Rural and urban Indians share similar aspirations
Brands can benefit from change and help make it happen
Rural India no longer matches its depiction in the popular imagination, a place where the entire population lives in hopeless poverty. While it remains true that few people are rich and many are poor, rural India is changing.
Today, around 67 percent of the population lives in India’s 600,000 rural villages, compared with 82 percent in 1960, according to the World Bank. Incomes and education levels are rising. Agricultural is declining as a proportion of the economy while service jobs increase. The government’s “Make in India” program potentially can expand the manufacturing base.
Rural India is a work in progress however, and despite these advances, farmers still live difficult lives. Without modern irrigation techniques, crop yields are small even in good years. In a bad year, a poor monsoon season can destroy the harvest, leaving farmers with too many bills and too little income to pay them.
But rural India is no longer isolated. Access to the Internet and high mobile penetration connect even remote villages to the rest of the country and provide wide access to news and information as well as improved financial and health services. In addition, the knowledge carried by migrant workers returning from cities to their villages helps to flatten differences between urban and rural.
This communication narrows cultural differences, including attitudes about the value of female children, historically viewed as an expense in rural India because of the financial strain of paying a dowry. The gap between the aspirations and expectations of rural and urban Indians also is narrowing, according to research by Kantar IMBR and Kantar Worldpanel.
Consequently, rural India represents an enormous opportunity for brands to reach a large population that is steadily rising in income and hope. Because India’s rural population is so large, diverse, and dispersed, brand success requires reaching people in far-flung locations with an offer that is relevant to local needs and explained in the appropriate idiom.
The challenges for brands
In researching the technology and telecom provider categories, Kantar Millward Brown discovered differences in the way rural and urban Indians respond to brands. Brand love, the emotional appeal of a brand, was a more important factor in urban India, while rural Indians were more concerned with functionality.
Rural Indians sought products that were meaningful—that is, products that met their needs in a relevant way. Telecom provider ads in rural India did not simply promote faster service or wider networks; rather they explained the specific advantages that better Internet service would provide—to a farmer, for example, or to someone seeking online education. In urban areas, consumers also sought functional benefits, but they were more lifestyle-related.
While tailoring the message to meet the needs of the rural audience is critical, it is only part of the challenge. To communicate effectively across India, the message needs to be customized in language and tone for the many different audiences. Communication principles are fairly consistent however, according to Kantar Millward Brown, and often involve telling stories that depict ordinary life.
Brand success in India requires not just benefiting from the improvement of rural India, but also participating in its transformation. The government drives much of the change with initiatives like those to help farmers with crop insurance, electrification, digital infrastructure, and guaranteed payment for a minimum number of days of employment annually. But the private sector has been involved too.
Unilever, for example, employs rural women to sell its products, which empowers the rural population while benefiting the company’s brands. It also promotes health and hygiene with initiatives that are brand-relevant. Technology giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have announced commitments to help connect rural India with high-speed broadband. Advancing these initiatives depends on resolving technical and regulatory issues.
Change is happening, but it takes time in India, in part because the federalist system necessitates engaging with both the national and state bureaucracies. Brands with the patience to understand, respect, and participate in the rise of rural India can prosper over time.