Special: The Indian consumer fears radical change

By Vanita Kohli-Khandekar , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | March 25, 2010
Here's presenting an interview with Santosh Desai, the managing director and CEO of Future Brands, in light of the recent release of his book, 'Mother Pious Lady - Making Sense of Everyday India'

Santosh Desai is a journalist's delight and a hostess' nightmare. Ask him any question and he gives you insights on the Indian consumer in his trademark witty style. But - and here's where the nightmare begins - the moment there is a lull, Desai goes all quiet. 'Can't he make small talk? What,' I wonder with rising panic, 'is he observing?' Because whatever he is watching in those moments of silence is getting added to some memory card inside his head to be processed at the right time.

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Surely that is the only way the managing director and CEO of Future Brands could come up with the kind of observations that he does. From why more women in India have short hair to the role of the mother in Indian films to why ultramarine is important, Desai, 47, has innumerable explanations that form the patchwork quilt that is his recently released book - Mother Pious Lady - Making Sense of Everyday India' (HarperCollins; Pages 380, Rs 399). It is a collection of short essays on middle-class India and its idiosyncrasies. Many of these are from Desai's weekly column in The Times of India. The rest were written especially for the book.

Each of these essays also tells you why Desai, the former president of McCann Erickson India, is in demand as one of India's foremost brand and marketing experts. He is not simply a good observer of human nature. He overlays what he sees with psychology, culture, religion or marketing. In the chaotic blender called India, Desai's reliance on the intuitive anecdotal approach works perfectly.

Future Brands is the IPR and branding arm of Kishore Biyani's Future Group which is predominantly into retail (Pantaloons, Big Bazaar). Future Brands has created, and owns and licenses a host of in-store brands such as John Miller and Dreamland, to the Future Group. It also creates and manages brands for other companies and offers advisory services. Among others, it has consulted with Pepsi, Godrej and Titan.

As he stands at the confluence of advertising and media, marketing and retail, what does the Indian consumer and marketing landscape look like? That, among other questions, is what we asked Desai over an hour-long interview. Excerpts.

Q. You have seen the Indian consumer as an adman and now you are viewing him in a retail situation. How do the two points of view differ?

A. When you see people in the purchase context, you are closer to reality. Your sense of what moves people to action is heightened. In advertising the endeavour was always to get to the heart of what is happening.

Q. I see so much of my childhood and past in your book. But how relevant is what our generation experienced to marketers today?

A. You have to see the pattern of change and you have to see it in continuity. To understand India in a continuous sense is important and that is what the book does. In India, radical change is feared, the point-counterpoint kind of change. Look at young people today. They still marry in the traditional style, with the blessings of their parents, they still don't move out.

Q. What they continue with are the rituals. Aren't you capturing only the symbols of change?

A. I would argue that we need to look at the symbols. Without understanding those it is not possible to understand the change. Someone may talk about changing but when they do something it is a more potent symbol of change. The change is not something that I create, all I am trying to do is analyse why people do what they do.

Q. Is there anything particular about the way India is going that upsets you?

A. We are going through a phase where everything gets measured in a crude, lowest common denominator way. We are faithful only to the final output; only the result matters, not the means. For instance in TV, if I can't get high ratings, then I will get those by talking about how aliens have landed.

Earlier, too, we had Manohar Kahaniyan and Sachi Kahaniyan. And they were huge in numbers, but no one advertised in these. However, now, even if we criticise India TV, all the big brands advertise there.

Q. So, brands no longer care about context?

A. One of the tenets of media planning is that context is important. The right message has to go in the right context and that makes sense in real life. You could argue that it is an elitist view but certainly discrimination is important.

However, the fact is that context is becoming irrelevant. Our ability to value context is definitely declining. You can see this in various walks of life - politics, media, and entertainment. There is this guy Raja Chaudhary, known to be a wife beater. But, he has become a celebrity (on Big Boss).

The way you become a celebrity is not important, the fact that you are one is. It signals a democratisation of sorts, so it is not a very black and white thing.

Q. Do you think there is an obsession with young consumers in marketing - especially because purchasing power is way higher among those over 30?

A. Absolutely yes. Advertising always obsesses with the young. The whole notion of advertising is about the young. Even when they show old people they show them as youthful, because that is more desirable. Desirability is about youth.

For example, even if there is a home loan ad, the house they will show is a large mansion with a sloping roof which you can never afford. But as children or young people that is what we may have dreamed of. By advertising definitions of a good TG (target group) - 16-45 years - I am already dead. I don't exist.

Q. Does marketing research capture any real consumer insight? Because brands often get such basic stuff wrong...

A. That happens because the research is conceptually flawed and because of the way it is operationalised. Sure, India is a heterogeneous market, sampling is difficult and all that. But there is a belief that if you ask people, 'What do you do? And why do you do it?' they will answer you and you can decide based on that.

We often don't know why we do what we do. For instance, I don't know why I just ordered coffee. If you asked me, I wouldn't know. But if you know that, over the years, I have always ordered coffee in a five star and tea in office then there is a pattern. In many cases we (as consumers) sleepwalk through many things in life.

This belief that you will ask a question and get an answer is flawed. You probably will be able to understand individual behaviour better if you look at collective behaviour. That contextualises it. We are driven by Western notions of research which is based on certain assumptions that work in those markets. These are, for instance, that individual behaviour is rooted in individual consciousness or that people know what they want.

Also, unlike academic research where the researcher's ability is critical, market research is a controlled process designed to be independent of the researcher's ability. Therefore, the ability to get an insight is very low.

Q. Advertising is becoming more like film-making and vice versa. Which better reflects society?

A. There is a need to look at both the observer and the observed. Advertising is the marketer's view of what they want us to use or see. For instance, earlier, any ad would have a housewife. Now, more women are shown out of home and therefore their physical appearance is becoming more important.

Four years ago, it was more about achievement, now it is more about appearance. That says something about the society. As a result, advertising is a fantastic place to look at as a reflection of society.

On the other hand, popular cinema represented our dreams and fears, albeit in a distorted way. The art house cinema movement was only about what the filmmakers wanted. We have now started telling stories in a more cold-blooded way.

Earlier we were always inside the film, now we are sitting outside and enjoying it as a story. There is a detachment between the viewer and the cinema.

Q. Why haven't you tried to connect your observations to what is actually happening in advertising and marketing, not empirically but anecdotally at least?

A. The essays in the book are bits and pieces put together and they form a pattern. If each had a lesson then it would be like 'A for apple.' They are open, ruminative examples with no concrete conclusion. You could never have intellectual greatness in any area if you are too concerned with 'so what'?

In strategic planning, the discipline I follow, we have to do a lot of observing. It seems self-indulgent. You can't create knowledge without some self-indulgence and waste.

Q. How do Indian consumers differ from those in mature markets?

A. The building blocks of our consumer society are different. We are very good when it comes to dealing with the collective we are born into - which is the family and the extended family. We will do a lot for them and look after their interests.

On the other hand, we have an inability to form community maps - as neighbours or in traffic. As a driver I fail to understand or respect that if I drive in the wrong lane and jam up the level crossing, I delay everyone. As long as I go first I really don't care. The thing is, I have never seen the system work and you are asking me to place faith in it. So the moment I am outside the family, the predominance of 'I' is very high. Within the family I am hugely sensitised, there is an interdependence that we understand completely.

This is the exact opposite of the way it operates in the West. (Meaning family orientation is low but as members of a community, or society, Westerners are sensitised and well behaved).

Q. How sensitised do you think marketers, advertisers or media are to the market's heterogeneity, to the fact that the Indian middle class is not a single lump that watches Star Plus or Colors?

A. Heterogeneity is acknowledged reluctantly. In a business that is based in an area, say a steel plant in Orissa, you have no option but to be sensitive because the link is direct. However, marketing as a function is at a distance, it has a choice. So unless you are pushed because 75 per cent of your sales comes from two states, you can create an artificial cocoon and say heterogeneity is not important. Brands that do well in a certain area end up having to reflect it.

In retail, recently, there have been attempts to go completely local and community by Future Group, with a new store in Bengaluru. (the Big Bazaar outlet in Malleshwaram in Bengaluru tries to reflect the local ethos, with dozens of varieties of papad and the local gulkand seller inside the store). Normally, consumer marketing tends to extract people from their local milieu to a more homogenised global milieu.

Q. To what extent do you think organised retail will change both buying behaviour and even manufacturing trends, in food, apparel or other categories? In films, for instance, the coming of multiplexes changed the kind of films being made.

A. Organised retail is as yet only 4-5 per cent of the total retail turnover in India, so its influence is low. But what modern trade or organised retail changes is the idea of choice. When you go to a traditional shop you don't even know if a brand is there until you ask for it. It is like a larder where someone will go to the room at the back and look for it.

What organised retail offers is the multiplicity of choice. It may not result in new buying behaviour immediately. There are some differences in what gets sold, the product mix. But once about 10 per cent of the market is organised retail, the impact will be more discernible. Where the tipping point lies is anybody's guess. But in a large fragmented market like India, if more than 10 per cent comes from a single source, it will change the market.

Q. If you see the pattern, European and Asian MNCs have done better in India in consumer goods, automobiles (Nokia, LG, Samsung, Hyundai, Suzuki, Unilever). Why? Is there a cultural reason, do they understand Indian consumers better?

A. In general, the US view of the world looks for more 'universalition', simplicity and homogeneity. This doesn't work in India because of the complexity. Their ability to understand nuances is not very high.

Over time they will be led by their experience of the market - for example, General Motors. The good thing is that American companies are responsive to feedback and so they manage to make it through trial and error.

On the other hand, the European view of the world is more multicultural. The Koreans, who have been spectacularly successful in India, were always the underdogs. So, they have to overdeliver, they add value. They don't come with the view that they are selling anything better.