At 101 Markets 2012, an influential group of senior account planners spoke about the aspirations of India's small town youth.
The panel comprised Partha Sinha, managing partner, BBH (moderator-cum-panellist); Suraja Kishore, national planning director, Publicis Ambience; Amit Kekre, planning head, Mudra West; and Gaurav Chatterji, senior strategic planner, Publicis Ambience.
To this, Chatterji responded, "At heart, the youth is similar; the ways of expressing themselves is what differs across regions."
The subsequent discussion led the panel to conclude that while the mindset of India's urban and semi-urban youth is common, the degree of ambition is where the two segments really differ - non-urban youth tend to be a lot more driven than their urban counterparts. So, more than mere demographics, it is probably the hunger that defines the differences between urban and non-urban youth.
Agreeing, Kekre pointed out that 'social fatigue' may be partly responsible for these varying ambition levels. "Today, on one hand, we see the urban youth vying for a break from social networking, and on the other hand, there's an increase in the degree of greed on part of our non-urban youth to get connected." These two opposing phenomena are as noteworthy as the difference in the ambition levels of the two groups.
Continuing to marvel at this duality of Indian youth, Kekre questioned at large, "Today, is Airtel an urban brand? Perhaps semi-urban? I am not sure -- maybe both." This led to the issue of whether it is, in fact, better for a brand to work to unify these two 'co-existing Indias' - which the panel grew to refer to as 'India 1' and 'India 2' - rather than try to bifurcate urban and non-urban consumers into two separate groups.
This prompted Sinha to broach the issue of how Indians take comfort in bifurcation, especially of the vertical kind, be it caste or the less controversial SEC A versus B and C division of society. "In India, we like vertical hierarchies that clearly position any given stratum as inferior in comparison to another," he stated. The point he was trying to make is that many people view small towns as 'an inferior version of metros'.
Chatterji said that this need for one-upmanship is inherent in India; the 'I am better than you attitude' is a deep-rooted one. This is precisely why moving away from the existing income-based and class-based segmentation to a more conceptual segmentation will take time. "Also, a lot of businesses are based on this hierarchy," Kekre noted.
However, there is no denying that society is trying to be flexible and bridge the urban-non-urban divide. "Notice how, these days, people switch between brands with great ease," said Kishore. Mumbai's Phoenix Mills is testament to his claim as the same set of consumers hop from a mass offering like Big Bazaar to a premium mall like The Palladium, not to mention retail brands like Lifestyle and Pantaloons that fall somewhere in-between. "Our segmentation is redundant and hierarchies are breaking down for sure," Kishore added.
The discussion ended with both, opinions as well as questions. The general sense was that it is becoming increasingly important for brands to dissolve audience borders and create 'shared meaning' for consumers across strata. Hierarchy is perpetuated when marketers take research findings too literally and when that stops, automatically this vertical dissection of Indian society will also reduce.
In fact, be it in films or in brand marketing, there is a lot of 'borrowing' that is happening between Tier I cities and Tier II/III towns; this may give rise to a new product altogether. And nowadays, unlike earlier, there is a lot of 'symbolic pride' that people feel in saying, "I come from a small town". They are no longer apologetic about not being fluent in English and preferring to speak in Hindi at job interviews. Further, the panel agreed that the new definition of the term 'aspirational' has a lot more to do with entrepreneurship than it has to do with aspiring to be like people from the top rung metros.
Yes, the gravity is indeed shifting towards small towns, but it's not all peaches and roses. Many questions still loom: As the boundaries between urban and non-urban consumers blur, will elite brands feel the pressure to take steps to differentiate themselves from the mass brands that are catching up? As the vertical hierarchy in society flattens out, will high-end brands feel the need to reposition themselves to re-establish their superiority?
Time will tell.
This afaqs! event was presented by Zee Bangla.