The 'Aspirational' Indian

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | October 27, 2014
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Is 'aspirational' the most abused word in Indian marketing?

The Aspirational Indian

While some dictionaries recognise the word aspirational, others don't. But for the most part, the word doesn't really exist in normal parlance; instead, it dwells in the minds of brand marketers.

Google Books, a digital database of books by Google Inc, shows how the usage of the word, in terms of 'frequency of mention' across books, has increased over the years. In all probability, most of these books would be on branding and marketing.

'Aspirational' is a crown worn by several brands across categories, including those that have little to do with luxury. The common thread between footwear brands like Metro Shoes and Bata, sanitary ware brands like Kohler and Hindware, auto brands like Tata Nano and Renault, and handset players like Samsung and Micromax, is the 'aspirational' tag. Even media brands like Star Plus and Sony Pal have positioned themselves as aspirational channels.

'Stepping up' in some way or another is implicit in the word itself - that's what makes entire segments like basmati rice or olive oil borderline cases of aspirational brands. But there's more to an aspirational brand than helping the consumer climb the socio-economic ladder by using brands as steps. A look through the marketer's lenses reveals a kaleidoscope of meanings for this word.

Youth hotline

Arvind Vohra

For Indian marketers, aspirational is often a synonym for youth-centric. Since 60 per cent of India's population is below 35 years of age, this bracket has become the sweet spot for many a brand. "Youth is equal to aspiration. You can't say youth is utilitarian," says Arvind Vohra, India head, Gionee, a China-based smartphone player.

Referring to the mobile category, Vohra claims the power to influence purchase decisions lies in the hands of the 12-25-year-old, even when the purchase isn't for them, but for an older relative. He tries to quantify the term aspirational: "We're priced at 10 per cent above domestic brands but 40 per cent below international brands."


Speaking of pricing, being aspirational could mean two very different things, depending on which end of the spectrum the brand is perched, luxury or mass. While it's a descriptor used by expensive products to justify the premium they charge (iPhone), it's also a way for affordable brands to say, 'We're as good as the more expensive alternative' (Micromax).

For Gaurav Matta, marketing manager, Hero Cycles, "Just saying you are aspirational does not mean anything unless you have one big product to support that claim." He is referring to the company's recently launched Urban Trail (UT), a premium bicycle brand. "If we were to attach the word aspirational with any of our brands, it would only be applicable to our Rs 10,000+ products like UT," Matta asserts. It is offerings such as these that help Hero take on international players, like the American player Schwinn or the Italian-made Bianchi, that have found an addressable market in India's adventure-seeking 18-to-30-year-old.

Matta, however, confesses that it's not the bicycle per se that's aspirational. Rather, it's the experience of wearing the formal gear, approaching cycling as a sport, looking for trails with large groups of people, and the social engagements that happen around cycling that make it aspirational.

...and beyond

This insight leads to the intangible aspect of being aspirational. While some experts believe 'aspirational' and 'affordable' are attributes that are inherently at odds with one another, others strive to capture this elusive golden mean.

As Afsar Zaidi, founder and MD of Exceed Entertainment, puts it, "An aspirational brand is not necessarily one that's beyond your pocket capacity. Aspirational refers to an evolution of the mind. It's about wanting to experience something new." About his apparel brand HRX, he adds, "Because it is Hrithik Roshan's brand, everyone thinks it is niche and beyond their capacity to buy. Yes, it is aspirational because it involves Hrithik's thought process but it is not a niche brand."

When it comes to the intangible bit, there are more ways to define aspirational. For Krishna MV, associate VP marketing, Piaggio (Vespa), a brand ought to have a certain heritage and history attached in order to qualify as aspirational. "Look at brands like Vespa, Harley Davidson, BMW, Audi and Beetle. What make them aspirational are their legacy and the story of their origin. So to be aspirational, you have to have a clear emotional reason. The label has to have a deeper meaning beyond being just a name," he insists.

Consumer connect

For brands that belong to low involvement (read: boring) categories, 'aspirational' is not just an adjective - it's the fastest flight to Coolville. Take the example of Centuryply, a prominent player in the surfaces category that proudly claims to be aspirational. But why?

Amit Kumar Gope

Amit Kumar Gope, the brand's general manager, marketing, explains. "Centuryply was a very functional, 'commodity brand'. And we were into 'that' kind of advertising, saying, 'we are termite-proof', 'we are borer-proof'. The tagline was Sab Sahe Mast Rahe," he says, adding, "But this segment is very dependent on dealer push and carpenter recommendation. So to involve the consumer at the purchase level, we switched to the line Khushiyon Ka Rangmanch. It was our way of saying, 'we don't sell plywood. We create surfaces that witness everyday moments of joy'."

Gope admits he took a cue from the paints category. "Over the last 15 years, the paints segment has made the same transition. It has moved from being commodity-based to being consumer-based, as has the adhesives segment. This is exactly what the ply category is attempting to do," he says.

The aspirational Asian

For many marketers being aspirational is a reactive, rather than a proactive, move. They say they're simply catering to what they term 'the aspirational consumer'. Well, it turns out that this consumer is most likely to be from one of the emerging markets.

According to the 2014 Aspirational Consumer Index, a 21-country study by BBMG (a brand innovation consultancy) and GlobeScan (a research consultancy), India has the largest population of aspirational consumers or 'aspirationals' as the study calls them (58 per cent), followed by South Korea (53 per cent) and China (51 per cent). This consumer is defined as one who is "uniting style, social status and sustainability values to redefine consumption."

What's interesting about this definition is that in the broader context of emerging markets, the term aspirational has a whole new meaning: eco-friendly. "Aspirationals are materialists who define themselves in part through brands and yet they believe they have a responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society," said Eric Whan, sustainability director at GlobeScan.

The aspirational Indian

Closer to home, marketers like Anika Agarwal, head- marketing, Max Bupa Health Insurance define this consumer as one who is "evolved", "exposed" and armed with "international experiences." She suggests, "Brands should look at being aspirational by driving real experiences and conversations with these customers."

Rajeev Gopalakrishnan

In developing markets such as ours, feels Rajeev Gopalakrishnan, group managing director, Bata, emerging markets, IPIBS (India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), being aspirational is pretty much the "need of the hour."

"It makes sense for aspirational to be the buzzword. A consumer base that is more knowledgeable than it was even half a decade ago has emerged. Today brands conduct in-depth surveys to gauge what consumers want, so that they can make their foray into the aspirational space," he states. And Gopalakrishnan is referring not just to the product, but also to the environment in which it is made available. "Across India, Bata is slowly moving towards a global store format that matches up to consumer expectations," he shares.

Jude Fernandes

Jude Fernandes, corporate advisor to L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, and independent brand consultant, attributes the trend to a cumulative effect of the last 10-15 years. "We come from a socialistic, Gandhian economy, where everything was always rationed. Economies that have been starved of consumerism for long periods are now riding this 'aspirational' wave. This also pertains to nations like China and Brazil, that have only recently begun seeing a rapidly growing middle class," reasons the ex-CEO of Mudra. And sure enough, in an article published in The Economist earlier this year, Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, calls the Chinese "increasingly aspirational and conspicuous consumers."

As Hari Krishnan, managing director, ZenithOptimedia India, points out, "Since emerging markets are still in the growth stage, brands tend to turn up the aspirational quotient. For example, Levi's, Zara and Marks & Spencer are 'regular' brands in developed markets. BMW and Audi are 'performance' brands elsewhere. In this part of the world, they get edgy on imagery."

Hari Krishnan

Speaking of imagery, for the Indian marketer who equates being aspirational with being up-market, the most frequently visited communication tack is ads featuring white models. Just last week, Fastrack, the youth accessories brand from Titan, pasted billboards featuring black models all over urban India, reminding desi rebels, yet again, to be true to themselves. One can easily make a case for why brands like these, that defy the norms of Indian society by taking up themes like lesbianism and threesomes on mainline media channels, deserve a title like aspirational. "In cases like these, being aspirational is about aspiring for a certain kind of life because you're stuck in the opposite kind," reminds Zenith Optimedia's Krishnan.

Just jargon

While most observers grumble about how the word aspirational is loosely used jargon that's on the brink of losing meaning, some are concerned. "I get worried when brands from mundane categories talk about aspiration. It looks like they have exhausted their rational and emotional differentiators and have nothing more to say. In a bid to say you're aspirational, don't lose your brand fit and relevance," Fernandes cautions.

It's not as if marketers don't see it for what it is - a passing fad. Centuryply's Gope admits, "It's just jargon. Today, it's 'aspirational'. Tomorrow, we marketers will have a new word - 'quality', 'technology', 'distribution'..."

Till then, let them aspire to greater heights.

A Note From the Editor

'Aspirational' is such an aspirational word. It is what every word in the English Oxford Dictionary aspires to be.

That sounds utterly nonsensical - but, then, so too does the dogged use of the word 'aspirational' by marketers and ad agencies in India. We've laughed in office since long about how every product under the sun is purportedly 'aspirational'. It has reached a point where to admit that your brand is not aspirational is to concede that you are somehow ashamed of it.

This leads to the logical question: Is it only the Indian marketer who is 'aspirational'-obsessed or is this a global phenomenon? In the course of researching this story we stumbled upon an international Aspirational Consumer Index which is published each year. Clearly, we are not alone. But, then again, India tops the Index as the market with the highest number of aspirational consumers - more even than China. 'Aspirationals' are defined by their love for shopping and desire for responsible consumption, among other things.

If aspiration is about hope or ambition for the future, India is the country for it because there are just so many young people who look forward to a better tomorrow. As one of our interviewees reasons, "you can't say that youth is utilitarian".

With feature-based advertising in decline over the years, brands have been trying to appeal to the heart rather than the head in one category after another. With product parity a reality most brands have to live with, they have little specific to trumpet. And since there is nothing new to say, the brands might as well say it with emotion.

So, in many ways, brands are getting pushed out of the standard category story to narrate instead tales that rise above it. This presents an opportunity to become 'aspirational'. There is a danger, of course. In many TVCs today, it takes long to decipher not just which brand it relates to - but even the category to which it belongs. That is because brands across categories are being presented as lifestyle brands, no matter if it is only plywood.


To download the PDF version of the article, click here.

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