even this niche tends to behave in a recognizably Indian manner online. Empowered Indians feel comfortable engaging with the globalized world on their own terms. Offline attitudes, behavior and relationships are not merely replicated but also complement those displayed online. Here are some basic insights about Indian socializing:


Airtel’s “friendship” campaign in 2011 touched a chord not just with youth but also with consumers in every age segment. Everyone is a friend, we insult very few with the term “acquaintance.” So we have our school and college friends, our building friends, our early childhood buddies, our work friends even our family friends. While most of these may join us online, social media platforms help us reach out and make even more friends. The online world is like an endless dinner party to scope out more friends. Thus we now have Facebook friends, LinkedIn friends, and even online gaming friends.


We like to ask questions and air opinions about everything without much heed to political correctness or any other reservations. It can seem intrusive but we’re unabashed about it. Offline, our reach is restricted but online everyone is fair game. Many celebrities have realized this the hard way, especially on Twitter.


Doing things alone is not a general practice in India. There is a preference to be together as often as possible. Sure, a rarefied few might catch a meal or a movie alone but they are aware of the judgment directed their way, so they try

to look less alone, seeking company in a book or a device. We seek safety in numbers online too. Rather than avoid our parents on Facebook, we’re the ones who help them get there, as the YouTube series “Tech Conversations with My Dad” demonstrates. In collaboration, Airtel and India’s TVF comedy network show fathers phoning their grown children to ask technical questions at inconvenient times. For example, during an intimate dinner, when a man is about to propose marriage, his mobile rings.


We like to figure things out. And it’s our friends who help and guide us rather than some nameless tech support. Blackberry always positioned itself as a business phone but its earlier sales surge in India was actually driven by college students who saw the value in its free BBM messaging service as a way to stay in constant touch with their friends. This was before WhatsApp and Facebook’s mobile app were available. Vodafone showcased this in its popular “Blackberry Boys” ad in 2010.


Just because we’re modernizing doesn’t mean we have let go of traditions. In fact, technology can be a catalyst for reviving and refreshing traditions we reluctantly left behind. A lot of the early and bigger successes in the technology space have catered to quintessentially Indian needs. Examples include: Shaadi.com and other online matchmaking portals, live streaming of weddings, puja prayer ceremonies and other rituals, along with websites and apps that help with everything from putting together janam kundalis, Vedic horoscopes, to moon viewing on the festival of Karva Chauth.


Last year, a popular Indian actress demonstrated that an embarrassing moment on TV can be laughed off online. When quizzed on a talk show about the name of the president of India, she mistakenly named a dead person. But the young actress proved smart enough to cooperate with the “All India Bakchod,” an edgy YouTube program,
for a video in which she made fun of herself. The video helped increase her popularity, which motivated more celebrities to get into online videos. The real lesson here is that TV and YouTube don’t need to compete for eyeballs. They can complement each other. TV, thanks to popular reality shows, still has value for group viewing situations. The conversations it sparks can be continued online, where there is less censorship and much demand for more straight-talking and irreverent humor.