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India 2015: OVERVIEW | Key Themes: Tradition

The Indian respect for the past makes progress slower, but more sustainable

Brand success requires getting the balance right 

As India contends with all the pressures of any other fast growing market trying to rapidly build an economy, increase wealth and expand the middle class, it also faces a distinctive challenge – accomplishing all this while remaining fundamentally Indian.

This desire to live vibrantly in the present while respecting the foundational values and traditions of a 5,000-year- old civilization touches Indian men and women of all ages, regions, and religions – and the government itself.

This duality means, for example, that consumers want the latest and also the most traditional fashions; and that the new cities the government builds in rural India will feature modern high rises and shopping malls, but also temples and mosques.

Like anywhere else, tradition in India can be cumbersome, ritualistic, impractical and inconvenient. Indians respect and protect tradition, however, because it’s a critical aspect of their personal and national identities.

Progress can be slow, but it’s more likely to be sustainable. It’s not built over a fault line between past and future, but rather on a secure seam fused over time by heated and sometimes contentious debate.

Brand success in India requires acknowledging this tension between tradition and modernity and the challenges and opportunities it presents for developing relevant products and building close customer relationships.


The tension between tradition and modernity is fluid. Recent consumer attitudes reflect greater empowerment and recognition of the primacy of the individual. Here are several examples:

Mind over matter: In the past, Indians valued mind over matter. Most of India’s religious traditions center on renouncing the physical world by exercising mental power. Today, substance and style coexist. 

Winning: In the past, the goal in a contest or negotiation was to reach a mutually agreeable compromise. Today, the goal more often is to win everything.

Merit: In the past, people respected the person descended from a prominent family, educated in the best schools, carrying success easily, whether earned or not. Today, people have high regard for the small town achiever who overcomes disadvantages to succeed.

Similarly, people in the past believed their destiny was determined at birth. Most people have abandoned that view. And greater empowerment not only opens more opportunity, but also loosens the social constraint that shaped families and the society.


The term “global” Indian consumer doesn’t refer to someone seeking advancement in North America or another destination in the Indian diaspora. Rather, it increasingly describes an Indian physically living in India but with a global mindset. These Indian consumers adhere to traditions, but are aware of international brands because of travel and popular culture.

They can afford international brands and feel entitled to purchase them.
In the clothing they wear, the music they listen to, the de?cor of their homes, these people appear like other international cosmopolitans and are as responsive to international popular fads and trends. But they navigate the most important aspects of their lives

– relationships between husband and wife, raising children, respecting parents – with values that are emphatically Indian.

Some may look like young people anywhere struggling to be independent from their parents, and many fit that description. But a generation gap, a chasm of misunderstanding between children and their parents, doesn’t exist in quite the same way in India as it has in the West. 


In the West, the family launches children into adulthood and they remain somewhere in the family orbit during adult life. In India, the gravitational pull is much greater. Family occasions are more likely welcomed as times of celebration rather than obligation.

Indian young people are grounded in the historical traditions and values passed down by their parents. Unlike some of their western peers, Indian young people usually look for meaning in their traditions, not irony.

In other respects, Indian young people could be young people anywhere. They wear the same clothes and listen to similar music. But they’re different from other millennials. Some Indian young people are more westernized; others are more traditional. And most confounding, sometimes the westernized and traditional spirits inhabit the same body.

This dichotomy of appearance and deeper reality is important for brands to understand because what they see – or what they think they see – is not always what they’ll get. What they get is much richer – consumers who are in step with the world on the outside and grounded on the inside. 


Brands need multi-level messages that reach both the contemporary and traditional aspect of the individual simultaneously. The newest and shiniest product may appeal to the consumer’s westernized spirit but her more traditional self will seek good value for money.

In the West, holidays often are times
for sales promotions. In India, a sale during a festival is unsatisfying unless it’s communicated in a way that’s relevant to the festival. It can be a costly mistake for brands to uncritically rely on strategies that worked in other country markets. To succeed in India brands must understand and find a way to fit

in this balancing act between tradition and modernity. Approaches vary by brand but they generally fall into one of three categories:


    Connect the brand with the shift to individualism.


    Reinforce tradition at a time when some Indians worry that rising individuality is among the factors eroding people’s connection to tradition.


    Take a position in the middle presenting the brand as a resolution to the dilemma.

Tata Tea takes this last approach.
The brand illustrates multi-level communication using the term “awake” and all its implications. It promotes being awake in one’s self, a call for mindfulness that resonates with traditional Indian values. And it uses the term awake to mean being aware of one’s rights.

These meanings are not contradictory, but rather connect both with the private space of individuals and their public responsibility to the collective welfare. They address the whole person in an integrated way, simultaneously communicating to the self that draws strength and comfort from ancient values and the self that lives in the modern world.