Friday, January 28, 2011


If a marketer wants to succeed in india, he needs to do two things. One, he has to be culture conscious. And two, he needs to adapt to it, and that too very fast!

“Only na├»ve arrogance can lead Westerners to assume that non-Westerners will become westernized by acquiring Western goods.”– Samuel Hutington in The Clash of Civilizations. Infidel, quirky, disloyal, undecided. These are perhaps the epithets MNCs would like to reserve for the Indian consumer. He remains unimpressed by sleek ads supporting world famous brands. He welcomes McDonald’s, yet rejects the westernised system of multi-course meal, retaining his preference for the traditional thali. He buys the latest devotional music CD while on the way to watch a Tom Cruise starrer over popcorns in a multiplex. While marketers like generalization, categorization, low uncertainty, and high predictability, in India they draw a blank. There seems to be no typical Indian consumer.

In a traditional category like tea, regional variants abound. So some brands like Tata Tea’s Kanan Devan are formulated specially for specific regions. Even the cultural practice of preparing tea is dependent on the availability and quality of milk and water is that area. While in western UP the husband decides about the brand, in Kerala it is the wife. In general, women have a greater say in South & East, where they tend to be better educated. There are cultures within culture. Averaging a four cornered regional culture will yield a nonexistent entity. How else do you explain the above average demand for cherry coloured fridges in Kolkata and Sunsilk Black in south? Food items, similarly, in India are actually of three kinds – sustenance, occasional, and entertainment. The first kind is part of the socio-cultural ritual; no brand has been able to break the mould yet in this category. A Kellogg’s had to beat a hasty retreat when it tried to project itself as ‘the’ breakfast item, rather than being one of the choices. But Maggi, successfully, entered the occasional category by offering a unified benefit – convenience. And now that the concept of ‘health for the healthy’ is the dominant cultural code, Maggi has adapted itself accordingly. A choice of different flavours  provides insurance against regional rejections. Pizza Hut keeps repositioning itself every now and then since it has failed to realise that the Indian consumer still treats pizza as an entertainment food; he does not permit ‘foreign invasion’ into the sustenance category by products like pizzas or noodles. Pepsi – essentially an international product with a very Western personality – realised early that the Indian mind uniquely filters things Western. So it came out with hybrids, synthesizing Western and Indian music with typical Indian imagery married to Hinglish taglines (Yeh Dil Maange More, Youngistan Ka Wow et al). Nestle is continuously trying to figure out the changes in behaviour pattern for coffee and tea in India as is Johnson & Johnson by analyzing the psyche of the Indian mother and her concern for her child’s hygiene.

The Indian notion of self is transcendental unlike the Western one where it resides within the body. So even if a ‘here and now’ philosophy guides today’s youth, the deep-rooted tenacious traditions have not been abandoned. Indian youth simultaneously wishes to break free from the societal shackles, yet be attached. So parents remain providers, and therefore must be respected and obeyed. Parents of course are becoming open minded, democratic, and more sensitive to youngsters’ choices of careers, friends, and lifestyles. Mithai and Mcdonald’s, Michael Jackson and Mangeshkar sisters, fasting and fast food create no disharmony – as long as the amalgamation does not seek to change the inner core, the ingrained values. Social mores though are still dictated by an attitude of conservatism and conformity. Marriage (even if based on love) has to be arranged;  remarital/extramarital sex is still a social taboo if publicly known, hypocritically acceptable if privately practised.Indians have a high tolerance for ambiguity and a very well developed sense of jugaad (quick fix solutions). India is not a structured and system driven market. ‘Imported’ Baywatch beauties are welcome to invade viewing space but Indian lasses performing the same act would invite a charge of sacrilege!

Actually, our culture is permanently in transition since axiomatically, it has its roots in basic conditions of human life, including material conditions, natural environment, climate, and the ways in which people earn their living, as also in the historical experience of human communities which include interactions with other cultures. So culture can be perceived as a dynamic succession of overlapping ideologies rather than a static unity. Culture is a flow with three stages – residual, dominant, and emergent. In health and nutrition products, for example, the residual stage was about buying insurance against ill health, augmenting poor quality food and general nourishment. The dominant stage today is ‘health for the healthy,’ serious nutrition, learning to cope with stress, being fit, balancing success and happiness, atoning for a life of excesses, etc. A marketer has to offer products that incorporate these stages to succeed in the market. The market for coaching is flourishing since today, taking tuitions is an act for excellence in career unlike times of yore when only ‘weak’ children would be tutored.

A marketer’s value system and overall profile is moulded by the culture in which he grew up, worked, and socialised. The reason why marketers like Marico, Dabur, and Haldirams are more successful than their multinat counterparts is precisely this. In order to succeed, two things are needed: a marketer has to be culture conscious; and two, he has to adapt to it.

In rural India, for example, the panchayat head or the school teacher acts as an opinion leader. So when Asian Paints launched its Utsav range, the salesmen painted the house of the mukhiya, village post office, or library to demonstrate the effectiveness of the paint. The marketer needs to communicate with the customer in a language and idiom he understands; urban communication may actually backfire in rural settings. For example, advertising that depicts women showing off their lustrous hair post a head wash is actually a turn off for most rural women who cover their heads. Culture is very important to people. Their preference for fundamental cultural values is emotional, not rational. They may even regard certain social norms and traditions as eternal and sacrosanct. So even if a marketer regards some norms as irrational, anachronistic, or distasteful (for instance, dipping biscuit in tea) he must remember he is not a crusader. Britannia decided to reformulate its Marie biscuits so that these would not break and get drowned in tea when dipped. Going one step further, in its commercial, it showed people actually dipping the biscuit in tea so that the consumer no more felt embarrassed about the practice. Important take away: Don’t only be tolerant, adapt to cultural practices. When intensive customer research told HUL that ladies had a hidden wish to feel refreshed when bathing as if they were under a water stream, the immortal positioning for Liril soap was born.

The broad role of a woman as a homemaker has not changed – what has gotten altered is merely her external appearance. But the scope for selling, say, cosmetics to a larger number will exist if you take advantage of changing cultural labels for your product category. Earlier, cosmetics were ‘enticement aids’ (hence, nice girls would not wear them); now, they are ‘grooming’ aids for older women (wrinkle lift creams) and ‘self expressions of individuality’ among young ones (Elle-18). Even bathroom fixtures are trying to change their label from utilities to statements of lifestyles.

A marketer has an onerous task in understanding, analyzing, and interpreting the complex web of relationship between culture and consumer behaviour. But with an operative TINA (There is No Alternative) factor, this is the price of success he has to pay.

 It is not the consumer who is quirky; it is the marketer who refuses to see the market through a cultural prism. True success is understanding the cultural mores, norms, and values of each target segment, while at the same time retaining the brand’s essence.