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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The silver lining - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

Where are the dark clouds? I ask.

In India's growth curve, comes the answer. An economic downturn that has caught a generation by surprise. Business is slow, salaries are frozen, spending is low, unemployment is rising. Exporters in key areas are having to shut shop, workers are having to look for alternatives.

Many Indians would beg to differ, they would say that
this is a wake-up call that could not have come at a better time. They live in villages and smaller towns, they had not participated in the big boom and now find themselves at the receiving end of marketers desperately trying to find new markets.

A huge virgin market that is in our backyard, has always been right under our noses. A market that forces a questioning of the fundamentals, that is asking the professionals to rewrite the rules of the game. The people with the disposable income who want to buy goods, services and what have you are those who have so far been treated as poor cousins rarely invited to the party. They were the ones who always felt the disadvantage because they were not quite 'people like us'. Many among them did not fit into any consumer profile, their tastes and desires were considered unworthy of attention, they were the background against which India was attempting to write its success story.

Well, they are not the background any more. They have the numbers and the disposable income and are beginning to tell us exactly what they want. Marketers, designers and communication specialists had better go back to school, this is no homogenous group that shares sensibilities that originated in Europe and the USA. They want the shampoos, toothpastes, television sets and other goodies certainly, but on their own terms, their own vastly varied terms. Watch how people in villages decorate their TVs and music players, see how they buy and use their shampoos, understand what cosmetics mean to them.

Their social organisations, their economic priorities, their understanding of success. Their interpretation of good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable - all stretch our notions of everything, force a revisiting of values whether they be aesthetic, cultural or social.

What kind of products will sell?
What kind of communication strategies are needed?
What will the advertising look like?
What are the communication / advertising channels that work to deliver sustained marketing support?
How do you distribute your products?

Welcome to the new frontier. Malls and department stores are not the answer, nobody buys bottles of shampoo, it isn't even seen as something for regular use. A music player without shiny, flashy decoration is so boring and masalas must be ground just so.

And the diversity, the immense variety where things are done differently every few hundred kilometres. A nightmare or pregnant with opportunity? Take your pick.

The weekly market, local sales personnel, the village square, the community gatherings become the new sales avenues. Understanding the role of datoons and tooth powder become essential to advertising toothpaste. Inconsistent supply of electricity determine the use of appliances.

How do we make kitchen appliances that are comfortable to use when you cook sitting on a low stool and are not standing or moving about?
What would you like your tea to taste like?
What is your idea of breakfast?
Why is the lota made of plastic such a familiar sight. Is it in some way easy to use? to carry, to pour from?
What should your bath soap do for you? Clean? Sterilise? Soften the skin?
What do you want your mobile phone to do?

What is important and must be addressed. What is not essential and can be slashed to cut cost?

What is value?
What is quality?
How much are you willing to spend? What do you want to buy?

At long last, many of us are joining the mainstream of market activity and are challenging established notions at a fundamental level. It is time to see the dark clouds as results of our now unworkable ways of working and focus on the silver lining that has presented itself to us.

Businesses and professionals and indeed institutions of professional education need to get comfortable with this new expanded landscape, question their fundamental premises and find innovative answers.

24 March 2009


  1. Hi Deepankar

    Whenever such a topic is discussed why everybody has to pick the same examples like shampoo, toothpaste..etc.., to explain the needs of this particular market. I am sure there are more needs and desires in this market.
    With the downturn of the economy everybody is looking out for an opportunity and while reading a blog/article the search for an opportunity is still on.
    I would really like people to talk of more examples...examples are opportunities...they should ignite the creative mind.

    What is your opinion on transformation in pedagogy in India...throughout India.

  2. hi Anusha,

    Of course there are, we should be talking of needs and desires across the spectrum and we do. Shampoos and toothpastes have been among the first movers and innovative work has been done to take these products to newer markets. Case studies for reference are available.

    As is the case with communication and micro-finance and to some extent, health services.

    It is inevitable that people in many areas will build more information. Some of us have been working and discussing this for many years now although with very little support from any quarter. This is changing only now that economic imperatives are creating a movement in this direction.

    Pedagogy in India has to a large extent, albeit with notable exceptions, been about acquiring skill sets that aid gathering sometimes outdated information and working with analytical tools without corresponding development of other parts of our brains. Unfortunately this is not conducive to the holistic development of an individual, nor does it encourage the development of independent thinking.

    Professional education especially design education finds inspiration in sensibilities that have their origin in Europe and the USA. This needs to be coupled with fresh thinking that deal with our own realities.

    Note that we are used to squatting cross legged yet every designer insists on working on chairs that need to redesign the user. It is the same with kitchen furniture and appliances among almost everything else. The user appears to be held in contempt and his/her needs and desires are disregarded in favour of a set of values that have no rational basis in our circumstances but which are held as ideals to strive for. Designers have a nice word for this - it is 'Quality'. Probe further and one finds that this notion of quality is just that, a notion rooted in a specific view of reality. This works very well when one is working for export markets but is alien to our own.

    It is possible that the new economic scenario will force fundamental appraisal of our professional education systems and catalyse a search for relevance in our very varied and diverse realities.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.