Brands need to understand the changing opportunity
By Soumitra Patnekar
The recent national election results caused not just a disruption, but rather a tectonic shift in how social life is being reorganized in India. Until now the rural and urban economies operated in almost different time zones and eras. Social life in rural and urban India reflected deeply rooted systemic and structural differences. In the hinterlands, where caste and class privileges determine and regulate a fixed social trajectory, any outside influence has been treated as an intrusion and typically faces a lot of resistance. The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its focus on vikas, or economic development, suggests that attitudes in rural India are changing. These changes, all of which impact brands, include:
- The rural Indian economy is no longer dominated by farming. In rural India today, 66 percent of income is non-farm. Despite the popular misconception that farming continues to dominate the economy, India’s rural economy today encompasses a range of non-crop agricultural activities, manufacturing activities, trading, shop keeping and professional services. Migrant workers drive the rural economy and are in a sense its brand ambassadors. Brands need to acknowledge this evolving reality rather than limiting their audience to just farmers.
- Access to information aligns rural and urban aspirations. Over the last 10-to-15 years, the proliferation of cable television has democratized access to information at an unprecedented scale. In the words of Indian writer Pico Iyer, “Today the aspirations of rural India are not very different from those of urban India as both are consuming the same content. From cars, to fashion accessories, to lifestyles, they have similar desires.” Both rural and urban Indians are exposed to the same popular culture simultaneously. The aspirations of rural Indians are in sync with the larger reality that mainstream India consumes. Brands must communicate with rural Indians in the same language they use for the urban population. Talking to people from rural India as if they’re “small-towners” is patronizing and a business mistake.
- People seek empowerment not social welfare. The preconception about rural India is that it is entrenched in socio-economic inequality and that economic progress depends on quotas for political representation, and government largesse to provide for basic needs like food and shelter. However, the biggest learning from the recent elections is that this social welfare model has irreversibly changed. The rural populace isn’t waiting for mere entitlements. Instead these people are looking for opportunities and access. They want to be part of the development juggernaut, unleashing their potential to join the larger India growth story. Brands need to tap this unleashed individual agency and offer a platform for its expression. Brand communication needs to strike a balance, recognizing this emerging individuality within the context of the ongoing collective Indian identity.
- Before, time seemed endless; today, time is money. The advent of mobile devices has disrupted the idyllic, laidback, self-sustained village ecosystem. Mobile devices have altered the flow of time, punctuating daily life with new moments for personal and business life. People may use their mobile to chat with a friend or to learn the prevailing rates of onions in the wholesale market. Mobile devices also changed the local mentality as people became aware that they were perpetually accessible and answerable to others. A new sense of urgency and accountability accompanied this change. Not long ago time seemed like an endless commodity. Today, time is money. When telecom brands advertise and promote billing at one cent per second, they assign time a value. Brands need to ride this growing desire of rural inhabitants to make things happen, to be purposeful and to transform their immediate surroundings.
Rural economies have been galvanized by the sheer possibilities the new economy has to offer. With technological and infrastructure development, a lot of people at the margins have started finding their voice in the mainstream. They’re accessing modernity and steadily bridging the gap between the rural and the urban. Brands need to locate themselves in the individualized, opportunity-seeking worldview of the rural consumers who seek a better life, a life equal to that of their urban compatriots.