Brands have ensured for many years that customer support information such as product demonstration literature and FAQs were available in all the major Indian languages. I recall even in the early 80's, the user guide of a leading pressure cooker brand that my parents bought was in Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and many other Indian languages.
Vernacular text-based advertisements across all media, however, struggled due to poor text technology. However, digital printing and computing has addressed many of these concerns and in the past few years, a majority of the text in ads have gone vernacular.
Why should this be any different for the internet? Eighty one per cent of India cannot speak English, and close to two thirds don't even understand it. Today, internet in India is reaching a critical mass. The usage has spread from the English-savvy city dweller to the small town middle class information seeker. The smartphone, the tablet, 3G, and the GPRS have all excited the user, who now seeks information in his own language using the internet.
The surge in the number of visitors to vernacular sites underlines the fact that people with access to the internet are seeking more than just web pages in English. Yes, they currently do not have sophisticated Indian language online service sites, but they are emphatically stating their need for vernacular content. And, they too have search engines for the vernacular languages.
The question, therefore, is why do brands not realise the potential of vernacular language and search in the online space? Yes, creating vernacular advertising is a tough cookie and most online ad networks do not allow keyword-based ads in local Indian languages. But why are brands not making an effort to provide their information in local languages? Why is online product literature not in Indian languages? Why are online shopping stores of major brands not in vernacular? Why are the digital FAQs not in Hindi?
One does not need to emphasise that brand managers strive to strike an emotional chord with consumers. Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language it goes to his heart". Most brand managers have realised this and created taglines in vernacular language.
Hindi has already been used in messaging of consumer brands across India. For example, Dominos asks its audiences 'Hungry Kya?'s and Kellogg's suggests 'Healthy khao, don't chupao'. Add to this, many of the successful online brands in India are Hindi or local language terms (Naukri, Shaadi, etc.). It thus remains a mystery as to why most large consumer brands have not realised the power of the vernacular language online.
Unfortunately, brands in India seem to have accepted that the virtual realm speaks only one language - English. Not true. Same as it is not true in Japan, Korea, Russia or China. Every brand trying to penetrate into China sees the vernacular search engine Baidu as the point of entry. You will not only find that the landing page for every major brand in China will be in Mandarin, every call to action page happens in the local language. Yes, internet has penetrated better but also because brands made that effort to create such content and capture the market.
In India, the vernacular search space has changed rapidly and efforts such as ours (raftaar.in) are emphasising that consumers require quality information about brands and products. Internet has become the first medium of researching about products, its features, price and reviews. Why should this be any different for the non-English speaking audience? They too now log on to the internet to search about products, brands, features and reviews.
Indian language sites are growing and the content is growing. Brands have been creating content in English through blogs, knowledge centres and their social media platforms. All this content needs to get local and in local languages.
It brings me to two very crucial aspects. One, it is not enough only to use Search Engine Marketing to be present and pay for visibility on these portals. Brands need to take steps toward creating vernacular content. Brands should refrain from looking at vernacular search engines or sites as another column on their media buying plans, but as partners to create engaging content relevant and in the language of the larger diaspora of India. Brand managers feel that banners in Hindi or advertising on Hindi sites will cut the clutter and standout. But they need to realise when they create a connection with the consumer in Hindi and their landing section or call to action is in English are they not letting the user down.
Yes, as a leading Hindi site Raftaar.in would benefit with the higher CTRs. But if leads do not translate to conversion and impressions to positive recall, what is the use of such advertisement? The brands that have realised this are benefitting and seeing better conversions and gaining more trust.
Second, brands need to create original content in line with the linguistic boundaries of the vernacular language; a mere translation is not enough. 'Kuchh meetha ho jaye' is an amazing example of how the brand has translated the concept from just a local language phrase to an entire cultural understanding, leading to creation of newer consumption habits and markets. A very successful effort by the brand and it has stuck to it for over a decade. But as the search of 'Kuchh meetha ho jaye' leads to some links related to the brand, the same has to work for 'कुछ मीठा हो जाए'.
Vernacular search can be a medium to create a great impact for brands that want to reach consumers across India. Just as smaller sachet packets from major consumer brands intended for rural areas created a major segment of revenue, vernacular content will create relevance for non-English speaking audiences. It will create an emotional connect with bilingual audiences across urban and non-urban centres of India. The potential of vernacular search is much deeper than what meets the eye. It's the difference between communicating only for a share of the mind space rather than communicating for a slice of the heart space.
If you ask me, mind space can be over-written but creating a space in the emotional confines creates a much stronger bond. The online FAQs also need to be in Hindi now.
The writer is co-founder of the first and leading Hindi-language search portal in India, Raftaar.in