For the Indian consumer in 2011, economy was distinct from parsimony, and values too, came to the forefront.
The Boxing Day test is overshadowing even the deadline of my year-end column. In a sense it is easier to review the past than to predict the future. So let me stay with the past (as befitting people of my age) and not worry unduly about the outcome of India's Australia tour even if I can feel the excitement of a possible Indian win (after ages) in every pore of my body. How was the year for marketing and the consumer? And what about the poor advertising agency? As usual I believe in the collective wisdom of my peers many of whom are storehouses and repositories of information on marketing and the consumer just as Wisden has always been on cricket. So I humbly dedicate this column (errors et al) to my quietly wise friends whom I reached out to in my hour of need.
A new value-seeker
Thanks to reports of doom and gloom the average Indian consumer has stopped splurging. (Or has he?) The generation that not very long ago would cheerfully sign its entire life away in EMIs for expensive houses and fancy cars at the ripe age of 25, is now suddenly becoming cautious, perhaps, because it feels that the future might not be all that rosy. (Who asked him to read the business papers?) The consumer who reminded me of the extravagant stroke play of Virender Sehwag is suddenly resembling the caution of ‘The Wall' when it comes to spending. While it would be an exaggeration to say that spending has stopped completely, the reality is that there is an overwhelming mood of caution that is enveloping the country when it comes to spending. The new, improved Indian customer has discovered the real value of the ‘price-value' equation. This basically means that he realises that mere parsimony is not economy and will still buy a Daniel Hechter shirt at Rs 6,999 simply because he believes it provides value for money. So it is definitely not so much about price as it is about value. So marketers, more than ever before, will have to ensure that their brands provide value. Consumers will no longer be carried away by meaningless imagery and shallow claims that cue aspiration. Meaningless aspiration is out, sensible reality is in.
Insights provide greater value than ever before
Consumer insights were not invented in 2011. They are as old as the hills and yet, in my view, at least, they achieved a tremendous status this year thanks to Airtel's Friends campaign. Friends have always been important from the days of Charles Dickens and there have been enough films both in Bollywood and Kollywood eulogising the importance of friends over a usually demanding family. Yet the recent campaign in many ways has been the “blinding flash of the obvious” as we have highly watchable episodes of youngsters, including one who is optimistic enough to give a missed call to the police after a friend's car is broken into. I am sure every parent understands and appreciates the curse of the “missed call syndrome” from his child whenever there is a need for money! Youth too can relate to the audacity of one of their own kin going to an upscale restaurant, with two pretty women in tow, with the princely sum of Rs 265 in his pocket! Oh, the confidence of youth! However, in the same breath, I must mention the words of an industry expert: “There has been a lot of hype around this campaign in the trade press.” Can someone tell me what it has done for the brand?
Underlying all this insight is another change about India. The normally serious, and if I may add, boring, Indian is actually willing to laugh at himself. Now if that isn't a change I wonder what is. Speaking of youth and mobiles, there is another change that seems apparent and almost inevitable and that is today's youth seems to be a lot more conscious about social issues.
Enter Anna Hazare
There are two aspects about the Anna Hazare movement that need to be spoken about. The first is the preponderance of youth that was swayed by the aged leader and followed him with body and soul. At a more philosophical level, this is very heartening to me who belonged to the self-preoccupied Indian middle class of post-Independence India. In defence of our generation, I must say that we grew up in trying circumstances. A job was rare and often a big deal. Our generation barely earned enough to support itself, its aging parents and often struggled to help educate its children who invariably went to more expensive schools than we did. We had no influence and could empathise with the “Jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai” campaign of Pepsi. Our fathers were basically nobodies and we had time and concerns only for ourselves and our immediate families. The educated Indian middle class that I was part of even suffered an emergency in silent protest.
I have no hesitation in accepting the fact that the youth of today is much better than ours and much more conscious socially and thank God for that! This reflected in youth joining Anna Hazare in droves.
The second aspect of the movement is the usage of the digital medium to promote the event in a manner that was unprecedented and, in a sense, a taste of the future. The movement spread like wildfire. Youth is adapting to the new medium of the Net and the mobile with the same felicity that a duck takes to water. However, I wonder if we have really understood the importance of Brand Anna. India is missing opportunities to develop R&D on understanding the uniqueness of India and its people. And how can one ignore the enormous buzz around Kolaveri Di that was the high point of the year. I am not a great admirer of the song as, unfortunately, I grew up with Kannadasan and graduated to A. R. Rahman. But then who cares about me? In a sense, it symbolises the Tamilisation of India in startling contrast to the Punjabisation of India that was happening till recently. I was amazed to see two guys from Chandigarh listening to this song avidly in a restaurant in Bangalore and discussing Dhanush with each other! And for me who was struggling to come to terms with Sangeet and Mehendi in ‘Tambrahm' weddings, this was déjà vu. But more than the song and its melody, the key is the viral buzz that the song has created and new benchmarks that have been set about how brands, films and just about anything can be launched thanks to the new medium.
No, this isn't all. Another big trend is that people are buying stuff online. Look at what brands such as Flipkart are doing. They are capitalising on the ability of the new-generation Indian to go online and shop. But as a Flipkart user I can vouch for the customer experience that is becoming increasingly important today. Yes, India has tasted blood and is savouring the delight of customer experience. Interestingly, young India is even buying brands of jeans such as Jealous 21 online! Yes, the concept of touch-and-feel is giving way to click-and-buy. The interesting fallout of this is that marketers too are realising that if they do not have an online strategy they could be in trouble. Not long ago, online spending was an afterthought and people used to earmark a small portion of their advertising budget to experiment with the medium as they did not understand it but still felt it had potential. Now they realise that if they do not use this medium or have a strategy for it, they could be left far behind. The smarter brands have an online strategy, while the others are watching nervously and quickly gearing up or, at least, should.
Cricket takes a backseat
Although it pains me to say this, there is another trend which India is facing up to, though some of us have difficulty accepting this. Cricket is facing a bit of a crisis in the year that India won a World Cup after a small matter of 28 years. Even if you have difficulty in believing it, just remember what Rahul Dravid said in his Don Bradman memorial lecture and bemoaned the dwindling crowds in India of all places and the meaningless charade that the game's organisers hold day after day as even diehard fans get increasingly disheartened and move to more viewer-friendly and shorter duration sport such as Formula One and football. While the BCCI has to be more sensible about preserving the game's traditions and longevity, marketers have to worry about their own interests and future with cricket as the only sport that India watches.
And what about the advertising agency in the last year? It has been a unique and challenging year in every which way and just read my next column as to where the agency is headed.
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