Guest Article: Monish Ghatalia: Cracking the Northeast code

By Monish Ghatalia , Focus, Mumbai | In Marketing | July 03, 2013
The biggest mistake a brand can make is to extend its national campaign to the Northeast; a copy and paste method does not work in this region.

Northeast - rough terrains, insurgency, people resembling our Chinese neighbours... wish our perceptions were not so clichéd. The place is no different land from India, as opposed to the undesirable acuity witnessed. Even for a top of the mind recall, how many of us recollect the names of the seven 'sister' states that form the region?

Monish Ghatalia

The good part, though, is that these perceptions are slowly fading away. Whether this change in mindset is credited to media aspects (recall Mary Ralte and Molly Zimik, characters from the hit movie 'Chak De!', who play an integral role in the Indian women's hockey team?) or a renewed interest from the domestic and global business community for the region; either way, the Northeast is a region of potential and opportunity.

There has been a steady but strong infiltration of media channels reviving interest in covering not only the concerns of the region, but more importantly, the opportunity this region provides.

As marketers, we tend to follow the business community; in this case, the media has led the way in uncovering the huge untapped opportunity that exists here. As brands start to take a keen interest in this region, it is important for us to understand these consumers; their likes, concerns, fears, ambitions and aspirations. Only when we understand them can we develop brand and communication strategies to cater to them.

The unclear and varied opinions about the Northeast stem from its extreme inaccessibility. The geographical layout of the region comprises more than half of hilly territory, which makes every activity into a task. Not many commercial players were willing to pay Rs. 150 per litre to fuel heavy transport into the small pockets. Moving further, linguistic barriers make it even more complicated to associate with the place. The region has about seven-eight languages, with a handful of the people speaking the national language. As is well known, governance issues have further complicated the environment.

However, over the past few years, this region has seen a constant social and commercial progress. The brands that have recognised this have made a concerted effort to position themselves as leaders in this region. According to recent brand surveys, Nokia and Samsung are the most trusted brands in this region, followed by Sony and Tata.

The biggest mistake a brand can make is to extend its national campaign to this region; a copy and paste method does not work in the Northeast. This can be seen by successful national brands, which have not yet been able to create the same positioning in this region. As a matter of fact, many national brands that have seen success in this region have not necessarily been as popular across India and vice-versa. So what's the secret?

As the devil lies in the details, the secret lies in the approach. Brands should realise that this region mirrors facets of the culture we see around India, with distinct differences. These differences should be aligned to the brand product category in terms of importance and significance, and an analysis of the same will help create impactful communication strategies.

Taking advantage of local media, which is currently way stronger than the national publications, the concept of localisation can be used at its best to touch upon common grounds with the end consumers. Understanding different facets of the Northeast culture, consumer behaviour and preferences of the region will help to create influential communication campaigns. The essence lies in the fact that you have to become a part of them right from the grass root level, no matter how well recognised you may be otherwise.

Cracking this code is easy if we understand the culture. If culture is the way we live, then understanding their daily routines, problems and concerns is integral in tailor-making a campaign for this region. Further, understanding the micro-culture in relation to the product/brand category would further strengthen the communication. The communication needs to be able to position the brand as part of the culture and not just a brand in the region for solely commercial purposes.

The campaigns that can crack the culture code can drive great result-oriented campaigns in the region. Recently, Dalmia Cement entered the Northeast market through its acquisition of Calcom Cement from the Assam region. Dalmia Cement studied the market, its people, and its behaviour closely to understand the method in which its campaign should be structured. For a further connect with citizens of this region, it partnered with Olympic medallist Mary Kom as its brand ambassador. The brand ambassador and the messaging used through Dalmia Cement's Northeast campaign shows the end result of the unfolding of the Northeast mystery; the result being instant brand acceptance, increased awareness and building strong preference. Dalmia Cement is successfully standing as the largest selling cement brand in the region, within a quarter of its launch campaign.

The trend of brands focusing on the Northeast region will continue as organisations realise the untapped opportunity in this region. In fact, once considered as amongst the 'not so cool' crowd, the NE population today has the best of international lifestyle brands vying to cater to them. As brands, creative and advertising agencies start to penetrate this market through national clients, they need to ensure a study of the region in relation to the brand, its consumers, and other regional differences. More importantly, this knowledge needs to be transferred into the methodology of constructing messages, strategy formation, idea treatment, and implementation.

The insights from the region need to be present in every phase of the campaign planning process. Just because the Northeast is not a different planet, doesn't mean we should not respect its need to possess its own identity. An identity needs to be studied before aligning and forming brand strategies for the region.

While it's a tough nut to crack, once a part of it, you are sure to stay here for a good long time.

The author is managing director, Focus.